Last night as I was dropping off to sleep and feeling happy about setting up that new blog of mine (thanks to everyone who’s already signed up to follow that, by the way), my mind started to wander, as it usually does right before I fall asleep. This time around my mind went to horror stories (yeah, it does that quite often too), and I started to ponder character depth and development in horror stories. At some point I realized that in horror, you often have either characters who are very well-rounded and developed, or you have characters that are little more than archetypes, e.g. the Skeptical Dad, the Final Girl, The Psychic Child, The Expert, etc. And you know what else I realized, what made me get up out of bed and write this revelation down before I fell asleep and forgot? Sometimes these stories require different level of character development, depending on what the story is.

Let me explain. In certain scary stories, such as Stephen King’s The Shining (the book, not that poorly adapted Kubrick film), the characters are more than just archetypes and we get to know them very well. This is because their inner conflicts are just as important to the story as is the outer conflicts happening with the hotel. Jack Torrance is trying to keep his cool and be a good husband and father for his family after so many screw ups, while also fending off his desire to drink and the mental assaults of the hotel. His wife Wendy is trying to keep her family together while also keeping an eye on Jack in case he reverts to bad habits. And Danny, psychic and wise beyond his years, is trying to stay strong and endure the hotel’s attempts to kill him because he knows a lot is riding on his father taking care of the hotel through the winter. How they react to situations and grow as characters is just as important as what is happening within the hotel, so King makes sure they are well-developed.

Part of the terror (in the book, anyway), comes from the conflicts these characters wrestle with inside themselves as well as the ones the hotel sends them.

Meanwhile other stories don’t need as much character development. Take Insidious 3, for example (yes, I’m using the third entry in a horror film series, but bear with me). Besides main character Elise Rainier, most of the characters in the film do not get much character development. In the Brenner family, who are experiencing all these supernatural happenings, you don’t see much beyond the roles they play in the story: Quinn is a pretty girl with dreams of acting and is being victimized by a spirit, her dad Sean is the scatter-brained parent trying to keep his family together through grief and tragedy, and the annoying younger brother Alex is…well, the annoying younger brother. Despite not getting a lot of characterization though, these three characters do actually get some growth in the story: Quinn’s car accident and the spirit attacking her causes her, her brother, and her father to get out of their own little worlds and come together as a family to save Quinn’s life.

And of course, there are those stories that require little or no characterization or growth at all. This is common in slasher films, where the characters are often reduced to archetypes or roles (anyone who’s seen Cabin in the Woods knows what I’m talking about). This also happens in a short story I had an idea for recently (and that I might write as soon as I finish editing Video Rage). In this story, I decided that I wouldn’t spend time going over why the protagonist’s younger brother is a bratty kid or why the antagonists are as freaky as they are. The reason I decided this is because the events of the story are where the terror and intrigue come from, not from any inner growth. This is usually the case with slasher films as well: the events of the story are where we get our terror and excitement from, so more attention is pointed towards telling the story than going over any inner conflicts of the characters.

Half the fun of this show is seeing these two interact with each other.

What I’m driving at here is that how much character development is required from a story depends a lot on where the excitement and fear is coming from and how essential developing a character is in order to keep a reader or viewer invested in the story. In the case of a Nightmare on Elm Street film or the story I mentioned above, we’re reading or seeing the story because we know that the story’s events is where we’re going to get the excitement we paid to read/see. In the case of stories like The Shining or most episodes of Hannibal though, a major reason why we’re investing time into the story is because of the characters, not just what’s happening around them. This is especially so in Hannibal, because most of the conflicts and intrigue comes from the characters, their psychological states, and how they play against one another. We’re there not just because Hannibal Lecter is a famous and charismatic serial killer, we’re also there because we like seeing how Will Graham’s relationship with Lecter changes and evolves over time.

And knowing how much to balance of these two elements–character development and story-focus–is very important. Look at the remake of Poltergeist that came out recently. It was an awful film, and one of the many problems it had was that they tried to insert character development near the beginning of the film and failed miserably. Early on it focused on the dad losing his job and trying to find a new one, as well as mentioned something about the wife being a writer. I think the filmmakers were trying to translate this into an arc where the family tries to stay together and come together through rough circumstances, but ultimately the whole thread of the dad looking for a job and the parents trying to keep the family together fails to really get resolved or come together and ends up feeling unnecessary to the story. You’d think that it would just be enough to say the dad got promoted or transferred or a new job and leave it at that!

So whether it’s a zombie flick, a novel about a haunted house, or a psychological horror TV show, knowing the balance between character development and story-focus is just as important as creating a memorable and creepy villain or writing the story in such a way so that the story actually remains scary rather than goofy or just plain stupid (*cough* Friday the 13th remake *cough*). If you do, you’re more likely to write a good story worth remembering than you are to write garbage that horror fans sift through trying to find a nugget of gold.

I’ll certainly keep the balance in mind with the next story I write.

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