Point of View, Perception and Values: How to Create Conflict Without Really Trying

by Christina Lay

You may have noticed that we live in divisive times.  The gulf between opposing points of view seems to be widening every day. People who hold extreme views are becoming more extreme. Middle-of-the-roaders are held in contempt.  Allies turn on each other for not being righteous enough. Opponents dig in their heels, become intractable. Fresh arguments break out every day and when we, as observers, try to make sense out of what is happening, we are told that Facts don’t matter, truth doesn’t exist, science is fake, and that we can’t believe what we read, what we see, or what we hear.

Pretty fun stuff, eh? I often find myself with a headache, a touch of nausea and an overwhelming sense of frustration.  Luckily, I have the refuge of fiction. I escape into a world where I’m in control, where I know what the truth is and I know who the bad guys are. I can exist in this simple world of my own making for a long time; it is balm to my soul.

But then reality begins to creep back in, with its confusions and complications. And that’s okay, because nobody wants to read my fairy tales where nothing very bad ever happens. Readers, for whatever bizarre psychological reason, want conflict. They want the strife I am seeking to escape. They want danger, intrigue, a plot. Go figure.

And so I reluctantly take a closer look at the world around me. Sheesh, what a mess. But what a great time to study and learn about conflict!  Complicated conflict. Conflict between well-meaning, intelligent people. Many works of genre fiction rely on simple forms of conflict.  There is a bad guy, or force, or malevolent power afoot in the universe. In thrillers, it might be a corrupt foreign power, in mysteries, a murderer, in fantasy, an evil wizard bent on controlling the world and killing all the pretty unicorns.  It’s not too hard to create a villain who is so loathsome and evil that readers will cheer when your protagonist shoots him in the face. Or lops her head off.

Although great fun, this is not the kind of conflict I’m talking about now. Because in the end, the super villain tends to be a superficial character, and the plot, with all its twists and turns, is ultimately predictable. Because if you let your hero die and the despicable villain you’ve created win, your readers will want to shoot you in the face. I know. As a reader, I’ve been there.

I mostly read genre fiction, and often find myself more interested in the twists and turns of the hero’s other relationships. The friends, allies, mentors, co-workers, parents, children, who can all become, if not villains, antagonists of the most interesting sort.

And at last I reach my point: how friends, allies, parents, siblings, can become the most interesting antagonists without having to kill a single a person. They might even be good people. The hero might love or be in love with them. And yet these antagonists can be believable and diametrically opposed to the hero on some point of such import that they become the main obstacle to the hero’s success and the satisfying ending your reader craves.

Truth is slippery. If there is one thing to learn from reality today, it’s that facts can be hidden, misinterpreted, ignored. The interpretation of an event can be determined simply by where one is standing. “I heard that man shouting sexist insults!” “Well, I saw that woman whack a man on the head with her Love Always Wins sign!” “They were the aggressor.” “No, that group started it”. “The police were being needlessly brutal.” “No, the perpetrator had a gun.”  It is easy to see how two friends, experiencing an event from different locations, could come away with very different feelings. One might feel the need for action, or revenge, while the other does not.

Beyond the immediate physical view point, there is of course the viewpoint that comes from economic status, regional and racial outlook, religious upbringing, relative health or dysfunction of the birth family and so on. It pays to do a little homework, a little world-building, in order give your main characters diverse backgrounds or life experiences, especially from those closest to them. Honoring diversity in your fiction as well as your life can add so much richness to your stories.

Another way to create instant conflict between people with the same values is to give them different ideas about how to protect those values. Take traditional family values versus women’s rights.  One doesn’t have to be a super villain to believe that families are healthier when the woman stays home to raise the kids, but if that person is your progressive protagonist’s new husband, watch out.

I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but I’ve personally found it eye-opening to look at all this conflict around me through the lens of character development and plotting. It doesn’t hurt that incorporating the frustrations of the world into a work of fiction can be, not only informative, but somehow healing. As my characters work through their perceived differences, I can see how there might be hope for all of us to stop being each other’s antagonists.

Labyrinth of Souls

by Elizabeth Engstrom

It’s Christmas, so what could be better than a little self-promotion?

If the self-promotion includes the genius of others, that’s what could be better.

If the self-promotion also includes the ease of Christmas shopping for loved ones, that’s better yet.

Several years ago, Matthew Lowes wrote quite a brilliant solitaire card game called Dungeon Solitaire—The Labyrinth of Souls.

rule book

After reading the rule book, and looking at the amazing art that had been done by Josephe Vandel for not only the book, but the Tarot cards to accompany it, I was inspired to write a novel set in this fictional universe.

cards

Matt and I talked with other authors, many alumni of the infamous Ghost Story Weekends, about writing similar books. Christina Lay signed on to publish, her feet already solidly planted by publishing the successful anthology Shadow Spinners: A Collection of Dark Tales, and voila! a series was born.

current books

The basic rules of the solitaire card game (and you can watch Matt play a few games on YouTube), is that the hero delves into the underground, where he encounters a labyrinth. The cards the player turns over dictate what the character encounters down there. Monsters. Treasure. Light. Food. Deity. Some things he must have, other things he must vanquish, or avoid. At some point he must turn around and have enough resources to return above ground. Sometimes he makes it, sometimes he doesn’t.

Each of these novels is set within this realm.  Each one is completely different from the other. There is only one requirement: the hero must delve underground at some point in his quest.

These novels by Matthew Lowes, Eric Witchey, Stephen T. Vessels, Christina Lay, Mary E. Lowd, L.A. Alber, and me (your obedient self-promoting servant), are really good reads. Littlest Death by Eric Witchey has won awards. They’re fun, they’re daring, they’re exciting, and they’re like nothing else you’ve ever read before. Fantasy with a twist, always with a twist. And there are more in the publishing pipeline by Cheryl Owen-Wilson, John Reed, Pamela Jean Herber, Cynthia Coate Ray, and others.

Treat yourself. Treat your loved ones.

What’s better than receiving a good book for Christmas?

Nothing. Seriously. There’s nothing better.

HEA vs. Suspense: How To Keep Your Readers Nervous

by Christina Lay

I recently took part in a conversation among writers in which the question was asked “How can you create suspense in a romance novel when everyone knows the two main characters will end up together?” One answer offered was along the lines that suspense in romance is always built on a misunderstanding that drives a wedge between the characters, leaving the reader to wonder if they’ll ever be able to overcome the damage done. I protested, saying, well, that’s one hoary old device, which sometimes works, but in a good romance novel, there’s much more going on, and so many possibilities, just like in any other type of fiction.

I should point out that The Misunderstanding isn’t necessarily bad. After all, misunderstandings happen in real life all the time. In this age of communication, we seem to communicate successfully less and less, especially when texting is the preferred method. The most important thing to remember is to make whatever happens a believable, and not annoying, occurrence. The Misunderstanding should not make your characters look stupid, petty, or hysterical, unless you’re writing a comedy, and even then, make sure it doesn’t just make your reader despise your hero. And, if The Misunderstanding could be cleared up with one question, like “Did you really sleep with my sister?”, then you’d better make Damn Sure your character has an excellent reason for not asking the question.

One complicated doohickey

But really, The Misunderstanding is just one device that writers might use to drive a wedge between their would-be lovers. Whatever serves to keep the romantic interests apart helps to create suspense.  It may or may not be crucial to the plot. In a light romance, or comedy, The Wedge might be a lie told by a jealous rival, a piece of conversation heard out of context, or a meaning ascribed to an action that wasn’t intended. It is also possible for two intelligent, rational people to have entirely different perceptions of an event or conversation. In budding romances in particular, this can work, because it’s such a sensitive and vulnerable time, but again, make sure the motivations and reactions of the characters are believable and not insipid.

In a more serious romance, suspense is created by giving the characters motivations or values that are at odds. The police woman who falls for a possible crook. The betrothed king who falls for a landless nobody. The democrat who falls for a republican, and so on. The question then revolves around whether their love is strong enough to overcome the difference, or if they’re doomed to failure.  If you really want to up the odds, you’ll give the characters friends and family who are also in opposition to the lover’s values/family/job/quest. Then romantic love is pitted against familial love, or tribe loyalty, or an oath sworn to a vengeful god. The more pressure you can put on the two lovers to stay apart, the better. But then, of course, you’ll need to make their passion for each other greater and more compelling than the value/family/tribe/quest they are putting at risk.

A great way to make readers fidget is to make them unsure of what is of greater importance: the cause or the lover? Make them seriously doubt if there is any way the two can exist in the same world. Make the future of their love look bleak, maybe impossible.

Suspense depends on how great the stakes are in your story. Not all romance has to be about The Wedge. It is possible that the lovers are together, deeply in love, and it’s the outside world that is threatening their bliss. One might be in physical peril and the other must risk all to save them. One might be called to sacrifice something important in order for the other to achieve a dream. Maybe they are an interracial couple moving to an intolerant community, or a gay couple being threatened with the loss of job, status, familial acceptance.

Now, you might be thinking, but it’s a romance, of course they’ll work it out, no matter what IT is. Usually, readers of romance do like their HEA (Happily Ever After), but not all romances end that way. Even when they do, there’s no reason at all to think they lack suspense. Suspense can come from many and all quarters, and if done right, will force the characters to face their fears, their weaknesses, even their possibly misplaced desires, and either grow and triumph, or fail, miserable and alone (MAA is nota recommended ending, but still possible).

When you pick up a mystery, you pretty much know the detective is going to solve the crime and probably not die. You get wrapped up in the personal life of the main character(s) as you get nervous about whether or not the killer might strike again, and maybe even you start to worry the detective will end up a victim after all. Likewise, in a romance, you’re pretty sure the main characters will end up together, but along the way, you get involved in the challenges they face, the sacrifices they might have to make, and hopefully, you get nervous about whether or not they will be able to work things out.

A hard fought love scene is truly a wonderful thing. That’s one reason I enjoy writing the enemies-to-lovers trope. So many reasons for them not to get together and yet, they can’t live without each other. Such a dilemma. Such juicy territory for the writer. When are we more vulnerable than when in love? When most likely to risk all? A character in love lives in suspense, every minute they are not with their true love. And most of us can relate to relate to that kind of separation anxiety, even if it is all due to a terrible misunderstanding.

 

KDP Select: A Brief Overview

by Christina Lay

A few authors have asked me lately about my experiences with Kindle Direct Publishing’s Select option, so I thought I’d condense my notes and present them here. While the topic might be rather dry, it also might be of interest to those searching for new revenue streams for their published or about to be published works. For those who don’t know, Select is a program offered by KDP, Amazon’s ebook publishing service. By enrolling your ebook, you agree to offer it for sale exclusively on Amazon. In return, you get the option to list your book for free, for up to five days of each three-month enrollment period. This can be a big boon to someone who is using the freebie option as a marketing strategy. The second benefit of Select is that your book is available for “check-out” by anyone paying for a Kindle Unlimited subscription. Amazon pays the author for this by a royalty system that I’m sure keeps many up late into the night. It’s calculated by pages read—and each book gets a share of a monthly pot based on its percent of the total.  If you feel like giving yourself a headache, you can read details here.

I should pause a moment to point out that many seasoned, best-selling authors will warn you quite passionately against putting all of your book eggs in Amazon’s basket. I understand and I see the point very clearly. However, there are instances where having your book in Amazon’s free library might be a viable part of your overall strategy. And, when you sign up, the term is for three months. It is not as if you are selling your literary soul to the behemoth that is Amazon. Just remember to unclick the auto-renew option, so you can escape at will.

Are your books gathering dust? KDP Select might be an option for you.

I discovered the benefits of KDP Select by accident.  I published a very short story a couple years ago, with the intent of offering it for free to generate interest in my novels.  The easiest way to do it seemed to be to sign the book up for KDP Select, so that I could have the option of offering it for free on Amazon with no hassle. I did that, generated about 700 downloads, and I felt fairly satisfied with the whole experiment. There was a bump in novel sales, not big, but enough it seemed to have had a bit of an impact. Also, there were now 700 people in the world who at least were vaguely aware of my existence. Maybe someday they will actually read the story and become a fan, write a review, buy another book. That’s the dream.

Nowadays there are more free giveaway platforms like InstaFreebie and so on, to help with the Free Book gambit, but there are other reasons one might choose KDP Select.

I left my book in Amazon’s clutches without much thought of doing anything else with it. The short story continued to sit up there, neglected by me, and slowly, I noticed a few pennies dribbling into my checking account from Amazon. And yes, I do mean a few pennies.  KU’s author reward system is based on pages read, and my very short story generated very few royalties. I considered it amusing, and somewhat interesting.

Flash forward a few years, and I found myself with the rights to a backlist of novels after my publisher closed its doors. I repackaged them and when ready to re-release, decided to opt for KDP Select on the first book in a series, again mainly to generate interest in the rest.  This time the book was downloaded about 300 times. Not bad but not great either.  But then something else started to happen. Instead of a few dozen pages being logged in my KENP report (what Amazon calls pages read), there were thousands. I became more interested in Amazon’s byzantine reward system.  At the end of the month my pages read for that book resulted in a royalty payment that was about equal to the royalties from books sold, thereby doubling my income. Now, these were not quit-the-day-job-and-move-to-the-south-of-France numbers, but it did spark my interest, shall we say.  I signed up the second book in the series, and experienced the same results.  One might ask whether this diminishes actual sales, but there is no way to tell and by my calculations, the royalty result is nearly the same for a full-length book priced to sell (2.99-4.99). My guess is that readers who are paying for the KU option are probably reluctant to pay for a book, especially when they don’t know the author.

KDP Select is obviously not a good choice for everyone, or even most.  Obviously, if you have a solid fan base, your sales are going well and you feel satisfied with the progress of your publishing career, than signing over your fate to Amazon probably isn’t worth the sacrifice.  It is clearly in your benefit to have your ebooks available through every possible retailer.  And there are other ways to offer books for free.

However, if your sales are lagging, if you have books that have been around the block and are gathering dust on the virtual shelves, or if you have a series that could use a boost, this might be a golden opportunity to reach new readers.  And, if like me, you are an unknown minnow in a vast sea of unknown fish, having your book free on Amazon can give you a marketing lift like no other (assuming you don’t have a huge publicity budget, that is).  Over the span of my publishing experience, I must admit that sales via Amazon equal about ninety percent of my total, so being exclusive is not much of a sacrifice for me, especially not in the short term. Remember this is for ebooks only, not print.  So is it worth sacrificing a handful of sales to B&N and Apple readers? Only you can decide that.

Murder With Sprinkles On Top

by Christina Lay

I’ve always loved reading and watching cozy mysteries, but not until recently have I tried my hand at writing them. As with many things, you don’t really understand the complexity of a task until you try to do it yourself.

As well-versed in the ins-and-outs of the genre as any avid fan, I dove in quickly and with relish. But soon, one important and fairly obvious question occurred to me: how, exactly, does one make murder, the most heinous of crimes, cozy? How do you create a world in which murder happens (and maybe regularly, if you’re writing a series) that the reader or viewer nevertheless finds comforting? A place where half the population ends up dead but still seems like a very nice place to visit?

Clearly one of the anchors of the cozy mystery is a cozy setting. A majority of these stories take place in small towns, and not just your run of the mill small town, but one that is quaint, meaning it’s preserved its historic charm. These towns have lovely architecture, lots of twisting alleys, probably a waterfront of some sort, nearby woods for the disposing of bodies, and a VERY PROMINENT CHURCH.  Quaint shops abound, and our sleuth might even be the sole proprietor of one (maybe the bakery, which is a very popular setting for cozy book series, with cute names like Til Death do Us Tart and Survival of the Fritters. Baking fancy cakes and crime solving seem to complement each other. Here’s a link to a list of them http://cozy-mysteries-unlimited.com/bakery-dessert-list.

Any cozy worth its imported sea salt will feature a tea shop and an antique store—bare minimum. Sometimes the town is larger, like Oxford, but within the larger town are cozy communities, like an elite college, in which everyone knows everyone else’s business, which always proves to be a very important element in helping our sleuth solve the crime.

Which brings us to the other most important key to a cozy, the sleuth. Mostly this will be an amateur, but private detectives like Hercule Poirot and rumpled Detective Inspectors like Tom Barnaby also qualify. The more professional the sleuth however, the less cozy the murders tend to become. The sleuth is nearly always an outsider, no matter what their profession. Even a detective inside the police department will be the odd one out, the one who uses brain over brawn, who always doubts the obvious first clues and champions whatever poor soul is arrested first. Often the amateur sleuth/slash pastry chef is conveniently married to, dating, best friends with or otherwise connected to a professional in the biz, like a police detective, coroner or forensic expert, which is quite handy. But in the end, the sleuth relies on their powers of observation, keen intuition and wits to solve the crime. Which they always do.

The likability and relatability of the sleuth are key to creating a memorable and enduring cozy mystery series. They must, like all good protagonists, be flawed, but in a lovable way. And usually, whatever their deep wound is, it helps them understand the criminal mind and have compassion for the underdogs. First and foremost, they must be unusually smart, even if not everyone thinks so.

Other factors to ensure your murder is entertaining rather than disturbing include:

A victim who was a no good so-and-so. Lots of people wanted them dead, and no one is overly sorry to have them gone. Anyone who is, probably did it.  Also, their death, though possibly elaborate, is swift and unseen. Usually, the murder happens before the book even starts, or off-the-page. It might happen after the world famous detective arrives and the murderer foolishly decides to go through with their plan anyway. Or after all the guests are assembled at the manor house, or when the train leaves the station. Isolating the group of suspects is a great trick for upping the tension. There’s a murderer amongst us!

Limit the bloodshed. This is an element that seems to be ignored more and more in the television version of mysteries, usually the result of what I call “the slaughter of the innocents”.  This is when, once the murderer commits the initial crime, they then feel compelled to kill off several innocent bystanders to cover it up, which of course is what usually tips their hand. I have to admit to being disappointed when what is touted as a cozy mystery ends up with a high body count, among them unfortunate girl guides and birdwatching old ladies who were in the wrong place at the worst time. Besides being depressing, these acts of senseless violence are usually stupid, which diminishes the fun of solving the crime. I shouldn’t even have to say this, but NEVER KILL THE DOG.

No sex. Wait, what? Well, I’ve wondered about this, but it appears to be true. While amateur sleuths are often romantically pining over the local detective, or visa versa, the most they will ever do is share a pint at the quaint local pub and match wits.  I believe this is because sex is really just a distraction from what readers of cozies care about most, which is solving a mystery. No one wants to see rumpled whosit and the dowdy baker get down. It’s just not where the appeal lies. Romance, a hint of it, is just fine, as long as it doesn’t pull our heroine/hero away from what they’re there to do. And naturally, the suspects will be fornicating up a storm, only not on the page.

Cats are king.  Throw in a smart cat, or perhaps a reasonably intelligent dog. Readers of cozies love sleuths who love pets. If the cat helps solve the crime, well, that’s a subgenre unto itself. http://cozy-mysteries-unlimited.com/cat-list  If you can combine cooking and cats, all the better.

Provide a wide array of colorful, likable characters to consult, kill or arrest. Sometimes even the murderer is likable. The sleuth will have an extensive network of interesting acquaintances to contact regarding the case. If, for example, a body is washed up near the quaint lighthouse, the sleuth’s uncle will be the local captain of the coast guard. There will always be busybodies, town gossips, town drunks, and loose but large-hearted women who know the town’s secrets and our sleuth will be friends with them, or have some way of convincing these people to talk. Think tea and cookies instead of truth serum and truncheons.

Comeuppance will be got. In a cozy, the murderer is always flushed out. They might escape the long arm of the law, but they will lose everything they were willing to kill for. If you can think of an exception in the cozy mystery field, feel free to enlighten me.  One exception might be the Serial Adversary, a Moriarty of sorts, but since those chaps tend to be serial killers, their evil antics don’t qualify as cozy.

To sum up, the key to a cozy murder is the fun of watching a character we love solve a baffling riddle by their wits (and possibly their cat’s) alone. So naturally, you’ll need a riddle worthy of their and the reader’s attention. Anything over the top, like graphic violence, graphic sex, grit, torture, profanity, end of the world scenarios or gratuitous explosions, you can pretty much leave at the door. Raymond Chandler claimed that readers of cozies, especially the English variety, “like their murders scented with magnolia blossoms and do not care to be reminded that murder is an act of infinite cruelty”.  For some, I’m sure that’s true, but I don’t think readers are drawn to mysteries just so they can ignore the murder at the heart of it; rather, they prefer to focus on the solving, rather than the commission, of the crime. And just because a setting is cozy, or the sleuth an old English spinster, doesn’t mean we can relax. As Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple says “One does see so much evil in a village”.

Patiently Pondering Puddles in Pursuit of Poetry

by Christina Lay

The other morning as I pulled out of my driveway on the way to work, I found myself waiting for a little kid who, squirrel-like, was meandering around in the street right behind my car. I watched him out of my rear view mirror until he was finally far enough away I could continue. Only then did I see what he was doing.  He was going puddle to puddle and jumping in each one, then standing there, transfixed. Maybe field testing his galoshes, or measuring the depths in scientific pursuit, or imagining what it felt like to be a tadpole. Probably delaying arriving at school, much like I delay arriving at work every day.

As I drove away, I flashed back to myself at that age—about seven-ish, I’d guess—and a rainy day on my way home from school. I had to cross a big playing field and that day, the field was more pond than grass. Oblivious to everything else, I wandered back and forth, jumping in puddles, watching the ripples, most likely feeling how cold rain water and wool socks aren’t a good mix and basically having a jolly good time until I heard a car horn beeping. My mom, in a valiant effort to save me from getting soaked in the torrential rains, had driven the five blocks from our house to the end of the field to give me a ride. And there she sat, watching her crazy kid go puddle jumping.

Not much has changed, I’m happy to report. I’m still much more a first-grader in galoshes wandering through the world in questing admiration than a sensible adult who actually arrives at work on time.  But what, you might ask, does any of this have to do with writing?

Not a hell of a lot, except for the fact that it’s April (or was when I started writing this), which means torrential spring rains and poetry. April is National Poetry Month and my first thought as I drove away watching that crazy kid standing in the gutter was that he was seeking out little moments of poetry. A scrap of haiku.

Puddles in the path

How can I not jump when

School, the big nap, waits?

So I’m not a poet. But poetry has always informed my writing and when I want to go deeper into a character’s emotion, or the quality of a setting, or the truth behind a relationship, it’s the quiet moments that I seek out. The feel of rain soaking into socks. The reflection of a hazy sun in a puddle.  The things not said.

I’ve been attending the symphony a lot lately, and one thing I’ve been learning is how to appreciate the silences. The purposeful pause, the breath held. With all those instruments clamoring away to create a glorious noise, the moment of silence can be an extremely powerful thing.  As can a reflection in a puddle.

I am naturally a curmudgeon and the louder things get, the faster, brighter, ruder, and more brutal movies, books and music seem to become, the more I resist. The more I want to be the kid in galoshes, oblivious to all but the simple wonders. Like waiting for a hummingbird’s buzz or the trickle of a stream, it takes more effort these days to hear the silence and notice what is not moving, what is not flashing, blinking, or shouting for our attention.

If your characters are in the middle of a screaming argument, a sudden silence might be much more powerful than a string of obscenities. If your character is racing to battle, the sensation of rain soaking into his boots might give us a better glimpse into his heart and mind than the thunder of cannons and the vision of body parts flying.  If Cinderella is arriving at the ball, having her notice a dandelion sprouting through the cracks in the brickwork might prove more telling than an extended description of the palace.

And then everything can explode. Or not.

As entertainers, we do tend to focus on the grand and exciting moments. Nothing wrong with that, as long as we don’t forget the importance of the threads that hold the crazy quilt of reality together. When the ordinary and divine meet, and we look up from the page, and say “oh”. When we as artists achieve the goal of expressing the inexpressible and using words to say what is beyond words.  That’s poetry, and we could all use a little more of it.

It’s Not About The Monster

by Christina Lay

It’s Not About the Monster

Beware of the stories you read or tell; subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world. -Ben Okri, poet and novelist (b. 15 Mar 1959)

I just finished writing an entirely different post about the TV Show Stranger Things. Then, after walking away from the computer, it occurred to me that I hadn’t said a single thing about the flashy bits. You know, the monster, the cool other dimension, the ick and awe factor, the “strange things”.

Spoiler Alert – If you haven’t watched Season One yet, you might not want to read this

If you don’t know, Stranger Things is an Amazon original series that I would put in the genre of “Cozy Horror”. It is cozy because our favorite characters tend not to die, and good triumphs over evil, eventually. However, people do die, either at the hands of a rogue government entity or at the ick-dripping talons of the monster.

However, it doesn’t really matter how they die or who/what is chasing our heroes around. The source of The Horror could just as well be an infestation of pissed-off dragons, or powerful magic gone awry, or a swarm of giant ants, or an out of control disease. Personally I prefer monsters. What is important in a show like this is the characters, and how they react to The Horror.

In the first post I wrote, I discussed how we as writers might make up for the fact that we don’t have a three-dimensional Winona Ryder who will leap out of the page and bring our brilliant prose to life for the reader. I’m full of admiration for Winona’s skill and her excellent job of bringing Joyce Byers, the distraught mother in Stranger Things, to life. She is a lot of what makes this show so compelling. So as writers stuck with mere words, we can focus on character development, adding layers and depth to our characters by giving them everything from quirks, gestures, odd habits and facial tics to long and murky histories, skewed motivations, poor coping skills and a smorgasbord of emotions that may or may not control their actions. Winona and the true-to-trope hard drinking sheriff with a murky history, skewed motivations and poor coping skills get most of the action, character-development wise. The true-to-trope gang of nerdy and plucky kids are all great, as is “The Chosen One” with the powerful magic gone awry. A couple side characters like the Princess and The Loner/Outsider have some good moments, and even the good-looking Jock/Jerk gets a shot at redemption. They’re all interesting in their way, adding to the fun by roping us in with their charm.

But it’s Winona as the mom and David Harbour as Chief Hopper who really get to face The Horror, which is what this show, and most stories like it, are all about. In facing The Horror, a character is either destroyed or they prevail. There are so many ways either can happen. One, they can get their head ripped off. That is the ultimate failure. But they can also fail to face their fear, they might run away, they might turn their backs on their friends, they might join the enemy, they might deny the existence of the Horror until it shows up and rips their head off. They might choose to destroy themselves, with alcohol or a supremely reckless act, all the while denying those repressed emotions that are controlling them. The sheriff is drinking and denying in order not to face the emotional truth of having lost a child. The mother, on the other hand, steamrollers her many flaws and actually utilizes them in a supreme effort to save her child. Sometimes, it is an asset to be slightly crazy.

To prevail, one must survive the season (or the novel). Beyond that, the hero must grow, realize her own strengths, identify what is most important, listen to her instincts and intuitions, trust in her allies if they exist, overcome all those cleverly developed character flaws, and defeat the monster. At least for now.

Some viewers might disagree, but I believe this is the key to a successful show, not the cleverness or wow factor of The Horror. Don’t get me wrong, I think the monster in Stranger Things is cool. The Upside Down is a creepy and clever concept that they do well. But it would all put me to sleep if it weren’t for the people who are dealing with, reacting to, dying in the face of, and kicking the ass of The Horror. If those people are one-dimensional, shallow, too true-to-trope to swallow, or just flat out dull, no amount of pyrotechnic evil wizardry is going to keep me tuning in.

This brings us to the question of why we do this to ourselves. Why do we like to watch clever, likable, heroic characters be tortured and tested in this way? I think the answer is pretty simple, and it’s why we tell stories at all. We all have a Horror in our life, maybe several. Maybe they’re small horrors, but the world is full of big horrors and it takes very little imagination to conceive of The Horror being visited upon ourselves. A cozy horror TV show like Stranger Things allows to process some of that pent up fear, and it lets us watch “ordinary” characters take the bull by the horns and defeat The Horror. Yes, it is cathartic, and it is just scary enough to let off some of scream steam and, possibly, allow us embrace the happy for now ending and the hope that good not only can but will triumph over evil.

Now Non-cozy Horror, where everyone dies? I don’t know what’s up with that. Liz?