Friday, July 19, 2013

Ghosties and Ghoulies and Lang-Leggit Beasties

It can be argued that a good Fantasy novel is defined as such according to the stature of the hero or heroine’s principle Adversary. To put it another way, every good story needs either a worthy monster (like Moby Dick) or a worthy villain (like Darth Vader), or some combination of the two. Leaving aside the issue of Fantasy Villains, I thought it would be fun to devote this month’s entry to Fantasy Monsters.

Hydra by John Roberts of, via Flickr

People love stories about monsters. All of us vividly remember the shivery thrill of telling ghost stories in the dark; or the squirmy suspense of watching an old Hammer Horror film on late-night TV ; or the nerve-shredding tension of looking on while Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss investigate the floating wreckage of a small boat.

All over the world, time out of mind, myths, legends, and fairytales abound with monsters of all kinds. In Western Civilization, this material has been accessed by writers, century after century, to produce epics (Virgil’s Aeneid, the anonymous Beowulf), romances (the Arthurian cycles, Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso), Renaissance dramas (Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest) and Gothic novels (Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stoker’s Dracula). Writers of modern Fantasy are inheriting – and perpetuating - a rich tradition. But at a price.

For a time, following the publication of The Lord of the Rings, Fantasy writers could – and did – apply to earlier source material for inspiration, especially with reference to magical creatures and non-human races, both good and evil. Since then, however, the elements of Fantasy literature (including monsters) have been widely popularized through films and games, with the result that Fantasy readers are now familiar to the point of ennui with Dark Lords, Witch-Queens, Demon-Masters, etc., along with their monster-minions. This means that currently-active Fantasy writers have to work harder than their literary forebears in order to impress.

Where monsters are concerned, this often involves starting with the basic generic material, then introducing some creative variations that nobody else has thought about yet. Here are some questions to ask you in preparation for thinking outside the traditional box.

1. Is my monster corporeal or incorporeal? (Shelob vs. the barrow-wites)

If your monster is a beast shape-shifter, instead of turning him/her into a wolf, have him/her turn into something less conventional, like a coyote.

2. Is my monster a unique individual, or is it a member of a species? (Sauron the Dark Lord vs. orcs)

If the monster is a unique individual, jettison the Dark Lord persona in favor of something opposite: an Angel of Light, the sole survivor of the destruction of the previous Creation.

3. Is my monster (a) merely bestial, (b) semi-sentient, (c) sentient within human parameters, or (d) superhuman? (Smaug the dragon, vs. the trees of Fangorn, vs. Gollum, vs. the Lord of the Nazgul)

Here you’re on your own, but you get the idea.

And finally: is your monster also your villain? Tune in next month.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.


  1. Is now a good time to mention that a pterodactyl has sneaked its way into Chapter 3 of my book? ;-)

    1. Deborah Turner HarrisJuly 20, 2013 at 1:23 AM

      Excellent! I can't wait!

    2. Cool, Elle! I was just thinking about pterodactyls while swimming the lake—a great blue heron flew by, and close up, the two ancient flyers look a lot alike!

  2. I don't write fantasy, so my monsters are two-legged humans who are evil. I see them as monsters and treat them as such. Only one is the protagonist...

  3. Nothing better than a creepy monster.We take small fears and build them up and , in fiction at least, we defeat them. These are really good points to ponder when creating any kind of supernatural/paranormal creature as well as monsters.

    1. Deborah Turner HarrisJuly 20, 2013 at 1:35 AM

      You've aptly summarised the appeal - and, more importantly, psychological value - of myths and faerie tales. If you haven't previously come across it, Clarissa Pinkola Estes' book, The Women Who Run With the Wolves, is a fascinating study the subject.

    2. Debby I love Women Who Run with the Wolves!

  4. I'll bet it would be fun to conjure up a really good monster. Never tried it!

  5. My monster is the unfinished WIP that is lurking in this computer.

  6. A good monster, Heidi? Like Puff, the Magic Dragon? Interesting idea. :-)

    Like Betsy, I create 2-legged monsters with evil intent. Early on, however, I learned they had to have at least one redeeming quality to make them believable. It's hard to imagine some monstrous people as having any redeemable qualities. I think of Atilla the Hun, but my research revealed that even he apparently possessed some good. Whatever the genre, it seems that good (the protagonist) versus evil (the antagonist/monster) still prevails.

    1. Deborah Turner HarrisJuly 20, 2013 at 1:29 AM

      I agree with you 100% when it comes to endowing a two-legged monster with at least one redeeming quality. Like you, I made this discovery in the process of writing my first Fantasy novel, and I've held to the principle ever since. I'll be exploring this issue in greater depth in my next post which will be on Villains.

    2. This is such an important point, Debby. I look forward to reading what you have to say next time.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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