From the skeptic doctor and the eager mediums in Matheson’s Hell House to Gard from King’s The Tommy Knockers, characters need the capacity to freak out when good things go bad.
Fear is more than just a killer in the dark; those wanting evidence need only watch a child with separation issues heading off to school or day care for the first time to know this for sure. For a reader to be scared, the author needs to create tension beyond the actions of the pro/antagonist relationship. An author must give the reader a reason to believe, and the process starts long before the first word is written.
Characters Must Believe
There is a time and place for characters who never break, never fear, and never give in, but the horror genre usually isn’t the right place for it. Characters who refuse to believe in being afraid will never generate the added plot elements through their actions to aid in the effort to scare a reader.
For example, man who doesn’t believe in ghost isn’t going to suspect supernatural play when his pictures fall of the wall; even if there isn’t a substantial explanation, he’ll put it off to small tremors long before he goes to a thought that is impossible for him. Therefore, anything outside of his belief realm shouldn’t come into play. Skepticism is okay, but flat out refusal to believe, simply doesn’t convince anyone.
It Starts in the Past
Characters need something in their past to help cultivate the potential fear in their lives, be it their childhood, a tragic event or an inability to see reason; horror writing isn’t about what is, it’s about what could be, and authors should remember that antagonists need backgrounds that ‘enable’ the elements of fear in the novel.
Extreme Circumstances in the Present
Characters need solid backgrounds, told throughout the story, that allow fear to come to fruition when need be, but if a character is making a change in his/her level of fear, there needs to be a reason to push it forward. If a character was always afraid of ghosts, then it won’t come as a surprise when the character jumps at the opportunity to believe in one when something unexplained happens.
Characters who are more rational will need a little more help. Readers know what should and shouldn’t be happening in a story. Things that suddenly jump out will be red flags if they come from left field, so author’s shouldn’t be afraid of break down a characters emotions through time and not feel it needs be done all at once.
Using the Unknown
It’s virtually impossible to be afraid of the unknown. It isn’t the lack of knowledge that comes off as scary, it’s the opportunity for things to go wrong that slowly bleed into the thoughts of people, and therefore, they should bleed into the thoughts and actions of characters.
Confident characters don’t fear things they don’t believe in, and if the potential plot point ahead is completely unknown, characters have nothing to fear. Allusion is the true catalyst for fear, but a character has to be reacting to the situation for their fear to translate to the reader. Simply being won’t be enough to convince anyone.
Creating the Fear
The genre of Horror an author is working in will go a long way to set up how a character will translate fear to the reader. In a slasher novel, readers should be anxious for each page when the action picks up, but it will be the thoughts, the diction for the characters’ actions and thoughts that will keep the reader moving, not the actions of the the killer.
Author’s need to remember, readers think through the processes of the plot; they are contemplating what comes next. If a killer is on a rampage, readers are expecting a body to hit the floor. The only way that the reader is going to fear the coming event is through the characters who are in the conundrum.
Making Characters Relate to the Reader
Somethings are just scary, period. No one wants to be in a haunted house, but if the reader doesn’t believe in them, and they probably will if they are reading a story set in a haunted house, then the only way to invoke emotion is to give situations where the only choice is the irrational one. Horror isn’t about being logical, it’s about be possible, and when authors give characters the capacity to fear, readers will be more likely to succumb when the time is right.