What is a Monster?

A guest post from DH Willison

What is a monster?

No, it’s not a trick question.

Is a vampire a monster? How about a dragon? A mermaid? A centaur? The blob? One of the aliens in Alien? Susan from Monsters vs. Aliens?

I’ll bet most readers said no to at least one of the above, and many didn’t choose the same one. The history of the word monster is a fascinating subject, and for an eye-opener look up “baby monster” on “find a grave.”

The point is, a monster is many things to many people, no one definition fits all. Which totally absolves me from academic discussion, so I can now talk about what I like!

What are monsters like in Tales of Arvia? I like a mix of monsters, and the world of Arvia reflects this. Some follow classic archetypes, some deviate quite a lot. Some are similar to contemporary or prehistoric creatures on Earth, some are completely unique. Some are mindless and predatory, others are civilized and refined. Some are giant-sized, some… well OK, most are giant-sized. Goblins on Arvia are small, that counts, doesn’t it?

Nagdye, the city of rodent folk is one of the locations in Finding Your Harpy Place
Some concept art sketches of the rodent folk

How does one create a monster? Sure we all like grave-robbing, sewing body parts together, playing with chemicals and high voltage, but the important thing is not what they look like, but what they do. And if it’s a sentient monster, how they think. I treat all my monsters as if they could be POV characters. Not obstacles to be conquered, but a part of the world, with their own day-to-day problems. For example, can you put yourself into the shoes of a harpy?

That was a trick question. Harpies don’t wear shoes. They also find it totally bizarre that humans have feet so weak as to require them–and can’t even properly grasp a branch. The point is, what makes a creature interesting and unique is not just how they look, but how they think.

But the idea of adding depth to the thoughts, hopes and dreams of monsters isn’t just to add a new coat of paint to an existing narrative. It can open new opportunities and (especially) allow for fun and creative conflict resolution. Here are two alternatives for a tropy rampaging dragon incident.

Version One:

The youngest son of the village shepherd burst into the barn, gasping for breath. “Ceana, dreadful news! The King has refused tribute to the crimson drake Veissolth. The beast is angered and seeks retribution against our village.”

“We knew this day would come.” Ceana clapped his shoulder. “Yet there is hope. An item which our family has kept for generations in the hay loft.”

“Ceana, you cannot face the beast alone.”

“Evacuate to the Copper Knoll Woods. I shall do what I can.”

Amid panicked screams of villagers, the smoke of burning thatch, Ceana faced off against the towering draconian menace. She had seen the creature only once prior, and then only at a great distance. At this range, the stench of brimstone overpowered her, every errant beat of its blood-red wings threatened to knock her from her feet.

“Oh foul monster, leave our village be, or I shall be forced to use this.”

“Such a tiny sword will do little against my armored scales.”

“This is our family’s blade, imbued with magic from the cobalt caverns. Begone, or the tip shall pierce your heart.”

“Do your worst, little human. I shall savor the crunch of your bones and sweetness of your flesh.”

Ceana squared her stance, readying herself for the fight.

Version Two:

The youngest son of the village shepherd burst into the barn, gasping for breath. “Ceana, dreadful news! The King has refused tribute to the crimson drake Veissolth. The beast is angered and seeks retribution against our village.”

“We knew this day would come.” Ceana clapped his shoulder. “Yet there is hope. An item which our family has kept for generations in the hay loft.”

“Ceana, you cannot face the beast alone.”

“Evacuate to the Copper Knoll Woods. I shall do what I can.”

Amid panicked screams of villagers, the smoke of burning thatch, Ceana faced off against the towering draconian menace. She had seen the creature only once prior, and then only at a great distance. At this range, the stench of brimstone overpowered her, every errant beat of its blood-red wings threatened to knock her from her feet.

“Oh foul monster, with this, I shall save our village from destruction.”

“That looks like a rake.”

“It is. And with it, I can scratch that hard-to-reach spot between your wings. And you shall leave us in peace.”

“Now that you mention it, that spot has been rather itchy. Between the nagging discomfort and those knights your vile king keeps sending, I’ve been in a foul mood of late.”

“Understandable. And the worst of it is that the unscrupulous tyrant has increased our taxes to pay for such folly!”

“The cad! I believe I shall leave him a dragon-sized surprise on his balcony.”
Which version do you prefer?

Of course, monsters do have to have an appearance, and for that I am fortunate enough to live with a co-conspirator who frequently looks for things to draw. Sometimes I’ll sketch something myself, sometimes I’ll start with a description. She’ll make a few sketches, playing with different parameters, then hand it back to me. Sometimes a creature design will go nowhere, sometimes it will end up in a book. I was so happy with the ink drawing of a lindworm she did, that I included it as an interior illustration in the paper versions of Finding Your Harpy Place.

So how do you like your monsters?

Big or small? Bestial or intelligent? Following classic myths or completely unique? Let me know in the comments.

The ospherant, a semi-intelligent dinosaur which can be tamed and ridden, will feature in my upcoming (yet to be named) novel.
Ospherant preliminary sketches

About the Author

D. H. Willison is the author of Tales of Arvia, a portal fantasy series featuring numerous giant monsters. Including one of the main characters: Rinloh, an accident-prone 35’ tall harpy. Check out his blog, like his Facebook author page or follow him on Instatwittergramoreads. (Yeah, I got lazy with that link. Rinloh mans the complaint department, talk to her.)

Author Links:

Website

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GoodReads Author Page


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