Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Which Witches?

Since humans have started recording our thoughts with handprints on cave walls, magic and ritual have been a part of our collective cultural consciousness. As such, most cultures around the world have folklore that is loosely about 'witches'. Western European and Euro-American have acquired a particularly recognisable set of tropes, myths, and trails of historical misinformation.

Historically, witchcraft in European culture was something to be feared. It was also a convenient catch-all explanation for crop failures, diseases, household accidents and general bad luck. The idea that witches were lurking about (and thus a public menace that needed to be addressed) was also an easy way to topple political enemies, religious dissidents, business rivals, or someone whose belongings one wanted to claim as 'reparations' for being cursed. By the 18th century, belief in witches and witchcraft had eroded to the point that anti-witchcraft laws were replaced by laws that would punish self-identified witches for fraud. However, popular opinion on the matter still skewed towards the possible existence of evil magic, and the negative connotation around witchcraft persisted.

It's not until the 20th century that witches have turned into the protagonists in Western popular culture*. The trope has now gotten a foothold to the point where any magic users in the story will likely be the protagonists; any magic-wielding villains are likely to be fought by more magic users.

Interestingly, as witches lost the automatic connection to evil, they also lost their connection to the idea that magic has a price. While I'm glad that the idea of witches as automatically evil has retired, it seems like a missed plot development and worldbuilding opportunity to have magic be a total freebie. Consider some throwback to the pre-Sabrina tropes that make witches flirt with danger every time they cast a spell.

*Specificity is key here; there's a whole blog series to be gotten out of attitudes towards magic and witchcraft in different cultures. Maybe next October?

Monday, 27 October 2014

Around the World in Scary Creatures

A carved tupilaq (an avenging golem-like creature
created by a Greenlandic Inuit shaman)
If you think of horror and supernatural creatures, the list you write will probably be pretty short, with vampires, ghosts, witches, demons, zombies and were-creatures as the main players, and maybe the odd Celtic or Japanese creature thrown in, or perhaps an alien.

I assume the Erqigdlet, ijiraq and haietlik failed to make that list. If you're curious, these are mythological creatures from Greenland, Baffin Island, and British Columbia respectively. The first are a race of creatures with the head, arms and torso of humans, and the lower bodies of wolves (my Tunumiit ancestors suggested these creatures might come for you if you were too picky about choosing a spouse!); the second are shapeshifters who lure children out into the snow to freeze; the third is the 'lightening snake', a sea-serpent that hunts giant prey along the coast (and occasionally slurps up an unwary human from the beach). 

That's just a taste of the wealth of under-appreciated supernatural creatures that can be found in folklore around the world. There's no need for more recycled (and sparkly) vampires when you can have a sasabonsam, a blood-drinking, iron-fanged creature from Akan (Ghanan/Tongan) mythology that lurks in trees to leap out at its victims. 

Now just to be clear, I'm not advocating willy-nilly cultural appropriation! Instead, I'm suggesting that you expand the range of settings and characters beyond Generic Anglo-Americans in Anywhere USA or Lovecraft Country. Why not have an urban Maori family as your protagonists, or have the mysterious disappearances strike in rural central Mexico? There are so many opportunities to create fresh, interesting stories that reflect the many pieces of our global mythology and imagination that it would be a shame not to use them. 

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.