I’ve finally switched over to the new Blogger format. A bit torn on it, myself. Please let me know if you like it or not, because I can duplicate the old style, it just takes a bit of work.
Halloween is upon us, which means it’s time for me to do something horror-related here on the ranty blog. It’s a topic I’ve touched on once or thrice before. This time I thought I’d put a slightly different spin on it.
As some of you know, I spent last weekend up at ZomBCon in Seattle. It was eye-opening in several ways, and one of those ways (like any decent convention) was the people in costume. There were a lot of fantastic zombies and related beasties, but there were also a lot of zombie fighters—people with miniguns and machetes and body armor. Heck, one of my fellow Permuted Press authors, Eloise J. Knapp, showed up dressed to kill. Not in the fun way.
A lot of horror tends to focus on the enemy. My zombies are different from your zombies. Your vampires are different than my vampires. Neither of our axe-wielding, demonically-possessed psychopaths are like her axe-wielding, demonically-possessed psychopath. Horror can be broken down into many different sub-genres, just like sci-fi, comedy, or other art forms like sculpting or painting. Being labeled "horror" doesn't mean Frankenstein is anything like The Descent, and neither of them resembles Paranormal Activity VII.
What I want to talk about, though, are the victims. Different types of antagonists define a story, true, but the same holds for the protagonist. While A vs. B makes one type of story, A vs. C is something different and D vs. G is another world altogether. So recognizing what type of characters I’m writing about can help me define what kind of story I’m writing, which helps me market it. If I tell an editor it's not torture porn when it plainly is, at the best I’m going to get rejected. At the worst, they'll remember me as "that idiot" when my next piece of work crosses their desk—even if I’ve fixed my mistakes since then.
Here’s a few types of horror stories and the people you often find in them.
Not talking about the television show, mind you.
The characters tend to be average folks in most supernatural stories. They’re not idiots, but they’re not millionaire Nobel winners or retired assassins. Almost universally, the main character of a supernatural story rarely comes to harm. They’ll need clean underwear, maybe have to dye their hair back to its natural color, and they probably won’t sleep well for a few months or years. Physically, however, they tend to come out okay. There might be some mental scarring, but that’s about it. If anyone suffers in a supernatural story it's usually the bad guy or a supporting character. Often, though, people have died in the past.
These tales feature teenagers and young adults as their victim of choice. Lots of teenagers, out of which two at most might survive. A few people over the age of twenty-five may catch a machete, but ever since John Carpenter made the original Halloween (and it was horribly misunderstood and copied by dozens of filmmakers) it’s pretty much set in stone who the victims are in this sub-genre.
A key difference between slashers and torture porn stories (see below) is that the victims here have a chance to escape. It’s rare for the victim to die without hope or warning in a slasher film. There’s often a chase or at least a struggle. We get the sense that if Phoebe didn’t trip over that tree root or if Wakko hadn’t stopped to “deal with this guy” they might’ve gotten away. Heck if Dot just could’ve run a little faster she would’ve made it to the car and relative safety.
A monster story is about an unstoppable creature. Godzilla is a monster, in a very obvious sense, but so is Freddy Kruger (in his later films), a zombie horde, and the alien in Alien. I think the reason Jason X is so reviled by fans of the franchise is that the filmmakers turned it into a monster movie, not a slasher film like the ones before it.
As such, the focus of a monster story is usually to get away from the threat. Yeah, most horror movies involve running away. In a monster story, though, it’s immediately self-evident this is the best choice of action. Monster stories can have a lot of survivors because the monster, by its nature, is kind of attacking randomly. It never gets personal for them. The characters in a monster story are almost bystanders, swept up in the events and sometimes just left to watch from the sidelines.
Giant Evil stories
In these stories the characters are usually pathetic pawns at best, helpless victims at worst (well, from their point of view). Giant evil stories are close to monster stories in that the antagonistis just overwhelming. There are two big differences, though. One is there’s no way for characters to escape giant evil. It’s everywhere. Two is that giant evil rarely has a face. It may have minions or manifestations, but often it isn’t something characters can “find,” if that makes sense.
The characters in giant evil stories tend to be older and smarter. They’re not hormone-crazed teens, but very educated adults with a bit of life-wisdom under their belts. In my opinion, it’s because a large part of the horror here is realizing just how overwhelming the force against them is. It’s something a younger character usually isn’t quite up to grasping because they don’t have as much of a world to overturn.
Thrillers tend to focus on just one or two characters rather than a larger cast, so when people die they tend to be supporting characters or nameless folks in the background. A thriller is about what could happen, not what does happen, so the big threats have to stay looming. While characters in a thriller tend to be more active in a general sense, for the most part they’re reacting to the sinister plots and machinations going on around them.
Adventure Horror stories
To paraphrase from Hellboy, adventure horror is where the good guys bump back. While these stories may use a lot of tropes from the other subgenres, the key element to these stories is that the characters aren’t victims—they’re actively fighting back from the start. Not in a dumb, facing-off-against-Jason-Voorhees-with-a-baseball-bat way, but in a heavily-armed-armored-and-prepared way that has a degree of success.
It can still go bad for them (and often does), but these characters get to inflict some damage and live to tell the tale. For a while, anyway.
A key element to torture porn is the victim is almost always helpless. By the time the characters know what’s going on (no matter how obvious it is to the reader) they’re already bound and drugged. They’re completely alone or vastly outnumbered. Unlike a slasher film (see above) there’s no question in these stories that the victim is not going to get away. That hope isn't here, because that's not what these stories are about.
Torture porn walks a delicate line with its characters. If they’re bland and interchangeable, what happens to them is kind of meaningless. When was the last time you shed a tear for that broken chair in your back alley? However if we know these characters too well then their torture really does become truly unbearable and horrific to the point that it isn’t remotely entertaining. We cheer when people get killed in the Saw movies, but not when they’re killed in Schindler’s List.
I’ll also make the observation that characters tend to be one type or the other. It’s very rare to see such a dramatic character shift that Phoebe goes from being the complete victim to completely kick-ass. As has been said to death, the seeds are always there. Ripley may not gear up until the end of Aliens, but there are plenty of reminders all through it that she’s just as capable and resilient as any of the Colonial Marines—including the fact that she’s the only survivor of the first movie. When someone changes too much without any motivation they become inconsistent, and an inconsistent character’s a sure way to end up in that big pile on the left.
So, dwell on these points while you're munching on the ill-gotten gains you score while trick-or-treating with your candy beard. Yeah, all of you with kids, you know what I'm talking about.
Next time, I’ve been going back and forth about what I want to do. I might just give a random quick tip. Or maybe I’ll talk about going back and forth.
Have a Happy Halloween. Don't forget to write.
Have a Happy Halloween. Don't forget to write.