Posts Tagged ‘character tropes’

Go to any slasher movie. I guarantee someone will do something stupid. And I also guarantee there’s a reason behind why they did it.

So yesterday I was doing some edits on Rose* and one of the points in the beta reader notes stood out to me. In that particular point, my friend/colleague/beta reader Joleene Naylor pointed out that it was taking the titular character Rose a lot longer to figure something out about the scene that Joleene had figured out much earlier. My immediate first thought was, “Well, it’s horror. Everyone’s a bit slower in horror.” And that thought really stuck with me. Yeah, the characters in horror aren’t always the brightest bulbs in the closet, are they? People in slasher films take too long to realize there’s a killer hunting them around a lake notorious for murders and disappearances, the family stays in their haunted house and might even pretend things are normal even if it’s obvious there’s demonic possession at work, dumb teenagers run upstairs when they should run out the door. They either realize something well after the audience has realized something, or they make really dumb decisions. And it’s such a well-known trope, it gets parodied quite a bit in our media, like in this Geico commercial.

This got me thinking: is this intentional on the part of horror writers? If so, why?

Well, I thought about this throughout the day (couldn’t write this before because I had to go to bed and then to work), and I think that what’s happening is intentional. However, I don’t think the intention is to make the characters stupid idiots.

First, let’s consider something: we’re the audience, and the characters are characters. In our daily lives we’re not keyed up, checking to see if horror-movie circumstances everywhere we go (and if we are, we’re usually recommended to see a doctor about that). It’s only when we sit down for a horror story that we start looking for signs of horror, because that’s what our brains are trained to do. Similarly, unless they’re enjoying a horror story or think they’re in one, characters won’t typically see all the signs of something evil around them unless that evil chooses to make itself known.

There’s also the fact that authors have to tell a story, and often the stories they tell have to be of a certain length. For example, I classify a novel as sixty-thousand words or more, so I have to figure out how to keep a novel going for that long. One of the ways to do that is to make the characters figure things out much slower than the audience, either by only giving them clues slowly or later in the story, or by actually making it so they can’t connect the dots until it’s convenient for the story. And considering that part of the appeal of horror, the thrill of the mystery and the unknown as well as our reactions to it once exposed, this is a sound strategy.

Okay, so making characters slow on the uptake is part imitating people in the real world, part storytelling tool. But what about stupid decisions?

Well, that’s actually pretty easy to answer: they’re under stress. When a character is being chased by a killer or trying to get away from a ghost, they’re under unimaginable pressures. So unless they’ve been trained to think under pressure, like in the Army, they’re not going to make a rational decision. They’re going to make split-second decisions that they hope will ensure their survival, and because it’s a horror story, they’ll likely make the wrong decision. Unless the author says otherwise, of course.

And even if they’re not in a stressful, life-or-death situation, the need for survival can cause us to do very stupid things sometimes, as well as our characters. Polly Chalmers, one of the protagonists of Stephen King’s Needful Things, keeps a charm around her neck, despite suspecting that there’s something alive in it and it’s twisting her personality somehow, because the thing is easing the debilitating pain of her arthritis. In other words, fulfilling a need to help her live.

Sometimes a character acts a certain way either because they’re imitating real people, or the author needs them to be that way.

So it’s not that characters in horror stories are dumb or slow. They’re victims of imitating people in the real world as well as the author’s discretion in storytelling. And we the audience, free of those issues, are able to pick up on things they can’t or won’t for a little while longer.

Of course, we will continue to call characters stupid and wonder how they could not do the smart thing. That just comes with the territory. But perhaps the next time we sit down for a scary movie, we’ll also consider what the characters are going through, as well as what the storytellers behind them decided was best for the characters and their story.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. Hope this gave you plenty to think about. I had fun just thinking of it. Until next time, pleasant nightmares.

*Speaking of which, the editing on Rose is going very well. Yesterday I got through four chapters, bringing me halfway through the fourth draft. At the rate I’m going, I could be done before the end of the month. And after that, hopefully it’s a short wait till I find a publisher. God-willing, anyway.


I’ve just released my latest article on Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors. This time around, it’s What is a Mary Sue, and When Can You Actually Apply the Term to a Character (damn, that’s a mouthful). It’s an essay on the Mary Sue character trope, which is honestly one you want to avoid at all costs if you can help it. And in discussing the character, I hope I teach people to do just that. If you’re an author and you get a chance, take a look and see if you’ve ever written a Mary Sue character. Even if you haven’t or don’t write fiction at all, you may find the article illuminating.

And if you like what you see, consider reading the rest of the blog. Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors is a great site for all authors, no matter their background or experience, to learn tips on writing, editing, publishing, and marketing on their own. Written by myself and other dedicated contributors, you’ll surely find it helpful for all sorts of projects. Believe me, I know from personal experience.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. I hope to have another article or two out this week, so keep an eye out for them. Until next time, pleasant nightmares.

Illustration from The Red Shoes.

Illustration from The Red Shoes.

When I was growing up, every protagonist I came across in fiction–comic books and manga, novels, TV shows, movies–were people you automatically liked. They were sympathetic, they had problems you could identify with, or they found themselves in situations and something about them made you want to root for them, even if they were just good guys set up to fight the evils of the world. At that age, I probably couldn’t have imagined a protagonist who wasn’t likable.

As I got older though, I did come across protagonists who, for some reason or another, I just couldn’t like. And I realized, in some cases, that was the intention. Their creators, for whatever reason, wanted these characters to be assholes, or losers, or just so hateful you found yourself cheering a little when they failed. This had me asking: why would you want an unsympathetic protagonist? And can you actually have a good or even a successful story based around one?

I figured out answers to these questions a while back, but I’ve always wanted to blog about them. Now I’ve got the time, so I’d like to go into the strange phenomena that is the unsympathetic protagonist.*

First, why do authors sometimes write unsympathetic protagonists? It seems almost counter-intuitive: why would you want a character whom readers/viewers might hate? Well, one reason is as a moral warning. In the fairy tale The Red Shoes, the protagonist is vain and selfish, and her attitude leads her shoes being enchanted so that when she dances in them, she can’t stop until someone chops them off. I bet a lot of kids got the message loud and clear from that! Another example is from the novel The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah, in which the protagonist, the daughter of a crime boss, tries to regain her lifestyle and reputation after her father loses his empire. However, the protagonist uses mainly crime and manipulation to get what she wants, and looks down on getting a real job or an education. The result is that she ends up in jail and loses everything she ever cared about. The lesson? Crime doesn’t pay, go legit, and listen when people try to help you on the right path.

Another reason is that creators might want to explore territory previously unexplored, and characters whom you might sympathize or consider as heroes doesn’t allow that. Ever heard of Lolita? The entire story revolves around a man having a sexual/romantic relationship with a preteen girl and his attempts to control her and keep her with him forever. It’s a strange novel about desire, unreliable storytelling, and corruption (I think, anyway. I haven’t read this one yet, and given the subject matter, I’m not sure I want to), and it’s not a story we’d usually explore through the eyes of a likable protagonist.

Lolita: a great example of a book with an unlikeable protagonist.

Lolita: a great example of a book with an unlikeable protagonist.

And finally, there’s another reason: sometimes it’s just great fun! In certain stories with unsympathetic protagonists, you get a sort of excitement  that you don’t get from other stories, and this can come from the plot or the characters. In Gone Girl, for example, protagonist Nick Dunne is unlikable for any number of reasons, but you still follow along because you want to know if he really did do something to his wife, and if he’ll wiggle out of trouble whether or not he did do something. Another example we can look to is certain horror films, especially in the slasher genre, where the only mainstay is usually the villain and a lot of gory deaths. As part of that, slasher sequels often come to focus more and more on their villains, and people come back just to see these villains. Just ask anyone who enjoys a good Nightmare on Elm Street or Hellraiser film: they’re there for Freddy or the Cenobites, not for the horny teens who happen to be starring in the movie this time around.

So we’ve established why people create unlikable protagonists. The next question is, can you have a good and/or successful story with an unlikable protagonit? Well, I think that question was also answered above. The Red Shoes has been retold and revamped hundreds of times since Hans Christian Andersen first published his little morality tale. Lolita is considered one of the greatest works of modern and modern Russian literature, as well as one of the most controversial. Gone Girl was a runaway hit with a huge movie based on it. There is plenty of proof that unlikable protagonists can still be part of very good stories.

Neon Genesis Evangelion: great series, annoying lead.

Neon Genesis Evangelion: great series with an annoying lead.

Of course, this brings up another question: what makes a story with an unlikable protagonist good? Well, I often find that either the character is doing something pretty amazing, or the story or world is so amazing that even if you don’t like the character, you keep going for that story/world. Going back to Gone Girl, the protagonist is easy to dislike, but the mystery he’s wrapped up in is so intriguing that you want to find out more. That’s the example of a character doing something interesting. With an amazing story or world, I’d point to the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion: the protagonist is seriously unlikable, but the world he lives in is so cool–it involves teenagers piloting giant robots to fight aliens–that you just want to keep watching.

So you can have a story with a main character whom people may not like. As long as you give people a reason to keep reading or watching, it’s entirely possible. And who knows? Perhaps it’ll be one of the greatest stories ever written.

Just don’t do one centering around a pedophile. I think one of those is enough!

What’s your take on unlikable protagonists? Did I miss any good examples of the trope here in this post? 

*Oh, and in case anyone who’s not familiar is wondering, there is a difference between a hero and a protagonist. A hero is just that: a hero. They save lives, they fight evils, they are the ones we root for. A protagonist can be a hero and vice versa, but a protagonist is the main character, the person whom the story focuses on or from whose perspective we get the story. And as I outline in this post, that difference is bigger than one might think.

I’ve written about this before several times in some way or another, but every now and then I feel the need to shout out to the Internet, “HEY CREATORS OF HORROR, this is one of your students, one who is coming up in your world. Please, for the love of Edgar Allen Poe, STOP DOING THESE THINGS BECAUSE THEY ARE GODDAMN STUPID AND REALLY DETRACT FROM THE STORIES YOU’RE TRYING TO TELL!” I especially feel this need when I think of the Friday the 13th remake, which is a piece of pornographic, drug-overloaded, cliche-ridden piece of crap from the bum of Michael Bay (figures!).

So with that exclamation and obligatory slam on my least favorite horror remake, I think it’s time to list what needs to be scaled back on or just get kicked out of the horror genre all-together.

Too much gore. Ooh, this is a turnoff to me. Excessive gore isn’t scary, it’s disgusting. If you’re going to use gore, it should be used sparingly. It should add to the terror by being sort of like an accentuation, an additive that adds flavor to the movie or novel’s total fear factor. If you’re relying entirely on gore for your scares, then you’re probably doing something wrong. Look at some of the best slashers out there! Yes, they have gore, but they don’t just rely on it. There’s suspense, surprise, terror, a guy coming out of a dark corner when you least expect him and just scaring the crap out of you before he chases the victim and then pushes them through a window and killing them on broken glass. Now that’s scary.

Too much sin factor. Smoking, drinking, getting high, having sex, swearing like a sailor. A lot of horror films, particularly in the slasher sub-genre, are big on punishing people for their sins. I get it. It’s fun to root for a villain and seeing people getting punished for throwing their lives away.But when it’s so excessive that you wonder if you bought a ticket for a horror movie or if you’re watching one of those teen movies where everyone’s stoned and trying to get laid and there’s a ton of unnecessary swearing involved. Seriously, if you need to spice up things by filming a ton of footage involving sex or drugs or whatever, you might need to get your script looked at by a third party.

The stereotypical man’s man and the believing girlfriend. I hate these sort of characters because they’re so predictable. The former is a normal guy who doesn’t believe in anything supernatural except what’s taught in church, and maybe not even then. The latter’s either a housewife or in a menial job stereotypical for women, and she’s the first to come to the conclusion that something’s weird that happens (unless she has kids, who will recognize the weird before even she will). She tries to convince her husband with his father-knows-best attitude that something’s weird, but he won’t believe it. And even when faced with indisputable proof of the supernatural, he’ll still be somewhat skeptical, and would rather use his tool box or his fists rather than search for a supernatural solution or refer to a specialist. In the end he has to believe his one-dimensional wife or end up dead. It’s been done so often, it’s gotten rather annoying.  Please, switch it up a bit, because it’s so stale we’ll have to throw it out if it doesn’t find a way to become fresh again.

Cheesy effects. I don’t care what your budget is, I’ve seen some amazing things done with effects bought on a budget of only a couple million, or even just ten-thousand dollars. About a month and a half ago I saw this late-night horror film that started out promising. Sadly it didn’t work out that way, and part of it was that the special effects were terrible, and the filmmakers seemed to revel in that by displaying their cheesiness at every second. If they’d tried to at least make it difficult to see what the wolves looked like, it would’ve improved the story so much more (and the film could’ve used the improvement, with that shoddy script). The moral is, even if you can’t use expensive special effects, there are ways to do amazing things with it. You never know what you’ll get.


Horror is well known for its tropes and cliches, and often fans of the genre will defend those tropes, saying they actually allow for more flexibility and creativity. However, occasionally these tropes are more problematic than they’re worth and, like the ones above, need to go.

What things in the horror genre would you like to boot entirely? What would you like to see more of?

Sorry it’s coming a little late, but you know, my crazy life. And I wanted to watch it taped so I could fast forward through the commercial breaks.

Anyway, I liked this season of AHS much better than Coven last year. In terms of tone it was closer to the first season, though it had some more lighthearted moments than Season 1. Also, the show’s creator Ryan Murphy -incorporated a few musical scenes, so he’s either testing the waters for a crossover with his other show Glee or he’s just trying to keep things fresh. I definitely think it’s the latter. But like I was saying, this is some pretty good horror. Like previous seasons, you can’t tell where the story is going, and no one’s safe from death. Unlike previous seasons, nobody comes back to life or dies twice (shocker!) and the final episode of the season doesn’t just feel like filler with minimal scares to wrap up loose ends, but an actual episode that is kind of terrifying and very entertaining. There are a few loose ends, but I think we can assume what happened based on what happens in that episode.

Also, this is the first season to connect with another season (Asylum), and apparently all the seasons connect, so I’m wondering how they’re going to connect that in upcoming seasons. Minor detail, but it’s important to talk about.

Anyway, back to the review. What I really liked about Freak Show, besides the final episode actually being pretty good, is that the writers were able to tell a really beautiful story about people on the outskirts of society, and while also keeping things scary and interesting. Everyone has their own story, their own darkness, and their own potential to be evil. In fact at several times many characters cross the lines from good folks to villains and then back again. It’s very hard to pin down a central villain, especially during the first six episodes or so. I guess it shows that in an imperfect world, where most of the characters are scared or in trouble with the authorities, you’ll do what you have to in order to survive.

I also like how the story twists and turns, taking us in directions we couldn’t see, and still keeps things within reasonable bounds of imagination. And I loved the guest stars: Neil Patrick Harris and Jamie Brewer as Chester and Marjorie the Doll, Wes Bentley as Edward Mordrake (my favorite minor character) and quite a few others. But the main cast! Whoo, were they amazing. Sarah Paulson playing a pair of conjoined twins and did it so convincingly, I forgot it was acting and CGI! And Finn Wittrock as Dandy Mott deserves an award, playing the most horrific serial killing chameleon I’ve seen outside of Hannibal. And I loved Jessica Lange as Elsa Mars, who is just as evil and as tragic as any character in this show, but with quite the theatrical flare. Plus all the actors playing the freaks! Some actually have certain conditions, others are actors, but all are amazing in their roles.

Finn Wittrock, the man who played Dandy Mott. I hope he comes back for Season 5, he was definitely my favorite actor this season.

The one thing I did not care for is that Twisty the Clown, who appears in the first four or so episodes, is given an intellectual disability and his mental illness as the reason for which he kills. I swear, I’m tired of people with mental retardation being portrayed in these things as serial killers! I’ve known people with intellectual disabilities. At the worst, they can be difficult to handle in a bad mood, but they are normally sweet and kind. Why they’re portrayed over and over this way, I’m not sure. Honestly, the only times I’ve been okay with it is the Friday the 13th and Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchises, but only then. (Please see my article on tropes that need to be retired for more on this subject).

All in all, I’m giving American Horror Story: Freak Show a 4.5 out of 5. Scary, entertaining, beautiful, and a great 4th season for the anthology series with wonderful performances by all the actors in the show. I’m looking forward to the next season (which has been ordered). I hope it’ll be as dark as Asylum. I wonder what they’ll do for Season 5. I heard a rumor that it might be magicians, and there’s reasons to believe that might be it. Other contenders could be a prison season (though that might be too close to Season 2) and one taking place at a summer camp (a favorite of horror fans everywhere). And there’s always the chance of a high school filled with evil, I guess.

Well, that’s all for now. I’m heading to bed. Friday’s a shorter day for me, so I want to be wide awake for it. Goodnight, my Followers of Fear. I’ll try to write tomorrow or the day after if I can. See ya then!