In my last blog post, I talked about how to write monsters. That post came about when I was writing a story with a terrific monster, but an unsatisfying ending. I realized I was treating the monster too much like a villain. Once I realized it was a monster, and it needed some monster “rules”, did things fall into place.
The topics I covered last time were:
- What’s the difference between a monster and villain?
- A monster must be invoked instead of just showing up
- The monster must be monstrous—both physically and morally upsetting to the natural order of things
- The monster reflects the hero’s weakness, forcing the hero to fight harder than they ever have
In this post, I’ll take about how the hero fights back and even contradict myself to show that villains can be monstrous.
[Note: Below I am speaking in absolutes, but consider it advice. It’s just easier to write in absolute terms than conditional ones. Also, I use “hero”, but it’s a non-gender specific sense.]
The hero must be able to resist
While your monster is a serious threat to your hero, the possibility of victory must exist. Imagine Conan or Harry Potter fighting Godzilla—the battle would be over in moments. (Unless avada kedavra works on Godzilla, but such a short fight would not be a satisfying story.)
You can run from Jason, barricade yourself against the zombie horde, stay out of the water or drive away from the tornadoes in Twister.
Lesson: The monster must present a near-hopeless situation. Some glimmer of hope motivates the hero to fight (or, at least, try to survive), which keeps the reader engaged.
The monster must have a weakness
A monster strikes at the hero’s weakness, but the hero must learn how to strike back. Searching for and exploiting a monster’s weakness makes up a good chunk of monster stories. Jason Voorhees can be confounded by his mother. Silver, garlic and sunlight are effective against several forms of monsters. The shark from Jaws was just a shark.
It great stories, the hero overcomes their own weakness in exploiting the monster’s. Chief Brody—with his fear of the water—killing the shark in Jaws from a stable, well-equipped boat is nowhere nearly as satisfying as him clinging to the mast of the sinking Orca.
Lesson: The monster’s power must be offset by a weakness. The path to find and exploit that weakness must lead straight through the hero’s own weakness.
A villain can be monstrous
I’ve been talking as if villains and monsters are two different things, but a villain can be monstrous.
John Doe, from SE7EN, fits this bill. A villain of the highest order, he plots and schemes, seeing himself as a hero in a corrupt world. But to us his morality is monstrous. So is his self-mutilation to cut off his fingerprints. While he literally walks into the story, he is actually invoked by the daily immoral deeds we see (and commit) every day. His strength is his cunning, which strikes dead-center against Detective Mills’ weakness in seeing the killer (during the investigation) in the most simplistic terms. And Doe’s weakness lies in Mills’ ability to resist his urge to kill Doe. However, Mills cannot resist and his rage completes Doe’s monstrous plan.
Pinhead is another example. Clearly summoned, in some incarnations Pinhead is reactionary to his invocation. He has no plan other than to torture whoever summoned him. He is more a force of (super)nature than a scheming villain.
The demon from the The Exorcist is a better example. Clever and manipulative, its actions and very nature are monstrous. To say nothing of the physical effects it has on Regan McNeil. It is invoked by Regan and exploits at Father Karras’ weakness—his loss of faith.
As I’ve said, take all of this advice. But I hope these “rules” about how to write effective monsters gives you some tool you can use in your writing.
If I’ve missed something, please let me know!