Escape Artists

PseudoPod => Chamber of Horror => Topic started by: julkaz on August 10, 2018, 05:38:09 AM

Title: The Puttering Protagonist Problem
Post by: julkaz on August 10, 2018, 05:38:09 AM
Question primarily for horror writers (though readers please weigh in):

I've suddenly realized that my stories have a bit of a narrative problem. My favorite subtype of horror tale tends to be the "Oh shit I just wandered into a very freaky situation and I'm doomed" one, as exemplified by stories on Pseudopod like "The Dark and What It Said," "The Last Reel," "Cell Call," and "Beyond the Dead Reef," as well as most of the work of Robert Aickman and M.R. James. These stories are all brilliant, but the passivity of the protagonists tends to make things like them hard to write, since the drivers of the story are unknown and out of sight and the protagonist tends to be too deep over their head to act coherently.

Obviously, one can get around this by 1) having the villainous thing be the protagonist, 2) having the protagonist actively bring about their own fate by pursuing a misguided goal ("The Prince of Flowers" on Pseudopod is a good example of this, as are some nice Ramsey Campbell stories); 3) having the protagonist fight the powers of darkness head on.

But if one does want to just write a "oops probably shouldn't have wandered into this haunted grove" kind of tale, what does one do to keep such an inactive lead interesting?

I'd love anybody's thoughts, if they've run into a similar problem or have noticed it in others' works.
Title: Re: The Puttering Protagonist Problem
Post by: Sgarre1 on August 10, 2018, 11:04:37 AM
Some ideas -

"Small" actions by the protagonist that, presuming they're oblivious to the actual threat (or it's so abstract as to be unable to be determined specifically by the protagonist or perhaps even the reader), make "logical" sense but are essentially the "wrong way to go."  Ego-driven main characters who operate as if they are the only ones in the world are easy to write like this, although coming up with the small, logical actions may prove difficult.

Also along those lines, the character might "think" they've determined what the threat is and act accordingly, but be absolutely wrong or have misread or underestimated it.

Of course, the alternative to the first option is the classic "suddenly becoming aware that they're in deep shit and freaking out", with the proviso here being that "freaking out" may just mean automatically resorting to flight (which may be impossible) or fight (which may also be impossible) - but ping-ponging between these two can move a narrative forward - or just breaking down in the face of the threat and waiting for it to reveal itself.

James characters tend to have some intellectual goal that drags them forward, Campbell's tend to be driven by their character/psychological faults and Aickman's...well, it's the same as Campbell's but usually buried under a thick skin of manners and cultural clutter. In fact, that's another exploitable element, one at which Aickman was a master - the accrual of small events signifying that something is wrong but contrasted against a raft of cultural and societal niceties that are slowly unwrapped from the character. Stories like this *tend* to be British (simply because the Brits really developed an enormous cultural carpet bag of the stuff) but there's no reason it couldn't work with other cultures, with enough planning (which is one of the reasons why the "fish out of water" set-up is so popular)
Title: Re: The Puttering Protagonist Problem
Post by: julkaz on August 10, 2018, 03:16:05 PM
That's a great description of Aickman. Now that you mention it, his characters are often after sex or romance in their own repressed ways. I wonder if this might work with Seattle passive-aggression instead of British stuffiness. Maybe worth a try!

Just thought of a good counterexample for the stories I mentioned: "The Moraine," where the story could have left out the supernatural altogether and been a pretty suspenseful narrative about a bickering couple getting lost. So adding a foil seems like a good idea.

Thanks for your thoughts!