Blog

CONNECTING THREAT AND CHARACTER: THE SECRETS OF COMPELLING STORY

 

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?

***

Thank you for reading this blog! If you enjoyed this article, consider subscribing to The Mind-Palace, a mailing list that has further writing advice, free fiction, and more.

If you’re interested in developing your fiction, you can also sign up to The Mindflayer’s Epic Bootcamp, an online course packed with exercises, creator interviews, and insight onto how to make your stories epic.

You can also check out Monaghan & The Mindflayer, a podcast for nerds and storytellers that explores everything from Warhammer lore to conspiracy theories. Season 2 has just dropped.

 

Blog

A Yearly Round Up – 2018

2018 has been one hell of a year: personally and politically; for my immediate circle and globally. There have been tragedies and triumphs of human spirit alike. It has taken me places I never thought I’d get to or even knew I wanted to be. In January, I transitioned from working full-time at a call centre (taking 150 phone calls a day and feeling this oppressive weight on my spirit) and fitting writing and editing around that, to working part time on a reception desk and running this business alongside it. That was a huge step for my sanity and health. If you want to read more about that, I did an interview at Kendall Reviews about it. However, I made another leap mid-way through the year, quitting the part time job. I’ve now been running this editing and writing business full-time for six months. It fees like a dream and I honestly can hardly believe my luck. I’m thankful every day for this opportunity to do what I love.

Getting here wasn’t easy, but I am grateful for all the amazing friends, family, and fans who have supported me to be here. I wanted to write an article summing the year up, in part to thank those people, and also to direct you towards some of the awesome things that have been happening that may have passed you by – because who wants to be tuned in to news all the time? Some of these things are fantastic creative projects by people I admire, know, love (or all three). Some are pieces of work that have helped keep me going or inspired me to produce content. I hope they equally inspire you with whatever project you may be working on, whether it’s a year-end budget for work, or an epic poem.

–Speaking of which, the first item on our list: My father has been working on an epic poem, The English Cantos, inspired by the work of Dante Alighieri, particularly his Inferno. This poem depicts his descent into hell while suffering from cancer in the ward of Bournemouth General hospital. It is a vivid, phantasmagorical, heart-wrenching story. He has published the first three Cantos on the Society of Classical Poets’ website. You can also find me doing a reading of the poem’s opening here. The film was directed and produced by my good friend and unacknowledged genius Robert Monaghan. You can look for some more collaborations from us next year…

– Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy is another descent into hell. I don’t seem to be able to stop rewatching this movie. It is cosmic, visionary, gruesome, disgusting, hilarious, heroic, disturbing, spiritual and anti-religious, all at once. Cage’s acting is nothing short of spell-binding and the mythology Cosmatos has created is rich and layered, drawing from both Arthurian and Greco-Roman legend. I cannot recommend you get this horror DVD enough – if you can stomach it! Mandy wasn’t the only great horror cinema we got. Other wonders include Hereditary, Annihilation, Halloween and more! A good year for horror!

– …In games too! Puppet Combo, twisted genius behind Power Drill Massacre, The Night Ripper and many other retro PS1-aesthetic horror games, released his masterpiece Babysitter Bloodbath in limited edition hard-copy (limited run of 100). His work embodies the words of Stephen King that horror is all about ‘emotion’. The atmosphere of tense dread in his games is like no other, an adrenaline kick not to be missed! If you’re curious, you can read my interview with him here.

– I discovered an awesome book series Empires of Dust by Anna Smith-Spark, which is one of the most brutal, grimdark fantasies I’ve ever read. It is poetic and dark and riveting and utterly brilliant. Well worth time and energy for any fantasy lover but also any horror fan too.

– Further in publishing, my good friends at Storgy Magazine successfully crowdfunded their very, very weird (and very, very awesome) Shallow Creek anthology. It’s a collection of tales all set in the same fictional creepy American town, with a cast of characters that the authors have been able to play with. It sounds innovative and exciting. Not only that but they hit a whole host of stretch goals too, adding three stories by top writers Aliya Whiteley, Richard Thomas and Sarah Lotz.

– In the realm of Weird Fiction, things seem to be stirring in the depths. Dan Coxon launched the second volume of the Shadow Booth anthology as well this year, which has writing from some incredible authors, new and established. Shadow Booth is a benchmark of quality and well worth your time checking it out. Zero pretension, just great words and weirdness.

– My mother took part in London Art Battle III this year, where she produced work live in front of an audience. The event was hosted at Red Gallery and is created by the quirky Kiss My Art. I honestly deeply admire her for this. I know how it is going to Spoken Word / Rap Battles from my brief foray into performance poetry. To produce art live and improvised, any type of art be it music, words, visual pieces, or dance, is extremely nerve-wracking and pressured and she performed incredibly well! Proud son!

– She also exhibited her artwork at Upton House Gallery earlier this year. The exhibition was called ‘Unveiling Souls’ and tackled spiritual themes. My mother loves figure-work and iconography and is honestly a hugely underrated force of artistic talent, as well as love and kindness, in this world. You can check out a video of what it was like here. To see more of her artwork, you can check out her website. Alongside my mother’s art was poetry by my father from his collection The Lyre Speaks TrueThe artwork my mother made for the cover of that poetry collection is below.

– My baby 13Dark Issue #2: CURSED CROSSINGS launched! This collection features four amazing stories by authors: Richard Thomas, Christa Wojciechowski, Andy Cashmore and Anthony Self, totalling 41,000 words of content. I’m super biased because I edited this collection, but still! The first issue of 13Dark was hailed for the quality of its stories and design and the second issue is a right treat with some killer horror tales. Both issues are available from Lulu. To find out more about 13Dark, you can visit this webpage. It includes some brilliant interviews with 13Dark authors by the great Christa Wojciechowski.

– Speaking of which, my good friend, and writer in Issue #1 of 13Dark, Ross Jeffery, has published a slew of brilliant stories this year, including ‘A Time for Everything’, up at Soft Cartel, ‘Judgements’ at Idle Ink, and ‘Toilet Trauma’, available to read in the latest issue of Schlock Magazine. He also has a story in Storgy’s previous anthology Exit Earth.

– The great Max Booth III’s amazing new werewolf novel, Carnivorous Lunar Activities, is available for pre-order here. Earlier this year I reviewed his incredible novel The Nightly Disease and it was honestly one of the best books of the year.

– My novel Gods of the Black Gate finally released in November! This is horror-sci-fi was described as ‘True Detective in space’. It has had some radical preliminary reviews, including a 5* one up at Kendall Reviews. You can buy it from either Amazon UK or Amazon US.

– I also had a bunch of short stories published and wrote a bunch of articles on how to write fiction and horror and epics. They were all immensely fun to write and if you want more of a particular thing (or less), please let me know, because I love feedback and love hearing what you think about my work. You can drop me a line here.

WHAT TO EXPECT NEXT YEAR…

Well, I’ll still be editing, so if you have that novel you finally want to get publication-ready, or you want me to collaborate with you on a creative project, then I’m here! I’m working on a whole bunch of new material too. I’m currently shopping five novels (yes, five!) to different publishers – so the aim is to get them homes by the end of 2019. I’ll be on Richard Thomas’ awesome Novel Writing course too, working on a big, big project that will take most of the year. I’m also taking on some slightly different creative endeavours. I mentioned collaboration with the great Robert Monaghan, well, there are two potential projects unfolding next year involving our twisted minds. Here’s a teasing screenshot of one of them…

I think you know what it means!

Have happy holidays and happier New Year! I hope the future is a blessed place for you and that every goal and intention you are moving towards comes to pass. I’d invite you, if you haven’t already, to join our supportive community. The tide is turning. We’re moving. We’re going to take over the world.

In a nice way…