WriterDrome is an ongoing discussion concerning the mechanics and logistics of writing Horror Fiction. The aim here is to discuss the many dynamics necessary to write, edit and publish Horror Fiction in a continuously changing landscape. Remember, opinions mentioned here are just that, opinions. I’m no expert, but I’ve been writing for a long time, and I feel there is a lot I can pass on to my fellow writers. I’m still unsure if this is going to be a monthly or weekly column. Lively discussion is highly encouraged.
Personally, It’s Personal
There are many things other writers tell each other as words of encouragement, especially to someone just starting to write. “Write what you know” is one of the more common statements, and one that I disagree with the most because it’s just such a generic No-Shit statement. What the Hell else could I write about, right? Another is “Make it personal”. Generic in nature, yet so simple people tend to misinterpret the meaning. Since I’m so brutally honest, I’ll admit that I’m one of those writers that misinterpreted the meaning of the statement, though I do believe my error has made me a better writer.
What is generally meant by the “Make it personal” statement is to make the story personally important to you, the writer. Basically, if you find yourself blocked on a project, the statement is meant to help you reevaluate why you were writing the story to begin with. If you’re writing a story about civil injustice and you’ve lost your way in the story, think back to the things that meant the most to you, that filled you with passion and forced you to take up your pen and begin writing. Understandable, and I’m sure we all do this several times through each draft of our story. I certainly do. But “Make it personal” is a vague statement, which automatically classifies it with the ability to mean something else, and this is where the lesson begins.
The people in your story, your characters, have a life outside their story, a life which you must tap into ever so gently to make them believable. Your characters do not go around trying to get into trouble and find monsters to chase them. To make them realistic, you give them a life the story has interrupted. This level of tension is superficial, but very strong, because if you’re not creating tension, you’re not writing fiction, and nobody likes their lives to be disrupted. It’s this level of tension that initially moves the story forward.
The next level of tension is extremely personal. If you make your characters care about what they need to do to make this tension go away, your reader will care for your characters. Notice I did NOT say like. A compelling character need not be likable, the reader simply must care about what happens to them. To illustrate this example, I’m going to use Bari Wood’s The Tribe , which I recently read again, and yes, it’s even better the second time around. (I’m going to do my best to warn you of any spoilers.) This is a very simple revenge-out-of-control tale that could have possibly never been published if it wasn’t for Miss Wood’s ability to make the reader care about the characters. The thrust of the story deals with Rachel Levy, a jewish widow, and Roger Hawkins, an African-American cop, both living in Brooklyn. Some punks kill Rachel’s husband, Adam, at the beginning of the story. Adam’s best friend is Roger. Roger investigates the murders, finds the punks, and tries to break them down. Adam’s father, a concentration camp survivor, is dismayed to find out the police can’t hang anything on the punks. Days later, all the punks are dead, murdered by a destructive force that leaves the police baffled. Rachel’s whole family uproots and leaves town with her in tow. Some new neighbors move in next door. One of Levy’s family member loses his grandson in a fight involving one of the neighbors children. Again, the menace returns, literally wiping out the neighbors family.
SPOILER ALERT: So far, it’s easy to see exactly who is doing the killing. But this is not a who-done-it, but a how-done-it, and even though we may know, without caring for these characters, the reader would not have cared either. Rachel begins to feel like an outcast within her own adopted family when she starts wondering why these old men would kill, how they killed. Roger is unable to shake the knowledge from his mind, and even though he knows the Levy Elder and loves him like the father he never really had, his commitment to duty and honor forces him to help Rachel uncover the mystery when she discovers the Elders, The Tribe, have killed again. Once they discover the Tribe control a Golem (a man made of clay) that does their bidding, and just how far the Tribe will go to cover their tracks, they begin to fear for their own lives. The only choice they have is to confront the creature and destroy it. END SPOILER ALERT.
Notice that the characters make a decision, a choice, to end the evil. Surely the other choice would be to say, ‘Screw this shit, I’m going home.’ The level of care must be proportionate to the tension involved with the characters decisions. You have to make sure that ‘Going home‘ is not really an option, or if it is the choice taken, that severe repercussions result from that decision.
Miss Wood makes her characters care deeply about the outcome of their actions. Soon after Adam’s death, Rachel is busy raising their child, meeting new suitors, wondering if she should get married again. Roger works his way up the ranks, and is considering running for public office.
This return to normalcy after the beginning events is important. As writers we owe it our readers that if we need the reader to care about our characters, then the normal things must be vibrant and poignant. Last thing we want is to start boring them while gearing up for the next big scene.
When the tension starts again, Wood skillfully gives us a glimpse into the life these killings have disrupted. As the danger level increases, so does the characters need to resolve the issue to continue their lives. In other words, as the character’s tension increases, so do the stakes involved. As the stakes increase, so does the reader’s need to care for these characters as well. By making your reader care, now you have created compelling fiction, which is our goal, right?
It seems so formulaic; make your characters care, your reader care. If the reader cares, then they are compelled to read the book. Maybe it is a formula, but it is a formula that works. Think of your favorite stories, the ones you read over and over, and I can guarantee there is a character that cares about what is disrupting his/her life, and cares about what they need to do to stop this disruption. It is this level of caring, this ability to “Make it personal”, that will bring readers back to your work again and again.