Today I joked to a friend that if I really wanted to hurt my characters, I’d write romance instead of horror. This came after he expressed concern over how many characters I killed off in the course of a story I’m working on (taking a break from the screenplay to polish a short story before a submission deadline).
I asked him to read the story because my two official critique partners are both women, and I wanted to get a guy’s perspective too. I was expecting the feedback to be less along the lines of “why do you like killing people so much, and did you really have to kill so-and-so?” and more along the lines of “you’re taking too long to get to the good stuff.”
Instead, insert tired jokes about how horror writers must all be warped, morbid people who are obsessed with murder, mayhem, and death, and you can probably imagine how the rest of that conversation went.
My point to him with the romance comment was that there are worse things than death. If I was half as sadistic as he was implying, with my primary interest in playing puppet-master, jerking people around, and causing pain just for pain’s sake, I wouldn’t focus on that; I’d focus on love. Death is too quick. Heartbreak is a torment you can drag out over the course of an entire novel.
Besides, without love in some form, death doesn’t matter. That could be romantic love, familial love, deep friendship, self love, or even a connection you’ve built between a reader and your characters. Where’s the pain in killing a character off if no one cares that they’re gone? Where’s the drive for them to survive if their lives don’t have any meaning in the larger context of your story’s world?
When you have my history with relationships, it’s easy to poke fun at the romance genre as being something far worse than any horror writer could come up with. I guess I’d know. While I don’t normally admit this (shh!), I write in both. But what I didn’t realize until this conversation was exactly how much overlap there is when it comes to love and horror — not in a general sense within the horror genre (though the connection is certainly there), but specifically within my own work.
Take the screenplay for example. It’s really all about love — the love one character has for her dead husband and the baby she just lost, but also the love between two sisters. More specifically it’s about how that love can be warped and corrupted.
In the current short story, I don’t think it was actually the volume of victims that bothered my friend. I get the impression he wouldn’t have cared if not for one of the last victims. He didn’t see their death coming, and he was genuinely upset — pissed off even, asking if there was a way to keep that character alive (nope!). In that case, love already played a direct role in the character’s death. But it was also about connecting that character to the reader. I made him care about them. That was my job — making the death matter. I wasn’t as successful with another key character, which is where a lot of the revisions are focused, but for a rough draft, I’ll take it.
What this conversation really did though was make me realize what’s wrong with the novel I’m revising. It’s felt “flat,” though I couldn’t put a finger on what the problem was. But now I think I know. It has fear. It has depth. It has plenty of emotion. But it doesn’t have much in the way of love.
I went out of my way to avoid any romantic elements in the story (and I think that’s the right call). But no romance doesn’t equal no love. And I suspect that’s what I need to improve to make the story work. For example, the protagonist’s boss was her father’s best friend before he died. I could flesh that relationship out where he’s like more of a surrogate father to her since her dad’s death. The male lead is a bit more difficult. I could either focus on his new friendship with my protagonist, or perhaps I’ll create a family for him — someone who loves him and someone who gives him drive to survive and make it back home (if I choose to let him).
While I don’t normally share rough drafts of my work, this proved to be a valuable exception. Not only did I get great feedback from my critique partners which helped me iron out some major character and plot issues, but this conversation is making me think about this and other projects in a new way. I find myself wondering how I can play on various types of relationships and forms of love in new stories.
For example, I have to admit, the concept of self-love being a driving factor in a horror story appeals to me. I’d love to hash out a short story about a total narcissist who doesn’t give a shit about anyone but himself. And I’d want that character as the protagonist, not in the more typical villain role for that personality. That’s the kind of character I’d love to toy with, seeing how their inflated sense of self-importance would (or wouldn’t) translate into a successful attempt at self-preservation.
This also has me thinking about child characters and how their idea of love, and who and what they love, can be so different from adults. So it looks like as soon as the current short story is polished and submitted, I’ll have a couple of new ideas to play with. In the meantime, back to revisions. Lots of relationships. Lots of love. And lots of dead characters to finish sorting out.