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CONNECTING THREAT AND CHARACTER: THE SECRETS OF COMPELLING STORY

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The other day, I finished reading a book called Cold Storage by legendary screenwriter David Koepp, the man behind the original Jurassic Park, among other significant screenplays. It was a good book, but not a great one, and that got me thinking about why, because it wasn’t immediately obvious to me what was out of place with the narrative, or if indeed anything was out of place at all and it wasn’t simply a genre mismatch with me. Cold Storage was certainly more thriller than my usual fare.

To briefly summarise: Cold Storage is about a new genus of fungus, cordyceps novus, a mutating semi-intelligent infection that can take over human bodies the way ophiocordyceps unilateralis can turn ants into “zombies” that harbour fungus-spreading spores. The threat is very real here, and following a few devastating scenes at the start of the novel expertly rendered by Koepp in truly cinematic fashion, we believe just how bad things could get if cordyceps novus got into the wider populace. There is even a whiff of zombie-apocalypse here, albeit subtly toned down; think more The Last Of Us or The Girl With All The Gifts than let’s say, 28 Days Later.

But cool as it was, I didn’t find myself caring very much about it, despite how well researched and inventively conceived cordyceps novus was. The other problem was that I didn’t care much about the characters either, and that really bugged me, because objectively I could say the dialogue was pretty good. Koepp’s screenplay background was showing its worth here, and the characters each had interesting hooks in their backstories that made me want to know more. I couldn’t understand why solidly developed characters and an interesting threat weren’t working in combination, and then of course it became clear. The problem was, the threat and the characters did not meaningfully connect. The characters were intriguing, but they were not characters whom I felt were unique to the story. In other words, these characters could have inhabited any story. I didn’t understand why they were inhabiting this one.

I think to understand this better, we have to look at examples of where this worked well. One recent novel that immediately springs to mind is Dan Soule’s Neolithica. Soule does a brilliant job of connecting the threat, that of an ancient bog body unearthed in the north of England which then comes back to necromantic un-life, with the main through-line of the protagonist Mirin. Mirin has just lost her husband, and is terrified of losing her child, Oran, as well. The bog-body or mummy is also a young boy, though he is warped by his interment in the earth and the dark things that happened to him before he was mummified. The mummy is actually referred to as “the boy” throughout the story. We can immediately see the parallels with Mirin’s fears and that “the boy” almost represents a Freudian return of the repressed. Mirin’s fears of a dead child are embodied in the literal dead child that now comes to ravage her hometown. Because the threat and character through-line connect so strongly, the story takes on a profound and powerful life. We understand why Mirin is the only person who can resolve this problem, why she has been “chosen” to face this ordeal. This is as much about her psychological battle as any supernatural one, and the story is all the stronger as a result.

Steve Stred similarly does a brilliant job of this in his horror novel The Stranger. The main character, Malcolm, is a racist, with an ingrained hatred for Native Americans. However, he and his family end up haunted by a supernatural being known only as The Stranger. This horrifying entity embodies the protagonist’s fear of the “other” perfectly, yet ironically The Stranger is in fact a god and one with the land he protects. It’s the human beings that are the unwelcome “foreigners” or “strangers” to its creation, a commentary on how Americans, and indeed many Western peoples, are all, in some way, strangers to their own land; violent interlopers, if you will.

We might also look to Christa Wojciechowski’s genius Sick trilogy to see how threat connects with character. In Sick book one, Susan tries desperately to keep her terribly ill husband, John, well, even resorting to desperate criminal activity to obtain painkillers and other medications, but his sickness is constant and overwhelming. On the surface, sickness itself seems to be the threat, but look a little deeper, and we begin to understand that perhaps Susan needs John to be ill as much as he needs her to look after him, and the two are in a parasitic relationship that is self-reinforcing. The real threat is not sickness, but getting better.

To look to a more classical example, Homer’s Iliad centres around the myopic, arrogant, selfish, narcissistic, brutal Achilles. The threat in the narrative is Hector, Prince of Troy, the greatest of the Trojans and perhaps the only combatant on their side who can match Achilles at arms. Hector is a brilliant threat, because he connects with Achilles on so many levels. The two are mirrors of each other. Both are princes. Both are unwilling participants in the war. Hector only fights because he feels familial obligation to defend his brother Paris (though he daily advises Paris to give up Helen, whom he stole in the first place, and therefore save thousands of lives). Achilles is refusing to fight because he fell in love with a Trojan woman, Briseis. But even before then, he only came along to the war because of the false promises of Odysseus, so was never fully committed to the cause anyhow. Both men have two key people they are passionately devoted to. In Achilles’ case, the young boy Patroklus, his best friend and lover, and Briseis, his other Trojan lover. In Hector’s case, his wife Andromache and his son Astyanax.

Yet the two are not only mirrors but polar opposites. Achilles is thuggish and dishonourable, defiling corpses and throwing tantrums. Hector is noble and spares the defenceless. Achilles’ two “loves” are both sexual in nature (even if we read Patroklus in the crustiest classics professor way as a “best friend” and not homosexual lover, there is still a scene where he and Achilles both share women in the same bed together – so the relationship is sexual, whether or not the two themselves share intercourse). Hector’s loves are familial, however: son and wife.

But perhaps most importantly, Achilles is a demigod, born of Thetis, the Nymph. Hector is mortal. In this way, Hector almost represents Achilles’ own fears of mortality, the fragility of life. Achilles believes himself invulnerable, but he has also been told by Thetis that he will die young if he goes to war. The story of Homer’s Iliad, without the context of other epics in the Trojan saga, is of a man being humanised by confronting death. In the end, after Achilles kills Hector and defiles his corpse for days on end, he finally is moved to tears by the grief of Old Priam, Hector’s father and Lord of Troy. He comes to understand that his own sense of loss for Patroklus is shared by others, who are suffering and have also lost love ones, and indeed, Achilles himself has caused much of this suffering. He returns Hector’s body to Priam, and the gods work a miracle whereby Achilles’ cretinous defacing of Hector’s corpse is undone, so that the hero can be given a proper funeral. It’s perhaps Achilles’ first noble and empathetic act.

Of course, it’s also possible to read The Iliad the other way. Or rather, from the Trojan perspective. Hector is the noble hero, and Achilles is the “threat” or “monster” that waits for him. Achilles represents Hector’s own repressed emotions: rage and sexuality, all of which have been subsumed by endless duty to his father, to his brother, and to Troy. Such deep readings, some might even say falsely anachronistic in their use of psychology to analyse a text that predates Freud by nearly 2,500 years, are only possible because of the way Homer connects the threat and his character.

So, as writers, we need to learn from this. If we want to create meaningful stories, we have to make sure that our characters inhabit a tale that was made specifically for them. The threat has to be not only relevant to the characters or protagonist, but part of them. The threat is self-generated. We each create the horror that we must one day face. In that way, perhaps the most archetypal example of this I can give is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What monster has your protagonist birthed, and how does it return to dog their steps?

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