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JJ Barnes The Table Read

Written by JJ Barnes

Some stories need a scary character. Thrillers, mysteries and horrors all need a bad guy to torment and terrorise the Protagonist. A character who will chill your audience and provide scenes that are intense and frightening. In many stories, a monster will be used to do this. It could be a ghost, an alien, or a literal monster, something scary that your audience can be terrified of seeing. However, I often believe that a human villain is significantly scarier than any kind of fictitious monster. I’ll explore the character Max Cady in the 1991 film Cape Fear, and how he demonstrates this theory perfectly.

Max Cady Can Appear Trustworthy

Max Cady In Cape Fear, On The Table Read
Max Cady In Cape Fear

If a monster approaches you, then you’re scared. You know it’s a monster, you can see it’s a monster, you react to it like it’s a monster. This gives you a degree of warning and self protection. However, Max Cady can appear trustworthy. When Lori Davis invites him home, she isn’t afraid. She is drunk and her inhibitions are lowered, but she isn’t scared. Had Max Cady looked like a monster, she would never have trusted him enough to go to bed with him, and she would never have been tortured.

Writing a human being allows you to dupe your characters. Human beings are around us all the time and we have to afford them all, even strangers, a degree of trust. We trust that the stranger driving down the road towards us won’t suddenly steer their car up onto the pavement. The man behind us in the supermarket queue could shove a knife into the back of your neck, but you trust he won’t. This trust that we offer out so liberally is only granted to humans. And therefore it is only humans who can get the opportunities to exploit that trust like Max Cady does.

Max Cady Understands Human Psychology

Danielle Bowden in Cape Fear
Danielle Bowden in Cape Fear

In his quest to punish and torture Sam Bowden, Max Cady goes in slow. He could launch an immediate attack, burn down their house or shoot them as they walk past. But he doesn’t. He understands human psychology and is able to break the Bowden family down slowly. First, he starts following them, showing up unexpectedly, causing them to feel edgy. He takes Leigh Bowden’s beloved dog. When he approaches Leigh and Sam’s daughter, Danielle, he knows exactly how to lure her to him. He understands her, uses her vulnerabilities and insecurities, her desire to be adult and rebellious. This man understands human beings in the way only a fellow human being can. And he uses it against them with merciless precision.

When writing a human villain, make them intelligent. A monster that just wanders about killing and terrorising is only scary until you out monster them. Be the bigger, badder beast and you can take that kind of villain down. When the villain is smarter than you, cunning and manipulative, it is so much harder. A villain that can use a knowledge of you and how you will behave to predict your moves and use that to hurt you is terrifying. There is no way you can out human a human. You can only run and hope they don’t catch you.

Max Cady Arcs Into Monstrous

Max Cady In Cape Fear
Max Cady In Cape Fear

Whilst monsters start their story as monsters, Max Cady manages to hide his inner monster. As the story moves forward, he gradually gets more and more ominous. You know it’s in there, you know he is monstrous; you’re shown it at the beginning and you know his crimes. But as his character arcs through the story, you truly learn just how monstrous. This character development builds tension. You know it’s coming, and you can feel the pressure growing as more and more monstrous truth creeps out. By the time he arrives on their houseboat, Max Cady has unleashed his full inner evil. It is truly terrifying, and the build up to seeing it has made you frightened before it even begins.

When you’re writing a human villain, think of it as a pressure cooker. The more pressure is added, the more their inner monster creeps out. Make them more and more determined to get what they want, and more and more willing to be the monster they are inside. Max Cady wants to torture Sam Bowden for betraying him and getting him sent to prison, and he wants to do it by hurting his family. As the pressure mounts through the story, this desire becomes and more desperate. Your villain can have the same arc to the same effect. They start able to control their desires in order to function in society and build their means of getting what they want. Through the story they arc until by the end, you have the chance for a truly terrifying climax.

Cape Fear Is Phenomenal

Scorcese’s Cape Fear remake is a true masterclass in how to write a good scary story, and so much of that is in the portrayal of Max Cady. Of course, DeNiro makes that character who he is, and a lot of the success of the character is th performance. However, the character could not have been delivered so expertly if the writing and story hadn’t worked to create such an excellent villain.

I love a villainous character who is smart, interesting, human, and terrifying. So tell me some more. What stories have you read or watched with a villain as expertly created as Max Cady?

More From JJ Barnes:

I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.

You can find links to all my work and social media on my website:

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Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose

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