This post is on faceless villains. The 90s kid’s cartoons were full of them. Of course, there were a lot of faceless characters back then because more than one show had a habit of not showing adult faces – they were just these tall entities with their heads cut off by the top of the screen or else they were just a ‘woh woh’ noise to the side of the screen (yes I know Charlie Brown is older than the 90s but it was still a show I grew up with so). Why were there faceless adults, faceless villains? Laziness? What about the villains who always, always wear a helmet or mask or something?
I think one big factor is tied in to what Stephen King said about writing a monster or other horror. The thing’s so much less the scarier once you finally show what it is! King’s example is if you open up the door and show a ten-foot centipede, you think, “At least it wasn’t a hundred-foot centipede.” That’s why the boggart in Harry Potter is the scariest monster – your imagination is always worse than what the worst possible thing is.
Here, let me show you an example I just discovered in writing this post that kind of ruined my childhood a little: you (hopefully are old enough to) remember the Inspector Gadget cartoon, right? Remember Dr. Claw?
Dr. Claw…so terrifying. His lackeys cowered at his presence, only his cat could gaze upon him and smugly resist fear, but only until his fury at another failure brought out rage. All we had to go on was that metal hand and his deep, deep, growling voice, a voice that could rival the voice of Satan himself! (Does this feel exaggerated to you? I was in elementary school when I watched this show, y’know. Of course it’s exaggerated. That’s what kids do.)
Yeah well in my Googling for this picture…apparently in the iPhone game you get…this:
“It’s okay, Rii, that was just the iPhone game, that doesn’t mean-”
That’s a toy. Of Dr. Claw. I am…this is soul crushing. I’m so sorry I accidentally discovered this, childhood. I know there’s no way to unsee.
Dr. Claw was infinitely scarier before now. I remember actually postulating with my brother about what the man looked like, and we were able to put together much more frightening hypotheses (and poorly scribbled adaptations). Does it matter? Was he meant to be frightening?
OF COURSE HE WAS MEANT TO BE FRIGHTENING. He’s this dark, mysterious, incredibly evil figure! Any who came before him cowered in fear! He had a deep, booming voice and sinister plots! This is not, to me, not to my child self, the face of such a terrible man.
Maybe a Megaman villain though. I could accept that I guess. I digress.
You can create something terrifying without keeping it unseen. Heck, you can make something inherently not-scary terrifying via qualities, actions, speech patterns, uncanny valley, etc.
However, when you amp something up to be so horrifying, so sinister, and you haven’t shown the thing, you’re gonna have a hard time allowing that thing’s appearance to live up to its reputation. And when its reputation is everything, you may consider just hiding its appearance.
Of course, you CAN also pull out something that is in direct opposition to the reputation, but that’s almost definitely comedic relief. That may not be the effect for which you’re searching. I can think of an example of everyone THINKING a guy is this unspeakable monster and the point is to show the guy built this impossible reputation and is now riding it to do the things. That’s happened before and it can be done well. But you would have to take a little care as to how you build up your villain’s reputation, and how.
However, if terror is not the sole support beam for your villain’s reputation of evil, then you mightn’t need to worry so heavily about appearance matching expectations…or perhaps the reputation is not such that it’s impossible to meet expectations.
There are, of course, other reasons for facelessness. Consider the slender man. The case is not that Slendy’s face is hidden, just that he doesn’t really have a face. And that’s horrifying. This is different from the above because in the above, no face can match the figure’s given attributes. In this instance, the lack of face is an attribute of horror.
And of course, it can be important to hide your villain’s face if his identity is extremely important. But in that case, you had better reveal it. And it’d better be big.
And then there’s this guy:
Mystery about his identity – Luke’s father – is important but the mask doesn’t play a role in it. Luke not only does not know what his father looked like but would not recognize Vader’s face anyway. This goes back to the fear. Who is that man behind such a terrifying mask? This mask is itself the face of terror. The thing is, about unmasking Vader, that by the time we get to it, it doesn’t matter whether or not the face matches. It’s the mask itself that’s the bad guy, taking it off casts aside the Sith to reveal the man he once was beneath. The mask IS Darth Vader; the man behind it isn’t.
I personally think it’s a little different to hide a villain’s face behind a mask than just a convenient part of the screen, a chair, somewhere where other characters can see him but not the audience. I think they should be used differently. But both can be the same in building up to a big reveal. So if you’re going to deface your villain, and you can’t afford to ever give that face back, the solution to the problem you’re ultimately going to have otherwise is to not build up to a reveal. If your readers are expecting to see the face of your villain at any point, go back and re-work your story so that every rise in terror is not coupled with a rise in expectations. Establish that we just don’t see the villain’s face, and we never will. Do not state that outright, no matter what medium you use. In writing, you can’t exactly do the Dr. Claw kind of hiding. Even if you tried to do it tastefully, even if you never describe the villain’s face, the reader will fill in anyway. But you could still have a Sauron, so you may still have to take care. I never expected to see Sauron’s face.
Just take care that if you’re hiding your villain’s face, it’s not out of laziness. Just hiding the face is not enough to make it scary; you still have to build up his reputation.