Writing Craft

What Makes Horror Horrible

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Carroll County News

Want to create a character that will live for centuries? How about millennia? Want to create a character that will become a household word around the globe? Think it can’t be done? Watch.

Dracula. Frankenstein. Dr. Jekyll. The Phantom of the Opera. Heathcliff. Dorian Gray. Faust. The Headless Horseman. Rebecca. Superman. Spock. The Ghost of Christmas Past. Peter Pan. Aslan. Frodo. Ulysses. Beowulf.

Now what do all these characters have in common? They reside within works of horror and fantasy.

Literary writers are snobbish about genre fiction, even while admitting that great writers created some of their best work in stories with paranormal elements.

But good writing is good writing, and slop is slop, no matter the genre. A lot of the problem lies in the market-driven nature of book publishing, which wants to categorize and formulize into specific slots. It’s all about which section to shelve the book in Barnes and Noble. Genre is simply a marketing tool.

Psychologists say that our deepest, most elemental emotion is fear. And our deepest fear is of the unknown. That’s why the weirdly horrible tale as a literary form is ancient, and the oldest writing in every culture concerns the supernatural and the paranormal. “A literature of cosmic fear,” H.P.Lovecraft called it.

Of the elements of writing craft needed for horror and fantasy, two must be mastered to a high degree. These are character and setting. The stories may, or may not, have elaborate plots. It is setting, often neglected in traditional, mainstream fiction, which steps forward in horror as of prime importance. Why is this true? Because, from word one, a horror story must be building suspense. And suspense begins with that first tiny hint of something wrong beneath the surface.

Modern panderers to popular taste often substitute extreme gore for genuinely crafted setting. Anyone can slather blood over everything. It takes an Edgar Allen Poe to describe the House of Usher, now the icon for gothic horror settings.

But a familiar place can also be a setting for unknown horrors, as in Stephen King’s The Mist, which takes place in a supermarket. Carnivals and clowns, once symbols of innocence and fun, have been used so much in horror that there is now an underlying sinister message in their appearance. But if you take an ordinary place that we all know, a ranch-style house, a furniture store, and thrown in some foreshadowing, some subtle insinuations that something is off, you can touch that deep place in all of us that knows that danger–that cosmic fear–lurks just under the surface of normal experience. Literary critic Douglas Winter says, “An effective horror writer embraces the ordinary, so that the extraordinary will be heightened.”

The second critical element in writing horror and fantasy: characters. As Dean Koontz said, “Suspense in fiction results primarily from the reader’s identification with and concern about lead characters who are complex, convincing, and appealing.” While Stephen King says that we must love the people for horror to be possible.

In many ways, creating a believable paranormal character, a Dracula, a Frodo, is harder because they are, well, unbelievable. You are asking the reader to suspend disbelief to a more heightened degree than if he were reading about a normal human being.

Often characters in horror and fantasy are only two-dimensional. Stereotypes. Archetypes. That’s why I asked Gini Koch, creator of the Alien series, to teach two workshops on character development at the Horror/Fantasy conference this month in Eureka Springs. The short answer here, though, is that you use the same techniques you would use to create characters in any story. Show the reader what drives the character. What is his yearning? Reveal him through his actions, his dialogue, his reactions.

Learn the craft and take the time to create a realistic character for your horror or fantasy story. After all, he may live for a thousand years.

* * *

And for workshops on setting, character and other elements of writing craft,  contact me at or 479 292-3665.