Tips To Create & Write Creepy Characters & Situations
The question of how to make someone or something creepy is often asked, but definitive answers are often few and far between. This article aims to demonstrate what sorts of things can be creepy, how you can build up a creepy atmosphere or situation, and how to avoid accidentally killing it.
Table of Contents
- The essence of creepy
- So what about the unknown?
- How to make a creepy mood or atmosphere
- A few more things to keep in mind
- In summary!
The essence of creepy
The essence of creepy is actually pretty simple: it all comes down to the disregard and/or violation (whether willful or not) of someone's security, freedom, or personhood. Below are some forms that this can take, as well as some examples of how they can play out, both in realistic and fantastic scenarios.
Boundary violations. For example, standing in someone's personal space, spying on someone in a private space, touching someone more intimately than is appropriate or desired, entering someone's private space uninvited, reading private documents or rifling through personal belongings, taking or modifying personal belongings without permission, and most of all, refusing to back off and stop when told.
What this can look like:
- The person who stands in a stranger or casual acquaintance's personal bubble (which often begins around 1.5 to 2.5 feet away from the individual).
- The person who "accidentally" cops a feel on someone else.
- The person who asks personal or intimate questions of strangers and acquaintances.
- The person who thinks that stalking is just true love and won't take "no" for an answer.
- The parent who enters a child's room to search and look through diaries, dressers, etc.
- The mind-reader who sees nothing wrong with looking through people's minds on a whim.
- Forced body alteration.
- Supernatural creatures that invade the home to torment or feed on people inside.
Disregarding or invalidating others' perspectives, feelings, and needs. This includes treating other people's emotions, perspectives, and needs as if they are of lesser importance than one's own, or as if they are wrong or invalid, or treating people as if they are wrong or selfish for having perspectives, emotions, and needs that do not jive with what one wants or believes.
It also includes deciding for others what their emotions, perspectives, and needs "really" are, and refusing to back down on it when told otherwise.
What this can look like:
- The abuser who always finds a way to make it seem like abuser is the victim and that the victim is the abuser.
- The parent who ignores and demeans a child's wants or emotions because "you're the child, you don't get a say here."
- The person who makes a point of telling someone who didn't comply as desired how that person is "really" selfish, uncaring, lazy, etc.
- The SO who doesn't care that you're working late into the night on a deadline - you haven't been home enough lately, and if you don't get here now, you're heartless and cold.
- Someone who persists at trying to get someone else into a relationship, when it's been made clear this person does not want a relationship.
- An ex who tries to bully and threaten the former partner back into a relationship.
- Someone who constantly makes others neglect themselves and their own lives or dreams to do what this person wants.
- Someone who takes the money someone saved up for something that person really wanted to do.
- The kind of person who assumes that those who say they don't want something secretly do and are lying about it, are in denial, or don't know their own minds well enough to know what they really want.
- The kind of person who assumes that those who disagree on something secretly agree but pretend not to for some reason, or disagree because they are in deep denial.
General empathy/sympathy failure. Empathy and sympathy can often be read in the face, body, and voice. The eyes will be focused on the subject, and the person might move a little closer to the subject (while still respecting personal boundaries). Muscles around and above the eye orbits tense a little. The tone of voice will convey worry or concern if the person being empathized or sympathized with is upset, or warmth if the person is happy and joyful.
For someone who is not empathizing or sympathizing, the facial expression and tone of voice will be different. This person might seem indifferent, bored, annoyed, or even disgusted. Someone trying to fake concern might stare a little too hard or get a little too close. There might be a big smile or frown, but the muscles around the eye orbits that tense when someone is genuinely concerned or interested will be relaxed. Or if the person is savvy enough to try and fake the muscle movements, the expression might appear exaggerated or incomplete. The tone of voice might sound syrupy or sugary, not unlike someone making "baby talk" to an infant, or like a child trying to plead with an adult.
What this can look like:
- The person who smirks when someone else is in pain or distress.
- The person who believes that all favors and gifts are owed reciprocation.
- The person who is gleeful at the prospect of making a profit, despite knowing that this profit comes at a cost of human life and well-being.
- The teacher who puts on a saccharine front when wanting to make a good impression, but is cold and indifferent to the individual needs and concerns of the students, to the point of getting angry with them when they try to say anything.
- The kind of person who never apologizes or takes responsibility for anything if it's at all possible, but instead makes excuse after excuse and/or tries to reframe situations so that it seems that it's everyone else who is really in the wrong.
- The kind of person who is always looking for sympathy and support, but rarely, if ever gives any in return.
- The kind of person who will lie about having problems (or even deliberately create them through self-sabotage) in order to gain attention and sympathy - even when (and perhaps because) others are currently in distress and need help.
- The person who does not understand why others would be upset over being lied to, or having family or friends go missing, or being deprived of freedom, personal belongings, or necessary goods.
- Governments that seem completely apathetic to citizens' emotions, perspectives, and needs.
- Aliens who coolly abduct and invasively study human beings with no regard for the anguish they're put through.
Dehumanization. Thinking of others as inanimate objects or as animals with no emotions, perspective, or needs that actually matter, or treating them as if they might as well be. Those who have been dehumanized may be perceived as soulless automatons, or as acting on some kind of animalistic or demonic impulse.
What this can look like:
- The person who believes that certain people are essentially mindless animals driven only by pure instinct, and because of that deserve no respect, or deserve to be destroyed.
- The person who easily and readily replaces an ex with someone who looks very similar.
- The zombie virus, which literally destroys someone's humanity/personhood.
- Mind-control, which renders victims little more than automatons.
- Love potions, which override victims' free wills to force them to fall in love.
- The alien who hunts humans as prey.
Gaslighting. Gaslighting is the practice of building up false narratives that suit the perpetrators and doing everything possible to make it seem as if they're true, while trying to make it appear that the victims are almost always wrong or are even completely untrustworthy. Victims often learn to question their own judgment, emotions, and even sanity, and come to distrust their own minds and instincts. Ways gaslighting can be done include telling them that certain things never happened, or that they did terrible wrongs when they really didn't, or that other people hate them or say bad things about them, or that they're being selfish and unfair when all they're trying to do is assert or defend themselves. More information on gaslighting can be found here.
What this can look like:
- The person who deliberately lies about whether things happened or not to someone who was there to know otherwise, in order to maintain control over that person.
- The person who behaves as if right, wrong, and reality are whatever this person decrees them to be, and anyone who disagrees is wrong (and might have malicious motives).
- The person who makes a thoughtless or cruel remark, then claims it's "just a joke!"
- Something that affects an unwilling person's memory in some way, whether by altering or erasing memories.
- Illusions designed to trick a victim into believing a situation is better or worse than it really is.
Isolation and entrapment. This can work by in a number of ways. It can mean putting the victim someplace difficult or impossible to leave, cutting off any way the victim could communicate with others, destroying any means the victim could use to escape. It can also mean making the victim believe that the outside world is worse, making the victim believe that escape is fruitless, keeping the victim ignorant of ways to escape, or refusing to teach the victim skills or knowledge that could be used to escape.
What this can look like:
- The person who locks someone up somewhere - such as inside a bedroom or closet.
- The person who tells a victim that the world is horrible out there and that right here is the only safe place.
- The person who goes around spreading lies and gossip about someone to make sure that person ends up alone.
- Eldritch locations that make it impossible for people to leave.
- Locations that can be hard to leave due to their nature - submarines and isolated cabins, for example.
Acts of sabotage. Taking action that stops someone from doing something undesired. This can include keeping items or knowledge that people need away from them, discouraging them from making progress, or trying to get them to do things that will set them back or derail them from their purposes altogether.
What this can look like:
- Hiding someone's car keys, or sabotaging the car itself.
- Discouragement disguised as concern - EG, "But you might get hurt if you try that!" or "But you won't be yourself anymore!"
- "Accidentally" losing or destroying someone's vital paperwork.
- Guilt-tripping someone who wishes to leave home to pursue a dream into staying put.
Infantilizing others. Essentially, treating others as helpless, incompetent, or delinquent children who require one to swoop in and save them from themselves. This can include taking over their projects or decisions, or trying to micromanage their behaviors through strict rules and curfews that are supposedly "for their own good." It can also include treating people's feelings and opinions as the result of childish or immature thinking. And finally, it can also include refusing to recognize that one's children are growing up and are entitled to more independence and freedom.
What this can look like:
- The parent who takes over an adult child's decision-making process, on the grounds that the adult child is "still too naive to make these kinds of decisions."
- Someone with a savior complex who believes that those in need of saving have no self-awareness and need a parental/mentor figure to explain to them what's in their own minds.
- The person who talks to adults and teens as if they are children or toddlers.
- A "higher" being who decides humanity needs punished for its "arrogance" (IE, acting like self-determining adults instead of passive children).
Idealization. Essentially, building up an idealized version of someone else (usually built up out of personal desires and self-projection) in one's mind and believing it to be the real, true version of this person. This often leads to the belief that those who fail to live up to the idealized image are not being authentic or true ("That's not the real you, I know it's not!"), or that they have been tainted by undue influences ("I have to keep you away from them; they're taking my precious daughter away from me!"), or worse - that they are betraying those who idealized them.
What this can look like:
- The parent who decides that an adolescent child's growing independence and willfulness is proof of demonic possession.
- The parent who projects personal desires and wishes onto the child, and decides that the projection is the "true" identity of the child - anything else is just the child being inauthentic or in denial.
- Someone who refuses to accept that changes in someone's outlook and attitude after a traumatic or life-altering experience are "real," and makes a job out of "trying to bring back the real you."
- Mind control/soul alteration intended to "purify" someone of undesired or "negative" traits.
- Magic, science, etc. designed to transform someone into the "perfect" anything, especially against the recipient's will.
Hostile behavior. This can include dirty looks or glares, aggressive body language or gestures, hostile tones of voice, implicit or explicit threats, physical or verbal attacks, insulting or demonizing other people, wishing harm or failure on others, or reading the worst intentions into people's goals and behaviors.
"Hostile" need not be the result of conscious intent, either - inanimate/mindless objects can be hostile by their nature: for example, a hostile landscape, or hostile product design.
What this can look like:
- The person who is always flipping a knife around while glaring at others.
- The person who uses intimidating body language and gestures to cow others into submission.
- The person who accuses a spouse or lover is doing horrible things or of having awful intentions when the spouse/lover fails to behave exactly as desired.
- The person who insinuates that someone who wants to do something good for the world has a sinister ulterior motive.
- The person who treats every little thing as a personal attack, and lashes out accordingly.
- The person who scapegoats people and blames them for things that weren't their faults.
- The person who has to make a contest/competition out of everything - including personal problems.
- A computerized system that someone's life depends on, but is extremely difficult to work with and throws unhelpful or condescending error messages when the user does something wrong.
- The monster or serial killer that attacks and kills people.
- A virus that will cause severe suffering or death to the infected.
So what about the unknown?
The unknown and the poorly-understood can be a source of fear and dread, and the reason is that people often automatically and unconsciously assign the sinister traits explored above to things they don't understand very well - and often, they've been very wrong in these assumptions. A good example of this is how people have often assumed that wild animals were far more hostile than they really were, or assumed that essentially random forces of nature were out to get them.
If you are going to use the unknown in some way, make sure that it does something that actually justifies people being frightened or disturbed by it. Throwing in a strange-looking creature or person and expecting people to be creeped out just because it looks strange is basically expecting your audience to make a knee-jerk xenophobic judgment. Many people won't fall for that, and might even end up annoyed over you expecting them to be afraid of something that, as far as they can tell, isn't actually any more sinister than their own shadows.
It also doesn't work to expect your audience simply take another character's word for it, either. Savvy audiences know that it's possible for someone to be mistaken or lying, and won't be content to take somebody's say-so as proof. Even if it does ultimately turn out that the claim is correct, the audience might still not be very happy with any characters who decided to take the claim as proof without further evidence. The fact remains that they still chose to behave xenophobically instead of actually finding out whether this fear was even justified, which is a dangerous and unethical attitude.
So yes, the unknown can work to build up a spooky atmosphere - just make sure you show that the characters and audience are actually justified in being afraid or disturbed. Think of the unknown as a flavor enhancer - it should work on what the audience can already taste, not be served up as the main dish.
How to make a creepy mood or atmosphere
Your audience can understand on a rational level that certain people and scenarios are creepy, but if you really want them to feel it, they need to be immersed in the story and in the characters who are being creeped out as fully as possible.
To get them immersed in the characters, they need to identify or sympathize with them.
The first thing to consider is your target audience and write your characters with traits that your target audience can identify with. For example, teens are more likely to identify with teenage characters than others, so they're more likely to react to another teen being the recipient of creepiness; likewise, adults are more likely to identify themselves with adult characters. This isn't to say that your characters must be the same age as the target audience, but rather that it helps if they have traits and qualities that the target audience can identify with - this can also include interests, ambitions, fears, etc. Basically, aim to write characters who likely have something in common with the target audience.
The next step is to humanize the characters. Simple Ways To Fill Out & Humanize Your Character
goes over how you can do this. Depending on what you're doing, you might not have time to do much, but even a little bit is better than none.
As for the characters who are supposed to be creepy, bear in mind that the more sympathetic the audience finds them, the less likely they are to find them creepy. (Reactions can range from, "I know this character is really messed up, but I'm pretty sure what's needed here is some therapy" to "This character is doing nothing wrong! Stop treating this character like a villain!") So remember: less sympathetic usually equals more creepy.
Finally, show that your characters are bothered by the creepy people or situations they have to deal with, and show them being unable to relieve themselves from these situations as soon as they'd like. The reason is, if a character seems to be on top of everything, there's no reason to feel tense on behalf of the character. So, you want to keep this up for as long as you want the creepy mood to last (which, if you're writing horror or a psychological thriller, might be until the end of the story).
It also helps if the scenario has some degree of familiarity. A creepy place or person who reminds the audience of something creepy they've personally dealt with can strike a personal chord - for example, someone who has dealt with a creepy boyfriend (or would-be boyfriend) is more likely to react to a creepy boyfriend character than someone who hasn't. Hospitals can be uncomfortable for the fact that many people have unpleasant memories associated with them. And so on. Of course, while you won't be able to perfectly predict what is going to make each and every reader uncomfortable, you can at least try to aim for a few things that will be fairly likely to resonate with your audience. So stop and think out what kinds of experiences and environments your target audience has at least some experience, and see if you can develop anything from there.
A few more things to keep in mind
Trying to keep things creepy can be like walking a tightrope - it's incredibly easy to slip and fall somewhere. A misstep might very well leave your audience bored, annoyed, or laughing uncontrollably rather than creeped out.
Maintaining plausibility is hugely important. The moment someone's suspension of disbelief snaps, much, if not all of the tension instantly evaporates. Jeff the Killer is a good example of this. Rather than being creeped out, many readers were left rolling their eyes at the cartoonishness of the bullies, snorting at the unrealistic depiction of the effects and properties of chlorine bleach, groaning at the failure to understand what would really happen if anyone tried to mutilate themselves like Jeff did, and scratching their heads over the poor characterization.
So how can you keep your own story and characters plausible? One way is to make sure that's really the way things work. A few areas that people often get wrong are covered in these articles:
- Things About Death, Dying, & Murder Writers Need To Know
- Things Writers Get Wrong About Bladed Weapons
- Things To Know If Your Character Will Be Augmented Or Experimented Upon
- Things Writers Should Know About Big Businesses
- Creating & Writing Fictional Organizations
- Tips To Build Better Post-Apocalyptic And/Or Dystopian Settings
- Common Plotholes In Vampire Fiction
- Tips To Write Better & More Believable Cover-Ups
Another problem to watch out for is creating a "creepy" character whose actions feel random or forced, or like they're being picked from some behavior checklist. Tips To Create & Write More Interesting & Believable Villains has more on how to avoid this.
Something else you need to strive for is balance. Essentially, you need to try to avoid taking some creepy element or other overboard, and for several reasons. One of them is to maintain plausibility - after all, a serial killer with an impossibly high kill count doesn't exactly help your story's believability.
Another reason is to avoid numbing your audience to the creepiness - if there's too much creep for too long, the audience is going to get desensitized to it. Tips For Writing Dark Stories, Settings, & Characters covers this topic in-depth.
Finally, if the scope of the situation gets too big, it may lose its effect to creep audiences out for the fact that it becomes too big to imagine except as an abstract concept. Whatever is going on, it should remain or at least be shown on a scale that people can imagine concretely. Dramatic Hyperinflation: Why It's A Problem, And How To Avoid It has more on this topic.
- In a nutshell, the essence of creepy comes down to disregarding or violating somebody's security, freedom, or personhood. Anything that does that, or seems to have the potential to do that, can be creepy.
- The unknown can be a source of fear and dread, but make sure you show that the audience and your characters are actually justified in their fear. Don't make your audience take your (or another character's) word for it.
- Make the audience connect to the recipients of the creepiness by making them relatable and sympathetic, and by humanizing them. Show that they are bothered by the creepiness, and put them in situations where they cannot easily get away from it.
- Show rather than tell in order to make the scenario more immersive, and thus, creepy.
- Try to keep your scenarios plausible - if the audience loses suspension of disbelief, the creepiness will evaporate.
- Try to avoid writing creepy characters who behave as if their actions are chosen at random or on a whim from a list of creepy behaviors.
- Take care that you don't overdo it, lest you numb your audience or make the "creepy" elements too big to have an emotional impact.
You might also be interested in:
On Creating, Building, & Keeping Suspense
Tips For Writing & Maintaining A Horror Atmosphere
Basic Tips To Make Scarier & Better Creepypasta & Horror Creeps
More Tips For Horror
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Pointlessly Edgy Tropes To Reconsider Using
Things Your Fantasy Or Science Fiction Story Needs