I invited Ichabod to write this guest post in celebration of the release of his new horror short story collection, Beyond the Rail and Other Nightmares.
Great Stories Start With Great Characters
We’ve all run across that particular bit of wisdom at some point in our writing career, but there are plot-driven stories and there are character-driven stories. What I’m saying is whichever one you choose, before your readers care what happens in your story, they have to care about the characters it happens to.
When your MC breaks up with their heartthrob at the half-way point of your romance novel, you want your readers crying into the pages, saying, “But he was the perfect guy!” Without a love for that character, they are simply saying, “Meh. On to the next guy,” instead of pining for when they eventually get back together. When Gandalf hangs back to confront the Balrog, your readers have to feel the loss that the Fellowship does, or they’ll never make it through the slog of The Two Towers. Yes, I said it.
“But Ichabod,” I hear you say. “You’re peddling a horror short story collection—the highly acclaimed but little known Beyond the Rail and Other Nightmares. Aren’t characters just interchangeable gore-fodder in this genre?”
And you’d be right. IF you forget who your protagonist is. In the slasher films that probably come to mind the moment you hear Horror, ask yourself who’s going to be back in the sequel? Who does the writer want the audience to care about? You fill those seats for the next Saw movie because you care about Jigsaw, not the cops, and certainly not the victims whose lives they’re trying to fix. I was in high school when I first noticed it. It was either the third or fourth Friday the 13th. Jason was on his usual murder spree, and he opened the door to a cabin only to find a bunch of children. He closed the door and walked away.
Now, why did they have that scene? To show the audience that Jason isn’t just the mindless slasher people believe him to be. And the only reason to add depth to his character is because he’s the protagonist. Are you with me so far?
But that’s only one subgenre within horror, so let’s look at other examples. I grew up reading Edgar Allan Poe and Shirley Jackson. The semi-abusive relationship between Dr. Montague and Eleanor goes a long way toward investing you in her character before the scares even start. That’s why you fear for her when the ghosts first appear. That’s why you defend her when the others don’t believe her story. That’s why you feel the chill when she’s clasping her roommate’s hand for comfort against the dark, only to find herself alone when the lights come back.
Now, in short stories, words are currency, and you don’t have a lot to spend. As limits quickly approach, character development can be the first to go. It is my firm opinion that this is a sure-fire guarantee of a fall-flat story.
It doesn’t have to take a three-page tragic backstory, or God forbid, a flashback scene in the middle of the action. Character can be established on the run. I’m a huge proponent of in medias res. Let me show you a couple ways this can be done using examples from that book I’m peddling.
Banter—In Fertile Minds, I establish the characters of both Chelsea Pepperdine and her manservant, Thomas Mansfield, through a whirlwind scene involving a costume change. Character and relationship are exposed through conversation:
She sighed as she put one booted foot up on her lacing stool. “Is there anything at all of interest going on in London today?” she asked, using a pick to rip at the laces of her boot.
He flipped through the edge of the newspapers wedged between box and tray. “Perhaps not this evening, Miss Pepperdine.” He tried changing the subject as he poured her a cup of tea. “How did things go at the Hellfire Club?”
She gave him a crooked smile, easily reaching her deep blue eyes. “As usual, a flash of lacy underthings will get me in the door,” she said, lifting her skirts to knee height as if to demonstrate, but then she reached beneath and retrieved a gun made of copper, glass and fresh solder. “But it was up to my hypno-darts to get me back out unmolested.”
Reading between the lines of these three paragraphs, you learn a lot about Miss Pepperdine; her time period and class, the way she treats her servant, and how she is capable of handling herself in the dire situations that she regularly gets herself involved in. And this has to be set up before the reader discovers the horror of a new plant species taking over the minds of the British elite.
Close Narration—In The Nocturnal Habits of the Late Derek Gray, our main character is the sheriff of a small Northeastern town. The story is told from his point of view, so the reader quickly gets a feel for who he is and how the town runs:
I was just climbing into bed with my wife, Evelyn, when I got the phone call. Doug Chambers had shot Derek Gray, who lived upstairs from him. Everyone knew Doug, and it came as a shock that someone so good-natured could kill anyone, much less his best friend. But I’d been sheriff long enough that I’ve seen this sort of thing too often. I’ve come to believe that anyone was capable of murder, given the right trigger.
Bob and Chuck were already on the scene, and they were good enough deputies normally, but they were having trouble getting the gun off of Doug, so I had to go have a talk with him. I laced my boots back up and retrieved my gun belt from the back of the chair where I’ve been in the habit of leaving it ever since little Evie went off to college.
The apartment building turned crime scene was only a few blocks from my home, but the chill of winter blew through me in ways it never used to. My joints were aching already; they were likely to freeze solid on the short walk there, so I drove in the heated luxury of my ’89 Cherokee.
I didn’t tell you what he looks like, or even what his name is, but you’ve probably got a good picture in your head. He’s your grandfather, but with a badge and raging arthritis. Chances are, you’re going to fear for him when it turns out there may be an alien insect on the loose, especially when the eggs start hatching.
A Side Conversation—In Condemned, the character of Officer LaThanya Barber is fairly well established by this point of the story, but once she realizes the horrors of the day are going to keep her at the station late, she needs to call home:
She had to climb the stairs before getting a signal, then quickly dialed home. After two rings, her boyfriend answered.
“No, you’re not,” he said.
This wasn’t the first time she’d had to call him about working late, but it was the first time it fell on poker night, and he clearly knew what she was going to say. “I’m sorry, but I have to. I’ve got a murder case, and this one is weird. I need you to stay with Shanie, but I am so going to make it up to you later.”
“I’ve got a better idea. I’m going to take Shanie with me. We’ll teach her how to smoke cigars and cheat at cards.”
“You’re the best, honey,” she said with a smile. “Kiss her for me.”
“I will. Call me when you leave.”
She hung up, standing for a moment with the phone in her hands, a picture of little Shanie on the lock screen, then she occupied her mind with the bastard in Interrogation Room Two and set her jaw.
Just a glimpse of her homelife and what she has at stake. You could say this goes under the category of banter, but it didn’t have to be, and its placement toward the middle of the story is an important distinction. She’ll be thinking back to this conversation in a short while when her world is upset and an old god rises.
Subtext—In The Raven, a young woman leaves a laptop and her purse behind in a coffee shop. When she doesn’t return, our protagonist/narrator wants to get the laptop back to her, and he states his reasons as being “worried about her,” but an attentive reader will figure out there’s more to it than that:
As you know, I’ve been working at Caffeine I.V. for like a month now. I know it’s not a job that fully utilizes my skill set, and it’s a huge pay cut from Apple, but I really needed to de-stress after the whole Mindy-pocalypse thing. So, I’ve been living off my savings and limiting my drinks to what I earn in tips. It’s been good. I’ve even managed to get to the gym a few times like I always promised I would.
Anyway, when I went in for my shift a couple days ago, there was this girl sitting at one of the tables. She had a caramel macchiato frap with the name “Francine” on it, and she was typing away at the keys of her laptop. Her hair was spiked up platinum blonde, with blue ringlets that came down past her ears—my kind of look. Tons of earrings, and a pierced nose too. The only makeup she had on was eyeliner, and she wore tons of that. Leather jacket, jeans—pretty normal there. Oh! Silver nails. Not long, or anything, but they were like…reflective.
There aren’t enough words in a story this short to come right out and say everything, but I have faith in my reader to pick it up, and through it, relate to who the protagonist is. He went through a recent break-up, and he really notices Francine. He doesn’t describe much of the coffee house he works in, but after a passing glance at Francine, he describes what color her nails are. Yes, he’s smitten. And the fact that he can feel that so intensely but can’t bring himself to say it tells you a lot about him. With any luck, it endears him to you. He’s someone you know. And later, when he cracks the security on her laptop and terrible people come after him, you’ll be scared because you relate.
So, to cut things short, if your story isn’t working with beta readers, consider the question, “Why do we care about my protagonist?” (Note, I didn’t say like my protagonist. There is a difference, but that could be a post of its own.) If you don’t have a strong answer for that question, you may consider adding more characterization. The above options can help you do this without adding too many words to your story.
Ichabod Ebenezer is the genre-promiscuous author of “A Shadow Stained in Blood” as well as countless short stories ranging from Horror to Sci-fi, from Fantasy to Mystery. He lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest with his family, a chameleon, and the ghosts of three cats. His latest book, Beyond the Rail and Other Nightmares, is now available on Amazon and other fine retailers, but there is always another skeleton at the back of his closet.
Find more of his work at his website.