Episode 7: Learn How to Create Monsters
Listen as host Randy Ellefson talks about how and when to create monsters. Learn the differences between monsters and animals, and monsters and species. Use habitat to make them more compelling. Figure out how their origins can make them memorable, whether they were created by accident, on purpose, or by evolution. Finally, determine their motivation because even monsters want something, and knowing this will determine everything they do.
In This Episode You’ll Learn:
- What storytellers have traditionally used monsters for
- How a monster is different from an animal or humanoid species
- How to determine what’s in a monster’s lair and why
- Why a monster might’ve been created on purpose and by who and for what reasons
- How accidental monsters originate and how this affects their outlook and behavior
- Whether plants as monsters makes any sense
- What your monster might want and why
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Episode 7 Transcript
Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode episode number seven. Today’s topic is how to create monsters. This includes talking about how they differ from animals and species, how to make their origins interesting, their motivation, and more. This material and more is discussed in Chapter 4 of Creating Life, volume 1 in The Art of World Building book series.
Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.
We all know what a monster is, but we might also be creating a species or animals, so let’s try to be clear about the differences. The term implies something harmful, unnatural, or morally objectionable, whether that’s a physical deformity or psychological one. Storytellers have created monsters to get across one of those ideas, usually as a warning. In other words, traditionally monsters weren’t there simply to be killed by our heroes, although this is something we often see in science fiction and fantasy. The storytellers of old usually approached it that way, but in our modern times, it seems that people often create monsters just to have something for our heroes to kill.
While there’s nothing wrong with that, it suggests that there are two kinds of monsters: those that have nothing interesting about them other than the fact that they’re scary, and those that are representative of some evil. It’s arguably harder to create the latter, which is probably why a lot of modern storytellers don’t bother. While this is fine, be aware that you could do more with your monster if you have a mind to create something that is morally objectionable.
We can do that by having the monster represents something. And it should be an issue that has something to do with either the story or the characters. For example, maybe your monster is a fallen knight who has been transformed into something hideous, and that the reason this happened to him is that he somehow failed in his moral duty as a knight, and this is the punishment. By punishment, I don’t necessarily mean that someone forced this person to become this way, but maybe their morally bankrupt choices led them to do something and exposed them to something dangerous, and that phenomenon turned him into a monster. In this way, we can imply that their character and their faults led them to become a monster. And if we’re not looking for that sort of commentary, then we don’t need to do this.
Another angle we might want to explore is that sometimes a monster is thought to foreshadow some sort of evil happening. This can be one reason why they are cast out of society. As long as they are around, people might be worried about this event taking place. An example of this would be someone who is born with a birth defect that makes them physically hideous to other people, and that causes people to not only decide that they are a monster physically, but maybe morally they represent something terrible. The arrival of a person with this moral flaw could herald the end of civilization, for example. That’s kind of extreme, but it could be also just the fall of some kind of idea, or some idea has been tarnished by the arrival of this morally objectionable person.
Something we’re alluding to here is the unfortunate reality that at least humans tend to judge other people based on physical characteristics. We will decide that someone attractive is good and someone unattractive is bad. Psychologists have actually done studies proving that people do indeed do this, where good appearances is associated with good character. This is an unfortunate reality that we all have to live with.
However, we could have a species of our invention, or even the standard ones, that don’t act like this. They might be the ones who take in a monster, or a person who is considered a monster, who has been cast out by another society. They may even become known for becoming a refuge for monsters. What if you have a character who, at the end of a book, becomes a monster for the second book, and then goes to those people for refuge? It’s an interesting story arc.
We might also have a species or race, or even animal, who is initially considered to be a monster by space traveling characters who are unfamiliar with this life form. We’ll touch upon this more in a few minutes, but the question of numbers is one of the ones we should consider, because typically a monster is considered to be a one off. There’s only one of them, not ten or a thousand.
We could have a scenario where the space travelers encounter just one of them and think it’s a monster, and then in time they find out it’s not. It’s actually an animal or species.
This brings up another subject, and that is the word “sentient.” The definition of this word is the ability to sense, feel, and experience, which means that any animal is technically sentient. But in science fiction and fantasy, the word is often used to imply that someone or something either does or does not have humanlike mental capabilities. This isn’t really what the word means, but you’re probably familiar with that, if you’ve heard of it at all, so we’re going to go ahead with that understanding of what the word sentient means throughout the rest of this episode.
Monsters Versus Species
Let’s talk about the difference between a monster and a species. The main difference is arguably the mind. We don’t expect a monster to have a philosophy, culture, or a society. In fact, there’s usually only one of them, and we tend to think of these issues as things that distinguish humans from animals. Monsters are often considered to be much closer to animals than humans. I said humans here, but in the context of fantasy and science fiction, that includes any of the so-called sentient races like elves and dwarves.
A monster isn’t going to have its own language either, because if there’s only one of them, it doesn’t need to develop a language at all, not to mention one to communicate with others of its kind when they don’t exist. If it can speak at all, it’s going to be one of the languages of another species. The lack of others is also why it’s not going to have a society or culture, because that implies that there’s more than one of them.
While the mind of the monster is typically considered quite limited compared to those of humans, there’s no reason we can’t have an intelligent monster. Dracula is one that comes to mind, but he was once a human. This is where his intelligence originates and it has not been dramatically reduced by having become what we consider to be a monster. Whatever transformation he underwent did not cause the problem.
But that’s not to say that we can’t have that be the case. Zombies come to mind as something that’s typically very stupid, and then when we have one that is slightly more intelligent, we consider that an aberration.
Monsters are typically unsophisticated and are much like an animal that is essentially backed into a corner and wants to eat us for dinner or because we came into their territory. We don’t imagine that they are sitting around writing symphonies or great literature. In theory they wouldn’t be able to appreciate these either, but anyone can enjoy music.
And then of course you have the example of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, which actually became educated enough to read a book. If you’ve never read Frankenstein, Mary Shelley has all of these passages in there where the monster is thinking a lot about its place in the world, what it is doing here, and how did it get abandoned by its creator. It’s a relatively sophisticated monster in the sense that it can actually read and understand philosophy, but most of us don’t know that because Hollywood tends to take Frankenstein’s monster and turn it into something that’s walking around moaning and groaning, and trying to kill people, of course.
This philosophy-minded monster is the exception rather than the rule. While we are generalizing here, we’re trying to get a baseline understanding of what we mean by “monster.” While we might all know what that means, sometimes thinking about these things can make us think of exceptions that we can do for variety.
Monsters vs. Animals
Let’s also talk about monsters versus animals and what the differences are. I mentioned this earlier, but I think the single biggest difference is numbers. There’s a reason there is only one type of each monster, and that is because that it implies they are abnormal, which means that they are not common. Once we have dozens, hundreds, or thousands of them, they become common and they are not abnormal and therefore they are not a monster anymore.
This immediately reminds me of zombies. They are considered monsters but that’s not the word we use to describe them most of the time. We refer to them as zombies. Maybe this is a technicality, but once we have more than one of them, we don’t use “monster” to describe them. We instead have a name for the whole group of them, such as “zombies.” Zombies are certainly monstrous, but we don’t call them “monsters.”
Think of it this way: if you and I were standing together, and a dozen zombies were coming toward us, and I said, “Oh look, it’s a bunch of monsters,” he would say, “No it’s not. They’re zombies.” In other words, “zombie” is more specific than “monster.”
And one of the things implied by that specific word “zombie,” is that zombies have predictable character traits. How do we know that they’re predictable? Because there’s more than one of them. By contrast, a monster is unique and therefore we don’t know what it can do unless we have experience with it or we’ve heard about it. You could almost say that monster is a fallback term if we don’t know what else to refer to it by.
Assuming for the sake of argument that zombies are real, the first person to run across just one of them would’ve probably thought that it was a monster, but once they discovered that there were more of them, and that they had shared traits, they probably would’ve come up with a name, and that name would be “zombie.”
None of this means we can’t have two identical monsters. That might contradict everything I just said, but what if one event created more than one of them? Let’s say that you have a human who was exposed to radiation, or in this case, two humans. Would that radiation cause the same mutation in both of them? There’s no way to know. I’m not a geneticist, so I can’t do more than speculate, but it’s certainly reasonable to conclude that it might cause two different mutations, resulting in two different monsters.
But let’s say there are two monsters that are identical, and that they can also reproduce. Once they start doing so, they start to move away from being monsters toward being animals. Either that, or if they all have a certain amount of intelligence, they might start becoming a species. Why? Because they’re going to start developing their own language, society, philosophy, and all that other stuff. What this means is that we could have something that starts off as a monster, but then it evolves into something greater than that.
As world builders, we have license to do whatever we want, but at least this thought exercise gets you thinking about what you’re doing.
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Origins – Accidental Monsters
We’ve touched on their origins a little bit, but let’s focus on this more. We don’t need to tell the audience where the monster originated, but this can make them more interesting. The first question is whether they exist on purpose or by accident. Let’s talk about accidental monsters first.
In science fiction and fantasy, it’s really easy to have a character come in contact with an advanced technology, an unexplained phenomenon, or magic that turns them into a monster. Many of our comic book characters come from such things. We don’t even need to explain the sort of thing because people already accept it. We just say that someone ran into this and now they’re a monster, and that’s all there is to it.
One thing we should is consider whether that phenomenon, or whatever caused it, is still around and is capable of producing more monsters, whether those are the same or different. If the phenomenon was short-lived, such as something like an explosion, there’s probably not going to be a recurrence of this. On the other hand, if the phenomenon is one that’s perpetually located where it is, then it could produce more of them, unless we decide that it’s in a remote place, or that people realize that it can do this and now there’s some sort of protection around it, so that people can’t get there. If the source is perpetual, but we don’t want to have hundreds of these monsters, then this is one way of going around that. It also gives us the option to change our mind later and have another person become this sort of monster, or a different variety.
Typically, if we have an accident that results in a monster, that accident happened to a living entity, such as a person or an animal. If an accident affected something inanimate like a broom, we don’t consider the result to be a monster. In this case, I’m thinking of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, where the broom is doing its own thing. Do we think of that as a monster? No. We think of it as an animated object. But there’s no reason we couldn’t give it more features to make it more like a monster. And what would that features be? Sentience: the ability to think, sense, and experience. For the most part, an animated object like a broom does not have that.
I say “for the most part” because we could decide that it does, but then we’ve created a monster, and we are using sentience to distinguish between an animate object and a monster.
What about plants? These are living matter. Could we have a plant that becomes a monster? Sure, why not? The accident could have given the plant increased sentience. The big problem with having a plant as a monster is that plants are typically rooted to the spot. Something that can’t chase after you is not particularly disturbing. All you have to do is stand far enough away.
But what if we gave that plant the ability to lure people closer, such as hypnotism or some sort of pheromone that makes them come closer? Now it’s starting to become a monster. The plant might also acquire the ability to cause hallucinations so that people don’t realize its true nature. Maybe it causes someone to enter into a dreamlike state where they imagine that they are walking into their home, and laying down to sleep in their bed, when they are really lying down in the part of the plant that consumes living matter, like them.
But let’s say that it was a human that became a monster, or one of our species. If this person is now a monster and has been in that state for decades, this might have rendered their original intelligence relatively muted so that they are now dumber than they used to be. This is one way to justify the monster’s intelligence. Or we can simply decide that this dumbing down of them was instantaneous. Or they could be so horrified by what has happened to them, psychologically, that they’ve had the equivalent of a mental breakdown and they’re just not in their right head about it. Would you blame them? I would probably lose my mind if I became a monster.
If something like an explosion caused our monster to exist, we might want to consider who caused that incident to happen. Why would we care about this? Well, for one, it gives us a little bit more back story and an incident in the history, but it also might give our monster something they might want to take revenge upon if it can remember. In a perfect world, the monster might decide to be forgiving, but where’s the fun in that? Isn’t it more interesting if the monster has an issue with someone and wants to go and find that person and destroy them or their family? Or even the society that it used to be part of and is now cast out of? Because it might not just be an individual who was responsible for the accident, but the society or parts of it.
And the monster could actually be the one who caused that accident themselves. Humans in particular have a tendency to not take responsibility for things that we do to ourselves, especially if it’s really bad. It might just blame other people for this and still have a revenge issue.
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Origins – Monsters by Design
Let’s talk about monsters that were created on purpose. Now by “on purpose” I don’t mean something like Dr. Frankenstein, who was trying to create life and inadvertently created a monster. That is still an accident, though not in the sense of something exploding, for example. What we’re really talking about is someone who wants to create a monster and has that intention from the outset.
A good question is why would someone do this? And the answer could be that the monster has a purpose. Maybe this monster is designed to guard something. Since there’s only one of them, because monsters are, by definition, uncommon, then maybe no one knows what to expect or how to defeat this monster. Maybe the monster is designed to go around terrorizing a village because some sort of wizard wants this to be done. Maybe that wizard has a beef with that village and wants to freak everyone out. The monster could also just be a diversion while the wizard is going off and doing something else.
But what about the monster? Does it like having this purpose? Does it enjoy doing what it’s doing? And is it bound to its creator somehow so that if something happens to that creator, the monster also suffers a bad fate? What if the creator dies and the monster is now on its own and is just going about trying to find its way? It might’ve just had a purpose and now doesn’t other than just to survive. Maybe the monster is so loyal that it wants to take revenge on those who destroyed its master. The monster could’ve been harsh because the way its master treated it, and now that the master is gone, it might be a little bit more subdued and calmer, and less of a monster to people. Of course, if it already went around terrorizing people, no one’s going to care that it’s calmer now.
If the monster had a purpose, the purpose could’ve been achieved a long time ago, leaving it aimless. Such a monster is likely to be a little bit less dramatic than one that is still caught up in whatever purpose it has. Any monster that has been created on purpose is arguably more likely to be content with being a monster than someone who was turned into one.
While humans and other species have a moral and ethical code, a monster is typically portrayed as not having one, or as having one that is just radically different from ours, so that it appears like it doesn’t have one. What I’m getting at here is that it’s possible for the creator to happen imbued that monster with certain attitudes, such as protection of the creator or an item. Keeping this in mind while inventing such a monster will help you determine how it acts.
It can help if you know who created it and why. On that note, who would create a monster on purpose? We’re probably thinking of wizards, gods, and maybe a mad scientist, like Dr. Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll. We might also have our villain character who wants to purposely expose the hero character to some sort of phenomenon, either to kill them or to just destroy them in some other way, but the side effect is that it actually turned him into a monster. This villain may or may not know what is about to happen to this character, so this could either be an accident or a purposeful creation of a monster. The difference doesn’t matter much.
The other source of monsters is evolution, such as in the X-Men series. The X-Men think of themselves as mutants, but some of the humans in the stories consider them monsters. This sets up a nice clash.
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Let’s talk a little bit about habitat, as where the monster lives is important to any story involving them, even if that home is never shown. The biggest reason we’ll show the home is that our characters have stumbled upon it or purposely sought it out in order to destroy the monster. Once we do show this home, this gives us a lot of opportunities to characterize the monster itself through the home.
There could be any number of things that are lying around in this lair, including treasure, weapons, and the remains of victims. Those victims could either be animals or the species. In both cases, but especially in the case of species, the monster could’ve been defending itself, or it could have either lured those people there or gone out to kidnap them, bring them back, and then consume them to some degree.
As for why the remains are still there, it’s possible that the monster is warning anyone else who stumbles upon this lair, or purposely goes seeking it out, that this is what’s going to happen to them if they come in. It’s also quite possible that the monster doesn’t understand that disease can spread, or it might actually be immune to any such diseases. Another issue that could result from this, and again the monster might not care, is that the smell could actually lure other creatures in there or the species, who are realizing there’s something dead over that way and they should check it out. They end up finding the lair, so the monster may or may not want to avoid this.
Of course, it’s possible that our monster doesn’t have a lair. This is a little bit uncommon because in literature, the stories are typically cautionary, meaning that the monster is living somewhere near a settlement that is supposed to learn a lesson from the monster’s existence. A monster that goes away for a long period of time might prevent a population from learning that lesson.
On the other hand, there’s no reason we can’t have a monster that does like to travel. Maybe it does so seasonally, having more than one lair that it arrives at at different times of the year. This makes me think of migrating animals, but animals mostly do this for mating reasons. However, they also do it for food reasons, and their food may move around. A monster may be dining on people, so if the population doesn’t travel, the monster probably doesn’t. But what if you have a migratory species? You may end up with a monster that travels.
In worlds with magic or technology, there’s no reason we can’t have a monster who has acquired some other ability to get around. One of their victims might’ve had a magic ring that allows them to teleport. There might happen to be a magic portal somewhere near their lair, or they can at least get to it with relative ease, and maybe no one even knows that this is there, but that’s how this monster is getting around. As you might imagine, this could make that monster significantly harder to track.
In some worlds, there’s a kind of alternate reality that exists parallel to the normal one and where travel can happen at faster speeds, and maybe that land is where the monster exists. Or the monster just has access to that land and can get from one place to another in much faster time frames. I used that idea myself in my book The Ever Fiend. You can download that for free when you’re joining The Art of World Building newsletter by checking the fiction checkbox. Is the Ever Fiend a monster? You’ll have to read the book to find out if there’s more than one of them.
In science fiction, we have another option for getting our monster from one place to another relatively quickly, and that would be technology. Now magic in fantasy, and technology in science fiction, are pretty much the same thing. It’s just that one of them has an explanation in a technical way and the other one doesn’t. But the more interesting option here is the ability to use something like a spaceship.
We don’t normally think of a monster as having the mental capability to utilize a spaceship, but there’s no reason it can’t. In fact, the ship could be something that is relatively easy to control and it might even have something like autopilot. You just need to give your monster enough capability to command the ship and then you’re good to go, and this is a little bit easier if your monster has some ability to speak, or it has a telepathic ability and there is a ship’s artificial intelligence that can then do all the dirty work for the monster.
This ship could essentially function as a home away from home. How does the monster acquire such a ship? That’s easy. The ship landed, and the monster killed the crew, and then it went on the ship and away it goes.
Let’s talk a little bit more about a lair that’s in a fixed location because there’s another point we want to bring up here, and that point is that usually monsters don’t want anyone to find that lair. The question remains: what do they do to prevent people from finding that lair? Does it go out of its way to avoid leaving tracks? Does it avoid leaving bodies? Does it purposely leave a trail but that trail is a trap? There might be magical or technological devices that allow people to track the monster more easily, so does the monster have the ability to thwart those devices?
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What Does Your Monster Want?
The last thing we’re going to talk about today is the monster’s motivation. What does it want?
Being left alone is a viable option. After all, if everyone thinks you’re a monster, you probably don’t want to be around them. In our modern world, with so much concern about bullying, we could decide that the monster simply doesn’t want to be on the receiving end of this. In fact, you could say that this is emotionally abusive. It seems kind of silly to say that about a monster, because we consider them evil, and they’re going around attacking people.
But certainly in modern children’s stories we have these stories where a monster is considered to be a misunderstood creature of some kind, and it’s actually a nice guy. It’s being bullied and therefore it’s lashing out. This is a bit of a cliché, but the idea still stands: maybe the monster just wants to be left alone and not have to deal with this. This is arguably more likely if that monster was once a species of ours and has been turned into a monster, and he remembers enough of his old life that he doesn’t want to experience this.
On that note, some of our species might think that the monster has the right to be left alone, provided it’s not going around killing people. In our modern times, we have a lot of this “right to life” kind of thing going on, so are there people or species who think that our monster has a right to live?
Another motivation is hoarding treasure, but this is one that I’ve always had a problem with for one simple reason: if you’re a monster and you’re shunned by society, then treasure isn’t going to do you any good. It’s not like you can just waltz into town and say that you want to buy some item for 50 gold pieces, and the shop owner says that he will sell it to you for 60 instead. It’s not going to happen. You’re not going to have any bartering. This is money. The monster doesn’t have any use for this.
Now the alternative to that is for the monster to think it’s shiny, pretty, and the monster is kind of dumb, and it just likes this stuff. In this case, sure, hoarding treasure make sense. A better justification for treasure being around is that anyone who went there to try to kill the monster has ended up dead and their possessions are just lying around, casually discarded and the monster doesn’t care or know what to do with it, so it’s still just sitting there. That makes a lot more sense.
If the monster was never part of society, it’s probably never going to understand the value of these things, unless of course it’s a good observer and sees people coming into the lair trying to walk off with something especially shiny. It might reasonably conclude that it must be valuable, but is it even going to care that it is?
Another justification for treasure is that it does attract people, and if the monster wants to eat those people, then it makes sense to leave that treasure around.
What about food, since we were just talking about that? Everyone needs to eat and your monster is likely no exception. The bigger the monster, the more it’s going to need to eat. The more frightening our monster is, the more likely we are to have it eating the species instead of the local cow population. Granted, it’s not like people are not going to be upset about the livestock being eaten, because it’s someone’s likelihood, but it’s much more horrifying and upsetting when people are being eaten. We might want to consider this as a motivation, that the monster is eating people just because it’s hungry.
If the monster is a little bit smarter and more psychologically aggressive, maybe it’s eating people just to freak them out. The problem with doing that is that of course people are going to get upset and probably going to come after me and try to kill me, so do I really want to do that? Maybe if I eat people once in a while, people will leave me alone, but if I eat people all the time, they’re probably going to come after me.
If I eat people and I don’t make it obvious that I’m the one who did it, then they’re going to be less likely to pin it on me and come after me. This is one reason why I might kidnap someone and take them back to my lair and consume them there. It might also be smart for me to not leave the remains inside the opening of my cave, for example. Monsters may not be sophisticated enough to understand the difference between eating an animal and a person, so this is another option.
Another motivation that we just touched upon is security. No one likes to feel threatened and that includes monsters. This could be one of the reasons why they attack. This is especially true if it feels that people are encroaching on its territory. Maybe it’s been living out in the wilderness for 50 years but that modern civilization is starting to chop down trees and other things, and slowly encroach, and the next thing you know, it starts attacking people.
We might not think that a monster would be afraid of anything, but even the apex predators in the world, like a shark, they are afraid of something. They cautiously approach food, and if that food is acting in such a way as to be unpredictable, or not a sure kill, something like a shark will actually go away.
In stories, we typically show monsters being largely unafraid of people, even when they are fully armored and have incredible weapons or prowess using them. They’re going at it with this monster, but still the monster is coming on. This is one way in which a monster is different from an animal. A monster is typically more aggressive and ferocious. It doesn’t back down as easily.
Another motivation we talked about earlier is revenge. I’m not to touch upon it again here, though it is covered a little bit more in the book. Another subject we aren’t going to talk about in the podcast is the characteristics of our monster, such as its physical appearance and its skills, and how to make these more interesting and relevant for our audience. As always, the chapter concludes with a section on where to start.
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