Writing Characters: The Difference Between Menacing and Scary

I recently wrote a short story in which the protagonist had to face off to another character who she knew was going to kill her. The protagonist, a policewoman who has been working with a major criminal to get some money for her family, has double-crossed the criminal and kept the money she was supposed to pass onto him. He has told her that if she doesn’t come to him then he will kill her husband and children. She knows from working alongside him that these are not empty threats and so she goes to meet him, knowing she is going to her death as revenge for stealing his money.
After I’d edited it a little I sent it to my parents to get them to have a read and tell me what they thought. They both had basically the same criticism, that the criminal wasn’t menacing enough. They found it difficult to believe that she was scared enough of him to believe his threats to her family and accept her death without a fight. In my head this guy is pretty scary. He’s the type who would whip out his gun and shoot you straight in the head just for looking at him funny. And the protagonist knows this, she’s worked with him for years. But it’s a problem I have a lot, trying to give away a character’s backstory without just saying it outright. The difference between showing and telling, I suppose. I don’t like to tell, but I haven’t quite honed my showing skills yet.

So I sat down to rewrite this character a bit, to try to get across how frightened the protagonist is and show some valid reasons why. The main problem I faced while doing this was that I didn’t want the criminal to be scary, I didn’t want to try to terrify the reader, just make them a little bit uneasy. I wanted an underlying tone of menace surrounding him.

Google was obviously my first stop to look for some tips on how to write menacing characters, but I was surprised at how little I found. This piece on writing menacing antagonists, written by Ruthanne Reid, was one of the few things I found that was helpful. Payoff and conviction, she notes, are the two things that make a menacing character more convincing, and these were two things my criminal definitely had. He never backs down when it comes to what he does and believes. He knows that he is in the right, he has to kill the protagonist because she stole from him. She wronged him and he believes that that can only be righted by him killing her. Nothing she can say will change his mind. And his payoff is not only revenge for what the protagonist did, but also the knowledge that he is strengthening his image. He wants to kill her in front of another man who works for him, who is friends with the protagonist. His payoff is knowing that by doing this no one will try to double-cross him again for fear of the same outcome.

This article was also helpful in its discussion of how to build suspense. Again, it was important to differentiate between making something scary rather than just menacing, but the point raised here were useful. I slowed down the pace of the scene with dialogue between the protagonist and the criminal. I interspersed it with some internal thoughts from the protagonist; memories of previous experiences with the criminal, what she wishes she could say to her husband. Things that heightened the tension and suspense, that showed the reader the possibilities of what was going to happen.  I mentioned the stench of cigarettes on the criminal’s breath, something fairly normal and ordinary, but the protagonist has to make an effort not to show that it bothers her, she has to stop herself from retching She feels his breath on her skin as he walks around her and it gives her goosebumps. She is clearly nervous, despite her efforts to keep it hidden.

I think the end result showed the criminal as a more threatening and menacing character that the protagonist had a right to be scared of, at least I hope anyway. After reading the edited version my parents did say it was better so I guess that counts for something!

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