Most good stories are character-driven so developing your characters is important. But, what about in a horror story? If you are trying to scare your readers, do you need to spend a lot of time building up your protagonist only to have them get killed off?
When writing a horror story, the audience should sympathise with the protagonist. The reader should fear for the protagonist’s safety as they face the threats of the unknown. How the protagonist reacts to danger will let the reader know what kind of personality he or she has and will help the reader identify with them. When writing your villain or the main monster, make sure they have a clear motivation and a backstory that explains why they are acting the way do. You should also determine the monsters abilities and weaknesses to make it believable.
This sounds pretty simple but you want to make sure you get it right. Creating believable and well-developed characters will make your stories pop. The horror genre is often seen as trashy and cheap. People may enjoy it that way sometimes, but you should try to make your characters as interesting and compelling as you can so the reader gets sucked in. You want them turning the page in spite of themselves.
There are two main types of characters used in horror stories: the hero and the villain or monster. Keep reading and we’ll break down the ways to write a good protagonist as well as the ways to write a good villain or monster.
Start with an interesting protagonist
Your main character has to be someone that the reader can sympathise and identify with. That doesn’t mean they have to be good, they can be the type of character that everyone hates, but there has to be something about them that makes them human. To achieve this, you will need to establish your character’s backstory.
What motivates them to do the things they do? What are they good at and what are they bad at? Why is their current predicament a problem for them? The more you know about your character the better you will be able to write them.
It’s good to give your main character both a good and a bad side. Every hero should have some flaws to overcome; it drives the story.
If your main character is more of a villain, they should have some good qualities that make the reader like them in spite of their being evil. Also, make sure your characters aren’t too perfect. The hero has to struggle until the end of the story, so give them some flaws that make their struggles believable. Don’t let them win everything too easily and don’t let the villain get beaten up to early. The hero has to become stronger throughout the story so they can win in the end. The villain or monster has to be too powerful for the hero to handle in the early part of the story.
You can show your protagonists personality through their actions. This is better than trying to explain what they are like through exposition. If your character is cowardly, have a scene where they run away from danger. If your character is tough, have a scene where they are willing to stand up to a bully.
Be consistent. Don’t have them run away in one scene and then act brave in another. If you want them to change throughout the story, be sure to include scenes that show them learning so the change is believable.
It is also important to establish your character’s relationships. show this through their actions as well. Don’t take the easy road and try to show it through some clumsy dialogue. If your character rings someone and asks for help, the reader can guess that they are friends. If your hero is overly familiar with a member of the opposite sex, the reader will know that they have a past relationship. By using examples like these to show what your character is like, you can guide how you want the reader to feel when tragedy strikes the protagonist.
If you decide to kill off your protagonist, make sure you have done enough in the story to guide your reader to the right response. The reader should feel what you want them to feel, and you can only do this by showing examples of your character’s personality. Do it in such a way that you let the reader come to their own understanding of who the protagonist is.
A good villain or monster makes the story
Many stories are only as good as the antagonist. If you have a strong, charismatic villain, then the story is likely to be good even if the hero is a bit bland. If you write a monster that is interesting and scary then that will often hold the story together in spite of anything else. Writing the villain, or monster should take the bulk of your time.
So how do you write a good scary character? The main point is that a creepy character should threaten a person’s security or freedom. Their presence should violate someone’s privacy or degrade their humanity. You can show this by having a character who spies on people or violates someone’s private space. You could also have a character that touches or alters another person’s things without permission. These are all dehumanising acts that threaten the victim’s identity. These actions can be carried out by a real person or by a supernatural entity.
When writing a monster, make it an entity that holds some sought of power but cannot be negotiated with. This is one thing that is truly frightening about monsters, we can’t negotiate with them. As long as we feel that the hero can talk their way out of a situation it is no longer as scary as it was. A killer shark, a demonic doll and a tentacle creature from the abyss are all great examples of monsters that are scary because we can’t reason with them.
A good way to write a creepy character is to show them being manipulative and dehumanising. A villain who gaslights the protagonist or treats them like a child and dismisses their ideas will always come off as creepy and unnerving.
Another technique is to have the villain accuse the protagonist of not living up to some idealised version of themselves. For example, an evil step-mother who punishes a child for acting out of character. The “correct” character will change according to the step-mother’s convenience so that the child can never win. You can take this further by having the step-mother claim the child is possessed and has to be “purified” as an excuse to punish them. This type of power dynamic can be used in a wide variety of ways to creepy effect.
Fleshing out your characters
To make your characters believable you should give them both good and bad qualities. Black and white characters are not as interesting as grey characters. Your hero should have some flaws and your villain should have some redeeming qualities.
You don’t need to figure it all out at the beginning though, you’ll work out your character as you write. You will probably find it much more interesting to write your character when you don’t know what they will do under pressure until you put them there.
One good way to develop both the protagonist and the antagonist is to draw pictures of them. You don’t need to know exactly what you’re going to say about them, many of the details will come from your subconscious as you draw. You might come up with many details that you may not have thought of if you had tried to write it all from the beginning. Keeping the pictures handy while you write will keep you from getting stuck on character development. Just ask yourself what would the person or creature in the picture do here?
You may also want to write a profile for each character. When you have your characters personality and habits worked out, you will have most of your story already worked out. The plot of your story is going to be more or less the hero pitting their ideals against the villain’s ideals and one of them emerges victorious. That’s why it is so important to know your characters; get them right and the rest of the story almost writes itself.