December 15, 2014

Creating a Fictional Monster

When I was very young, I often stayed up late on Saturday nights to watch monster movies.  I loved most of them.  Anything with Vincent Price, Lon Chaney, or Bela Lugosi was likely to draw me in.  I watched Dr. Frankenstein tinker with corpses until his monster came to life.  I saw the Mummy rise from its tomb and see revenge on those who had disturbed his rest.  Lugosi's Dracula was superb.  These were movies that relied more on good writing and acting than special effects.  I have always marveled at writers who can bring a monster to live in their work.  It's not easy to create a monster that arouses fear without crossing over the line into cliché or comedy.

How do you do that?  The key is to thoroughly get to know your monster by asking questions like these:
  • What does the monster look like?  Is it covered in scales, fur, or skin?  What color are its eyes?  Does it have fangs?
  • How does it smell?
  • What does it sound like when it moves?  When it sees its prey?  When it's been injured?
  • Does it have extraordinary or occult powers? 
  • Does it operate alone or in a pack?
  • Will the monster display any type of emotion? 
  • Is it capable of reason or complex thought?
  • Will it attack large groups of people, or does it prefer to pick off loners?
  • How far will it go to get what it wants?  Will it risk its own life?
  • How much physical strength does it have?
  • What are its strengths?
  • What are its weaknesses?  Is there some common substance that is poison to the monster?
  • What does it feed on?  How does it behave when it's well-fed versus starving?
  • Can it fly, swim, jump, or climb?  What limits, if any, are placed on these activities (and why)?
  • How fast does it move?
  • Are there things it is afraid of, like sunlight, rain, fire, or religious symbols?
  • How large (or small) is the monster?  What advantages does its size give it over its victims?  What disadvantages arise from the monster's size?
  • What would the monster do if injured?  Would it intensify its attacks?  Would it go away to lick it wounds and come back when it's stronger?  Would it change its tactics?
  • Can the monster command or enlist other beings (e.g., spiders) to do its bidding?  How does it do so, and what limits are there on the ability (e.g., it's limited to the number of spiders nearby)?
  • If you're using a classical monster type, such as a vampire, werewolf, or mummy, have you researched that monster type thoroughly?  You may find that going back to the earliest references of the monster in fiction that its characteristics are more (or perhaps less) scary than in more modern incarnations.
  • How was the monster created?
  • Can the monster reproduce?  If so, how is this done?  Does reproduction require some special resource (e.g., in the case of the gremlins in the movie of the same name, water was needed).
  • Does the monster have the ability to change shape?  What shapes can (and can't) it assume?  What is the cost on the creature (if any) of changing its shape?  Before it assumes a given shape, does it have to do something special (e.g., see the thing it wants to change into, or touch it, or even eat it)?
  • Is the monster's health or ability affected by environmental characteristics?  For example, does it get stronger under a full moon, or can it harness lightning to heal itself or attack its prey?
  • If you're using a classic (and thus somewhat cliched) monster type, how will your characters vanquish it?  Can you make this happen in a new and unexpected way (e.g., take out a vampire with a sun lamp instead of actual sunlight)?
  • If this monster began as a human (e.g., a vampire or werewolf), is there something the characters can do to return it to human form?  Is this something the monster itself desires, or is actively trying to pursue?
  • Does the monster feel any remorse for what it's doing?
  • Is the monster protecting something?  If so, what?
  • Are the monster's tactics predictable (e.g., it relies on its superior numbers to overwhelm an enemy like a swarm of insects, and it's not very smart)?  Can it improvise or change things up?  When would it do that?
  • How intelligent is the monster?  Is it fairly mindless, like a zombie?  Is it about as smart as an ape?  Is it human-level smart?  Is it smarter than we are?
  • Can it use tools or set traps?  How does it do this, and what kinds of traps does it use?
  • How long would it normally live?  How old is it now?
  • What happens when it dies?  Does it simply fall over dead?  Does it burn away into a pile of ash?  Does it explode and cover everyone nearby in its infected slime?
  • Can it reincarnate after it's dead (e.g., if you pull the stake out of a vampire's heart, can it regenerate)?
  • Can it repair or heal itself in an unusual way, such as fashioning replacement body parts out of nearby materials, or absorbing the DNA and tissues of living creatures to replace or enhance parts of itself?
  • How does the monster kill its prey?  Does it slaughter them instantly and feed on the remains?  Does it immobilize them and torture them for a while?  Does it swallow them alive and digest them slowly?
  • Will characters be able to tell when the monster is nearby (e.g., they hear a certain sound or smell something specific)? 
  • What's the monster's motivation?  Is it collecting the souls of the living for its evil master?  Is it simply hungry and stalking the characters for food?  Did the characters threaten its young, or disturb its hibernation?  What circumstances would cause the monster to stop stalking the characters on its own?  (For instance, if they'd just stop eating the mushrooms it feeds its young, it would leave them alone.)
When you know the monster well enough, you'll know how to make its appearances especially frightening, and ensure that it inspires terror in both the reader and the characters.  You'll also be able to construct believable situations in which the characters encounter the monster and confront it (successfully, or not).

Some other things to think about when writing a monster story:
  • Injecting a monster into a normal, everyday situation can be very frightening.  A monster that's attracted to cell phones when they ring will probably scare people more than one that's attracted to first-born daughters. As they read your story, and perhaps for a while afterward, that everyday thing will frighten them just a little.
  • The monster's victims shouldn't be just cardboard figures it destroys.  Develop the characters a bit and give the reader a chance to feel something for them before the monster gets them.  Their deaths will have a bigger impact.
  • Monsters that exploit childhood fears in some way, like being separated from loved ones, being afraid of the dark, etc., can effectively frighten adults, too.
  • Cemeteries, boarded-up buildings, and places like this have become somewhat cliched places to find monsters.  Consider how you can avoid the cliché by having your monster appear somewhere unusual (like the locker room at a health club) and by turning the cliché on its head (such as having the characters go through a spooky old house and come out of it without seeing anything scary).
  • The monster should have a good reason for doing what it does.  "It's a monster" isn't a good reason.  "Its young hatch inside trees, and the humans are cutting down its forest" is a much better one.
  • Where can you inject humor into the story, as a way for readers to catch their breath?  Maybe the monster collects a trinket from each victim and wears it.
  • A good model for plotting the horror story is:  Problem = Solution + Bigger Problem.  In other words, each time the characters get away from the monster or have a victory, they learn there is a bigger problem awaiting them.  In other words, you continually raise the stakes.
A typical monster story structure will look something like this (adjust as needed for your story):
  • The reader gets a glimpse of the monster.  The characters may not be aware of the monster just yet, but the reader sees it lurking in the shadows, licking its lips, preparing to strike.
  • The character gets a look at the monster.  This may be a literal look, as in the character seeing the monster coming after her.  It might also be an indirect look, such as the mangled body of one of the monster's victims.
  • The character realizes the monster must be stopped.  Perhaps the character is trapped in a building with the monster, or the monster is threatening her way of life, or it's killed someone she loves.  At this point, the character sees no other alternative than to defeat the monster.
  • The character gathers information about the monster, and possible weapons to stop it.  If the character actually encounters the monster at this point, she won't defeat it, but she may learn something interesting about it.  ("Hey, it ran off when the sun came up…")
  • After some number of unsuccessful attempts to defeat the monster, the character realizes what she needs to do, and how to defeat the monster.  She makes a final attempt that succeeds.
  • The character, having defeated the monster, reflects on what's happened and what she's learned.  She may or may not make some kind of statement about how she can be sure that monster never comes back.
I hope you found this post of value.  If so, please leave a comment or share the link with others.

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