Monday, April 6, 2015

Horror Tropes: Dead Ned

Possibly my least-favorite horror novel trope is what I call a "Dead Ned".

This is a character whose sole purpose is to die in the first chapter, killed by the Big Bad so that you will know that Dr. KnifePenis or whatever is SERIOUS BIZNISS. Usually described with Tom Clancy levels of detail regarding his appearance, life history, thoughts on current events, etc. Almost always some kind of lower-class white person, dumb as a bag of rocks and just as cliched in their portrayal.

Without spending too much time at TVTropes, the concept of "Developing Doomed Characters" is closest to what I'm talking about.

"Dead Ned" usually is not an object of the author's / audience's animus like other character types (The Homophobic Jock, The Hot Slut, etc) or at least isn't presented as such -- the author doesn't have enough attachment to Ned, because Ned's dead, baby. He was dead as soon as the author typed "Chapter 1" (or just "1" a lot of the time these days). You could argue that Ned is a stand-in for small-minded small town types that think horror fiction is satanic, of course. Ned's so generic in his exactness and vividness of description it's hard to tell. The author who creates a Dead Ned clearly has axes in more need of grinding so doesn't have time for the diffuse kulturhass he might bear toward proles.

I blame movies for this as I haven't noticed it as much in older horror novels from the generation that didn't get their inspiration to write from watching slasher flicks. While it arguably serves a purpose in visual media I have a hard time with it in written works. It's a lot of time and space to use, even in a format like the novel where you have a lot of time and space to develop characters, since Ned's sole purpose is to get some gore into the first 5-10 pages (preferably with some sex sandwiched in there somewhere) under the cover of its "business" being establishing the Threat.

Say the novel is about 80k words and Ned's chap is about 4k. That's about 5% of the novel. That chapter with the awesome fight scene that had to be cut? The great scene where the heroes comment on GamerGate? Deeper insight into the author's AHEM I MEAN main character's troubled relationship with his father? Ned is all up in that space watching the local news story about the rash of serial killings as he eats his TV dinner, drinks his beer, and starts cussing about raccoons getting into his trash cans when he hears Lord Throatcut skulking around out by the barbecue pit.

I think you can do that without making the reader endure all this information that is ultimately worthless within book form. I would tell you how but instead I will do it myself next time I need to.

I'm now at the point where if the book I'm reading is a horror novel I read the first few lines of chap 1 to see if an obvious Dead Ned shows up, then skip to the end to make sure he dies, and then I just go on to chap 2, comfortable that I missed absolutely nothing I'll want to know later. It isn't a perfect system; I've been fooled a few times by authors who really made me believe Ned was going to survive. I'm not sure what the point of that is because it just pisses me off when I realize I've been bamboozled. As far as important information about the Big Bad, if the writer is revealing that kind of stuff (like it becomes powerless when it smells curry) in the first chapter, the book is better without me knowing.

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