In one of the written lectures for my Advanced Horror Workshop, which, yes, starts up this week—thanks for asking!—I get into the idea of starting with characters not necessarily defined by, but with some weakness, some thing that prevents them from making the perfect decision every time, from overcoming every physical obstacle without fear of injury, and so on. This is especially true in that context…
A horror story that features a truly heroic hero will be a tough go, for you and your readers. The nature of horror, almost the very definition of the genre, is that it’s a story about an unprepared character confronted with the One Weird Thing. If that character is ultra-capable and fearless, immediately rising to the occasion knowing precisely what to do to overcome this strange threat… well, the threat immediately stops being strange. Your POV character isn’t scared and so neither are your readers. And if the ensuing action scene in which the highly capable hero quickly and efficiently dispatches the threat, a carefully crafted plan that goes off without a hitch, you have not written a horror story but maybe some kind of, frankly, boring urban fantasy.
The heroic protagonist might be one of the fine lines that separate horror and fantasy, but even someone who is physically capable and courageous shouldn’t be perfect. So regardless of genre…
A character without weaknesses, who is incapable of making mistakes, who never makes some incorrect assumption, who isn’t at least tempted to run screaming out of the haunted house as quickly as possible… that’s just not an interesting character. It’s not a character worth reading about, and not a character worth writing about.
In Writing Monsters I talk about monsters bringing out the good and evil in characters, but they’re also an opportunity to bring out the strengths and weaknesses in characters, to reveal what’s imperfect and, therefore, humanabout them. If you’ve trapped a cast of characters in an isolated locale and thrown even a single monster at them, those characters will naturally rise to their own overriding impulses, whether that impulse is to protect everyone else at all costs or to protect himself at all costs.
Keep in mind, too, that monsters can bring out more than simply “good” and “evil” in your characters.
I define a villain as someone whose motivations you understand but whose methods you abhor, and a hero as someone whose motivations you understand and whose methods you admire. In the same way that monsters can bring about this split in method, they can also bring out the resourcefulness in people… Your monsters can allow your characters to exhibit qualities like tenacity, loyalty, trustworthiness, a capacity for forgiveness, and so on. All of these characteristics are brought to the forefront by placing characters in a world full of monsters that force them to act, choose, and become something more (or, tragically, less) than they were before the story began.
The novelist James M. Cain discovered this as well, describing in this 1978 Paris Review interview how a character can be developed around a particular weakness:
I learned from [Sinclair Lewis], and also from the most prolific novelist I think this country ever had. Does the name William Gilbert Patten mean anything to you? His pen name was Burt L. Standish. Certainly you’ve heard of Frank Merriwell, “Dime Store” Merriwell.
The books about Merriwell came out on top of each other. Anyway, I wrote Standish up for theSaturday Evening Post. I’ve got to make a confession to you—I couldn’t, as a boy, read a Frank Merriwell story. When I wrote him up, I tried and tried to read a Frank Merriwell, and I’ll be goddamned if I’ve ever read one through yet. They were so utterly naïve, and so horribly written. But I learned from Standish, learned from his mistakes. And I admired the discipline that turned out all those books. You know, in all Frank Merriwell’s perfection, he had a fault. Once when I was talking about how perfect Frank Merriwell was, Sinclair Lewis corrected me. “No, no, Jim,” he said, “Frank had a weakness—he gambled, had to deal with it all the time.”
Just then Phil Goodman asked Lewis, “Red, how much would Babbitt have made this year?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Lewis in his falsetto, “I think this year about ten thousand a year.”
“Oh, much more than that.”
“No,” says Lewis, “don’t forget that George (Babbitt) had a failing. He couldn’t keep his mouth shut, so he never got taken in on anything big.”
Well, there are two writers who fall into the category of what Mark Twain called a “trained novelist.” Each apparently developed his own characters on the basis of a weakness.
A story—any story—tends to hinge on a character overcoming obstacles to achieve some end, and we often look to the outside to provide those obstacles: monsters, villains, traps, and so on. And that’s all good stuff as far as I’m concerned, but if all your story is is a guy going from obstacle to obstacle and not changing in any way, not experiencing something emotional, not being afraid sometimes, inspired sometimes, reluctant sometimes, impetuous sometimes… well, that character, and therefor that story, will never really come alive.
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