It’s Alive!: Writing monsters

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One of the things kids always ask when I visit schools is “How do you come up with the ideas for your monsters?”

There are lots of answers to this, of course, as there are to any of those where-do-you-get-your-ideas questions, but as I’ve been working on Darwen III and devising new monsters in the process, I thought I’d offer a few thoughts on the subject today.

First, let me say that when I say monsters, I mean literal monsters, not bad people. Darwen is a middle grades fantasy adventure centring on a world on the other side of certain particular mirrors and the denizens of that world (scrobblers, gnashers, flittercrakes, shades and the Insidious Bleck, for instance) are the real deal: monsters that are designed to scare and unnerve.

But I also have a fairly specific sense of what monsters are and I’d like to refine the term a little for my purposes today, though I realize that this limits the category. For me, monsters have an unsettling quality that comes from their hybrid nature. I’m drawing here on an old use of the term ‘monster’ to mean a something which is odd, frightening or disturbing because it manifests a combination of elements one doesn’t see together in nature. Shakespeare’s cross-dressed Viola, for instance, calls herself a “poor monster” because she is neither male nor female (doubly so since the female speaker would have been a boy actor). Caliban in The Tempest is a monster because to Trinculo who finds him he is neither fish nor flesh. Frankenstein’s monster is so because it is built out of multiple bodies. In each case, monstrosity is about the combining of elements that shouldn’t go together, resulting in something palpably and troublingly unnatural.

In a sense, then, many of the familiar evils of fantasy literature are not monsters in the sense I’m using the term. Toklien’s orcs, for instance, are in a sense monstrous because they were originally a kind of twisted elf bred by Melkor, but we know them almost as a species or race, so that old sense of their monstrosity is largely lost. Vampires and zombies similarly have monstrous attributes, and they draw on what Freud calls “the uncanny” in that they look like people but aren’t (as are dolls, puppets, dummies etc.), though again that sense of aping humanity has dulled for modern readers because they are known quantities (even where the author has modified them for his/her purposes).

So for me, monsters are largely stand alones: creatures invented specifically to create surprise, fear and discomfort because the reader specifically doesn’t know what they are or might be able to do.

As I said, crucial to the idea of the monstrous is the sense of something wrong, something which disconcerts because it feels unnatural. Greek mythology is full of hybrid beasts which combine the features of different animals: the Chimaera, for instance, which had the head of fire-breathing lion, the body of a goat and the tail of a snake. Cerberus, the guardian of the underworld, was a giant three headed dog. Medusa and the other gorgons were winged women with snakes for hair whose gaze turned people to stone.

These are not just really great ideas that provide huge headaches for anyone who has to fight them, they are troubling in their unnaturalness. This is a great thing to shoot for because it means that the reader responds not just to the danger the monster poses but also has a visceral reaction to the monster itself (snakes for hair? That’s gold.)

The flipside of the unsettling aspect of a good monster, then, is its aura of cool, our management of something we—or others—might find just plain creepy. One of my favorite monsters in the Darwen books is the gnasher: an oversized brute of a man with long ape-like arms and no head. Across his chest is a shark’s mouth, and since he has no eyes he tastes the air with a long, snake-like tongue to find his way about. As well as combining a number of different creatures in unnatural ways, the gnasher generates a strong visceral response because it’s blindness makes it very tactile: it will want to touch you before it determines what to do with you. But the key is simpler: the gnasher is a monster because its mouth is in the wrong place.

(Incidentally, I thought the idea for the gnasher came simply from my impulse to combine different creatures, but I later remembered a line from Othello in which the general, recalling the strange places he has been, talks about “the Anthropophagi, and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders.” It seems, not for the first time, that Shakespeare beat me to it.)

The trick to a good monster, I think, is the combination of credible threat and creep factor. I’m thinking, for instance, of Der Kindestod, the fairy take monster on Buffy that haunts the children’s ward of a hospital, invisible most of the time but, when you can see it, shows itself as an ugly and distorted old man with oversized teeth and blank eyes. It’s the eyes that really contribute to the creep factor because after the monster pins children down its eyes descend on long stalks, latching on and leeching out their life force. Again the credible threat is combined with a gut level revulsion which comes from the essential wrongness of the eyes.

One of my other favorite Buffy monsters were the Gentlemen in Hush, whose unsettling power comes from a combination of their stillness as they drift above the ground, their fixed, manic grins, and their overly polite gestures which, with their dark formal suits, sit nicely at odds with their murderous intentions. Again, what makes them so scary is their hybrid combination of disparate elements and characteristics.

I could go on, but let me leave it at that and ask for you to share your favorite monsters, and see if you can identify the source of what makes them work as monsters.

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28 comments to It’s Alive!: Writing monsters

  • I like the zombie, werewolf and other Mr Hyde types. I like the monsters that exhibit an obvious fury and disregard for social sensibilities. They are monstrous not so much because of the mix not appearing in nature but because sometimes they seem to be manifestations of our own dark will. Hence my reference to Mr Hyde. I love the idea of a monster so overwhelmed by a single ordinary human desire that it performs monstrous deeds. Zombies have a hunger that can’t be satiated for example. You know that even though you just watched your best friend completely consumed, the zombies will still be after you with just as much vigour. And who hasn’t felt like that at one time or another?

  • The most terrifying monster ever for me was Samara from The Ring. I saw the original Japanese-only version (without subtitiles) with a friend when we were teenagers. Then it came out in theatres here and actually *understanding* what was going on was even more terrifying.

    She was a girl drowned by her father in the well, on the island where they lived. What creeped me out wasn’t the “seven days” whisper or anything else (though the distorted photos building up to her appearance were unsettling), it was her slow, toddling movements, how you don’t see her face, just her long black hair, and she’s walking toward the camera … that creeped the eff out of me. Especially as she reaches out her bony hands …

    Only time I’ve screamed in the theatre. Probably because I knew what was coming.

    In retrospect, I think the buildup to actually seeing her, (hair in the drain, “seven days”, the photos, the solitude on the island) combined with how creepy she was when you finally *do* see her (and how slow it is so that the tension builds) are what made it so creepy. Not actually seeing her face made her a soulless entity. One that had the power to consume and destroy, and damn a person for eternity.

  • Sjohn,
    yes, I see what you mean, though for me the hybridity, albeit in a psychological rather than physical way, is still there in the appetite. The monster fuses normative and non normative impulses (like the Gentlemen in Buffy, with their suits, over politeness and impulse to cut your heart out) and that’s what makes them unsettling. Jekyl/Hyde is a classic monstrous hybrid and I think zombies are an extension of that. After all, it’s something about their appearance of humanity that makes them more disturbing than say a hungry animal.

    Laura,
    yes, that was a good one. And I think we’re close to Freud’s uncanny again because whenever children are the villains there’s more of that psychological hybridization: the fusion of what is traditionally innocent and good with the impulse and power to destroy. Very creepy.

  • adamgaylord

    Good post! I would add that for monsters, size matters. I can’t say that this is a hard rule but I think people respond best to monsters that are either very small or very large. Again, it has to do with unfamiliarity. Personally, I like the really big monsters. Give me a cave troll or a kraken any day!

  • I find it interesting that the most scary monsters in films are often the ones we can’t see (or can’t see for a long while). The shark in Jaws, which isn’t a hybrid at all, just a big scary shark. I occasionally got scared in the deep end of my pool after seeing that. The headless monsters in AJ’s book (along with the ones in Othello) reminded me of the big orange monster (Sweetums?) in Bugs Bunny. He’s got arms, and, technically I guess, a head, but he looked to me like he didn’t–he’s just this furry orange blurb. I always thought he was cute.

    For a great catalogue of monsters, check out Joss whedon’s “Cabin the in Woods.” He has a whole zoo of them, and even in cages, they’re creepy.

    I do agree, though, that monstrosity via hybridity is interesting. Hybrids can often combine the strength of both creatures and be more strong than the originals–a frightening idea for some folks. (Issues of race and intermarraige come up in this, of course, and we’re back to Othello!)

  • I always liked how HP Lovecraft dealt with monsters, his descriptions giving just enough for your own mind to run away with itself and fill in the blanks. I’ve always found that the mind makes up far worse things than could ever be described on paper if you let it. I’ve learned from Lovecraft that you don’t even really have to ever see the monster to get creeped out if the writer does a good enough job of letting the reader’s mind run away with itself through setting the scene.

    Zombies – I guess they also tap into that visceral, unnatural fear, at least for me. The fact that it is not alive, but not quite dead, a moldering corpse, but walking, groaning, desiring for your tasty, tasty brains. It’s something that should not be happening, yet it is, and even as your brain shuts down in shock from the impossibility of what you’re seeing, the creature is stuffing bits of you into its mouth. They’re incredibly difficult to destroy, despite all those crack-shot heroes in film (ever tried to hit a moving target that small while running for your life?), and they tend to show up in groups. They are one of my favorite monsters and strangely, I really didn’t get anything more from it when they made them fast in various movies. It made them more of a shock scare, which I don’t really go for. I prefer the building trepidation, the knowledge that these relentless things WILL eventually catch up, usually when you least expect it and you’re out of ammo or relieving yourself. 😉

    Far as a monster from mythology that just should not be…the Penanggalan. And you thought a zombie coming after you was bad. A floating female head with guts hanging from it… Now, who was so scared that they thought that one up one night?

  • I LOVED the “Hush” guys, and found the grace of their hand movements totally freaky. I’m drawn to the techno-monsters, the ones that have technology fused with humanity. I loved Adam in Buffy Season 4, and my favorite monsters of all time might just by the Borg from Star Trek: TNG. I had never done monsters in my own work until I wrote a book last summer that has some scary creatures in it. Fun change. And a fun post. Thanks, A.J.

  • The Hush monsters are also one of my favorites. I think what I found most frightening about them is the juxtaposition of their creepy yet elegantly graceful appearance and their evil intentions. For the most part, that’s what appeals to me in monsters–not so much the ones who look scary, but the ones who are scary despite their appearance.

    Having said that, though, the scariest monster ever for me is Medusa and her snake-hair. I saw a terrifying illustration of that as a child and to this day I can picture it perfectly if I let my guard down!

  • Adam,
    I guess for certain monsters, scale is important, yes, though that’s generally more about brute power (at least where big monsters are concerned) than conceptual creep factor. I think. Small stuff, esp. small stuff that can get inside your body (or come out of it as in that Stephen King novel from about a decade ago whose name slips my mind) also scary.

    Pea,
    I take your point about monsters we don’t see (which is why I still think the first Alien movie is the best) though I would argue that the shark in Jaws is actually a hybrid, because it doesn’t actually behave as a shark, but hunts locally and vengefully. It’s a shark with a vindictive streak :) Yes, I think that hybridity and monstrosity gets to some basic anxieties about keeping the world in neat, familiar packages, and some of those impulses have been used to justify all manner of retrograde social policies. I live in North Carolina and know whereof I speak.

    Daniel,
    agreed on Lovecraft. He has a real gift for hinting at the wrongness of things which gets you on a gut level.

    David,
    yes, I loved the Borg for the same reason (bugbears of vulgar Marxism though they clearly are!), all those tubes and cable going into living flesh: very unsettling, and generating some great quandaries about what humanity, selfhood etc. is, esp in the episodes centering on Hue. The flipside of those same issues was, of course, Data who, in another incarnation (Lore) also taps that Feudian uncanny about things that look human but somehow aren’t (in which I would include clowns).

    Sisi.
    juxtaposition of disparate elements is a good way to think of it, yes. Thanks.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Interestingly topical post, AJ, as I am currently working on developing a race of hybrids for my new project. I haven’t been thinking of them as monsters, but others in the world certainly will, so this post is good food for thought. Thank you.

    However, SJohn’s comment reminded me that the scariest monster I ever heard of was the wendigo, which seems to be less a combining of disparate elements, and more an unnatural exaggeration of a natural state: hunger. What freaks me out is that the wendigo *were* human, but, whether through greed or nasty magic, that humanity has been completely lost to their hunger. While it would be terrible to be caught by such an implacable thing, the worst fear is the possibility of becoming one, especially with such innocuous early-warning signs: “I’m hungry. I’m cold.”

  • I’ve been wracking my brain all morning trying to think of monsters fitting AJ’s taxonomy that scare me. I can’t really think of any scary hybrids, but for chill factor, I come up with Chucky and Stephen King’s IT. Dolls and clowns. {shudder} Things that shouldn’t be terrifying, but are.

    Normal animals acting abnormally are also scary to me: Hitchcock’s The Birds, Arachnophobia’s spiders, even some of the old SF B-movies like the one with giant ants. If ordinary critters decided to gang together against humanity, we’d be in deep ickiness.

    I still find psychological monsters more frightening that physical ones, though. Knowing that the guy next door, or the clerk at the grocery store, or anyone you meet, anywhere, anytime, has the potential capacity for unmitigated depravity is truly terrifying. She smiles and chats with you while considering how to cook the baby in the fridge; he compliments your eyes while imagining how they’d fit into his collection…..

  • Hep,
    glad this helped. And yes, I think the exaggeration of an aspect is potentially very cool, though I still think the hybridity is there because it takes a human form and melds it with something transformative, something that leaves a vestige of the original but makes it somehow ‘wrong’ (and lethal).

    Lyn,
    as I said, I think the hybridity extends beyond the physical. Clowns and animated dolls have that uncanny creep factor because they look both alive/human and not. It’s the combination which is unsettling. Likewise, animals behaving as things other than animals manifest a similar hybridity. That’s how I interpret it, anyway :)

  • AJ, love the post. But I admit, I have never been a fan of monsters. I know. How can I write fantasy and not love monsters? :) Spiders and creepy crawlies are bad enough, but the hybrids really bother me and have since I first saw an old B&W Frankenstein as a child. I still shudder at the thought.

  • Ha! Thanks, Faith. I guess that means they’re working :)

  • Julia

    Lyn and AJ — Dolls terrified me as a child, for precisely this reason. They looked like humans, but they were dead inside. I hated the falseness. (Made for a few very awkward moments at early birthday parties, before my parents started warning the guests NOT to bring dolls.) But I did have a much beloved hoarde of cushly stuffed animals.

    One thing I’ve been thinking about: the role of “monstrosity” is often discussed (and critiqued) among disability theorists as accounting for some of the cultural aversion to people with disabilities, whose bodies are often described as contrary to nature or uncanny. The use of human disability or deformity to signal either evil or danger has a long literary history (perhaps even more so in film), so I think it’s helpful to call attention to the way that our way of imagining “monsters” can have unfortunate social implications.

    Thanks for a really thought-provoking post, AJ!

  • Julia,
    great point about monstrosity/disability, and yes, this has a very long literary history. Shakespeare’s Richard III is a case in point, in which his withered arm and hunch back are often cited as the outward manifestation of an inner corruption, though other readings reverse the sequence, speculating that his moral monstrosity is a result of the way he has been treated by a culture which cannot abide what is different or “unnatural.” Thanks for raising this.

  • Great post! I love monsters–always have. Since I write dark Fantasy I have to include monsters and they are my most favorite characters to invent. I usually mix traits from various animals or mythological beasts and create my own monster. I find it helps for me to draw it first then it comes alive for me.

  • Rebecca
    thanks. Love the idea of drawing the beast out first. I amy have to borrow that one! I’ve been looking for an excuse to do more painting.

  • Gypsyharper

    I am not much of a monster fan, but I found this post fascinating, because I’d never really thought before about what makes a monster. The creatures I’ve always found the most terrifying, although they aren’t really monsters by this definition, are certain dinosaurs. When I was a child, I had nightmares about T-rex all the time. And then I saw Jurassic Park (and read the book and played the video game – apparently I’m a glutton for punishment) and found the velociraptors even more terrifying because of their intelligence and speed.

    I guess I also prefer the psychological sort of monsters. I remember being dreadfully disappointed in the movie “Hollow Man” because in the previews they’d used the tagline “what would you do if you didn’t have to look at yourself in the mirror?” and I didn’t feel like they fully explored those implications.

    And I also find that sometimes the monsters you don’t see, or the ones that are revealed slowly, are the most frightening. I’ve always preferred suspense to straight up horror. :) The one and only horror story I ever wrote left the monster entirely up to the reader’s imagination. (Whether or not that was effective is a matter of opinion, of course).

  • Gypsy
    yes, I loved the velociraptors too and for the same reason. My two favorite lines in that movie were, when the huge doors were first revealed What have you got in there, King King?” (to which the answer in movie history terms was “yes!”) and “Clever girl.” :)

  • Vyton

    Great post, AJ. Growing up in the 60s I saw a movie about ancient Rome where some guy was trying to convert people to animals by grafting on donkey’s ears, pig snouts, etc. One of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen. No idea what the title was.

    On the lighter side, speaking of unseen monsters, let’s not forget Winslow and Maurice under Calvin’s bed.

    Thanks.

  • Vyton,
    that reminds me of the Daleks in Manhattan episode of Doctor Who when the Daleks build a slave race of human/pig hybrids! Creepy. And thanks for the Calvin reference! Still great stuff.

  • Razziecat

    Spiders. It’s not just their appearance, it’s the way they move. I’ve always said it’s the gods’ gift to humans that spiders can’t fly. SO imagine if they could….*shudder*

    And evil clowns are especially creepy because clowns are supposed to be all jolly, laughing and playful and silly. If they’re killing people, while wearing those big painted-on smiles, it’s horrible. Actually, I think I find any sort of masked killer especially frightening. Something about being faceless, since humans form connections with each other through face-to-face contact, especially through the eyes. If the face is hidden, or the expression isn’t natural or doesn’t go with the actions, there’s a major creep factor.

  • Razzie,
    fair point about flying spiders. The first time I saw a giant flying roach I about wet myself. And a word to the wise: if monstrous bugs freak you out, stay out of India and–for that matter–most of southeast Asia…

  • sagablessed

    AJ, this post made me think and I am re-writing a monster in my WIP. The comments also gave food for thought. Very insightful and thought provoking.

  • Alan Kellogg

    The worst thing you can do to a monster is domesticate it.

  • bonesweetbone

    I just read Jim Butcher’s Turn Coat and the first section had the hair on the back of my neck standing on end. Harry’s stuck dealing with a skinwalker of sorts and he looks at it with his Wizard’s Sight. While the creature was arguably creepy, what did it for me was the visceral reaction the characters had to it. It’s one of the later books in the series and by then, you’ve seen Harry deal with all sorts of nasties. But when he Looks at this thing, it leaves him a jibbering wreck.

    Its human-like nature with its glaring lack of morals, but extreme intelligence and power also contribute.

    Zombies creep me out, too, but mainly the ones from the 28 Days Later film. The slow moving and lurching ones are bad enough, but these were capable of dead sprints and tended to run in packs. I always remember this one scene where they’re in a tunnel and you just see the zombies shadows playing across the walls and hear their feet pounding the pavement. You know what’s coming, but when all you can see and hear is their numbers and know they’re bearing down on you, it somehow makes it worse than dealing with them one at a time.

  • Saga
    glad this helped!

    Alan,
    :)

    Bone
    absolutely agree about the skin walker in Turn Coat/ Deeply creepifying.