Fear in Comics: Make Us Care About Your Characters

Content warning: blood, violence, graphic imagery such as gore and body horror

Well, I’m sure you well know that characters aren’t limited to comic books and neither are they unique to the horror genre. Empathetic characters help all kinds of stories become more gripping, so why am I emphasizing them for horror comics (and necessary to elicit fear in your stories)? You see, for romance stories, you might have heard a couple of people say something like “one of the main characters better be hotter than my ex”. For crime stories, you might have heard something similar to “the detective better be a chain-smoker with the longest trench coat in all of cinema”. For superhero stories, maybe you’ve heard a fan craving for more morally ambiguous crimefighters like Deadpool. For a lot of genres, it’s easy to realize both the audience and the creators have character expectations, hence everyone takes the idea of characters seriously. 

(Ice Cream Man by W. Maxwell Prince and Martín Morazzo)

In horror stories, however, fans describe their preferences in terms of their love for a good Kaiju story (a subgenre of monster stories), slasher story, mad scientist story, psychological horror story, etc. As you may have noticed, the focus seems to be more on the threat rather than the protagonist (or victim). I doubt anyone ever says, “if a white female pharmacist isn’t screaming for her life in a horror story, colour me uninterested”. What creators don’t realize is that it’s not that horror fans don’t care about having good protagonists, it’s that they are more open-minded to the types of protagonists featured in their favourite genre than the average fiction consumer. 

(Proctor Valley Road by Grant Morrison, Alex Child, and Naomi Franquiz)

The vast possibilities of protagonists in the horror genre and the tendency for a horror creator not to focus on the protagonist are why I would like to welcome you to Fear in Comics Part 3: Make Us Care About Your Characters

(Spoiler Alert for a bunch of comics and movies. Gore Alert. The comic samples used in this article are for academic purposes only. The author isn’t glorifying the acts carried out in the stories.)

Contrary to Public Opinion, We Don’t Like Underdogs

The top actors get the biggest gigs, the top directors get the biggest box-office numbers, the prettiest people have the fullest inboxes, the top football clubs have the largest fanbases. In our day-to-day lives, we gravitate towards the strong and the powerful, so why on earth would we go the opposite direction in our taste in fiction? The answer is we don’t. Weakness has never been an admirable quality. No one tunes in to watch the telly with excitement wondering who would beat up their favourite MMA fighter next. So, why then do we love Asta from Black Clover, Deku from My Hero Academia, Atom from Real Steel – obvious underdogs?

(Boku no Hero Academia by Kohei Horikoshi)

Imagine this. There is a bank robbery. Superman flies in to stop it. He finds the perp on the run. He flies after the perp. The perp yells out the money is for his family. Superman says we’ve all got a family to feed and it’s no excuse to steal. The perp gives up. He throws the perp in jail 60s cartoon style. Superman is our hero.

(Superman Smashes the Klan by Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru)

Let’s make few adjustments to that story. This time, the perp doesn’t give up. He tries to flee but Superman gets a good hit in. The perp coughs up bloody teeth, yet he raises his fists against Superman. Superman pummels him, but he doesn’t give up. The perp, with broken ribs, eyes swollen shut, and a bloody mug insists he won’t let go of the money. He says he has a family to feed, and he’ll die before he lets go of the money. Every of Superman’s punch that sinks into this perp is followed by the perp getting back to his feet to say he’ll keep fighting till he gets the money to his family. This will become uncomfortable for us to watch very fast because, at this point, we just want this dude to get the money to his family. We are rooting for him even though he is a criminal.

(Invincible by Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker)

What’s the difference? In both examples, the perp is the underdog and has a family to feed. I think the latter is more compelling because the underdog fights back. The underdog, with his actions, says, “I don’t care who you are, I’ll keep fighting”. So, I think what we really love is a fighting underdog. We love it when the team at the bottom of the log plays with determination to beat the team at the top of the table. It doesn’t matter if they win or not. What matters is that they stood and fought. 

(Image from Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain America: Civil War)

Steve Rogers, though a weakling (at the beginning at least), will never stand down in the face of a fight, bullies, or death. Deku, even though he has no superpowers, will rush in to save someone in danger even if the danger has more powerful heroes hesitant. Asta trains his physical body to physical perfection as if a strong body means anything in the world of magic. He goes as far as to declare he’ll become the Wizard King despite the fact that he has no magic whatsoever. These characters, though underdogs, carry their heads high and don’t know when to quit.

(Black Clover by Yūki Tabata)

Now, let’s consider examples from horror stories. The kids in Stranger Things (2016 – Present) and It (2017) are dorks – underdogs. They never pretend in the story to be otherwise. They are never apologetic about their nerdy loves or try to change how they dress to please a bully. These dudes (Stranger Things) even dress like Ghost Busters to school. In both stories, the characters decide the investigate and face dangers even teens and grown adults would run away scared from. Throughout the story, they are constantly presented with escape routes and chances to give up, but they never take it. They are the kind of underdogs we root for – the fighting ones.


There are more characters I’ll like to discuss ranging from the Unjustly Treated Protagonist to the Badass. Kindly join me next week as we discuss more character types and what makes them so compelling and empathetic. Now…

Comic Book Suggestion

Want to read a comic book that’s a masterclass on making you care about its characters?

Read Extremity by Daniel Warren Johnson and Mike Spicer

Thank you and keep having fun making comics. 

Murewa Ayodele

Murewa Ayodele is a Nigerian comic book enthusiast and NOMMO-nominated comic book writer. His recent works include the sci-fi thriller, NEW MEN, and the action adventure series, My Grandfather Was A God.