27 August 2021
Anna Kent, author of The House of Whispers, on the importance of creating antagonists that ring true to life
I write psychological suspense novels and, as such, they always have at least one character who isn’t exactly what they seem. Perhaps that person presents nicely, but is actually quite twisted underneath; maybe it’s someone who’s psychologically damaged by a past event or trauma; or maybe they’re just downright shady.
In The House of Whispers, the ‘creepy’ character in question is probably Grace. She breezes back into her old friend Abi’s life with all the lethal charm that captivated Abi when they were back at university, but we soon start to suspect that Grace might not be as nice as Abi likes to believe she is. However, if I wrote Grace as a straight-up baddie, readers would end up throwing the book at the wall in frustration. There have to be many, many, nuanced shades of grey that make up the black. Grace behaves badly toward Abi, but then she does something nice that reels Abi back in and leaves the reader thinking that maybe she isn’t that bad after all.
Writers often put a lot of work into honing their protagonists, but I think it’s worth putting as much effort into fleshing out your antagonists, too – your creepy characters and your villains – because they really do need to be multi-layered in order to be believable. They were all innocent children once, and it’s your job as their creator to know what went wrong; what made them the way they are. Conventional writing advice says to give baddies at least one good trait, a hidden depth, or some form of kindness because no-one’s all bad, just as no-one’s all good: mixing the good and bad traits helps make your characters more three-dimensional.
In terms of fleshing out characters, real life is a terrific place to look for inspiration. It was actually a news story that gave me the inspiration for what happened between Grace and Abi in The House of Whispers. I scour the quirky stories, the human-interest stories and the court reports – and, don’t tell anyone, but I also often patch together bits and pieces from people I’ve known myself. We’ve all had a frenemy at some point in our lives, or perhaps we’ve witnessed, or even experienced, a toxic relationship. I’m not saying you should write these people into your book in their entirety, but snippets and fragments from those relationships – things that those people said or did that had an emotional impact on you – are a good place to start because if they impacted you, they’ll impact your readers, too.
In terms of this, keeping an ‘emotional’ diary can be very helpful. Every time something affects you deeply, write down how you feel and what you’re thinking, then plunder those feelings when your characters find themselves in relevant situations. Drawing on real life in this way will help make your characters more realistic, more relatable, and consequently more compelling.
Tips for writing creepy characters
• Think about your character’s back story.
What happened to them in the past to make them the way they are now? However irrational their behaviour might seem to a normal person, it has to make sense to them. What is it that makes them act the way they do? You probably won’t use the back story in your story, but knowing what it is will really help you understand how and why your character acts the way they do.
• Have your creepy character act normal for much of the time.
No-one’s creepy all the time. That’s way too obvious. Having your questionable character act normal more than they act in a creepy way will give your readers a false sense of security. Then you can pull the rug slowly out from under them by throwing in some deeply creepy behaviour.
• Use ambiguity.
Keep your readers second-guessing what’s going on by making your creepy character behave in ways that could be interpreted differently. Only once everything is revealed will your reader go back and see the clues.
• Avoid cliches.
Keep your readers on their toes by putting your creepy character in the most unlikely body you can think of – perhaps it’s a young woman who presents as a happy-go-lucky type rather than the archetypal dark and brooding male; maybe it’s even a child. And, if you make the character really relatable, readers will be more shocked when their true, dark intent is revealed.
• Use non-verbal communication.
One way to build creepiness in a story is to have the character say one thing but convey a completely different meaning with their body language. Use pauses, looks and body language tics to show that something completely different is going on underneath the words that are said out loud.
The House of Whispers by Anna Kent is published by HQ
Are you getting to grips with the characters in your work-in-progress? Use this guide and template to create profiles for your characters.