The Flipside of Hero Empathy

Or… why you should be following “The Following” (the Fox Television series).

Consider a workroom with twelve boxes and a desk.  Six of the boxes are labeled “Core Competency: …” and after that colon (one of those amazing double-edged words in the English language, this one with a smirk) there is a different name for each: Concept… Character… Theme… Structure… Scenes… Voice.

These are your tools.  Everything under the writing sun awaits in one of those boxes.

The desk is where you’ll use what’s inside the boxes.  Where you’ll write your story.

The other six boxes contain jugs of secret sauce.  These, too, include a colon… “Story Physics: …” and after each there is again a specific flavor of sauce: Compelling Premise… Dramatic Tension… Pace… Empathy… Vicarious Experience… Narrative Strategy.

Six boxes of tools, with six flavors of secret sauce to lubricate and empower them to deliciousness.

That’s the whole storytelling enchilada for you, right there.  How you use these boxes — your process — has a million variables.  But the essential nature of what’s in them… that’s non-negotiable.

When you open any one container you find a vast array of choices waiting to help you.  All the genres are in the Concept box.  All the ways you can create conflict awaits in that big bottle of Dramatic tension.  And so it goes.

Which is to say, you can break it down and label it any way you want.  No matter, though… before you are these 12 different yet inter-dependent categories of tools and parts and story essences (physics, the cause that creates effect)… and within them are hundreds, maybe thousands, of nuances and combinations.

Mix and stir as you please.  We live and die by our storytelling choices in this regard.

Here is one of these recipe options, and it’s huge.

You’ll pull this one out the “Empathy” container.  Your reader needs to feel something for your hero.  Causing them (the reader) to root for that hero.  Essential, 101-level stuff.

Here’s the twist, though.  Equally obvious, but rarely applied.

In the Dramatic Tension container you’ll find something called “the antagonist,” also known as the villain, the bad guy, the obstacle to the hero’s quest.

Now mix those two together, empathy and antagonist… and you have a VERY powerful ingredient for your story: the depth with which your reader roots AGAINST the antagonist.  Even, in the purest place of their most truthful self, loathes and hates  your villain while fearing her/him.

Passionately so.  Can’t wait to see them go down.  In a ball of flames.  Drenched in their own blood.  In the name of justice and all that is fair and right and deserved.

Is your villain detestable, or just someone with a different point of view?  You get to decide.  And certainly, not all stories lend themselves to a hero you’d like to see fry in an electric chair… slowly.

But it’s good when it happens.  REALLY good.  Because your reader has another reason to keep turning the pages, to get emotionally involved, to care.

The Following

I mention this killer (literally) television program because it offers one of the most compelling, interesting and deliciously hateable villains, maybe ever.  Right up there with Hannibal Lector, that guy with the mask in the Halloween movies and Dick Cheney.

The program is not for everyone, so vet this if you’re on the bubble.

But if you want to see how a writer (plural in this case) can grab the reader/viewer in such a way that the “rooting against” factor is every bit as strong and compelling and addictive as the “rooting for” factor, this is the show.

Next week is the second to last episode.  Catch it all soon on Netflix, or now via On Demand from your cable career.

Bottom line: Are you tapping into the emotional gold mine that villains present?  And doing so strategically, without resorting to mustache twirling and caricature?   Perhaps you should.

It’s all just more Story Physics… with a dark twist on human nature.  And that is not only our opportunity as storytellers… it’s our job.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

26 Responses to The Flipside of Hero Empathy

  1. Raijin

    Here in the land down under The following has just started episode 3 or 4. So please don’t spoil lol. So far I have liked it. been looking for the hooks Oh he shagged the killers wife will he again, Does the kid die, Is the FBI dude with a love interest in KB character also part of the bad guys team.
    Not sure if there all proper hooks but hey I am just a beginner.
    When writing a series like that do the writers make each episode foloowing engineering or has the FPP been established in earlier episode so each eppisode does not need it own FPP?
    If you get what I mean

  2. Sigh. My current villains (plural, which is already slightly wrong) are nebulous shadows. Even I don’t care about them, as long as they go away eventually.

    There’s a major portion of one of the rewrites: a genuine antagonist for poor Jake. Somebody who truly desperately needs to lose.

  3. Disney is especially good at this in their animated movies.

    o Cruella deVille (kills puppies for coats)
    o The octopus bitch in Little Mermaid
    o The evil queen in Snow White

    The worse the bad guy/gal is, the better the good guy looks.

    I like using the pinch points, especially the first one, to fully explore the depths of depravity the antagonist will delve. And I reserve writing that scene for the end of a particularly brutal workday.

  4. Cathy

    Those are colons, not semi-colons.

  5. @Cathy — mud on face, you are so right. Will fix. Hope you could get beyond that to see the intention of the post. Thanks — L.

  6. Sometimes what Larry proposes to write about doesn’t apply to all situations, and his statement, ” certainly, not all stories lend themselves to a hero you’d like to see fry in an electric chair,” recognizes that. My “villain” is a mind-set that is embodied primarily in the protagonist’s mother and secondarily in her brother. She doesn’t hate them; she loves them. But their mind-set is wreaking havoc on her life. Can she persuade them, if not to be accepting, to at least be tolerant rather than judgmental? Or will she have to put them out of her life? Writing this is not an easy task. A true, want-to-stab-you-in-the-heart style of villain would be simpler, I think. I might choose that type in my next book. 🙂

  7. Robert Jones

    @Joel–Here’s a few thoughts: My villain is finally getting close to having the right combination from those jars. For me, it came in layers, beginning with a background gave him a certain amount of empathy–until he turned that corner and took events to their extreme.

    In my particular instance, it comes down to a point where this guy could’ve went either way. Certainly, his life had it’s unpleasant moments, but don’t they all. For me, where both realism, and the scary factor came in, was at that turning point. He’d become an angry youth, violence and anger is an outlet. Again, this could be a lot of people. But I think a person either finds an outlet that allows them to fight back against life constructively, or they allow the pressure to take control and life looses control.

    Either side of the fence you really begin to wrap those emotions around is a powerful thing. And depending on how far one pushes a thing and get away with, the more powerful it feels. It’s the lure of the “Dark Side,” if you want to get all Darth Vadery. But in a more realistic setting, isn’t that how we develope psychologically? I can think of several friends I had growing up with very controling parents. I’m not talking strict, I’m talking overboard stuff, for fear their kids would do the sort of things they did. And in their attempts to control it, only perpetuated it with their extreme measures

    So to feel and sense of their own control over life, the kids began sneaking around, seeing just how much they could get away with under their warder’s nose. Follow that through and you basically have an adult who isn’t exactly honest in most of their dealings. I’m sure we’ve all known someone who seemed to get a kind of high from using someone for something–even if it seemed quite petty. Take it to the extreme, where someone reall crosses that line due to whatever their circumstanses, and you have a villain who is very disturbed, and quite possibly gets off on the things they do to people. Isn’t that how most villains lure people in, by working on their sympathies? And by the time the victim learns they are on the hook, it’s usually too late to avoid the damages. Take it to the point where you mix in a liberal amount of intelligence, and you might just have a dangerous player.

    Control+Power=Change. And even seemingly nice people get put in charge in some low level management positions at the local retail store, or burger house, and wham! They get offuly intollerant of others. It didn’t happen over night, or even due to the position, the position merely gave them the opportunity to release something that has been bottled up. Take that to the extreme, on a corporate, or political level.

    Or one could go back to something that was said at the Nuremberg trials–“Evil is the lack of empathy.” Which might be the extreme of all extremes and speaks of the worst mankind has to offer. When placed in a position where one feels they can do anything and get away with it, the atrocities of man against man knows few boundaries.

    One can only imagine, if we could see the chain of events leading up to truly evil acts. But if we look at all the above examples, find that child who was treated like an animal (either physically, or mentally percieved), then crosses that line where none of the rules apply, allows some type of total madness to escape and bleed out onto others, then you have the stuff of which nightmares are made.

    Was it a Hannibal Lecter line that said something like, “If you kill enough, you’ll become like God.”


  8. One of the things that really helped my current book is to give my hero an actual villain. In my original outline and planning, he was fighting a rotten government. It was faceless. As I outlined, I created one character to be the face my hero opposes. Bonus: his creation added a new wrinkle to the story that really fleshed it out.

    However, what I’m struggling with now is that the villain comes off simply as opposed to the hero. I don’t want to create a caricature, but this article comes at a good time: the villain needs to go beyond opposition and actually become villainous much earlier in the book. This is important, because my hero leans toward being slightly gray rather than heroic. I need the contrast.

  9. Hi Larry

    I know you asked for some suggested talk topics a while back, and it has taken me a while, but here’s one for you. Writing a compelling blurb. Writing synopses and writing blurbs I have discovered are two very different things. When submitting both to my agent the first time, I was told they were boring. So it took some research (and reading lots of backs of books) to get the gist of writing a good, and short, and to the point, blurb for the back of the book, and to use to present as a teaser to the publisher. I have since been approached by a writer wanting to get published for advice, my starting point was his blurb. If submitting to agents and publishers this needs to be compelling. Any suggestions here?

  10. Sara Davies

    I like the idea of creating a villain not just to hate, but also to fear.

    Maybe the “villain” of a story can still be convincing even if not violent or criminal, simply because of the impact he or she has on the life of the hero. Someone who is emotionally but not physically threatening could cause real damage.

    The hungry ghost, the black hole, a person with endless needs, who feels empty, is constantly demanding, manipulating, looking for ways to feed off the energy of others . That’s a different form of evil from the overt control freak. Taken to its logical extreme, could be quite powerful. Thieves, kidnappers, and hostage takers want to be fed. A stalker wants to wrest attention from the world, and when he doesn’t get it, retaliates, thinks the world owes him something, tries to collect. Violence that comes from anger and is carried out on impulse is reactive, based in fear, and reveals a sense of powerlessness. That is qualitatively very different from the evil of the control freak who can behave in a calm, calculated, and methodical way. The “strong” villain lacks empathy, the “weak” villain lacks an inner core.

  11. Robert Jones

    @Sara–I think those things can be played very effectively. I think it’s still about control, however. Maybe not in the same sense that we think of in terms of the typical “control freak,” but a sociopath nontheless.

    If you reason any problem backwards, from effect to cause, there’s a “need” in such behavior, and that need implies “lack,” and where there is lack there is “want.” And what do those angry, needy personalities want but control. It may come in a slightly altered guise. For example, “I get no respect,” might equal the demand for respect from someone else–someone they can manipulate–which is control, by any other name.

    A need that demands to be fed at the expense of another, still manipulation by more forecful means, a threat (in the case of the kidnappers you mentioned). And if they get what they want, it was by controlling the actions of another.

    And whether the end result was achieved by guilt, pressure, or threat to a loved one, the people who give in to such behavior, give in due to “fear.” It may be fear derived from someting that has already happened (the kidnapping) or fear of what “might” happen. The imagination, when prompted in anyone abused, or victimized, can dream up worse horror than the real thing. Bad guys know this stuff already. Writers need to understand it. Because creating that feeling of anxious uncertainty about what “might happen” to a character (whether it does or not) in the reader’s mind is the key to much suspenseful drama. If they empathize with the hero, they’ll worry. And when that pressure increases, they’ll hate the villain even more.

  12. Sara Davies

    Watched the pilot episode, just to see.

    RYAN: What’s my sequel going to be?
    CARROLL: It’s going to be a collaboration.

    Yeah, that’s pretty creepy.

    A serial killer is easy to hate, and in this case, easy to fear, but difficult to understand. So far, I don’t see any convincing reason for why Carroll does what he does (I do wish writers would stop dumping on artists – try actually learning what artists do, for once, instead of buying into the same stupid cultural stereotypes – and the British – what’s up with evil characters always having British accents?), which means we get a two-dimensional bad guy who is not very interesting.

    “Dexter” had a more interesting premise…which enabled able to overlook how disgusting the show was for a whole season, whereas in “The Following,” despite the strength of Kevin Bacon’s contribution, the villain is one whose fate doesn’t matter to me. With Dexter, I wanted to see how he was going to handle his problem.

    I think there’s something to be said for having not only a rootable hero, but a rootable villain.

    @ Robert:

    Yes, acting weak is one form of control. Bullying is another form of control. What’s interesting is when (or if) a villain crosses over from being the hungry/feed-me/self-seeking type of bad guy, to becoming one who gets off on dominating in an overt way – who fills that emptiness by committing abusive acts. It’s unclear to me if people who are sociopaths begin in a state of vulnerability, which later morphs into a will to dominate, or if they start out aggressive and continue in the same way. I’m not a student of criminal psychology. I have heard that the kind of men who beat their wives out of rage are easier to rehabilitate – they can get counseling, they can learn to control their anger if they want to – unlike the ones whose heart rates become lower, who feel better physically, mentally, and emotionally when they are violent. There’s not much hope for those guys.

    A tormented villain who struggles with being a villain is more interesting to me than a guy who’s just rotten through and through for no discernible reason.

  13. Robert Jones

    Once while in a dollar store, I actually found several selections from a Time Life series on serial killers, mass murderers, compulsion to kill–naturally for a buck each I grabbed them. Very creepy stuff. But I figured they would come in handy for this sort of thing.

    Most serial killers seem to have that same look in their eyes, like they have been once removed, or very repressed on some level.

    @Sara–the tortured villain works for me. I think most villains are, or would be, tortured if they allowed themselves to think about it. Power hungry people, even in leadership roles, you will often hear those types of people say they don’t allow themselves to think about it. If, from their position, they see themselves having a choice to think about and give in to their weakness, then their role becomes forfeit, they become the hurting victim. If, however, they see that role as the polar opposite to being the victim, what might they do in terms of hurting others to hold their position in life they’ve worked for?

    The angry spouse abuser, could be helped. Most anyone could up to a point. But they have to want that help. Even here, in an average domestic setting, if certain behaviorisms go on over the course of a good chunk of someone’s life, they can reach a point where whatever is effecting that behavior becomes so fused with their world view that changing would entail that person admitting on some deep level that they having been living most of their life as a lie. They can’t accept it. They’ve boxed themselves in to fighting for something (maybe the initial wrong that twisted them) they believe in their heart is right.

    And if an abuser is acting out from being abused themselves–which is very often the case–there is a sort of empathy we feel for that person. If that abuse they underwent began as a child, then part of their psyche that never dealt with it is still that child, trapped within their own mental attic. Yes, that’s a form of torture because they are very aware of where the problem began but can’t admit it because that problem becomes insurmountable in their own minds, or shameful. All forms of abuse has this in common to some degree.

    The part where this behavior become very un-rootable, is that their behavior, their reaction to whatever was done to them, goes on and on, sometimes for many years longer than whatever went on in their own past. In extreme cases, this type of personality wants to mow everyone down who disagrees with them because other opinions remind them they are inferior–a feeling that must be rebuked.

    Villains can be very complex, because the mind is very complex. There are reasons for most people’s behaviors…up to a point. And those reasons make the most interesting villains because we’ve all known villainy to some degree, from someone we’ve encountered. As we’ve stated before, most people find those extreme behaviors fascinating on either end of the scale, good, or bad. Maybe like the George Lucasian “Force” both have their gravitational pull for our own curiosity.

    People, are, after all, the source that is responsible for making life on earth what it is. I think we all want to understand human behavior, and why humans haven’t been capable of vanquishing their “dark side” after all these centuries. Maybe, as in fiction, we need conflict to overcome if we are to appreciate the triumph of character and grow personally. And if a villain believes themselves to be right, then they are attempting to triumph as well, albeit from a very different mindset. But I think the dividing line comes into place somewhere between those who view all life as precious, and those who feel they must take command and make sacrifices to win the war. There is a fence and it divides us.

  14. I’ve never watched the following, but I generally like my villains with a different point of view, a conflict. I don’t like when villains are just evil and just hat everybody for no reason. They should have a purpose which conflicts with the main character.

  15. Helpful post and so many great comments 🙂

    Every time I read something like this I do get a little worried about the antagonist of my work-in-progress. Is he too wishy-washy? Too deserving of empathy? I don’t think anyone reading my story will want him to burn in the fires of Hell for all eternity. I couldn’t let that happen, because he IS deserving of empathy. He is who he is because he wasn’t given much other choice, not really. Whereas the protagonist wasn’t given much choice but to be good, to fight evil. It’s kind of about being poured into a mold that you may or may not want to break out of.

    I guess I’m wondering if my antagonist isn’t evil enough, should I be creating some other dark force that readers can foam at the mouth over, or is it okay for the dark side to be kind of ambiguous? Dexter is a good example of an ambiguously evil character, but he’s the protagonist of his own story, not the villain to someone else’s…

    Any thoughts would be appreciated.

  16. Robert Jones

    @Sharon–I think it depends on where you are going with your story. I find your comment on your characters “being poured into a mold” interesting. It implies a certain outcome. Either the characters want to break that mold, or they have no choice but to defend the position they were placed in.

    I think either way could prove interesting. Some “What if?” questions that come to my mind are:

    What if two characters are set on a road where one may have to destroy the other in order to survive–or maintain a way of being?

    What if neither want to play that game, but stakes hang in the balance that are larger than either’s life? Either real, or percieved, in terms of status, social, political, etc….

    What if two people were cast into roles of hero and villain–roles which neither wanted–but in struggling to break free from their molds, they came to oppose one another anyhow because their methods of escape (or to prevent the other escaping) were in direct contrast?

    What if good and evil were a choice, but not a personal one–rather one handed down by gender, culture, class–and waking up in this life, your hero realized (s)he was born to the wrong side of a world divided not by morals, but by race, creed, color. However, in order to escape that mold, they will have face the villain, who is cemented in the belief system and world view that such boundaries exist for a very good reason?

    Isn’t that the parable/catch-22 of life? Who is guarding the gate and why? Naturally, the gatekeeper believes they are doing so for a very good reason, might have a family they love who views them as a devoted and prominent member of society. But in order to be a pillar, one has to stand fast, don’t they?

    I think if you keep playing with questions and possibilities, you’ll find something at the heart of your story everyone can relate to. Villains don’t necesarily have to have physical blood on their hands, that blood is often borrowed, and defended as if it were their own–sometimes even with the lives of the innocent.

  17. Sara Davies

    @ Sharon

    I’m not sure the “bad guy” has to be pure evil. It’s more about the dynamic between the hero and the bad guy, how great an obstacle or threat the antagonist presents to the hero getting what s/he wants, and that could be as painful or threatening as you make it, showing the emotional experience of the characters…even if the fight is over something as superficially inconsequential as which fourth grader is going to make the most money at the elementary school bake sale. It’s about the weight and meaning that the characters bring to their experience, and why what’s at stake matters that much to them. Unless that’s not what you meant by “evil enough.” I’m thinking “evil enough” just means “cares enough” on both sides of the fight. Then it becomes a question of who would care, why they’d care, in whatever circumstances.

    Yeah, of course Dexter was the protagonist in his own story. My point was just that he was an interesting, yet fundamentally evil character. The bad guys who sit around saying Bwa Ha Ha, I’m Taking Over the World, and enjoy themselves while they’re doing it are boring, there’s nothing at stake for someone like that – it’s like the hero is playing ping pong alone.

  18. MikeR

    To me, the most delicious villain will always be the =entirely=off=screen= Hannibal Lecter of the movie in which the character first appears … “Manhunter.” And the character is quite complex … being merciful, even gracious, to a blind side-character whom you are utterly convinced MUST be “about to be toast.” It makes the HL character all that much more terrifying – because (“OMG”) he is real.

    Even so, not all antagonists are psychopaths – they’re not necessarily “villains.” They’re anti-characters to the hero, yet characters nonetheless. I vividly remember the scene in “The Fugitive” (Tommy Lee Jones vs. Harrison Ford – it don’t get better than that): “I didn’t kill my wife!” “I don’t care!” You know and feel -exactly- what is driving both characters. You root for the wrongfully-accused doctor, yet you also know exactly why the marshal is unrelentingly pursuing him and why – true to his character – he will never stop doing so.

  19. MikeR


    It might be very difficult for any antagonist to take on “a rotten government.” (Heh …) But he could take on a rotten antagonist who, say, being a career man in that rotten entity, doesn’t see what he’s doing as rotten. Or maybe he’s SO rotten that he’s taking advantage of the rottenness that surrounds him to (or so he expects) get away with something even more vile. (Where there’s one rat in the kitchen, there will be more and bigger ones. Dick Cheney does come to mind.) Maybe the antagonist sees himself as a good-boy who’s “just doing his job,” and let the record show that a =lot= of stench-inducing things have been done by people who thought of themselves that way.

  20. Robert Jones

    @MikeR–You mentioned Manhunter before…a film I hadn’t previousy watched. I tracked down the DVD and watched it a few days ago. I found some things in the interviews and discussions to be pretty helpful. Even more so than the film itself because they explored the character motives and what went into the thinking behind them. So thank you for that.

    I think a character taking on something as large as a corrupt governement, or organization (something in my own story) to be interesting–mainly because it has been done so poorly. Yes, it has to be boiled down to a single individual that opposes your hero. Yes, it has to be a satisfactory ending. No, it is not impossible, merely tough to do realistically.

    If the organization is small, yes, it’s possible to round them up. If it’s large, it becomes a matter of cutting off one head to be replaced by another. At best, it’s like cutting back a rose bush, you may stint its growth for a while, but to end such a thing in a permanant way is like wishing for world peace, or the abolition of evil. Stories that try to paint a grand victory here with a sweeping brush are the fantasies that comic books are made of–and not even a good comic for that matter.

    Your character has to be willing to die. There’s no normal life happening here. The victory can be strong, in that one man is standing up against something large, they can be a symbol of hope, a mirror on society, but not one all society wants to look directly into. They may cheer the character, but most aren’t going to hop on his bandwagon and do likewise. In fact, there may be quite a few who feel he’s sticking his nose into things he doesn’t understand, or could be mucking with things no one should. In fact, like anyone who attempts anything different, some will just believe (s)he’s crazy. The hero is going to be very much alone in his quest–or have few friends who are willing to help.

    With modern technolgy and securities, you’d better know your stuff, or you’ll be lumped in the pile with those who just did it badly. So outside of being very good with technology, the best bet is either a science fiction story where you can make up the rules, or a period piece (like I’m doing) where all the modern advancments didn’t exist.

    The danger in most cases is to make the villain too smart, too much of an expert to the point they would be untouchable. And the hero has to be a James Bond just to get close. The fact of the matter is, most such people don’t understand technology any better than you or I (unless there’s a reson for making the character an expert in such things), they simply employ it. They don’t understand life on anywhere near a global scale, or what makes most people tick. They are simply arrogant enough to believe they know best. And that’s a ploy most writers of these type of stories overlook. They are so busy looking for strengths and gadgets to fortify their villains, they overlook human nature and its flaws. We’re all so busy looking at the other side of the fence as a mystery, or glancing up at pedistals, we forget that both sides are merely people, doing what they do (no matter how extreme it might seem to us) because they believe it to be right.

    Humanize, don’t deify. That’s my two cents.

  21. Robert Jones

    Late thought here, going back to an old saw…it’s not so much what a person (in this case, your villain) CAN do, but what they can make others BELIEVE they can do. Power can over-inflate the ego. Power is not–for villains–defined by a chain of truths, but created from strands of whole cloth.

  22. MikeR

    If you want to “be an operative for a corrupt government,” you could, of course … opt for a 45-year career with the Post Office and (maybe) retire with a gold watch.

    However, I would not wish to pay even 99¢ to read a STORY about it. I don’t want to read about my 6th-grade science project as it actually was … I want to read about “Tom Swift (Jr.) and His Outpost In Space.” (Or any of the other 33 volumes that I still [lovingly] own.)

    A career post-office employee (in the real world) who is “willing to die” would be … “most improbable.” But it would make one heck of a story. (“Men In Black II” comes somewhat close …)

    “Real-world calling: I’m on my real-world lunch hour, and I know ALL ABOUT ‘the real world,’ thankyou very much. TAKE ME AWAY. BEAM ME UP. For the next real-world hour, at least, please god get me out of here.”

  23. Robert Jones

    @MikeR–LOL! Sounds like there could be some personal experience chiming in on that last comment. It has been my experience that once one devotes a prolonged period of drudge-time to something (government job, or otherwise), one wishes escape, not to revisit, fictional episodes, or otherwise.

    Might be a good topic for a marketing survey. Which are the least popular job relating subjects that would turn readers off. On the other hand, finding some type of parallel in our story that can relate to a topic that never lets up in the media news circles is a way to actully hook reader–government, world issues, etc…. That’s because people are used to hearing it constantly being broadcast, tuning in to see what happens next. It’s like the pied piper, if you can play a familiar tune that resonates, the already brainwashed masses will be drawn to it.

    A sad statement, but a true one, nonetheless 🙁

  24. Sara Davies

    Heath Ledger’s depiction of The Joker in the 2nd installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was a memorable psychopath. I got the sense that he had a terrifying back story, a hideous past – even if he was lying about it. And the script gave the feeling that he might do anything at any moment. Randomness is a feature of that character…but definitely adds to the fear factor, tension, and anticipation.

    Contrast with a bad guy whose motives appears to be intellectual – that doesn’t work, because emotion comes before decision.

    Also contrast with stories where the antagonist is frightening only for as long as he, she, or it remains unseen. Some villains are better left invisible, because we fear what we don’t know. Where there’s build up, there has to be delivery (one of the potential pitfalls of suspense).

  25. @Sara – I agree, the Joker in that film was an iconic villain. Notice, too, how it was taken seriously at a critical level, even here in the most notorious comic book stories ever set to film. The nature of his character, as you describe, is a huge reason for that. L.