Talk about Monsters
by Jason Black
First there was Anne Rice’s Interview with
the Vampire. Fast-forward 35 years—yes, it really has been that
long—and the monster books are in full blossom. Zombies and
steampunk mix in Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker. Werewolves are
something of the new hotness in paranormal romance, giving a new
twist to the bad-boy love interest. Sea monsters are swimming
through in everything from tongue-in-cheek parodies such as Ben H.
Winters’s Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters to more
serious sci-fi fare like China Miéville’s Kraken, with its
intimations of cephalopod deities.
That’s a lot of monsters. A lot of non-human
antagonists, just to be specific about it. Clearly, there’s a
market, which means there are a lot of authors out there working on
their own monster masterpieces. However, if you’re going to cast a
monster as your central antagonist, you’d better make sure it’s
scary enough to carry the whole novel. So let’s take a minute to
talk about what makes for a malevolent monster, not just a one-trick
This one is simple: to be scary, the monster must be
dangerous. It must be capable of inflicting some serious damage on
the book’s protagonists or innocent bystanders. It must have the
physical power to make the protagonists’ world a much less pleasant
place. But I’m often surprised by manuscripts I see whose monsters
aren’t particularly dangerous.
I get the feeling that authors of these manuscripts
are afraid to make the monster too dangerous. Sometimes this is
because the author is
afraid to do bad things to the protagonist. Sometimes I think
it’s because the author is afraid he won’t be able to figure out a
good way for the protagonist to emerge victorious if he makes the
monster too fearsome. Here’s a tip: be fearsome. Make sure the
monster has violence built in. Chances are it’ll push your
characters to be cleverer, and you to be more creative about your
plot. That’s gold for any manuscript, paranormal or otherwise.
It’s extremely difficult for a dumb monster to
sustain the terror across a whole novel. Not impossible, but very
difficult. The reason is that mindless monsters are seriously
limited in how they can react to situations, how they can respond to
the protagonists’ strategies, and even in the goals they can pursue.
Take zombies. The classic zombie is a mindless,
slavering corpse driven by a relentless appetite for the brains of
the living. That’s it. Personally, I don’t find zombies to be all
that scary, because once the protagonists figure out how to deal
with them, the book’s tension is gone. Sure, the whole zombie horde
thing has a certain panache to it, but once the good guys realize
that they can out-saunter the horde basically forever, the fear
factor drops precipitously. And once they realize that a
shovel-chop to the neck will neutralize the zombie, the fear is
Basically, there’s a strategy—emphasis on the
singular—for dealing with zombies. And since they’re mindless
creatures, they can’t surprise you anymore. But an intelligent
monster can surprise your characters and your readers endlessly.
Intelligent monsters can drive much stronger drama by building
through a series of mini-climax moments, each of which turns
out to be a loss for the good guys, because the monster has yet
another surprise up its sleeve.
This, I think, is why Vampire books can work so
well. Vampires start as human, and as such are just as smart as you
We fear the unknown. The less your characters and
readers can understand the monster, the scarier it is.
Creating a monster with a variety of physically
powerful, dangerous surprises up its scaly sleeves creates mystery,
because neither the protagonist nor the reader will know what the
creature can do. Not at first. Major moments of progress in the
plot can be simply learning about the monster’s abilities. This is
great, because the satisfaction for the reader in learning something
significant about the villain can also pump up the drama by
revealing just how difficult a situation the protagonists are
Mystery is also why intelligence makes a scary
monster. An intelligent monster can make plans. It can set traps
and ambushes. It can misdirect. It can, most importantly,
anticipate the actions of the protagonists, and change its
strategy in response. Which is more scary, the mindless zombie
whose every move is entirely predictable, or the clever, malevolent
vampire who always seems to be one step ahead of you?
The final element of mystery is an alien mentality.
Your mileage may vary, but to me this is just about the scariest of
all, and it’s what separates the run-of-the-mill monster from the
truly memorable, unique antagonist. This is when the monster’s
goals are driven by its own logic, but it is a logic that is so
foreign, so strange to ordinary human thinking that we can’t begin
to comprehend it. A logic that, even when you understand it
broadly, still leaves the monster’s behavior wholly unpredictable.
China Miéville created a great example in the
character of the Weaver, from Perdido Street Station. The
Weaver was physically dangerous, highly intelligent, and driven by a
desire to create beautiful patterns in the “world web.” It’s scary
because while we can understand the base drive—aesthetics—that
understanding gives no insight into what the Weaver considers to be
beautiful. Thus, we cannot predict what the Weaver might do to
create its alien beauty in the world.
Unpredictability is scary, and the most visceral
route into unpredictability is a truly alien mentality.
We want the monsters in our book to be dark. To be
scary. To be powerful forces in our protagonist’s world. It is apt
that the Latin word for force and power is vim. Make sure
your book’s monsters are full of VIM—violence, intelligence,
and mystery—and you’ll scare the pants off your readers.
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Jason Black is a Seattle area book doctor who helps novelists sort
out the thorny issues in their novels. He is a regular
presenter at the PNWA Summer Writers Conference, and is writing a
handbook on character development techniques. To learn more about
Jason or read his blog, visit his website at