Hey. Quit Laughing
a guest post by Danny DeCillis
It’s every fantasy writer’s nightmare: building a carefully crafted setting, setting the stage for the primary antagonist, and introducing the bad guy in a swirl of black cloaks, thunderclaps, and deep-voiced menace – only to find the reader chuckling in response.
A villain that readers don’t take seriously can be a fatal flaw for a narrative. In order for a story to be compelling, the stakes must seem genuine; if the peril is laughable, then by extension so is the hero who faces it. But creating a villain who is both credible and memorable is more difficult than it seems. Understanding some truths about stories, and people, can help inform your efforts to make Lord Darkness more scary than laughable.
You need to remember the following:
- Humor is a common psychological defense mechanism. It’s a way people respond to anxiety and stress, a weapon that allows us to emotionally cope with scary things by minimizing them, ridiculing them, reducing them to something that we can laugh at or scorn. It’s natural for people to look for ways to laugh at villains. You have to expect it.
- Few narrative tropes are as well worn as those of villainy. The desire for the acquisition and/or use of power needs little explanation, so many writers don’t bother to do so. The result can be an antagonist with paper-thin motivations, evil plans that have no rationalization beyond their own realization. It’s easier to dismiss a villain who has no reason for being beyond driving the plot and acting as foil for the protagonist.
- A hero is only as good as their villain. However, the reverse is also true. If your protagonist is a whiny, unconvincing prat, yet still manages to successfully challenge the villain, it doesn’t say much about the bad guy. If the hero is mockable, then by definition so is their opponent.
So what can you do to avoid this? There are a few narrative strategies you can keep in mind to prevent your villain from becoming an unintended laughingstock.
- Less is more. Few things are scarier than the unknown. Sauron, the all-seeing antagonist of Lord of the Rings, has essentially zero dialogue in Tolkien’s half-million word epic. Sauron is seen only in metaphor, as a flaming eye in momentary visions, as a whispered threat in the mind of those who come into contact with the One Ring, yet the menace of his presence hangs over the entire work like an oppressive fog. Likewise, Arawn Death-Lord, the antagonist in Lloyd Alexander’s award-winning Chronicles of Prydain, appears only briefly in the final volume of a five-book series, and never in his true form. Villains who remain in the shadows can be extremely effective – provided that you find a way for their presence to be felt throughout the narrative anyway, through the actions and reactions of other characters and events. It’s hard to laugh at something you can’t see.
- Actions speak louder than words. A villain who steps forth to proclaim an evil plan is easier to mock than a villain who steps forth to accomplish an evil plan. Look at the first screen entrance of Darth Vader in Star Wars: his faceless minions hammer through the doors of a heavily defended ship, slaughtering the rebel defenders, so that in the aftermath Vader may stride forth in silence, stepping over the fallen corpses of those who stood against him. Vader’s first lines are spoken to a rebel officer he is holding by the throat two feet off the ground; after a brief interrogation, Vader chokes him to death and tosses his dead body aside. Nobody’s laughing now.
- Finally, you can simply embrace the wit yourself. If humor is already an integral part of the narrative, it is more difficult for an audience to co-opt it and subvert the intended perception of the villain. Many of the most memorable and scary villains are those who get the joke, in one way or another. It might be a cruel, sporadic, or randomly lunatic sense of humor, but by inserting the laughs into the story on your terms, you can actually weaponize the jokes, making it difficult for the reader to turn them back on the villain. Characters such as Loki and the Joker take this narrative tactic to the extreme, but even more serious villains such as Hannibal Lecter get an occasional ghoulish smile now and then from their horrific actions, and are all the more terrifying because of it.
The tone of every story is different; not all villains are the same. You may find that a combination of strategies works best for your antagonist. Whatever you do, remember that humor is a universal human response, and you need to account for it in building your story. That way, you can make sure that when your bad guy steps onto the stage, they get the reaction that you intended.
Danny DeCillis is a science writer by day who has been writing humor by night since 2003, principally for The Watley Review. He has been the head honcho for the humor writer network HumorFeed since 2004 and ran the annual Satire News Competition from 2005-2009. He’s also the founding editor of Check Please!, a journal dedicated to the intersection of humor, satire, journalism, and the web. He’s probably also got another humor site out there under yet another pen name that he hasn’t revealed to anyone. He’s also a game designer whose first game, Big Bad Overlord, is launching on Kickstarter shortly. Find him at: