Since late August, I’ve been taking an online horror writing course via LitReactor. (Fellow writers out there should check this site out; it doesn’t just focus on horror.)
The course runs for four weeks, and each week a different instructor posts a lecture and assigns homework. The four instructors for “The Horror, The Horror” are Mary SanGiovanni, Brian Keene, Gwendolyn Kiste, and Damien Angelica Walters. I’m an admirer of all of them, but Walters in particular writes exquisite horror; if you don’t know her work, you should fix that. It would be fun to learn from these writers in person, but I do enjoy the distinct lack of travel and hotel bills involved with LitReactor.
In the second week, Brian Keene gave us an intriguing assignment: Think of the most monstrous character you can, someone or something just irredeemably awful, and write something to make a reader empathize with them.
Huh. Interesting idea, no?
My first thought was Greg Stillson, the terrifyingly ambitious traveling salesman from Stephen King’s The Dead Zone. That’s one of my favorite King novels, and Stillson, though human, is every bit as chilling as any of the supernatural monsters Mr. King’s cooked up over his very long career.
But it was hard for me to think of an empathy hook for him other than the very obvious and trite (mean drunk dad, shitty childhood, yawn).
And then one morning last week, I said “Patrick Bateman” to myself. Man, did I get some weird looks from the people sitting by me on the bus. But I knew right away he was my guy. The main character of the notorious novel and movie American Psycho, Bateman is a rich Wall Street investment banker who has a side hobby of serial killing and cannibalism.
I have to be honest: the book is not good, in my opinion. I do like the movie, mostly because star Christian Bale and the screenwriters leaned hard into how ridiculous the novel truly is instead of going for a Very Serious Adaptation.
Given that an obscenely rich, privileged kid is going to be somewhat hard to feel empathetic with even before you make him a racist, misogynist serial killer (even if it’s only in his head), I might have bitten off more than I could chew with this one. But I thought it was an interesting exercise; it gave me something to think about in my own writing, which is exactly what it was meant to do.
(I sent this post out to my mailing list first, and they actually got to read the piece I wrote for the class. If you don’t want to miss out on content like that, sign up now. You’ll get a never-published short story of mine as a thank you.)