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I suffer from “villain shows up out of nowhere syndrome”. My story involves a group of survivors trying to trek through a wasteland and reach a safe zone while my reoccurring main villain continuously attempts (and fails) to stop them due to their hatred of the protagonist.

No matter how I write their appearances, it always feels like they keep jumping out of bushes Team Rocket-style and then fail to do the one thing they set out to do every time (which is kill the protagonist). That would be fine if I was writing an episodic comedy about a group of teenagers discovering the power of friendship through forcing their pets to fight each other, but I’m going for survival horror so it doesn’t really fit right.

Where I am right now: An eldritch god appears out of nowhere, mutating and wrecking havoc across the world. After almost everyone has been killed, a smart, emotionally detached woman tries to reach the city where the god first appeared in a desperate attempt to understand what’s happening. She’s a foreigner though and requires a young, physically disabled child to translate and be her guide throughout the journey. In this case, the eldritch god is more of a force of nature. It has no obvious motivation and is relatively aimless in its destruction so I need another antagonist to keep things spicy.

What I’m working with currently is a person that the god corrupted into a monster. Most people lose themselves on the mutation process but the villain managed to make it to the other side with a clear head. They were abused as a child and hated everyone except their mom who was the only one to show them kindness growing up. This led to sociopathic behavior and indiscriminate killing once the apocalypse hit both out of fear of them hurting their mom and to indulge their power fantasies. Through a series of unfortunate events the protagonist kills their mom and the villain becomes committed to revenge.

My biggest problem is that since my villain’s goal is to kill the protagonist they are never able to achieve it and therefore seem incompetent. Every interaction feels repetitive. (Villain shows up, villain fails to kill protagonist, protagonist gets away, repeat)

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  • Describe the setting and the villain a bit more if you can.
    – A.bakker
    Feb 1, 2023 at 8:54
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    "while my reoccurring main [terrifying and competent] villain continuously attempts (and fails) to stop them" - are you trying to keep both of these aspects - i.e. that they are terrifying and competent, yet they keep failing?
    – komodosp
    Feb 1, 2023 at 10:14
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    Not enough for a full answer but make your villain busy with non-protagonist problems, enemies, challenges, uprisings, personal issues/quests. Allow the villain to succeed at these in such a way to portray them as evil/cunning/monstruous as you want.
    – Blub
    Feb 2, 2023 at 14:33

4 Answers 4

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I guess this is kind of a frame challenge answer.

The problem here isn't that your villain just "shows up out of nowhere". That can actually be a very effective horror device if done correctly. The problem is that, as you've stated, you haven't built your villain up as a credible threat. This is why their appearances lack the desired impact - they're not scary because they haven't given the reader a reason to be scared of them.

You need to have the villain do something - preferably as soon after their introduction as possible - to establish that they pose a genuine, serious threat to the protagonist. They can't kill them, but there's no reason that they can't come very close to it, with the protagonist only just escaping by the skin of their teeth. They might try to fight back only for their attacks to be useless, or to be otherwise outclassed.

Alternately, since you mention they're a sociopathic mass-murderer, you could have some sort of Rogue One Darth Vader moment where they casually slaughter everyone else in their path just to get to the protagonist, who would suffer the same fate if caught and has no choice but to run. Or you can do both, preferably on different occasions to help mix it up a little and reinforce their threat level.

Essentially, if your villain can't succeed at killing the protagonist, then they have to succeed at something else, and demonstrate that they're capable of killing the protagonist even if they ultimately fail.

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  • Thank you for the response! I’m working on something similar to that where the protagonist is forced to traverse through some of the mass graves the villain leaves behind. I’m trying to pull a silence of the lambs moment where their violent deeds portray the villain to be a manic monster like the protagonist has already encountered only for them to defy expectations and be calm/calculated.
    – Parker
    Feb 4, 2023 at 6:59
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Look at things from the villain's point of view. What is their goal? Why do they find themself in the same places as the heroes while the heroes make their journey? Are they actively pursuing the protagonist, or trying to get to the same town, or...? Figure out what they're doing between the encounters. Give a thought to whether the actions they take are what they could at least expect to help them get what they want. Or, whether they're so desperate they'd try a plan they know has little chance of success. Make sure that, from the villain's own perspective, their choices make sense.

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  • Thanks for the answer! I think that’s my biggest problem. My current motive for the villain is a little weak and doesn’t directly conflict with the protagonist’s motive so one's never really attempting to foil the other. What complicates things for me is that I’m exclusively telling the story from the protagonists point of view so it’s hard to portray what the villain would be doing while maintaining their mystique.
    – Parker
    Feb 4, 2023 at 7:08
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With villains, Less is More. That is, the Villain shouldn't be the only thing the heroes have to face in the story. In fact, the main villain should have the least amount of presence in the entire story. But those few times he shows up, it is always dire and the heroes just barely escape. If your villain is doggedly perusing the heroes, have some brief moments of conflict, than let the villains plan for the next encounter. Show them tracking the heroes, or looking for hired guns to keep an eye out for them. What resources does the villain have at his disposal to do this?

Consider the first two Terminator Films, where the encounters between the Heroes and the Killer Robot are brief, but the villain's remaining screen time is pronounced by their actions building up to those encounters. In the first Terminator Film, Sarah, Kyle, and the Terminator (T-800A) don't meet each other for about a third of the film and the audience (and Sarah) are largely clueless to what the hell is going on, other then the premise. That said, we get clear character moments for all of them (Sarah being perfectly ordinary and only being mildly concerned with a news report that someone is killing people with her exact name). At the same time, we see both Kyle and T-800A go about arrival, gathering resources, and finding Sarah, and it's clear that Kyle is pragmatic, but he takes great pains not to hurt anyone and stay under the radar... meanwhile, T-800A will resort to brazen and unabashed violence if the "subtle" way doesn't work. In the entire run of the film, there are exactly two encounters where Sarah and Kyle and the T-800A are able to visually see one another during the sequence (The Night Club fight and the Climax). While the second act encounter at the police station they are close and both are aware the other is there, they never find each other. In fact, it's the build up to the escape that holds the audience's suspense as Sarah and Kyle are both confined in rooms that will keep them in, but will not keep the Terminator out... and the only fighting chance they have is to keep moving.

In the sequel, T2, the heroes (John, Sarah, T-800B (Bob)) face off against the shape shifting T-1000 Terminator (Liquid). The number of encounters where both the heroes and the villain are in line of sight of any party numbers rises in this film... to 3 encounters (The Mall fight, the Asylum Fight, and the Climax). In this case, there is a pattern repeat to the fight, with a public place, an imprisoning controlled environment, and an industrial sight after hours. It's also notable that while the resource gathering is less focused on to the build up to the first fight, the intended shooting was building up for a surprise... if you watch the film, it's never stated which side Bob and Liquid are on. The intent was to make audiences assume that Bob is the killer robot and Liquid is just a different type of hero than Kyle (much more violent prone and behaving in a much colder way). It's only when the first shots from Bob are fired are the audiences alerted to the truth (You can thank poor marketing for spoiling this twist, as they sold the film on Arnold is Back.. and a hero.). But the T-1000 is genuinly considered the more menacing character in this light because, while he's unsettling to the audience, he's actually better at interacting with humans than T-880A and Bob, at first.

Both also resort to watching family after losing the trail of their prey. In the first film, T-800A intercepts a phone call from Sarah to her mother to resume the fight... but he doesn't kill the mother (I recall) as it's not necessary to the job. But in T2, Liquid is much more brutal, and kills John's foster parents and replacing his foster mother. Upon realizing that his feint was scene through, both Bob and Liquid conclude that Sarah's life is in danger as she is the next likely relative to John that he can use to pick up the trail. After these two fights, the film pulls back Liquid and we focus on the heroes regrouping and trying to figure out their next move. Liquid spends considerably less time on screen during this point than T-800A, because he really does not have much more he needs to do... he already has access to communication networks that will likely report the heroes the moment they turn up. In that time, a number of conflicts between the heroes actually let the audience breath and take in the stakes. When it's time for the action to resume, both parties are following logical steps based on clues they find and resources available to them.

There was actually a period during the Pokemon anime's long run where Team Rocket were actually given a treatment to make them more of a threat. During the Black And White generations, the anime story took some turns to make Jessie and James more of a threat and gave them an important role in Team Rocket's larger efforts for the seasons during this generation which received mixed receptions (Japanese audiences actually love Team Rocket's hapless antics. Western Audiences liked that Team Rocket were given some actual menace and competency to break their schtick. Subsequent Generations would see Jessie and James appear less frequently, however, reverted their appearances back to their usual silly antics, which compromised the two divisions and would keep this formula until their announced retirement from the series as it enter the 9th Gen era). So it shows that it would work with even your bad examples.

Additionally, as your genre is survival horror, keep in mind that often the staple of the genre is that the true antagonist is the environmental hazards. Even if you have a villain, heroes of survival fiction will often be antagonized by an indifferent nature that they are forced to adapt to in order to survive. A villain is always a personified figure of opposed morality to the intended message of the work of fiction. An antagonist need not be human or directly opposed to the hero. It merely has to be obstructive to the hero's own goals. Thus, if you want important moments of antagonism for your hero, but don't want the villain, your genre should easily provide some good antagonists that you do not need to motivate. A predatory animal facing off against the hero doesn't care why the hero needs to get to where it is going. It merely cares that the hero is made of meat and it is hungry.

Additionally if traveling in a group, the group's interpersonal conflicts can be antagonistic. If you watched Avatar: The Last Airbender, the first episode after Toph joined the team sees the heroes on edge and ready to kill each other because they are being chased by an unknown group that they want to avoid for the sake of possible danger and cannot get any rest (Like the terminators which will not stop in their quest to kill their targets. The unstoppable hunter is a persistent trope in fiction because this type of hunting is actually something humans understand well. Humans are probably the king of animals in long distance endurance, and back when we were hunter gathers, we would often track and follow animals until the gave up in exhaustion. It's essentially being hunted by someone or something that may be better at what we do best than we are.).

So your villain can still get his scenes in and be menacing, by letting him repeatedly regain the trail. Some of the other adventures in the heroes trip will result in that trail resuming. They might not meet, but the threat is that he's still chasing you.

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Write more parts of the story from the perspective of the villain.

This allows you to explain what the villain does between the confrontations. Let the audience see how the villain finds out where the protagonist would be, gets there before them and plans how to ambush them. Create suspense by explaining their plan to kill the protagonist in a way that makes it sound like they will probably succeed. The result will be that the villain no longer shows up "out of nowhere", because the audience knew that they would appear at that point.

Now you might wonder: "But wouldn't that spoil the surprise"? No, because when the audience knows the plan of the antagonist, then the actual surprise is how exactly the protagonist will be able to beat the odds and escape the attack.

An additional benefit of this is that it gives you the opportunity to give more depth to your villain. A villain whose only motivation is to see the protagonist dead is not a very interesting one. So by spending more time with the villain and showing how they act in different situations, you can give them more nuance and portray them as a more complex character. It also allows you to set up the villain as a competent antagonist by showing how they succeed at overcoming obstacles during their chase of the protagonist while the protagonist themselve isn't present.

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