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Creating a Character for a Horror Story
By Sarah Todd

Lauren gasped when she rounded the corner into the alley. The object of her revulsion looked up. He was surprised by her sudden appearance. His long hair fell in loose curls past his shoulders. The hair of his bearded chin dripped red with blood. He raised an outstretched hand in front of his face. His other hand let go of the man he had been supporting. The body fell to the pavement. Her attention darted to the apparent victim and Lauren saw that a stream of blood flowed from the man’s neck. It traced a path between the cracks in the dirty pavement. Lauren looked back to the… well, the vampire. She knew it sounded crazy, but that’s what the guy seemed to be aiming for. Their eyes locked for a few brief moments. His outstretched fingers shook with a nervous energy that she did not mistake for fear.

Anne Rice places her vampires in everyday situations, and she gives each character very human emotions – so human that you might want to look at your neighbour a bit more carefully when you close the book! This article is written to give you some ideas for creating realistic characters to populate your horror story.

Good fiction is, by definition, credible - a lie that is easily believed. The most important part of fiction is the characters you create to tell your story. A good horror story character is a fictional being every bit as alive and as much a unique individual as anyone with whom we are acquainted. Your readers should care about him – or her - otherwise they won’t care about what the character does or what happens to him – or her - during the story. It doesn’t matter whether they like, love, hate or fear him/her.

Readers must never feel indifferent towards any character otherwise they will lose interest in the story and not finish it. The uncle who gets drunk and melancholy at a wedding or your high school history teacher who spent most of the lessons reminiscing about growing up in Europe before the second world war; the individual who personified your first encounter with “puppy-love” or the perhaps the one you dated during your college years... every one of these is a real life living, breathing person. And all are absolutely perfect for any horror story.

Your story must be inhabited by characters your readers know and understand. So that means you – their creator – should know those characters well. And there’s no reason you shouldn’t, because apart from creating them you are also their closest confidant. There is nothing your characters can hide from you. You created them, so you know everything about them, including information they’ve kept hidden from themselves. In crafting a story about them you’ve made yourself their closest friend – a psychiatrist of sorts.

Your characters must have their own unique and distinct traits, just as you the writer/reader are a unique personality. If believable fiction is based on reality do not fill your story with stereotypical characters. Stereotypes do not to have specific personalities and character traits – their emotions, thoughts and actions are limited by the extremely restrictive mould created by their role. Think of some of the real life stereotypes you know; does your truck driver friend behave like a typical “Truck Driver Dude”? Do all drunks go home and beat up their spouses and kids? Are you – the writer – a typical example of a writer? I doubt it.

Think about what makes you different and unique from other writers and other people. You know how you feel when someone you lies to you, so it stands to reason you’ll know what your story character feels or think when he/she experiences the same thing. You understand sadness, happiness, fear, frustration, terror and rage so you can create credible characters that experience sadness, happiness, fear, frustration, terror and rage. You've been embarrassed, you've felt pride, you have felt everything a human being can feel. So your characters will come to life in your reader’s mind, animated by your knowledge of yourself, your friends and family and other people. Put them into a credible, believable situation and let them live your story for you!

Readers don’t need to know every single detail of your character’s life. They’re not interested in the name of his first pet or whether he eats peanut butter or not. Neither are they concerned about the name of his favourite singer or the make and model of his first car. But YOU – his creator – need to know these facts in order to create a character to whom your readers can relate. Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s short story ”And of Gideon” features the title character as a murderous psychopath. Salmonson says:

”I wanted readers to fear Gideon, to realize anew that such human aberrations do exist. I wanted my readers to pity him as well, this loser who'd been "programmed for pathology." But more than that, I wanted readers to see Gideon as a credible human being, one who would elicit the wide range of emotional response that only real people can evoke. Here is some of what I knew about Gideon and what I wanted readers to know: ‘...my father was a drunk, had no love for my mother, another drunk, she none for him, and neither for me. (From) my early years, I cannot recall a single hug ... My father would beat me, not with the flat of his hand or a belt but with his fists. In kindergarten, I could not colour within the lines, could not catch a basketball thrown to me from a distance of two feet, nor hang by my knees from the monkey bars ... I was always in trouble: for not coming to school on time, for not even trying on tests, for not doing this, for not doing that, always in trouble with the teachers, those despairing head-shakers: ‘Gideon, don't you want to learn? Don't you want to amount to anything? Don't you want to grow up and be somebody?””

There are a few stereotypes in modern horror writing that have been written about with great success, but the second time around is one time too many. Unless you have a unique take or situation on one or more of the following treat these three stereotypes very carefully:

The shy, plain, quiet girl with a paranormal gift. Stephen King’s ”Carrie” a disturbing and brilliant character, has been copied many times – but all are a pale imitation of the original.

The twins, identical and similar in every behavioural characteristic bar one… again this was detailed very descriptively in Bari Wood’s “Twins”, where both identical male siblings work as gynaecologists and share identical traits and patients. However when the shy twin (who usually picks up the conquests his more confident brother no longer wants) falls in love with a patient before his bolder brother the pair face a terrible decision.

The priest suffering doubt about his faith who is forced to confront his doubts in the face of terrible evil. William Peter Blatty’s ”The Exorcist”{ was the prototype of this character, and the book resulted in the production of one of the most terrifying films ever made. Yet the sequels, particularly 2004’s “Exorcist:The Beginning”, failed dismally to reach the heights of horror of the original.

Use these three stereotypes at your peril:

The preacher who, despite his limited knowledge and understanding of the Bible, speaks in tongues and holds incredible power over his followers.

The helpless businesswoman who, despite controlling a business worth billions of dollars, is incapable of dealing with a supernatural curse or menace.

The handsome, reserved hero who saves the helpless businesswoman before falling in love with her and retiring from his security company/the police force to live with her on her yacht…

Now go and create that horror character for your story - and have fun!

Copyright Sarah Todd. All Rights Reserved.

Sarah Todd was born in Africa, and lived there for the first 38 years of her life. She worked in the world of public relations for over five years, running her own PR company and dealing extensively with the world of journalism and the print media. She is an author on http://www.Writing.Com/, a site for Writers. Her blog can be visited at: http://www.writing.com/authors/zwisis/blog



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