Tag Archives: Josh Vogt

Where’s the Humor in Horror?

I’ve always been fascinated by the juxtaposition of humor and horror in our psyches. The two seem oddly linked, both contrasting with and yet complementing one another in the experiences we have and the stories we tell. A saying (I’m unsure of the origins and will probably bungle my attempt at summarizing) that has stuck in my head for years is: “When we’re frightened or horrified, we have two choices—to scream or to laugh.”

Why are they so linked, though? Why do we try to find humor in horrific situations?

Maids of WrathI write an urban fantasy series called The Cleaners, which focuses on the somewhat absurd adventures of magically empowered janitors, maids, and plumbers who work for a supernatural sanitation company. The series begins with Enter the Janitor and The Maids of Wrath, with the third, The Dustpan Cometh, arriving sometime in the next year. Throughout the stories, the Cleaners deal with all sorts of strange situations, such as tromping through mystic sewers, facing down garbage golems in city dumps, or encountering fiendish dust devils in public restrooms. I tend to play up the humorous side of the stories as much as I can, enjoying the ridiculousness of what some might think of as modern-day wizards, mages, and witches taking down the forces of Corruption with mops, spray bottles, squeegees, and toilet paper.

Yet even as there’s plenty of opportunity to laugh or chuckle in the Cleaners novels, there are also plenty of times along the way where the situations they encounter can be truly horrific. People die—oftentimes in rather nasty ways. Creatures lurch and shamble about with all manner of slavering maws and grasping claws or tentacles that would leave a person searching for a clean pair of pants if just glimpsed in real life. There’s supernatural rot that can eat you from the inside-out, beings that embody decay and depravity, and no small amount of insanity-shattered minds that perceive reality through twisted perspectives.

And I have found that by bringing elements of both humor and horror into the series, it has grown stronger. Funny moments stand out more…as do their darker counterparts. Why is that?

I think a big part of it comes down to how we choose to build and release tension within ourselves. One of a writer’s jobs is to create conflict and tension within a story—to generate a growing pressure, whether between one character and another, a character and a monster, or just through the ambience of a particular scene. Yet that tension has to be released at some point. There needs to be a chance for characters (and the reader) to take a breath and gather themselves for what comes next. And humor—be it a side joke, a bit of witty banter, a wry observation of the irony of a situation, or a bout of good old slapstick—provides a readily available “pressure release valve” within a story’s narrative. On the flipside, if all is levity without any sense of consequence or the potential for awful things to occur, then that makes it difficult to get a reader to feel invested in a character or plot.

At the same time, we find solace and safety by employing humor in the face of the horrific. It shields us. It gives us the mental and emotional space we need to process or handle a terrifying or otherwise horrible situation without being overwhelmed and breaking down. And when we can point and laugh at a monstrous threat—even for the slightest reason—it gives us a measure of power over that threat and helps us feel like we still have a measure of control (whether that’s true or not is up for debate). Without even a small smile or soft laugh to break up a string of terrible events, characters and readers alike can become bogged down by relentless dread or dismay.

In another sense, humor and horror “season” one another. It’s like adding contrasting spices to a dish you’re cooking…sweetness can heighten the enjoyment of saltiness, and vice versa. Spiciness can increase our awareness and appreciation of smoother flavors. Humor or horror in-and-of-themselves can certainly be compelling, but when they are experienced together to varying degrees, we can come to see the effects of both all the more.

Now, you may be a writer who prefers to craft primarily horror-oriented stories, or you may be one who leans heavily toward humor. Either is fine, and there are plenty of readers who prefer genres favoring one more than the other. But don’t let yourself be limited by thinking horror and humor can’t coexist, or even enrich one another. If you’ve worked primarily within one of these emotional spectrums, try intersecting them at different points and see if the results don’t turn out better than you expected.

Bring in some laughs to occasionally drown out the screams. Of course, I’ll let you decide whether those laughs come from characters finding the strength to stand in the midst of terror…or from the evil clown chasing them down in the dead of night.

 


 

About the Author:

Author Josh VogtAuthor and editor Josh Vogt’s work covers fantasy, science fiction, horror, humor, pulp, and more. His debut fantasy novel, Pathfinder Tales: Forge of Ashes, was published alongside his urban fantasy series, The Cleaners, with Enter the Janitor and The Maids of Wrath. He’s an editor at Paizo, a Scribe Award and Compton Crook Award finalist, and a member of both SFWA and the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers. Find him at JRVogt.com or on Twitter @JRVogt.

If Your Character Isn’t Memorable, Don’t Despair – Here’s Help!

You’ve read all the books, taken the workshops, and you’ve created your character bibles. You’ve even thought a little about which characters you like and why (see my post Memorable Characters – Who Do You Like?). Still, your character isn’t quite quintessential and therefore not memorable. What to do? Learn from the best. “But!” you say, “I don’t have time to study all those books, see all the movies!” The solution is easy – read April 2016’s blogs on Creating Memorable Characters. I’ve gleaned some tips and have summed them up (or have taken excerpts). Click on the links to each person’s blog to read it in its entirety.

These are the best how-to’s! Seriously, there’s a lot of great take-aways in these.

Sometimes less is more …

For David Carrico (Enter the Villain), Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is an absolute sadist, a pederast, and an incestophile, yet very little of that is shown “on screen” so to speak in the novel. The reader is given glimpses here and there of the raw evil lying beneath the surface of what is otherwise a very forceful, articulate, and urbane man. Herbert made the Baron memorable by understating him

Leigh Galbreath (Chaos For It’s Own Sake) says she doesn’t want to sympathize with a great villain and wants a villain that will make the hero work for every inch. What she loves about the the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, is Nolan’s conscious decision to leave some of the story up to the audience.

Mat Cauthon in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series is a stellar example of how to make a character funny not by what they say, but by who they are. In Gambler, Trickster, Son of Battles, Gregory D. Little notes that the humour of Mat’s character isn’t in what he says, but rather the irony the series continually thrusts upon him: contemptuous of nobility he, of course, marries an empress.

 A Mix of Good, Bad and Ugly or, the Imperfect Character

In Taking Strides in Character Development, Sean Golden points out that Strider’s mysterious past, his wit and wisdom, all factor in to create a reluctant hero in an almost a surly way. Strider struggles with self-doubt. He falters. He worries. He doubts. He takes chances. And in the end, he finds himself.

Characters become more likeable and sympathetic when they suffer or show genuine concern even if it’s at their own expense. In The Roller Coaster that was Tig Trager, Jace Killan explains that Tig wasn’t all good or all bad and it was Tig’s good traits that got him into trouble and sometimes it was his bad traits that got him out. It wasn’t easy and it took time for Tig to recover from what he had done.

Not every memorable character needs fisticuffs

You don’t need fisticuffs to be a hero or memorable. Evan Braun (The Ultimate Philosopher King) writes that Jean Luc Picard is the philosopher who rules as king, the true pilot who observes the stars and the heavens to preside over his ship. In the midst of near-perfect humanity, Picard shines brightly. As Shakespeare might say, he is the paragon of animals.

Inner strength without physical prowess can make for an admirable persona and Dashti in Dashti of a Thousand Days proves that. Colette Black notes that it’s complex characterization, where Dashti learns to temper a character flaw and discovers that her real power lies, not with physical prowess, but in her determination, an inner strength and loyalty.

The everyday man is tested…

In Yippee-ki-yay: The Most Reluctant Hero, Kristin Luna writes about how John McClane is a great example of how a hero doesn’t always have to be willing. He can be the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time and still kick some major butt. Giving your hero a strong personality and a little reluctance can be a recipe for one of the most memorable heroes of all time.

For Frank Morin (When a Gardener Helps Defeat a Dark Lord) Samwise Gamgee is memorable because he accepts that his place in the world is not to be the hero, but to be the hero’s cook, assistant, and bodyguard. And yet, he demonstrates in his simple way that heroes are not always the great warriors, with the flashy armor or dazzling magic. Heroes get the job done. Any one of us could be Sam.

In the life of every evil person there is a series of decisions that lead, inevitably, to damnation. This is the moment where your villain goes wrong. The moment where he or she makes the decision to do the wrong thing for all the right reasons. After that, it’s a slow and gradual slide into hell. That’s Frog Jones’ take on Walter White. To learn more, read Regarding the Humble Blowfish.

Just because that’s the way it is…

Kim May (Marty Stus by Moonlight) writes about Chiba Mamoru being an ideal of a man: strong, silent, and enigmatic. The perfect gentleman whose sole purpose is to be Sailor Moon’s love interest, to rescue her from peril when her klutziness and fears get the best of her. You have to admit. There are times when we really really need that kind of rescuing. Marty Stus were never meant to be the ideal we should hold out for. They’re the ideal that we have little escapist fantasies about on a moonlit night when reality is too much…and there’s no shame in that.

Which brings me back to Leigh Galbreath’s post about the Joker because sometimes you want Chaos For It’s Own Sake.

Villains come in all shades

The reluctant villain and one who you can’t resist! In A Character You Can’t Refuse, Marta Sprout talks about how Michael Corleone does some terrible things and yet we still like him. We’re drawn to him as he is slowly pulled away from his own honorable world and into his family’s mob dealings. When a character changes so profoundly it’s engrossing and it was done one reasonable step at a time. At each moment Michael is held tightly into his role where he can’t back out.

The loveable antagonist. Instead of hating Gollum, David Heyman, reveals in A Preciously Complex Character that he liked Gollum, felt sorry for him, and hoped Frodo would find a solution to his problem that didn’t force Gollum (and Smeagol) to lose. Gollum’s love of the Ring is heartbreakingly pure: even as it destroys and corrupts him, he wants nothing from life other than to possess it.

That’s me! Sometimes the villain is us pushed to the wall. In Walter White, you monster, E. Godhand says that a villain protagonist whose methods may not be right, can win your sympathy and support because after doing everything right and getting nothing in return, he has nothing left to lose. We feel the adage, “But for the Grace of God, goes I.”

Pure Evil. And, as David Carrico said in Enter the Villain, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is an absolute sadist, a pederast, and an incestophile. Pure evil works too!

A Personal Truth We Can Relate To – and it comes in all shapes, sizes and tropes!

Character Arc – In Summoning Character Development, Sarah Golden found that Yuna’s response to adversity (not the sword but endurance and wisdom) made her an admirable character with emotional and spiritual strength. But, she didn’t start out that way. She develops from doing what other people want to having her own thoughts, and making her own decisions.

Someone different yet real – When you bring in a character who is so different from the others, she not only illuminates the cast, but her character is more profound. But, as Peter Clampton explains in The Girl Who Changed EVERYTHING!, Asuka Langley Soryu is no cheap trope, used to simply spice things up for she brings her own history, strengths and weaknesses. She’s a protagonist with real and profound problems who deals by self-medicating in isolation.

I love doing this! Jacqui Talbot’s admiration of Flavia de Luce (You Had Me at Nitrogen Pentoxide) comes from her own love of chemistry and solving mysteries. As she says, Flacia is a beguiling cross between Pippi Longstocking and Sherlock Holmes. Flavia is an eleven-year-old sleuth with a passion for chemistry (specifically poisons) and a penchant for crime solving.

The hero within rises! D.H. Aire (A Lesson in Character from Superman) tells us that Superman was created during the cusp of Worlds War II to illuminate Americans about the Nazi threat. Thus a superhero who fights for truth and justice was more than a mere story for Siegel and Shuster. Superman is memorable because he had a secret identity (a hero deep inside), and that’s a feeling we all have, that inside, we too are heroes.

Do what must be done! For Joshua David Bennett (The Power of Pain) Kaladin Stormblessed’s ability to overcome pain and hardship, not wallow in it, made him memorable. He’s an inspiration to rise to the occasion, to do what must be done.

The devil is in the detail so find one!

As Josh Vogt explains of his own writing in When All Else Fails, Bring in a Lizard, the protagonist, Dani wasn’t memorable until he gave her a quirk. A pet lizard! The lizard seems at odds with her original self. That presented a mystery (even a minor one) to unravel, which created personality paradoxes which were entertaining.

Taken to another medium, some characters sometimes become more memorable and others we wish we could forget.

Watching Sidney Poitier play Kimani Wa Karanja was profoundly moving for W.J. Cherf (Something of Value: Of Boyhood Friendships and Harsh Realities). Kimani (Poitier) became his favorite character (actor) because of his immense depth, passion, pride of place, and desire to succeed. Even with his dying breaths, after bitterly fighting his boyhood friend Peter, Kimani died hoping, yearning, for “something of value.” Poitier absolutely nailed the character and the role.

Good characters usually have clear motives with stakes involved Matt Beckett states in Lex Talk About Lex, Baby. Reintroduced characters shouldn’t rely too much on a savvy audience already familiar with the brand. Lex Luthor wasn’t given a good platform this round. His motive didn’t hit home and wobbled.

When Kevin Ikenberry (The Most Successful Bankrobber Ever) saw Jack Foley played by Clooney it was the perfect match! Kevin wrote: as I read Road Dogs, I could not stop seeing and hearing Clooney in the role. That’s where Foley transcended being a likable sympathetic character into something different. Clooney’s effortless performance as Foley indelibly attaches his “aura” to the character. But is it the actor or the character that is memorable? I vote character. No matter the actor’s talent, commitment to the role, or appearance, the character is developed on paper and is the vision of the writer/screenwriter that the actor is to bring to life. When it’s done perfectly in a book, it resonates with us. When we see that on camera, it’s more than memorable. It’s legendary.

Readers must care about a character!

Memorable characters, Mary Pletsch wrote in More than Meets the Eye, must be seen as people we come to know, then we become invested in them and their stories. When we see that their actions not only affect the plot but drive it forward, we care about what they do. And when we wonder and worry about what will happen to our favourites, we keep coming back–issue after issue, year after year. It’s the character work that makes the story shine

Marta Sprout sums it all up best when she said: When we write characters, we balance two seemingly oppositional things: the character must have qualities that resonate with the reader and he or she must venture into areas the reader would never go and take actions that the reader could not do. Therein lies the grounds for spellbinding characters.

There you have it – great lessons for making memorable characters. Pick your angle, work with it and you’ll have readers asking for more!

When All Else Fails, Bring in a Lizard: A Guest Post by Josh Vogt

A Guest Post by Josh Vogt

Enter the Janitor - CoverLast year marked the launch of my urban fantasy series, The Cleaners, with Book #1: Enter the Janitor. The novel focuses on two main characters, Ben and Dani, as they work for a supernatural sanitation company dedicated to protecting the world from magical muck and Corruption (yes, with a capital C).

Now, I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. Gather ‘round close.

Dani used to be boring.

And I don’t mean to beta readers or anything. I mean she bored me. The author. That’s never a good sign. See, I needed a character to act, on some level, as the reader’s proxy into the weird world of the Cleaners, gawking at the absurdity of it, get the strangeness occasionally explained, and generally poking at things while asking, “Does this explode if I touch it?”

Dani did all that, but in such a bland manner, I had to stop almost halfway through the original draft when I started trying to find ways to kill her off. She needed to be a central character! Offing her would basically force me to start from scratch, which I didn’t want to do at all costs. But she, in that incarnation, refused to engage. She had no zest, no zing, zeal, oomph, spice, vigor, vim, liveliness…

*checks the thesaurus*

…or gumption. Let’s end it there, as I’m sure you get the point.

So I tried an old trick: the character interview. I sat down and imagined myself interviewing Dani, asking about her life, her passions, her fears, her neuroses, and any other quirks and tidbits she might be willing to offer.

And, boy, did I discover a lot.

First of all, I discovered her manic-obsessive fear of germs and dirt of all sorts, and how she lugged around gallons of sanitization gel to cope. I discovered her tendency to be a teensy bit foul-mouthed when stressed. I discovered she hated being pushed around and could push back just as hard if tested.

“Anything else?” I asked toward the end.

“I also have a pet lizard,” she replied.

I paused. “A lizard?”

“Yes. He’s a bearded dragon and his name is Tetris and I will rip out the heart of anyone who tries to hurt him. And then probably wash my hands for a month.”

“Why a lizard?”

My imaginary interviewee just grinned. “You’ll have to keep writing about me to find out, won’t you?”

Right then is when Dani came alive for me. Right then is when I became eager to stick her into scenes to see how much she could muck things up…and then do what she could to set things right. Because she had a pet lizard, which seemed so at odd with her original self. It presented a mystery (even a minor one) that I now wanted to unravel—and I started to see how other facets of her character could create personality paradoxes that might be both entertain and intrigue. I’ve since used this “mini-mystery” technique to give other characters extra layers, hinting at more convoluted mindsets and motivations than their surface actions suggest.

Maids of Wrath - Copy - 2Now, since Enter the Janitor came out, readers have told me how they see parts of themselves, their friends, or family members in Dani’s antics. She’s not just a reader vehicle. She resonates for some. She makes others laugh. She’s even made a few people worry for her sanity. And I look forward to finding new ways for her to surprise not only me, but everyone who might’ve grown the slightest bit fond of this spitfire.

So maybe next time you want to liven up a character or scene, don’t follow the old adage of “bring in a man with a gun.”

Bring in a lizard, instead.

Dani’s adventures with the Cleaners continue in Book #2: The Maids of Wrath.

About Josh Vogt:

Author and editor Josh Vogt’s work covers fantasy, science fiction, horror, humor, pulp, and more. His debut fantasy novel is Pathfinder Tales: Forge of Ashes, published alongside his urban fantasy series, The Cleaners, with Enter the Janitor and The Maids of Wrath. He’s an editor at Paizo, a Scribe Award finalist, and a member of both SFWA and the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers. Find him at JRVogt.com or on Twitter @JRVogt.