|Hydra by John Roberts of 36Peas.com, 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.