The latest chapter in my WIP sees the proper introduction of two characters who’ve been mentioned before, but not actually featured. These characters are loosely related to each other in the sense that they both work for the same organisation. One is very definitely a bad guy (though not The Bad Guy of the novel), the other a little more ambiguous in his motivations, but definitely a little scary for the main character, Keira.
I’ve always found scary characters a challenge, but the sort of challenge that I relish. It’s too easy to make bad characters the Disney caricature of Evil. Making them frightening, but believable is the balance I try to hit – a balance that, when done well, makes characters all the more terrifying. It isn’t easy.
Curtis, my ambiguous scary guy, is involved in something dark and dangerous. He’s the sort of character who does the wrong thing for some right reasons. Only some, but that element of empathy is (hopefully) there. He unsettles Keira because of his actions and associations, but also because he is clever and manipulative, and knows how to get what he wants without ever being clear on what it is he wants. He is only being introduced at the moment, but later in the story Keira has to rely on him to help her – a decision I want both her and the reader to feel very insecure about.
To achieve this, I’m going to have to work very hard to make Curtis everything I envision him to be on the page. I’ve read many a novel where a character meant to keep you second guessing just ends up annoying, or unbelievable. But, I’ve also loved reading/watching many great characters, from whom I will be drawing my inspiration.
Liberty’s Top 5 Scary Characters
5. James ‘Sawyer’ Ford, LOST
Not a book character, and not the most scary character in LOST by a long stretch (that crown would have to go to Ben Linus) but Sawyer earns his place on this list for being scarily good at manipulating people. In the early episodes of LOST, Sawyer was more of a comedy character, stealing the other survivors’ stuff and generally winding everyone up. Then came The Long Con in which Sawyer successfully manipulates everybody in the camp in order to gain control of the guns. The ruthless intelligence he displays, his disregard for other characters and his ultimate victory reaffirmed Sawyer as one scary dude who you’d really want on your side when stranded on a mysterious island. There’s a new sheriff in town. Y’all better get used to it.
4. The Warden, Holes by Louis Sachar
The Warden is a character wrapped in mystery in the beginning of Holes. Referred to only as ‘The Warden’, never by name, we have no idea of her gender, age, personality until she strolls onto the scene halfway through the novel. All we know is, she frightens the staff at the camp as much as she frightens the inmates.
The fact that she’s a woman and commands the fear and respect of all those in her camp somehow makes her that much worse. It’s not physical intimidation that gives her power – there’s no way she could physically overpower anyone in the camp – but with a single utterance of the words ‘excuse me?’ she can bring even the most hardened of criminals quivering to their knees.
3.Mr Bennet, Heroes
Now, the later series of Heroes are probably best scrubbed from the memory, but Series One offered an absolute master class in how to do scary. And no, I don’t mean Sylar the crazed serial killer, I mean Mr Bennet. Ruthless company man or caring father? Bennet kept us second guessing his motivations for over three-quarters of the series, until in Company Man – which remains to this day my favourite episode of a TV show ever – we learned his true motivations for everything.
The scary thing about him was it all made such perfect sense and you couldn’t help liking him. That juxtaposition of the cruel and cunning company man, bagging and tagging Heroes across the country, against the loving father who would do anything to prevent his Claire Bear from suffering the same fate was potent and powerful enough to bring me to shed tears when Bennet has himself shot in order to let Claire escape. Scary characters you care enough about to cry over are the scariest of the lot.
2. Hannibal Lecter, Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal and Hannibal Rising by Thomas Harris
Is there anything more chilling than a sophisticated serial killer? Unlike the uncouth and uncivilised serial killers Hannibal helps Clarice and Will track down, Hannibal appreciates fine dining, fine music. Oh, and human flesh.
Again, it’s the juxtaposition here that makes Hannibal the Cannibal so scary. If he was just a raging lunatic, he would be far less frightening. Instead, his sense of morality and justice – the fact that he kills an inmate for disrespecting Clarice, and chose his victims in order to ‘improve’ things, like killing the terrible flautist in the orchestra to improve their sound – make him terrifying. Add to that his extraordinary intelligence, and the fact that biting out a nurse’s tongue didn’t see his heart rate over 85 and you’ve got a character you’re glad is confined to the pages of Thomas Harris’s novel, their big screen adaptions and the dark corners of your imagination.
1. Mrs Coulter, His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman
But, for me, the character who is queen of all the scary characters is Mrs Coulter. Menacing, manipulative, not afraid to use children in her terrible schemes for personal gain, she is the woman so powerfully persuasive that even soul sucking spectres do her bidding. I’m quite convinced that in a battle royal between all the characters on this list, Mrs Coulter would make everyone else turn tail and run.
Driven through countless universes to achieve her quest, the scariest thing is you can’t help but admire her a little, because she does it all to try to save her daughter. Her singular obsession with Dust, the lives she’s prepared to blithely end to serve her purpose, the fact that she has the imagination and the stomach for the horrors that take place at Bolvanger all add up to one truth – Mrs Coulter is the ultimate scary character.