There are a lot of different kinds of villains or antagonists in fiction – just as many as there are protagonists. While plot and a main character are very important, finding what the main character is working against is equally, if not more, essential to driving a plot forward. Antagonists keep the story going; they push our main characters into corners and make them show us our true colors, give them a change to exist.
These antagonists can be anything from society to an idea to the very psyche of the main character, but generally they are exercised as individual figures outside of the main character, something or someone they interact with, fight against.
And while it is tempting to group all antagonists into one main group: monsters and all the other villains, I want to take a minute (in honor of Halloween) to explain how these are very, very different.
Tonight, we talk about monsters.
The main thing that separates monsters from the rest of the bad guy archetypes is that monsters are the only kind that is acting out of instinct – out of a lack of choice. Like an animal, monsters cannot help themselves; they are made of instinct – usually an instinct to consume humans, most likely to turn us into one of them, a metaphorical representation of the struggle we fight with every day. We create monsters because we know that deep inside every living thing lies a monster waiting for a reason to awaken.
Monsters don’t think, not generally, not with compassion or remorse. They act, they strategize to act and they cannot behave any other way.
Monsters are wonderful bad guys to work with, because they are so simply terrifying. You’re not going to convince a hungry vampire to not drain you, a zombie to not eat your brains, the thing under the bed to not reach for your ankles. They are like the scorpion in the story about crossing a river – they sting even when they promise not to. They might bargain to save themselves, but basic nature always wins out.
Monsters as villains are simple, they are easy to kill without remorse. And in this can come a different kind of monster – one much, much more frightening: the monsters within us. When fighting an inhuman force, any action we take as humans seems righteous – all that matters, suddenly, is surviving the attack. Humans turned monstrous is the most dangerous and frightening thing imaginable.
One of the best examples of two kinds of monster is in the movie 28 Days Later. Yes, there are zombies, and they are frightening, fast, creepy zombies (really creepy). They are the monsters, true, acting on pure, carnal instinct. But the soldiers at the end are the truly monstrous characters. The zombies can’t help themselves, but in the name of killing monsters, the soldiers willingly give away their humanity, they become even worse. It is in their choice to leave humanity behind that the true monster story plays out.
When fighting monsters, the struggle is to become savage enough to win against the odds, while maintaining humanity. It creates a great story – a way to really put the screws to main characters and our own understanding of our minds.
Nothing can bring out our inner monsters like fighting a monster. Every single one of us carries in our dark places an invisible monster. When pushed to our limits, we will see the masks we wear dissolved and that monster can be set free on the world.
Monsters are also good clean fun of horror fodder. Gross, shiver-inducing, beautiful, or terrifying. They make the horror world go round and test our ability to remain human in a storm of the otherworldly.
Tomorrow, we will continue our discussion of villains, bad guys, and other antagonists.