There is a weird and distracting trend in Horror fiction that seems to be growing in popularity: creating a main character who “happens to be” a writer. The practice may have had “honest” beginnings, and may have even been unique at one time. But it has caused me to close the covers on a novel more than once, and to abandon more than one short story – no matter who wrote it. Now it is even affecting my decision to see a movie.
How did this habit get started, and why does everyone from the writer to the editor and publisher think it is okay?
Are we losing our grasp of craft, or in assigning a writer’s identity to a protagonist are we mistaking convenience for what is truly integral to the character in the telling of the tale? Worse, is it a sign that too many “established” authors have spent so many years sequestered by their own success that they have willingly or otherwise “lost touch” with their audience and are no longer willing or able to create relatable characters? How did the protagonist-as-writer become a default character?
One could argue that using such a character is simply expedient and utilitarian. But is tinkering with the relevance of characterization in fiction wise? Should we worry that this could become a trite part of our genre formula right beside the beauty-in-her-nightgown? And if I noticed it, how many other readers are growing annoyed with the habit?
In Horror (as with many other genres) it is vital that the character dovetails with the setting. And in Horror, this usually means that our protagonist must have a situation or occupation that eventually isolates him or her so that the Horror may begin. Admittedly, writing is an ideal occupation for this scenario, and our ability to let our imaginations run away with us as writer- characters can be a boon to plot development. Yet encountering so much of this writer-as-star of his or her own show is not only distracting; it reeks of lazy or poor character development. If one is a novice writer, how badly does this reflect on your skills as a writer? More importantly, has it cost you publication?
We need to appreciate that creating well-rounded characters serves a real function in our fiction; it opens the door to the real world and the natural unpredictability of people.
When I was young (hunting dinosaurs and walking 100 miles to school in tropical blizzards), part of the fun of reading was learning about what people did for a living by meeting literary characters. Who is to say that authors got it right every time, or that the professional introduction was very deep? Yet I learned the names of things people other than my parents did for a living. I learned about the world and how adults interacted in it. I learned that personalities were often suited to or devastated by professional choices. I also never knew how a character’s profession could possibly affect the outcome of a story, which kept the suspense as thick as ghosts in a graveyard, and it opened up a universe of plot possibilities.
(Perhaps, dear publisher, this might be why so many adults are flocking to Young Adult fiction in our genre….the kid characters are all about potential growth and development…)I am thinking that this trend in characterization also has a lot to do with an internalizing of the editorial adage, “Write what you know.” Perhaps success shrinks the windows to the world of the established writer, and perhaps ignorance is only blissful for the unpublished. Established writers may become isolated from the world because of their own success, and novices typically believe they have no viable experiences that anyone wants to read about…
But the paradox is that this maxim does not mean your imagination must be contained in this tiny, narrow world that you live in as a writer, published or otherwise…It means that where imagination is king, there are no limits.
As a writer, you should familiarize yourself with research if it is not already your utmost writing companion (and I don’t mean getting online and asking people to send their research to you). As a writer, it is your job to get your hands dirty. As a writer, you should want to.
Research is not only helpful in getting the information you need, it provides fertile fields of story ideas, character ideas, setting ideas… Sometimes it can be like school – immersing yourself in a field that you never knew anything about. And while there is a danger of lingering too long in this wonderful place of discovery (either using it as an excuse to procrastinate or becoming mesmerized by all of the possibilities) the trip is worth its weight in gold. Characters and setting come alive. You might even gain a fan base that does the actual job you gave your character. So while you may not get it one hundred percent right and your editor might not notice, as long as your reader can connect the character to a thickening plot, the suspension-of-belief that makes a novel a success can happen.
Certainly, this means that there will be that extra step in creating your novel or short story. Your imagination will have to cast about for a few days searching for the perfect character with the perfect job. Then you will have to go online, go to the library, read a bit, perhaps even call someone who actually works in the field you have chosen, perhaps even persuading them to allow you to experience a day or two on the job with them to get an accurate feel for things.
But what is important is that you as a writer prove to your audience that you care about your own character enough to learn about him or her inside and out. If you as a writer do not prove your own fidelity, how can you demand it from the reader? The thing is, that if every character even a well-loved author creates is also a writer, there comes a point when we cease to connect to that character because we see the protagonist as the author him- or herself. Then we no longer connect to the writer or his or her work period. We search for new authors, new stories...because we search for characters that we can identify and sympathize with.
As readers we also want and need to be surprised.
Nobody likes predictability. And in the Horror genre it is the kiss of death (no pun intended).
There is a major difference in staring from page one at the door with a doorknob you know will eventually turn and knowing that somewhere in the house is a doorknob. The protagonist certainly should have more personality than an “assignation” of character by naming him or her a writer with the requisite “doorknob” personality. Failing to create a well-rounded, robust character from the start not only risks losing the fickle attentions of the reader, but it puts way too much pressure on the monster.
For example, how can the reader connect with the character that has no real worries because the character is successful and has no vulnerabilities the rest of us can identify with, or when the character is not really worried about losing his or her house (as many writers are), drives a newer car (that never breaks down), lives in a McMansion (that Hollywood is more than pleased to exploit)?
With this lack of depth, the full weight of the story and plot development shifts and suddenly falls on the poor, unsuspecting monster. So if the monster has any problems, the whole story is weakened and sours and starts to look like all of the other Horror stories with writers as protagonist – becoming a less-than-stellar subgenre of its own, and spawning even worse movies that no bright young starlet in a flimsy nightie can save.
We owe our monsters more. They do an important job in our genre.
Naturally it is hard to argue with success when we have seen it happen with our own eyes and when it has been orchestrated by our favorite author…sometimes time and again. But really, once a device is used to resounding success, we need to move on for the sake of the genre. We need to discover other ways to weave our stories and not recycle other writer’s ideas simply because we can. To not do so seems like a simple excuse to just “write what you know” and let the reader be damned… and with so much monster trouble in Horror, I am wondering why so many writers are sacrificing character development so willingly.
First of all, maybe we need a re-education about what an editor means when we are told to write what we know. Because if we all really and literally did, fiction would be a boring place indeed – for writer and reader.
Writing what you know means tapping into personal experiences, raw emotions, painful memories, joyous loves, horrendous losses that shape your own life. This is why writers get better as they age -- theyhave more experiences to draw upon. It does not mean that every protagonist must be the same thing – the same pitiful or heroic creature that you can construct from the dust of your own life. You must realize that you are Dr. Frankenstein – not the monster. The characters in your fiction become an amalgam of your own emotional processing of life and your perceptions of how things might have been – the famed “what if” of fiction and the key to character development. Writing a character outside of your own life allows you to explore uncharted territory and coast on the coattails of your character’s potential growth or failures. Best of all, it also invites your readers to come along on the journey.
Maybe we also need a re-education in how to create and develop characters. Maybe it is time for writers of self-help books and writer workshops and college courses to drop the Hammer of Craft on our heads and quit handing us useless fluff. This means that we as writers – just like our cousins in the arts – must actually suffer for our art and experience constructive criticism from those brave enough to give it. It means we have to consider that maybe an objective reader of our fiction is right – at least some of the time.
Writing is hard work. It is hard because there are elements to fiction that are expected to be mastered by the accomplished author. It may not be easy – at times it may even seem like a mythological quest. But if a writer is willing to abandon the pursuit of craft and write a two-dimensional mimicry of him- or herself as protagonist, how can the rest of the story have any value? A character has to have relevance to the story and its readers.
In Horror, I cannot believe that so many stories can only be told if the protagonist is a writer. Because if that is true, then one need only avoid the profession to avoid real Horror; not a message that curdles the blood and tingles the spine of a vast readership. It should always be clear that Horror can stalk anyone…perhaps even you.
I, for one, am exhausted reading the same protagonist over and over. It has led to shallow characters everywhere and an alarming loss of character depth and development. Our genre needs and deserves to present believable, relatable characters. People you can imagine at your own dinner table. People you can see yourself reflected in. People you don’t want to open that door…
Writers create the doors they open. How can they be good protagonists?
I believe this shortcutting in characterization is actually worse than writing a bad monster, because many a good character has carried a bad monster or weak plot. If you want to read an example, the proof is in any number of classic Horror stories where monsters just seem silly – yet they still scare you enough to keep the lights on. Furthermore, if you want to see an example, revisit your classic creature feature on a Saturday afternoon. Actors like Vincent Price and Bela Lugosi took characterization to literary heights that more than made up for monster flaws and tech-poor effects. When somebody makes you care about the character, the Horror gene is magically satisfied.
It is also my suspicion as to why the British write exceptional Horror in general. Somebody across the pond values character development, and it is virtually impossible not to become emotionally invested in British Horror because of this attention to detail. American Horror seems to rely more on gore and action to cover our sins, and I think this big rush to start shocking the reader and audience is compromising our contributions to the genre.
I am not talking about style here. I really do mean character development. I think the worst thing an author can do is alienate their audience before the story can even get started; and if a writer intends to let his or her own profession fill in the character profile for the reader, I (for one) have already lost interest. A novel or short story should never be a venue to air author angst against editors, critics, or even writer’s block. It is not a platform from which to educate the public on the isolating consequences of being a writer. It is supposed to be about telling a story that we all can relate to.
Like it or not, writers of Horror need return to the genre’s origins, to sink into the primordial ooze and rummage around for the proper skeleton to hang the character’s flesh upon. We need to remember what haunted us as young readers and would-be writers – what made the characters important to us. We need to see the connection between the protagonist and the Horror to come, and we need to woo our lost readership with more than hollow promises to scare them while talking about ourselves.
Please. No more writers-as-protagonists.
It’s time to bring Horror back to our fan base. It’s time to lure them out into the open. As writers it is time to bring one single, important truth to our fiction:
Stories have characters; readers need to care if they get eaten.