I’ve had a lot of fun exploring the themes and subgenres of Gothic fiction, and my TBR pile is growing… but before I do the themes one at a time, I thought I’d do one more ‘general’ post on the characters you might expect to find in a Gothic novel, and give you some writing inspiration.
The WikiHow page on How To Write A Gothic Novel has a few suggestions.
A list of Gothic stock characters found in classic Gothic fiction, films and games can be found on Daniel James Hanley’s blog. Here’s another list of recurring characters in Gothic Fiction hosted on Prezi.
(Note that classic Gothic fiction is full of racial stereotypes that… really don’t need to be repeated in the 21stC. In a British context, avoiding the Romany Gypsy and Traveller stereotypes in particular, which are still being challenged by associations and groups like this one and this one, is a good idea. I’ve messed this up in fantasy before, but I’m trying to do better. Just saying.)
Wondering where the Black characters are? Have you met Caribbean Gothic/Black Gothic Horror, a term suggested by Dana Dillapede in her post ‘Black Characters in Gothic Fiction‘? It would be great if Contemporary Gothic in various settings had more POC heroes/antiheroes, too…
🥇🎭First, you need a protagonist, so decide whether yours will be flawed hero or an antihero. They can be absolutely anyone. The key is that the reader has someone to follow and root for, or at the very least someone to be intrigued by. Victor Frankenstein, for example, is not really likeable but he is fascinating.
Gothic novels generally tend to be first person accounts, or a framed narrative where the narrator (first person) is piecing the story together from research (and so is told in limited or omniscient third, or, if the research is in the protagonist’s words from letters or diaries, a different first person voice). Got it? 👀🤷♀️
I prefer antiheroes, personally, and no matter how hard I try my flawed heroes always seem to slip into antihero territory by the end! You need to make their flaws internal antagonists, working against them until they learn the theme or lesson of the novel, and they can either deal with it or they can’t.
They will either succumb to the dark, fight towards a ray of light, or learn to live in the grey. All three are valid outcomes for Gothic fiction, with some sub-genres leaning more heavily towards one than the others.
You could even leave it open-ended, for the reader to guess or insert their own imagined ending, like Frankenstein. If you are writing a framed narrative, the diary needs to stop somewhere, or the letters end, or perhaps your narrator simply cannot find out more and their research is incomplete. If this is the case, make sure that hints are dropped throughout the story guiding readers to (an) obvious outcome, with foreshadowing etc, so that they are not left hanging and feeling totally cheated. The final image of Frankenstein’s Creature following its Creator doggedly across an Arctic wasteland, for example, emphasises the theme of isolation and the great irony that now all they have is one another. It’s an image rich in meaning and layers of metaphor, but it also works as the end to the novel as a whole.
😈🖤Now, you need a villain – note that there is a difference between villains and antagonists, though. The antagonist is a plot role not a personality type, and can be performed by an otherwise sympathetic character who has opposing views or goals to the protagonist. Mr Darcy can be considered the antagonist for much of Pride and Prejudice, for example, until the turning point in his relationship with Lizzie Bennet. It is the dashing Mr Wickham who is the actual villain of the piece, and who has to be forced into marrying Lydia after he ‘ruins’ her. While Lady Catherine also performs an antagonistic role, she is not actually villainous in quite the same way.
A villain is actually, demonstrably, ‘the baddie’, with wicked or evil intentions. This is what we’re looking for.
(N.B. The villain may or may not be the monster. Let’s not confuse these two characters, either. The monster could start as a villain but switch roles with the protagonist. We’ll look at this in a second.)
Now, the villain may not necessarily be antagonistic. They might want to align themselves with your protagonist to achieve their goals, and take on the guise of the dashing love interest, or the sympathetic confidante, especially if another character or even the setting itself is performing the antagonistic role. Will your protagonist fall for this? What happens if they do?
For example: is your protagonist battling a storm, and prevented from continuing their journey? Have no fear, for the gallant villainous host is here! Good luck trying to leave, especially if that weather keeps stopping you.
Or supposing another character triggers your protagonist’s dark side, perhaps jealousy or resentment. Watch out! For reasons of their own, the villain will sidle in and exploit this, drawing the protagonist deep into a moral maze. If this is the case, will they succeed in corrupting the protagonist, or not?
Death itself could be the antagonist, especially if a Love Interest is seriously ill. What happens then? Could the protagonist go too far and become the villain, or turn their Love Interest into the villain-monster?
MWAHAHAHAAAA so many possibilities!
Doomed Innocent/Woman in White
🕯🏰 Next up, we have the ‘Woman in White’ or ‘Doomed Innocent’ character. Sometimes seen wearing a white nightgown and swooning about the place posing a fire hazard in those draughty, candlelit corridors, a key feature of this character is the fact that they are, you guessed it, doomed. Often this character is a virginal young bride, but then again, Miss Haversham in Great Expectations is a classic Woman In White and comes to an equally unfortunate end.
There’s not a lot you can do for them. They are more than a damsel in distress: they will never get their happy ending. They will either preserve their innocence to the last, or have it forcibly torn from them, or become as corrupted as the world around them and so seal their fate in that way.
If it is the protagonist’s goal to save this character (who does not necessarily have to be a woman nor the love interest to fulfil this plot role), they will find that death, God, the limits of science and medicine, their foolish doubting colleagues, lack of funding, corruption, or a combination of some or all of the above, is their true antagonist.
The protagonist’s reaction to this character is key to their transformation and growth. Through them, the protagonist must face their own limitations and weaknesses, the powerlessness of mortals, and do some serious soul-searching. They may emerge from the experience better or worse than they were before.
A twist on this is if the protagonist and the woman/person in white are one and the same, and it is their own doom that they must face. This character is generally the doomed innocent, so unlikely to turn out to be the villain even if their tragic fate sets the protagonist on a dark path.
Which brings us to a similar character role:
👶🏿👶🏼👶🏾👶… the Endangered Child. They are always sweet, warm, friendly and adorable, the epitome of innocence, and, well, they are usually in danger. Generally from the monster, but possibly because of the protagonist’s bad choices or flaws (like hubris/arrogance/failure to pay attention to their family).
There may be crossover with the Doomed Innocent character here, because you can never stop at one…
👻🧟♀️🧟♂️🧛♂️ Finally, let’s consider the monster role. This role is occupied by your villain, typically, but the monster may end up switching roles with the protagonist as the reader switches allegiance and sympathy. The protagonist could devolve through the novel and become the very monster they were fighting against (two films with this trope include the Folk Horror classic Witchfinder General and the Gothic HistFlick Black Death).
The monster might be very human, and therein is the true horror. Matthew Hopkins and his minions fill this role in Witchfinder General. Heathcliff is the man-made monster in Wuthering Heights in much the same way that the Creature is in Frankenstein. But it is exactly their humanity – and the reader’s ability to understand and even empathise or at least sympathise with them – that is so unsettling. It’s this pathos that makes them so compelling as characters.
The protagonist’s devolution into the monster (especially into their own monster) is also an unsettling turn, especially if the reader is drawn deeply into the protagonist’s inner world and is on their side to begin with. The reader should be able to see exactly why the protagonist descends in the way they do, and shouldn’t feel cheated by this trajectory. It has to make sense and be well-handled.
The monster could also be supernatural, which brings us to a specific trope:
🕯⚰️ A ghostly type of monster, and the antithesis of the Doomed Innocent, is the Woman in Black. (Or, as above, Person in Black. It’s your story). The twisted version of the Doomed Innocent, or perhaps a stark warning of what they [or the protagonist] could become, this role is filled by a character in mourning. This character could be a Gothic ghost, like Mrs Drablow in Susan Hill’s novella, The Woman in Black.
This character could be a widow, a nun, a housekeeper… someone with a twisted, tragic tale who is passing on their misery to others. They are the representation of the protagonist’s mortality, a reminder of the corruption in the world they inhabit, and because of this they may be undefeatable. Yes, that’s right. Just when you think you’ve won, there’ll be a climactic moment where the twist comes into play, and you realise it was a false victory all along.
These are just a few of the typical roles in Gothic fiction – feel free to discuss in the comments!