Michaeline: General Monsters

Viking women fighting off an enormous sea dragon

Monsters often represent a fear we want to overcome. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

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?


5 thoughts on “Michaeline: General Monsters

  1. I don’t usually write any monsters, although a while back I had a lot of fun writing a novella with a gargoyle in it. He was the hero of the story, so only a monster on the outside. I like the idea of writing monsters, though, because you can give them a host of characteristics that readers can dislike (or like, as the case may be), including elements that regular people wouldn’t have: eyeballs that squirt acid, say, or ears that can turn into wings. I once read a story where a dragon could turn into an espresso machine. How handy is that?

    And now I’d like to read “Viking Women,” too. It’s fabulous! Spectacular! Terrifying!

    • LOL, I would like to read it too, but I’m afraid I’d be disappointed. Those are certainly some keywords I’d like my writing to be. Fabulous! Spectacular! and maybe not so much Terrifying — I should probably have more terror in my writing.

      I like writing about skin-deep monsters, and making them confound expectations. I am scared to death of inner-core monsters — the handsome man who is really a psychopath just creeps me out terribly.

  2. I’d love to read Viking Women. The Raw Courage of Women Without Men Lost in a Fantastic HELL-ON-EARTH! Whoo!!!

    The Big Bad in my WIP is an elemental monster, ancient and powerful. He has a backstory and understandable reasons for behaving the way he does, but he’s implacably opposed to the H&H and everything they stand for. There’s no compromise in him. I’m still figuring him out (much of his story is still lost in the mists of time) but I’m really enjoying it. I love him very much 😉 .

    • (-: I think that’s the hallmark of a modern villain — inflexibility. No compromise, and a firm belief that s/he is absolutely right and can not deviate.

      Of course, though, on the flip side, the H&H also have to be absolutely devoted to their cause as well. They can deviate from their plan, but not from their basic principles . . . is that right? They are willing to compromise until they just can’t compromise anymore and must take a stand.

      But wait a minute, the villains could also compromise and show a certain amount of flexibility . . . . Just what is the dividing line between villain and hero? I thought I knew . . . . I guess it is true that every villain is the hero of his/her own story.

  3. Pingback: Michaeline: The Monster’s Transformational Power – Eight Ladies Writing

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