I don’t tend to write scary stories, but after these tips from Cornelia Funke about creating a good ghost story, I’m tempted to give it a try. My favorite tip:
4. Give your ghost a life story
“Decide where your ghosts come from. How many are there? Do you tell the story of one or many? Were they once human? If yes, were they He or She? Grown up or child? How did they die? When did they live? You can make them historical characters like I did in Ghost Knight, which is so much fun and vastly inspiring. Or do you deal with a spirit of demonic origins? In short: Give your ghostly hero a biography. Imagine them so clearly that you feel them behind you. What does their voice sound like? Do they have one? Is their breath cold or hot?”
I like the reminder that ghosts aren’t just ghosts–they used to be living people, or maybe they’re demonic. But they have a backstory just like any other character.
If ghosts aren’t your thing, try this article about what makes a villain. Villains aren’t just mustache-twirling, cackling evildoers. They’re people, too, and have their own pain. I love this point about using stability/instability to ground your villain:
“So again: what upsets stability? How about something as simple as losing a loved one? How about being the target of hate because you accidentally brought about the death of your mother? No robots, no armies: just a broken heart that refuses to mend. And its breakage is what makes the motivation so sharp, so defined. Any prophet can march with an army, but it takes a harsher, personal edge to define yourself according to such local revenge. And there’s no reason this personal grievance can’t have a powerful, earth-shattering impact as big as a dragon army.”
It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Mary Shelley: “No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.” Your villain should be on his/her own journey, and he/she probably thinks he’s doing what’s right–either for himself or for society in general.
So take a little time today to think about the evil and creepy figures in your stories. They deserve to be as complex as your heroes.