10

I'm working on an urban fantasy story that has a species of monsters that regularly prey on human beings, as in many, many other settings (e.g., various monsters in Buffy/Supernatural/The Dresden Files, ghouls in Tokyo Ghoul, hollows in Bleach, etc.). These monsters are notably in that they don't have to eat humans for sustainance, but they're natural predators and will eat anything big enough that they can catch and kill, and in urban environments humans just happen to be the most common prey. Again, as in many of these stories, these creatures were once human beings that have become monsters.

These creatures are the main antagonists of my story (the protagonists being the ones who hunt them). The problem is I am having trouble diversifying the personalities of my antagonists to make them interesting. All of them seem to be either "snarling, non-sapient monster" or "Hannibal Lecter". It's really hard to make the antagonists distinct when they all have the same generic "serial killer" personality. I have done research into actual personality disorders to get a better idea of what kinds of dysfunctional worldviews could lead someone to behave this way, but with little success. The monsters have a brutally social Darwinist society when they do form groups, though that is so common in urban fantasy that there isn't much to explore. Notably, there are good members of these groups that don't eat humans (they're the protagonists), and I've had an easy time fleshing out their diverse personalities and backstories, but it's the evil ones who are supposed to be the primary antagonistic thrust of the story that have remained mostly boring. And, of course, if you don't have a strong antagonist you don't have a story.

Given this, how can I diversify the personalities of my antagonist characters to make them more interesting while still keeping them villainous and antagonistic?

6
  • 8
    There's a fundamental problem when you think of the ones not eating humans as "good" and the other ones bad. – Mad Physicist May 18 at 20:24
  • Perhaps the truly dangerous ones hide by not preying on people, but instead kill feral cats or just visit the local butcher. Killing people makes them noticed. – NomadMaker May 18 at 21:12
  • Don’t give (most of) them personality disorders, there’s no need to. Most people can easily justify/rationalize killing when they believe that they need to kill. Just treat them as people with a different worldview/set of priorities. – RBarryYoung May 19 at 16:53
  • 2
    @MadPhysicist I mean...in general most readers would consider the killing and eating of another intelligent being to be immoral, especially if there is no element of necessity to these beings eating people (as would be the case if they must feed on humans to survive) and especially if they used to be humans themselves (and thus don't have the excuse of species-specific ethics or not seeing human beings as people). Plus there are a lot of stories that consider the actions of supernatural predators that kill human beings as "evil" (the list starts with Dracula and goes on from there...) – user2352714 May 19 at 20:52
  • Pigs are considered to be pretty intelligent and many people seem to have no problems with those who eat them. You'd be surprised at how easily people justify their behaviors. – Erik May 20 at 13:43
22

Don't ascribe human motivations to non-human creatures

I think the core of the problem you are encountering is your decision to ascribe a pathological motivation to your protagonists.

If you start with a set of rational needs for your sapient monsters, then I think you'll end up with better characterizations, especially if those needs operate on multiple axes.

For instance, if Baddy A is a prey species that relies on camouflage to survive to such an extent that its species seeks total anonymity -- they can't eat what they don't know exists -- then it would be rational to kill any humans who accidentally penetrated its defensive coloring.

That principle would provide one axis of motivation.

Another axis, such as an intense joy from kittens (just making something up for illustration), would create a tension for Baddy A that it wants to be near feral kittens, but is compelled to kill any human that realizes that that old tire in the alley is not a tire at all. Watching the kittens gives it joy and motivates to act in a certain way and that is balanced by the compulsion to remain anonymous and unseen.

In short, the creature's behavior might seem schizophrenic to us, but from its point of view, it is rational and results in inner tension for the Baddy.

7
  • 1
    The title line makes the differences in the questions really pop out. If you put a dash under the line with the title, the whole thing becomes bold and large font. – DWKraus May 18 at 0:22
  • 2
    Or you can use hashes at the start of the line. Different numbers of hashes give different levels of headings, if you need them. – user7868 May 18 at 8:06
  • 3
    Is subscribe the correct word in the title word? The next sentence uses ascribe instead which -- as a non-native speaker -- seems more sensible to me. – Matthieu M. May 18 at 10:39
  • 2
    @MatthieuM.: "ascribe" sounds correct here; I'm pretty sure "subscribe" was simply the wrong word, not just obscure usage. (Native speaker). An edit was already approved to correct it. – Peter Cordes May 19 at 4:10
  • I see your point, though the issue is a predator that consistently hunts humans would have to be at least slightly irrational. A rational predator, especially a sapient one, would on average try to avoid attacking another predator species that has a tendency for disproportionate retaliation when harmed (i.e., humans) when they could kill livestock and wildlife instead (ignoring intraguild killing for the moment). Even man-eating predators IRL either behave pathologically by their normal species standards or attack humans because they are too sickly to hunt their normal prey. – user2352714 May 19 at 20:57
9

Humans, Only Not as Much Anymore:

You gave the answer, and it's a broad one. You need to interact with the monsters for them to have character - otherwise they're vague threats. All of them are former people. So what motivates people?

These aren't zombies, they're thinking beings. Only a small percentage of them are going to be psychopaths, killing people for the sheer joy. The problem is apparently that they no longer identify with humans as equals. There is no real need to kill in a world of grocery stores and butcher shops. There is likely some degree of compulsion involved - either that they opportunistically are compelled to kill (making hunting them easier, as their behavior becomes more predictable) or they simply WANT to kill and are uninhibited by morality NOT to (like deer hunting).

So imagine how any one of us would behave if we felt like we had to commit one homicide a month. Otherwise, we're perfectly normal. At that point, the psychology of your monsters is as broad as people are. They may cling to parts of their former lives (friends, family members, jobs). They may throw humanity to the wind and embrace the 'predator life' Like the vampires in Interview With a Vampire. The choice is entirely theirs, and as diverse as individuals.

This means that fundamentally, they are no more evil than you or I - relative to a deer. Good ones behave socially towards each other, while bad ones are morally no different than street gang members and thugs. The same rules likely apply to your protagonists. They feel the same compulsions, but satisfy them by hunting other monsters. They may intellectually value human life, but are emotionally detached. They may protect humans more as a justification than any real love. Again, the choice is as diverse as humanity.

In fact, your PROTAGONISTS are the psychopaths - they are killing their own kind for various reasons, when perfectly reasonable prey animals are present in great abundance. How do you justify killing folks going about their lives? If you can justify the actions of your protagonists, you can justify your monsters.

0
7

Your antagonists need motivations, and these will become themes

You've said that some of each type of monster decide not to eat humans. Okay, so why do the ones which do eat humans, decide to eat humans? Having a good answer to that will give your monsters enough personality to be antagonists for a few chapters.

This should also tie into the themes underlying each monster type. For example, vampires are parasites: they behave all charming and innocent, then suck the blood of society. So if someone becomes a vampire and kills people, they might believe the world exploited them while they were weak and now want others to suffer while they benefit, or they might be popular, successful people who want the best of everything and get it. On the other hand, werewolves are primal: they represent people stripped of all restraint. So they might be people in bad situations lashing out at the world, or they might live lives of hedonic abandon. Different monsters mean different things in different settings, but you probably want to choose a single meaning for each type of monster and explore different expressions of that meaning.

3

You're having trouble looking at it from a perspective that is not that of the humans in the story. You're innately considering anything that eats humans as "evil". But if your protagonists are monsters, then human morality doesn't factor into the narrative evil.

To put it differently, just because Superman eats a steak doesn't mean he's the villain. In your story, the humans fulfill the same role as the cow in my example.

You are effectively able to reuse "normal" human characters from most-if-not-all stories for your monsters, because to the monsters, humans are a food source that is irrelevant to their own culture other than its cuisine, much like how humans eating meat isn't the driving narrative of each and every story about humans. Roméo & Juliet (to pick a random story) is not a story driven by a conflict between those who eat beef and those who don't.

It's really hard to make the antagonists distinct when they all have the same generic "serial killer" personality.

Many people who have killed are not necessarily killers, let alone psychopaths or brutes. Those are really not the same thing.

You are equating someone who eats a steak to someone who hunts and murders for recreational purposes. That is a massive conflation of different characters and personalities, all because you judge the characters by the singular "eats human" moniker.

You're going to need to stop trying to paint these characters based on how their prey would think of them, because the prey is not the protagonist (nor narrator) of this story. A narrative tends to focus its moral center on the protagonist, which is not necessarily a pro-human point of view. And even if it is, that does not mean that any view the protagonist does not share is therefore irrefutably evil. Not everything lives on the good/bad scale.

Given this, how can I diversify the personalities of my antagonist characters to make them more interesting while still keeping them villainous and antagonistic?

The short answer here is "by not painting them as black vs white".

The most interesting villains are those whose backstory is, to some degree, relatable. In other words, they don't do evil for evil's sake.

(Spoilers)

  • Victor Freeze wants to undo the mistake that ended up putting his wife in what is essentially a comatose state.
  • Magneto wants to fight xenophobic hate to every degree, no holds barred, due to his experiences as an incarcerated Jew in the Holocaust, effectively matching the furore that the Nazis opposed him.
  • Thanos wants to end the dog-eat-dog nature of an overcrowded universe that's fighting over resources
  • Walter White wants to finally build the kind of empire that he could've built years earlier, had he not backed out of the company he founded. He rejects how meek he had let himself become and overcorrects the other way.
  • The T-1000 is just a machine doing the job it was built to do. It's no different from a watch telling the time.
  • Gollum/Sméagol is coping with the equivalent of a lethal drug addiction, and cannot stop himself against all better will.
  • [Memento] Teddy tries to both give the protagonist the pleasure of achieving their goal, and is trying to enact vigilante justice.

Or, if you're looking for example of monsters not being villains, watch Monsters Inc. Scaring small children is not a nice thing to do, and it technically features into the everyday lives of the monsters we see (for power generation purposes), but in reality it does not drive the monsters' character on a good/evil scale. Their lives and narrative roles are not defined by what they do for power generation.

(End spoilers)

From their own perspective, none of these villains would describe their own actions as evil. They are the protagonist in their own story. The only reason they are the villain is because we are watching a different story, one in which they oppose or conflict with the protagonist of our story.

Or, maybe a more apt analogy, you are painting your monsters as the Xenomorph from Alien. But compare the Xenomorph to Predator. Even though Predator, at face value, never communicates and does nothing but hunt, there is a huge difference in their character, as Predator is shown to be honorable and sapient (i.e. cultured, smart, rational), whereas the Xenomorph is only sentient (i.e. an animal with an instinct).

1

Different Attitudes to killing

You already have two versions of motivation for your creatures, non-sentient hunger and intelligent, sophisticated serial killer. Since you refer to them as having a society, I take it you want human-like motivations for things. So, look into why people do anything in real life. Maybe one of them just lives their life and kills people when they feel like it, because they place no value on human life (think closer to nazi germany than personality disorder). Maybe another sees that it's wrong but doesn't want the ostracization that comes from not preying on humanity. Perhaps a third has tried to quit predation but when they have a really rough day, well, they fall off the wagon.

People in real life do things that are harmful to others all the time, even for reasons they know aren't really all that good. Take the biased reasoning from there, apply it to humans and you'll not run out of ideas.

0

Give the monsters quirks and hobbies. There are lot of calories in a human adult, especially in developed countries. They don't have to be hunting and killing all the time. Maybe they like bonsai, gaming, turtles, antique china, obsessing over Judge Judy (Juror Judith?) reruns, memes, or semi-pro pogo sticking. These can be traits they've carried over from their former humanity, or if they tend toward immortality, traits they've developed to cope with their extreme longevity. The creatures may even excel in their side projects, a monster with enhanced reaction time and awareness would be an excellent fps player, and might show up for tournaments, giving your protagonists a lead when an entire lan party turns into an irl bloodbath.

As an addendum, "serial killer" isn't a personality. Often a serial killer is charming and pleasant 99% of the time. The guy who only talks in a sinister tone about murder and bloodshed is just an edgelord.

0

Consider the environments they evolved in, even if it's a supernatural environment. Different environments, different traits, including psychological. Like the diff between khajiit and argonians.

1
  • This answer can work, but it needs more supporting material. Consider adding supporting evidence, additional examples (with explanations) and/or references. – DWKraus May 19 at 14:29

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.