Making Monsters

Posted: October 13, 2012 in Discussions, On Writing
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When it comes to characters, we all know they need to be believable, right? Then why on earth would a writer pay so little attention to an extremely important character like the monster? If you are writing horror, fantasy, sci-fi, or any genre where you are essentially creating anything from an entire world to just a creature, you need to understand the importance of making your creature(s) realistic to the reader.

Why?

  • If you fail to fully develop your creature in your mind before you begin writing, the readers will know
  • Say you haven’t thought about your monster entirely, in one passage you’re thinking it looks something like a bear, yet in another you are feeling the sea monster. Make up your mind. Pick a monster and stick with it.
  • Be sure that if you’re writing about a well-known monster, you’ve thoroughly researched lore on the creature. If you include that your creature breaks the mold in some way, thoroughly explain your reasoning and how that is possible.
  • When creating your own monster, be sure to include descriptions that can compare to real animals, so the reader will be more easily able to draw a mental picture of the beast
  • Make sure your creature behaves properly. If this monster can’t speak, then we may doubt his ability to sit down and read the local paper while sipping coffee. If your monster is a stupid hulking beast then make it act like a stupid hulking beast.

What you need to realize about your monsters and creatures, is that they are your characters, and very important ones at that. When your monster falls apart in the mind of the reader, the entire story follows, because what is a scary story without the stinking, fur covered, beast lurking behind the teenager’s car?

How to develop your ideas into a life-like monster:

First off, begin with one element for the creature. I’m thinking scales. So this beast is covered in quarter sized, nearly transparent, blue-ish scales that reflect light, making the beast sparkle in the day-time. On that note, I’m going to include that my beast is nocturnal, due to the flashy quality of his scales. This is where it’s important to understand how real animals adapt to extreme environments. I know that many nocturnal animals have large eyes to allow them to catch traces of light easier, so my creature now has large eyes as well. For color, I’m thinking yellow, just because it’s a bit shocking. Next we want to go into a little more detail. Think about hands, arms, wings, claws, tails, paws, flippers. What kind of extremities do you want your creature to have? To answer that, you may need to think about environment a little before developing your creature further. My scaled beast will call home a large pond in a vastly marshy swamp area, therefore he will need flippers or webbed fingers and toes, and possibly a fish-like tail. This is where you want to start thinking about body size. Are you wanting to create a ghoulish little thing about the size of a large cat, or are you going for a mammoth beast that can knock down a full-grown man with a swipe of its arm? And of course there’s everywhere in between the two. My creature will be about the size of your average man, which will come in handy in the story because I’m thinking some poor unsuspecting woman could mistake the creature for her lost boyfriend and go towards it, only to be stopped dead in her tracks. Now that you have a general body size in mind, consider how you want your creature to move, this will help you decide how long or short the arms and legs or flippers or wings or whatever should be. Say you want your creature to be both biped and quadruped (meaning they can walk on both two legs and four). I would consider making the front arms or legs longer than the back, that way the creature can move similar to how a chimp would. You must also think about the creature’s face, which means thinking about what the monster eats (probably people) and what sort of teeth and mouth would be best suited for this. Generally fangs and long, sharp teeth are what people go for here, but there are other instances in which teeth wouldn’t be necessary. Most importantly, you need to think about how this creature will move and act, this will help you to look at other animals that are similar in ways, so you can incorporate realistic qualities that will make the monster feel real to the reader.

The thing that I cannot stress to you enough about creating a monster is research. You have to do it, and do it some more, and hell, when you feel like you’ve got enough info, keep looking and gather a bit more still. As creator, you need to consider every angle and aspect of this animal’s life, not that you need to include all these details all the time, but when creating something never seen in a story before, it is important to include a lot of back story on the animal. You have to have an understanding of how your creature could theoretically be a living, breathing being, rather than a one-dimensional beast with claws and no motivation.

When I started writing my novel Lashine (which, I’ll admit is still unfinished), I wasn’t even sure I wanted to create a monster, but the more I thought about the circumstances I wanted to create, the more I started seeing that a monster would fit just right. Since the main idea I had was for people in the town of Lashine to never grow old, I had the brilliant idea that the root of this phenomenon would be a parasite. So I researched parasites, but none were as big as I’d wanted and none seemed quite right. So I looked at invertebrates as well, and there I found a bit of inspiration. Yet, I still liked the idea of a creature that climbed inside a person and once they were in there, it would be impossible to get them out. Out of this research came this mental picture: a small creature about the size of a kitten, with a long worm-like segmented body that was bulbous at the head and tapered down into a long tail that ended in barbs, there are no eyes (since living inside a human body they don’t need them) and slits for nostrils, a large fang-filled mouth sits below the slits, and the only extremities this creature has are small t-rex like arms which it uses to pull its body along. This creature has a powerful tail that is able to launch its small body up to six feet in the air. They land on a person’s chest and use their little clawed arms to grab onto the flesh of the face and mouth and pull themselves in through the throat. Once in the stomach, they chew or tear a small hole in the back side of the stomach, closest to the spine, and wriggle their boneless bodies through the small passage and in between the vertebrae. There, comfortably nestled in the spinal cord, the creature goes to work, feasting on the tissue and creating a nest out of its excrement. The nest itself conveys neurological signals as the tissue would have, and the human host goes on living, without aging as the creature slowly eats all the spinal tissue. After forty years or so, the creature runs out of its food source, and cannot keep up on the nest. The structures lose their strength, and crumble, paralyzing the host and killing them within a few short days. The pain for the host is excruciating, and when the host dies, so does the parasite.

Besides all that, I came up with a detailed mating season as well as a back story about where the last plague of these parasites hit. It may be beneficial to the author to include some back story on the monster created as a prelude or prologue, as this may help to set the tone for your novel. Remember that throughout the story, you will need to refer back to certain details about the creature, as well as their back story. A good idea would be to keep notes to easily flip back to. Also, being that my creature was a parasite, I delved deep into the world of parasites to learn everything from what they eat, how they navigate their host’s body, how they navigate outside their host’s body, to reproductive aspects of their life as well. I researched human anatomy as well, and honestly, when I couldn’t get it to fit nicely with my parasites movements throughout the body and their size, I just sort of looked the other way. Not EVERYTHING has to fit perfectly, but it has to be close enough to be believable.

Another thing I found particularly helpful was to draw out how I saw the creature in my mind. If you’re not artistically inclined, this may be a bit difficult for you, but even if it doesn’t turn out looking exactly how you imagined or if it doesn’t look like great art, you will still be able to better “see” at least in your mind, what this monster looks like.

I’d like to remind you all that these are only suggestions and what I do. If you do things differently, share your thoughts as well as your process. Or if you use my tips and tricks in this post, share with me how they worked for you. I hope I covered everything, if not, sorry.

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Comments
  1. Love what you say about research. Often what really takes the realism out of monsters is when they have been poorly researched or visualised, so that they don’t really make ‘sense’. Perhaps it’s a curse of our realism-obsessed age?

    Also, for your parasite monster – I do hope the reproductive cycle is going to be amazingly complicated. Some of the real-life parasites go through three or four hosts before bursting triumphantly out of the definitive one with new eggs ready to hatch – the horrors of nature often outmatch anything we can come up with!

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