The Hero-Villain Axis in Horror (or Anything Else).

For my Speech Class final I demonstrated how to write a horror story. The keys to a good horror story are characters, atmosphere, and the villain. The only thing worse than a crappy villain is a lame hero and set of protagonists, so care must be taken to fill your story with solid, believable people. A great villain makes the arc for your hero easier to plan out and effortlessly reveal. A great hero means your villain has to really step up the game, and this means your reader wins. Let’s get started…

Alright, you’ve got your story about a vampire bond trader in Muncie, Indiana. Your vampire is a woman because you’re smart and know that in the business world women are often invisible making your vampire’s life easier. She works the Asian markets because those happen overnight and she can sleep during the day. You’ve made her smart and good at her job so the company is happy to keep her on her chosen shift. She’s also ruthlessly deadly when it’s her lunch break. The vampire rules and lore are your own, but based on a cross-section of the classic vampire lit.

Now the job is to make her accessible and relatable. What kind of shampoo does she use? What does vampirism do to a woman’s hair? Is there a fabric or clothing line she prefers? Does she shop or buy her things online and have them altered? Does she do this by herself or use a tailor? Is she an iPhone or Android girl?  Shoes: high heels or sensible? What does a lady wear when she’s hunting? What’s her casket like? Maybe she sleeps with an old rag doll or teddy bear from her pre-vampire days a century ago. Does bad breath annoy her? If not then what does? Unruly kids at the theater? Car alarms? Perhaps she wears pant-suits because her victims involuntarily kick her legs as she drains their blood, tearing her hose.

I’m sure that you, dear reader, are a nice, kind and wonderful person. I am also sure that there were times in your life you wish you had special powers to exact a measure of vengeance on some idiot who has wronged you, or at least pissed you off. Now you can live that dark fantasy out with your bond-trading vampire. You know that asshole at the coffee shop holding up the line because he’s on his phone? Oh yeah, she follows him into the men’s room and rips out his throat. The parking attendant who grins watching you dash to the meter just as she slides the ticket under your windshield wiper blade? Have fun with that scene. Your vampire lives in the modern world so giver her modern problems and let her deal with them.

Now you need a hero, someone to foil your vampire and ultimately put a wooden stake through her heart. You’ve set your story in the real world where vampires don’t exist, so your hero comes into the story blind to the possibility. Personally I’d go with a man. A female hero is cool, and adds dimensions like the fact that she would share a restroom with your vampire. While there are cool scenes to be had here, your vampire might need a sanctuary. A new female coworker might not last too long in this office. Like I said, women in business are often invisible, and having a male here gives your villain some room to do her thing…until your hero starts to catch on.

I’ve worked the graveyard shift as a night auditor. We are not the A-Team. People who work this shift are folks who’ve been stuck or stuck themselves in the margins. Some of them are college students, and others are deep in debt. Many of my coworkers were Iraq War vets with PTSD, and just wanted a job where they didn’t have to deal with people. Right off the bat, the fact that your hero gets a new job at night suggests a level of desperation. You can make him a recovering addict, or a veteran, or just a guy who has lost everything and needs a job. Your reader is already rooting for him on a basic level, even if he’s kind of a dick in the beginning.

This is where your hero-villain axis begins to take shape. In the beginning of the story the axis is tilted to the villain’s favor. The hero has no clue as to what is going on. As the story moves along your hero starts to notice things, but doesn’t put them together until half way through your story. This stretch of the narrative is used to build tension and atmosphere. Your hero has received a break and got a job. There are a few other people who work in the office along with him and your vampire. These people have their own lives and set of problems which you can mine for story. Your hero will need an ally, and maybe your vampire has one too.

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Let’s step back and look at a couple of examples of a good villain-hero axis. The first that comes to mind is the movie “Alien” where Lieutenant Ellen Ripley faces off against an acid-blooded seven foot-tall monster. She’s not even the lead character until more than half way through the movie, and in fact – the character was written to be a man in the original script. Giving the part to Sigourney Weaver was genius. Ripley is a competent character and when the surviving crew looks to her for leadership she steps into the role believably. She blows up the ship and blasts the alien out of an airlock, and even saves her cat.

At first the Alien dictates the action by kidnapping and disabling the crew to use as hosts for more alien babies. The story takes place on a big ship with plenty of places to hide, and a very small crew. Worse, one of the crew is working against the others in order to bring the creature back to earth. Ripley changes the axis when the traitor is exposed, and then tracks down the missing crew and burns out the rookery. At this point the Alien and Ripley are on even footing, and all she has to do is set the ship’s self-destruct and get into the escape shuttle. The Alien isn’t stupid and guess who is waiting for her inside after the ship has been nuked? The final stand-off is right out of a classic western.

The axis shifts as the hero grows. Your new guy in the bond office has figured out the lead trader is a vampire, and maybe he has convinced one of his coworkers of this fact. Now your villain has to dance to change how she does her thing while figuring out the extent of how much danger she might be in. This is a vampire story so your hero has a daylight advantage, and your vampire controls things at night. Plus, there’s still business to conduct, and your hero really needs to pay off his college loan or whatever. The axis swings back and forth for the last half of the story with each shift being more dramatic than the last. Remember I suggested your vampire have an ally? This subverts your hero’s daylight advantage.

The problem with a weak hero is that your reader ends up rooting for the villain, and while Hollywood has turned this half-assed form of writing into big box office, it has not made for great horror. Yes, sometimes the villain wins, and you are well within your right to end the story that way. I just want to care enough to read the story all the way to that last page without feeling insulted.

A great example is comparing Luke Skywalker’s character arc in the last three “Star Wars” with Anakin Skywalker’s character arcs in the first three. Luke leaves Tattooine as a farm boy, and returns as a Jedi Knight to rescue Han Solo. In the meantime he went to Degobah to study with Yoda, and faced off against Darth Vader before he was ready, and loses his hand and almost dies. There is a solid character arc for Luke Skywalker. Anakin Skywalker has no arc. This is the real tragedy of the “Star Wars” prequels because his character is a waste of time. There isn’t much movement from where we really get to know him in the second film until when he gets his black mask and helmet. He’s not even consistent with the Darth Vader of the final movies.

This wasn’t an acting problem – it was a writing problem.

Your hero bond-trader is going to have to overcome a lot to deal with your vampire, and his growth should be measurable. Maybe he stops drinking. Maybe he stops being a dick, or maybe he learns to be an asshole and take care of business. Whatever you do it has to be organic to your narrative. Your vampire is smart, and she could arrange to promote your hero to a better paying job in San Francisco, and he might be cool with a truce in the end. On the other hand, the story could end with the office in flames, and your hero karate-chopping one of your vampire’s wooden “Trader of the Year” award plaques to use as a stake to impale her amid the flames.

With a good villain and a hero who is up to the challenge your story will flow because they will drive the narrative while you sit there taking dictation. It’s really that easy and that hard. Good luck and good writing.

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