Let's 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 pony.
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 gone.
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 or me.
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 facing.
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.
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 www.PlotToPunctuation.com.