The Hero-Villain Axis in Horror (or Anything Else).

For my Speech Class final I demonstrated how to write a horror story. The keys to a good horror story are characters, atmosphere, and the villain. The only thing worse than a crappy villain is a lame hero and set of protagonists, so care must be taken to fill your story with solid, believable people. A great villain makes the arc for your hero easier to plan out and effortlessly reveal. A great hero means your villain has to really step up the game, and this means your reader wins. Let’s get started…

Alright, you’ve got your story about a vampire bond trader in Muncie, Indiana. Your vampire is a woman because you’re smart and know that in the business world women are often invisible making your vampire’s life easier. She works the Asian markets because those happen overnight and she can sleep during the day. You’ve made her smart and good at her job so the company is happy to keep her on her chosen shift. She’s also ruthlessly deadly when it’s her lunch break. The vampire rules and lore are your own, but based on a cross-section of the classic vampire lit.

Now the job is to make her accessible and relatable. What kind of shampoo does she use? What does vampirism do to a woman’s hair? Is there a fabric or clothing line she prefers? Does she shop or buy her things online and have them altered? Does she do this by herself or use a tailor? Is she an iPhone or Android girl?  Shoes: high heels or sensible? What does a lady wear when she’s hunting? What’s her casket like? Maybe she sleeps with an old rag doll or teddy bear from her pre-vampire days a century ago. Does bad breath annoy her? If not then what does? Unruly kids at the theater? Car alarms? Perhaps she wears pant-suits because her victims involuntarily kick her legs as she drains their blood, tearing her hose.

I’m sure that you, dear reader, are a nice, kind and wonderful person. I am also sure that there were times in your life you wish you had special powers to exact a measure of vengeance on some idiot who has wronged you, or at least pissed you off. Now you can live that dark fantasy out with your bond-trading vampire. You know that asshole at the coffee shop holding up the line because he’s on his phone? Oh yeah, she follows him into the men’s room and rips out his throat. The parking attendant who grins watching you dash to the meter just as she slides the ticket under your windshield wiper blade? Have fun with that scene. Your vampire lives in the modern world so giver her modern problems and let her deal with them.

Now you need a hero, someone to foil your vampire and ultimately put a wooden stake through her heart. You’ve set your story in the real world where vampires don’t exist, so your hero comes into the story blind to the possibility. Personally I’d go with a man. A female hero is cool, and adds dimensions like the fact that she would share a restroom with your vampire. While there are cool scenes to be had here, your vampire might need a sanctuary. A new female coworker might not last too long in this office. Like I said, women in business are often invisible, and having a male here gives your villain some room to do her thing…until your hero starts to catch on.

I’ve worked the graveyard shift as a night auditor. We are not the A-Team. People who work this shift are folks who’ve been stuck or stuck themselves in the margins. Some of them are college students, and others are deep in debt. Many of my coworkers were Iraq War vets with PTSD, and just wanted a job where they didn’t have to deal with people. Right off the bat, the fact that your hero gets a new job at night suggests a level of desperation. You can make him a recovering addict, or a veteran, or just a guy who has lost everything and needs a job. Your reader is already rooting for him on a basic level, even if he’s kind of a dick in the beginning.

This is where your hero-villain axis begins to take shape. In the beginning of the story the axis is tilted to the villain’s favor. The hero has no clue as to what is going on. As the story moves along your hero starts to notice things, but doesn’t put them together until half way through your story. This stretch of the narrative is used to build tension and atmosphere. Your hero has received a break and got a job. There are a few other people who work in the office along with him and your vampire. These people have their own lives and set of problems which you can mine for story. Your hero will need an ally, and maybe your vampire has one too.

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Let’s step back and look at a couple of examples of a good villain-hero axis. The first that comes to mind is the movie “Alien” where Lieutenant Ellen Ripley faces off against an acid-blooded seven foot-tall monster. She’s not even the lead character until more than half way through the movie, and in fact – the character was written to be a man in the original script. Giving the part to Sigourney Weaver was genius. Ripley is a competent character and when the surviving crew looks to her for leadership she steps into the role believably. She blows up the ship and blasts the alien out of an airlock, and even saves her cat.

At first the Alien dictates the action by kidnapping and disabling the crew to use as hosts for more alien babies. The story takes place on a big ship with plenty of places to hide, and a very small crew. Worse, one of the crew is working against the others in order to bring the creature back to earth. Ripley changes the axis when the traitor is exposed, and then tracks down the missing crew and burns out the rookery. At this point the Alien and Ripley are on even footing, and all she has to do is set the ship’s self-destruct and get into the escape shuttle. The Alien isn’t stupid and guess who is waiting for her inside after the ship has been nuked? The final stand-off is right out of a classic western.

The axis shifts as the hero grows. Your new guy in the bond office has figured out the lead trader is a vampire, and maybe he has convinced one of his coworkers of this fact. Now your villain has to dance to change how she does her thing while figuring out the extent of how much danger she might be in. This is a vampire story so your hero has a daylight advantage, and your vampire controls things at night. Plus, there’s still business to conduct, and your hero really needs to pay off his college loan or whatever. The axis swings back and forth for the last half of the story with each shift being more dramatic than the last. Remember I suggested your vampire have an ally? This subverts your hero’s daylight advantage.

The problem with a weak hero is that your reader ends up rooting for the villain, and while Hollywood has turned this half-assed form of writing into big box office, it has not made for great horror. Yes, sometimes the villain wins, and you are well within your right to end the story that way. I just want to care enough to read the story all the way to that last page without feeling insulted.

A great example is comparing Luke Skywalker’s character arc in the last three “Star Wars” with Anakin Skywalker’s character arcs in the first three. Luke leaves Tattooine as a farm boy, and returns as a Jedi Knight to rescue Han Solo. In the meantime he went to Degobah to study with Yoda, and faced off against Darth Vader before he was ready, and loses his hand and almost dies. There is a solid character arc for Luke Skywalker. Anakin Skywalker has no arc. This is the real tragedy of the “Star Wars” prequels because his character is a waste of time. There isn’t much movement from where we really get to know him in the second film until when he gets his black mask and helmet. He’s not even consistent with the Darth Vader of the final movies.

This wasn’t an acting problem – it was a writing problem.

Your hero bond-trader is going to have to overcome a lot to deal with your vampire, and his growth should be measurable. Maybe he stops drinking. Maybe he stops being a dick, or maybe he learns to be an asshole and take care of business. Whatever you do it has to be organic to your narrative. Your vampire is smart, and she could arrange to promote your hero to a better paying job in San Francisco, and he might be cool with a truce in the end. On the other hand, the story could end with the office in flames, and your hero karate-chopping one of your vampire’s wooden “Trader of the Year” award plaques to use as a stake to impale her amid the flames.

With a good villain and a hero who is up to the challenge your story will flow because they will drive the narrative while you sit there taking dictation. It’s really that easy and that hard. Good luck and good writing.

My Thinking on Writing Ghost Stories

A long time ago I used to hunt ghosts. Not like you see on cable T.V. today, I would be asked to checkout someone’s house and I would get the address, go there, and talk to the people. Then I would go to the library and search county records, and newspaper microfiche. I found more bad plumbing and CO2 contamination than anything weird, and I also found that, while some were relieved that Satan hadn’t moved into the attic of their Pacific Grove Victorian, more were bummed out they hadn’t been touched by the paranormal. People love this stuff and want it so bad to be real that every bump in  the night is a ghost or demon who’s come to take their soul. My job as a writer is to make it real for reader for a few hours or days depending on the length of the story.

The other thing I learned when my friends asked me about my adventures is how disappointed they’d become when I gave an accurate account of the alleged haunting. The lesson there is this:

The worst thing you can do is tell a bad ghost story.

Ghost stories go all the way back to before words were written down. When humans began to paint stories on cave walls ghosts were depicted long with the animals and rival tribes. Shakespeare used the Ancient Greek ghost-model in his best plays as his characters were tormented or mocked by spirits of the dead. Ghosts were unassailable speakers of truth, and amplified version of the character’s conscience. Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner’s curse kills all the men of his crew, and once the curse is broken they rise from the dead to sail him home to testify to anyone who will listen of all of his sins.

The Victorians changed the ghost-model and reframed it to be a spirit of a person who had been murdered, or died with unfinished business. Science had taken off in the Victorian era and merged with the rise in Spiritualism, a direct result of the end of the Napoleonic, and American Civil wars that had left millions dead and families with broken hearts. The Victorians had believed they had enough evidence pointing to the existence of ghosts, and were faced with the problem of rationalizing their existence. The real problem is that the science of the day was not advanced, and was often practiced by people with little or no education. The top medicines of the day had Mercury as their active ingredient, and most homes and apartments were heated by coal so it isn’t any wonder people were seeing things and hearing voices.

The modern era saw few ghost stories as society turned away for the fantastic in its fiction, and they wouldn’t return until the post-modern era when movies became the preferred source of entertainment. Most ghost stories written in the 1930s up to and including today still use variations of the Victorian model. Don’t get me wrong, the Victorian ghost-model survives in fiction because it is a cookie-cutter frame to build a dandy tale around, and I even use it myself sometimes. But I don’t always like it when I do use it. I like to challenge myself when I write a new story, and while the Victorian model has a lot of mileage left in it, I am driven by my real-world encounters with ghosts to tell a different kind of story.

The problem with real ghosts is that they are terrifying for about five to ten seconds at a time. The fear has to do more with what the person experiencing the phantom brings to the event than what the phantom does. Old-School ghost hunters used to say that places aren’t haunted – people are haunted. That’s the underlying truth, whatever the phantoms are and why we see them sometimes has nothing to do with how we react when we see or hear ghosts. The fear and dread a haunted person feels stems from the revelation that they are not in total control of their reality. If ghosts are real, if their house or workplace is haunted then they’ve been lied to by science and their church, and if ghosts are real then what else is real? What if I am going insane?

Against this backdrop I searched for authors who better expressed the real life ghost experience, and I settled upon two. Edith Wharton and Ambrose Bierce both engage the phenomenon effectively while spinning a good yarn. Wharton was a Victorian writer, and pretty much reinforced the Victorian ghost-model, but her ghosts are different. Their menace is subtle, and the key to her ghost stories are that the protagonist doesn’t figure out that they’ve been dealing with a spirit until after the initial event. The tension builds after this discovery as they wait for the ghost to return. As in real life, the character does all of the heavy lifting in the fear department while the ghost is usually secondary.

Ambrose Bierce had to have seen a ghost in his time; his stories are just that honest to the phenomenon. I found that the majority of the time ghosts just show up for no reason at all, at least not a reason known to the person who stumbled across them. Most of his ghosts stories are like that, a man is going about his business when he comes face to face with someone who shouldn’t be there. In “A Baffled Ambuscade” a Union Army officer comes across a lone picket standing guard in the woods, in “A Moonlit Road” someone is walking slowly on the road in front of a farm house, and in “The Thing at Nolan” a man walks through a general store, with a bad head wound, in view of three men without acknowledging them, and out the back door. At the time of this visit, the man has been considered missing and murdered by his son, and they dig up his well-preserved body three years later.

Bierce’s stories are short and to the point. They have the effect of having the rug pulled out from under the reader’s feet, just like the actual paranormal encounter does. Some agrue his stories were too short, but Bierce would tell ask you why you want your time wasted when he could deliver the jolt in under a few thousand words? As a writer I’ve learned that if Bierce can drive a scare home in a short narrative then I can drive home a bunch of scares into the reader in a longer one…or at least I should make this my goal.

Bierce and Wharton were both Victorian era authors who, while helping to build that ghost-story model, were drawing from sources unknown to make their stories come to life in a way that so many writers never seem to accomplish. I recommend their work to any horror writer, especially Bierce, who also wrote other short works of the fantastic including the first story of featuring a robot (hint: it doesn’t end well), and his stories of the Civil War remain the only first-person, fictional accounts of that war. Even if you don’t like ghost stories these depictions of war are stunning, sickening, frustrating, and heartbreaking.

My goal each time I set out to reveal a new story is push my boundary out further, to fill my bag of tricks so to speak. A good ghost story is hard to write. The mistake I most often make is to approach the ghost story from a horror writer’s perspective, and this is like fishing with dynamite. Sure you catch a lot of fish, but more people go fishing for the experience of choosing the right lure, and sitting by or wading into the creek or river, and engaging the elements to reel in their catch. Sport fishing is about subtlety by nature or you scare away the fish. The same is true for the ghost story, too much horror and you ruin the ultimate desired effect – the lingering discomfort of what has just been read. The best ghost stories are like a fine wine or good meal, they have an after-taste which stays with one for a while. A good after-taste makes you want more.