Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Note About Characterization

As a horror writer, you are often stereotyped as being sick or demented for being able to create such evil characters and terrifying monsters. It is assumed that their perversity, their evil and insanity, must somehow be a subconscious or conscious reflection of the author's personality. Readers are often surprised when they meet a horror author and he or she is not a slavering madman. I have always thought it interesting that readers do not assume that the hero of the novels must also reflect an aspect of the author's personality. They do not seem to remember that the horror author created all of the characters in the novel, the heroes and victims, as well as the villains. If the villain is assumed to embody some hidden desire or subconscious perversity why is it not also assumed that the heroes and victims in the stories likewise embody an aspect of the writer's persona?

While the author is writing, he is inside all of the character's heads. He is seeing the world he has created, not from one singular perspective but from the perspectives of every character in the novel as he writes them, even if that is only for the length of a single sentence, even if the novel is written in first person. Just because the novel may be written from one character's perspective does not mean that the author is not still a part of all of the other characters. These characters would not be able to make a single action or utter a single line of dialogue if the author did not first put himself into their perspective and ask himself "What would I do now if I were him or her?" It is an essential part of the creative writing process.

The author is the protagonist, the antagonist, the murder victim exsanguinating onto the sidewalk, the unsuspecting jogger who discovers the body, the police officers who arrive at the scene, the crime scene investigators, the reporters, the coroners, and the grieving loved ones. Every individual who inhabits the world he has created contains a bit of the author's perspective because in order to write these characters we must ask ourselves, "What would I do if I were him or her? What would I think? How would I feel?" Nothing could happen in the novel without this necessary first step.

This stereotype appears to be entirely unique to horror authors. Mystery writers, action adventure writers, spy novelists, are all identified with the heroes of the novel no matter how diabolical the villains. You identify Ian Flemming with James Bond not Goldfinger. You would never assume that Ian Flemming must secretly harbor a desire to conquer the world because the antagonists in his novels are megalomaniacs intent on world domination.

The omniscient perspective that a writer must adopt in order to create realistic characters that the readers can identify with and believe in is often an uncomfortable place to be. Thus the temptation to write one-dimensional characters. Giving depth to your characters requires the courage, the talent, and the work-ethic to get inside their heads. Getting inside the villain's head may be disturbing but it is much less disturbing than being inside the victim as she or he is shot, slashed, strangled, mauled, mutilated, stabbed, tortured, dismembered, or eaten. Likewise, getting inside the mind of the hero is a more comfortable place to be. We all want to think of ourselves as heroes rather than villains or victims. The writer has no choice in the matter. If he is to write believable characters, he must be all of these. The author must inhabit these characters often for many months. Think about it. Imagine living in the mind of a woman being stalked by a vampire or a serial killer for five or six months. That's what horror writers do.

In Brian Keene's The Rising he tackles a theme that is very personal to him, that of a father trying desperately to return to his son. Brian inhabited this father's head through months of writing. He also inhabited the world of The Rising. He lived there for months in a world populated by flesh-eating zombies. Just imagine months looking at the world through the perspective of a father desperately trying to return to his son, battling across hundreds of miles inhabited by fast-moving intelligent zombies. To only identify Brian with the zombies and not with that courageous father belittles the entire creative process.

Delving the motivations of the villain or the terror of the victim is far more difficult than that of the hero. It is far more difficult to try to understand the motivations of a killer who tortures, dismembers, and cannibalizes his victims than those of the hero trying to stop him. In Succulent Prey, Joseph Miles was the villain of the story as well as the hero and one of the victims as well. Writing that one character required me to look at the world through all three perspectives. Yet, due no doubt to the graphic descriptions, the villain is all anyone recalls.

When I wrote Population Zero, I had to try to understand what would motivate a person to forcibly sterilize people or else it would have been exactly what many extreme novels are accused of being, one-dimensional torture porn. I had to understand Stephanie and Cathy's motivations as well though. I had to also understand the motivations of each victim or else who would have given a fuck one way or the other when they were killed. If you cheered for Todd when he gave Nicolene a hysterectomy but hated him for hitting Stephanie in the belly with a hammer then you felt the way you did because you felt like you knew those characters enough to judge them and decide which one deserved it and which one didn't. In order for you to know them, I had to know them first.

The novel I am currently writing is written almost entirely from the perspective of the victim. Everyday I spend a few hours feeling her fear and pain and confusion. I also feel the emotions of the antagonist and of the detectives who are trying to solve the case and rescue her.

That is why it is so odd when writers are looked upon as being twisted and amoral for doing such terrible things to their characters when those characters are us as well. It is odd that we are looked upon as being evil and demented for creating such horrific monsters and villains but not as noble and heroic for the heroes we create or empathetic and compassionate for the victims we create. All of these characters came from the mind of the author. And all of them reflect an aspect of the author's personality.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post, Wrath. I see this happen a lot and totally agree. Great job explaining it for people stuck in that mind-set.

All the best,

Lee Thompson
Myspace.com/HL_Thompson