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Writing Horror While Trying to Avoid Stereotypes

7 min read
Cliches and tropes are common in all sorts of genres. They are familiar signposts in a story due to our shared cultural exposure to them, but at the same time they can be both frustrating and limiting.

I’d like to introduce Guest Blogger Carmilla Voiez who is going to talk about something pretty important to me as a horror critic… bad stereotypes. Indeed, my most cutting criticism of horror is when it takes harmful tropes and perpetuates them ad nauseam.

A little about Carmilla
Carmilla Voiez is a proudly bisexual and mildly autistic introvert who finds writing much easier than verbal communication. A life-long Goth, she is passionate about horror, the alt scene, intersectional feminism, art, nature and animals. When not writing, she gets paid to hang out in a stately home and entertain tourists. Carmilla grew up on a varied diet of horror. Her earliest influences as a teenage reader were Graham Masterton, Brian Lumley and Clive Barker mixed with the romance of Hammer Horror and the visceral violence of the first wave of video nasties. Fascinated by the Goth aesthetic and enchanted by threnodies of eighties Goth and post-punk music she evolved into the creature of darkness we find today.

Writing Horror While Trying to Avoid Stereotypes

It is not as easy as it sounds. While tropes, cliches and stereotypes might be easy to spot in others work, they can become embedded in our psyches and spill out into the stories we tell. While preparing for a panel discussion on the subject, I realised how many tropes I had inadvertently included in my own work, including the dreaded demonic pregnancy trope.

Cliches and tropes are common in all sorts of genres. They are familiar signposts in a story due to our shared cultural exposure to them, but at the same time they can be both frustrating and limiting. I love it when tropes are inverted, and you get that aha moment. There are so many gender stereotypes, particularly in horror – the aforementioned demonic pregnancy, the violent psychopathic male with mommy issues, the possessive mother, the jealous stepmother, the abusive father and/or stepfather, and the femme fatale. Cliches do not appear out of thin air. They are overused themes and characters and can make writing predictable. I suspect their frequent use is part of the reason that genres like horror rarely get serious recognition within literary circles.

Cliches tell us what to expect. Like the heroine who finds her strength after a particularly brutal rape. Portrayed as sexy but dangerous, this depiction of the vengeful woman rarely feels empowering, and is often coupled with the pornification of torture. It is dangerous when you consider the real world’s penchant for violence against women. There are other types of women in horror too: the princess in the tower, the trophy to be won, and they are all tropes that bleed out into the real world, both in male and female imaginations, fetishizing feminine weakness and making it seem somehow precious. However, women were being tortured and killed for kicks before the horror genre, so an argument can be made that it is simply reflecting society.

Cliches help writers by providing template characters. I’m a member of a number of writers groups on social media, and it is surprising how many male writers are afraid of writing female characters. I like Gustave Flaubert’s argument that when he wrote Madame Bovary, he was simply writing himself. We are far more similar, men and women, than we are different in our essential beings. It is only our outside experience of the world that seems at odds. It might seem strange that men feel this fear of writing women, when female writers frequently write men. However, a quick look at the stories we all grow up reading and watching shows that male is the default, as is white, in almost all our entertainment and certainly in books. Darren Chetty wrote a piece that was included in “The Good Immigrant” 1 called ‘You can’t say that! Stories have to be about white people’, about his experience teaching ethnically diverse students in East London. In summary when these children wrote stories, they always had white characters with English names, because that was what they had read. (The Good Immigrant, ed. Nikesh Shukla, published by Unbound, London, 2016).

In a slasher or serial killer story, the last victim standing is termed the Final Girl. There women are rarely characterized beyond their ability to survive, meaning that they fall neatly into the stereotype of victim A victim who survives is still a victim. There is a racial element to the Final Girl. I can’t think of a Final Girl who’s a woman of colour. And lest we forget the moral, Final Girls are pure, virginal and good, even if they aren’t technically virgins their innocence is part of the drama. When the final girl is well-drawn she can be empowering, but, as happens more often than not, when she is simply a plot device it is frustrating.

How to avoid cliches. If we draw our characters fully rather than rely on stereotypes, we’re already half-way there. Remember that humans have more than one aspect to their personalities, and if they are to feel real, your characters should be multifaceted as well. If you want to write about people outside your personal experience, do plenty of research. Avoiding cliches means writing exciting and unpredictable characters, and who wouldn’t want to do that?

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Check out Carmilla’s books which she describes as both extraordinarily personal and universally challenging. As Jef Rouner of Houston Press once said – “You do not read her books, you survive them.” Carmilla’s bibliography includes The Starblood four novel series: Starblood, Psychonaut, Black Sun, Pariah (Indomitable Ink, May – June 2021), The Venus Virus (Indomitable Ink, March 2021), Starblood the graphic novel, Psychonaut the graphic novel, The Ballerina and the
Revolutionary, Broken Mirror and Other Morbid Tales. Her short stories have been included in Zombie Punks Fuck Off (Clash Books), Slice Girls (Mocha Memoirs Press), Another Beautiful Nightmare (Vamptasy) and Sirens Call Magazine.
Her website and blog can be found at www.carmillavoiez.com

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