Character vs. Plot in Horror

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Alina Borger sent me this tweet (on a dying battery!), because she was curious what I thought. My first thought was to disagree, because it’s in my nature to disagree with any sweeping statements, but I thought a little longer, and here was my response:

I’m inclined to agree. The stories have a certain archetype, so it makes sense that characters would add the texture. However, variations on the archetypes are important to “the conversation,” but that’s a little beyond basic story elements. Character vs plot debates also annoy me because the two are not competing. 

Unfortunately, I’m still not satisfied with my answer. When I watch a horror movie, I want to know what’s going to happen. In certain respects, the characters (often archetypes themselves) become fodder for the antagonist. Certainly we want to be able to root for the protagonist. If they are too idiotic then evil might as well prevail, and horror is nothing if not hopeful.

Then again, Stephen King writes some enjoyable secondary characters. They may or may not die, but they have motivations and moods. I recently observed this while reading Carrie and have been viewing my manuscript through this lens. The principal and the next-door neighbor girl have bit parts, but they still breathe. So no matter the character, be they archetype, fodder, or both, they still need a pulse.

Jami Gold offers a much more satisfying answer when she writes, “So what do I think really drives a story?  A character’s reactions to plot events that motivate them to change.” In horror, the question becomes, can the protagonist’s change happen before the antagonist catches up? If the protagonist can, then yippee! If not, well…gulp.

Ultimately a writer may start with an idea for one or the other, but in the end, both must work together in the way Gold suggests. Because the genre is filled with archetypes, it’s important that no matter the initial force, the writer goes beyond those archetypes to avoid the cliché. More on this to come next week!

Do you care more about characters or plot as a reader and watcher of horror? If you’re a writer, where do you start–characters or plot?

3 thoughts on “Character vs. Plot in Horror

  1. Jami Gold says:

    Thanks for the shout out, Jennifer! 🙂

    Great point about how the line of how much plot or character development is enough depends on the genre. Even after that post, I still question this line constantly. LOL! You know, where does episodic series (like many cozy mysteries or thrillers) fit? Their characters never change from book to book.

    Yet at the same time, their reactions to plot events still drive the climax and resolution. They’re still reacting to the mystery’s clues to solve the case, etc. It’s definitely a tricky definition. 🙂


  2. Jennifer Brinkmeyer says:

    Actually, I think it relates to your discussion of literary vs. commercial fiction too, since people tend to see literary as character-driven and commercial as plot-driven. I guess it’s difficult for me to imagine plot without characters. I much prefer stories where they’re the ones mucking things up rather than being pinned up on some omnipotent’s butterfly board. Today my students and I discussed Romeo and Juliet: “May he that hath the steerage of my course direct my sail.” Is Romeo driving the plot of his eventual death through all his tragic choices or is the Ship Captain in the Sky plotting his course for him?


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