I have a small confession to make. I haven’t watched a lot of horror movies.
Oh, all right. Don’t string me up yet. I’ve seen my share, and I’ve seen more in the last five years than I did in the first several decades of my life. But honestly, I didn’t cut my teeth on horror movies. I was always more interested in character-driven stories, in the human element. Sometimes that leaned into horror, but often it did not. I had a few influential scary film experiences in my young life, but I missed a lot too — and what I did experience tended to be solo endeavors.
My friends were not horror freaks. My family was rather conventional. I pursued a degree in writing but steered clear of the dark stuff. I did have a bit of a twisted mind, but I learned to suppress it early on.
Now you might say I don’t have the background to write a good horror movie, and that’s where we would disagree. I believe, in fact, that my interest in character-driven movies is what gives our horror stories an edge. Anyone who thinks a movie can rely on superficial genre elements to gain an audience is simply wrong-headed. If the characters do not ring true, the scares won’t either.
Creating real, complex, subtle characters in believable but challenging situations is THE KEY to making a good movie. Simple as that. You can have a fantastic concept. You can have a star attached. You can have million dollar effects. No one will stick around to watch if they can’t feel attached to at least one character.
Don’t misunderstand — I’m not suggesting you have to like the characters in a movie or want to be friends with them or anything like that. But you have to have someone to root for, someone you can identify with in SOME way.
There’s more to character-developing than just this, but this is where it starts. One way to find out if your character has the chops to drive a whole movie is to ask yourself a few questions:
- What does the character want?
- What is the character’s external motivation?
- What is the character’s internal motivation?
- What’s the character’s potential change from the event(s) he or she will be going through in the story?
- What are some of the character’s weaknesses and how will they be challenged through the story?
Even in horror movies, with otherworldly happenings and inhuman behaviors, these questions apply. In the “creepy antagonist” type horror movie, the main character is usually driven by the need to get away/survive/stay sane. Those are easier to plot; think man versus zombies, man versus ghosts, man versus giant monster, man versus mad scientist. External motivation is obvious; internal motivation can be personal (need to please girlfriend, keep the family from harm, be accepted). The important thing to remember is that desires exist in all situations, in all people, whether or not we are facing monsters. The more real and complex a main character’s regular desires, the more interesting the character will be when faced with extraordinary circumstances.
Think Jaws, for example. These aren’t just men versus a shark. They are people with needs, wishes and desires, and the shark is more than just a foe. It is an opportunity and a threat.
The other type of situation in a horror movie is when the protagonist is the source of the creepy. This creates more of an internal struggle that is externalized through the main character’s actions. These stories are trickier to tell — the viewer must essentially root for the character against him or herself as the story progresses. We often identify because we understand internal struggle, and seeing it played out in such a big way can make us feel more anxiety and suspense because we sympathize with the “bad guy” in a way. Think Carrie here. Or Let the Right One In (for more recent fare). The Shining. American Werewolf in London.
So — build a character, tell the story, then add the genre elements. Your viewers won’t be disappointed.
PJ Woodside is the writer and director of Lucid, which features Bill Johnson and will be released in 2013. She is co-producer of Spirit Stalkers and six other movies with Steve Hudgins of Big Biting Pig Productions, and owner of PJ’s Productions. More about PJ here.