Count Dracula needs no introduction, but I’m going to give him one anyway. He is one of the most iconic characters of all time, debatably the first supervillain in literature, and the most famous vampire ever created. As characters go, he casts a long shadow. You’d be surprised, then, to read Dracula and find out that the titular count is barely in it. Count Dracula has very few actual scenes in the novel that bears his name. He’s really more of a presence than a character for most of the narrative, much like the shark in Jaws. Yet he’s one of the most iconic villains of all time. How is that possible?
Well, it’s simple – Bram Stoker pours so much personality into Dracula’s few scenes that it actually makes all that tension building pay off. The novel begins with John Harker traveling to Transylvania and spending four or so chapters being told that Dracula is bad news and that supernatural, spooky stuff happens in this area. It builds a sense of dread and tension, and it raises our expectations for the Count’s first entrance.
Then the book impossibly manages to meet those expectations. Dracula is immediately engaging, establishing himself as a terrifying yet charismatic villain who exudes power with even the slightest action. We see that even when he’s not at his prime (which he isn’t when we meet him), Dracula is a force to be reckoned with, and a creature with no moral restraints whatsoever. It’s terrifying to be trapped with this creature, who is every bit the vile and terrible dragon whose name he bears.
And then, for the bulk of the book, we don’t see him again. Oh, there are flashes and references – sightings told to us by people who heard about them from other people – but very little direct contact until much later in the book. And it all works because we had that moment to build our villain into a powerful character, which allows him to cast that long shadow.
Other works use this technique really effectively. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit does it with Smaug, relating the dragon’s terrible destruction of the great dwarf kingdom of Erebor and letting its effects linger until we finally meet him a few chapters before the end, where, in one brief conversation, we see Smaug is just as cunning, charismatic, intelligent, and fiendishly malevolent as we have been led to believe. It also happens in The Silence of the Lambs (the film at least) with Hannibal Lecter. Lecter has only twenty minutes of screen time in that movie, yet is consistently considered to be its male lead simply because of the effect he made in those twenty minutes.
This is a hard technique to pull off well – you can probably think of countless examples where people were trying to do it and just ended up boring you. “Show the monster already!” is a common complaint in the horror genre. But when done right, it results in an incredibly powerful villain. The fact that Bram Stoker did it so well is just another piece of evidence to support Dracula being one of the best examples of character building in fiction.
Dracula is also one of those rare villains who is at once truly evil – i.e. he needs to be taken down, HARD – yet still manages to be sympathetic. You like Dracula – not because he’s good, mind you, but because he pulls off everything with such a casual and often affable air. He is polite and considerate to his enemies one minute and mercilessly tearing out their throats the next. You can’t totally hate someone who can be that classy, yet he does undeniably terrible things. You can also see traces of a nobler man beneath the vampirism – moments where Dracula is clearly aware that his monstrosity is pulling him into ruin, and that, for all his power, he can do nothing to stop himself from succumbing to his own self-annihilation. The complexity of Dracula – especially considering how few scenes he actually has in the novel – is part of the key to his success, and why all vampires made after him have had to be in some way a response to him. Dracula’s personality looms large – not just in his book, but over all vampire tales written before or since.