Build Your Own Monsters

Photo by Keane Amdahl follow him on Twitter @FoodStoned
Photo by Keane Amdahl follow him on Twitter @FoodStoned

There’s a reason why vampires still rise out of crypts. It’s the same reason why packs of werewolves roam the countrysides, ghosts linger in abandon lighthouses, and demons wait in attics beside Ouija boards and Twister mats. There’s a reason why every flash of bright blue light hides an alien vessel, why squadrons of witches streak across the moon, and why zombies clog the interstate. It’s the same reason why Bloody Marry is on call behind every reflective surface, why trolls make living rooms of covered overpasses, and why every tomb, no matter how far from Egypt, is stacked full of mummies.

These monsters have stood the test of time. They’ve been vetted by generations of storytellers. Each creature has deep cultural roots and instant brand recognition. We see elongated canines, dripping with blood, and we know what to expect. We hear doors slam, see furniture stack, and we anticipate a chill in the air. We see a sickly girl chained to a bed, shouting obscenities, and we expect her head to spin like a sprinkler firing pea soup across the walls.

These creatures have the staying power to crawl up from the pits of the public domain. Their mythos are classics. New works based on them are never dismissed as fan-fiction. Good writers borrow, great writers steal, and if you’re going to be a thief you might as well steal from the best.

Writing a story about vampires or werewolves is like filling out a mad-lib in reverse. The character attributes are already there, all you have to do is come up with the situation. Writers who take on these monsters are like DJs remixing mythologies. The tune never changes, all they have to do is drop a fresh beat. Like grade school students passing a story around, writers using these monsters contribute to an ongoing plot. They expand a vast universe that’s populated with characters with strikingly similar names.

What do you do when you want to tell your own story?

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Make your Monsters from Scratch

Why create your own monsters, other than to avoid lawsuits from Bram Stoker and Mary Shelly in the afterlife? So Wikipedia doesn’t file your magnum opus as a “derivative work.” So that critics will have no chain of disappointing paperbacks to compare yours to. So you feel like you’re owning your characters rather than leasing them. So that lesser writers can rip you off in the future.

The reason I create my own monsters has little to do with intellectual property. I do it to build excitement in my readers. Vampire myths have already covered so much ground. If that ground is well trodden then the audience already knows the way. Dress up the scenery all you like, but the trail makes it obvious where the story is headed. When you take your audience to uncharted ground you reclaim the mystery. When they don’t know the lay of the land, you get to fill it with traps. The danger could come from anywhere. The path is wrought with tension.

Vampire lore is so prevalent they never need the setup that other mystical beings do. They’re a fixture of pop culture. It’s hard to believe a character in a vampire story that doesn’t know what they are already. Yet even when the character has heard of vampires, they always need a refresher on the rules that govern them.

Everyone knows that vampires are allergic to garlic, sunlight, and gluten. They need our permission to enter our homes, but can glamour an invitation out of us. Their hearts don’t beat, but their circulatory systems works well enough to pump all the blood they drink. They sleep in coffins because they haven’t lived long enough to accrue the wealth to afford sleep number beds. They can only be killed with a stake through the heart or an ax to the neck. The stake must be wooden, because vampires’ chests have refined tastes, they’re very selective about what they let inside. The ax can be made from any material, because their necks are not as discerning.

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Monsters of the Information Age

Rather than scrape the Victorian era for more inspiration, consider the time in which you live. This is the information age. The millennials have a goldmine of inspiration to draw from. In the last decade technology has fundamentally altered our social lives, our memories, and our attention spans. It evolves faster than we can understand it, and we fear what we don’t understand. With each new threat there’s a wealth of stories to be told, and horror icons to be discovered.

Don’t tell me you have nothing to say about our modern surveillance state. Imagine a willful dystopia, one that doesn’t rely on military force, but on our dependence to technology. In this future, no one forces you to share your private thoughts. Peer pressure compels you to. Spouses submit to 24 hour surveillance in the name of trust. You give your boss back door access to your subconscious, because you want the job. You submit to “moral screenings” because it’s a competitive marketplace. You opt into the hive mind. With everyone struggling to think happy thoughts, what happens when you’re stricken with a deep profound sadness? Does it spread, like a throat virus?

Ever wonder what you’d do if your identity was stolen? What if you were cut off from everyone you knew? Imagine a small town built on identity theft. The townsfolk kidnap college students and lock them up in pens. The only time they see the light of day is when they’re marched out to pose for Facebook photos. They’re forced to embrace in staged kissing scenes. They send scripted text messages at gun point. The students’ parents wire them cash, never knowing that the money is driving the town’s economy.

Have you ever feared retaliation for something you’ve said online? What if it made you the target of a coordinated attack? What if a cyber mob laid waste to your platform, and dragged your digital footprint through the mud? What would you do if strangers told you to kill yourself with complete anonymity? Imagine a scenario where their motives are far more complicated than you think. These aren’t the pimple-faced basement dwellers you expect. They’re cultists, worshiping an entity born of the internet, lurking in the collective unconscious. This entity needs sacrifices to prevent it from going on an indiscriminate hunt. How do you kill such a creature?

Have you ever felt alienated by the prevalence of memes in all your feeds? Ever wondered what’s the point of screenshots from TV shows with the Impact font over them? These gifs speak a language that’s lost on older generations. What if you really were missing something; a subliminal message, a mass communication to an underground youth revolt, a cue to kill anyone over thirty? What if it’s architect had no idea what they were constructing? Imagine an agent working to decipher the secret to advertising to the youth market, only to stumble upon a trigger for the mass execution of the baby boomers.

These are stories that could only be told today. They don’t need to be upgraded for the modern era, they’re products of it. They’re not the seductive monsters we’ve come to know, but there are icons buried in this material waiting for someone to dig them up.

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Photo by Keane Amdahl follow him on Twitter @FoodStoned

There’s Always a Trade Off

We all know how Romeo and Juliet ends; two teenagers overreact to the prospect of being single. We watch new interpretations to see the variances. Just because the play is fixed on the page doesn’t mean that all the choices have been made for the director.

We don’t go to vampire movies to watch the undead float through a checklist of obligatory behaviors, only to be dispatched by an ever looming set of wooden stakes. We go to see how these creatures have been tweaked for the times. We want to see how their relationships play out with modern storytelling sensibilities.

The vampire brand guarantees an audience for the opening weekend, but it doesn’t guarantee rave reviews. Although vampires are governed by a set of rules, those rules no longer dictate their genre. They’re swashbuckling action heroes. They’re dreamy-eyed romantics. There’s freedom for the storyteller to take them where they like.

If that’s the case, then why bother creating your own monsters? Why buck the trend when there’s a successful brand built for you? Because everyone else is already using it. Go to the fantasy section of any bookstore and you’ll find end-caps full of vampire romance novels in black and red. That market is over-saturated.

When you invent your own monsters, their rules are mysteries for your audience. Their nature is as compelling as the events that surround them. Their names aren’t catalogued at the library, the Dewey Decimal System has nothing on them. There’s no wood carvings of their likeness, no microfiche chronicling their exploits, and no leather bound first editions listing all their weaknesses.

They are the true unknown. The cosmic dread that lurks just past our understanding. These monsters don’t come with an established fan base, but a fan base awaits anyone brave enough to introduce them to the world.

15 thoughts on “Build Your Own Monsters”

  1. You better hurry up and put those story ideas to work for you before someone steals them. They are great ideas.

    Also, I’m pretty sure the coffin is a preference, sprinkled with dirt from their homeland. Some of them, I’ve heard, even prefer to simply dig themselves a fresh grave at the end of every night. 😉

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  2. YES!

    One of my writing mottos is “No creatures needed” (or “Anything they can do in, we can do in better.”). I like a good classic beastie, and your description of how they work would have made this piece work if it has stopped right there… but that’s the point, we shouldn’t stop there.

    In writing, so much of the real fun is in looking harder. Reminding ourselves that stories are about life, not about the stories already out there. Reexamine, reshuffle, and realize what *we* want to say. In the end, there’s nothing else that really keeps a writer going– and not much else that holds a reader either.

    Hmm, I’ve got whole monster-inventing concepts I never quite explored, maybe it’s time to look at…

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    1. I felt The X-Files was really good at balancing mythological creatures, urban legends, and mutants the writes had invented themselves.

      Right now it feels like the scales are tipped toward recognized brands.

      I can’t wait for the next classic monster to emerge from the void. That’s why I’m working on it myself.

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  3. I’d like to see a return to the original ethics of these stories – they were warnings, first off, much like Gojira / the nuke bomb, for Japan, and alien invasion in Hollywood’s Golden Era / space travel fears. Nosferatu was, first and foremost, a Germanic warning about the spread of disease – hence all the rats in the 1922 B & W, and Max Schreck being made up to look so ghoulish and wasted. This message got massively subverted by the sleek culture of Hammer, which I’ve actually come to hate over time, for its spawning of modern-era vamps that play up to that word itself, rather than the original concept of fear. It’s all fucking and hair gel, these days. Bollocks to that.

    Rant aside; ace post, mister. Highlights some very pertinent marketing points, with salient alternatives that anyone with half a brain cell could and should carry forth, to darken the path once more. Long Live Monsters.

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  4. One of the rules that I made for myself when I started my series is “No Standard Monsters”. No vampires, werewolves, zombies, faeries, etc. I will admit that I borrow ideas from other sources to make my semi-human characters, but I mix things up so that the reader will not know what these characters can do or what their vulnerabilities are.

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