Discussing the Role of Monsters – Author Toolbox Blog Hop

Recently I finished watching season one of the FX series Legion, and while there are a few weak points, overall I thought it was pretty good. I was particularly struck by how they handled what I’m going to call the demon. They do eventually reveal the origins and nature of this demon, but I’d rather not spoil that for those who have not yet seen it.

In fact, that’s what I’d like to discuss. Legion has an eight episode season, and for most of it the demon remains a complete mystery. He’s a sound getting closer, a fleeting glimpse of a hand around the corner, an eye peering through the crowd. Look again and he’s gone, and you’re left to wonder “Was it ever really there?” The demon becomes the central mystery of the season, and that’s why it works so well.

Monsters represent the dark side of adventure and exploration. In a world humans have built by understanding and controlling nature, monsters represent something beyond our control. They make us feel weak and powerless, uncertain what’s possible, or what we can do. Often it’s the uncertainty that truly troubles us; whether it’s uncertain where the monster is, or uncertain whether it even exists. In many ways, monsters often represent a question, and sometimes an answer, but above all, monsters represent something we don’t wish to see, don’t wish to know. But how do they represent that?

Monsters as Mysteries

Normally a mystery is a problem, a task. The protagonist is either a rogue trying to solve the puzzles and succeed in the task, or an investigator. Both require the protagonist to carefully study the problem, but when the problem is a monster, studying it can be dangerous.

Some monsters are powerful, killing anyone who gets too close, while others are elusive and tricky, but in almost every case the monster is a mystery that is actively working against the characters. It’s the mystery we may not be able to solve, the fear that some things may be beyond our power.

Monsters as Heralds of Change

Throughout history humanity has studied nature in an effort to tame it. Through science we learn how other lifeforms work, so that we can use our technology to control them, proving our mythical role as the dominant creatures of our world.

But monsters threaten that. Monsters represent the unpleasant truth that there is always an unknown that exists beyond the borders of our knowledge. When a monster enters our world, it punishes our complacency, forcing us to adapt in order to survive. And sometimes survival is all we can manage, but even if we do defeat the monster, we’re left with the sobering truth that others may follow. No matter what, the world is never the same.

Monsters as a Test or Temptation

Monsters are almost always a threat. Some actively seek to do harm, while others do so quite by accident, but in almost every case the monster has the potential to cause destruction and death. The question is, how do the characters respond to the dangers represented by the monster? For example, imagine some kind of ravenous beast is rapidly approaching the characters, who are racing to get through a passageway so that they can seal and lock the door, keeping the beast at bay for just a little longer.

The ultimate heroic act would be to stand and fight the monster, potentially sacrificing your own life to give the others just a little more time. The lesser heroic act is to help others, carrying or guiding others through the doorway. Then of course there’s the neutral act of simply hurrying through the door yourself.

But what if you have an enemy among the group, someone you truly hate? While hurrying through the corridor, you could trip them, or otherwise sabotage their progress, or even close the door before they make it through, leaving the beast to do your dirty work. Or what if you’re the first one through the door, and you decide to close it behind you, dooming everyone else to ensure you escape alive? It’s the secret fear that deep down, we’re not good people.

Monsters as Opportunities

How many stories feature a character who knowingly seeks out a monster, or stumbles upon the monster and reacts not with horror but with greed? “Imagine the possibilities,” as they try to use the monster. In some cases the challenge is trapping it rather than destroying it (Alien, Jurassic Park), while others try to become the monster (vampires), but in both cases a character reveals themselves to be a monster of a different sort, a person who rejects their own humanity, in favor of a corrupt power.

What is the True Horror?

Is it the terrible realization that we are not safe, or in control, that some great and terrible thing waits to snuff us out?

Or is it the possibility that underneath the facade of civility, we ourselves have the potential to become monsters, given half a chance?

For me, there’s nothing quite like a character that’s isolated. The rest of the world continues to live a normal, everyday life, the same life this character often wished to escape, but not anymore. Now they would like nothing more than to forget everything they’ve learned, and rejoin the ranks of the blissfully ignorant. But they can’t. They’ve seen the world that lies beyond or underneath our own, and now they’re a part of it.

What do you think?
What’s the mark of a good monster?
What makes for a strong monster story?

This post was written for the Author Toolbox Blog Hop where we share our new discoveries on the craft of writing, editing, querying, marketing, publishing, and blogging tips. Posted every third Wednesday of the month. For rules and sign-up click here.

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For more on monsters, consider Villains & Monsters, the upcoming Where Do Monsters Come From (next Tuesday), as well as reading Hellbound Heart, Hell House, and the works of HP Lovecraft, along with many others.

18 thoughts on “Discussing the Role of Monsters – Author Toolbox Blog Hop

  1. Great post! I love diving into the metaphorical significance of what a monster means. Sometimes, when I’m critiquing a friend’s horror/action/adventure pieces, I sometimes don’t really know what to say when I’m not that scared while reading (and I’m a really easy person to scare). I think sometimes what happens is that the monster isn’t tapping into a deeper fear in me, of the unknown, or of change. Thanks so much for sharing!

    • Mmm. Sometimes we don’t know why something doesn’t work, only that it does. To me a big part of good monsters is tapping into those old fears, and recognizing what they are. For example, how both zombies and vampires tap into, among other things, our fear of death. But zombies are the fear of what we will be reduced to, a thing rather than a person, while vampires tap into the fear of being reduced in life by others (at the time aristocrats), or the fear of how escaping death can become our whole life, which isn’t really life at all. I always like how well designed monsters confront us with the darkness within that we so try to hide, especially from ourselves.

  2. Such a well-thought and well-written post! I’m compelled to evaluate my own work in light of it. Monsters in the worlds that I write are less physical and exist rather as the truth beneath the skins of my characters. But each of the labels of monsters that you have described here still applies to them.

  3. Okay, so now I want to see Legion. Never have I endeavored to think about monsters to this extent. The logical side of my brain really wants an origin story that makes sense. I want to know how the monster came to be, why it’s there, and if the monster is vanquished, I want this executed logically as well. Great post, Adam!

    • Thank you. In regards to Legion, without giving too much away, I can say that eventually the audience does get answers, but even as I was frustrated by the mystery when I didn’t know, it’s never quite the same once the monster is named and known.

    • Agreed. One of the most frightening aspects of a monster is the idea that it could be anywhere. In many ways that’s the ultimate tension. Once the monster reveals themselves, even though the characters are in danger, there’s also a relief in knowing “that’s where the danger lies”. It reminds me of that line from the Matrix, “They are everyone, and they are no one.” That’s such a great definition for a monster hidden among us.

  4. I remember studying monster theory in college. This puts a new spin on it, asking us to review our antagonistic forces from new angles. Since my newest book involves a literal monster, it’s pretty exciting to see this list! Thanks for the fresh article!

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