What Fantasy Writers Can Learn From Horror

This article is by Martin White.

Horror is by no means an underrated genre, but it’s typically forgotten in discussions of speculative fiction. Much ink is spilled on the differences between science fiction and fantasy, but horror is examined on its own, with few connections to its siblings.

As an advocate of genre-mixing, I’m drawn to horror from the direction of fantasy. One discusses our dreams, and the other our nightmares, but the two sometimes call upon surprisingly similar techniques.

Building Investment Through Tension

Name a few fantasy series in which you felt invested in the survival of a particular character, tensing up when that character was in danger.  It’s probably not hard for you to generate a list. (I immediately came up with The Codex Alera, Fullmetal Alchemist, and, reluctantly, Dragonlance Chronicles.)

Now, name a few fantasy series in which the protagonists significantly outclass most of the antagonists, easily defeating entire armies.  You’ve probably encountered a few of these, especially if you read vanity published or e-published fantasy, but you may have difficulty recalling their names. (The closest I’ve come is “that book where the cover says Ben Bova liked it, but Bova says he never read it.”)

From this, it’s easy to see the value of tension, a tool that fantasy’s good at using, but horror’s even better with.

The most obvious technique by which horror builds tension is by making its monsters strong and/or strange. When an orc or a zombie approaches your heroes, they know to respectively put an arrow or a bullet through its head.  But what do they do against a monster with no head?

If a sword bounces off a monster’s hide, they know to get a sharper sword.  But what do they do if the monster’s wounds heal as soon as the sword passes through it? By making it hard to identify the monster’s weaknesses, you increase the reader’s fear that no weakness can be found, which turns to relief only upon the monster’s final defeat. (Cases in point: the manga Berserk, and sometimes Silent Hill.)

Equally important is to give the main character some manner of relative weakness. Fantasy’s trend towards epic heroes would seem to impede this – it’s not often that a confused everyman in fantasy doesn’t became a skilled swordsman or a mighty mage by the end – but as a common criminal presents a frightening opponent for a blind housewife (Wait Until Dark), so a warrior can seem vulnerable against a sorcerer, or a sorcerer against a monster. If all else fails, make the protagonist’s own power a threat, forcing him or her to struggle in order to stay sane (The Suffering) or keep his or her sense of morality intact (Hellsing.)

Of course, if you want your readers to be afraid you’ll kill off characters, killing off a few characters can accomplish this quite handily. This is a complicated enough subject to deserve an essay of its own, but as an introductory note, this creates the most fear if you sacrifice characters your readers aren’t already expecting will die. Develop a character’s personality and motivations for two hundred pages, then slaughter him messily on the two hundred and first, and you’re Stephen King.  But kill all the characters with no personality first, and you’re whoever’s been writing the same slasher flick over and over under different titles. (On the other hand, killing a likeable character before his or her story arc is finished can potentially cause a reader revolt – again, this is a tricky balancing act.)

Tension is one of the simplest tools to use, which means that you have no excuse if you forget to use it. Once you have a grasp of it, you’ll be ready to . . .

Decide Your Balance of Literalism and Metaphor

In general, horror can be placed on a continuum between two extremes – “literalistic” and “metaphorical.” Magic in fantasy can seldom be described as either, instead occupying its own continuum between “rulebound” and “wild.” Yet the two systems, quite different in theory, work out very similarly in practice, and what’s true of one is mostly true of the other.

In literalistic horror, the antagonists’ abilities and motivations are clearly defined. These antagonists may be realistic (Misery) or speculative (28 Days Later), but they will never pull new abilities out of nowhere, nor will they act in a manner contradictory to their established goals. New writers may be cautioned against this–“Leave something to the imagination!” – but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this style.

In metaphorical horror, the source of the conflict is undefined and cannot be directly understood, acting through abstractions like darkness or lust. Unable to end the threat in any rational manner, the protagonists struggle to survive in a surreal hell (Lone Survivor, Limbo, All of Our Friends Are Dead – basically, any sidescrolling horror video game not titled Splatterhouse.) New writers may also be cautioned against this – Your audience won’t understand it!” – but again, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.

Where we see clear failure, and clear audience backlash, is when the story abruptly shifts modes. Dexter began as a highly literalistic series, and to my knowledge, the television adaptation stayed that way throughout. When the novel series suddenly introduced an ancient and mysterious embodiment of evil, the fandom exploded in anger, and later books backtracked, returning to literalism.

Magic in fantasy needn’t play an antagonistic role, but it still has a continuum between order and disorder. The Codex Alera features magic that follows precise rules, and arguably, so does most science fiction, creating “magic” from the rules of our own universe. On the other hand, The Last Unicorn features magic that acts according to its own will, with mages who don’t so much control it as let it loose. When the fantastical suddenly develops rules and explanations, the fanbase may revolt (as with The Phantom Menace and its “midichlorians” that explained the Force.) When rules and explanations give way to the fantastical, the fanbase will definitely revolt (as with the angels in the Battlestar Galactica remake, and to a lesser degree, the bizarre ending of Mass Effect 3.) It follows that in fantasy, as in horror, it’s important to know how ordered you intend the supernatural to be–not necessarily so you don’t trick the reader, but at least so that you properly foreshadow your tricks.

Othering the Self and Selfing the Other

It’s common in fantasy to create strange characters–sometimes monsters, sometimes just outsiders–then invite the readers to empathize with them, positively displaying similarities between these “others” and one’s self. Horror often takes the opposite tack, portraying characters who seem just like the audience, then having them act in ways increasingly alien to normality, suggesting that ordinary people may be far stranger than is normally acknowledged. I could here recommend Silent Hill 2, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, and portions of The Twilight Zone, but for this essay, I’d like to concentrate on one brilliant example, Amnesia: the Dark Descent. (This analysis will contain spoilers for that game.)

Daniel, the protagonist of Amnesia, begins the story with – you guessed it – amnesia. He knows neither himself, nor Alexander, the antagonist he’s supposed to kill. However, he’s an affable sort, and it’s soon apparent that Alexander is both a nonhuman and a murderer of humans, so the player is likely to sympathize with Daniel initially.

One of the revelations that shakes the player’s confidence is that Alexander isn’t cruel for his own sake. For a very long time, he’s been separated from someone he loves, and everything he does is done so that he can someday return to her. He’s still not fully sympathetic, showing little guilt for what he’s done, but, as in a fantasy, he begins to seem a less monstrous sort of monster than before.

The other revelation is that, to save himself, Daniel aided Alexander. For no higher cause than his own survival, he tortured the “criminals” brought before him, making them suffer until they were no longer responsive to outside stimuli, then giving them amnesia so he could do it over again. He’s not exactly portrayed as evil – certainly, his actions are always towards an end – but it becomes harder and harder to justify what he’s done.

Daniel never becomes the antagonist, and Alexander never becomes the protagonist. That’s not what the game is going for. Rather, its goal is to disconcert players, forcing them to wonder just what a “monster” is. By combining the techniques of fantasy and horror, it succeeds quite handily at this task.

Other Genres?

I don’t think the relationship between fantasy and horror is completely unique. It would certainly be no spectacular task to write about the bridges between fantasy and romance, or fantasy and mystery, or even fantasy and historical fiction.

Yet, with that said, I do think horror has more in common with fantasy than we often realize. Though it’s often considered as its own beast (perhaps with fierce teeth and sharp claws), it’s still a breed of speculative fiction, and it deserves discussion as such.

What other genres do you think fantasy can learn from?  What lessons can we take away from them?

About the Author:

Martin White is a college student, an assistant budget analyst, and a writer of fantasy and romance.  His story “Five Conversations on a Pier After Dark” was recently published in InD’Tale Magazine.

This article was contributed by a featured author whose details are mentioned above. Are you interested in writing for Mythic Scribes? If so, please check out our submission guidelines.

12 Responses to What Fantasy Writers Can Learn From Horror

  1. I love this post! Often horror is considered the ugly stepchild of the speculative realm (how many magazines have “fantasy” and “science fiction” in the title but also subtly accept horror?), so it’s nice to see an article honoring the genre for its strengths. I agree with many of the commenters that all writers can learn something from all genres, but I like how you’ve specified the exact strengths to be had here. I’d also love to read an article that reverses this–what horror can learn from fantasy. Well done!

  2. I love the way horror can turn everything on its head. Good horror really knows how to raise the stakes and push the characters to their limits.I disagree about the Dexter novels though. I enjoyed the supernatural Dark Passenger parts and I think some supernatural elements were present from the beginning and have remained throughout. The novel with Moloch took it to a whole new level but the creepy “otherness” of the Dark Passenger adds something interesting to the novels. At least, for me. :D

  3. Many fantasists already look at medieval literature for their sources. However, they largely look at only Western European sources. There are ample items available in various archives, neatly translated, elements from Central Asia, the Near East, and the New World.

  4. I think every writer can learn from every genre. People tend to sit within their own genres and focus on the books within, and that’s fine, but there’s definitely something to gain by stepping outside that box.Also, a lot of these aspects of horror you mentioned seemed to be more akin to solid writing advice for anyone. It’s good storytelling, plain and simple. If there’s no character to empathize with, why bother reading? If the character is just going to crush the demon/monster/evil army/other bad thing easily, then why bother?People should really pay attention to these guidelines. They don’t have to follow them, especially if they’re talented enough to go their own way and make it work, but I think too many people fall into the trap of ignoring these ideas.

  5. Loved your take on Fantasy and Horror. As someone who has only just begun to incorporate horror elements and themes into current story lines, I read this post with a clear eye. I agree with everything. Kudos for putting together the information. Nicely written too.

  6. I agree, horror and fantasy aren’t unique.  it the writer and the way they create the characters and the environment that make it all come to life.  The best lesson is to let your imagination go and see where it takes you.  

  7. Science fiction is the best fiction genre for fantasy writers to learn from, and legends and mythology the best non-fiction.

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