Posts Tagged ‘characters’

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.

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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.

So I’ve been working on the outline for a new novel that I plan to write for National Novel Writing Month in November (I know, it’s early for that, but I need to work on something original because I’ve been doing nonstop editing since last NaNoWriMo, and if I don’t work on something new before I work on Rose I’m going to scream). And while I’ve been working on it, building the story chapter by chapter, I had the feeling that there was something missing from the story.

About two nights ago, I hit across what was missing. It was personal problems! Good horror stories often deal with issues that the characters are dealing with both internally and in their own lives! In great horror stories like Cujo and the novel I read and reviewed the other day, the main characters are trying to keep their families alive in some state and not lose their livelihoods in addition to trying to survive rabid dogs or a haunted house. In the TV series Supernatural (which I’ve been binging on lately, it’s so good!), in addition to dealing with evil entities and the oncoming Apocalypse, the protagonists Sam and Dean Winchester have to deal with the fact that they’re brothers, with all the issues that family can have when living and working in proximity, and then some.

And I don’t do enough of that exploring–or indicate that I will be doing that sort of exploring–in the outline for this new project. Which is actually a very big issue if I think about it.

There are several reasons why this is. One is having these personal issues helps the audience identify with the characters. Everybody has problems, and seeing people with relatable issues in their life–recent loss, money troubles, relationship issues, addiction, etc.–even if they’re just characters in a story, make people feel for them. In American Horror Story: Asylum, the character of Lana Winters is thrown into Briarcliff as a patient because she’s a lesbian. We of the present day know she was born that way and there’s nothing wrong with her, but back then, the LGBT community was seen by many as immoral or insane, and faced all sorts of discrimination. This immediately makes her a lot more sympathetic to us than if she was just a regular ambitious reporter, and helps draw us into the story as well as makes us identify with the characters.

Another reason creators explore these deep, personal issues in horror fiction, even when you’ve got everything from ghosts to serial killers to aliens to vampires and everything in-between, is that it keeps the characters interesting and the audience interested. Going back to Supernatural, what would the show be like if each episode was about the Winchester brothers facing a new monster and defeating it, plus a few quips? Well sure, it’d be entertaining for a while, but with no change in that formula things would’ve gotten stale probably ten seasons ago. Part of the draw is seeing these two very-different brothers go through ups and downs in their relationships, figuring out right and wrong in a world full of grey areas and just trying to be good people and good to each other at the end of the day, in addition to stopping the end of the world and all the things that go bump in the night.

And third, we writers like to explore these characters, their problems and traumas, and how the characters deal with them over the course of the story. Some good examples of this come from my own work. If you’ve read Reborn City, you know that protgonist Zahara Bakur doesn’t really start out as heroine material. She’s as far from a Wonder Woman as you cn get. But through the story, I explore both the problems she deals with as a Muslim gangster in an environment that isn’t very nice to Muslims and Zahara’s doubts and fears. And I love doing that, I love watching characters like Zahara grow from someone whom you’d never expect to be a hero to someone whom you’d willingly follow into a tricky situation.

So yeah, exploring personal problems with our characters, whatever those problems are, is definitely something we authors do a lot of. And I need to do it more with this new project I’m working on, even if I’m not picking it up again until September or October. Actually,I’m a little surprised I’m not doing more exploration. There’s a whole big problem with the protagonist’s relationship with another character–let’s just say they shouldn’t be an item for a very good reason–and I’m so not exploiting that enough. I really have to explore how this relationship could mess with the characters while at the same time something evil is attacking the town.

In fact, I’m going to get on that right now. Wish me luck, my Followers of Fear. Hopefully by the time I’m done going over this outline, it’ll be as good as it needs to be for November.

The other day I met some folks at the local Starbucks. We’re all part of a group  of college students and young adults run by Jewish Family Services of Columbus which promotes physical, financial, mental, and social health for its members. As often happens when I’m talking with new people, the writing career came up. And you should’ve seen how these folks reacted. They were very impressed, going on about how three published books and four more at various stages of the editing/compilation process* was quite the talent, how they struggled to get five-hundred words together and make that sound good, let alone an entire novel. Basically it all boiled down to “We struggle with this, but you make it look easy.”

And the whole time I’m just sitting there thinking, This is all very flattering, I hope you buy the books, but honestly writing is damn hard!

This came up during a discussion I had with an acquaintance over Facebook last week. He was trying to write a story but was having trouble getting the words down on paper, so he thought he’d pick my brains on the subject. One of the things we discussed was how difficult it is for even the most veteran writers to get words out on paper. You look at that blank page, and you know that you need to get several thousand words–sometimes much, much more–on that paper. Then you realize that you’ll have to go back several times, editing and rewriting, changing passages, changing entire plot lines sometimes.** It’s intimidating, almost like every word is like a soldier in a war that you have to defeat personally. Not very easy.

Okay, this is possibly me being overdramatic, but you get the idea.

Yeah, to some people I make writing look pretty easy. That I’m making those sixty-thousand-plus words just appear on the page with barely any energy spent. But in reality, it’s hard work coming up with the stories, making them compelling and fun and interesting. Creating the characters, making them fully rounded and sympathetic, giving them backstories and a reason for the readers to root for them or at least stay invested in them. Then doing the research, working the final details out, and finally  putting the words down on paper, picking them and putting them in an order that sounds right when read aloud. And even after all that there are probably more words to add, just as many to lose, and maybe twice that amount is going to be reordered or replaced by something else.

Like the title of this post says, it’s a struggle to write. We writers may make it seem easy, or people look at us and assume that to us it’s easy (even when you tell them that it’s bloody difficult work), but it’s as much of a challenge for us as finding a way to sustain life on Mars is for scientists, or making it to the Olympics is for athletes.

And yet still we do it. We come up with the ideas, do the outlines, create the characters. We research, put down the final plot details, and get everything we need done before we actually write. And then, through fears and anxiety and everything else, we face down the blank page, like two boxers in a ring, and we start working. And after all the writing’s done, we do the countless hours and hours of editing, until the story is as good as it’s going to be.

Why do we do this? Maybe we like sharing the stories we create with our readers. Maybe we need to get these stories out of our heads before they drive us crazy. The point is, we engage in that struggle every time we open our notebooks or turn on our computers. And we do what we’ve trained and worked hard for. And it’s never easy. But for many of us, I think we wouldn’t have it any other way.

*More on that in another post.

**I may have to do that with Rose when I do the third draft. Oy!

Ooh boy, 2016 is already sucking in terms of horror films. And what made this film so bad? Well, I’m about to go into full SPOILERS to tell you why. I know, I know, I usually try to avoid spoilers at all costs, but in order to tell you how this film screwed up royally, I will have to spoil the film’s very big twist. So be warned, if you still plan to see this film and want to form your own opinions, you might want to stop reading this review.

Still here? Alright, let’s go into the setup. The Boy is about Greta Evans, an American running from an abusive ex, comes to England to be the nanny to an elderly couple’s son Brahms. Thing is, Brahms is a doll, the real Brahms dying in a fire over twenty years before. After the parents leave for a holiday, Greta starts thinking that the doll might actually be alive, inhabited by the soul of the psychopathic child who used to live in the house.

Sounds pretty typical, right? Well they try to switch it up in the last twenty minutes. How? Well, here’s where I get spoiler-y: after Greta’s ex arrives and destroys the supposedly-alive doll, it’s actually revealed that the doll…was just a doll. Brahms, who supposedly died over twenty years ago, is actually alive, a full-grown adult who still kind-of thinks he’s a child but has adult desires, and has been living in the house’s walls and in a hidden attic for the past twenty-something years.

WHAT THE FUCK?!!!

Pardon my French, but come on! I get wanting to defy expectations, but the way it’s done here is not only a little lame, but it totally makes no sense. You’re telling me that Brahms survived the fire over twenty years ago, and that he hid in the walls, made his parents, who are apparently aware their son’s alive and in the walls and maybe holding them hostage but allows his dad to have too many drinks with the local grocery store owner, and then also made them play parents to a doll with a remarkable resemblance to him, for over twenty years? Okay, that stretches credulity. First off, the kid doesn’t mature beyond eight years old mentally, surely he’s not clever enough to come up with such an elaborate plan to hold his parents hostage! And if the parents were aware of Brahms being alive, then it argues against Brahms coming across his parents with the doll and taking advantage of the situation.

Honestly, there are two ways this film could’ve actually improved itself: the first, and most obvious, is that the filmmakers could’ve stuck to the supernatural line and focused a bit more on the weird, motherly relationship between Greta and the doll. The other would’ve taken the story and focused on the parents during those first couple years after the fire, when they became aware of their son being alive and what he’s doing to them. That would’ve been an interesting story! Parents who love their son, but at the same time are terrified of him. The conflict would’ve been amazing, the thrill would’ve been powerful. And heck, if they wanted to include the doll in this version, they could’ve found an angle that would’ve worked easily. Especially if they wanted to portray the kid as not stuck mentally, but instead a growing psychopath to rival Hannibal Lecter.

Other than the twist that ruins the movie, the only other problem that I have with the film is that they could’ve touched upon the weird mother-son relationship between Greta and Brahms the doll a whole lot more. That would’ve made the movie much more emotionally powerful, but unfortunately the film only explores it only a little. Other than those two criticisms though, The Boy was pretty decent. The characters are somewhat fun, the actors who play them are great, and the set is decent for a creepy movie. Heck, they even build a really creepy atmosphere punctuated with jump scares. I was afraid at times, and for a little while I really thought the film entertaining, if not downright terrifying.

It’s just that twist. Even if it didn’t make absolutely no sense, it’s so lame it ruins the entire film. Which is why I’m giving The Boy a 2.8 out of 5. Great atmosphere and characters, a promising premise, but I’d only recommend this film if you want to see how a horror film can totally ruin itself by trying to defy expectations, and doing it in the worst way possible.

I reviewed the premiere episode, and I reviewed the previous two seasons after the season finales. I’m reviewing this season, and speculating on the sixth season. And here’s what I have to say: Hotel has replaced Asylum as my favorite season of American Horror Story. And given my high standards, that means something.

Honestly, it’s hard to pin down a favorite part or moment to Hotel, so I’ll try to get in as much as possible. First, there’s the story. With AHS, it’s really hard to pin down where the story will go or how things will play out, who will live or die at the end (though I kind of saw how the first season was going to end at a certain point), and Hotel continues that, keeping me guessing right up until the last episode. I couldn’t even tell who the Ten Commandments Killer was until the show decided to scream it at us right before John Lowe finds out, at which point I was like, “I should’ve seen that twist coming! They’re really that good.” Not only that, but the writers manage to keep things interesting even in slower moments. Okay, not all the slower moments, there were a few moments in some early episodes where I got a little bored with the pace, but other than that, the writers told the story well, kept our interest, and even scared us a bit.

The show also managed to get across its main theme to us the viewers very well. Whereas Freak Show hit us over the head with its theme of “the other”, this year’s theme, “addiction” is given to us with a bit more finesse. Yes, there are lots of shots of needles and all that, but you also see it in the interaction of the characters, how certain characters cling to each other like a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, and how other characters act as merciless and heartless as drug dealers to the people who need them. Besides the actual shots of heroin, the closest they ever get with giving us the addiction theme overtly is in episode 6, where one character reams out another about how she uses men, but that’s it. You really get multiple layers of the theme throughout the season, all done with a skill and complexity that I hope I can someday do with my stories.

Absolutely loved this character.

And then there are the characters. Oh my God, these characters are just so great. My favorite is Evan Peters as James Patrick March, the Hotel Cortez’s founder. He’s such a fun character, like a twisted, murderous Walt Disney, and he steals every scene he’s in. Not only that, but Peters looks like he’s having so much fun every time he’s on screen. Not surprising, considering this is such a different role than anything he’s handled on the show (or maybe in anything he’s ever been in). I also adored Lady Gaga as the Countess. I’ve said it a million times by now, but you forget that you’re watching Lady Gaga when she’s on that screen. She becomes her character, and it’s a magical spell that doesn’t break after the credits roll. I really hope she comes back next season, because she is so talented and fun to watch.

The rest of the cast is also a ton of fun. Denis O’Hare as transgender Liz Taylor is just divine, and totally a woman I would invite out with me on a night of wild partying. Wes Bentley (call me!) does a great job embodying John Lowe, who is a little flat as a character until the big twist about him is revealed, and then he’s just amazing fun. And the hotel itself is a character all on its own (how can it not be, when the word”Hotel” is part of the title?), with the most beautiful sets and an atmosphere all its own. It’s like meeting someone at a party, someone with looks and personality that everyone is drawn to, but if you get too close you see an all-consuming darkness.

Okay, that’s a good description of a lot of serial killers, but you get the idea. I like the hotel. The one character I disliked was Dr. Alex Lowe. Now her actress, Chloe Sevigny, was in Asylum as Shelley the nymphomaniac, and she had such a personality in that season, but here she plays her character like she’s bored most of the time. I know she’s going for frustration and depression at life’s injustices, but it feels more like boredom here. So yeah, not a fan of Alex.

I do have some complaints about this season, as much as I did love it. One was that the entity of the Addiction Demon was so underutilized in the story that if you got rid of it the entire season would be unaffected. I mean really, that thing was scary, so why wasn’t it used more? Not enough actors to play it? Too much time in the make-up chair?

I also could have used a bit more Finn Wittrock in the show (please marry me). I mean he’s such a great actor, he played two separate characters in the same season, and I was willing to forgive him for a bad accent on one of them. But hey, that might just be my problem. I do like handsome actors. Hopefully he’s around a lot next season.

On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving American Horror Story: Hotel a 4.9 out of 5. It’s near perfect as a season as AHS has produced yet, and I cannot wait to see how they try to top it next season.

Seriously hope she’s coming back!

And speaking of next season, what could it be? We’ve had Murder House, Asylum, Coven, Freak Show, and Hotel. Where could they go next? If I were a betting man (and I only occasionally buy lottery tickets), I’d say we might see something set at a private school. Schools are great places to portray a horror story, a lot of the regular actors look like they could be high schoolers, and I could imagine Gaga, who may come back next season, as an English teacher who has an affair with a student. I somehow doubt it’ll be anything involving a prison or a camp: the former is too similar to Asylum, and the latter is being done by the guys behind Once Upon a Time. Perhaps we’ll get something with a political bent, or maybe they’ll try to do a period piece in the 19th or 18th century (plenty of untapped potential there). Or maybe something involving a trial, that would be interesting new territory. In any case, a story set at a school, particularly a private one, is my bet.

Well, we’ll find out soon enough. Possibly very soon, if they release a promo like they did after Freak Show. In any case, I cannot wait.

What did you think about AHS: Hotel? Enjoy it or hate it?

What are your guesses for Season 6?