How do you illustrate someone that’s absolutely terrifying in a fight? I’ve got this plate-wearing, greatsword-wielding character designed in the style of Darth Vader or the Terminator, but I haven’t found a way to ‘show’ that she’s this terrifying, freakishly strong juggernaut without being sloppy or a blatant power trip, or turning other characters into ‘oh she’s so scary’ plot devices.
The answer is pretty simple, but also difficult in practice because the answer to writing intimidating characters is a concept called “presence”. In film, this is usually referred to as screen presence but in fiction (and in life) we’ll refer to this as body language.
There’s a mistaken assumption that you need to be large to be imposing, but what makes Vader and the Terminator so imposing is actually their body language and the way they’re framed. In their case most of this is visual, in the color palate, in the costume, but it’s also there in the body language. If you want to riff these characters in fiction, then you need to focus on how they behave and how the people around them react to their presence.
Why are they intimidating?
Why do they scare people?
You need to delve into the nitty gritty to translate what you’re feeling and seeing onto the page. You’re making a mistake in assuming that the character’s tools, the armor, the great sword, will do the work for them; but that’s not what makes someone intimidating in written fiction. You have to show what that armor and weapon mean.
The easy version of intimidation is total domination, total mastery, and total control. See below:
Lifting her eyes, Kadi took in her mother’s lazy stance, her blade in an almost ready position. She snapped forward, silver and green flashing in the mid-afternoon light. Re-appeared just behind her on the windowsill, ready to thrust.
Her mother’s blade caught her in the gut.
Kadi struck with her blade, blood spilling past her lips.
“Good,” her mother said, knocking the strike away. She caught Kadi by the collar before she fell, yanked back into the room, and flung her across it.
Kadi struck the wall, tumbled to the floor. Twisting, she landed on her feet. The blade spun in her hand. She rushed forward.
Her mother’s eyes gleamed yellow. “Your form and shape are tools.”
Their blades met in a clash of sparks.
“Control the flow of blood, and your body will not die until you wish it.”
She brought her blade up as her mother pressed inward, twisting sideways. Dodging her mother’s punch, she struck toward the inside of the thigh.
Her mother slipped away. “Never yield. Continue after the last enemy is dead.”
Their blades met again, and slid along the sharpened edges. Gritting her teeth, Kadi ignored the pounding in her ears. Her blood slipping down her stomach. She flicked the blade up, and drove the tip toward her mother’s neck.
Her mother’s foot caught Kadi’s gut wound, kicking her into the opposing wall.
Kadi landed hard.
“Get up.”“Wake the Dead” by C.E. Schmitt
Keep in mind with this training sequence, the characters in this passage aren’t remotely human. So, you don’t have to worry about the long term ramifications of damage to a physical body. The purpose of the sequence is to teach both Kadi and the character about a body’s disposable nature. Kadi is learning how to fight through extreme injury, and even death.
You’ll notice Kadi’s mother doesn’t move from her position at all throughout the scene. Kadi attacks her, trying to break her defenses. We see her give Kadi a gut wound, save Kadi from falling out the window, and see her attack the gut wound. We see Kadi focusing while her mother instructs, multiple attempts by Kadi to attack her mother none of which are successful.
You don’t need to ask the question: who has the power in this scenario? It’s clear Mom does.
If you want your character to be intimidating in the classic villain sense then, not only do they have to win, they need to win without breaking a sweat. They should exude a sense of confidence whenever or wherever they go, regardless of what room they walk into. Other characters in setting get a chill just hearing their name. Knowing they’re nearby makes even seasoned established badasses freakout and suggest heading for the hills.
You have to let them do their thing, let them win, and let them keep winning until the time comes for them to lose.
Characters like Darth Vader and the Terminator put incredible pressure on the heroes until the end of the film, they evoke feelings of fear and desperation because they are so unfazed by the best warriors and conventional tactics. They represent overwhelming power, they are so unconcerned with ensuring their impending victory that they walk rather than run. By their own design, they’re better off used sparingly than spending the novel front and center or acting as the protagonist rather than the antagonist. These two aren’t just villains, they’re supporting characters. This is the Terminator, even in films like Terminator II where he’s a re-programmed good guy rather than a bad guy. He’s a bodyguard. There to kick ass, take names, and bond with John Connor. After all, Sarah Conner is the hero of both Terminator films. (OG Sarah Conner in Terminator II is not a bad character to look at for this kind of stone cold badass.) Due to their designed role as supports, you have to do a lot of work to remake them into protagonists.
As you’ve discovered, writing a character who is convincingly scary and intimidating is more difficult than it sounds. You have to walk your talk, and walk your walk. If you oversell and can’t make good, the character falls flat. If you tell without showing, then the tell has nothing to back itself up. You can’t tell me the character is a dangerous, unstoppable juggernaut and have the heroes defeat them two pages later. You oversell the character, and eliminate reader trust. They might not believe the next villain you trot out is a legitimate threat, which undercuts your narrative tension.
They need to live up to their reputation.
They need to inspire fear in others.
We need to see why people fear them and their skills.
Attitude – “I don’t have time for you.” These characters tend to be gruff, but they’re mostly condescending. They tend to be reserved even when they take up space. They’re in the rare situation where both their rudeness and confidence are justified by their ability to back it up. (You have to justify it, you can’t expect them to do it on their own.) You have to really stack up the odds for them to start getting ruffled. Therefore, it’s up to you as the author to figure out the narrative limits within your own setting. This way, you can keep your story consistent from scene to scene. One thing is common with all these characters is they take up space, they’re unapologetic about it, and when they walk into a room everyone notices. Also, get off my lawn.
One versus Many is an old hat narrative trick to establish a bad ass via fight scene. You need to be careful overusing this one, and then there’s the question of whether or not you as the writer can write a 1vX scenario. Juggling multiple enemies looks easy on screen, but isn’t when it’s just you trying to figure out how you write that.
The 1vX ups the ante when the seasoned antagonist takes on other top tier members of their group/established narrative badasses solo and handily wins. Well, you know they’re strong.
Deeds – What have they done to be worthy of their reputation? A warrior who slaughters farmers at the request of their overlord comes off as a bully. A warrior who slaughters the king’s best soldiers and then slaughters farmers afterward without mercy is goddamn terrifying.
The Power Stance – This is where the character stands forward facing, shoulders squared and chest lifted. Head up. The juggernaut fighting style involves not moving much unless you have to. They don’t draw their weapon unless they need it. You should probably view the weapon draw as the character signaling she’s getting serious, rather than her first go to. She’s not going to be serious in a bar fight because this is a character for whom the normal rules of safety don’t apply. (Also, the armor significantly limits all threats.)
Everyone Wants to Be the Best – The climb to the top is long, hard bitten, and fraught with danger. If you have a character who is the best at what they do like Darth Vader, you should respect the time and effort they put in to get themselves there. These characters often have very specific and job oriented personalities often to the point of obsession. For someone to be so on top as to have the reputation they do, they must have killed a lot of people. They’re the ones with a target on their back, the one everyone’s gunning for, who everyone wants to kill, and that doesn’t bother them at all.
Establish the Bottom – If you want to establish how much better a character is than everyone else, then you need to figure out and establish both the low bar and the average bar before jumping at the high bar. If the high bar is all people get, then they’ll think that’s where normal is. You need to establish why the power and skill gap between this character and others is so immense right from the get go, from our first interaction with the character. They should be pulling things off other characters can only imagine. For this reason, they usually don’t work well as POV characters.
Walkin’ Into Danger Like It’s Tuesday – Yeah, you know the famous line from Bison, “The day I graced your village was the single most important day of your life but, for me, it was Tuesday.”
The horrors they inflict are foundational for other people but, for them, what they do is normal. They’re the chaotic tornado upsetting other people’s lives, memorable to other people, but other people aren’t usually memorable to them. After all, they’ve done this for so long the faces begin to blur together.
Again, See Below:
The hellbeasts stalked into a semicircle, their long jaws slavering as they grinned to display razor sharp teeth.
“Get behind me, Emma,” Chastity said, drawing her blade. She stepped forward. “It’s going to be all right.”
Beside her, Jayse pulled his pistol. He didn’t question Chastity, they didn’t need Emma freaking out. Still, with the five hellbeasts in front of them, more on the rooftops, neither of them could make any promises about keeping an untrained neophyte safe. Chastity lacked the skills to deal with this many wargs on her own, and she was low in the rankings. He’d have to dip into his own powers to even the scale, even then he couldn’t make any guarantees.
The hellbeasts lunged.
The world exploded in a flash of hot white light.
Sharon Kelso stood where the hellbeasts had been, watching dust particles left behind by atomized bodies drift through the air. Her right hand stuck in her jean’s pocket. Her eyes glowed bright white. A small, winged imp-like creature squatted on one shoulder. Casually, she broke off the end of a candy bar and handed it to shriveled green thing.
The little imp snatched the bar, stuffed it into its mouth.
Kelso tilted her head, surveying each surprised face in the circle. “Go home.”
“Yeah, yeah!” the little imp yelled. “If ya don’t, we eats ya!”
“Eats! Fucker wants eats!” cried a second, tucked behind her leg. It titled its head, mimicking its mistress. “Wait. Can we eats them, Boss?”
Keso smiled faintly. “Not yet.”
“We can’t eats ya yet!” the first imp yelled.
The second shook its fist. “Stay for dinner, and we will!”
Kelso looked away, her expression dispassionate. “Go.” Her blazing white eyes scanned the nearby alleys, studying the shadows. “I don’t babysit.”
Jayse got to his feet, brushing off his arms. He tried to catch Kelso’s eye. Failing, he sighed and slipped his dagger back up his sleeve. She was definitely in one of her moods. They’d have to talk about her people skills, or lack thereof later. He resisted the urge to shove his hands in his pants, that’d just confirm he was still the disgruntled teenager Stewart believed he’d let himself become. “We should do what she says.”
“S-s-she just disintegrated them,” Emma whispered.
“She does that,” Chastity sighed.
Emma blinked. “Just like that?”
“Yeah,” Chastity said.
Jayse pushed back his hair, his eyes on Kelso. “There’s a breach in the sewers, third level. You shouldn’t go alone.”
She glanced at him, the light dying in her eyes. Brown irises flickered yellow in the street lights, and, for a moment, he saw confusion there. Then, her lips curled into one of her creepy, villainous smiles. The light flared back up inside her pupil as she rubbed her nose. “Amateurs.”
“Amateur! Amateur!” the little imp on her shoulder cried in a sing-song voice, and the second joined in to chorus, “amateur ashes all fall down!”
“She’s Number One for a reason, Jayse,” Chastity said. She reached out, and tugged at his sleeve. “We should let her do her thing.”
“She’s Number One?” Emma squealed. “Wait. Number One? What does that even mean?”
Chastity smacked her forehead. “I knew we never should’ve let Emma out. There’s a dimensional breach. We got crossways of Kelso. Stewart’s gonna kill us.” She sighed heavily, biting her lower lip. “Our luck sucks.”
“You’ve no idea how right you are,” said another voice from behind them.
Kelso looked away, and the fiery light returned to her eyes. She walked down the alley, her shadow spread up one wall but not the other. As her shadow moved across concrete and brick, a pair of wings lifted off her back. Kelso finished off her candy bar, tossed the wrapper, and kicked off the manhole cover at the alley’s end.
“See you later, suckas!” the imp cried.
Kelso, imps on both shoulders, dropped into the sewers.
“Great,” Emma muttered. “She’s an asshole and she litters.”
“And she could stick all your internal organs on the outside of your body with a wink,” Chastity said.
When you encounter this character, they should feel like someone you really wouldn’t want to meet in a back alley.