There is a trend in most modern horror that turns me off faster than pretty much anything else. I say “most” because there are exceptions, but it is common enough to bother me. More than that, I think it is becoming more prevalent and that it has even started showing up in other genres.
I call it “The Psychopath Syndrome.”
Let me explain with an example.
I am currently reading The Troop by Nick Cutter. Besides having the perfect horror writer name, Cutter has also crafted an incredibly creepy story. The monster is terrifying, and Cutter’s writing is a study in how to make mundane things frightening, but he falls into a trap that destroys, or at least significantly damages, the story’s believability: All his characters are psychopaths.
To see why this is a problem, you have to understand that The Troop is about a Boy Scout troop that gets isolated on an island off the eastern coast of Canada when what amounts to a biological weapon is released on the island. I know what you’re thinking: “Aren’t all Boy Scouts psychopaths?”
No. No they aren’t.
I spent a lot of time with the Boy Scouts growing up, and even still have regular contact with them. I admit that there is definitely a “Boy Scout Effect” that seems to neutralize the parts of their brains that keep them from doing stupid things, and I will also admit that there is the rare bully, but that’s not the same thing.
In Cutter’s Troop, one boy is a sociopathic bully who mercilessly locks up the Scoutmaster when he gets infected and treats everyone else like a punching bag, another boy has significant anger management issues, another is suffering from an identity crisis, and another is a full-on serial killer-in-the-making. Only one boy is what I would define as relatively normal (though the boy suffering an identity crisis will be familiar to the social outcasts of the world).
See the problem?
I'm not saying boys like these do not exist, but in a single troop? That stretches believability to the breaking point.
I'm not saying boys like these do not exist, but in a single troop?
And that’s the problem. In modern horror (and spreading to other genres), everyone is a psychopath or suffering from extreme neurological disorders. And while I understand that the world of fiction is often meant to be a magnification of reality, the idea that decent, average people are in the vast minority of the population can often ruin a story for me. It’s why I don’t like reading Stephen King.
I am also currently reading a book about writing: Blake Snyder’s seminal Save the Cat! I will discuss Snyder’s work in more detail later, but for now, I want to focus on one concept: the idea of saving the cat.
For Snyder, it’s important that main characters be, at least to some degree, likable or relatable. Think of Ripley in Alien. Even though the ship is alien-infested and the self-destruct counter is ticking down, she goes back to save the cat (I’m not certain if this is where the phrase comes from, Snyder has yet to explain in the book). It is a moment, almost more than any other, that defines her as a hero (Aliens, the sequel, ups the ante by sending her back for a child). Snyder argues that every story needs a moment like that so that the readers can root for the characters.
I don’t know that a “save the cat” moment is necessary in fiction. I think a legitimate argument can be made to omit it, and I can certainly see a case for compelling, despicable characters (I’m looking at you Gillian Flynn), but I also think they should be in the minority, because the truth is: most people are pretty decent, and watching decent people struggle against impossible odds makes for a better story.
Watching decent people struggle against impossible odds makes for a better story.
Seriously, how many outright, evil villains have you met or known in your life? How many actual (not figurative or pseudo) psychopaths do you associate with on a regular basis?
Sure, your boss may be a jerk, and that guy who cut you off in traffic is darned lucky you don’t have a button that will vaporize the car in front of you, but are they really evil? Are they really psychopaths?
Again, I’m not saying those don’t exist, what I’m saying is that they aren’t the norm.
I’m also not saying all humans are wonder, kind-hearted, generous people. Humans today are just what they’ve always been: a flawed mix of good and bad, capable of great destruction and hate and incredible creativity and compassion. They are complex and difficult, they make mistakes and are capable of inflicting terrible pain, but few are outright deviant or psychotic. In fact, most are trying to do the best they can with what they have.
When we give into the Psychopath Syndrome, when we write nothing but terrible people into our stories–even horror stories where characters are little more than monster chow–we cheapen them and we add to the darkness of a world already cast too much in shadow.
When we give into the Psychopath Syndrome, when we write nothing but terrible people into our stories, ... we cheapen them.
The solution is not to write characters that are so unbelievably good–so Pollyanna-ish–that they will be too sweet for even the darkest creature’s palette. The solution is write believable characters, complex characters that approximate reality. Give readers someone they recognize, someone they associate with on a regular basis, and they drive them hell and see how they come out on the other side. Your writing will be better for it.
Sixteen years and one week ago, I was walking across a parking lot when a plane flew overhead. I froze. My heart beat faster, and a chill went through me as I turned to watch the very normal 747 make it's way toward the airport. I watched until it had completely disappeared from view.
It was the first plane I'd seen since 9/11.
The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, were horrific and all-but indescribable. For weeks afterwards, I walked around in a haze, a hollow pit in my stomach. I subscribe whole-heartedly to William Faulkner's declaration in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: "I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail." I tend to see the best intentions, even if I don't agree with the actions (even for politicians). So 9/11 shook me to the core. I couldn't believe that humans could be so violent and filled with hate. It was, in short, an eye-opening, life-changing event.
The shadow of 9/11 would haunt me for years. Later, it would become the focus of my research as I looked at how it impacted our world through the lens of superheroes, which I published in my first (and only) non-fiction book: The Superhero Response. In that research, I learned a lot about heroes and a lot about villains. Because of that, I remain more convinced of the goodness of men and women than ever before.
The night of 9/11, President George W. Bush said: "Today, our nation saw evil -- the very worst of human nature -- and we responded with the best of America." In so many ways, that was true, though it extended well beyond America's borders and culture. Over the last sixteen years, it has felt like our world is under siege from man-made threats, to natural disasters, to political upheaval, to cultural wars. It feels like the world is so much darker than it was even twenty or thirty years ago. This feeling of darkness resulted in a large number of people hoping to "Make America Great Again" and caused many others to rise up stronger than ever against perceived oppression. I am convinced that Charlottesville and other moments like it are the inevitable result of this growing perception of darkness.
But darkness cannot exist without light, and the darker things are, the brighter the light shines.
Even as our world seems to grow darker, we have seen heroes rise up to stand against it. For every evil or terrible moment, there are countless deeds of heroism and kindness that counteract it. Hurricane Harvey was devastating, but led to an outpouring of support. Charlottesville brought thousands into the streets to protest racism and white nationalism. And on and on and on.
Sixteen years ago, watching that plane fly across the sky, a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, I didn't know if I could ever restore my faith in humanity. Now it is stronger than ever.
Today, as we remember that awful morning that revealed so much evil to the world, let us also remember, that we are stronger than the darkness and better than we believe.