On Writing: Making Monsters
I do not believe in monsters, and that is why I love them.
Merriam-Webster defines “monster” firstly as “an animal of strange or terrifying shape”. Cambridge provides a similar definition: “any imaginary frightening creature, especially one that is large and strange”.
As a writer, I don’t find these definitions particularly helpful.
Strangely enough, although I find the literal dictionary definitions lacking, I do in fact like the English word “monster”. The key to understanding the concept of “monster”, I think, lies in the etymology of the English word for “monster”.
The actual word “monster” comes from the latin word “monere” meaning “warn”, and actually shares a root with other English words like “demonstrate”. Knowing this gets us closer to what “monster” really means, and why I like monsters so much.
When you decide to put a monster into your story, their physical description is entirely secondary to the idea of the monster. In other words, if you want to figure out what sort of monster your hero should face, you must first decide why the hero must face a monster in the first place.
This approach to making monsters makes them very malleable, versatile, and I think, meaningful.
In classic literature, the ancient Greeks were famously preoccupied with the natural order of things. Possibly the greatest crime a human could commit was hubris, that is a transgression against the divine, often in the form of positing oneself as equal to or greater than the gods. A few rungs below humans on the imaginary ladder of natural order were the animals, and thus many of the most famous Greek monsters are some kind of mix between animals and humans: think of Medusa, centaurs, the minotaur, sirens, harpies – the list goes on and on.
Such monsters, beings mixed from other creatures that were not meant to be mixed, act as a clear indication of the perversion of the natural order and communicate to the audience that they are fundamentally wrong.
A particularly relevant example of this is Medusa herself, everyone's favourite lady with snakes for hair. Some versions of Medusa’s story are kinder to her than others, but in all versions, her monstrous appearance, whether inborn or the result of a curse, represents her fundamental breaking with society, becoming unfit to walk among humans.
The clue is really in the name: Medusa is also referred to as Gorgo, as she was part of a mythical race of creatures called the gorgons; the word “gorgon” itself is derived from an ancient Greek word that meant something along the lines of “terrible” or “dreadful”. Gorgo's very being, down to her name, screams "I am not supposed to exist".
Some other ancient Greek mythological creatures are not mixtures of man and animal, but of different animals. Perhaps the best-known examples of this are Pegasus, the winged horse, and Cerberus, the giant dog with three heads and snakes on his back.
Pegasus is depicted most commonly as a pure white, divine steed who helps humans as well as gods. Pegasus brings water and life. But notice that Pegasus is a force of good. He also happens to be one of those creatures that are fundamentally animals, through and through; Pegasus is not a man cursed or transformed, and he was not born or created through divine punishment for some transgression or other. As a combination of different animals, rather than man and animal, Pegasus' existence did not upset the natural order.
Horses are one of the most important and versatile animals humanity has domesticated over the millennia, so clearly a divine steed would be fundamentally good; the wings are a rather obvious representation of flight and freedom from earthly bounds, a way to access the heavens. It may seem a bit on the nose now, but it's clear that Pegasus was not just randomly thrown together.
Everyone’s favourite mythical puppy, Cerberus, is the monster tasked with guarding the gate to the afterlife. This is significant.
Humans have been afraid of death since we realised it exists. Indeed, one of the very first things humanity has ever put to writing is the epic of Gilgamesh, which recounts the story of the eponymous hero’s quest for – and, despite his greatness, inability to obtain – immortality. The realisation that death is inexorably coming for us all – both physically in the enervation of our fleshy bodies and metaphysically in the death of the self, being forgotten – has had humans lie awake at night since time immemorial.
In the face of death, what better comfort can be found than the idea that there is indeed life after death? The ancient Greeks, too, had their own version of an afterlife myth. And the Greeks, as with a lot of things, were delightfully practical about it. Listen to this:
So the ancient Greeks had this idea of a realm of the dead that actually exists as a physical place somewhere deep underground. Well, if it’s a physical place, then how do the dead get there? There must be a gate. But if there’s a gate, what stops the dead from just… coming back? Or from living relatives to pop in for a visit? I don’t know, how about a big scary monster, or something? Okay, but what kind of monster? Obviously it's got to be something at once loyal, vicious, and known for its propensity to guard property.
And thus, Cerberus was born.
Being closely associated with death, and having a job that’s literally to stand in the way of heroes, Cerberus is often depicted in modern interpretations as evil. Incidentally, the detail where Cerberus was in fact not just a multi-headed dog, but also part snake, is often forgotten. Yet Cerberus was a guard, performing the important duty of keeping the dead and the living in their respective places; he was a protector of the natural order, not its enemy.
Dogs, of course, are the animal we’ve spent the longest time domesticating, and their metaphorical meaning as guardians and faithful companions is obvious to everyone. Animals don’t often get assigned a moral compass – choosing right from wrong tends to be reserved for humans – but as far as animals go, dogs, perhaps universally, fall closer to fundamental good than evil.
Snakes, meanwhile, are naturally vicious and dangerous. So much so, in fact, that humans are literally born afraid of snakes; ophidiophobia is one of the most widely reported phobias. Snakes are so terrible that gorgons – again, the things named for being terrible – wear them for hair! Now that’s terrible!
Cerberus, the dog-snake, is therefore the perfect creature to guard the afterlife at the behest of the gods: at once terrifying, dangerous, but dependable, dutiful, and amoral. Dead, living, mortal, or divine, it’s all the same to Cerberus. He guards the gate, that’s what he does, because he is a very, very good boy.
Famously in modern popular culture, one J. K. Rowling used Cerberus in the first Harry Potter novel. The last series of trials Harry and his friends must overcome at the end of the book is to outsmart the wizarding school’s old sorcerers and descend into the metaphorical underworld of Hogwarts to find the Philosopher’s Stone, an object reputed to grant power over life and death.
Now, clearly, at some point during ideation, Rowling must have realised, “okay, but the gate has to be locked and guarded somehow, otherwise it’s just too easy. How do I… bingo.”
There is a reason that Rowling picked Cerberus to guard the most important object in the entire book, the secret of eternal life. There is a reason that Harry and his friends get to fight a big, stupid troll in a public toilet relatively early into the story, but have to wait for the last act before facing Cerberus at the gate of the underworld.
All of that is to say: monsters mean things.
That’s not to say that the only way to give meaning to a monster is to reference classic myth. It’s a very easy way to do so, and it’s not a wrong way, but it’s not necessarily the best way.
To go with Harry Potter a bit further, in the third book, we get our first sighting of another mythological creature, the hippogriff: half eagle, half horse, all terrific. So what is a hippogriff? At a glance it sure looks like another creature escaped from ancient Greek myth. This is not actually true, however.
By all account, the origin of the hippogriff seems to be a few throwaway lines from Roman poet Virgil’s eighth eclogue, in which the poet uses the image of griffins mating with horses as a metaphor for insanity and, you guessed it, a perversion of the natural order. It was basically the ancient equivalent of one of the best lines from Ghostbusters.
Because that’s the thing: the hippogriff, as the name suggests, isn’t actually half eagle and half horse; it’s half griffon and half horse. In mythology, griffons and horses are mortal enemies akin to cats and dogs, or perhaps more like cats and mice, as griffons are said to prey on horses.
The popular image of the hippogriff couldn’t have been born from a single, blink-and-you-miss-it line from an ancient Roman poem, of course. The person who popularised the concept was actually a 16th-century Italian poet, Ludovico Ariosto, who wrote a popular poem which included the paradoxical creature.
Which is why I particularly like the hippogriff: unlike the ambiguous ancient mythological creatures from earlier examples, each with a dozen different versions and origins left to us through fragmented, mistranslated texts or oral tradition, for the hippogriff, we actually have a clear time and place when one specific guy literally just made it up.
Some guy literally just made it up.
He needed a cool new fantasy creature for his poem, so he just made one! I love it!
The hippogriff serves as a miraculously fast steed that can travel between the Earth and the Moon. What better to visually represent this impossible power than a creature invented specifically to be a living contradiction? Sure, it may be a bit arcane now, but to his contemporary audience, the meaning of the hippogriff was as immediately understood as the meaning of CatDog in the eponymous ‘90s cartoon. There is a reason that the wondrous steed in Ariosto’s poem was a hippogriff as opposed to a blue buzzard or a three-eyed frog.
Because again, monsters mean things.
That is the core of the monster: the meaning behind the creature, not the creature itself. Fundamentally, a monster doesn’t have to look like anything. Animal traits or body parts are a very convenient visual shorthand to symbolise various traits, but they are not necessary.
An older Japanese manga, aptly titled Monster, originally published in the 90s and later adapted into an animated series, is an old favourite of mine. The plot revolves around a brilliant neurosurgeon who must track down a serial killer whose life he originally saved.
It’s a terrific story dealing with the relativity of morality, right and wrong, good people, bad people, and how the same person can be both. The pacing can be generously described as glacial, but regardless I would highly recommend it, not just for fans of the manga/anime medium. Hell, I’d specifically recommend it for people who are not fans of the medium.
See, Johan, the serial killer in question is, by all account, a monster. Oh, he is human, biologically, but he is conniving, manipulative, remorseless, and has in him a desire to kill, starting his spree before even hitting puberty. He grows up to be an extremely charismatic and good-looking young man, and over time he becomes very good at what he does.
The central mystery of the series is, of course, why? Why is Johan like this? What made him this way? Throughout the series we do get some answers, which I don’t want to spoil here, but it becomes clear that he was set up, from the start, to be like this. Slowly, we discover that his trail of victims traces back to his dark past. The series never tries to justify Johan’s actions, but it does explain them, sometimes satisfactorily, sometimes not.
Meanwhile the main character, the renowned neurosurgeon Dr Tenma, remains true to his hippocratic oath to do no harm as he tracks down and tries to stop Johan. Dr Tenma is set up as a clear force for good in the world of the series, with not an evil bone in his body, in total opposition to the monstrous Johan, who seems to lack any inherent human goodness.
Dr Tenma meets people in high places as well as low; he helps average people as eagerly as he helps underground criminal lords. He talks to simple people, he talks to intellectuals, he questions young and old alike. Through Dr Tenma’s interactions with people from all walks of life, the audience also gets to see the human side of all of these characters, be they good people or bad people.
But that’s just it: they are people. No-one is fundamentally wrong, no-one is inhuman; even side characters and criminals get fleshed out enough that we get a good sense of why they are the way they are.
Everyone except Johan. For all his tragic backstory, for all the explanations of why Johan kills, at the end, he remains a capital-M Monster. Johan is shown to be irredeemable. In a metaphorical sense, Johan isn’t fully human. He is a force of nature. He doesn’t seem to particularly enjoy what he does; it’s simple what he is.
In popular “Western” culture, Johan reminds me of the Joker from the Batman franchise, particularly the way he was depicted in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy.
In fact, the Joker and Batman actually have a very similar dichotomy in The Dark Knight to Dr Tenma and Johan in Monster: it’s a primal opposition of order and chaos, of good versus evil. Johan is a monster who exists only to cause harm, whereas Dr Tenma is a veritable saint who seems incapable of doing harm. Where the insane Joker acts as a force of nature eroding the fabric of society and social order, billionaire Bruce Wayne dresses up like a bat to beat the mentally ill tries to restore order by dealing with Gotham City’s rampant crime.
Around the turn of the 20th century, famous horror author H. P. Lovecraft invented what we now define as cosmic horror, a genre dealing with the anxiety born from our growing understanding of the vastness of the universe and of humanity’s insignificance in the grand scheme of things.
Put yourself into the shoes of someone in the early 20th century. Einsteinian relativity and quantum physics upended what we thought we knew about the universe. The Wright brothers had performed humanity’s first powered heavier-than-air flight. Marie Curie had developed the theory of radioactivity, treatment by radioactivity, and dying of radioactivity. Advances in telescopy let us discover a whole (dwarf) planet that was sitting in our Solar System all along, undetected. Meanwhile back down here on Earth, kings still ruled, allegedly, by divine decree. Oh, and also there was that whole war thing.
Human knowledge was expanding at an unprecedented rate, discovering new vistas and limits that defied conventional logic. It was easy to be gripped by existential dread at the prospect of humanity at the mercy of cosmic forces that we didn’t even know existed.
Lovecraft himself put it best:
“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
Intentionally or not, Lovecraft’s work captured that zeitgeist. Fittingly, Lovecraft’s many famous monsters were most often not described in great detail, and what descriptions we did get were all kept vague and were likened to instinctively scary or disgusting things: rotting bodies, bulged-eyed fish, tentacles, slimy, slippery, uneven shapes and forms, eldritch geometries.
The fact that Lovecraft’s monsters weren’t described, that they couldn’t be described, was the entire point. Because again, there is more to a monster than what they look like. It’s about what they represent, and in Lovecraft’s case, they represented immigrants the unknown, the universe that we knew so precious little about.
The book I’m currently writing, tentatively titled Bitter Night, takes place in a world I like to describe as post-post-apocalyptic. The end of the world has come and gone, and the remains of humanity try to survive and rebuild.
In its earliest conception, the world of Bitter Night was supposed to be filled to the brim with all sorts of mythological, folklore, and pop cultural creatures. Vampires, werewolves, zombies, dragons, goblins, ogres, trolls, sirens, Biblically-accurate angels, demons, Lovecraftian formless writhing masses, phoenixes, polycephalic snake-dogs, Japanese toilet spirits, skinwalkers, hidebehinds... you name it, Bitter Night had it.
I was warned by several prereaders that maybe it was a bit too much of a hodgepodge. I was convinced it would work, and indeed, I still think it could have worked… but as I developed the world and the story, I realised that I could do better.
The core of Bitter Night is that the world is not just dying, but already dead. Humans inhabit a shell of a world, a corpse slowly withering and rotting away – the world, and everyone in it, is beyond redemption.
That is why, in the current iteration of the book, I shifted focus to the dead, or undead nature of the monsters that inhabit it. So, trolls and Japanese spirits have less of a role, while ghosts and living memories have more of a role.
Phoenixes became black phoenixes: phoenixes who have died and burst aflame but failed, for some reason or other, to complete their rebirth, becoming machine-like hollow shells of the magnificent creatures they used to be. It’s all supposed to represent and reinforce the idea of a dead world, where death itself has, in a way, died. The cycle of life and death is broken, and the border between this life and the next becomes blurry.
The protagonist, who was initially conceived as an all-purpose “supernatural investigator” was rebranded as a licensed necromancer, that is, someone whose job is to deal with the restless dead. In a world increasingly full of people and creatures that refuse to just die properly, she will surely have her hands full.
I made a little quip at the expense of vampires at the top of this blog, implying they are, today, a rather boring choice of monster. I do like them, though, and they are very fitting for a world populated specifically by various undead beasties.
One of my pettiest of pet peeves is when people point to Bram Stoker's Dracula (as in the character) as the "original" vampire. This is nonsense of course. Undead bloodsuckers have been around pretty much as long as any other kind of monster, and in fact Stoker based his interpretation of the vampire of local folklore. There really is more to vampires than copying Stoker (or, more often than not, copying Universal Studios and Béla Lugosi).
For example, in a lot of folklore, the image of the "vampire" is fused with the image of the "werewolf": the undead beast is a man cursed with both vampiric unlife and a canine appearance and animalistic tendencies, a far cry from the "sophisticated noble vampire" that can't come into your house unless invited. It's about death not only as a loss of life, but also a loss of humanity, returning to a feral, primal state, and how it brings harm on society and your own loved ones. Athough this "undead werewolf who drinks blood" seems to have disappeared from contemporary pop culture, the still-popular image of the vampire remains closely tied to animals, particularly bats and, yes, wolves.
Incidentally, take a moment to reflect on the "noble" vampire archetype: a hideous, haughty, nigh-immortal person who lives a life of hedonism and luxury, descending from his castle only to steal away your women and literally suck the blood of the poor. Well jolly gee, I wonder what that image is telling us about the imaginations of the medieval peasant and serf!
By now, one of The Dark Knight’s most memorable lines has been – particularly because it is so memorable – memed to hell and back, but it sums up the meaning of the Joker character perfectly:
“Because some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
And that, to me, captures the primal idea of a monster: something that isn’t human, something that isn’t real. A monster is something that represents an idea, something that gives form to an abstract concept, be that good (Pegasus, Cerberus) or bad (Johan, the Joker), or any complex thought that is easier shown than explained (the hippogriff).
A monster means something. A monster is a metaphor. The importance of monsters in fiction comes from what they can demonstrate about human nature and culture.
Monsters aren’t real. Monsters are tools for learning about ourselves.
Which is why when I say I don’t believe in monsters, I mean it. It always rubs me the wrong way when people call other people “monsters”.
I’m going to go ahead and Godwin this for a few paragraphs. It irks me when people say that Adolf Hitler, or any terrible historical figure, was a monster. Hitler was not a monster. Hitler was human. To call him a monster is a copout. To call him a monster deliberately dehumanises him so that we don’t have to deal with the uncomfortable truth that humans can and do perform monstrous acts.
The same way that I do not believe in monsters, I also do not believe in objective good and evil. I still believe in subjective good and evil. I’m going to make my submission to the annual “Understatement of the Year” award and say this: I could list myriad reasons why I, personally, think that the actions of the Nazis were wrong. I also believe that any reasonable person would agree with me. At the same time, I would never be so presumptuous as to posit myself as the arbiter of objective morality.
By its very nature, to me, a monster has no moral agency. The Joker and Johan do not choose to be evil; they are evil. The hippogriff doesn’t choose to be a living paradox; it’s just what it is.
To call past and present dictators “monsters” would absolve us all of the responsibility to be unlike them. If they are monsters, if they aren’t human, then we cannot be like them.
Except we can. People continue to carry out atrocities in the name of various ideologies widespread or personal. Never forget that the NSDAP was elevated by a significant segment of German intelligentsia.
The difference is that humans always have a choice. I personally do not believe in the anecdotes of Bronze Age shepherds, but the Biblical story of Genesis captures a primal, fundamental truth about humanity: we know right from wrong. We always have a choice. A monster, conversely, is purely abstract.
No human being – no dictator, no murderer, no sexual predator – is a monster. Even the most heinous of us are still every bit as human as the rest of us. And that is scary.
We may not always have it in ourselves to deal with the darkest sides of humanity. That is why we invent monsters.
That is why I love monsters. They are a safe way to express ideas, simply because they are not real. Since time immemorial, humanity has invented monsters and heroes to fight them. Monsters represent our collective efforts to grapple with the strange, the evil, the wrong, the unknown, the unknowable.
Monsters do not exist, but they mean something.
Monsters do not exist, and that is why I love them.