by Christina Lay
As the insightful writer of horror Liz Engstrom often says, “Your story is only as strong as your antagonist.” It’s been my tendency to concentrate on non-corporeal antagonists, such as the hero’s fatal flaw, or undefined fears that lurk in the dark, or a dysfunctional culture. I often prefer to set my protagonist up against herself and the pitfalls of her own personality. Naturally there are always alarming circumstances and challenges to deal with in a good story, conflict galore, and the occasional Demon, body-snatcher, or ghost, but rarely have I deployed the knife-wielding, mustache-twirling sort of bad guy that actively interferes with the hero’s hopes, love life or regular breathing patterns.
I recently sought to remedy this oversight. Faced with an annual challenge to write a ghost story in 24 hours, I decided to focus on creating a strong antagonist in the most straight –forward sense of the word. A true villain. There is no shortage of role models in this area. We all have our favorites in fiction: Professor Moriarty, Hannibal Lechter, Annie Wilkes. The question isn’t really why these villains are frightening but rather what it is about them that makes them memorable and draws us to them even when we want to run away screaming.
I confess I’m not much drawn to the serial killer sort of villain. I’d rather not take my imagination down those dark and twisted passageways. It takes a true master of horror to create an Annie Wilkes and still be okay in the morning. I’ve also grown weary of the phenomena of the psychopathic killer in movies and television, where the goal of each story seems to be to invent the most perverse and sickening way that one person might decide to cancel out the life of another. I prefer my villains to be a tad more subtle, so naturally I turned to the middle ages, to excavate an antagonist most enduring, intriguing, and with the heavy dose of the gravitas that comes from being real.
Vlad Dracul was a real person, a prince of sorts in 15th century Romania. Though Bram Stoker never copped to it, it is blatantly obvious that the historical Dracul was the inspiration for his Count Dracula. Why has Dracula been one of the most enduring villains in all of modern literature? Stoker did an amazing job of creating an alluring, powerful-yet-flawed monster, but I believe that the historical reality behind the monster is what really gives him his depth of character and his mystique, another great quality for a villain to have.
Here’s another great bit of writing advice from I know not where: “The antagonist is the hero of his own story.” This has helped me tremendously while trying to create a villain who is not a cartoon. Who is believable, with motivations to which the reader can relate.
So you might ask, how could I possibly relate to a mass murderer whose claim to fame is his penchant for impaling his victims on stakes? And I might answer that Vlad Dracul is a hero in Romania to this day. Why? Because he was the only princeling in Eastern Europe with the cajones to stand up to the invading Ottoman Turks. Pretty much everyone else either colluded, or rolled over, or ignored the threat, or even worse, stole the money that the Vatican raised for a proper crusade. At the edge of Christianity on a battle-torn frontier, Dracul waged a war that, even in those vicious times, stood out as particularly brutal. Chivalry was dead, the times were desperate (have they ever not been?) and Vlad attacked his life-long enemies with an effective vengeance, gaining notoriety for his excessive ways and being proclaimed abnormal and a monster by his contemporaries, while at the same time being hailed as the lone defender of his faith and his people. What a great guy. And by great, I mean in the sense of possessing “an intensity considerably above the normal or average” and “very skilled or capable in a particular area”.
The very qualities we like in our heroes are also necessary in our villains. Vlad Dracul, besides being conveniently situated in a misty, mysterious and dark corner of our history, was intense in his passions, skilled in the execution of his plans and conflicted enough to build churches and monasteries to buy his way back into God’s good graces. What more could a writer want? Of course, with such a great antagonist, the protagonist must rise to the occasion or sink into the realm of hapless victim. And that, I suspect, is why a story is only as strong as its antagonist.