Writing can be tough, and writing convincing characters can be a challenge. However writing convincing female characters in horror can seem downright impossible.
If you’re tired of reading books where the drop-dead gorgeous, kindhearted cheerleader gets chased helplessly through the woods, and are looking to try your hand at writing real women in horror, then this is a great place to start. This handout will outline some basics of character building that will come in handy when writing women in horror. Be aware, however, that most (if not all) of these techniques can be useful when writing characters of any gender.
The Big Four
It’s important to know the four main elements of character building before you start. These include:
Personality, Physicality, Relationships, and Their Role In The Universe
These are the foundations of creating a convincing character, and if one aspect is weak then your character will crumble in on itself.
Every character needs to have character. If they’re all the same then the world falls apart or, worse, the reader will lose interest. In addition, creating a cast of characters who are one dimensional and lack substance will also cause your reader to stop reading. Building your character’s personality requires time, thought, and planning. Their personality will dictate how they act, how they react, and what they will or won’t do. So make sure you take the time to get it right.
The following are a few basic, yet important, questions you need ask yourself when creating your characters:
- Do they have any living family/deceased family to whom they were or are close to?
- Who are their friends/significant other(s)?
- What are their likes and dislikes?
- What is their best/worst memory, and why?
- What are their hopes and fears?
- What are they most confident and insecure about?
Also note that when it comes to a character, they experience the world around them on an emotional, psychological, and spiritual level. It’s important to understand how your character will react on each one.
A character’s physicality is more than just what the reader sees, it’s what the character sees. It impacts how they feel about themselves, how they interact with people, and even what they can or can’t do. It can also be used as a reflection of their personality and mental state. A character who’s clinically depressed may not dress in bright tones or may not care how they’re dressed. Although they’re not limited to dressing in black when they’re upset, be aware that people express themselves through their appearance.
So things to think about include:
- How tall are they?
- What colour are their eyes?
- What colour/how long/what style is their hair?
- What ethnicity are they?
- What sort of physical activities do they do? (Should be reflected in their body type.)
- What religion are they? (As this may impact their manner of dress.)
Whenever your character interacts with someone in your story, they’re developing a relationship. While not all of these need to be deep or meaningful, they still exist and can impact your character. It’s important that, as the writer, you can clearly define and understand these relationships, even if your readers can’t. It’s alright to remain ambiguous in a character’s relationship so long as you understand the parameters of it.
When it comes to men and women in horror, there are three tropes to avoid that come to mind. The first is that of the lovers, two individuals who innately know their soulmates and will face the forces of darkness to end up with each other… despite having only met one chapter earlier. Then there’s the unwilling best friend, a man who seeks romantic involvement with the heroine but is always rejected. Lastly we have the codependent couple, who can be family or friends, even lovers, who are completely unable to function without the other person. Relationships with men don’t have to hinder on the rejection or acceptance of romantic advances, or depend on power and dominance.
For women interacting with other women, make sure whatever you write can pass the Bechdel Test (all you need to do to pass it is have two female characters have a conversation about something other than men… easy enough, but most people fail it). Avoid dichotomies like the good girl vs. bad girl, virgin vs. whore, or nerd vs. Valley girl.
Lastly, know that the relationship between your protagonist and the monster, or horrific villain they’ll face, will be the most powerful relationship of them all. It’s the key power struggle in your work, and as such it should reflect that you’ve put thought into it. It should be carefully crafted, deeply explored, and avoid relying on the “damsel in distress” stereotype.
Some things to ask yourself when your protagonist is interacting with other characters and building relationships include:
- What does your character want from them, and what do they want from your character?
- How do they see/feel about each other?
- Why are they interacting?
Their Role In The Universe
The last building block in character building, and possibly the most important, is understanding your character’s role in the universe you’ve built. If your character doesn’t understand their place in it, then how are your readers supposed to?
The big question you need to ask yourself when writing a character is:
- Why does my character exist?
If you can’t think of a good reason, then they probably don’t need to. As great as they may be, as much as you may love them, if they’re not important to your story then they likely won’t be important to your audience. Remember; if you know where your characters belong, your reader will never feel out of place.