Welcome to October! It seems like a good time to talk about monsters and the roles they play in our stories.
This week, I’m just thinking about the parameters of monster-dom. What do we mean by “monster”? We can say a person is a monster, or we can be more literal, and talk about monsters that are “not normal” or “supernatural” – I’m talking about monsters like Frankenstein’s monster (which was man-made) or mermaids or minotaurs. The word monster almost always carries a negative connotation: monsters provoke fear.
To be more stodgy, Merriam-Webster’s first definition for monster is: a: an animal or plant of abnormal form or structure; or b: one who deviates from normal or acceptable behavior or character. They give the etymology as coming from the Latin for “omen”, which in turn derives from “warn.” They say it’s also related to the etymology of mind . . . .
Traditionally in stories, monsters didn’t have to have a motive. They were just nasty things that happened. They may have been driven by hunger or lust or greed (dragons were motivated by all three), but their backstory was limited. They existed to provide the hero with something to fight.
Somewhere along the line, though, people started wondering why monsters were the way they are. Frankenstein’s monster, Adam, thought he’d be a kind and gentle soul, but because he was bullied and mistreated, he learned to respond with violence.
Science fiction didn’t stick to this idea, though. I suppose we need a variety of monsters to represent a variety of fears. In War of the Worlds, the monsters were aliens driven by greed and the desire to conquer. Cthulhu? I don’t know much about Cthulhu. But according to Wikipedia, this Lovecraftian invention was anthropoid in posture, but otherwise a combination of an octopus and a dragon. It was worshipped by cultists . . . which is another feature of many monsters: they have minions.
Many monsters are associated with an element. Water monsters, winged terrors of the air, the earthly monsters that spring from underground, and monsters that either wield or are made of fire. A lot of monsters are a combination of all the elements.
If we go back to our etymology, we can think of monsters as a warning: not to be abnormal. I think it’s very fascinating that in the 20th century, this abnormality was redefined. Monsters were given feelings and rights as living creatures, and the “normal” people who scorned or bullied them were presented as the real monsters. The Elephant Man was based on the life of a real 19th century man, Joseph (aka John) Merrick, who had severe deformities and was displayed in a freak show before living out the remainder of his life in a hospital. The 1977 play and 1980 film brought his story back into the public’s eye, and in those versions, the real monsters were those who judged solely by appearance, and those who preyed on the monsters.
Perhaps there’s a little monster in every great character. Something that acts as a warning to us, the readers, and perhaps something that puts the “normal” or “fine” aspects of the character into a more brilliant light. How about you? Have you got any monsters (human, man-made or fantastical) in your writing?