Australian Shadows Award finalist Daniel I. Russell has been featured publications such as The Zombie Feed from Apex, Pseudopod and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. Author of Samhane, Come Into Darkness, Critique, The Collector Book 1: Mana Leak, Mother's Boys and the huge collection Tricks, Mischief and Mayhem, Daniel was also the vice-president of the Australian Horror Writers' Association, special guest editor of Midnight Echo and associate and technical editor for Necrotic Tissue.
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Tuesday, August 27, 2013Part 6: THE DEAD MAN WAS QUITE THE CHARACTER
Let’s imagine a car accident. Someone was crossing the street and a speeding car has struck and killed a person. Think about it. Picture it. How upset are you?
Okay, now I’m going to add a few details to the scene. Apparently, the car hit and completely messed them up. The body bounced off the hood and the spine had snapped, so the hips were all twisted around. Poor thing didn’t die straight away either and just lay in the road screaming, blood everywhere, until the ambulance arrived some twenty minutes later. A horrible way to die. Horrible.
Side note, notice how often this happens in real life. I know I do it, but being a story teller I like to think that I have an excuse! If you’re given a macabre piece of gossip and don’t respond in a suitably disgusted or horrified way, how often will the person add additional detail, upping the ante? If they can’t shock you with the news and get the emotional result they want, they’ll exaggerate, or place emphasis on the nastier details. Horror writing psychology 101!
Okay, so back to the exercise.
You should hopefully be slightly more reactive to the news I’m telling you, as now it’s more than just a generic news headline of one killed in car accident. You have a few more gory details. You’ve been trusted with more intimate knowledge and are therefore a tad closer to the event.
Next part of this sad tale is that it you now get a phone call. It was your child that was hit by the car. Or your parent. Or brother or sister or best buddy.
Should this really happen (and I genuinely hope nothing like this will happen to any of you. I might create monsters but I’m certainly not one of them), the emotional reaction will be on such a level to eclipse your life for a varying time. Now I don’t believe a story, unless factual and based on someone the reader knows, can evoke a reaction at such an overwhelming level, but if you aim to write good horror, you have to try and tap into the same pool, if you will. This might call into question a writer’s motivation: do you want shock a reader or make them suffer? I’ll leave that discussion for another time.
Right then. Back to square one, actually, negative ten. I’m going prequel on you.
Ten years ago, you had just moved into a new place with your partner. You were expecting your first child together and things were going great. Things were going perfect. One day, you came home from work early and heard giggling from upstairs. You discover your partner in bed with a mountain of muscle with a cock bigger than a zucchini (and I don’t mean one of those small zucchinis, a mean the ones that look like huge cock zucchinis). Turns out the baby is his to boot. Rather than be allowed to mourn your loss and gather your thoughts, this dick pummels the crap out of you while your loved one watches with amusement.
Okay, bit of an exaggeration there on several fronts, but you get the idea.
Now, the aforementioned car accident victim, the one spread all over the road, is this guy (or girl equivalent. I tried to make this all sex and sexuality compatible but it became a glorified mess that read more like an angry orgy). How do you feel now?
I find this quite interesting. If this was true, the range of reactions to this news I feel would be pretty wide, from the this guy didn’t suffer anywhere near enough to the I hated him, but no one deserved this tribes.
Either way, to know the person, and either love them, hate them or merely have an interest in their fate in fiction is down to well written characters.
I’m sure that you can buy an extensive list of books that discuss character development, etc, as this is a fundamental part of any story. I’m going to try and keep it narrowed in on horror, the relationships between the character, reader and events in a horror story.
I think one thing we can all agree on is that in a horror story, bad things happen. We can be impartial to these bad things, for example, I can’t see anyone shocked and appalled by the death of a standard victim in a Friday the 13th movie, but if done right and if we’ve spent enough screen time with them, we might be invested in the protagonist and will them to survive.
If you have a strong, likeable and relatable main character, through which the reader is experiencing your world and the horrors you have placed there, the dread will seep through the story. The readers must feel danger and threat through the character.
On the contrary, if we write a character to be obnoxious, evil, cruel and a multitude of other negative traits, we’re invested in another way. We want the bad things to happen to this character! What satisfaction one can obtain seeing a villain suffer at the hands of karma. Again, for the reader to hate a character, the character needs to be fleshed out and three dimensional. Some fantastic villains of late that spring to my mind are the Mayor Big Jim from Stephen King’s Under the Dome, and Dick from Supernatural season seven. At times, I felt myself glued to the story just to see these guys hopefully get theirs in the end!
There are no hard and fast rules with the dynamics between character and story. The hero doesn’t have to survive. The villain doesn’t have to fail and get a comeuppance. But for a reader to become emotionally involved in the horror, the development of the characters is key.