It’s the CHARACTERS, dude!

So I’ve been writing again. Knocked out something like seven thousand words last weekend on my vampire detective sequel to something that hasn’t been published yet. (I wrote three shortish stories that told detective Rick Striker’s story and collected them as The Striker Files; they total about 25,000 words and the collection also contains a bonus short story called “Garage Sale.”) I have an untitled, ~60K work done which is a sequel to those short stories. I’m still making corrections and stuff, but it’s basically ready to publish except for a cover and a good title. And I started a third in the series, this one set in Paris. I had a general idea of where I was going with it, but was having trouble with the specifics. Then I read something (on Wikipedia, of all places!) that gave me a good idea and I’m running with it!

So anyway, as I’m writing, I’m also reading. I’m on a horror binge right now, thanks the new discoveries like Ray Garton (well, he wasn’t really new — I had his book Live Girls in paperback, but it was the only thing I’d read by him) and Duncan Ralston. Their also-bots have led me to a handful of different reads, as have some of the Facebook Horror Readers and Writers groups I frequent.

So I thought I’d talk about a couple of them. Specifically, Glenn Rolfe, Sea Caummisar, and Sam West. Each had an interesting premise. In Rolfe’s The Window, demons that inhabit reflective surfaces seduce vulnerable folks who are unhappy with how their lives are going. Specifically, they target families, because they want to come back to life in the bodies of the members of the family. In Caummisar’s Games #1: New Year, three young women find themselves held captive and forced to participate in games where the result will be a tortuous punishment, but they don’t understand why or know who has kidnapped them. Finally, in West’s The Grindhouse Experience, a group of college kids sign up to be ‘kidnapped’ and taken to an extreme haunted house experience. The waiver they must sign to apply is quite frightening, listing all of the tortures that might be inflicted upon them as participants. And though they really don’t expect to be selected, of course they are (because there would be no story if they weren’t).

These three reads emphasized the importance of character to me. I personally think I do okay with characters. I think a reader of my fiction will end up caring about the people I write about. (If I’m wrong, use the comments to discuss or shoot me an email via the contact form under that menu tab at the top.) I especially like writing about kids, and I think I do an okay job with them.

Glenn Rolfe is someone who can handle writing about young people. His main character is a junior high kid named James who’s been forced to move away from his friends and his father after a divorce. He hates his step-dad and isn’t happy with his mother. He’s been dragged away from his best buddies and his friend’s sister, who he’s infatuated with (in his eyes, it’s LOVE!), and she with him. When the opportunity to spend the rest of the summer with his father, he is thrilled! But at his father’s, he finds a situation sown with discontent and simmering disappointment between Allison, his father’s live-in girlfriend, and his father. And that’s where the demons find their point of entry.

I cared about Rolfe’s characters almost immediately, from page 1 until the end. And I cared about all of them, not just James. I felt like they were real. I knew them as well as I could know a fictional character, and I wanted to know what was going to happen to them. I could say the same thing about all of my favorite books. There have been rare exceptions, almost always in the science-fiction genre, where I connect less with the characters and more with the overarching idea that is being developed. But those books usually aren’t my favorite books. The best ones are the ones that combine the two. When the book is over, regardless of the situation which has just been resolved, I want to know more about James and his friends.

By contrast, I never cared that much about the characters in Caummisar’s Games #1. The reader is introduced to three young women who are partying for New Year’s Eve, and one of them (especially) is pretty depressed and ends up getting very drunk. When they catch a ride home, the driver doesn’t take them home but sedates them by injection and brings them to an abandoned storage locker where he restrains them with cuffs and chains and forces them to play various games. The punishment for not playing is worse than the punishment for losing.

It’s a pretty good story, with plenty of themes at play that give it a richness that it otherwise wouldn’t have. The trouble was that I never felt that I knew Sarah, the main character, or either of her friends and I didn’t really care much what happened to them throughout their ordeal. He tends to head-hop, not sticking to one point-of-view character. One paragraph might be from Amanda’s point of view, the next from Angel’s, and by chapter’s end, we’re in Sarah’s head. I think it would have been more effective to stay in one of their heads, preferably Sarah’s (because she’s the main character). As it was, I never connected with any of them. I didn’t feel their anger, their fear, their pain, their anything. It made an interesting situation into a lesser story. I’m not disappointed that I read it, but I can’t say I’ll rush right out and plunk down money on Games #2 (which was just released).

I moved from there to Sam West’s The Grindhouse Experience. Right away I liked the characters I was reading about. The main character, Lucy, pulled me into her world right away as she resists signing up for the extreme haunted house experience after reading the waiver that they must sign to be selected. Her pre-law friend, the lovely Anoushka, argues that as a contract, the document is worthless; anyone could sue and win if they do any of the stuff specified in the waiver/contract to them, because one cannot consent to having illegal stuff done to themselves. In other words, if you consent to be murdered, it doesn’t indemnify the murderer. They are still liable for their criminal acts.

Lucy intrigued me; she found herself in a difficult situation where she’s in love with Anoushka’s boyfriend, the handsome Mason, but finds herself paired with Rob, an obnoxious horror fan who basically ignores her, because he’s crazy about Anoushka. I cared about her; I cared about all of them (except maybe Rob). It was a good story with a backstory about a horror filmmaker who partnered with a famous horror author, and whose son may or may not be responsible for creating the haunted house. Lucy is writing a thesis on the Grindhouse film genre, and that’s the only thing that makes her even a little interested in the experience. She hopes to gain insight into the genre that will be useful in her paper.

This one was a very good story. It was the first thing I’ve read by Sam West, but I immediately followed it with another by her, called Strange Flesh. I won’t go into it too much here except to say that the same strong characterization holds true for it also.

In my own current hot story, I am writing about vampires. I started this story back in the 1990’s, writing about a detective who is looking for a missing girl. His search leads him to a club called Skid Row, and he encounters something he doesn’t expect — heck, he doesn’t even believe in — vampires. In my world, vampires are really beautiful or handsome. They’re not all that unlikable, except they want to keep their existence a secret, and my detective is threatening that secrecy.

I started with a character — a hard-boiled detective, Rick Striker — who is straight out of a noir film. I kept the story focused on him, and told it through his eyes. I try to get people to connect to him by using a first person narrative to keep the reader in his head and to allow them to know him well. I hope it works. I followed it up with the story of how the missing girl, Lisa Warwick, goes missing in the first place. Then I returned to Rick for a third short story in which he must confront his vampire nemeses. Those three stories make up The Striker Files, a collection that’s published as a Kindle ebook for the expensive price of $0.99.

Even though it doesn’t sell, I wrote a novel set in their universe, and I won’t spoil it but Rick again features as one of the main characters. I head-hop more in this one, but it is a chapter by chapter head-hopping — I don’t switch POV characters from paragraph to paragraph. I think that it’s harder to connect with a character when you switch it up too much, so I try to limit my POV changes to the bad guys (in third person) and the foil, Lisa Warwick’s best friend Megan Woods (also third person) while Rick is still written in first person.

I’m at work on a followup to that unreleased novel, set in Paris, and again with the same sort of head hopping. Besides Rick, this one also has the French characters, Megan Woods and the bad guys as point of view characters.

I like the characters, and I think others would enjoy them too. It would be nice to find out!

Anyway, if you’re a horror fan, go grab those books listed above. They’re all good reads, though I liked two of them more than the third.