Making Monsters – GUEST POST by Gareth Hanrahan (THE SWORD DEFIANT)
by Gareth Hanrahan
Tentacles and tooth-filled maws, scales and serrated claws, slime-dripping horrors and nightmares made flesh, these are a few of my favourite things. I’ve made innumerable monsters for tabletop roleplaying games, and my novels are (literally) crawling with strange creatures. Some thoughts on writing memorable monsters for fantasy novels:
What’s its role in the story?
What are you trying to do with the monster? What’s the purpose of it? An obstacle to be overcome through your heroine’s skill/daring/cleverness? A threat to drive your hero to take shelter in that spooky cave? An atmospheric denizen of the spooky cave? The great thing about monsters is that they can be tailored to the needs of your plot – if you need a shapeshifting monster that lives in the attics of libraries and breathes out nightmares, then lo! Such a thing now exists!
If the monster’s only intended for a walk-on part, then think about how it expresses the themes and concepts of your wider story. If you’re writing a story set in a frozen waste, then an icy monster can embody the threat of the cold – or counterpoint it, with its hunger for the hero’s hot blood. A story about magic gone awry might be populated by weird accidents of a wizard’s experiments.
If the monster’s playing a bigger role, then it also has to link back to your main character, embodying some aspect of their personality. Usually, it’s a negative aspect – some fear or weakness – but you can also have fun taking your hero’s strength and twisting it.
What’s the distinctive hook?
Go deep enough, and all monsters ultimately end reduce to a handful of archetypes. Big scary predators, horrible slimy bugs, dead things, bad people, unquiet spirits. To make a particular expression of that archetype memorable, it needs something special, some calling card or signature gimmick. Take the xenomorph from the Alien series – it’s functionally just a serial killer from some slasher movie, stalking the cast through darkened rooms and murdering them one by one. It’s the reproductive cycle, the acid-for-blood, and the Giger design that makes it memorable. So, when making a monster, look for some twist or unusual feature that hooks it into the reader’s mind. It can be some aspect of the monster’s appearance or behaviour (the Gillings from the Raven’s Mark trilogy are basically just goblins, but instantly burrow into the reader’s mind with their spooky habit of repeating the same out-of-context phrase), its physiology (wax isn’t especially scary in itself, but it’s weird, and so the wax-sentinel Tallowmen of my Black Iron books work well as weird horrors), or how it deals with prey.
So – suck out eyeballs, ritually bury kills in weird graves, sprout human faces of bleached bone and chitin, hatch from rotten bread and the tears of children. Whatever you do, o monster, do it your way.
Where does it fit?
Where does this monster exist in your world? If it raids your hero’s village in the opening chapter, is that a common event (“goblins again, is it? Third time this year”) or something unusual (“he’d heard legends of goblins, but had never laid eyes on one”)? Commonplace monsters are often harder to write about than unusual ones – if something’s ordinary, your narrator has less reason to remark upon it, and so you need to slip description and exposition in at the edges, or by inference.
How do people interact with the monsters? Can they be tamed? Are they so dangerous that special precautions are needed? The more common the monster, the more it’ll warp your setting. If werewolves are a legendary threat lurking in the darkest, most distant woods, then the ordinary people in your setting don’t need to worry overmuch about them. If werewolves are everywhere, then maybe every village locks down in heavily fortified bunkers during the full moon, and proving yourself with silver is part of introducing yourself to a stranger. Extrapolate! Put aside your monster’s thematic associations, or its role in the large narrative, and just think about practicalities! How might the existence of giants, or dragons, change the world?
Give some thought to the monster’s place (or lack thereof) in the ecosystem. If you need a giant monster in a barren desert, then how does it survive there? Is there some unlikely source of food and water? Does it hibernate for centuries, waking only for brief periods when prey’s nearby? Or maybe it’s supernatural in origin – and if that’s the case, why is it there in particular? (Fantasy lets you get away with anything, but you have to fuel the getaway car.)
(Oh – not every story benefits from this kind of rationalisation. Some tales work by dream-logic, or feel like myths. Deciding not to follow logical extrapolations is a perfectly valid decision if that’s the sort of story you’re telling.)
Where does it not fit?
Among your readers are clever – and possibly jaded – fantasy fans who try to anticipate or second-guess your ideas. “A setting where werewolves are common,” they say, “how droll. No doubt there’ll be all sorts of customs about silver, and the moon, and some form of chaining the beasts up. Someone’s going to get infected, I’ll wager. And *sniff* I’m detecting oaky overtones of grimdark, with an piquant insouciance of solarpunk. Delightful.” Instead of trying to outthink such readers, it’s usually easier to surprise them by throwing in an unexpected wrinkle to your monster – something new and unrelated. Maybe your werewolves are descended from a cursed actor (something about changing roles and masks), and speak in iambic pentameter when in monster form (pentameter, pentagram – it’s all coming together, people). Maybe your giants keep growing bigger and bigger all their lives, so the oldest, gnarliest giants become landforms.
Tolkien’s Ringwraiths, for example, hunt by sniffing and are virtually blind in daylight. It’s an incongruous twist that gives texture to the monsters.
What are the wider echoes?
Consider how the monster affects the wider world even when it’s not there. We might say that someone is as tall as a giant, or so shocked it’s like they’ve seen a ghost. What aphorisms arise in a world where, say, carnivorous butterfly-swarms are a common peril? As hungry as a fly-swarm? Is that coloured cloth as bright as death? Maybe he’s got a temper like a cracking cocoon?
What might be done with dead monsters? In a world where werewolves are common, do wolf-pelts have a special significance? Maybe, just spitballing here, totally original idea that no-one else has used, but maybe you could have a world where they make ships out of bone because there are lots of giant sea serpents.
What professions and customs might arise because of the monsters? Look at your existing extrapolations and build on them? Say you’ve got a story where rampaging angry giants are a major threat, but they can be soothed with music – so singers and harpers are as vital to the defence of a castle as archers or artillerists. Awesome. Now, build on that – if singing’s got more martial connotations in this culture, are there song contests like jousts? Or is it more like flyting duels of cutting poetry? Are there poisons that specifically target the vocal cords?
How does it linger?
For a monster to be memorable, it needs to linger. One way is just to have the monster survive its encounter with your heroes, or for there to be more of them, lurking in the dark. If the reader believes that the thing could come back, they’ll be on edge, waiting for the horror to return. Alternatively, the monster could have some lasting effect on the story or the characters. Scars and wounds, but also trophies or treasures work. Medusa’s a great monster in her own right, but her severed head continues to play a role through the whole tale of Perseus. Or (shameless plug), in The Sword Defiant, Alf took the titular sword from a dark elf monster called Acraist the Wraith-Knight. Even though Acraist’s long dead when the story begins, he lingers because the sword keeps reminding Alf of its ‘true’ master…
Gareth Hanrahan’s three-month break from computer programming to concentrate on writing has now lasted fifteen years and counting. He’s written more gaming books than he can readily recall, by virtue of the alchemical transmutation of tea and guilt into words. He lives in Ireland with his wife and three children. Follow him on Twitter at @mytholder.
Gareth’s latest novel The Sword Defiant is out now and available to order HERE