Over on my Tumblr thing, Josh of Blue Ink Alchemy asked this question:
What makes the best supernatural fiction? How do you keep the paranormal fresh and interesting?
Here’s my rough-shod answer:
Oh, man, you put that word in there: best. That’s like a pile of C4 with wires running out all over the place. I’m afraid to tamper with it, afraid to even look right it. Fortunately you’ve provided me a second question I can use as an escape chute.
What makes the paranormal fresh and interesting is, to my mind, the same thing that makes interpersonal drama fresh and interesting after 5,000 years of telling stories: character and detail. The trick to making any story interesting is to get the audience to connect with it—that’s what interest is, I think—and characterization is how that’s done. I could say, instead, that conflict is how you get people interested, and that’s true, but I think to have conflict you need to characterize two or more sides of the conflict. In other words, Person Vs Nature isn’t an interesting story, but an angry cyberpunk lost in the last jungle on Earth is, because the two main forces have been characterized a bit.
Characters are like the sockets we can use to connect with the story; they need to be deep enough for our plugs to fit into. That, or it’s the characters’ hands that we hold on to as we climb aboard the moving train of the story. Pick your metaphor.
I used to think that situation was key, and it is for sure important, but I think characters are a vital part of situation. So often, when I’m cooking up situations, I realize that the characters are implicit parts of the situation—as vital as organs. For my story about a vampire stranded in an English country manor, trapped by curious and foolhardy Edwardians, I thought the situation was key: vampire trapped. (The same goes for my vampire-on-a-submarine story.) The reason you’ve never seen these stories, though, is because they suck a little bit, because I put too much emphasis on the situation and didn’t play up the extent to which characters are essential to situation. The situation was good, but my characters weren’t sturdy enough to hold on to. I think too much supernatural fiction expects the situation to do all the heavy lifting. I could be wrong.
As to freshness, I firmly believe the trick to that is in details. A vampire drinking blood is rote, but having him drink something else isn’t the only way to freshen the material. Details, in the moment, make things tangible and immediate in a way that always has potential for freshness.
Consider the vampire who uses a blade, maybe a carrot-peeler, to draw back a curl of flesh from his drugged victim’s throat. He laps at the running blood, probing the wound with his forked tongue, meddling with it like it was a gash on his own gums. When he’s done, he peels off a spot of soft electrical tape and adheres the curl of flesh back into its sticky groove. “Maybe someone will think it’s a wannabe vampire,” he tells his bloodsucking cohorts, “but at least they’re unlikely to think it’s a fucking vampire.”
A bit of detail—uncomfortable or cozy, familiar or strange—is the difference between repetitive, same-old storytelling and freshness. A story without detail is a stiff, dried-out thing, while new detail restores even old stories to supple life. Whether it’s a grainy old raisin with a stem like a tiny brown bone or a juicy grape that bursts when bitten, at least it’ll have that telling detail.
You can ask me questions via my Tumblr or in the comments here, to help me decide what to blog about next. Please?