(Love)crafting the Perfect Monster
by Kevin Holton
We all love a good monster story, no matter how loosely you define ‘monster.’
To some, ‘monster’ is exclusively a lab accident, cryptid, or some other big, nasty, never before seen (or, at the very least, only mentioned in mythology) creature. The Minotaur, or a Gorgon, would both probably fall under even the strictest definition of the term. A half-human, half-animal, supernaturally charged hybrid generally makes the cut (although, it’s interesting to note how unusual powers push a being toward monster status, even if relatively human).
On the other hand, there are those who don’t mind applying the label to pretty much any not-quite-human to stumble, squirm, or slither. Frankenstein’s Monster, as he’s commonly known, was just a human being assembled from other human beings. Some might consider vampires, werewolves, zombies, and similar horror classics to be monsters. Then there are also humanoid creatures, like the creation from Splice (2009) and alien horrors, like The Thing. Many Marvel and DC characters would fall under this looser interpretation.
So what makes a monster compelling? What drives us to say, “Damn, I’d read that again,” or “Let’s binge the series” or “No, let’s put on The Simpsons, I can’t sleep after watching that.” Why are Xenomorphs, or The Predator, so compelling and beloved? What leaves people staying up all night, terrified of Pennywise, when other clown-based horror titles get laughed at (and not for the good reason)?
Most people think life is about balance, and a good monster design is no different. Let’s break down what makes these Big Bads work.
The “Army of One” Balance
We’ve seen this before. Alien. Predator. The Terminator. There are few ways of making a creature more terrifying—or more interesting—than making it unstoppable, but alone. Granted, yes, the Alien had many eggs laid elsewhere, and Dracula had a harem, yet you don’t think about these when you’re busy watching or reading the latest exploit. It’s why the Alien: Isolation game was so successful, but Alien: Colonial Marines flopped (well, in fairness, it wasn’t the only reason). These creations are great for building suspense, because the only weakness they apparently have is the fact that it can’t be everywhere at once. Hide out in a secure enough corner, and you’ll be fine—until it realizes where you are. That’s what makes these so much fun.
The “Unyielding Loner” Balance
Dracula. Frankenstein’s Monster. Virgil from Devil May Cry. The Cyclops, and pretty much every other mythological beast. These are the entities that are perfectly content to go it alone, even though they aren’t all-powerful. They simply assume they’re all powerful, or so highly skilled, that nothing can stop them. These are great for character development, though they often lead to some degree of moralism and preaching at the end, since this arrogance, combined with some other fatal flaw, is usually how they’re defeated. The charismatic, eccentric, or identifiable elements of someone so unflinchingly confident are hard to ignore. Give the readers a monster they know is deeply, tragically human. Although, I suppose Frankenstein’s Monster wasn’t technically defeated.
The “Beyond This World” Balance
Demons. Ghosts. Mama from Mama. Diana from Lights Out, who technically wasn’t either. It’s far too easy to make these overpowered. After all, if a spirit, entity, whatever, comes back from the grave, or Hell, or another dimension, how are you supposed to even remotely fight it? One of my favorite movie scenes—ever—has to be when a police officer fires at Diana in Lights Out, only for her to disappear in the flash of the muzzle, teleporting just a little bit closer every time. But, she’s not invulnerable. Her inability to stay in lit areas is how most of the characters survive, finding new, clever, last-second ways to brighten things up and escape. It’s also how they beat her. The trick to this category is that the source of power is also the source of weakness, i.e. how Mama is lulled into pacifism by her need to nurture, or the demons of The Conjuring series being inevitably defeated by the weird, specific rules of their occult nature, like how knowing their name allows you to command them. Survival usually involves the death of your expert, since that’s the first person these creatures will go after, then placating them with a ritual or sacrifice. Nobody’s a winner here.
The “Sweet Holy Hell, What Are You?” Balance
It’s in the name. Whenever you have no idea how to fight something because you have no idea what you’re fighting, you’ve landed in this category. Slenderman. The Thing. The Thing from It Follows. Any other creature known as ‘it’ or ‘The Thing.’ Sephiroth. The Endless Thing with Piebald Sides, from Lisey’s Story. Pennywise. The Bodachs (Odd Thomas). There aren’t rules. Nobody has any clue as to what’s going on. Maybe it’s supernatural? Maybe it really was just an accident. All anyone knows is that you’re screwed, so you better learn quick, because there are rules, and following them is the only way to survive. Admittedly, this isn’t balance so much as it is loosely structured chaos. Creating a good story with this type of monster is about pacing. Let the characters learn one rule at a time, and let them learn it the hard way. Readers will keep following that blood trail to the end.
There are, of course, more ways to build characters, but these are the tried and true methods—these ways don’t simply get people paying attention, they glue them to the seat with their eyes pried open like in A Clockwork Orange. I’ve used all of them to great success in the past. Which did I use for my newest novel, At the Hands of Madness? You’ll have to read and find out.
Kevin Holton is the author of At the Hands of Madness, as well as the forthcoming titles The Nightmare King and These Walls Don’t Talk, They Scream. He also co-wrote the short film Human Report 85616, and his short work has appeared in dozens of anthologies.