This week: Killing CharactersEdited by: LJPC - the tortoise
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This newsletter is about bringing characters to life -- before killing them off.
"It's a spooky show, with tons of archetypes and tons of mythology."
~ Jared Padalecki, actor “Supernatural”
“Archetypes are universal, and, in subtle or extravagant ways, interchangeable.”
~ Tanith Lee, bestselling author
“Joan Collins is the queen of the archetype. How do you get that? You get it in the storytelling, obviously, but the actress herself, her personality, brought something to that role which I don't think anybody else could have done.”
~ E. Duke Vincent, TV Producer
“I look at the story, I look at the idea and just try to think of it in terms of that whole body of myth and see where the characters fit in and what they ought to be doing-all those archetype”
~ John Boorman, British filmmaker
Some Characters Have to Die!
In Horror stories, some characters just have to bite the dust.
In order to prove to the reader that your monster, alien, or serial killer is really dangerous, you have to show the readers his deadly side. He has to kill someone -- or a lot of someones!
To be clear, I'm not talking about killing off the main character, his love interest or friends, or any important characters. I’m talking about characters who’ll only appear briefly in the story and have just a few lines. They're the cops who go to check noises coming from the haunted house, the soldiers who will fire ineffectual pistols at a five-story tall monster, or the unsuspecting neighbors who are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. These characters are expendable, only there to die cannon fodder.
However, if the reader has no idea who is being killed and feels no emotion for them, the deaths won’t be as effective, scary, or exciting as they could be.
How to Give Your Cannon Fodder Personality
There are two types of cannon fodder.
Good people who try to help main character or his friends and whose death will make the readers sad.
Bad people whose death may surprise the reader, but will secretly make them happy, since the person deserves it.
But when you’re concentrating on plot, descriptions, and bringing the main characters to life, when do you have time to give the supporting characters personality? Especially if there are a bunch of them. How can you make each one special and memorable to the reader?
Pay attention because I’m going to suggest something shocking.
You use clichés.
I know you’re shocked. It seems to go against one of the biggest rules of writing. But in this instance, clichés are called “archetypes.” An archetype is a type of character that’s been used so much that all readers/audiences will recognize them. By using a recognizable archetype, your reader will understand the character immediately even with no backstory or explanation from you. All that's needed is to describe what they look like, add an action or a few lines of dialog showing the character’s “typical” behavior, and your reader will understand them perfectly.
Some choices for your cannon fodder:
Good Guy Archetypes:
Mother/Father Figure: An older, kindly person who just wants to help the MC and his friends.
Cute Child: This can be someone’s brother/sister or any random cherub-faced child.
Hooker with a Heart of Gold: This doesn’t have to be an actual hooker, but is someone who appears to be an outcast and is disliked (like scary Goth-girl or depressed Emo-boy), but is actually a very nice person.
Likeable Nerd: Any of the guys on “Big Bang Theory” is a good example.
Shy “Ugly” Girl: Humble but tries to do what’s right.
Homeless Person: Down-and-out but kind.
Naive Innocent: Doesn’t understand what’s happening or believes help will arrive any second, like a “Bubble-headed Blonde.”
Goody-Two Shoes: Always acts ethically, mediates arguments, polite and caring.
Doctor/Nurse: Will help injured characters even if the killer/monster is bearing down on them.
Bad Guy Archetypes
Bullying Jock: Big, athletic, nasty guy who picks on anyone weaker than him.
Mad Scientist: The one who wants to study the monster instead of kill it.
Grumpy Neighbor/Shopkeeper: Someone who’s nasty to everybody, usually selfish and doesn't help the MC's group when he has the chance.
Addict: Can be addicted to drugs, alcohol, attention, their job, or anything that matters more to them than the lives of anyone else.
Bigot: A hater.
Mean Employer: Your worst nightmare of a demanding, unfair boss.
Criminal: A liar, cheater, or thief.
Rich Snob: Someone who thinks they’re better than everyone else.
Femme Fatale: the seductress, using feminine wiles to get what she wants.
Names and Faces
Now you know how to make your bunch of cannon fodder into archetypes so the reader will understand them easily. But since these characters may not appear in the story often, the reader may forget who they are. Was Elmira the sweet Nerd or the Hooker with the Heart of Gold?
Now you need to choose names and give each one some physical detail that goes with the archetype you’ve chosen. For instance:
Hooker with the Heart of Gold: Candy, with long bleach-blond hair.
Doctor/Nurse: Doc Cummings/Mrs. White, with horn-rimmed glasses.
Bullying Jock: Biff, always wears his Varsity letter jacket.
Names are important. If you name the hooker “Lisa” and give her brown hair, she’s too average and the reader won’t remember her. If you name the kindly doctor “Dr. Raven” and give him a gaunt face and dirty fingernails, the reader will remember him, but not really believe he’s a “kindly” doctor.
* * Special Note for Novelists * *
Because you have a longer time to explore characters than short story writers, you should begin with an archetype, but then flesh out and deepen that character. Take the big Bullying Jock and give him a phobia about spiders -- he sees one and runs, screaming like a little girl. Maybe the Hooker with the Heart of Gold is named Lisa and has mousy-brown hair because she’s a suburban soccer-Mom who’s fallen on hard times. Or maybe her name is Candy, she has long bleach-blond hair, but she’s the smartest and most aggressive person in the book.
To show your monster or killer is truly dangerous, he should kill someone (or several people).
Add some supporting characters to your story to be used as cannon fodder.
So that the reader can remember the characters easily, choose archetypes, give them names and physical characteristics that suit those archetypes.
If you’re writing a novel, it’s better to take an archetype and stand it on its head. Write characters that are much deeper and more complex than the simple cliché they appeared to be in the beginning.
Until next time: Let the horror bleed onto the pages with every word!
Here are some spooky stories with vivid supporting characters for your reading pleasure!
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Your full time Horror Newsletter Editors:
Brooke - Working my way back Kate ~ Midsummer Night Rune billwilcox
and LJPC - the tortoise .
To my delight, some writers took the time to comment on my last newsletter: "Monster Maker" Thank you!
Comments listed in the order they were received.
Vampyr14 writes: Another great post. I love monsters that bear little or no resemblance to humans. And I love the idea of a 2D monster who vanishes when it turns. That would be one scary/hard monster to fight!
I’m also very impressed when someone can come up with creatures that aren’t like humans. Thanks for commenting!
BIG BAD WOLF submits "What Happens at the Barracks; Stays" and writes: Sometimes, the Horror goes; "Oh my!"
Well, I hope the scary monster pictures in my last NL made you say, “Oh my!”
Taniuska writes: Awesome post... this would probably have to be one of my favorite things to do when writing a story - create my own monsters. Reason I love it is because I can let my imagination go wild and let anything happen. Totally agree that original monsters can be more fun than the usual types.
Your steampunk works (and Norse mythos book) have original monsters that freak me out! In a good way.
billwilcox writes: Monsters are fun, but real monsters 'Humans' look just like us and you don't know they're monsters until they've stabbed you, slit your throat, and shot you in the head.
It is obvious you put some time into this newsletter, thank you for that.
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather face a human serial killer than “Aliens” or the creature in “The Thing” or the one in “Deep Rising.” On the other hand, maybe facing those scary monsters would be better because I’d die of fright long before they killed me!
Arakun the twisted raccoon writes: The scariest thing about the "Alien" creature in the first movie was that you really didn't see it. You just saw a mass of tentacles, and it was scarier because you weren't sure what it really looked like, or when it would appear. The later movies in the series were not as scary, because they showed too much of the monster. Nothing is scarier than the unknown.
I was scared by the very alien-ness of the creature. It was so inhuman and revolting. *shivers* All those movies scared the heck out of me!
Phoenix writes: Those monsters are definitely the stuff of nightmares and leave-the-light-on horror stories. Stepping beyond what's been done is great advice for all writers. Another great newsletter!
Thank you so much! I really appreciate your support.
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