The Making of a Monster: From Dragons to Lady Gaga
Remember when I said that villains represent the socially unacceptable? Monsters are the epitome of the socially unacceptable, engaging in such rude acts as eating people, stealing gold, and worse, lookin’ weird. But of course, being socially unacceptable is in many ways a human construction: one person’s monster is another’s with a cause. Once you understand what your monster says about your story, and where it fits into society, you can give your monster everything it needs to help you emphasize your point.
In times of uncertainty, when we’re fighting for survival, people yearn for simpler times, when evil is evil and good is good, and monsters are giant evil dragons who eat people. Who wants to wrestle with moral ambiguity in their fantasy when it’s haunting them in reality? A dragon with bad halitosis who kills for funsies is about as black-and-white as it gets. Almost no one will question your slaying something so unquestionably vile. From this tradition stems the tale of the monster Grendel in Beowulf, the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit, and the nearly inconsequential dragon Siegfried defeats in the Nibelungenlied.
But when we aren’t fighting for survival, monsters have been deftly transformed into tools to question society’s rules for defining what is monstrous. Lady Gaga’s little monsters, for instance, represent the willingness to break societal rules in order to embrace new values.
When you sit down to make a new monster, there are many things you need to consider. Like how many people you have to eat to qualify as “irredeemable,” and whether the phrase “needlelike teeth” is overused. Because fundamentally, monsters are just like any other character, hero or villain. In order to write them well, you need to understand their motivations, figure out where they’re coming from, and identify with them.
A One Monster Revolution
What makes your monster so monstrous? Is it big and terrifying, a literal monster in the form of a troll, zombie, or hydra? Does it have a people-eating problem? Or is it a monster because it is easily driven to revenge or because it is gluttonous, cruel, or greedy? Choosing what makes a monster monstrous in your world says a lot about the values of your world, as well as your heroes, in how they interact with said monsters. Remember, monsters have to be read in the context that they are “other,” and many readers these days identify with that theme.
One of the themes in Erin M. Evans’s The God Catcher is the nature of monsters—and what makes a monster monstrous. One character, by being a half-orc, is a “monster” on the outside, by human standards, anyway. Another, a dragon trapped in human form, is a literal monster on the inside. Both are pretty sure they are monsters, and yet both sacrifice heroically to help defeat the true monster and villain in the story. This argues that the nature of a monster is the villainy of the creature in question, rather than some accident of DNA.
What a Monster Wants, What a Monster Needs
What is fascinating to me is the utter lack of morals in the actions of many older heroes. Monsters would be hunted down and slain just for being born monsters, or for defending their homes, children, and things from murderers and thieves (aka treasure hunters and adventurers). When it comes to many older heroes, their reason for killing the monster was “it’s a goddamn monster.” For a modern audience, this may not be enough.
Whether it be love, revenge, forgiveness, or just dinner, a monster’s needs aren’t that dissimilar to our own. A monster’s motivations will drive the emotional impact of the climax. We’ll cheer at the defeat of a dragon who kills humans for sport, but feel downright ashamed when a dragon who fights to defend her young is killed. The death of the dragon who kills for revenge will make us a bit sad and also angry at the mortal confusion that caused its death, and we might feel grim, even respectful, when the dragon who kills humans for survival meets its doom. (You might argue this latter kind of dragon is not a monster. To this end, it must be noted that when one eats people—even for sustenance--the people one eats will likely think you a villain.)
Of course, there are also those Lovecraftian stories that center around the idea that the monster’s reasons are beyond mortal understanding. And in these, there is usually no doubt as to who the villain is or his need to be put down or at least escaped from. In this story, your hero is fighting the metaphor of the fear of the unknown, and the effect of the monster’s defeat will be disbelief and release.
Will the Real Monster Please Scream Out?
By the end of a traditional fantasy story, there should be no doubt as to who the real monsters are, whether they are in fact the dragons of your expectations or subtler villains hiding behind heroic masks. Your monster needs to be scary. Our estimation of your hero is directly linked to how terrified we are of your monster. It is also important so that we know who to root for in the final battle—you really don’t want us getting confused there.
Of course, in tragic fantasy, this can play out somewhat differently. My favorite study on this is Frankenstein. In Frankenstein, one could argue Frankenstein’s monster is a monster, since he does kill for revenge and he does look, well, monstrous. However, one could also argue his creator is the monster for dismembering creatures to create his own false life—only to abandon it because he is horrified by the result. And of course, the other monstrous option is the society who, by its cruelty, taught Frankenstein’s monster to fear and hate humans. In this story, we all—the protagonist, the villain, and even the reader in the form of the society—come out looking somewhat monstrous.
Monster Madness: Test Your Monster IQ
Answers are in white text, following each question.
1. What monster grows more powerful every time you cut off one of its heads? A hydra
2. What winged reptilian monster has only two legs? A wyvern
3. What monster shoots spines out of its tail? A manticore
4. What watery monster has a magic nostril? A kelpie
5. What monster can be defeated by bowing to it? A kappa
6. What monster has six legs and is a composite of six different animals? A tarasque
7. What fire-eyed, black-furred dog is an omen of death? A hellhound
8. What mud-based monster is animated with words? A golem
9. What monster is more powerful the more tails it has? A kitsune
10. What sea monster took out ships and ate whales for breakfast? A kraken
1-3 correct: Monster Apprentice
4-6 correct: Monster Master
7-9 correct: Professor of Monsterology
All 10 correct: King/Queen of Monsters!