Monday, December 30, 2019


A group of heroes on a quest. A gang of young criminals preparing to pull off a heist. A circle of friends confronted by a horrifying evil. A family discovering secrets either devastating or delightful. A gathering of suspects, one of whom committed a murder.
   For a writer, an ensemble cast is a challenge (and a whole lot of fun). Depending on the genre, the characters can be quick, eccentric sketches or fully developed. Ensembles are no easy feat. You don't want an upstart in the ensemble to usurp the protagonist or the antagonist. They serve as mirrors. A protagonist surrounded by fully realized characters who offer another view of your hero (or villain), actually make primary characters shine, bring out the best (or worst) in them, reflect strengths and weaknesses.

   A collection of characters shouldn't be a challenge to the reader, but a fabulous discovery. An ensemble is a breeding ground for amusing or heartbreaking conflict, shattering betrayals, astonishing reversals, secrets, love, hate. While the reader must be invested in your main character (so make them interesting, the one who experiences most of the above), an even divide of attention for the cast is acceptable, as long as there aren't too many people. Each cast member should have a story arc that gracefully syncs with the protagonist's.
   Back stories are fun ways to keep characters interesting. Even though you probably won't use half of what you invent for your ensemble, a back story creates a unique person and can even trigger key elements in your plot. I keep a journal for every book I write, and fill it with place names, turns of phrase, sketches, character stories, letters, biographies, etc;
   For fantasy writers, ensembles turn us into ringmasters, because we really need to keep the three-ring acts moving and not let anyone outshine the main character. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is a classic combo of characters, all with grudges against each other and back stories that are legendary because they're all connected to legends. Each of Leigh Bardugo's Six of Crows criminal gang has a story that explains how they've been damaged in some fashion at such young ages. And Game of Thrones has kings and queens, upstarts and commoners, all battling one another for one thing.

   Everyone considers themselves the hero of the saga.
   There are other ensemble tropes: A group of friends are confronted by evil, usually in the form of a monster. Stephen King's collection of friends in It, for instance, grow up with psychological trauma caused by the monster and their own childhoods. The Pevensey family from C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia have the horrors of World War II to deal with before they step into a fantasy world where they each follow their own path. The Narnia books can also be considered a family ensemble. This trope plays out in mystery stories and in horror, as well, when a family has to deal with secrets and betrayals that will end them or make them stronger.
   Combining ensemble tropes is popular in fantasy. A murder mystery and a fantasy? Jay Kristoff's NeverNight, set at a school for young assassins, or Seanan Mcguire's Every Heart a Doorway, which takes place at an academy for young people who've been to other worlds, are fantastic examples of mixing ensemble tropes. Horror fantasy? Stephen King's Dark Tower series has horror elements surrounding a fabulous cast on a fantastical quest. And Barbara Hambly's Time of the Dark series has two people finding themselves in a different world, surrounded by a cast of characters at war with one another and Alien-like horrors.

What does an ensemble cast offer?
1) Diverse personalities to bring out unique elements in your main character or antagonist
2) Individual character arcs that help drive plot
3) Complications/help sources for the protagonist
4) More characters to root for. (Or fear).
5) A bounty of secrets, betrayals, love, humor.
6) Other characters who see the protagonist in different ways and help to make the hero more three-dimensional.

Ensembles are a fantastic way to create a complex world for your main character, keeping you from stereotypes and cardboard settings.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

10 Favorite Scary Books 2019

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

A horror film director's daughter suicides and a young journalist tries to figure out why, accompanied by 2 quirky proteges. Did something supernatural occur? Or was it just weird reality?

Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand
What do you get when you cross Buffy the Vampire Slayer with The Babadook? This awesome LGBTQ horror novel with a twist.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
I just reread this and forgot how creepy and beautiful a story it is, with Frankenstein's monster a figure of tragic neglect.

The Creeping by Alexandra Sirowy
A scary, contemporary tale about a once popular girl who has undergone a childhood trauma in the woods and a geeky boy who's one of the most likable boy-as-a-friend-becomes-a-romance I've ever read.

The Good Demon by Jimmy Cajoleas
Chilling story of a teen girl's isolation in a southern town. The demon isn't as demonic as what waits at the heart of the woods in this creepy, atmospheric tale.

The House by Christina Lauren
A possessive house raises an orphaned boy. Then a girl comes along and the house gets jealous. And whatever it is, it can effect her even when she's not there.

Alabaster by Caitlin R. Kiernan
A tough, mysterious girl fights disturbing monsters in this anthology by a master of horror.

Reigning Cats and Dogs by Tanith Lee
Steampunk horror, with a romance between two young people trapped in a Victorian life of drudgery, elevated when each becomes possessed by the Egyptian gods Bastet and Anubis.

Casquette Girls by Alys Arden
A unique and entertaining vampire story set in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. The heroine and her friends are likable, the vampires gorgeous and scary.

The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers
Weird and intriguing. Percy Shelley and other poets are persecuted by a terrifying muse who is actually a monster form ancient mythology. Original and astonishing.

The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice
A lyrical, mythical, and horrifying story of vampires, starring a charming monster. Fascinating characters and historical settings.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
An anthology of beautifully told, vivid tales of fairy tale horror.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019


While creating some monsters for my latest book, I thought about what terrified me, and most of what did were monsters from childhood stories. Here are some classics that gave me the willies.

The Wheelers (Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum)
Half man, half bicycle, these nightmares make the flying monkeys look downright adorable in comparison. Watch the film Return to Oz if you have any desire to see these horrors in the flesh.

Princess Langwidere (Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum)
Yet another Oz creature, memorable because of her vain and psychotic desire to collect the heads of young girls to use as her own, a sort of mix-and-match. She kept the heads on shelves in her walk-in-closet. Like hats.

The Scissor Man (German nursery rhyme)
This vicious tailor is portrayed in some illustrated editions as an elongated, grinning fiend with scissor for hands. Beware, all thumbsuckers, Edward Scissorhands he is not.

Jadis, The White Witch (The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis)
Seductive and icy (and played to perfection in the film by Tilda Swinton), this power-hungry witch is portrayed in one chilling illustration with a knife in one hand, preparing to stab Aslan the lion, bound and beaten and tied to a slab. I was nine when I opened this book for the first time to that illustration and hastily returned this book to the library shelf.

Tinkerbell (Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie)
This tiny, pretty fairy terrifying? She was a murderous, treacherous bit of jealousy who tries to get the lost boys to kill Wendy and almost betrays Peter Pan. I always imagined her with sharp teeth.

Jabberwocky (Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll)
A nonsense poem about a monster read by Alice. John Tenniel's nightmarish illustration of this thing has it looking like a cross between a giant catfish and a frog, with big teeth and sharp claws. And it's wearing a vest.

It (A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle)
Okay, not the clown. Described as a giant, muscular brain, It is an intellect that only wants to rule and, if you've read the story, I'm sure you still fell a bit of unease whenever you see an anatomical model of a brain.

The Sea Witch (The Little Mermaid by Hands Christian Andersen)
slimy polypi, grass snakes,toads, and large, swampy breasts are the terms used to describe this hideous witch of the sea, who cruelly fools a little mermaid into giving up her voice and eventually her life.

Shlamoofs (The Neverending Story by Michael Ende)
Butterfly clowns. Yes. Butterfly clowns. comical, yet terrifying, as is the case with most clowns, and adding butterfly wings doesn't making them any less skincrawly.

Gollum (The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien)
Grotesque, vicious, pathetic, insane, he is the creep in the dark.

And that's it, boy sand girls. what do you remember as terrifying in your storybooks?