How do you create a monster in fantasy fiction? No story can be written without having a terrible and terrifying fiend to oppose the endearing protagonist. Whether the monstrous thing resembles a bloodstained beast, a ghostly, sunken ship, or some hidden danger, the looming menace must incite an instinctive fear in the reader. Yet the task of creating such a monster is not as easy as one may believe; in fact, many writers struggle building scary monsters, leaving them with less than satisfying stories. Luckily, there are many places where we can turn for inspiration.
In classic literature, we can discover many great examples of effective monsters from Dracula to Frankenstein. These figures from gothic horror often invite images of exotic peoples with grotesquely exaggerated features alongside beasts from the pages of medieval bestiaries. In real life, we have tangible monsters like sharks, scorpions, and snakes, each posing their own unique threat with sharp fangs or deadly poisons. And lastly, we have all heard about the imaginary monsters of the material world like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, both massive and menacing. But what exactly is it about these monsters that sends chills up our spine?
From Beowulf and beyond, monsters have played an important role in storytelling. In order to grasp the significance, consider the etymology of the word monster, deriving from the Latin, monstrare, meaning ‘to demonstrate’, and monere, ‘to warn’. On the surface, monsters have served as rationale as to what society perceives to be normal, exiling the deranged and deformed from civilization (e.g. the Quasimodos). Without a doubt, we find ourselves uncertain when faced with abnormality. Monsters were also used to keep people from traveling into unmapped realms where unidentified dangers awaited (e.g. ancient maps warning of basilisks and mermaids in distant, uncharted lands). Take a moment and imagine a trek through the wilderness without your GPS or a map. Most would hesitate, despite their yearning for adventure.
But how do we create a monster?
You may have noticed I did not include anything specifically human in the examples above, and this may have given you a hint to the secret. Although human villains can spur feelings of fear, they typically do not push us into a place of terror. In fact, humans are rarely considered to be monsters because a monster is meant to reinforce our conceptions of social boundaries of morality. We don’t kill creatures we perceive as having human traits, but we have no issue with slaying the dragon or the giant squid. Now, to be clear, a bad guy can engage in an action which could be terrorizing, but this does not mean they are a monster. The very presence of a human villain generally would not elicit a visceral response. A well-crafted monster, however, will make your heartbeat stammer on sight! Why? Because the most horrifying, anxiety-provoking entity known to humans is exactly what a monster represents: the unknown.
When an unexplained shadow slips along the wall, an undead creature crawls out from the grave, or several alien races are vying for control of the planet, humans respond with fear. Monsters are constructs in stories to instill the moral lesson, not simply oppose the good guy. Monsters are meant to be a social tool of sorts, to help clarify a concept, even if it causes a certain level of discomfort (e.g. not all ugly things are evil). To label a creature as a monster, the main character should have the inability to understand a creature’s 1) motive and 2) place in the world. These two primary elements should be highlighted in the story, and likely will be solved during the character’s journey. A capable writer presents these unanswered questions to the protagonist through the interaction with a well-crafted beast and then invites the reader to live vicariously through the main character’s devastating, emotional response to the monster.