The Writer's Guide to Creating Horror Characters

Doug Landsborough
July 5, 2023

Listen here, you twisted, messed-up author: I know you want to write something terrifying. Something so scary it haunts your reader for days—or, rather, sleepless nights—after they’ve finished the last page.

Maybe you have an incredible idea for a story, something fresh and exciting yet utterly awful or even depraved. And perhaps you even have some important theme that’s Socrates-levels of deep you want to share.

But your characters just aren’t cutting it.

Whether your monster or hero are bland or you just want to make them the best that you can, it’s important to understand not only how to craft spooky characters, but how they can help your story, too.

Because, when it comes down to it, your characters are what bring your story—and your scares—to life. And that’s why we’re here, right?

So we’re going to look at:

  • Understanding horror
  • The key characters in horror
  • Developing backstories
  • Designing how your characters look
  • Forming unique abilities and weaknesses
  • Some extra tips for making horror characters

Now turn down the lights, make sure the doors are locked, and let’s figure out how to write horror characters.

Understanding the Horror Genre

Before you can write great horror characters, you need to understand how the horror genre works.

There are a number of reasons people theorize we like horror movies and stories. It can be an outlet for negative emotions, an invigorating feeling of watching a helpless hero defeat a seemingly insurmountable foe, an adrenaline-fueled sense of adventure, or simply because some of us weirdos (myself included) just love being scared.

Whatever your reader’s why, horror books are there to generate suspense and, ultimately, fear.

Because when it boils down to it, fear is the thing that makes your horror novel work. Your themes are brought into focus because of fear. Your plot is driven forward because of fear. Your characters make their decisions based on fear. And your reader will devour your book because of fear.

When you’re writing in this genre, you need to think about fear in everything you write. Even in the slower-paced scenes where you’re finally giving your hero time to breathe, how is fear affecting their short reprieve?

If you want a complete guide to integrating fear into you’re writing, check out this link. Here are a few things to keep in mind, in the meantime:

  • Make the stakes big – Sure, losing your job is scary. But not horror scary. Dying, torture, pain, insanity… make the punishment for failure worth fearing.
  • Limit time and breathing room – The longer the protagonist has to figure out their problem or even regroup, the lower the stakes and the fear become.
  • Increase the obstacles – Things should get progressively more difficult for the protagonist, not easier, until the very end.
  • Keep them guessing – Don’t feed the reader enough hints to figure things out. End chapters on cliffhangers. Make their jaws drop. Use the unknown to your advantage.

The Key Characters in a Horror Story

While your story will host a cast of characters once everything is said and done, there are two main characters that are extra important, especially in a horror story:

  1. The protagonist
  2. The monster/ghost/creature/scary villain (who I’ll be referring to mostly as the monster going forward)

For most of the remainder of the article, I’ll be dividing up each section into these two main characters.

Supporting and tertiary characters will support or hinder these two characters throughout your book, but you want to devote your energy to these two (and can learn about writing supporting characters here).

The Protagonist: The Hero and Their Journey

Alright, let's shine the spotlight on the unsung heroes of horror stories—the protagonists. These brave souls are the ones who bear the weight of our fears and embark on treacherous journeys that keep us on the edge of our seats. They are the ones who face the darkness head-on and carry the hopes and fears of readers.

The main protagonist in a horror story serves as the vehicle of fear, the conduit through which our deepest nightmares come to life. They become our eyes and ears in a world tainted by terror, guiding us through the sinister corridors and haunting landscapes. We root for them, relate to their struggles, and experience their triumphs and tribulations.

What makes these protagonists so compelling? It's their vulnerabilities and strengths that draw us in. They are not invincible superheroes; they are ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Their vulnerabilities make them relatable—they fear, they doubt, and they make mistakes, just like us. It is through their vulnerability that we connect with them on a human level and feel their plight.

However, it's not just their vulnerabilities that define them; it's their strengths as well. They possess qualities that enable them to confront the horrors that lurk in the shadows. Whether it's intelligence, resilience, resourcefulness, or sheer determination, these strengths propel them forward and give us hope amidst the darkness. They become beacons of courage in the face of overwhelming fear.

As the narrative unfolds, we witness the growth and transformation of the protagonist. They evolve from ordinary individuals into warriors battling the forces of evil. We see them confront their fears, overcome obstacles, and discover inner strengths they never knew they possessed. Their journey is not just about survival; it's about self-discovery and the triumph of the human spirit.

Now, let's turn our attention to the other side of the coin—the monstrous forces that lurk in the shadows. It's time to explore the role and impact of the monster in your horror story.

The Monster: Their Role and Impact

In the dark abyss of your horror story, there lies a figure that strikes fear into the hearts of readers—the monster. This primary antagonist, whether it's a supernatural entity, a vengeful spirit, a bloodthirsty creature, or a memorable villain, embodies the essence of terror and becomes the driving force behind your written nightmare.

Monsters are a source of fear—the embodiment of all that is terrifying and grotesque. It not only brings the hero’s fears to life, but it is the source of your reader's fears, too. Its presence looms over the narrative, its mere existence evoking a sense of unease and foreboding, setting the stage for spine-chilling, dangerous encounters.

Understanding the motivations and objectives your monsters is crucial to crafting a compelling (and frightening) horror narrative. What drives this creature of darkness? Is it seeking revenge, driven by a thirst for power, or simply reveling in chaos and destruction? By delving into the depths of their motivations, you can add layers of complexity to the monster, making it more than just a one-dimensional source of terror.

The significance of the monster lies in its ability to evoke fear and suspense. It plays a pivotal role in keeping readers on the edge of their seats, eagerly turning the pages to discover the fate of the protagonist.

The monster's relentless pursuit, its ominous presence, and its capacity for violence and malevolence intensify the atmosphere of terror, creating a sense of helplessness and vulnerability.

But the monster isn't just a mindless force of evil. It can also serve as a reflection of our own fears and anxieties. It is the darkness that resides within us, the primal instincts we suppress, and the consequences of our actions. Through the monster, we confront our own inner demons and explore the boundaries of our fears.

So let’s bring these crucial characters to life.

Developing Backstories for Your Horror Characters

All great characters have thorough backstories, even if parts of those histories are never explicitly shown to the reader. But you, the author of nightmares, need to know what your characters have been through, where they’ve come from, and what drives them forward.

For your monster, the backstory might be explained when the protagonist finds a book of lore or an obscure blog detailing an old folktale.

For your protagonist, odds are they are just a person who has lived a fairly normal life up until now. “Normal” means different things to different people. It could mean they work a 9-5 before coming home to their kids. It could mean they’re a contract killer.

Let’s dive into a few backstory specifics.

The Protagonist’s Backstory

Every hero has a story, a past that shapes who they are and influences their journey through the horrors that await them. In the realm of horror, the protagonist's backstory is crucial in establishing their fears, motivations, and resilience in the face of terror.

When crafting your hero’s backstory, consider the following:

Keep them relatable – Even if they aren’t as ordinary as you and me, your protagonist’s backstory should give a reader something relatable to latch on to.

Their source of fear – The protagonist's fears are often rooted in their past experiences, traumas, or personal demons. Perhaps they have survived a childhood encounter with the supernatural or witnessed a gruesome tragedy that haunts their nightmares. These past terrors serve as fuel for their determination to confront and overcome the horrors that they now face.

What motivates them? – While “not dying” is a pretty common motivator in horror, their backstory will influence what else drives the protagonist forward. Did they fail as a parent before and thus risk it all to save a child from the monster? It should be something meaningful enough to outweigh their fear… eventually.

Reveal gradually – The protagonist's backstory should be revealed gradually, layer by layer, through introspective monologues, conversations with other characters, or even eerie flashbacks that shed light on their past.

Remember, the protagonist's backstory is not just a mere collection of events. It's a mosaic of emotions, scars, and growth. It provides the foundation for their journey and offers insight into the choices they make in the face of fear.

Note: Given the nature of this genre, some character backstories might have some terrible events or trauma. Your subgenre and style will dictate how you write that, but always write traumatic events with respect rather than exploiting them.

The Monster’s Backstory

Behind every monstrous presence in a horror story lies a history, an origin that shapes their terrifying nature and fuels their nefarious objectives. Understanding the backstory of your monster is crucial for creating a memorable villain that evokes fear and suspense in your readers.

Consider the following when developing your monster's backstory:

Origins of darkness – Uncover the origins of your monster's existence. Were they born out of ancient curses, scientific experiments gone wrong, or supernatural forces? Delve into the dark forces that brought them into being.

Traumatic events – Hero’s aren’t the only ones who have suffered. Did your monster face a great injustice, betrayal, or a personal tragedy that twisted their perception and transformed them into a creature of terror? These past traumas can explain their malevolent actions and provide a glimpse into their motivations.

Goals and objectives Define the monster's goals and what they seek to achieve. Are they driven by vengeance, an insatiable hunger, or a desire for power? Understanding their objectives helps you craft a more focused and formidable antagonist.

Symbolic meaning – Consider the symbolic meaning behind your monster. Does it represent a specific fear, societal anxiety, or psychological concept? It should! A monster's backstory can be an opportunity to infuse deeper meaning into your narrative, adding layers of symbolism and thematic resonance.

Reveal fragments of your monster's backstory strategically throughout your story, gradually building intrigue and heightening the sense of dread.

By understanding the origins and history of your monster, you can craft a more nuanced and captivating antagonist that leaves a lasting impression on your a reader.

Creating Unique Abilities and Weaknesses for Your Horror Characters

Your characters also need strengths and weaknesses to not only set them apart from other characters but to give them obstacles to work through or succumb to.

When I say strengths or abilities, those can be supernatural or magical (obviously, depending on your monster, and if your hero is something like a psychic or you’re writing dark fantasy). For your protagonist, strengths might mean something more mundane, like they have a photographic memory or a knack for picking locks.

Let’s dissect your horror characters’ abilities and weaknesses a bit.

Abilities and Weaknesses for the Protagonist

In the treacherous world of your horror story, the protagonist must possess a unique set of abilities and weaknesses that shape their journey and determine their fate in the face of unimaginable terror.

These qualities not only distinguish them from other characters but also provide the necessary tools and vulnerabilities to confront their fears.

When crafting the abilities and weaknesses of your protagonist, consider the following elements:

Developing strengths, skills, and resources – As the hero of your horror story, your protagonist should possess strengths and skills that enable them to stand up against the horrors that await. These can range from physical prowess, such as combat training or survival instincts, to mental capacities like intelligence, intuition, or problem-solving abilities. But these shouldn’t be enough to succeed at first and instead develop over the course of their arc.

Incorporating vulnerabilities – To intensify the stakes and create a compelling narrative, it’s crucial to incorporate vulnerabilities into your protagonist's character. These vulnerabilities make them more relatable, human, and susceptible to the terrors they encounter. They could be emotional vulnerabilities, such as unresolved traumas, fears, or doubts, which the monster can exploit. Physical weaknesses or limitations can also add an extra layer of tension, as the protagonist must overcome or work around these weaknesses while facing their fears.

The journey of growth and empowerment – As your protagonist confronts their fears and battles the monster, their character should undergo a transformation and growth. Through their experiences and encounters, they develop resilience, learn valuable lessons, and discover hidden strengths within themselves. This journey of empowerment adds depth and richness to their character arc, making their ultimate triumph over the darkness even more satisfying… unless you kill them off in the end.

Remember, the abilities and weaknesses of your protagonist should be intricately woven into your story, providing opportunities for both triumph and vulnerability. Balancing their strengths and weaknesses will create a dynamic and engaging character who captivates readers as they navigate the treacherous path of horror.

Abilities and Weaknesses for the Monster

Every memorable monster, whether an alien or a madman with a knife, possesses a unique set of abilities and weaknesses that contribute to their menacing presence. When crafting your monster's characteristics, consider the following elements to make them truly fearsome.

Distinctive abilities – Your monster should possess strength that set them apart and make them formidable adversaries. Whether it's supernatural powers, shapeshifting abilities, heightened senses, or grotesque physical attributes, these traits contribute to their frightening capacity for evil. Think about how these abilities will work with the fear you’re focusing on and how they interact with the plot.

Consistency in abilities and weaknesses – Ensure that their abilities and weaknesses remain consistent throughout the story. This consistency adds depth to their character and allows readers to understand their strengths and vulnerabilities. For example, if your monster has regenerative abilities, make sure it remains a consistent aspect of their nature.

Direct ties to the protagonist – One effective way to intensify the conflict between the protagonist and the monster is to create a direct link between their abilities and weaknesses. Consider giving the monster a strength or ability that directly exploits or preys upon the protagonist's weakness, like a snake-like monster and a protagonist with ophidiophobia. This connection not only raises the stakes but also enhances the psychological and emotional impact of the confrontation between the two.

Take the time to truly develop these aspects so you can create one hell of a creepy antagonist.

Tips for Creating Memorable and Iconic Horror Characters

We’ve covered a lot of ground for crafting your two most important horror characters, but there are still some things you should keep in mind.

Whether you're working on your protagonist or your monstrous antagonist, these guidelines will help you shape characters that will linger in readers' minds and evoke spine-chilling reactions. Here are some dos and don'ts to consider:

DO tap into universal fears: Identify fears that resonate with a broad audience and infuse them into your characters. The best horror villains use things like the fear of the dark, claustrophobia, or the fear of the unknown can create a deep emotional connection with readers.

DON'T rely solely on clichés: While familiar horror tropes can be effective, be careful not to rely too heavily on clichéd character traits or storylines. Strive for originality and surprise your readers with unexpected twists.

DO give your characters depth: Develop multi-dimensional characters with complex personalities, motivations, and backstories. Adding layers of complexity will make your characters more relatable and engaging.

DON'T make them invincible: Flaws and vulnerabilities humanize your characters and make them more relatable. Invincible characters can diminish tension and suspense, so ensure that your characters have weaknesses and limitations.

DO create internal conflicts: Explore internal struggles within your characters. Conflicting emotions, moral dilemmas, or wavering beliefs can add depth and complexity to their journeys.

DON'T underestimate the power of subtlety: Sometimes, the most terrifying aspects of a character lie in the subtle nuances. Use restraint in revealing all the details, allowing readers' imaginations to fill in the gaps and amplify the horror.

DO establish unique mannerisms: Give your characters distinct physical or behavioral traits that contribute to their unsettling presence. Unusual quirks or repetitive gestures can leave a lasting impression.

DON'T forget the power of silence: Sometimes, silence can be more frightening than explicit dialogue. Use pauses and silence strategically to build tension and anticipation.

DO create a compelling visual image: Craft vivid descriptions that paint a striking and unforgettable visual image of your characters. These visuals will enhance their impact and leave a lasting imprint on readers' minds.

DON'T shy away from emotional resonance: Horror is not just about fear; it can also evoke other powerful emotions. Explore the range of human emotions within your characters, such as grief, guilt, or desperation, to create a more profound and resonant experience for your readers.

Your last do? Focus on the fundamentals. If you’re looking for advice to up your character game, not just in a horror story but in all writing, check out the links below:

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Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.