Creating Compelling Characters

This week’s lesson begins with a horrible analogy. 

A good horror novel is like a train (see what I did there?) 

It is driven, not automated. 

It has momentum, it is not stagnant. 

It is wholly terrifying in concept, and I won’t go near it. 

Placed at the top for reasons which I’ll explain, effective horror novels, that is, those which last in a reader’s mind and inject those gritty feelings we discussed previous (terror, anxiety, disgusts, fear, paranoia, etc), are driven by character. (No more trains, I promise).  In this week’s lesson, we’ll discuss effective character archetypes on both sides – the antagonist and the protagonist. We’ll keep this fairly high-level, I could talk about characters for ages. 

Definition: An archetype is a character with a discernable pattern or role a character plays in a story. These character types lean closely toward cliches if they are predictable yet a joy to read about when they are simply recogniziable.

A poor example of a cliché is a woman who only exists to get eaten by the monster. Her character archetype is the victim. Yet, if she only exists to be eaten, this isn’t new – its tired and boring. 

Another cliché is even the hero, who, if against all odds, somehow manages to display an unbelievable amount of courage, determination and grit to overcome the scary thing. He is the fearless knight, an unshakable force which has no place in a horror novel. There can be a hero in horror, but not in the traditional sense. A father protecting his family from the monster fills the hero role. The point of horror novels is not to overcome evil, but to withstand it – to survive. As my good friend Jay Bower once told me  - “stop putting magic in horror novels”. I had to understand the difference between a horror hero and a traditional hero. 

But what are some other archetypes we can use? I’ll cover a few and give examples of how to adapt them to a horror novel. 

The Final Girl/Final Boy: the self-explanatory lone survivor. As I said above, avoid the obvious cliches and use details to suspend your reader’s disbelief that what the final girl/boy does is aligned with their character, not their archetype. 

The Skeptic: One of my favorite archetypes is the skeptic. They play a vital role which is to contrast the believer (whom nobody ever believes) except they voice their concerns. The skeptic can help set up a great confrontation as the hero goes out on his own or pave the way for a big twist. 

The Mentor: Mentors aren’t just wise old wizards. They can be anyone – from Father Merrin in The Exorcist to R.J MacReady (Kurt Russell) in The Thing. 

The Antagonist: The antagonist is the source of the horror, whether it's a supernatural entity, a monster, or a malevolent human. They create the conflict and tension that drive the story. (Consider how you can get clever with this. In my novel Not Okay, my Protagonist WAS my antagonist – or rather, his mental illness was the antagonist.) 

The Scientist/Investigator: This character is curious and analytical, seeking to uncover the truth behind the horror. They may have expertise in relevant fields like science, paranormal studies, or forensics.

The Sidekick/Friend: This character provides companionship and emotional support to the main protagonist. They often offer comic relief, and their interactions with the protagonist can help humanize them in the face of terror. I find the sidekick/friend is often neglected or used for levity. To keep the tension, make the sidekick/friend someone to care about.

The Mysterious Stranger: This enigmatic character often possesses knowledge about the horror but is shrouded in secrecy. They may appear to aid or hinder the protagonist, leaving their true intentions uncertain. In my novel Old Scratch the stranger is new to the other characters but not new to the setting. 

The Traitor: This character appears to be an ally but later reveals themselves as aligned with the antagonist. Their betrayal adds an element of surprise and distrust among the other characters. This was done perfectly in Alien as the android turned out to be working for the company. 

The Survivor: Not necessarily the final survivor, this character might have survived a previous encounter with the horror or antagonist. They offer insights and a sense of urgency to the current group.

Alright, I think that’s plenty to work with, feel free to take the above, blend, mix and match them to give a fresh spin on a tired trope. Next, I’ll cover how to properly develop character backstories and motivations to fall in line with the character archetypes. 

Make me care. Period. 

Horror readers, unlike other those who read genres, cannot be won over with extravagant plots, beautiful settings and powerful prose. Characters drive the story – through them the readers live vicariously, and it is up to the writer to make the readers care enough to insert themselves into the story. 

This may seem arduous, even pompous, but true. A good, likeable (as in likeable to read about, not necessarily who they are as a person) character can carry a story. A perfect example of this is Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. 

Who is the main character of the movie?

If you said, (captain) Jack Sparrow – you’re wrong. It’s Will Turner’s story. Go back and watch it with that in mind. The reason we think (captain) Jack is the lead is because he’s so much more interesting than Will. We know what he wants and what he stands for. We know his quirks and we know what he’s good at. CAPTAIN Jack Sparrow just wants his ship. This leads into a discussion about character wants and needs which I’ll cover in another email because it deserves its own, but I’ll summarize the concept quickly.

For a character to go on a journey, they must change along the way. They must learn something about themselves and acquire something in the process. What they learn is what they need and what they acquire is what they want. When you re-watch Pirates, keep this want/need dynamic in mind. 

Backtracking to Backstories quickly before I sign off. 

A character’s backstory shouldn’t just be relevant to the story, it should be necessary and logical that whatever terrible situation they arrive in was INNEVIDABLE. It can ONLY be them, because of who they are and the choices they made along the way. 

There are plenty of ways to describe a character’s agency, or their standing in a story. A character with a backstory, a goal, flaws and an inevitable but pending situation (conflict) to tackle is what I call a character with agency. A good example of this in real time is a player in a videogame versus a non-playing character (npc). They are lifeless, one dimensional, driven by the story instead of being the drivers of the story. Give your characters a backstory and give them life, and they will drive the plot forward. 

As I write this, I realized I missed a week, so I’ll tack on what should have been last week’s email. 

Understand the role of supernatural elements in horror.

Not to be confused with writing supernatural elements (which deserves its own week, along with plot), I’m going to cover the mindset around including supernatural elements in horror. 

Supernatural elements are used in many genres but, very few genres can illicit fear besides the horror genre by including something supernatural. In other genres, the supernatural thing can be overcome, defeated. The hero can win, which defeats the purpose of horror which is to survive. In horror, fear is inevitable, therefore even the strongest hero can and will struggle to survive. 

Now, sometimes the hero can survive using what some might call supernatural elements. Where the dividing line is between magic and horror-esque supernatural is up to you. In my story, Cracked Altar: St. Andrew’s, Dwaine, a character already established as a supernatural expert arrives and uses what some might call “magic” to affect a showdown with the scary thing. However, this “magic” was nothing more than what’s been established in the world as both A: not very effective and B: limited in use. 

Dwaine CANNOT beat the scary thing with magic. That would defeat the purpose and blend the genre lines between horror and dark fantasy. Instead, he gives the hero the opportunity to do what’s necessary to survive. 

Supernatural elements such as monsters, curses, faith (technically), magic, and otherwise things other-than-ordinary are expected in horror and give you a lot of room to play. If there’s a takeaway from this section, it’s that there is no magic in horror. You cannot defeat the scary thing; your hero can only survive.

That’s all. I hope you won’t mind my late or irregular emails on this topic or my main emails – my schedule is hectic and I’m trying to get it under control. But maybe my schedule is like horror – just something the hero is meant to survive.

Officer Friendly, Out.

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