Monday, April 16, 2012

On Monsters

I was asked recently what I think makes a good monster, a scary monster. This is my answer:

One of the first things I employ in creating a monster is giving the reader just enough detail that they can use their imagination, but not so much detail that they don't have to. Stephen King's book "Danse Macabre" relates an analogy of a closed door with a strange sound coming from behind it. If you open the door and have a ten-foot bug, part of your reader's mind will say "Oh thank god, I was afraid it was a HUNDRED-FOOT bug!" If you give your reader a hundred-foot bug, part of your reader's mind will say "Oh than god, I was afraid it was a SWARM of bugs!" Point is, your reader's imagination will always create a monster that is contoured specifically to them, and is infinitely more terrifying than anything we could craft. Our job is to give them the (heh) bare bones.

Next, the monster has to serve as a vehicle for the main character's dual confrontations. One is Man vs. The Unknown, and the other is Man vs. Himself, if you're familiar with the types of conflict. The Monster represents the unknown on a literal level, but on a symbolic level represents the main character's journey that has been taken to bring about that climactic moment of confrontation. I subdivide horror thusly: Fright. Terror. Horror. If a monster eats some poor shlub at the end of a dark alleyway, that's fright. When the monster eats the guy standing right next to you, that's terror. The moment in which you realize that you're next, that's horror. Good use of a good monster is employed when the character (note that I am not using the word "hero" anywhere here) is taken through a journey of discovery, choice, perhaps revulsion, and finally confrontation not just with the monster, but with who that character is and/or has become/has to be. Taking away that journey will simply leave a hero (Ta-da!) rushing to do battle with a dragon, and the reader is spending the whole time in the story rooting for the final battle rather than going along for that journey with the character. The monster should help take the reader along for that same journey and force that same confrontation in the reader as it does in the character.

Thirdly, a monster should be created first, then that information used to inform the specifics of the main character. Whether it's a hero, an anti-hero, a tragic character, or anything else, the situations and circumstances surrounding that character's rise to significance (after all, they are your main character) are all informed by the hell which you as the author choose to unleash upon them. Clarice Starling's character wouldn't have had that story about running away if it wasn't for Dr. Lecter's ability to see so deep into her psyche. The crew of the Orca would never have gone shark hunting if it wasn't for Quint's story about being predated upon by sharks off Japan's coast, but he wouldn't have told that story if the monster wasn't a killer shark.

Stephen T. Asma's book "On Monsters" talks about the purpose that monsters serve as moral compasses, as well as with issues of angst and catharsis. He relates a story of Eli Roth's "Hostel" being shown to troops in Iraq which is a fascinating perspective on catharsis. Jason Zinoman's "Shock Value" deals with some of the same issues, but also a lot of social and political influences on the use, style, and deployment of monsters. But nothing has yet touched the import or significance of Lovecraft's essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature" for me.

1 comment:

  1. That's quality information, there. It could be a grad lecture on the discussion boards. Thanks for sharing. :)