Good characters are absolutely vital in horror fiction. They’re the key to empathy, which is vital to project the experience of horror. Characters stand in for the reader. What they feel, the reader should feel. If a good character feels genuine terror, so will the reader.
First, we have to make sure the reader cares about what happens to him or her.
How do we do that? Author Talia Vance says, “Make your characters relatable, likable and give them a personal stake in the outcome.”
Author/Story consultant Michael Hauge identifies five ways to make a character relatable for the reader. The character should be sympathetic, funny, likable and/or powerful, and/or put in jeopardy. He says you don’t need your character to be all of these, but they should be at least two.
Your characters need to react to what’s happening. If something scary happens, but your protagonist constantly ignores it and think it’s stupid, the reader will have the same reaction. In horror stories, characters who react that way usually get some sort of comeuppance. There’s a strong sense of justice in the horror genre. People who make mistakes usually pay for them.
It’s like author Chuck Wendig says about horror: “Characters you love making choices you hate.”
Then again, watch out for overworn tropes like splitting up in a horror house. Characters who do things everybody knows from watching horror movies you shouldn’t do are less relatable–because they’re so dumb.
Major characters will have a character arc. They should grow during the story and by its end become different people than they were. The protagonist’s arc typically mirrors the plot structure—average guy, guy reacts to horror, guy fights back, guy commits everything to victory—but can be enriched with additional layers. A guy who hates women ends up back in love with his wife. A woman who’s afraid of death conquers that fear after seeing firsthand evidence of an afterlife. And so on.
I hope you enjoyed this series on writing horror and found it useful. One day, you’ll hear these words: “Your book gave me a nightmare.”
Believe me, for a horror writer, this is music to one’s ears!
Remember, this is fun. Make it fun for you, make it fun for the reader. Tell a good story with characters we care about facing a horror element that is truly scary. Do that, and there it is, you’re a horror writer.