Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: The Shining

All right. We are going to talk some more about the ever misunderstood antagonist today. As a side-note, I am going to actively work to make these posts shorter. I tend to get excited and pee on the rugs when the doorbell rings.

Wait, that’s not right. That’s my dog. I’m tired. It’s Monday.

Anyway, I do tend to get excited and try to teach you guys everything you ever wanted to know all at once. So I am working on brevity. See, we all have our weaknesses. Even me. Although mine are waaaay smaller than yours :P.

First, a quick review. Last week we talked about that Oh, but he is his own worst enemy. That isn’t an antagonist. That is arc. There must be an outside story that drives the inner arc. If your protagonist is up against alcoholism, then he doesn’t just one day decide to sober up. There must be an outside event that ignites the need to change and gives the protag stakes and a ticking clock.

For instance, the protag could lose his marrage if he doesn’t beat his addiction to alcohol, and thus his quest is to save his marriage. The outer conflict might be that his wife has filed for divorce and plans on moving across the country with the protag’s children. The inner conflict is what drives the need to drink and that must be battled and conquered by the story’s end. The inner arc must be satisfied (demons conquered) in order to realize the outward story goal (marriage saved). 

We, as readers, must see what the end goal is (saving a marriage) or it will be almost impossible to generate dramatic tension. We must know what is at stake and what could be lost if the protag doesn’t get his act together. 

When our protagonist is up against a culture or a belief, there will be a representative that will be the “face.” In the 1984 hit movie Footloose the protagonist is a big city dancing boy who now is up against hellfire and brimstone fundamentalism that forbids dancing. Who is the face of this culture that forbids dancing? Reverend Shaw Moore.

The plot is not that complex. Big city boy trying to find his place in a small town. The real story is in the characters and how they grow…but note the story goal that drives the changes. 

Have a dance. That’s it. But it creates more than enough conflict to make a great story.

Today I want to introduce the villain. Villains are wonderful and some of the most memorable characters. Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter, Joker, Blackbeard the Pirate, Dracula, Rasputin, and I could go on all day. Villains can be the stuff of nightmares and can elevate a story to legendary heights.

But let’s get this straight. Villains are only a type of antagonist. Yes, a Chihuahua is a dog, but all dogs are not Chihuahuas.

A lot of new writers use antagonist and villain interchangeably. That will limit your writing. The more we understand the antagonist and all his multi-hues, the more color and richness we bring to our storytelling palette.

Villains do not have to be the guy in the black hat twirling his mustache. That is not a villain; that is a one-dimensional flat villain born of a writer who failed to do proper planning before she wrote him.

Any character that only exhibits surface elements—what we see externally—will be a caricature. Villains I think tend to me more prone to this because:

1. We like to think more about our heroes than our bad guys.

2. Villains don’t generally arc, so we often overlook the villain’s motivations

3. We fail to appreciate that most bad guys don’t think they are wrong. They always have a good reason why they are doing what they do.

Larry Brooks has a wonderful book called Story Engineering, and he has a really neat way to craft characters with psychological depth. Bob Mayer’s Novel Writer’s Toolkit and Bob’s workshops are also a great place to learn great techniques for layering your characters.

Great villains reach deep into our psyche and torment those soft places we try to protect. I personally believe villains are the toughest characters to write. I think it is a real feat to be able to create that kind of darkness, and it is so easy for us to botch…ergo why villains are often the subject of cackling parody.

In my opinion, I feel the most terrifying villains are the ones we relate to. One of the most disturbing books I ever read was The Shining. What made Jack Torrance so frightening was that he started out a fairly normal guy with a dark side. Hey, we all have a dark side….but Jack’s took over to frightening proportions. Thus, the real question in the back of the readers’ minds is, “Under the right circumstances, could we spiral into darkness just like Jack?”


In The Dark Knight Joker was the premiere example of chaotic evil. Chaotic evil is not easy to write, and yet, somehow great screenwriting and unparalleled acting merged and birthed a villain that will live on for generations to come.

Joker scares us. Why? Well, we normal folk generally have motives. We don’t go out of our way to hurt, torment and destroy others for no reason. We can’t wrap our mind around the idea of annihilation simply for the fun of it. Joker is chaotic and unpredictable, yet below this veneer of bedlam is a masterful planner who preys off the goodness driving those around him.

Villains when done properly can live on as literary legends. Botch the villain and he will be a cardboard caricature bent on ruling the world. Aside from the writing books I recommended, I would also advise that you read a lot of books on psychology.

John Douglas, the father of modern FBI profiling, has some great books. I recommend Mindhunter and The Anatomy of Motive. I also recommend The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout PhD.

To create great villains, you are going to have to crawl into the dark spaces of their minds. Probably a good idea to read about real evil before putting pen to paper. Play BAU profiler. Evil behaves in accordance to patterns. That’s how profilers catch evil men and women. They look to the behavior of evil to look into the mind of evil to see the face of evil.

Same with great writers ;). We will talk more about villains next week.

So what are some of your favorite villains of all time? Who kept you up late at night with a light on? What villains scare you and why? What are some resources you might recommend?

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of March, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end on March I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

Happy writing!

Until next time…

In the meantime, if you don’t already own a copy, my best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books.


Here we are in October, my favorite time of year. I happen to like scary movies. Not slasher flicks, but stories that disturb the psyche and really rattle us down on a visceral level. There are different levels of fear—shock, revulsion, terror, etc. As a genre, horror seems to have more subgenres and classifications that any other. I don’t profess to be any kind of an expert, beyond the discerning taste of a consumer. I believe horror to be one of the most difficult genres to write. Modern-day audiences are far more sophisticated and tougher to rattle. I feel that those authors brave enough to endeavor to scare us out of our wits have their work cut out for them. Like horror writers, ALL authors would be wise to learn from the masters. So today we are going to explore three lessons all of us can take away from the Masters of Horror.

Like great horror authors, great writers must be masters of understanding human psychology.

One of the best horror novels I’ve ever read was The Shining by Stephen King. What makes this story so terrifying is that Jack Torrence starts out a normal, yet flawed guy. He battles a temper and has a history of alcoholism. We, the reader, are introduced to a man who is penitent and trying to make a new life for a family he loves. He genuinely is trying to be a good father and husband. Yet, at the very beginning King gives us a whisper of the darkness that will eventually eclipse this family until it can blot out their very existence, and the only power that can thwart the darkness is, of course, the light…appropriately called the Shining.

For me, though, what made this book so terrifying was the devolution of Jack. It was the steady unraveling of his mind and how he disintegrated over the course of the story that bothered me on a primal level. I genuinely related to Jack in the beginning, even liked him and saw in him a reflection of my own human weakness. King then exploits that weakness leaving me, the reader, well aware how vulnerable all of us are to the darkness.

I personally hated Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrence in the Kubrick version of The Shining. To me Nicholson was a dreadful casting choice in that he seemed crazy as a bed bug in the first scenes and was utterly unlikable. By contrast, the beauty of the novel was that Jack Torrence was flawed, but most importantly, he was likable and sympathetic. What made the book so disturbing was Jack’s progressive descent into darkness as his mind spiraled toward madness. He began sane, and then changed. In the beginning, we see a loving father and husband. By the end, he is chasing that same family he loved with an ax. King had a deep appreciation for the human psyche and that was why he was so brilliantly able to torment our soft and tender parts.

This type of acute understanding of psychology, I feel, makes the different between caricatures and three-dimensional characters.

Like horror authors, we are wise to appreciate the power of the flawed character.

I feel that often King is called the Master of Horror because he is truly brilliant in depicting flawed characters. King then uses these flaws as a place that the darkness can gain a toe-hold so it can take over an inch at a time. For instance, in Duma Key, Edgar Freemantle survives a horrific crane accident where he loses an arm and incurs a terrible head injury which leaves him with brain damage, memory loss, depression, and mood swings. Through much of the book, the reader finds it hard to discern what is real and unreal, what is outward evil versus what is torment from Edgar’s own mind. Edgar goes into this battle damaged, broken in a way that could happen to any of us on an unlucky day. We are able to slip easily into Edgar’s place because he is imperfect, and we can relate. Because we can slip into Edgar’s place, we then share in his torment. Horror will only work if the writer can get the reader squarely into the protagonist’s shoes to experience the distress and anguish first-hand.

It is no mistake that Poe wrote “The Cask of Amontillado” from first-person POV.

Great horror authors know that less can be more. Sometimes the unknown is more terrifying.

Want to ramp up tension in your book? Don’t feel the need to explain everything. As humans we always like neat and tidy answers, so feel free to yank that away and watch us squirm. I think one of the strengths in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser series was that he never fully explained this rip in the fabric of this dimension and the next. He made allusions, and never gave satisfying explanations. For me, at least, this unease of not knowing added to the tension. The religious aspects of the Cenobites, at least early on, seem to be relatively ambiguous. It is perhaps their shocking outward appearance—piercings, ghoulish disfigurement—that makes us, the observers, deem that they are “hellish.” But, in behavior, there is nothing discernably moral or immoral about them. Yet, we knew they had an agenda, and Barker never fully revealed it. I think the not knowing made the stories more terrifying.

The Exorcist is another great example. We never had a full, satisfactory explanation how the little girl became possessed and what happened after Father Karras’s nasty tumble down the stairs. Thus, the author, William Blatty, could capitalize on this unease to make the story sink in and scare our britches off.

Even if you aren’t writing horror, sometimes it is better to leave unanswered questions. Make the reader writhe. Recently I had one of the members of my novel writing workshop ask about a scene at the end of her book where the protagonist’s daughter is kidnapped. This author wanted to write scenes from the perspective of the girl being kidnapped. I asked, “Why?” Those last scenes in the book gearing up to the climax need to be saturated with tension. By writing from the POV of the kidnapped girl, this writer would allow the reader to be at least somewhat at ease. How? The reader would know the girl was at least not dead. Of course, such a tactic would have effectively ruined the tension.

In the end, horror authors have a lot to teach all of us. We all should strive to do at least these three things in our writing.

1)      Understand the psychology of our characters.

2)      Appreciate the power of the flawed character.

3)      Recognize that sometimes less is more.  

What are some of your favorite scary movies or novels? Why did they scare you? Share in the comments, :D.

Happy writing!

Until next time…

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