Writing Horror That Appeals to Women

Photo Courtesy of Nathan O’Nions via Creative Commons
[Woman in Forest]So I want to talk about the experience I’ve had writing my horror-thriller series. Books One and Two are available now, and I recently sent the third book in the trilogy off to the editor. When I started writing about Dave Pulaski and the nightmare he awakened to in Tres Marias, a small fictional Northern California town, I didn’t set out to appeal specifically to men or women. I simply had an idea I wanted to try and set out to tell the best story I knew how.

Well, many months have passed, and I’ve noticed from a lot of the Amazon reviews that women seem to like these books. A lot. Now, I’m not trying to piss anyone off here by engaging in lame stereotypes, but frankly I was surprised. Books One and Two deal with an outbreak that’s responsible for creating a town filled with the ravening undead—a solid formula for attracting hardcore male readers. Looking back at what I wrote, I’m going to be so bold as to lay out some principles that made these stories women-friendly. And I would like nothing better than to have female readers respond, telling me that I am full of crap. Here goes …

1. The Writing Has to Be Good
This goes for male and female readers. Thanks to Amazon and others, it’s insanely easy to self-publish. And as a result, there’s a lot of drivel out there. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been sucked in by an interesting cover, only to discover that the author has published what is essentially an amateurish first draft.

I’m not saying, by any stretch of the imagination, that I am a brilliant writer. But I put a lot of work into my writing, and I do everything I can to ensure that what I end up with has been properly edited. So you can rest assure that when you pick up one of these novels, you’re going to get a professionally produced product.

2. It Has to Be about More than Horror
Okay, writing horror is fun. The genre is wide open and allows the author to go places that most literary fiction would blanch at. But stories should be about people. Things will happen, but it’s what the evil does to the characters that matters. Some will become heroes, others will hide, and still others will succumb to the evil.

My books feature all kinds of characters. And for the most part, they are flawed—especially Dave, the protagonist in this series. But that’s what it means to be human. Somehow, we must overcome our shortcomings and do something amazing in the face of Hell.

3. Redemption Is Key
Sure, there are plenty of stories out there that end with everyone dying. Those aren’t for me. I prefer to see a character go through the worst hell imaginable, then somehow survive—a changed person. Sounds like the Hero’s Journey, doesn’t it?

Look, I don’t know whether men like to read about characters who are redeemed. Hell, I don’t even know if women do. I’m going by my gut here, people. And my gut tells me that redemption is essential to any good story.

4. There Needs to Be a Love Story
In the midst of all the blood and the screaming, there is a strong undercurrent of Love in my series—the love between Dave and his wife Holly. I don’t think I would have written these books had there not been a love story. I have no idea if this element made for a grand story that is attractive to women. But I’m pretty sure that most men who read horror don’t give a rat’s tushy.

Comments, anyone?

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11 thoughts on “Writing Horror That Appeals to Women”

  1. I may not be your usual female reader, but I don’t have to have a love story in everything. In fact, I prefer for there not to be one. Why? Because it drives me crazy in the middle of horror films where the characters are suddenly getting it on instead of watching out for the killer, etc.

    I also don’t need redemption, but again, I am a huge fan of the Russian anti-hero. So, I may not be the average reader.

    Having read your stories, my impulse to say the reason you have a nice female following is that your stories are well-rounded, well-written, and you don’t talk down to the reader. Plus, it likely helps that zombies are big right now so more women are not put off by monsters because of shows like The Walking Dead. So, you are probably getting bleedover from that.

    Now, horror aficionados are both male and female. And, you can probably treat them the same way. The only difference is that female horror lovers, while they like violence and gore, get extremely tired of rape in literature as a plot point. It is over done.

    And, because you have never used it as a way to forward your plot, that is an advantage to female readers and should be for males too.

    1. Danielle, thanks so much for that perspective. (Love the “bleedover” reference, BTW!) You’ve certainly provided some great insights. As I said at the beginning, I write to tell a good story. And I am thrilled that both men and women are enjoying these books.

  2. For me it’s about the characters. The action must be interesting, but the characters and their interactions must be more interesting. That’s where it’s at. For example– I lost all interest in TWD when they began to kill off their core characters, starting with Shane and Dale and then ending with Andrea. That was the end for me. Almost all the new characters became interchangeable and, basically, meaningless zombie fodder.
    So- relationships are the key. Doesn’t have to be all lovey dovey. But has to be real.

    1. Julia, thanks. Totally agree. As you know from my writing, I am all about the characters. Without that, you have what is essentially a plot-driven story.

  3. Interesting article, Steven.

    Here’s the thing: I’m not sure gender lines apply anymore for the SF&F genres. At least not today. Decades ago some, but not today.

    Even years ago you might be surprised at how many horror readers were female. Take a look at Stephen King, Dean Koontz and Anne Rice and you are going to see heavy female readership even twenty, thirty years ago.

    Today women read what they choose. A lot of women prefer the SF&F genres and for a lot of reasons. Not the least of which is the good writing often found in those genres. I’ve been reading SF&F for over forty years. Now and then I go to mainstream or a mystery, but not often.

    As to your points, I think #1 – Good Writing – is obligatory in any good SF&F book. The same with #2.

    As to #3 – While I care if a character has grown, I really don’t care about redemption. Sometimes, it’s more fun to just kill of that bad character rather than redeem them.

    #4 – I also don’t care if there’s a romantic love story or not. I often prefer not. However, it seems there’s always going to be some sort of human emotion involved and that is going to bring love in. No matter whether it’s the love a mother has for a child or even the love someone has for a pet, if there’s a human, chances are some form of love is present.

    At the end of the day, it’s about how well the book is written and produced that matters. It’s about engaging the reader (male or female) with characters we can relate to, a story that moves us and writing that keeps us involved.

    1. Maer, thanks. Wow, I feel like an out-of-touch caveman now! I made the idiotic assumption that most women would appreciate the love-story aspect. Hey, I am always ready to learn. The fact is, I myself like a good love story that binds the characters going through whatever hell I have written for them.

  4. Your four points are all, in my opinion, spot on. And although I normally run from the room when any horror TV series is on, I REALLY responded well to your books because of the following:

    1) Your prose hooked me instantly. Its clean, snappy yet movie-like descriptive quality was powerful, authentic, and compelling.

    2) Horror and gore were most definitely present, yet I was so drawn in by your appealing characters, the scenes that normally would make me cringe and go ‘yuck’ almost seemed like a sidebar to me (particularly in the last book of the series).

    3) Talk about redemption! Your Dave Pulaski has that in spades, as we witness his redemption from his addictions, redemption from political/scientific fallout, and last but certainly not least, redemption from emotional pain.

    4) OK, I am definitely female. That means I’m a BIG sucker for some sort of love connection. Of course not every novel requires it, but when it is included, I do get that much more involved. The pairing can be atypical–for me those are the best kinds––the couples can be mismatched, suited perfectly for each other, or simply bonded together due to such unusual circumstances. One way or the other, if it’s done right (which you certainly know how to do), it’s just icing on the cake!

    Voila! My raves about this series…

    1. Sarah, thank you so much! Wow, that’s one for my side regarding the love-story angle! I’m glad the story works and, to be honest, I don’t think I am going to change how I construct a story. The elements I mentioned in the post are pretty much de rigueur for me—no matter which genre I am writing in.

  5. You made good points, Steven. They are valid, and I’m sure readers both female and male appreciate them. We all have our individual preferences, but I would say that writing and characters are what makes a story most memorable. Emotion is also important, but it doesn’t have to be a love story in that sense. There are many emotions, and it depends on the tale. I myself like to shake things up and avoid being predictable from plot to plot. Is redemption necessary? No, although some readers might prefer it. Ultimately, the story will dictate its own ending if we listen. Personally, I’ve been reading Horror since I was a kid. I love a combination of genres or just horror, if it isn’t too gory and explicit. I like some meaning to it as well. :)

    1. Lori, thanks so much for that perspective. The more comments I get, the more I realize how far off I was. BTW, I’ve noticed that, without getting gory, you’ve gone to some pretty dark places in your fiction—and I love it!

      1. My pleasure, Steven. I think your points were not that far off. There could be a whole percentage of readers they would apply for, but being a horror author probably does affect my perspectives. Perhaps some of the others, too.

        Thank you! I love adding humor, but I do go into some dark places as well. There are a few of my works that I give warnings about, in fact. But I try to keep it as ungorified as possible, ha ha. Thank you again! :)

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