Plot and Character in Horror Fiction


Vision 8


Plot and Character in Horror Fiction 


Teresa Hopper

Copyright © 2002, Teresa Hopper, All Rights Reserved


Anyone who writes or reads much horror knows that a stereotype exists amongst some non-horror readers.  Horror is seen as a somewhat inferior form of fiction – trashy, with unrealistic characters who do stupid things to sustain unfeasible plots. It isn’t seen as serious fiction. The sad fact is that in the past there has been a lot of bad horror fiction published, which has been guilty of all those things. Maybe you think that writing horror is an easy option, because anyone can write about a woman running around in her nightie screaming, can’t they? Well I am here to tell you that writing horror isn’t an easy option; in fact, it isn’t easy at all, not if you want to do it well.  

And how do you do it well? You make your characters as real and your plots as original and convincing as possible. All writers of fiction strive for this, but as a horror writer you have an extra mountain to climb, because you’re fighting against reality – you’re taking the reader’s own world and saying to them ‘ah, but things are not as you think’ which is completely different to setting a novel in a fantasy or SF world that has been created. As a reader I will accept that a fantasy world can have monsters in it much easier than I would accept the same about my world. 


So how do you make your characters as real as possible? Well, the first thing to do is to avoid the character stereotypes that seem to crop up regularly in horror fiction. We’ve all seen the Catholic Priest Experiencing Doubt, the Tortured Main Character, the Virginal Heroine, the Cynical and Unbelieving Police Chief, and many more. Real people aren’t like this.  They’re not stereotypes -- they are as multi-faceted as you or I. You need to give your characters a good and a bad side, hopes and dreams, and you need to know their past, their triumphs and failures. You need to know not just what they are like when things are going well for them, but also when  the car has broken down and the kids are screaming. The more you know about your characters, the better you will understand their fears, weaknesses and terrors.  

One of the 'sins' that some horror authors have committed in the past is to have the characters behave in unrealistic or stupid ways just to advance the plot. How many times have you read a book and thought how unlikely someone's actions were? If I heard noises coming from my cellar, I certainly wouldn’t go down there alone, I’d lock the door and get the hell out. Don’t make your character go into a vampire nest in the middle of the night either, even with a stake and garlic and holy water. The sensible thing would be to wait until dawn. Or if your character has to do something that might seem stupid, give them a damn good reason why they're doing it. No readers are going to root for stupid characters. 

And don’t do this for your heroes only – make your villains just as real, interesting, and hard to kill.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read novels where the author has created a weak villain too easy for the hero to defeat. A great villain can make a story - would Silence Of The Lambs have been as compelling without Hannibal Lector? Of course not.  

Another thing I hate as a reader is for the author to have built up a great, scary,  powerful villain who the hero struggles against during most of the novel, and who at the end is beaten far too easily. That’s just laziness on the part of the author. There are authors that I won’t even read anymore because I know their endings will be weak and frustrating. Strive to make your endings as good as possible, and don't allow your fiction to be ruined by cop-out endings. 

Another way to get great characters is to learn from the best. Some writers regularly create fantastic characters who seem as if they could almost step off the page. Look at your favourite characters in fiction, and try to work out what it is about them that makes them real. For me that would be most characters by Stephen King and Terry Pratchett (though he doesn't write horror); I would love to have their skills with characters.  


It is much harder to discuss plot techniques, because everyone works out their plots differently./  Some people have hugely detailed outlines in place before they start writing the manuscript, and barely deviate from them. For others outlines are anathema, and they won’t even use them, preferring to let the story evolve as they go. There is no right way. The best thing to do is try various systems and see what works best for you. But even if you use an outline, remember that there’s nothing stopping you from changing it if a brilliant idea hits. 

No matter how you work out your plot, the main thing to bear in mind is to be original. It is frequently said that there are only a few plots in the world, and while this is true, don't let this discourage you. You can make your writing original by adding your own personal take on a familiar plot. We all know the familiar horror plot devices: happy families moving into haunted houses, naive people abusing ouija boards, charismatic vampires, vengeful witches, demon lovers, etc. These have all been used since the beginning of the genre, but that’s not to say you can’t still employ them successfully -- you just have to think of a unique way of looking at the subject.  Look at Anne Rice, who has made the vampire genre her own. Try to reach beyond what has been done before. 

If you take both of these areas into account and you write stories with strong, original plots and people them with realistic and interesting characters, you will be well on the way to writing good horror fiction. And who knows, maybe even getting published. 

Here are some further resources that I’ve found very useful when working on plotting and characterisation: 

This is a great character workshop by Holly:


And this is Holly’s plotting workshop:


‘On Writing’ by Stephen King (ISBN: 0340820462)