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Tell Me - C.T. Phipps

(Crossposted from Jennifer Brozek)

I'm reading CTHULHU ARMAGEDDON and I have to say... Charles is an entertaining writer. His mythos inspired apocalyptic western is exactly the kind of popcorn reading I love. I think you'll love it, too.
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Developing Doomed Characters

A lot of people talk to me about how to write horror stories. I've written quite a few short stories in the genre and I've recently released my post-apocalypse horror novel CTHULHU ARMAGEDDON which does it's best to mix action with the macabre.

However, the trick of creating true horror is a tough one to master because it asks the reader to become invested enough in the storyline that they care enough about the characters that they're worried they might come to harm. Then you must convince them they will.

This is why I recommend a strategy of developing doomed characters. Basically, if you really want to sell a horror story then you had best have a selection of cannon fodder for the monster to eat which the audience cares about. It's a simple enough strategy, right? I mean, slasher movies have been doing it for years. You have a bunch of likable or semi-likable characters and only one of them makes it out alive. Should be a piece of cake, really.

Well, yes, and no.

One of the reasons which The Walking Dead, in all its incarnations, has been so successful is they're not afraid to decimate the cast in both surprising as well as heart-rending ways. However, it's a series which also has suffered from killing characters which the audience cared about while sparing those they didn't.

It's easy to drift into a dark sinkhole of apathy where the audience for your story just doesn't care what happens to the survivors. If everyone is rooting for Character A instead of Character C, Character A dying could make them tune out. Worse, Character C as the star makes the entire purpose of killing Character A pointless. So what's the best strategy for making sure you keep a careful balance of development as well as risk?

My first recommendation is you should make it so the doomed characters are ones who feel like they're going to be a major supporting character to begin with. Heck, make it so they are. You should always kill characters who feel like they have more room to grow.

If Jane, John, Jack, and Wilma go to a cabin in the woods then make it so they have a complex web of personal relationships. Jane is dating John, Jack is brother to Wilma, and Wilma is cheating on her girlfriend with Jane. The death of even one of these characters will send reverberations throughout the story which should followed up on.

Next, you should follow up on the deaths of the characters you do kill so their deaths have meaning for the survivors. A lot of novels effectively drop the dead once they leave the narrative. If you keep the loss fresh in the mind of the characters, then that will have more meaning.

It’s best to avoid making any character's fate related to their likability. Jerks shouldn't die any more than innocents unless you're making a point about behavior and that may undermine the terror of death. Likewise, deaths shouldn’t be telegraphed too much either. If you can make someone look like the hero before killing them without alienating the audience, you’ve really accomplished something special.

In conclusion, it's not just an art form to create characters. It's an even greater art form to make a character's death which exists to make the story scarier.

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C.T Phipps is a lifelong student of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. An avid tabletop gamer, he discovered this passion led him to write and turned him into a lifelong geek. He is the author of The Supervillainy Saga, Cthulhu Armageddon, Straight Outta Fangton, and Esoterrorism. He is also a regular blogger on "The United Federation of Charles."


 

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