Writing Excuses 5.26: Scared for the Characters

Sherrilyn Kenyon, a multiple New York Times bestselling author of all kinds of novels, helps us tackle the tricky work of making the reader fear for the characters in the book.

The first step? Make the reader sympathize with the characters. Then make the reader love them. And then? Then you put them through the wringer while your readers bite their nails bloody in horror.

Here in the blurb we make it sound easy and formulaic. Listen to the ‘cast for pointers on the difficult bits.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Night Pleasures: The Dark Hunters, Book 1, by Sherrilyn Kenyon, narrated by Carrington MacDuffie

Writing Prompt: Take a Lovecraftian beastie and shove him into The Shire.

Legal Note: The Lovecraftian beastie may lie in the public domain, but The Shire most certainly does not. Additional points for making your Shire and your Hobbits C&D-proof with clever name changes and a shave of their feet.

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32 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 5.26: Scared for the Characters”

  1. Don’t worry Howard. The casual listeners can wait till morning and the die-hards are don’t care if it’s late.

    Feel Better.

    Anyway, I would like to suggest another way to include James Bond in a horror story. The two already mentioned methods are to kill of bond in act one and to give him only some of the information (though I would think of this as more of a thriller than a horror). Wouldn’t it also be possible to give a character (like Bond) extreme combat power but change the axis upon which the threat comes from. If the combat skills count for nothing and the conflict hits in an area of incompetence (the ability to sustain a long-term relationship, the ability to cook, etc) then you can put Bond in a horror story.

    Granted, finding a way to believably put James Bond in front of a bad cooking juggernaut isn’t easy but what are good writers paid for?

    A good vlog from The Escapist that I think is very relevant.

  2. A great example of what you’re describing is the movie “Aliens.” The military was played up as being tough and ready for anything, but they were not ready for what came after them.

  3. Another good ‘cast, and one I found especially interesting. I’m more of an old school Lovecraftian horror fan over the modern slasher stuff, though I’ve enjoyed some of those as well (I love Halloween and Alien/Aliens). I like what you say about the difference between horror and, say, suspense or adventure stories. Horror is usually intimate and personal, playing on a much smaller scale, much closer to home.

    I heard one author say that horror is also an extremely moral genre. Certainly, the horror books I enjoy most have that quality to them.

    Dan, I didn’t like John Cleaver because he was funny, though that made him fun to listen to. I cared about John Cleaver because he’s one of the most ethical characters I have ever come across. It’s not just that I don’t want him to become the bad guy, HE doesn’t want to become the bad guy, and he has structured every moment of his life to fight against that. It was his own horror at the possibility that won me over. How could I not root for someone like that?

    Very sorry to hear about the pneumonia, Howard – you’ve been hit by a lot lately. Hope you feel better soon.

    Oh, and the writing prompt immediately made me think Lobelia Sackville-Baggins beats up the Elder Gods with her umbrella. (Or, true horror, she gets hold of the Necronomicon.)

  4. I hope you get better soon, Howard. Having Pneumonia sucks.

    Thanks for casting about this. It’s something I’m struggling with in my writing right now and it’s something that Sherrilyn does so well. That moment between Zarek and the little boy is so poignant. But a better example from her work I think is “One Silent Night”. She takes a character that’s been a villain for several books and makes him sympathetic and likable. I was cursing at the end of that book because, dang it, now I have to like this guy. It was so bloody brilliant.

  5. You know, I’d like to see you continue with that discussion–in terms of defining a genre. What IS the definition of real horror? Does horror always have a supernatural element to it? Does it immediately go to the gross out–as Mr. King calls it? Is it a definition best left to the publishers–because what Penguin considers horror may not be the all inclusive definition that Random House calls horror? I think that’s a discussion that needs to be really really examined–how does one define a genre? I know it’s an issue that *I* have trouble with–considering that my stuff tends to be incredibly cross-genre.

    **Re: Frodo and the others being alone without Gandalf? Uh, no, they aren’t–you forget; after Gandalf falls down the dragon hole (so to speak), the four hobbits still have Strider/Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and Boromir. It’s not until Frodo and Sam leave them that they’re truly alone–and even then, those two pick up Golum, so they’re not alone again.

  6. Is it wrong to want John Cleaver to become the bad guy? No offense to Dan, but I was disappointed when he claimed that the reader doesn’t want John to become a monster. I can’t tell you how many times I was hoping that John would cut Brooke to pieces in great and gory detail. Don’t get me wrong, having him fight his inner demons is the soul of the story, but just once I would like to see him lose that fight, and lose hard.

    (BTW, I’ve only read the first two books. I’ll have to reserve my final judgment until I read IDWtKY.)

  7. I think LOTR is not a horror because Frodo knows who he is up against, what they want, and what he has to do. Most horror movies have the element of randomness. You don’t know who or what the killer is after and why. So if you can rationalize it, it’s not a horror.

  8. Hey guys, a little off topic but how detailed should an outline get? Is there an example you have available?

    By the love the podcast!

  9. Funny that Lovecraft should come in the writing prompt. One of my favorite recent memories involves Brandon Sanderson and a Magic deck he calls “Cthulu To The Face”

  10. @ Johnny: I think you’ve nailed it. There certainly were some horror elements in the Nazgul and the barrow-wights, but for the most part Frodo had been briefed. He was way out of his depth, but he had a rationale that he was able to maintain all the way to the end.

  11. Just my opinion, but I think the real basis for horror is in the individual losing control, not being able to respond. Think about the common nightmare, where we can’t move as some kind of horror approaches. It really isn’t the horror coming that makes it so terrifying — it’s the lack of mobility, the inability to do anything. Or take a car rolling down a winding road. Not very scary, until the driver stamps on the brakes and finds they are gone. Then turns the steering wheel and finds that it does nothing. And yanks on the emergency brake and it is gone. Now the car rolling down the winding road is scary! Similarly, catastrophes, Evil, and such are not really scary as long as we have some options, some ways to try to respond or escape, something we can do. But… let us be trapped in the mud as the tide rises, or something like that, and now we’re getting scared.

    Give your protagonist an overpowering opponent and take away their ability to do anything about it — that’s horror. Doesn’t even need to be particularly overpowering, if we can’t do anything about it.

  12. As for Bond, I believe the reason that you fear more for Daniel Craig’s version is because he plays it more serious. That really stuck out at me in his movies. Pierce could play the classic James Bond character well but they all had the same cavalier flair to them. Connery’s and Moore’s (as well as Brosnan’s) versions came complete with little quips for their enemies. They were so aloof and competent in their every action and word, you never were afraid for them. “They’ve got this, don’t worry!”

    Craig’s Bond is much more grave and deadly. He borders on the psychotic at times and deals in some measure of unpredictability to the character. I find myself thinking that perhaps if he pushes it too far, he’ll finally bite the Golden Bullet despite his intense training and capabilities.

    Also with time, the action sequences have gotten much more intense and dramatic…that could have something to do with it too.

    Thanks for the time you put in and I hope you feel better Howard!

  13. @Michael: are you writing a detailed outline for yourself or for submitting to an agent? I haven’t submitted anything to an agent so I don’t know, but if you just write for youself, I find a list of plot complications is best. It will keep your outline manageable. So instead of writing “Rob meets Michael at starbucks, and while enjoying their cups of coffee, they run into Julie who accuses Michael of vadalizing her car,” you would just write “Rob and Michael runs into Julie who accuses Michael of vandalizing her car” – only the parts that complicate the plot :-)

  14. A lot of good stuff this week, but this was the first time in a while that I felt like the podcast suffered because of the format. Specifically, that you only had 15 minutes to talk about it. I really think you need to do more podcasts on horror, there were so many things that you just barely touched on. I’d like to hear more about the movie horror genre (or why it isn’t horror at all) and the different kinds of horror (physical vs. psychological). Anyway, you left me wanting more, which is good I guess, but please revisit the subject!

  15. Though I find these podcasts valuable and entertaining, the biggest impact they’ve had on my life is that I now go out of my way to be nice to the LDS kids that show up on bikes every couple months.

  16. Brilliant as usual, and as usual, the fact that you’re doing something well means that people are going to ask for even more. . .

    What could it mean when you get bored while writing a scene? What do you do about it?

  17. Thought I’d give a shoutout. I just started listening to the podcast, and just so Brandon knows, I bought Way of Kings a couple days ago mainly because I’m now listening and didn’t want to be a freeloader. Anyway, I’m really enjoying it. Podcast is great. Keep it coming.

    As you were discussing how to take a character whom everyone hates and make him likable, I was thinking of a twist on that–Stephan Donaldson’s character, Angus Thermopyle, in the Gap series. He starts off the series as the most despicable human being ever, and while he isn’t ever really liked, he becomes somewhat of the hero in the books that follow (although, in honesty, I didn’t finish all 5 books). I don’t want to give too much away for those of you that may not have read it, but the way he does that creates more interesting internal conflict in that character. I thought it was very well done.

  18. @Heidi: If you’re bored writing it, we’re probably going to be bored reading it. Ask yourself what purpose the scene serves, and find a way to fulfill that purpose in an interesting way, preferably in a scene that serves several purposes.

  19. Thank you, Howard. In the vein of creating scenes that serve several purposes, I remember a podcast in which one of you said that every scene should do three things. I think those things were develop character, advance the plot, and create mood. Am I remembering it right? I’ve tried to find it again but without luck.

  20. Pretty much, yes. Or develop multiple characters while advancing multiple plot threads. Me, I think of the book as a series of tasks that have to be completed, and then I start assigning tasks to scenes. Critical reveals, defining character moments, etc.

  21. Thank you Howard. I hadn’t thought of considering plot development that way, but I like it. I’m going to try that. Thanks again.

  22. About LotR, I think the reason it isn’t horror is because however scary the Nazgul or barrow-wights or whatever else are, they aren’t the ultimate goal of the story. The ultimate goal is “This ring has to get to Mount Doom”. If it were a horror, the Nazgul would come, and the hobbits would be totally unprepared, and the novel in its entirety would be “Holy crap, there are these freaky guys on horses and if they catch me I’m gonna die.” But since they’re already trying to get to Rivendell by the time the riders show up, the focus is on “Holy crap, we have to get to Rivendell to save the world before these riders catch us and kill us.” The characters have to do something *more* than just not get killed. The immediate danger is still the same thing, but the focus is different, and that changes everything.

  23. Another thought on why LOTR isn’t horror – we have a clear understanding of what the danger really is. The evil is very clearly defined, it isn’t a mystery. In my favorite horror stories, such as The Haunting of Hill House, the evil is very undefined, we don’t understand it, and often never really do. There’s that old idea of being able to rob evil of its power simply by knowing its name.

  24. @House of Payne: You are correct, but it’s not obvious unless you follow each comma with a line break.

    Fifteen minutes long,
    because you’re in a hurry,
    and we’re not that smart.

  25. I’m new the podcast, so I’m a bit behind in listening and late with commenting here. (Love the show!) I haven’t read much Horror, so my perception of it is colored by Hollywood. With that caveat…There were several things mentioned (during the podcast and in comments here) that ring true to me as indications of Horror—the everyday nature of the story’s world, the randomness of horrific events, the protagonists feeling of helplessness, how surviving the “monster” is the focus of the story… The thing that usually strikes fear in me is how the victims (the protagonist and/or other people in the town/house/spaceship where the protagonist lives) have no choice in the matter. They have not chosen to chase monsters or go on a perilous adventure. Their normal lives, even if they are soldiers, as they are in Predator, have been interrupted by terror, and they’ve lost the illusion of control. That’s a rephrasing of what Dan said about them being everyday people and what some others here have said about randomness and helplessness, and I think perceiving it this way, as an unpredictable and unfathomable interruption, is what chills me as a reader/viewer. This fear is different than what I feel for characters like the hobbits, who choose to face a specific perilous adventure (no matter how begrudgingly, Bilbo), or an FBI agent who hunts a psychopath as part of her job.

    Thanks so much for the podcast!

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