As a writer of prose, you may at some point to want to write about a character or characters which are paranormal. We could perhaps debate over the exact definition of the word paranormal, and some may prefer supernatural - a word more closely associated with magic, whereas paranormal tends to be taken to mean something outside the realms of science (though of course, it is not as clear-cut as that, and you may like to think that I am wrong in saying this).
For the purposes of this guide, both paranormal and supernatural refer to conscious beings, not found in the animal kingdom, that differ in some way to what I controversially call normal humans (some paranormal beings may be human, in part or in whole). To give some well-known examples: ghosts, vampires, witches, werewolves and mermaids all fall into this category. The details, of course, are up to the writer. If you think you are writing about a paranormal character, you almost certainly are.
Now for the important stuff! Whether you are writing a piece set in a fantasy world all your own, or you are writing a realistic story that happens to feature a ghost, the advice in this guide still applies.
1. Do your research.
This initial step, of course, applies to any writing. Even if you are creating a world that lives by your rules, constructed entirely in your own head, it is still a good idea to do some research. You may be writing about an original paranormal being born of your own imagination, in which case, it is still a good idea to familiarise yourself with some legends and folklore. It may very well inspire you. Your totally original paranormal being will be all the better for being born of a mind that knows its paranormal history.
If you are writing about a creature from established myth, then you need to research this creature. Perhaps, for example, you are writing about vampires. Everyone knows about vampires, right? Certainly - and the myths are probably familiar to you and your readers. You may not feel that you need to do any further research, and indeed, your story may be fine without it. But please, read up on your chosen creature anyway. You may discover a little-known rule that did not make it into most stories; or you may discover a forgotten legend from which you, or your characters, can take inspiration.
Besides the impact it will have on your writing, researching your paranormal being beforehand is a good idea because you will enjoy it. Presumably, if you are writing about a paranormal creature, you must have an interest in it.
Of course, you may decide to tweak the legends, and thats fine - as long as you heed the advice in step three! As anyone can tell you, you need to know the rules before you can break them. However you plan to use the legends, do your research!
2. Consider your audience.
This step is ongoing throughout the writing process, of course, but this is where is starts. For the purposes of this guide, your audience is step two, but this is to assume that you already have a character in mind. If you have, you must then consider the audiences to which your characters are likely to appeal. Traditionally, for instance, mermaids and fairies appeal to little girls. You can play to stereotypes like these, and you might be well on your way to writing a successful story, but of course you dont have to.
If you have an idea in mind, it is possible that you have an audience in mind too, in which case you will have to tailor your idea to that audience. Trying to write a story about fairies that appeals to boys, or to people over thirty, or to men in their late teens and early twenties is, in my opinion, a fine ambition. If you are going to attempt something like this, you will have to write very cleverly and very carefully, always remembering your target audience - and there is always a chance it may not work. So be prepared to reconsider your ideas if necessary.
Alternatively, it may be that you want to write for a particular age group, but still need to pick your paranormal being. It might even be that it is easier to start with an audience in mind, but no solid idea. You, then, are a more sensible writer than many of us! Rather than trying to tailor an idea to an audience, you can do some market research before you finalise any details about your story and character.
We have already considered little girls, and mermaids and fairies. Traditionally - or should I say stereotypically - a little boy would rather read about monsters and dragons. Again, you can play to the stereotypes, or you can deviate from them. What you decide to do will depend on your own ideals and ambitions, and I can only advise again that you remember your target audience. To give a practical example: if you wanted to write a story about fairies that would appeal to boys, an obvious idea would be to make the human protagonist a boy, and give him a set of circumstances that a boy would relate to.
I am finding it very easy to focus on children in this section, as there are such clear and precise ideas on the supernatural beings that they like to read about. Adults, perhaps, are less likely to be enticed by a front cover depicting a dragon or a mermaid - or even a more gender neutral creature, like an elf. Indeed, fantasy stories are currently dominating the childrens and young adult market, whereas stories with any fantasy element aimed at adults are harder to call to mind.
This is an interesting point to consider. Is there a reason why the supernatural appeals more to children and teenagers? If you want to write about a paranormal character that would appeal to adults, what exactly do you do? Whoever your target audience is, you must read up on their current market. If you want to write for anyone over nineteen, you will be able to find fiction on the supernatural for that age range - though I daresay not quite so easily as if you were looking in the childrens section of the bookstore, library or website. Offhand, I cannot think of any contemporary adult fantasy novels - but of course, there is always Bram Stokers Dracula, Mary Shelleys Frankenstein, and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
The young adult market, meanwhile, is saturated with fantasy stories, and there is a particular interest at the moment in paranormal romance. Paranormal romance, just so that we are clear, is a story in which a human becomes romantically involved with a supernatural being. The explosion of fantasy stories in the childrens and young adult market began with J.K. Rowlings Harry Potter series, and since then Stephenie Meyer has turned young peoples attention to paranormal romance with Twilight, and subsequent novels in the series.
Love it, hate it, or dont really care one way or the other - Twilight is essential market research if you are going to write a young adult paranormal romance. (I would also recommend, in this genre, Generation Dead by Daniel Waters.) The critics who are kind to Meyer have touched upon a very interesting point, which I shall now paraphrase and then expand upon: they say that the strong supernatural element appeals to teenagers feelings of physical and emotional confusion and isolation. Young people will like the escapism of supernatural fiction, and many will relate to the emotional turmoil of the human character. This is a generalisation - not all teenagers are the same - but they are all growing up, and most of us have a hard time doing that. This is something to consider when writing for them, whether your characters are paranormal or not.
Like step one, this essentially comes down to research. You need to research your paranormal characters, and you need to research your market. Then you need to marry your findings in these two areas, in order to write the best story you can.
3. Construct your fantasy world.
Well, this is what all your hard work has been building up to. This part is fun, and it is tricky, and in order to be successful you have to get it just right. You have done your research, and you have an idea of what will appeal to your audience. Of course, if your fantasy world appeals to you, there is no reason why like-minded people shouldnt like it. Youre ready to start writing.
I said earlier that we would, in step three, return to the point of altering the traditional myths surrounding certain paranormal beings. That time has come. You may have decided to follow all the old and established rules, or you may want to play around with them, as indeed Stephenie Meyer does with her vampire characters in Twilight (for one thing, they can go out into the sun). Justin Somper has tweaked the traditional vampire legends in his Vampirates series of novels, aimed at young adults. (Im afraid that I can only recommend the first novel, Demons of the Ocean, which in my opinion is the only readable instalment before the series starts going rapidly downhill.) Somper has taken some traditional vampire legends, but changed or rejected others, creating his own set of rules for his own fantasy world (incidentally, his vampires cannot go into the sun).
My older brother has a keen interest in vampires, and is a traditionalist who does not like to see the legends altered excessively. I, on the other hand, am always interested to see new ideas and re-imaginings. Essentially, my brother and I reflect any readership; some people will like you changing the rules, if you choose to do so - or at least they wont mind - and some will hate it. You cant please everyone, no matter what you write, and first and foremost you must please yourself. Write your story as you see fit.
Before you start to write, you will have established a set of rules for your fantasy world inside your head. My advice is this: transfer them from your head to a notebook, rather than straight to your story. You may think your ideas are fabulous (and they probably are), and be tempted to pour everything out at once. This is a mistake. Whatever your subject, paranormal or otherwise, revealing everything all at once is a bad idea. A reader needs an incentive to keep on reading, and a character needs to learn throughout the story. You may not be able to resist revealing all your ideas in the first few pages, and thats fine - it might even help you to clarify some points about your fantasy world. But once you have done it, it is a good idea to cut out any superfluous information immediately, and then store it somewhere until it is the right time to reveal it.
If you dont have a lot of ideas before you start writing, you will be constructing your fantasy world as you go along, and that simply wont work. Do reveal everything gradually, but you must know exactly what it is you want to reveal when the time comes. Not doing so will result in inconsistency. You can make up more or less anything you want for your own fantasy world, but whatever you do, be consistent! (One good thing I can say about Justin Somper, author of Vampirates, is that he has so far been consistent.)
Some writers believe the myth that there are no set rules in a fantasy world, and therefore they can write whatever they feel like at any time. Im afraid it doesnt work quite like that. The rules in your imaginary world will differ at least slightly from the rules in the world you normally inhabit, but there must be rules, and you must stick to them. If you fail to do so, admittedly you will be no different from many other writers. They may suddenly change rules, or make up a new one, for their convenience. It makes writing simpler - and then its only to easy for the writer to say that its his or her world, and he or she gets to decide the rules. But perhaps you yourself are annoyed by this; perhaps you have come to know and love a fictional world in which this has happened. Its annoying, isnt it? You do not want to annoy your fans - should you acquire any - in this way.
Im sure you understand all that, but just to be certain, I shall give you an example. First, I must stress that I have nothing at all against Meg Cabot, and her novels in The Mediator series are some of my favourites of her works. There is, however, a small inconsistency in these novels which stands out. The main character, Suze, talks to ghosts - and fights them if she has to. In the fourth novel of the series, Young Blood, Suze comes up against the ghost of a woman who was once young and sexy. The ghost takes the form of this young and sexy woman, even though the woman died of old age. Only at this point - in book four of six - does Suze, in her narration, reveal that ghosts appear as the person was in his or her prime, and therefore is unlikely to look as the person did when he or she died. This is a very sudden revelation, mentioned when this particular character first appears, and then never again. Meanwhile, every other ghost appears to Suze looking the age that character was when he or she died. Perhaps Cabot could argue that all these characters died in their prime, but I personally would not be convinced. The rule is only ever mentioned once, when the plot needs it.
So, I say again: consistency is crucial. Establish the rules, introduce them into the story as naturally as you can and then stick with them throughout.
4. Finally: write, and revise as necessary.
When you are writing, it is important to bear in mind these three points - assuming you like my advice - but dont worry too much about them until you come to revise your piece. First and foremost, you should be writing for yourself.
A summary of the main points.
1. Research your paranormal being of choice.
2. Pick your audience, and research the market.
3. Establish a set of rules, keep notes, and reveal everything at a sedate pace.
4. Be sure of the rules of your world, and be consistent.
A summary of the recommended reading.
The Mediator 1-6 by Meg Cabot
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
Harry Potter 1-7 by J.K. Rowling
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Vampirates: Demons of the Ocean by Justin Somper
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Generation Dead by Daniel Waters
This list is by no means exhaustive. There are, of course, a great many other texts featuring - or, indeed, starring - paranormal characters. But of course, you knew that. If you want to write about the supernatural, you must surely enjoy reading about it. As any good writer knows, if you dont enjoy what you are doing, your reader wont enjoy it.