10 Tips for Crafting Characters in Horror and Thriller FictionNov 13, 2023
Crafting compelling horror and thriller characters is no easy feat. It requires attention to detail, a keen insight into human nature, and a deep understanding of both the horror and thriller genres. Character development is a multi-step process that can take many forms depending on the individual writer’s needs. However, some guiding principles remain the same.
In this blog post, I’ve compiled 10 tips to keep in mind when creating horror and thriller characters that will evoke the chilling emotions intended by capturing their story and background. This information can be used to guide readers through their horrifying experiences while engaging them in interactive storytelling.
By applying these tips, writers will be well on their way to crafting horror/thriller stories with effective characterization as an essential building block for creating an intense reader response and unforgettable narrative.
1. Create a Clear Motivation
Establishing motivated and compelling characters is essential when crafting horror or thriller fiction. Each character should have a strong and distinct motivation that gives them purpose and helps the reader connect with them. This could be fear, a quest for revenge, or the protection of another. By giving the characters a clear objective, horror and thriller stories take on new life and become more dynamic than just frightful or exciting content by itself.
Defining each character’s motivation is an important first step in making horror or thriller fiction as captivating as possible. Let’s take some of the most famous horror movies as examples of examining clear motivations. Audiences know Freddy Kreuger’s motivation — revenge — and that the kids in I Know What You Did Last Summer want to avoid anyone finding out about their crime. Check out some classic horror movie reviews to refresh your thoughts on the characters in these stories and how their motivations drive the plot.
2. Craft Unique (And Distinct) Personalities
In horror and thriller fiction, giving each character their own unique personality is key for creating compelling characters. The reader should be able to glean a character’s sense of humor, worldview, or morality from the narrative. These traits create vivid and realistic personalities that readers can identify with, which ultimately helps make the story more memorable and relatable.
This is especially important for horror and thriller writing. As suspense builds, readers need distinctive characteristics to connect with individual characters and maintain engagement with the story. Crafting characters with distinct personalities is an invaluable tool for horror and thriller writers looking to craft stories with unforgettable and compelling characters.
3. Go Multidimensional
Horror and thriller fiction rely on characters to captivate the reader and make a story truly compelling. So, authors need to create characters with depth and complexity rather than mere one-dimensional caricatures. Creating such multidimensional characters will draw readers further into the story as it adds extra layers of meaning to the plot.
By constructing characters who can show courage in the face of danger but also succumb to fear when alone, horror and thriller writers can reveal many fascinating aspects of how the human spirit endures trauma. Depth and complexity in horror or thriller fiction characters ultimately serve an author’s purpose. It engenders suspense and empathy, leading to greater engagement with the story. Look at how psychological thrillers use their characters to delve deeper into the darkness.
4. Give Emotional Depth
Crafting horror and thriller fiction is all about creating compelling characters with loads of emotional depth. Rich, complex characters can help ratchet up the tension and drama, as each emotion readers witness makes them sense the horror that much more deeply.
Whether it’s fear, anger, guilt, or any other powerful feeling, giving readers a glimpse into the psyche and soul of your characters helps establish an instant connection with them — something horror fans continually seek out while exploring new favorite authors!
Understanding these emotions will make a horror tale even more powerful and memorable, making this an essential writing device for horror fiction masters.
5. Use Backstory
Backstories of characters in horror and thriller fiction can particularly help to make them far more compelling. For example, a horror story benefits from a truly frightening villain whose every move is rooted in their past trauma.
Moreover, with character development so essential to the success of horror and thriller narratives, a detailed history provides context and can lend an extra layer of realism to the overall story. It makes the character’s motivations easier to understand, therefore making the entire narrative much more recognizable and relatable.
Horror or thriller fiction without these elements will find it very hard to create truly gripping experiences that readers will want to return to time and time again!
6. Explore the Dark Side
Horror and thriller fiction are filled with characters who tap into the darker side of human nature, making them more compelling in their universe. Whether it’s the ambition for control, a need for retribution, or simply doing anything it takes to make it out alive, viewers can relate to these traits on some level.
With horror and thriller fiction often seeking to explore our base animalistic instincts, understanding a character’s journey as they grapple with their own internal darkness offers an immersive and gripping experience. Exploring these aspects of humanity allows horror and thriller stories to become even more exciting than jump scares alone.
7. Create Tension and Conflict
Crafting compelling characters in horror and thriller fiction means creating tension and conflict between them. This could involve a dangerous disagreement that threatens to cause chaos or a personal grudge that might resurface when the stakes are highest. The movie adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist tackles this perfectly.
By continually adding friction between the characters in horror or thriller fiction, an element of suspense will be created that will undoubtedly keep readers on the edge of their seats, eagerly anticipating what’s next. It’s this unique approach to characterization that makes horror and thriller fiction so captivating!
8. Make Characters React Realistically
For horror and thriller fiction to draw readers in, the characters must react realistically to the horror and thrills they encounter. Creating a sense of horror means nothing if the characters have no emotional response. Readers must intimately connect with characters whose reactions make sense according to their personalities, motivations, and beliefs to become fully immersed in the horror that unfolds.
Now, you don’t have to have your character’s reactions be what the reader expects. People are all different and can react to surprises in surprising ways. Having your strong, confident character break down in tears after coming face to face with a cosmic horror or a feared serial killer is shocking but understandable.
By making sure horror and thriller fiction feature compelling characters who react honestly throughout the story — whether through fear, shock, or denial — readers will be more likely to find the narrative believable and profoundly engaging.
9. Develop Character Relationships
Crafting compelling characters in horror and thriller fiction requires more than a good backstory and character arc. The connections and relationships between the characters can make or break the story. Think about horror greats like Dracula. This story wouldn’t be as successful without the alluring relationship between Dracula and Jonathan Harker, which casts more tension over both characters.
Of course, the history of vampire horror novels is jam-packed and full of compelling characters, so there are a lot of great examples even outside of Stoker’s masterpiece.
Consider the relationships in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Without the vengeful relationship between Norman and his mother, much of the horror would have been lost. By exploring these deeper connections — whether a close bond between friends or an ultimate rivalry between enemies — horror and thriller writers can craft truly enthralling tales.
10. Allow Character Growth
Developing compelling and evolving characters is an important aspect of horror and thriller fiction. Allowing these characters to grow and change throughout a story can increase their interest level exponentially.
Whether it’s horror or thriller fiction, readers connect more with characters that feel familiar and whose development they can follow — for example, a character who starts out scared and grows in confidence or one who begins as a skeptic and moves towards belief in the supernatural.
By allowing the characters to evolve, horror and thriller authors create memorable experiences that leave readers with lasting impressions. If the characters you’re writing are the same at the end of the story as they were at the beginning, you may have missed the mark. The end of a story is vital to get right, and your compelling characters should evolve to keep readers on their toes.
Start Creating Your Compelling Characters!
Crafting horror and thriller fiction requires a special kind of attention to detail, creativity, and emotional depth. Writers must focus on creating relatable, authentic, unique, and emotionally engaging characters.
Doing this helps to make the story more compelling and impactful, as readers will connect with the characters more deeply and find it much easier to become immersed in the horror. Of course, every writer’s craft is different, but by using these tips, horror and thriller writers can look forward to making memorable stories filled with memorable characters.