Some Thoughts on Intimidation

To be intimidating might be the hardest job a character can have, particularly as the characters he’s supposed to intimidate get more and more powerful, and the audience more and more jaded. I’m one of that jaded audience, I suppose; my characters take no small amount of work to unnerve, and it doesn’t help when the character trying to do the intimidating doesn’t quite get to me. I’m probably not a representative sample, but I’ve learned a thing or two about what it takes to get me and mine properly unnerved—moreso since I like it when I run against a character who scares one of mine, and even seek it out. So…

Bluster doesn’t scare me. A character who goes on and on about how he’s gonna win because we’re gonna lose, particularly if I’m playing one of my Captain Competent sorts of characters? Not on your life. If they can’t back up the threat, they may as well just stick to swinging weapons around.

Loss of temper usually doesn’t scare me. I’ve come to associate that moment when they freak out more with being the first sign of victory than the first sign of a desperate need to head for the hills. “THIS HAS CEASED TO BE AMUSING!” comes across to me as a sign of victory… sometimes even when they do accompany it with some sort of obvious powerup. The spike in efficacy needs to work on its own merits.

Where I stand on the opponent not being baited (combat banter is a specialty of mine) is somewhat flexible. If they’re not baited because they’re just too stupid or too stoic to get the insults flying at them, I shrug and decide they’re no fun. Characters who are no fun might still be intimidating, but they need to work a little harder. On the other hand, the ones who can give as good as they get, refute what I say and manage a few barbs back, and never lose their cool—yeah, that helps.

Being able to threaten things other than life and limb rarely hurts, either. As one of my primary characters would put it, you’ve heard one person threatening you and those even remotely associated with you with painful deaths, you’ve probably heard them all. But loss of identity? The reversal of whatever I happen to be working on, possibly at what could be considered my own hand? There’s some good creep factor—particularly if it’s clear that they actually could.

One of my favorite traits, though, is complete justified confidence in one’s own power. The really scary ones don’t need to throw their power or influence around; that’s for people with someone to prove. Instead, they wield it like they would any other tool, with efficiency and confidence. They don’t say they’re going to win, that whoever I happen to be that day can’t hope to threaten them; they just believe it and act like it.

Truly intimidating characters are great fun, but it’s easy to miss the mark. What does it take to unnerve you-as-audience or your characters?

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