Friday, August 1, 2008

Writerly Stuff: The Case for Characters

I’m a prologue and a few chapters into The Renewed now, with characters starting to take shape and gel into my new fictional landscape. One of the most rewarding aspects of the feedback I received for Lit6 was the almost universal applause for the characters. Characters are the backbone of the story – without them, the suspense and plot and outcomes are meaningless. Characters are more than mere game pieces meant to track progress across a literary game board. They’re the story-bound couriers of the author’s words – the messengers that deliver the plot and action and dialogue. Through them, the conflict arises and emotional investment is made.

Characterization need not be bogged down in wordy exposition to
be effective. In fact, some of the most effective characters in horror fiction are painted with the subtlest of strokes. Take Jack Ketchum’s brutal Off Season, for example. Six tourists meet a tribe of ferocious cannibals in the Maine woods - nothing particularly innovative or groundbreaking plot-wise there. A literary derivative of 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes, right? So why, then, has this book remained so wildly popular with horror fans since its 1981 debut? Is it the visceral descriptions of cannibalism? The ruthless brutality?

No. It’s experiencing these things through the eyes of Carla and Jim and Laura and Nick and Marjie and Dan - Ketchum’s characters who we come to either love or loathe, but always root for. It’s the sign of remarkable characterization in horror when a thoroughly unlikeable character elicits our sympathies. What happens to the characters in Off Season is so unnerving because it appears to the reader to happen to real, flesh-and-blood people, not cardboard cutouts of stock fictional characters. Therein lies the genius of Ketchum’s book.

In The Literary Six, the basic story of revenge would essentially be a lifeless exercise in inventive kills without the reader being invested in the main characters of the titular group. By bringing the characters to life, by imbuing them with faults and imperfections, strengths and weaknesses, they connect with the reader. Once the reader is interested in and emotionally connected to a character or two, he or she wants to read on to find out their fates. Sure the slasher references are fun, the kills gory and inventive, and the sense of isolation suitably nerve-wracking. But it’s the characters that made the story resonate. On a side note, Jack Ketchum – a longtime idol of mine who’s as brutally honest in real life as he is in his fictional worlds – once told me he couldn’t get past the first few pages of Lit6(!). Ouch. Fortunately, the same week I received his email, Bentley Little sent me a fabulous letter saying that he loved the book and promised a blurb for the next one, taking the sting out of JK’s rejection just a smidge. (Don’t worry; still love ‘ya, Dallas. Just more determined to make sure the next one knocks your socks off!)

For the decidedly more supernatural The Renewed, the believability of the characters will be essential for the story to work. It’s tricky to coax readers into suspending their hardwired beliefs enough to make the more paranormal elements seem plausible. But without characters well-grounded in reality, it’s impossible. We’re wading into territory that’s got a haunted nursing home, after all – complete with killer plants, a dense fog as the harbinger of death, and a plot that features botanical regeneration as a twist on the fountain of youth idea.

It’s a tall order, but hopefully my characters will help me pull it off.

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