When it comes to writing horror the monster of your story can either make or break your tale. A great monster can scare readers into staying up all night, while a poorly crafted one can turn people off your work.
If you’re sick and tired of the slow moving monster lumbering after a half-naked woman through the woods and want to give your faceless monster its own identity, then this is the place to start. This handout will outline some of the fundamentals of monster making and help you craft a truly compelling creature that will send shivers down your readers’ spines.
The Three Categories Of Monsters
When it comes to writing horror, monsters generally fall into one of three categories:
They Are Human, They Were Human, They’re Non-Human
It’s important to know which category your character belongs to as each one has its own set of unique characteristics.
They Are Human
People are quick to forget that some of the scariest monsters in horror are humans themselves. Human monsters are terrifying because they go against the very humanity they’re supposed to embody. This idea that your friend, neighbour, or even yourself, is capable of such cruelty and malice is a deeply disturbing one.
Some characteristics of human monsters include:
- They can hide in plain sight
- They may not be able to relate to humanity, but they can often understand it from a clinical perspective
- They can make great manipulators
- They usually fall into two groups:
- Those who defy humanity
- Those who are a slave to a delusional or distorted grasp on reality
They Were Human
Monsters that fall into this category tend to be some of the most psychologically complex characters because they’re caught between their former humanity and their current monstrous mentality.
Some of their characteristics include:
- May, or may not, be able to hide in plain site (depending on their transformation)
- Torn between monstrous urges and humanity
- Doesn’t include mindless zombies, or humans who’ve been possessed and no longer have agency
Non-human monsters can be some of the most horrifying creatures as their motivations for evil are usually simple and animalistic. Non-human monsters not only go against the very idea of humanity, but they go against human aesthetics in often extreme ways.
Some of their characteristics include:
- Clinical view of humanity, but no firsthand knowledge of it
- Easily identifiable by their appearance
- Simple or animalistic motivations
The humanity spectrum is a tool that can be used to better understand how your character acts and reacts throughout your body of work. It’s also a means of being able to track their character arc throughout the course of your story. The scale can be read from “least human” to “most human,” or from “the most evil” to “the least evil” reasoning for their actions.
Complete rejection of humanity ←vs.→Slave to urges and delusions, but still feels remorse
Wants to be evil, but humanity stops them ←vs.→ Wants to be human, but is too monstrous
Kill the humans because we’re evil ←vs.→ Kill the humans to save the humans
(On this scale we’d also find “self-preservation” towards the left end of the spectrum and “save the planet” towards the right.)
The Big Seven
There are seven questions you need to answer in order for your characters to be able to truly live through your work. Even if these answers aren’t explicitly said in your story, your readers (or audience) still needs to know the answers to them or have enough information to be able to come to these conclusions themselves.
These questions include:
- What type (werewolf, witch, serial killer, etc.) of monster are they?
- How has the world shaped them both physically and mentally (this is their origin story)?
- What do they want?
- Why do they want this?
- How will they get what they want?
- Do they achieve their goals/get the object of their desire?
- How have they shaped the world in which your characters live?
Remember that monsters are the foundation of good horror. But without convincing characters we won’t believe your monsters. If we can’t believe your monsters, we won’t believe the danger, and we’ll stop caring about your story.