HOW TO WRITE MONSTERS AND CREATURES
Today we’re talking about one of my favorite parts of the reading and writing process, and that’s fictional creatures and monsters. You guys already know I am a huge fan of mythical creatures. You may or may not be able to guess my favorite one. (Hint: it’s Pegasus.) As someone who’s created a monster or two, I’m here to break down my ten tips for whipping out super original, super fun monsters!
This topic was requested by one of my patrons over on Patreon, MH Kelley. They wanted to know all about my creature and monster creation process, as well as my favorite and least favorite monster tropes. I will cover the first topic today, and save the second part for another post. But first I’m dishing out my top ten tips for writing fantastical creatures in three, two, one, go!
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Number 1: Rate the Relevance
How important is this creature to your world?
“But Jennaaa, it’s obviously really important! That’s why I’m creating it.”
Everything feels important during the creation process, but that doesn’t necessarily mean those feelings are fact. I created a monster while writing The Savior’s Champion, and while I adore that creepy little guy, he only showed up for one chapter. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t valuable or served its purpose, but it’s a good idea to have an honest conversation with yourself regarding how much weight this monster is going to serve in your story. You need to do this in order to decide how much time you’re going to put into this creature’s story. You don’t want to spend weeks inventing a monster and have it only show up for one page. Rate its relevance, and you’ll be able to determine how much time, effort, and detail should go into its creation.
Number 2: Understand Your Goal
Not all creatures are created equal. Unicorns are beautiful. The Sphinx is mysterious. The Mothman is scary. You need to determine what the underlying goal of this creature is supposed to be, in terms of its representation in your book. Are you trying to create something whimsical or fearful? Something puzzling, or bloodthirsty? This is an aspect you need to determine early on because it will dictate your entire process. Say you want to create a monster who looks soft and unassuming, but on closer approach is highly dangerous. This could mean you’re creating something that looks like a pegasus but acts like a chimera.
Number 3: Personal Preference
I often hesitate to mention personal preference in these videos, because sometimes writers can make their work too personal, in which case it’s harder for them to notice mistakes because they are way too attached to the concept. However, when it comes to creatures, personal preference can actually do a world of good. What do you personally find beautiful? What do you find terrifying? It can be so much easier to convey these traits when you are personally invested in them.
Take, for example, my fears. Since I can remember, I have been fascinated and afraid of deep sea creatures. News flash! A lot of people are terrified by deep sea creatures, which means it’s a perfect starting point for creating a scary monster.
Number 4: Ask Yourself, “Why?”
It’s not enough to know what you find magical or terrifying. You need to know why that’s the case. This will require some introspection, but that’s good for you. Your therapist agrees!
Take a step back and ask yourself, “Why do I find unicorns so stunningly beautiful?” Or, in my case, “Why are deep sea creatures so horrifying?” For starters, the deep sea is dark. I’m scared of the dark because something could happen and you’ll never know! ’Cause it’s dark! The deep sea is also largely unexplored, which means most of the creatures down there are completely unknown to us. We have no idea what to expect, and that doesn’t sit well with me. Plus most sea creatures are as far from humanoid as it gets. They got tentacles! They got glowing lightbulbs on their head! They got fins and fangs! Lastly, deep sea creatures are ugly as hell! A.k.a. Creepy little monsters . . .
Number 5: Trope Subversion
I find that creature creation is the perfect time to implement some good old-fashioned trope subversion. That’s what I love about creating monsters–it gives you the opportunity to do the unexpected. I mentioned pegasus and unicorns are two creatures that are widely considered beautiful. You know what they have in common? They’re both white! What if your beautiful creature was black, purple, or hell–literally any other color? A lot of scary creatures are black. What if yours was white? Or mother-of-pearl. I don’t know. Do something different! Give your readers the chance to say “Wow, I haven’t seen that before!” That’s the beauty of creation. You’re in the driver’s seat, and you get to change the rules however you please.
Number 6: Origin Story
Depending on the relevance of the creature, its origin story may never be mentioned. It may not be applicable to the plot. Maybe your characters have no idea where it came from. Maybe it’s a mystery. Maybe it’s just not important. But it’s helpful for you to know where the creature came from, for no other reason than to make the creation process easier on you. Now, something to keep in mind is that if you’re creating a fantastical monster, your readers know it’s fake. This means the monster’s origin story doesn’t necessarily have to be realistic, it just needs to be realistic to the world and plot that you’ve created.
Number 7: Strengths
This should be a given, but in case it’s not, it’s a good idea to know what your monsters are really, really good at. This is especially relevant if your creature is really scary. What about it makes you not want to go up against it in a fight?
“But Jenna! My creature only shows up for one chapter. It’s not that important to the story.”
Don’t matter! You don’t get to skip this step! Besides, figuring out the strengths is really easy to do. For example, does your monster have wings? Then one of its strengths is that it can fly. BOOM! Not hard at all.
Number 8: Weaknesses
Because this should be the next obvious step. Figuring out your creature’s weaknesses is especially relevant if you’re creating a big bad monster, and your cast is gonna have to fight ’em at some point. If the creature is completely invulnerable, that ain’t gonna work! Unless you’re writing a tragedy . . .
Even if your cast believes the creature is invulnerable, you should be able to concoct some vulnerabilities for it, at least for your own knowledge as the all-powerful writer god. The great thing about creature creation is that you get to be creative. You don’t have to be obvious with the weaknesses, like head injuries or a blade to the heart. Achilles had a vulnerable heel. You can do anything. I support you.
Number 9: Spot the Differences
A lot of fictional creatures are based on other fictional creatures or real-world species. Take, for example, the guardians in my dark fantasy romance The Savior’s Champion. They were loosely based on viperfish and dragonfish. But if you replicate these animals, you’re not doing anything different, so you need to think clearly and specifically about what makes your being unique.
This especially goes for humanoid creatures. So many writers create humanoid species that are exactly like humans except they have wings, or their skin is a different color. What if they have four lungs instead of two due to the oxygen on their planet? What if they only require ten hours of sleep a week? Even Vulcans from Star Trek had things like inner eyelids, and their heart was in their torso instead of their chest. Remember, you are inventing a brand new creature using your beautiful, fucked up mind. Be creative! I mean, the aliens from Avatar had sex with their ponytails, so really anything is possible.
Number 10: How Much Do Your Characters Know?
As we already covered, a lot of this information may not be relevant to your story, depending on how important this creature is to your plot. If that’s the case, you need to recognize and respect when to take your foot off the gas. And by the gas, I mean info-dumping about your creature. This is especially relevant if your characters don’t know a whole lot about this creature. For example, if they’re stumbling upon an alien race for the very first time. You may know your alien’s origin story in minute detail, but this book is told through your character’s point of view. If they’re clueless, lay off the omniscience. I encourage writers to learn as much as they can about their creatures because you never know when that ugly ass monster is gonna pop again later in the story. But please resist the urge to overload your reader with creature-building that is either inconsequential to the plot, or unknown to the characters involved.
So that's all I've got for you today!
Cooking up fantastical–and sometimes terrifying–creatures is one of the coolest parts of the writing process, but it needs to be handled with care. Hopefully, these tips get you off to a good start so you can craft your creatures with ease. Now go on, scare the shit out of your readers with all your creepy crawlies or dazzle them with something sparkly.
What’s the coolest creature you’ve read about? Lemme hear it!
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