I’ve spent more than ten years creating dark story arcs and villains, and though it’s fun to give nasty characters more rounded personalities, reasons why they are villains that lead us to a certain level of sympathy with them etc, sometimes it’s good to do exactly the opposite – create a heart of unmitigated darkness and night. I did that with Vincent Cullayn, the ghost at the heart of THE HUNTING GROUND.
But actually the great thing, fictionally, about an out-and-out villain is that there is no limit to what they will do to get what they want. The reader knows this. It gives your story a terrific amount of tension that more watered down villains simply can’t ramp up. It’s also good, as a reader, to be given permission to hate a character without reservation or limit. Adults sometimes say to me that this is something that kids like – bad guys/good guy dichotomies; simplicities. My experience is that while shades of grey can be very interesting, adults enjoy a classic bad guy/girl just as much as their younger counterparts. Nobody knew that better than Shakespeare. Look at Iago. Look at Gonerill.
But still ... why do so many people like to read about the dark side? Here’s my own answer. I suspect that at some primal level it reminds us that we are alive. Without wanting to come across all morbid, I believe that horror is true at some fundamental level, by which I mean that the world is not a safe, predictable place that has our interests at heart. It is far from that. It’s a more indifferent place than that. Most of the rules for living in it are made up by others for reasons that have nothing to do with us. In that sense it is a place of fear. We have remarkably little control over nearly everything; even our own state of mind is difficult to keep tabs on or grasp, let alone the activities and mental states of people we never meet or have no possibility of influencing. I believe that most people, if they are honest with themselves, are never deeply comfortable in almost any aspect of their life – either professionally or in their personal relationships, or even their own feelings about themselves. Or if they do feel good about some of those things, they have a nasty feeling that some sneak is going to pull the safety blanket away any moment. So, in that sense, horror feels real, it feels in its essence like real life, because the crux of horror as a genre is that nothing is clear, everything has a dangerous feel, and you can’t understand the rules, or even if you can they’re made to benefit someone else.
Justina Robson, the great sf and fantasy author, puts it like this: ’Regardless of progress in technology, human beings have yet to deal with the real problems they face – the tensions created by their existence as individuals and animals of limited powers but powerful imaginations, for whom biology is still destiny and that destiny is death.’
Actually, I think this is why so many adults turn away from the horror genre as they age – they recognise too much of it in their own lives, thank you very much. It’s one reason teenagers read far more dark fiction than most adults as well. Generally speaking, they’re a bit less infected than the adults by world-weariness. They’re taking new risks all the time as they work out what kind of personalities they have, what their identify is going to be, and all of that is scary as hell. Horror, in that setting, is strangely a kind of comfort blanket. A sympathetic friend along for the ride.