“Come,” called the old man, “come now or you will be late.”
“Late?” said Arthur. “What for?”
“What is your name, human?”
“Dent. Arthur Dent,” said Arthur.
“Late, as in the late Dentarthurdent,” said the old man, sternly. “It’s a sort of threat, you see…I’ve never been very good at them myself, but I’m told they can be very effective.”
-Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Threats can be a bit of a difficult thing to write. Part of it is that a really good threat is often tailored specifically to the receiver. However, if all you have is a threat with no ability to follow through, even the best tailoring means nothing. One of my writing group members has severe arachnophobia. I myself am a bit afraid of spiders (and I say “a bit” here because my fear is nothing compared to hers). Because of this, threatening Heidi with spiders is a good idea on paper – but in practice, she can laugh it off from me because I couldn’t ever execute a threat like that. Also it would be a bad idea to execute. The payback would be absurd. In that same vein of thought, the obvious threat isn’t always the best.
Not to say phobias can’t be good threats, of course.
It’s just that phobias are an easy pick…and it’s easier to retaliate in kind, since often how threats with phobias come off is as a cruel prank.
I usually see them better used as devices for character growth than as threats, whether the character has to face the fear, or their fear draws others in around them.
So if you can’t just grab an obvious fear, how do you go about making a good threat?
Ehh…well, it’s not really about not grabbing an obvious fear. I think making a good threat, or what’s appropriate for what your story needs, is just assessing these three items:
- What makes the most sense for the situation? (Tailor it to the situation.)
- What works against the recipient? (Tailor it to the character.)
- How clever is your villain/what are they capable of?
Maybe your villain isn’t any more clever than to find out what the recipient fears, or maybe they do actually have the capabilities to take a phobia and make it really, really awful – or maybe they’re just a good old fashioned threaten with violence kind of guy.
Honestly good old fashioned incredible amounts of violence tends to be something most people fear since bodily harm is undesirable for more than one reason. It’s easy to say in theory that there are things we’d rather die than do, but I’m pretty sure if pressed, that wouldn’t be true in practice. Especially a painful death. And just because a person survives torture doesn’t mean they ever really escape it, thanks to scars. I think, in a way, it’s more devious to focus on creating good scars than the immediate now of physical pain because those last forever, whether it’s a crippling injury or mental. Pain is temporary; scars are forever, and scars that cause pain invalidate the first part of this sentence.
That said, other good threats play on pain and fear. Like harm to a loved one. I’d liked to have always thought of myself as an empathetic person, or at least someone who strove for empathy. But I’ve not had an empathetic link with anyone that compares to the one I have with my kid. Made more than one doctor’s trip super sucktastic. I know that there are a lot of people who don’t have great families or great ties to their family members. And also it’s popular to say that you hate pretty much everyone. And that harm to a loved one is super common. But there’s a reason why, and usually a person has at least one other person (or heck, animal) that is that important to them.
Course then there are somewhat more abstract threats. In my senior year of high school, we had to make our own Dante’s Inferno. I had my reputation as an evil overlord well in hand by then (I was voted most likely to take over the world and it was awesome) and one group asked if they could make a layer specifically for me. Which would have been flattering but then it was only level three *grumble*. I’d said at the time their eternal torment for me wasn’t that bad but the more I’ve thought about it, the more that’s an underestimation and frankly a lie. They’d put me in a cardboard box with a small cutout to view the world, always watching, never able to change anything, do anything. Just watching.
Honestly I think that would totally drive me insane, even if I could deny it was all that bad at first.
As useful as relational threats – threats against standing, success, standard of living, etc, or even blackmail sorts of threats, threats of exposure – can be, they can be trickier to pull off depending on the recipient’s ability to retaliate or diffuse the issue. If a recipient has the ability to escape a relational threat and they don’t use it, especially if it’s painfully obvious to the reader, the whole threat scenario is bunk. It’s just going to be annoying. Your hero might only be as good as your villain but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have to give your hero brains too. Of course there could be other factors in play, like gaslighting and other psychological manipulation…but then one could argue the recipient doesn’t actually have the ability to escape a relational threat. Not in their world, anyway.
All this said, and nothing too earth shattering, the most important thing to keep in mind with threats is that people don’t like to be threatened, so a good threat is either perfectly backed and strong and actually super terrifying to the threatened, water tight so it can’t be revealed later that they’re being threatened, or it’s a subtle threat, something that sounds more like just natural consequences for an outcome the one making the threat doesn’t like than consequences that the threatener (that’s a word now) will cause to happen. You can’t fight natural consequences. You can fight artificially made consequences. One person reminding or warning of natural consequences is just an ally in responsibility. One person reminding or warning of their own consequences is, well, threatening – and we don’t like to be threatened. Fighting a threat becomes a motivation secondary only to successfully staving off the realization of the threat.
Get out there and write some good threats! Or else! (Sorry, I thought it would be funnier.)