Fear in Comics: Make Us Care About Your Characters III

Content notes: gore, body horror, blood

I am very sorry for the sudden hiatus taken on this series without prior warning. Thank you for your patience and understanding. So, without taking much of your precious time, let’s talk about some horror comics. 

(Red Room by Ed Piskor)

In previous episodes, we discussed some of the types of characters we love to root for – characters capable of instantly stealing our hearts (not so they can sacrifice them to an old serpent god but to keep us glued to the page). Or as it’s popularly put in the TV industry – “characters we want to be or want to be around”. In this episode, we’ll be discussing that little “oomph” we can give our characters to make them more compelling no matter their character type. These are the traits that keep us coming back week-after-week (as in most webcomics) or month-after-month (as in most comic books), besides the gripping plot of course. 

(Two Moons by John Arcudi and Valerio Giangiordano)

Primal Motivation

(Ultramega by James Harren)

Primal goals are goals we would still be capable of having even if we were stripped of our modern comforts. But giving your protagonist a goal that’s so modern like wanting to gain one million followers on Instagram isn’t bad at all, but the motivation behind such goals should be primal.  I’m sure you’ve seen how far animals travel to find a mate – sometimes farther than they are willing to travel to find a “proper” meal. So, wanting to get laid can be a very good motivation for a teenage boy to journey into the haunted woods (if his crush booty-called him to meet her in a cabin in said haunted woods).  Protecting one’s life and/or one’s family is also a very primal motivation. Parental and social validation is another. 

(The Nice House on the Lake by James Tynion IV and Álvaro Martínez Bueno)

These motivations are very relatable because they tend to cut through cultural and background barriers as we can all relate to them at a primal level. 

In It (the movie), we can relate to the kids’ motivations. From trying to impress the girl amongst them, to trying to find a brother, and to trying to survive a kid-eating clown-faced monster (cause kids can’t just pack their stuff and move to another town). We totally get it. In the sequel, however, we see adults try to fulfil a promise they made as kids they have hazy memories of making. I doubt I have the time or the energy to finally go back to my high school to tell my math teacher that he sucks. As gratifying as that may be, I am too lazy to do it. Go back to face a child-killing monster? No, thank you. 

Redeeming Qualities

(Nocterra by Scott Snyder and Tony S. Daniel)

I think most creators have got this down, so I won’t dwell too long on it. Basically, no matter how flawed you make your characters, give them a core emotion-evoking strength. And no matter how perfect you make your characters, give them a core emotion-evoking weakness. Now, let’s talk about the thing horror creators don’t usually nail.

Good People Die Too

(We Only Find Them When They’re Dead by Al Ewing and Simone Di Meo)

One of the reasons deaths in Game of Thrones and Attack of Titan elicit a more emotional response than in a lot of horror fiction is because a lot of horror fiction may be willing to show boobs and guts, but they are not willing to break our hearts. The “popular” girl dies because F that B-word. The passionate couple dies because that’s what they get for being happy. The bully that always seems to like the old brewski dies because monsters love the taste of insecurity. Somehow, at the end of it all, the well-behaved well-adjusted character survives at the end. Yup. No one saw that coming (*rolls eyes). I understand creators don’t want to seem unnecessarily cruel. But what I’m saying is, let’s try to mix it up and remember that both good and bad people die in real life, so why not in our fiction. In short, write in redeeming qualities for the victims in your story too. That way, we respond emotionally and not just physically to deaths and the threat of death. 

Stakes (Not for Killing Vampires)

(Stillwater by Chip Zdarsky and Ramón K Perez)

This has to do more with the plot, so we’ll probably discuss it in detail in subsequent episodes of this series. But in summary, your protagonist must stand to lose something. There must be something at stake. In a lot of horror fiction, it’s simply the protagonist’s life that’s at stake and honestly, there is nothing wrong with that. However, in Get Out, it’s the protagonist’s body. In The Shining, it’s the protagonist’s sanity. In The Quiet Place, it’s the family. It doesn’t always have to be life and death. Sometimes, it’s just extreme physical pain. 

But the reason why we are discussing stakes in this section is that we need to create our protagonists in a way that the stakes matter to them. If Lee Abbott wasn’t a caring father who values his family’s safety, the entire plot for The Quiet Place falls apart pretty quickly. 

Character Design

(The One You Feed by Donny Cates and Dylan Burnett)

I’m not much of an artist, so I can’t say much here. But simply creating a generic-looking character and tossing them a t-shirt and a pair of jeans is not usually the best move in soliciting interest in your characters. Let your unique setting and character personalities ooze from how your characters dress, act, and look. Besides that it keeps things interesting, we don’t want Henry meeting his demise and we continue to wonder for pages and pages if that was Henry, Samuel, Greg, or Jessica. 


(Bog Bodies by Declan Shalvey and Gavin Fullerton)

In conclusion, characters can be well received even more than the creators intended as is the case of Rorschach by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Though sometimes unintended, a lot of care does go into making a character memorable and one we want to come back to again and again. But hey… do you think that comic series you already started doesn’t have strong enough characters? You don’t have to cancel your beautiful baby and rip its files off the internet like a cold unforgiving monster. That’s the fun thing about periodicals like comics, you can improve things mid-story in organic ways. No rule says your character must be awesome right from Act 1. We might start getting to dig your character in Act 2 or even in the closing Act. 

My point is, we can create new stories with the tools we’ve acquired, but we don’t have to give up on our current babies too. A lot of manga, comic book series and webcomics have moments where they suddenly “got good” and new readers start flooding in. So, keep creating new comics and keep building on the ones you’ve already created. 

See you soon. 

Comic Book Suggestion

Delusion by Hongjacga

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.