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The following article is a piece I wrote explaining how I make my story settings believable in a world that is not. Originally, I wrote this article for issue three of Wicked Karnival. Unfortunately, the magazine is now defunct.
Every story has a beginning, middle and end, but it’s what’s in those parts that make a story believable. I believe horror fiction must rely heavily on familiar places to con the reader in believing what they are reading could really be true . To make the reader gasp with surprise or shudder with fear when the monster is released, creating a setting that makes them comfortable is a start. But how do you create settings that the readers can relate to? By simply writing what you know. In my writings I imagine towns that I’ve seen, lived in, visited. In my first novel Anathema, the action takes place in the small town of Prairie Rest. To create the sleepy burg I took the best aspects of small town life and mixed them up, so I created a picture-perfect place when Americana lived--white picket fences, perfectly manicured lawns, clean streets. There’s a bar where everyone hangs out and a convenience store/gas station just off of Main Street; a sewing notions boutique even a fast-food joint. All of these are familiar icons to the readers. Even Main Street is just the right length so anyone can stroll up its sidewalk in a short amount of time. Nope nothing wrong here. Readers are familiar with the ordinary.
To add credibility to my neat little fictional town, I place it near some place that actually exists. Is this real city south of the town? North? Maybe east? How many miles away from Prairie Rest is the real city? These are questions I intentionally neglect to answer. By not giving exact directions or distance, the reader is free to put the faux town anywhere on the map they desire.
Once the audience is comfortable with the make-believe town I slowly layer on the uneasiness. I want the readers to remember there is a menace nearby. This same kind of device can be used when creating an urban setting as well. The city with its tall buildings, menacing shadows and dank alleys is the perfect backdrop for a slimy, multi-tentacle creature to slither out of a sewer grate. Establish the place. In my second novel Night Whispers, I used the cities of Minneapolis and New Orleans as my template. I mentioned real streets and landmarks. Make the readers comfortable. But never let them forget there’s a menace nearby.
Once the setting is established, the town needs to be populated. Just as no two people are alike in the real world, no two should be the same in the imagined world. Give the characters different quirks; give one an annoying habit. Personally, I prefer to not to give my characters similar names, like Dan and Don. Names so close to each other tend to confuse the reader as to who is who. If readers become confused they are more likely to become frustrated with the story and if they become frustrated, they may stop reading the story altogether. By using names that are different, the reader will remember each character as a separate individual.
Like settings, I will give a generic description to my players. I want the reader to build their own vision of what each character looks like in their imagination. If I give too much detail, it takes away from what the reader wants the character to look like. By allowing to reader to fill in the blanks they become develop more of a relationship with the character.
A character may be described as having violet eyes, a thick head of long dark hair and a chiseled, angular face. He weighs about two hundred pounds and has the strength of a weightlifter. As for a physical description, that is pretty much it. If he ages in the story and I may tell you his hair has grayed and he has grown a little flabby around the middle, but as a reader you must fill in the rest.
Because characters must have their own distinct personalities, the make-believe town cannot be peopled with stereotypes. Credible fiction, all fiction, not just horror fiction, is based on having the readers believe it is reality. Stereotypes aren't permitted to have unique personalities as do real people; they are limited in thought, emotion, and action by the terribly confining mold which created them and in stories become two-dimensional. As a storyteller, I try to avoid stereotypes in the narration of the tale. Everyone who lives in a mobile home cannot be considered as trailer trash. All black men are not lazy. Fat people are not necessarily jolly. However, to develop a character’s personality a certain character may show prejudice toward another character. I prefer to reveal these prejudices and stereotypes through dialogue keeping the narrator neutral.
The characters I create are based on people I have known through out my life. Most of them are composites of several individuals rolled into one and there are always a little bit of me in each of them. By putting a little of me in each of the characters, I can make them feel love, hate, remorse, disappointment, embarrassment, and a whole array of other emotions because I have felt them all. I write what I know and a good character is one that is every bit alive and faulted and unique as its real-life counterpart. Just as it is important to make the characters’ names different enough as not to confuse the reader, making certain the characters’ voices do not sound the same is just as important. Dialogue must flow naturally from the characters’ mouths. Some may speak in complete sentences. Others will only grunt one-word replies. Still others may talk in only fragments. Some swear too much. To further enhance a character’s individuality through dialogue consider using the dialect and slang of the region where the story takes place, or to show the character’s original roots. In the Midwest, soda pop is generally referred to as “pop.” So even if the story takes place in California, when the character is seen drinking a “pop,” it send a message to the reader that the character is not a native, but rather from somewhere in the Midwest. This will give the reader another kind of intimacy with the character, drawing the reader into the character’s life. The same effect can be achieved through dialect. Take the same Midwestern character with his “pop” and drop him into a New Englander’s world with their “Ayuh,” and the reader immediately knows these are two distinct individuals from different parts of the country.
A character’s action should reflect that character’s personality. Someone who is hot-headed and irrational will probably act the same way in time of crisis. He or she isn’t going to be sitting in a chair with their feet up casually sipping on a pop while chaos rains down around them. Likewise, the character that is rational and calm isn’t going to be running about like a beheaded chicken barking orders and shouting obscenities. The character may show fear; they may panic, but the rational part of their personality will persevere. Not all characters will be likeable and that’s okay, that’s the way they were written. Readers may feel compassion for some and contempt for others, but the reader must feel something. If the reader doesn’t, then they won’t care what happens to character that was created. The readers must know the people that inhabit the make-believe world.
Sometimes a character’s personality can even win over his creator. More and more I find I become fond of a certain character and when the time comes to bump him off, I change my mind and off another character in his place. In fact, the character’s whose life I spare may be lucky enough to have had a cameo in a future story.
Of course, if a rational character displays irrational behavior, maybe an outside force is influencing that behavior; maybe something evil.
Once all these elements are in place and the readers feel comfortable with the new surroundings and their new friends it’s time to turn the monster loose. That’s when the fun begins!
The monster does not need to be a bloated mass of protoplasm, a vampire, or werewolf. It can be the neighbor next door who just killed his family. It can be a madman hiding in the shadows, a knife-wielding killer ready to slit the throat of his next victim. It can be the quiet individual who without provocation suddenly slaughters a busload of innocent children.
Creating the evil, whether in the form of a human or a big, bad beastie, allows the author much more freedom. These creations allow the author to leave the constraints of society. These beings are not ruled by the moral rules of society. These are the characters the author can just let run wild. They are free to do whatever they please and damn the consequences of their actions.
Whether human or beast, the author wants to send shivers up the readers’ spines, make souls quiver, cause stomachs to double into knots.
But for these feelings to occur, one thing is certain -- the reader must believe that give these circumstances, this could really happen. And if the author can hook the readers into believing that the story, settings and characters are real, then success has been achieved and the author can go to sleep with a sly smile on his face, knowing that someone, somewhere in the real world is laying awake with the images of a make-believe world (and all the terrors hiding in the shadows) dancing in their head.