Friday, 24 October 2014

Sympathy for the Doomed: Developing Doomed Characters, Part II

The natural alternative to the aggressively unsympathetic or purposely underdeveloped horror protagonists is, of course, the sympathetic character who may not make it in spite of their appealing qualities (although the audience doesn't know this). So what are the traits that go into a likable horror hero? Personally, I think there are three key items:

1. Has a moral compass. This doesn't mean the character is a saint-- it's more interesting and more realistic if they're not. It means that they have a sense of right and wrong and stick to these values under duress. They make a genuine effort to 'do the right thing' over the course of the story.

2. Is ordinary. No, I'm not advocating populating your story with the Generic White Protagonist Guy. Rather, the character or characters do not have superpowers or exceptional abilities (rocket scientist, survival expert, etc). Whether it's family on a camping trip, or children of vigilante parents, the audience can seem themselves as the characters-- just a slightly different circumstance, and that could be me.
The exception to this is sci-fi flavoured horror, which often requires a set of specialist characters as part of the setting. However, the 'ordinaryness' can be reclaimed by scaling up the source of the terror so that the character's cool skills are helpless against it. Also, establishment of the characters are human first, skill set second allows the audience to feel the 'it could be me' connection.

3. Has 'realistic' reactions. None of us really know how we would respond when faced with, say, a shapeshifting, body-snatching monster, but we like to think we do. While real people do panic in a crisis or make seemingly bizarre decisions for any number of psychological and neurological reasons, we expect fictional characters to conform to our fantasy of how we'd act in an emergency. (Nor do we want to see characters hide and wait it out, even though that's a solid survival strategy for all kinds of disasters, because it's not an exciting one). We'll tolerate some level of panic from a character, as long as they pull it together and take what seems to us a sensible action.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Maladjusted Monster Munch: Developing Doomed Characters, Part I

In many genres of horror, one of the essential plot elements is character deaths. The practical consequence of this for the author is the necessity of writing characters who will essentially end up as cannon fodder to move the story forward. 

Depending on the story, one can sometimes get away with minimal development of the 'cannon fodder' characters-- the audience is aware their only role is to get picked off one by one, and in early horror movies that's often the case. However, there is an increased expectation that there be some level of character development in horror (or similarly action-oriented genres).

Perhaps because of the desire not to get attached to characters who are toast anyway, or perhaps harkening back to some of the moralism in certain subgenres of horror, the character development goes in the direction of making the leads seem like thoroughly unpleasant people. 

In and of itself, this is not a bad trope. In fact, it can be used to create a sense of schadenfreude regarding the messy ends of the characters in question. Give us a set of really despicable characters, and we feel okay about being entertained as the monster turns them into a midnight snack. Done right, it can also give an extra layer of conflict to the story if the protagonist has to struggle against obnoxious or inept characters as well as the supernatural horror.

Alternately, deeply dysfunctional characters struggling against the source of the horror can re-introduce the element of morality and add another layer of emotional depth to the story. When the internal conflicts of the characters interact with the external plot and create more complications, it increases the overall suspense. This can also be used to amplify the plot events by having inner and outer conflicts mirror each other.

That said, characters who are unsympathetic while lacking interest or complexity are a quick way to lose audience investment. Be careful that your characters aren't just dysfunctional for dysfunction's sake, but that their problems advance the plot

Monday, 20 October 2014

Setting as Character

Horror, as a genre, isn't just about slashers and ghosts and monsters lurking in the shadows. One trope that offers endless possibilities is the idea of the setting itself being the antagonist.

The first reason I think this trope is so full of potential is that it throws focus back onto the characters. Characters who are fighting or escaping a defined threat can get away with relatively little psychological development, since their whole attention within the story is devoted to holding off the zombies or figuring out who the slasher is or exorcising the possessed person. Obviously the characters' personality and history can be a plot driver, but there is less scope to excavate the characters' inner lives when the zombie hordes are battering down the door. When the setting causes the situation, there is nothing to fight, and how the characters cope internally with the diffuse threat-- and cope with each other-- goes front and centre. 

Second, there are infinite options for how to develop the setting itself. It can be an antagonist by dint of being hostile to human life. For example, a group of travellers stranded in the desert or trapped by an ice storm and facing dehydration or hypothermia or starvation can set the stage for a horror story as the increasingly desperate characters turn on each other. Or the setting could be actively dangerous: an almost light-less jungle filled with predators, poisonous plants, and sinkholes is a terrifying place for characters who don't know how to avoid its hazards. 

Alternately, the setting can be a sentient place, a malevolent entity that seeks to destroy the characters in body or mind. The house in The Haunting, or the Overlook Hotel in The Shining are both excellent examples, but the location could be absolutely anything. If you go this route, the sky is the limit.

Using the setting as a plot tool is a wonderful way to create a horror story (or a story in any genre) that breaks out of genre tropes and surprises your audience. 

Friday, 17 October 2014

Last Girl Standing

She's 'strong' and 'feisty', but not too masculine or gender nonconforming. She's feminine and attractive by the standards of her culture, but is plain instead of sexy or strikingly beautiful, and doesn't show off her looks. She experiences enough desire that the audience knows she's a heterosexual, but doesn't act on it. She is a good student, straight-edge, and without deep driving ambition.
She's one of the most famous tropes of horror: the Final Girl.

This trope has been dissected by feminist media critics and scholars, and parodied or subverted in the horror genre itself. As a pillar of the genre, the trope is over; but arguably, it's only as dead at the slasher is after the Final Girl whacked him with a shovel the first time.

While the the trope is no longer taken seriously in the horror genre, it hasn't really disappeared from popular culture. Just look at any article discussing whether or not a particular character is 'feminist', and then look at the comments section. (Or more disturbingly, look at discussions of the behaviour of real-life female public figures, or any controversy that has involved a woman, or MRA types discussing their 'ideal' mates).

In many ways, the Final Girl is some strange conglomeration of the contradictory expectations heaped on women in Western society. Look through the examples mentioned above, and you'll see people scolding women, real or fictional, for not adhering to the Final Girl archetype. The response, naturally, as to see this character as a type of template: pretty and clearly established as heterosexual, but not a 'slut'; full of 'relateable' quirks, but no real flaws; energetic about standing up for herself, but not in a way that threatens established assumptions or puts her at any real risk. Yes, I did just describe the female lead in a huge swath of romantic comedies, along with a host of other genres.

Simply rebelling against the archetype by 'doing the opposite' isn't necessarily the solution (a prominent example being the scantily-clad urban fantasy heroines who run around kicking monster ass and seducing supernatural creatures), although like most tropes it can be executed well. The more more nuanced approach is to think about what tools, skills and psychology your heroine will need to prevail in her struggle, and build a character who has those traits, along with a unique backstory and personality to explain them.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Make Better Life Choices

As evidenced by the video above, horror has become the prime nesting grounds of the Idiot Plot. Pulitzer-prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert defined the Idiot Plot as 'any plot that would be resolved in five minutes if everyone in the story were not an idiot'. To that definition, I'd add the caveat that mercilessly mocking or punishing the characters' lack of common sense is not a central goal of the story. This caveat is particularly pertinent when discussing horror, since character demise as a result of moral failings-- often illustrated in combination with poor decision-making-- has been a core trope of the genre.

However, as the 'horror as morality tale' got observed, dissected, and parodied in the 1980s and 90s both by critics (Carol J Clover's book on gender in slasher films is a noteworthy example) and popular culture (the Scream series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), the genre drifted away from showing characters' poor choices as a result of their personal failings and into the realm of the idiot plot.

Arguably, without the overarching moralising, it's preferable to ditch the too-dumb-to-live cast and arm your protagonists with good sense and maybe some creativity. There are several immediate advantages to this approach:

The characters are more sympathetic. It's easier to root for characters who care about their own survival than those that seem determined to become casualties of natural selection. Furthermore, characters who make reasonable choices seem more realistic, and by extension identifiable for the audience (plus it eliminates distracting plot holes-- 'why didn't they just call the cops?').
It ups the ante for the antagonist. If your ghost, demon, or slasher can lure their victims to their doom in a tidy conga line, they don't get to strut their stuff. But if the main characters put up a fight, the antagonist has to up their evil game in response.
It adds to the suspense. Many tropes that lean on the idiot plot will be derailed by the simple inclusion of sensible characters and taken in fresh directions. That means keeping the trope-savvy audience on their toes.

What a 'sensible' character looks like will vary widely depending on the subgenre-- ghosts, slashers, and Eldrich abominations inhabit distinct universes, after all-- but will share some basic survival instinct, the ability to problem-solve, and the ability to use the tools they have at hand.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Día de la Resistencia Indígena!

Happy Indigenous People's Day, everyone!

Haida totem poles, Vancouver, Canada

About twenty-five thousand years ago, people discovered America. We settled the continents, figured out the core principles of the local ecology, formed governments, fought wars, established trade routes, and built cities.

Then, five hundred and twenty-two years ago, my ancestors discovered Christopher Columbus.

Globalisation was inevitable. It's reductionist to blame Columbus for what happened next; given the problem of smallpox and other pathogens, any contact between Africa or Eurasia and the Americas was probably going to be messy, even if greed was miraculously out of the equation. Columbus was the butterfly whose wing-flapping started a hurricane, not a demonic entity. At the same time, he didn't discover anything, except the fact that if you pester a wealthy government enough, they might fund an expedition to make you go away, and also that the prevailing Atlantic wind patterns will take you straight from Europe to the Caribbean.

So I am very pleased that a number of municipalities around the United States have turned a rather pointless holiday into Indigenous People's Day (following the example of several South American countries, including Venezuela). To celebrate, here are some excellent Native authors whose fiction and non-fiction writing is definitely worth a read:

Sherman Alexie (Spokane)
Louise Erdrich (Anishinaabe)
Robin Wall Kimerer (Anishinaabe)
Alfredo Véa, Jr. (Yaqui)
Mitch Cullin (Cherokee)
Velma Wallis (Gwich'in)

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Dear JK Rowling... Let's Talk Classism!

Dear J.K. Rowling,

I am usually impressed when a famous person takes the time and energy to interact with their fans on the internet. I'm a whole heck of a lot less impressed when that celebrity uses their position of influence to mindlessly repeat slogans and spread misleading articles to the public (with a nice side of good old-fashioned mudslinging).

This blog has already dissected your 'reverse-racism' flavoured post equating support for Scottish self-determination to some strange racial purity agenda (a sentiment, I might add, that you share with UKIP leader Nigel Fararge, and while politics makes strange bedfellows, one must to some degree examine one's allies, perhaps with a particular eye to the psychological concept of 'projection'). So instead, we'll talk about some of your more recent, and equally problematic, tweets.

Now to put some context into our discussion of classism, let's take a quick detour. I do not say what I am about to say to diminish the unpleasantness in your childhood or the tragedy of your mother's illness. However, one set of obstacles in life does not necessarily equate to another, so when I say that your upbringing was cushioned, I am speaking in terms of socioeconomic class. There are opportunities and insulation that two educated, white-collar parents can buy, not to mention the 'cultural capital' gained by inclusion in the socially dominant culture. These are the advantages that make the difference between a single mother scraping by on benefits while they continue their education and write their first novel, (indeed one who finds unemployment to be a 'liberating' opportunity to focus on their creative work), and the one who will be stuck scraping by on benefits for the foreseeable future even as they search fruitlessly for a job.  (It's worth noting that as someone with a genetic disease that is famous for masquerading as a psychiatric disorder, I understand how grueling your struggle with depression must have been; but I also learned from my illness that the ability to access treatment and competent doctors is profoundly tied to social capital and educational privilege).

That said, let's talk Twitter. I will concede that Neil Paterson could have phrased his original comment with a bit more tact (though by outraged internet argument standards he speaks with the grace of a UN diplomat). Actually, had you responded by saying that you donated because you believe the Union is good for the kids, I'd disagree with the underlying premise, but would have considered that a truthful and reasonable response. But instead you offered us this:
I could analyse the irony of the fact that although you complain on your blog about being stereotyped as a feckless leech when you were a single mother, you happily imply that this random stranger is not contributing to his country because he doesn't have millions to hand to donate to childrens' charities (in spite of the fact that you know nothing of his life-- maybe he's the one with the chronic illness and depending on charity, or maybe he spends his whole working day aiding the downtrodden, or maybe he's just an average do-gooder). 
Your response rubs me up the wrong way, partly because I have fantastic parents who taught me that no matter if you're broke (like we were), you could always do your bit to make the world a better place. The implication in your tweet is that throwing barrels of money at something is the only legitimate way to make a difference, which is a slap in the face to all those out there who, in spite of having very little in material things, volunteer their time and energy to help others. Just because someone doesn't have the cultural capital and related advantages to climb swiftly out of poverty, and is living on minimum wage, doesn't mean that the few tins of food they donate or the few hours they can spare to advocate for a cause they believe in don't matter. Since you identify as Christian, I hope you'll appreciate what Jesus had to say on the topic:
And He looked up and saw the rich men casting their gifts into the treasury, and He saw also a certain poor widow casting therein two mites. And He said, “In truth I say unto you that this poor widow hath cast in more than they all. For all these have of their abundance cast in unto the offerings of God, but she of her penury hath cast in all the living that she had. (Luke 21:2-4)

Actually, while we're on the topic of Biblical advice, it also rubs me the wrong way that you imply that you care about Scotland because of your donations, and this fellow doesn't, because he doesn't have gobs of money to back him up, or doesn't shout about his charitable doings. (Or perhaps you intended to imply instead that someone who disagrees with you doesn't care about Scotland? I certainly hope not). Donating to charity is wonderful! But parading it around as proof that you care more because you gave more isn't a very charitable tack. To put it much better than I ever could:

Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. (Matthew 6:1-2)
I am rankled by your response because I personally see people who are elderly or seriously ill or chronically unemployed or others who are marginalised in some significant way who quietly, unobtrusively pour their hearts into charity. They they organise virtual fund drives from their hospital beds, they stay all night in the rain to hand out blankets to the homeless, they spread joy and practical guidance to the sick, they squeeze their meager budgets so they can donate some shopping to the food bank, they open their homes to refugees from around the world. No, they didn't donate millions to medical research, but they give deeply of what resources they have. Their motivation is not to be seen as paragons of generosity, or to set a bar of involvement to which the rest of us should aspire or be found wanting. They are simply doing good for its own sake.
Because they care about Scotland.