to Horror Part 2:
Plot and Character in Horror Fiction
2002, Teresa Hopper
who writes or reads much horror knows that a stereotype exists amongst some
non-horror readers. Horror is seen
as a somewhat inferior form of fiction Ė trashy, with unrealistic characters
who do stupid things to sustain unfeasible plots. It isnít seen as serious
fiction. The sad fact is that in the past there has been a lot of bad horror
fiction published, which has been guilty of all those things. Maybe you think
that writing horror is an easy option, because anyone can write about a woman
running around in her nightie screaming, canít they? Well I am here to tell
you that writing horror isnít an easy option; in fact, it isnít easy at all,
not if you want to do it well.
how do you do it well? You make your characters as real and your plots as
original and convincing as possible. All writers of fiction strive for this, but
as a horror writer you have an extra mountain to climb, because youíre
fighting against reality Ė youíre taking the readerís own world and saying
to them Ďah, but things are not as you thinkí which is completely different
to setting a novel in a fantasy or SF world that has been created. As a reader I
will accept that a fantasy world can have monsters in it much easier than I
would accept the same about my world.
how do you make your characters as real as possible? Well, the first thing to do
is to avoid the character stereotypes that seem to crop up regularly in horror
fiction. Weíve all seen the Catholic Priest Experiencing Doubt, the Tortured
Main Character, the Virginal Heroine, the Cynical and Unbelieving Police Chief,
and many more. Real people arenít like this.
Theyíre not stereotypes -- they are as multi-faceted as you or I. You
need to give your characters a good and a bad side, hopes and dreams, and you
need to know their past, their triumphs and failures. You need to know not just
what they are like when things are going well for them, but also when the
car has broken down and the kids are screaming. The more you know about your
characters, the better you will understand their fears, weaknesses and terrors.
of the 'sins' that some horror authors have committed in the past is to have the
characters behave in unrealistic or stupid ways just to advance the plot. How
many times have you read a book and thought how unlikely someone's actions were?
If I heard noises coming from my cellar, I certainly wouldnít go down there
alone, Iíd lock the door and get the hell out. Donít make your character go
into a vampire nest in the middle of the night either, even with a stake and
garlic and holy water. The sensible thing would be to wait until dawn. Or if
your character has to do something that might seem stupid, give them a damn good
reason why they're doing it. No readers are going to root for stupid characters.
donít do this for your heroes only Ė make your villains just as real,
interesting, and hard to kill. Iíve
lost count of the number of times Iíve read novels where the author has
created a weak villain too easy for the hero to defeat. A great villain can make
a story - would Silence Of The Lambs have been as compelling without Hannibal
Lector? Of course not.
thing I hate as a reader is for the author to have built up a great, scary, powerful
villain who the hero struggles against during most of the novel, and who at the
end is beaten far too easily. Thatís just laziness on the part of the author.
There are authors that I wonít even read anymore because I know their endings
will be weak and frustrating. Strive to make your endings as good as possible,
and don't allow your fiction to be ruined by cop-out endings.
way to get great characters is to learn from the best. Some writers regularly
create fantastic characters who seem as if they could almost step off the page.
Look at your favourite characters in fiction, and try to work out what it is
about them that makes them real. For me that would be most characters by Stephen
King and Terry Pratchett (though he doesn't write horror); I would love to have
their skills with characters.
is much harder to discuss plot techniques, because everyone works out their
plots differently./ Some people
have hugely detailed outlines in place before they start writing the manuscript,
and barely deviate from them. For others outlines are anathema, and they wonít
even use them, preferring to let the story evolve as they go. There is no right
way. The best thing to do is try various systems and see what works best for
you. But even if you use an outline, remember that thereís nothing stopping
you from changing it if a brilliant idea hits.
matter how you work out your plot, the main thing to bear in mind is to be
original. It is frequently said that there are only a few plots in the world,
and while this is true, don't let this discourage you. You can make your writing
original by adding your own personal take on a familiar plot. We all know the
familiar horror plot devices: happy families moving into haunted houses, naive
people abusing ouija boards, charismatic vampires, vengeful witches, demon
lovers, etc. These have all been used since the beginning of the genre, but
thatís not to say you canít still employ them successfully -- you just have
to think of a unique way of looking at the subject.
Look at Anne Rice, who has made the vampire genre her own. Try to reach
beyond what has been done before.
you take both of these areas into account and you write stories with strong,
original plots and people them with realistic and interesting characters, you
will be well on the way to writing good horror fiction. And who knows, maybe
even getting published.
are some further resources that Iíve found very useful when working on
plotting and characterisation:
is a great character workshop by Holly:
this is Hollyís plotting workshop:
Writingí by Stephen King (ISBN: 0340820462)