WARNING: strong language within (sorry, I have a potty mouth when I’m excited or passionate about things)
I get asked this question a lot. I want to state for the record, I’m not putting myself as the expert, but as a publisher it’s time I put on my “big girl” panties and accept that I have an area of expertise. I figure, if I didn’t? People wouldn’t ask me as often as they do.
So here is my response. Take from it what you will and my hope is it will serve you well.
People love monsters. What does it mean when you turn a human into a “monster”? It means this human is a machine. They run through the forest and they are hacking up young virgins, or college kids. They might be a faceless man killing for the joy of killing. Or they have a disfigured face and they prey on young beautiful women because they’ve been scorned by the beautiful people. The point is, there’s no rhyme or reason. Where’s there is blood, and body parts, there they are.
Are they scary? Uh … duh? No matter where you hide or run, this non-thinking, massive human usually donned in a butcher’s apron is barreling down on you (at a glacial speed), and will find you. I don’t care where you are. The problem is all these characters start to blend in with one another. No matter how creative you arem they end up getting compared to Jason or Leatherface.
How many times can you improve on “dysfunctional family of inbreds”, or “backwoods cabin”? And don’t even get me started on, “a group of college friends get lost” because that’s so overdone. I never get past those words before I start watching re-runs of whatever is on TV.
I know. Everything is kind of played out. So, how do we, as writers, stand out? It’s not easy. Suspense is akin to being a great fisherman. You throw out the bait and wait until they swim in. Once they take the bait, they get hooked. You have to pull them in but you can’t tug too hard, and reel them in too fast. You have to have patience. Allow your words to get them anxious and build suspense. Make your reader squirm and fight you. They’ll want to know what the hell is going on, right now. (Man, I love to use that phrase)
Stay strong! You cannot give in, yet. The prize comes at the end of a great battle, and this battle is all mental.
The reader doesn’t really want to know everything right now, but they have to know some things and the picture has to be clear. They have to know at the end of the hook there is a big, fat, juicy worm. If you let them get away too soon they will go away feeling dissatisfied and resentful.
The best part of characters like Jason and Leatherface is the slow gait. Yeah, there are some jump scares, and no one is taking away from the unrelenting gore (or the boobies, for those who are fans of the mammary gratuity). I’m not taking away from those bits and pieces. Think about it, though, for just a second. You can run as fast as your legs will carry you, but no matter where you hide, where you run (…or fall *facepalm*), or how fast you climb, he can find you.
That’s some scary shit! It’s like those dreams you have as a kid where no matter how fast your arms and legs were going, you felt like you were running in cement? Seriously, I hated those dreams.
There is so much horror going on in the real world. Take your cues from everything around you. Supernatural “powers” are/were tales made up to explain things we don’t/didn’t understand. Exercise your mind by taking everyday normal things and changing them. (Example: It’s not a normal hand mirror. Your mother found it at a resale shop and it belonged to a woman who died. Her spirit is caught in its reflection.)
Create characters who seem nice in public, but behind closed doors they are horrible. Maybe you’re inspired by the seemingly benevolent neighbor who always smiles and waves as you pull into your driveway, but at night he’s always climbing into a crawlspace in his garage. What is he doing in there? (Ok, fine. It was my own neighbor, but seriously! Why was he in his crawlspace at 2 AM?!)
The best part about creating these characters is getting back into your child-brain. No, I don’t mean peeing your pants and shoving toys in the toilet. I mean the child-brain where every shadow was a monster and a dark room held creatures with flippers and teeth. This is where you get to be free and let your imagination run amok. There’s no right or wrong in a story, only in the process. The more you practice, the better you’ll get. Let others read it. Ask them for honest feedback. Did it scare them? Why? Did it give them bad dreams? Was it a childhood fear of theirs, too?
Don’t be afraid to face your own demons. Writing is cathartic, and you always get to be the hero … (or at least you can kill the bad guy off when you’re done).
The biggest challenge is to create a believable “evil”. In this day and age, it’s not as easy as walking through a park and killing teenagers making out in their car. C’mon, cellphones and livestream are everywhere. Our evil creations have to be smarter, and scarier than ever. My biggest advice is start with the basic template and add to it. It’s like drawing. Start with a model and layer. Is it a male or female? What drives them to do what they do? Are they strong? Are they smart? Are they human?
Once you have your basics, you can begin to piece the character little by little.
Are they quick tempered, or slow to anger? Do they have an addiction? Are they compelled to kill by certain events? Do they have a broken family?
The reader must relate in some way to the main character. They don’t have to be serial killers but maybe they were bullied as a kid, too. Put yourself in a similar scenario. How would you react? What consequences would there be? Would you be able to forget it and move on, or would it stick with you forever?
Read the news. Trust me, there’s an endless supply of craziness in the world every single day. Catch up on true crime shows. Watch how people react to one another in the mall. (Alright, stop staring, that’s just creepy.)
It helps to always have a small notebook nearby to jot things down. Our memory is a strange thing. Sometimes we think we remember things and our mind will play tricks on us. Having the ability to jot a thought down helps, a lot. There’s nothing more frustrating than having an idea come to you, and getting distracted hours before you can begin writing only to discover … you forgot what you were going to write about!
Creating a character others can place a face to is a sure fire way to get them into your story and keep them there … locked away until you set them free.
Who are some of your favorite “evil” characters? What made the impact on you so profound? Who is your favorite author who can create these characters for you? Leave a comment and share!