George Romero RIP

It would be impossible for me to overestimate the effect George Romero had on me, both as a writer and a fan.

I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The city was Romero’s muse–he would return to Pittsburgh time and again in his movies. He was everywhere when I was a child. Every Halloween the local television station would show Night of the Living Dead in prime time without edits. Every autumn my mother would take me for back-to-school shopping at the Monroeville Mall; all I could see was zombies roaming the big department stores, like they did in Dawn of the Dead. His vampire classic Martin showed the world what was happening in the Rust Belt in the 70’s. Even his lesser-known works, like The Crazies or Knightriders (you owe yourself to at least watch the trailer) gave us glimpses into a haunted, mirror-world version of western Pennsylvania. This was the world of my childhood, a place of deep, dark forests and crumbling cities, and no one would ever capture it like Romero.

My own career began with a zombie story, one that couldn’t have existed without those childhood viewings of Night of the Living Dead. My vampire series drew just as much inspiration from his work–it’s set in Pennsylvania, but a state drawn as much from Romero’s movies as from my own memories. I’m not sure if I could tell you where one begins and the other ends.

I never got a chance to meet the man. I wish it had been otherwise–if only so I could thank him. An entire generation of horror fans and creators mourns today, because we know exactly how much we owe this man, and how long his legacy will continue. Rest in peace, Mr. Romero. The children of Pittsburgh will always remember you, wherever in the world we end up.

Writing: Character Motivations

Every character in your story should have a clear motivation. They need a reason to enter the scene, and something they want to accomplish before the scene is over. This goes for a walk-on character who only has one line just as much as it goes for your protagonist and antagonist. If a character has no reason to appear in a scene, then they shouldn’t. Give them something to do!

This might seem daunting at first, but it’s simpler than it sounds. There are only three main motivations: love, money, and death. These are the things that drive people, and attaching one of them to a character is all you need to get them moving.

This isn’t to say that character motivations can’t be nuanced. In fact, these three poles of motivation are what create character depth–and in fact, give your whole story dimension. Imagine, say, a character who feels like they’re not getting fulfillment from their job. That’s simply a character who is feeling tension between the fear of death (that their life will have no meaning) and the desire for money (hence the unfulfilling job). This character might be motivated to quit their job and find more interesting work (that’s a pretty good plot hook), or stick around for the paycheck and grow ever more miserable (which could inform the tone, or create conflict with other characters, or affect their relationships and therefore rope in the motivation of love…).

For most characters, and most stories, you probably want to stick with just one level of complexity here. Pick two motivations, tops, and put them at odds with each other. If other motivating factors come into play as a result of that tension, fine, but don’t dwell on them, or your story can lose focus. That’s for top-level characters, mind you–people who get a lot of lines of dialogue and are intrinsic to the action of the story. Minor characters are usually best given just one motivator. Someone who walks on page just to deliver a crucial piece of information, then never appears again, shouldn’t have a massive backstory. Maybe they’re just doing their job (money) or just wanted to help a protagonist they secretly love… you get the picture.

Writing: The Power of Broad Characters

Everyone claims to like deep, nuanced characters. People who feel real and rich and alive. There’s only one problem. They’re wrong.

If you think of your favorite characters–frankly, any characters you can remember off the top of your head–you’ll think of broad, two-dimensional, larger than life heroes and villains and grotesques. Darth Vader. Tarzwile e coyote and the road runner beep beep Chuck Jones 9 Golden Rules for the Coyote and the Road Runneran.

Wily E. Coyote.

Narrow characters–those deeply imagined, palpably real people we’re all supposed to enjoy more–are native to the story they inhabit. They can’t exist outside of their setting, their plots, their themes. Memorable characters are the ones who could exist in any number of stories, who can plug themselves into multiple settings. They tend to be action-oriented and aspirational and to have recognizable costumes or tattoos or catchphrases. They stick with you because they have the quality of memes and archetypes. Nuance is the enemy of these characters. What they have instead is rules.

Wily E. Coyote is one of the best examples of this. His rules are never broken–he will always run afoul of his own machinations, he will always recognize when he’s about to suffer the consequences of his actions, he will never catch the Road Runner. If he did, the viewer would be deeply confused.

Rules are comforting to an audience subjected to a surreal world. They give us a framework to know which way to look when everything explodes. People love characters with rules.

Characters like this break many of the guidelines we’re taught in creative writing classes. But they work surprisingly well in genre fiction and they can create memorable stories just about anywhere. Next time you start creating a character and find yourself wondering where their grandmother worked during the war (information which will never appear in your finished story) think instead about creating rules for your character first. You may find that the character starts writing themselves.

Writing: Little, Big

The emotional impact of a story is almost always inversely proportional to the size of the story.

It might seem counter-intuitive. Big books, with lots of characters, settings and set pieces engage the reader on a more intellectual level. Worldbuilding becomes predominant–the reader’s enjoyment of the story is more about being immersed in a place and a time. But this always comes at a remove: the reader is constantly reminded of the activity of reading, of the experience of hearing a story. The characters become functions and parts of that world, and the reader is distanced from them, less likely to identify directly with them, for better or worse.

A small story, though, that holds to the Aristotelian unities–one character, events that take place over one day in one setting–forces the reader out of this objective mindset. They have no choice but to relate and identify with the singular voice and viewpoint. Events become enlarged in significance and charge: we know that, since we are alone with the character, everything that happens to them is important, is meaningful in a way we feel more intensely. Our experience becomes more subjective, more immediate. More emotionally resonant.

There are, of course, ways to problematize the difference. Books like Game of Thrones work great at playing with the intersection of these two levels–while there is a huge world out there, with a story rich in incident, each character is given a deep interiority. As a result readers can choose which character they want to identify with the most–who they “root” for. It’s one of the things that makes the book so powerful.