Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman
Philip Athans's 210-page Writing Monsters offers some good tips on creating such monsters as inhabit fantasy worlds and horror domains.
He lays the foundation for most of his book early on, with "The Monster Creation Form," a tool that helps writers plan their monsters as they consider such questions as:
- What's it called?
- What does it eat, and how does it eat?
- How does it move?
- What does it look like? (Overall form, head, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, limbs)
- How big is it?
- What covers its body, and what color is it?
- How smart is it?
- What motivates it?
- What scares it?
- What hurts it?
- What senses does it possess?
- In what way is it better or more powerful than the average person?
- In what way is it weaker than the average person?
The remaining chapters of his book flesh out these considerations.
The tips are practical, as how-to tips should be. Athans's own advice, observations, and insights are sprinkled among his tips, as are recommendations by other fantasy and horror writers. Lynn Abbey, for example, echoes Edgar Allan Poe's advice, in "The Philosophy of Composition," that writers plot their stories backward: "Start with the monster's fall," she suggests, "then dismantle the characters' knowledge and preparation, then construct the plot details that allow the characters to pick up the pieces they're going to need" to neutralize the monster.
Athans recommends that, as a rule, writers avoid supplying exact measurements of a monster's size. Instead, authors should provide such information indirectly, through comparisons or dialogue. If a monster is "twice as tall as the king's watchtower," the reader can learn that the tower is twenty stories tall by having earlier observed the king as he climbed "twenty flights of stairs" to its top. Likewise, a writer can give readers an idea as to a monster's weight by having it fall through a rooftop before a character observes, "that roof can hold three thousand pounds."
Edgar Allan Poe
He suggests that writers reveal their monsters slowly, in a piecemeal fashion, in three phases, "The First Encounter," "The Growing Threat," and "The Tipping Point." The first and third will offer brief glimpses of the monster or perhaps only its effects—the "aftermath" of its visits—whereas the second phase will provide details about the beast, showing its killings of several characters, inept or inconclusive attempts to neutralize the monster, some :misdirection" (e. g., in Jaws, "a shark" is killed, but not "the shark" [emphasis added]). Only toward the end of phase three should the monster be revealed fully, in all his, her, or its glory. (The Tipping Point occurs, Athans says, as the heroes, armed with knowledge about the monster. its qualities, and its behavior, take charge of the situation and seek to kill or otherwise neutralize it.
Athans illustrates his tips with excerpts of novels and short stories, especially those of Stephen King and H. P. Lovecraft, respectively.
He has other tips that are likely to be helpful to writers interested in creating monstrous monsters. We'll take a look at them in the second installment of this review.