From out of South Africa, Monique Snyman writes today and talks about what’s needed to write good characters. I hope you’re enjoying the different writers’ and editors’ perspectives here and will continue to check back throughout the month for Women in Horror Month.
Stepford Wives and Serial Killers: Crafting Complex Characters
People generally assume I am not a horror writer, due to my love of pastels and willingness to help others. Who I am simply does not gel with what is often expected of someone who has a deep affection for the genre. I’m supposedly “too nice,” “too normal-looking,” “too well-spoken.” As if appearances have anything to do with horror. Granted, perhaps I am all those things, but I also pride myself for not truly fitting into anyone’s preconceived notions of who I am to them. That, I guess, also makes me somewhat of a rebel—a rebel in a floral sundress. One, I regret to say, that has a real problem with authority, always have, and probably always will. Does my problem with authority make me a bad person? No. Is my love of pink supposed to make me any less of a horror writer? I hope not; otherwise my career is doomed.
What I’m getting at is that we make judgment calls based on appearances, but all human beings are complex. There are layers to who we are and what we are capable of doing. And what we see is not exactly what we get in the grand scheme of things.
Fictionalized characters, if crafted correctly, are exactly the same.
If there’s anything horror has taught me over the years, it’s that appearances can be deceiving. For better or worse, the bad guy isn’t always the monster and the good guy isn’t always squeaky clean. It’s because of this sentiment that I’ve always found myself drawn to crafting complex characters. Patrick Bateman (American Psycho), for example, is still one of my favorite characters because he doesn’t initially come across as a…well, for lack of a better word, psycho. Bateman looks normal, is ambitious, seems to have it all, yet there is something seriously wrong with him. Funnily enough, as far as real life is concerned, I wouldn’t count Ted Bundy in on my list of favorite serial killers for exactly the same reasons. Perhaps it’s because I feel Bundy’s madness is more superficial than Bateman’s, and that Bundy did it all for show. I don’t know. I’m not a certified psychologist.
Another character I absolutely adore is Tiffany Valentine-Ray (The Bride of Chucky), because at first she comes across as this heartless serial killer, a thrill-seeker who’d do anything to keep Chucky happy, but she’s much more than that. Tiffany does display a softer side at times, and she does stand up to Chucky. Sometimes, when I feel especially sentimental, I can imagine she would’ve been content with a suburban life…for a while, at least. I mean, even a trophy wife can be much more than a pretty face and a pair of Louboutin’s. She can be a voracious reader like Marilyn Monroe, or she can be a complete lunatic like Linda Hazzard. It all depends on the things that make a person who they are—past experiences, present circumstances, future endeavors.
That’s the thing about characters, though, they’re basically people. Each one is unique in their own way.
Nevertheless, layers are important, because they allow readers to connect with characters and ponder the “what ifs” and “maybes” long after the book or movie is finished.
So, how does one go about creating a complex character? The truth is that there is no real trick to writing complex characters; you simply need to know your characters inside and out, and make them somewhat relatable. However, I do understand that some will find it easier than others, which is why I always suggest authors first write a character description, just to get a general idea of who they’re working with (appearances are important, whether we like it or not). Note the character’s sex, age, hair and eye color, height, weight, sexuality, and so on. I, personally, then tend to move on to the character’s preferred fashion choices (preppy, goth, jock, whatever), before I get into the nitty-gritty backstory. And yes, it is always a good idea to write a backstory, whether anyone else sees it or not, because your character’s choices are often dictated by a fictionalized pasts. From there, expand to include relationships—how, for example, does your protagonist/antagonist relate to other characters? How did they meet? How long have they been friends? Why don’t they like each other? When will there be conflict? After that, if you have to, gently prod your characters into position by making adjustments to the personality.
As Neil Gaiman said on a related topic, “It’s that easy, and that hard.”
It takes practice to write well, to craft unforgettable characters, to somehow navigate your way through intricate plots and subplots and whatnot. My best advice: Try and try again. I’ve worked in the industry for over a decade, and I can honestly say that honing a craft, in particular one that is ever-changing, is a full-time job. With practice, though, crafting a character doesn’t have to be a chore.
Monique Snyman’s mind is a confusing bedlam of glitter and death, where candy-coated gore is found in abundance and homicidal unicorns thrive. Sorting out the mess in her head is particularly irksome before she’s ingested a specific amount of coffee, which is equal to half the recommended intake of water for humans per day. When she’s not playing referee to her imaginary friends or trying to overdose on caffeine, she’s doing something with words—be it writing, reading, or fixing all the words.
Monique Snyman lives in Pretoria, South Africa, with her husband and an adorable Chihuahua. She’s the author of MUTI NATION, a horror novel set in South Africa, and THE NIGHT WEAVER, the first installment in a dark fantasy series for young adults.