10.29.2004

The Character of Horror and the Myth of the Average Joe

I'm reviewing horror for SFSite.com, and stumbled on a common problem: character, there isn't any. Maybe I'm exaggerating, a little, but too many are written as blank slates. Some beginning writers justify this with saying they want to create an everyman so that anyone can see themselves in the character's shoes, but I think we automatically want to be in a character's shoes--that's why we read. It's not the species or race (almost anything by Hal Clement or Octavia Butler), the sex (The Left Hand of Darkness) or the age (Ender's Game unless you were a preteen when you read it), or the mental capability (Flowers for Algernon), but the logic of the character's actions. If an action makes sense in the context of the environment and capabilities at the character's disposal, the reader will identify.

There are two obvious extremes of characterization (obvious because of their extremity) that help writers to quickly sketch a vividly realized character. One is the crazy or really weird character common to the literary story. Writers do this often to get noticed by a literary magazine, to do something that hasn't been seen. The other is the object or affectation of the character's that distinguishes this character from the others. He's the thin man, the fat man, the girl with the bone through her nose, the three-legged dog, the boy who stutters.

But neither rendering has much to do with character except that they both quickly sketch what a character appears to be, but appearances don't capture the reality of a character. Actions characterize the character (or, in the case of Hamlet, inaction, which is still an act). Graham Joyce's Smoking Poppy begins with an everyman who loves his daughter, who describes the love he has of his daughter's smell. It captures the sentiment of the character and, therefore, why we should follow this character through hell to chase after his daughter.

We are all characters. That is, we differ from one another. Often we may see ourselves as average, but the world sees us differently, sees us as we cannot see ourselves. We all have annoyances. Consider the divorce rate in our country. The way you hold your mouth or speak out the side of it may charm me, but aggravate the piss out of someone else. The way you crunch potato chips at volumes of a television commercial may annoy me, but strike someone else as humorous.

The protagonist in Stephen King's Bag of Bones was so unadorned as to be rendered invisible. It may be no coincidence that the ghost was illustrated in the original hardcover. She was the only vividly realized character. (This isn't to say that King can't do character, as you can see from "Low Men in Yellow Coats" from Hearts in Atlantis.) My suspicion is that King based the character in Bag of Bones too much on himself without ever having looked at himself from the outside to see what made King King.

This may be what happened to these horror stories. We believe ourselves the everyman, the average joe. But that are many layers to us that await discovery (which is why I react strongly to those uninterested in self- or character-discovery). It requires a strong constitution and a hard, honest look to peel back those layers, sometimes complex, sometimes simple: Is your character so vocally against prejudice because he's prejudiced? Is your character homophobic because he's gay? Is he cruel to her because he doesn't want to admit he loves her? Does she aggravate him to be cruel to her because she feels she doesn't deserve to be loved? Does your character walk into a coffee shop to drink coffee or to be seen? Does he attend Republican conventions and listen to Rush Limbaugh to brown-nose his boss? Does she attend liberal rallies or rail against simplified Republicans in order to look cool with her liberal friends?

The questions of life are hard to answer because they are sensitive. It may be you aren't interested in answering in them. That's cool. You may be a plot man or a big-idea man. If so, write to your strengths. Do you write cool, weirdnesses that crop up in the world? Then skip straight to them. Drop the sections where you extensively describe human relations outside the speculation. If you do plot, skip straight to the roller coaster ride.

It is possible to get just as deep as a character writer through plot or idea. Actually, idea writers are usually a little deeper in the profound questions about life and society, but sometimes the story gets neglected when the focus is only on the ideas. The important thing is to be the writer you are, not the writer people say is the cool thing to be. If you prefer reading plot-oriented fiction, chances are you should write it. Don't let anyone tell you speculatively oriented fiction is any less profound than literary because there are plenty of examples to the contrary.

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