The Scariest of Qualities

I debated about this post since there have been quite a few others on this blog that are pretty similar, but this is a question that I’ve been thinking about in my own writing of late and I think it’s worth revisiting from a writer’s (and reader’s) perspective with a slightly different bent. I’d imagine the answer’s more than a little subjective, dependent on individual fears.

So, my question:

What makes a character (in particular, a villain) truly scary? What traits–physical or emotional–give you chills?

As a jumping off point, here are the top ten scariest children’s book villains as voted on by 600 adult readers (surveyed by Penguin Books around this time last year). I wonder, do they have anything in common?

1. White Witch (The Chronicles of Narnia by C S Lewis – 1950)
2. Captain Hook (Peter Pan by J M Barrie – 1904)
3. The Grand High Witch (The Witches by Roald Dahl – 1983)
4. Wicked Stepmother (Snow White by Brothers Grimm – 1810)
5. Cruella de Vil (The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith – 1956)
6. Voldemort (Harry Potter books by J K Rowling – 1997)
7. The Child Catcher (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming though in the1968 film not book)
8. Miss Trunchbull (Matilda by Roald Dahl – 1988)
9. The Wolf (Red Riding Hood by Brothers Grimm – 1810)
10. Long John Silver (Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson – 1883)
(Link)

Nick, who always enjoys a good scare.

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5 Comments

Filed under Nick James

5 responses to “The Scariest of Qualities

  1. I’d add Professor Umbridge to the list of scary villains. What I love about her (and the White Witch, too) is that they seem benevolent at first glance. But you don’t have to dig far to find the creep factor. I love that they both deliver their evilness with a smile, a giggle, a soft voice. The contrast makes them all the more frightening.

  2. 1) the villains who are seemingly sanctioned by those in power. These are the ones who are right there in public. Umbridge is a perfect example of that.
    2) the unopposed villains – perhaps because they are in control of the entire situation in which the good characters find themselves.

  3. Anonymous

    Thanks for the list, Nick! The idea that Penguin would survey adult readers and not KID readers seems pretty weird, and I think the age of some of the villains/books in the list is a function of that age shift. (I mean come on, the wolf in Red Riding Hood and the wicked stepmother? That list makes it look like they couldn’t *remember* any other villains.)

    Personally, I think the scariest qualities are those I can actually relate to also. (The enemy within and all that.) Such as the dark shadow summoned by Ged (which is a reflection of his hubris in summoning it) in The Wizard of Earthsea.

  4. To me, the scariest and most effective villains are very smart, single-minded, and without morals. They seem always one step ahead of the hero–and undefeatable. My favorite moment is always when the plucky–and none-too-dumb him/herself –hero finds some weakness, some flaw the villain has, and is able to win the day.
    How about the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of OZ (Lots of witches on this list, huh?) and how Dorothy melts her with a bucket of water ?

  5. Parker Peevyhouse

    A villain with a great sense of humor is not only entertaining but extra scary–one minute he has you endeared to him through laughter, the next he’s shocking you with his villainy. It keeps you off balance because you keep forgetting that this guy is dangerous. A great example of this is the pair of villains in Gaiman’s NEVERWHERE.

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