Like most people I discovered monsters when I was young. It started with fables and stories but by the time I was six, shows such as the Muppets and Dr Who had me hooked on monsters. I remember many long nights spent in bed going to sleep to Jeff Waynes War of the Worlds terrified by the martian howls and crying over the death of the thunderchild. I was an early masochist it seems. Certainly all my life monsters have been a facination for me which partially explains my love of B grade movies (something has to).
When I started writing around three years ago I didn’t set out to do monsters. I did want to do science fiction, though not the star wars kind. My influences as a child were writers such as HG Wells, Jules Verne and John Wyndham and later HP Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King. The common thread of these authors was people dealing with extraordinary creatures and circumstances from a very earthly perspective. Science fiction lends itself to pushing people to their limits in many different ways and seeing how they will react. The human characters become the lens through which we explore the unknown and maybe survive it.
It wasn’t long into crafting my earliest stories that monsters started rearing their ugly (well sometimes) heads. Why? I hadn’t invited them in, quite the opposite I tried to avoid them but the more I avoided them the more they crept in. Worse was to come. I gave them some script time, they wanted more. I gave them some bigger roles but they demanded more. They started to eat into my backstory, research time and even started to choose my reading material for me. By the time my daughters started handing me drawings of their own monsterous creations the jig was up. I knew what they wanted, prime time roles and they weren’t going to give me peace until I let them.
So I gave in and stopped writing stories with monsters in them and started writing about monsters.
Good Monster Bad Monster
One of the great things about monsters is that they don’t have to follow rules or rather our rules. They are the universal anarchists, destructive forces of nature even the equals of the gods. They are the mirror that shows us what we might be if we let ourselves go and what we can be through how we respond to that. Monsters don’t look like us or act like us. They don’t carry our social values, table manners, polite greetings or handshakes. They don’t even follow twitter. The can be good, bad, both or neither and no-one questions it because they are not like us. This gives monsters a distinct edge over the hapless human, they don’t have to play by the rules. It comes as no surprise to the viewer when in Aliens a group of bad ass marines suddenly finds themselves minus bullets and outfoxed by a bunch of roof hugging sleek killing machines courtesy of the imagination of James Cameron and HR Geiger. Monsters don’t play fair. That said they still follow rules. The Alien in Alien 3 leaves Ripley alone when it senses she caries one inside here.
But does an unwillingness to play by the rules make them bad? In my books the acid spurting horrors from the Alien series are just following the Xenomorphic instinct to reproduce. Does that make them bad? Depends on whether you have one in your tummy I suppose. In Tolkiens works the monsters sided with Mordor as did some humans but no monsters took the “good side”. I am generalising but in fantasy the Tolkien tradition seems to hold sway. Occasionally these roles are broken but still for the most part its about sides and which one you are on and generally monsters are on the bad side.
Science fiction is a little more ambiguous. This is probably because in science fiction the monsters are aliens and as such are open to more than taking sides. Dr Who and Star Trek have produced no end of classic monsters such as Dalek, Cybermen and The Borg. Some of them are “bad”, no-one would deny the Genocidal Daleks are acting on more than basic impulses. Some are “good”, though to me they represent humans in funny suits. They are modelled roughly on human attributes, albiet taken to extremes but none the less still recognisable. Thats why they are good or bad, because they follow established human rules and principles.
My favourite monster on Star Trek for example is one they met in the very first episode of New Generations, called the Q. The Q looked human but completely refused to play by human rules putting the crew into complex life threatening circumstances and in the process bringing out the best in them. This is why I tend to find the “good or bad” monsters interesting but as an author I am drawn to the Xenomorphs and the Q’s. These creatures allow the author to take humans somewhere they haven’t been just to find out what they are made of. In these monsters, new things can be born within us. Creatures like the daleks are undoubtedly scary and popular but do they teach us anything about ourselves? Not really other than maybe the dB limit of the female vocal chords.
How I Construct a Monster
I think monsters are actually harder to construct as a character than humans. Humans at least follow some basic rules we all have experiences of. Monsters don’t, they have their own rules and conventions which need to be developed before they start doing things. When I started writing Eyo based on characters conceived by my daughter I had little to go on other than a couple of drawings. I asked her to put down some notes and a couple of quotes from them (assuming they spoke). From there rather than develop a history for the character which I would do with a human I looked at the key attributes of their physiology and used the physical attributes to start to define a personality. For example one character she gave me was a simple cube with six faces (literally six different faces). That lent itself immediately to a creature that was a living schitzophrenic.
Once I have a personality I give it a set of morals or rules that it operates by and things that are motivations and fears. This is my starting point. One of the great things about monsters is to a reader they are almost always a mystery to unravel all of their own. For this reason when I write about monsters I deliberately avoid knowing too much about where they came from (in terms of personal history). That way I am going on the same journey of discovery as the reader. This also means I have to be tighter in the editing.
That’s not to say monsters don’t come from somewhere. In my case because its science fiction mostly its almost always another planet, none the less that is one part of the monsters story I am interested in. Knowing the environment they grow up in for example dictates how they are likely to react in different situations.
Monsters are game changers, the trick for me is to uncover how they are going to change the game and where that leaves the humans at the end. If I define too much upfront, then they can become impotent from their pre-defined limitations or strengths.
Monsters make Change Easy.
There is a reason why fables of the past often used monsters. They guide the hero to his outcome by providing the thing the hero ought not to be. They create change in the hero but they do it in an obvious way, even though this is often credited to another character. The fact is without the monster there would be no lesson to learn.
When you have a choice between the hero who has learned a lesson and the monster few children are going to choose to be the monster. Monsters define us as humans in a way that is often easier to grasp because monsters can be any yucky thing we don’t want people to be. While I think that’s a simplistic view of monsters (and I believe monsters have many more roles to fill in storytelling) the point is monsters create change in humans.
Anyone who thinks Ripley is the same woman post Aliens that she was Pre needs to go back and watch the movies again (or at least the first three).
If you are wanting to tell a story of change you can do worse than go pick a monster.
Monsters are exciting, dangerous, scary, unpredictable agents of change. They can look like anything you can imagine, they can act in any way you can conceive. They are a storytellers dream but equally I think a storytellers challenge. The hardest things to write are often the things that carry the most possibilities.
My hero when it comes to monsters is undoubtedly Jim Henson, I don’t think that anyone has managed as many different facets of monsters as he did from the muppet show, dark crystal, labyrinth and the storyteller series. I still remember being equally enthralled and creeped out watching two minutes of monster madness on the muppet show.