6 Tips for Writing in the Supernatural Genre
6 Tips for Writing in the Supernatural Genre
Chapter 2 “Genres” – Section 5 “Supernatural”
“People are always the start for me [...] gods, supernatural beings, immortals, the dead... these are all people to me.”
Supernatural fiction, also known as Gothic fiction, is a sort of urban fantasy that involves themes such as subtle magic, monsters, the occult, demons, ghosts, God, the Devil, etc… It is similar to horror, dealing with the same dark and ominous themes; but the purpose of the genre is not necessarily to create fear. To the contrary, it has been popularly hybridized with action, romance, drama, and even humor. Supernatural fiction can stand on a range of tones from supernatural thrillers—close to horror but with a more powerful protagonist—to a magical sort of urban fantasy with slightly Gothic themes. Given such a range and such freedom of genre, writers aren't as pressured by conventions and styles expected of more classical genres. However, there is less guidance and fewer good examples to draw from. So today, I'm going to give some of my personal tips for working within the genre.
Tip 1: Craft the origins of your universe carefully.
Within a realm where the supernatural and the natural coexist, there must be reason and balance. Reality continually exists (arguably free of the supernatural) because of natural selection that has led to many interdependent forms of physical and natural life (plants and animals). The reason that some sort of circle of life can continue is that all of the plants and animals have evolved interdependently. At the most basic level, animals need to eat plants and other animals to survive, and plants need fertilizer that comes from the poop of animals. Regardless of whether anything exists for a reason, everything has its own logical place in the natural world—geared primarily toward survival.
When you introduce elements of the supernatural, there must be a logical place for it as well as a logic in how it has been a force throughout time. This doesn't mean there has to be some deity or mystical presence that has created magic for a reason (although that is a perfectly valid fictional justification), only that it fits into the world in a balanced way. For example, you need to have a reason that vampires have not taken over the earth if they are infinitely more powerful than humans. You need a reason for why every square inch of Earth is not taken up by the ghosts of the departed.
Note that is not critical that you share this information with your audience in chunks of forward exposition. You don't need to create a prologue that explains every facet of balance you have implemented into your world. The most important thing is that the logic exists in your mind within a concrete form, so that the elements in your story work together to create a visible sort of logic that the reader can detect just from reading the story. Create clues and brief explanations for these balances, only as they come up thematically, so that you can satiate the curiosity of your readers as they become more interested.
Tip 2: Give your Spiritual Entities motives and characteristics befitting of what they are.
Satire aside, few things are as cliched and tiresome for a reader than supernatural creatures with little to no thought behind their existence. Vampires are mos often portrayed as mindless monsters or melodramatic teenagers. Ghosts spend their time spooking the living. Even in the early draft of my own demon novel, I initially created these creatures as two-dimensional beings who just tortured humans all day long … for days …. and weeks … and months … and years … and decades … and centuries … and millennia. Because immortal beings, even stupid ones, would NEVER get tired of that (note my sarcasm). The reason I created supernatural beings that were so unbelievable was that I simply hadn't sat down to actually think and put myself in those supernatural character's shoes. I simply accepted the rather limited and thoughtless perspectives that I had always read and heard from others.
My advice is that you also look at the world through the eyes of your supernatural characters. Unless absolutely broken and insane, any person would grow tired of being stupid or acting without purpose as most “intelligent” supernatural monsters do. Take into account how an immortal sees the passage of time, and how an infinite life of watching others would change your actions, personality, and motivations. This isn't to say that you can't make stupid, desperate, or insane supernatural characters. Just be sure that it makes sense in the context of that character's experiences, note that your audience will perceive them for what they are, and weave that stupidity into your story in a way that makes sense.
Tip 3: Create hard and clearly defined limitations for your supernatural entities.
It is important to have clearly defined limits for supernatural entities, whether they are your protagonist or antagonist (as both should warrant the reader's respect). Right from the beginning, you need to establish what they are capable of, what they are incapable of, their needs, and their weaknesses. In other words, you need rules. These rules are important to your reader because helps us to think and imagine with the story. Look at stories with Djinn (genies) as an example. Without rules or boundaries, they are uninteresting gods who walk the Earth with infinite power. We don't have to intellectually connect with them because they are just foreign, omnipotent, and unrelatable beings who can do anything they want. But once you introduce limitations to their power (like only being able to utilize their limitless magic when someone else makes a wish), you create a puzzle. As a result, your that supernatural characters will become more interesting, driven, and relatable, just because they have to make an effort to act.
Each limitation should also have a logic behind it. Holy water, for example, should not be able to hurt a creature just because movies tell us that holy water hurts monsters. In that scenario, the physical manifestation of holiness would have to be something that specifically hurts monsters who are manifestations of evil. Or you can take a more pseudo-scientific approach, as seen with the Ghostbusters' ectoplasm-catching technology that functions by absorbing the matter that ghosts are made of. This marriage of logic and limitation in fiction allows you to create a set of rules to abide by. It increases the challenge, the fun, and your reader's trust—as they can see that you aren't just cheating them with a game of nonexistent rules that you make up off the top of your head as the plot warrants in that particular moment.
Tip 4: Take into consideration how your world will respond to the supernatural.
If we had concrete evidence of ghosts, shape-shifting vampires, or soul-snatching demons, we would live in a way that is much different than how we live now. For example, we might try really hard to attain peace in our lifetime if we would be cursed to exist in unrest should we not. As a result, the world might have a lot more monasteries and yoga rooms. Also, the concept of strict “atheism” would be non-existent. Apart from that, humans would tend to have a handful of different attitudes towards ghosts, depending on what type of person that character is. Likewise, there should be some logic in both how the people in your world react to the supernatural, as well as a logic to how they live their lives with the knowledge of the supernatural. And even if the world is ignorant of the presence of the supernatural, it will likely (though perhaps not definitely) be affected by that presence.
So establish whether the world knows about the existence of the supernatural or not (beyond the superstitions and beliefs of the world-religions). If they do not, there must be an extremely good reason that it has remained a secret (the humans can't all be idiots—that is an offense against the reader's sense of realism and also creates a dull world). Then, create a relationship dynamic. What will happen if humans discover the supernatural is real? How are humans affected if they do not know about the supernatural? How do they justify all the strangeness around them? Again, you don't need to necessary explain this directly to the audience, just know it for yourself so that your world-building and plot become more concrete and dynamic.
Tip 5: Avoid the tired cliches of the supernatural genre.
The supernatural genre is a fairly new one, and already there are tired cliches to avoid. These include ending the story with a question of whether the supernatural was actually real; the inclusion of sexy immortals that might as well just be humans; establishing that traditional standards of the supernatural (vampires burning in the sun for example) are just things you see in movies; etc … Basically, if you've seen supernatural books and movies do something repeatedly that just feels lame and lazy, don't repeat it unless you are making fun of it. This is a genre that is still open to so much creativity and innovation. Take advantage of it in every way you can, with something new and exciting at every turn.
Tip 6: Realize the reason for why the supernatural serves to better your story.
The reason for using the supernatural should go beyond its popularity or your enjoyment of the creatures. Figure out what you are doing by utilizing the supernatural in your story. Are you questioning the idea of God? Are you exploring the theme of obsession through ghosts? Addiction through vampires? Good vs evil with angels and demons? Are you just exploring the theme of darkness and fear, through the presence of their incarnate forms? Or the feelings of being a social outcast/monster? Or of one person seeing the truth of the world, where all others are blind? The possible themes and applications are endless. Figure out why you are using the supernatural, and then adjust the world and the plot to make that purpose even more dynamic.
Weekly Recommended Reading: “Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere is a fantastic example of a well-constructed balance and logic between the natural and supernatural realms. The story is very enjoyable as well, so I highly recommend the read.)
Write-a-Novel Exercise 2.5
This exercise is only for those who are writing any sort of aupernatural story. Write down what conventions you plan to use and how you plan on making them original. Then, write down what completely original sci-fi ideas you have for your story.
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ANN - Chapter 9 - Our Terrifying Descent
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I love the introductory quote by Tanith Lee. This is I feel the foundation for developing supernatural characters the readers will become interested in: behind their long teeth or angelic abilities, they have people traits we can relate to, goals and desires - like people do. My current writing project involves Death herself, a very busy woman whose workload is only getting heavier as population grows on Earth. She needs help! There comes my main character.
Thank you for such a great article. Christophe
I'm about to write a supernatural novella for a publisher called Siren's Call.
Unlike the apocalypse story - which I managed to finish and submit - it seems
a bit more tedious for me to get done, because I like to draw a line between
supernatural and fantasy.
This novella of mine also has a protagonist who doesn't look human. He's from
a species of monsters I made from scratch that can shapeshift, and value
survivalism in their culture among humans. Other than having him sniff the air
like a dog and growl when he sees a hot human chick, I don't know how else to
develop him so that readers know this is a MONSTER'S point of view, not a guy
from a generic Dungeons & Dragons race.
I'm also having trouble with the villain. All I know is he's a human satanist who's
hired to kill members of some government-involved council. I want to make him
human-level scary like The Stand's Randall Flagg, and not in a way where he's a
paranormal creature like the protagonist.
I hope that helps.
Pertaining to that, question. How do I make my "outside world" supernatural and not Lovecraftian? (Context: the other world is an allegory for what humanity cages in their collective unconsciousness)