So, you want to write a monster that leaves your audience sleeping with the lights on, but you’re not sure where to start? I know the feeling!
As an independent horror novelist and filmmaker, I’ve spent countless hours thinking about and writing monstrous creatures that audiences love to hate.
Through trial and error, I’ve discovered the secret formula to breathe life (and terror) into these supernatural beings. And trust me, with the right approach, you’ll be able to create a monster that will haunt your audience’s dreams. And you’ll get better at storytelling in the process!
We’ll start at the seven steps to writing a monster, then we’ll look at the monster archetype in literature and classic films and consider how to best frighten and impress your audience.
How To Write a Monster: The Step-by-Step Guide
You’re here to learn how to write classic monsters in your scary story, so let’s get into it right away! We’ll go over every step of the monster-creation process for sci-fi, fantasy or horror stories.
Step 1: Brainstorm Your Monster
Everyone has to start somewhere, and when you’re writing a monster, that ‘somewhere’ is brainstorming. It’s the important first step on your journey to creating terrifying creatures.
And remember, there’s no wrong answer at this step of the process!
Let Your Imagination Run Wild
First up, let your imagination run wild. There are no rules at this stage, so don’t limit yourself.
Remember when you were a child, scared of what might be under your bed or in your closet? Tap into those memories. What did you imagine was lurking there? Maybe your monster has three eyes, or creepy tentacles or can shape-shift at will.
Find Your Monster’s Spark
What Are Its Roots?: Monsters come in all shapes and sizes and all types as well. Whether supernatural, alien, or human beings, the creatures you create should be rooted in human nature.
What’s Special?: Ask yourself, what’s the one thing about your monster that is going to make people go “wow”? It could be its backstory, an unusual power, or something about how it looks.
Mix Things Up: Try combining things that don’t usually go together. How about a being that’s part shadow, part machine?
Draw or Describe: You don’t have to be an artist. Just sketch or write about what pops into your head. Big eyes? Long claws? All of it helps, and the scarier, the better!
Think About Its Home
Where’s Its Lair?: Imagine where your monster hangs out. Is it a foggy swamp, a deep space station, or the ruins of an old castle?
Give It a Reason
Why’s It Here?: Monsters do scary things for a reason. Is your monster guarding something, seeking revenge, or just trying to survive?
Draw Inspiration from Various Sources
Don’t be afraid to draw inspiration from various sources. Look at mythology, horror films, books, comics, and even your own nightmares! I once dreamed about a shadowy figure that could move through walls, which became the basis for one of my most chilling monsters.
Remember, there are no bad ideas here. Jot down everything that comes to mind. You never know what might lead to the perfect monster down the line as you refine your ideas.
Step 2: Design Its Appearance
Now that we have a core idea for our monster, it’s time to move on to the next step: designing its appearance. This is where our monster starts to come alive, taking shape in our minds and on the page.
Start with Basic Shapes
Scary Parts: Think about what makes a monster look scary. Long, sharp teeth? Glowing eyes? Start with one key feature and build around it.
Size Matters: Is your monster tall, like a building, or small and sneaky? Size can change how your monster moves and acts.
Mood Colors: Dark colors might make your monster look more dangerous. Bright colors could make it strangely eerie or darkly fun.
Patterns: Stripes, spots, or something else? Patterns can make a monster stand out.
Skin: Is it rough like a tree bark, slimy like a frog, or something totally new? Texture adds a lot of character.
Extra Parts: Wings, tails, horns? Extra parts can make a monster character more interesting.
Make It Fit The Environment
Where It Lives: Make sure your monster looks like it belongs in its home setting. A swamp monster might be green and slimy, while a desert creature could be sandy and dry. A monster living in a dark cave might have large eyes to see, while a creature from the ocean depths might have gills and fins.
Think About Practicality: How does your monster move, eat, or interact with its environment? This can affect its design. For instance, a monster that needs to climb trees would likely have sharp claws or strong limbs.
Step 3: Develop a Backstory and Motivation
After you know what your monster looks like, it’s time to think about its backstory and why it does what it does.
The Monster’s Origins
Where It Came From: Did your monster come from a dark forest, another planet, or did a mad scientist make it? Knowing where it started can help explain why it’s here.
First Moments: Think about the first big thing that happened to your monster. Was it a fight, an escape, or maybe it made a friend?
What Motivates and Drives Your Monster
Wants and Needs: Just like people, monsters want things. Maybe it’s looking for a home, trying to protect something, or it wants revenge.
Fears: Monsters can be afraid, too. Maybe it’s scared of being alone, losing its home, or something even bigger.
Hero or Villain: Some monsters are pure evil, bent on death and destruction. Others are tragic heroes at heart, misunderstood by the world around them.
The Monster’s Impact on Your Story
On the World: How does society see your monster? Is it a legend, a scary story, or a hidden secret?
On the Story: Think about how your monster changes the story. Does it make the hero braver, bring people together, or something else?
Consider the idea that both a monster and a hero should have a backstory filled with pain. It’s what they do with that pain afterward that makes them a hero or a monster.
Heroes think “I’ll never let anyone else go through what I went through”, while monsters and villains want to hurt others because of their pain.
Step 4: Decide on Your Monster’s Weakness
Even the scariest monsters have something they’re scared of or something that can defeat them.
Why Weaknesses Matter
Makes It Fair: A monster with a weakness gives heroes a chance to win. It makes the story more exciting when the main character has to find and use the monster’s weakness against it.
More Interesting: A monster that can be beaten in a special way is more interesting than one that’s impossible to kill.
Examples of Monster Weaknesses
Vampires and Sunlight: Everyone knows vampires can’t stand sunlight. It’s their big weakness.
Werewolves and Silver: In many stories, the only thing that can stop a werewolf is something made of silver.
The Wicked Witch of the West and Water: In The Wizard of Oz, water is what melts the witch away.
Ghosts and Salt: In many tales and shows, ghosts and spirits can be kept at bay or even dispelled with salt.
Trolls and Sunlight: In folklore, trolls are often said to turn to stone or be destroyed when exposed to sunlight.
Zombies and Head Trauma: A common theme in zombie lore is that destroying the brain or removing the head is the only way to put them down for good.
Giants and Cleverness: In stories like Jack and the Beanstalk, giants are often defeated by wit and clever strategies rather than brute force.
The Basilisk and Its Own Reflection: In some legends, the Basilisk, a deadly serpent, can be killed by seeing its own reflection – which turns its lethal gaze back upon itself.
Finding the Right Weakness
Fits the Story: The weakness should make sense in your story. It shouldn’t just come out of nowhere.
A Challenge to Discover: It’s more fun if the hero works hard to discover the monster’s weakness.
Giving your monster a weakness doesn’t make it less scary. It makes your monster story more of a puzzle, with the protagonist needing to figure out how to win.
Step 5: Create Your Story’s Setting and World
Think about it: Would Jaws have been as terrifying if it wasn’t set in the open ocean? Or would Dracula have been as menacing if his castle wasn’t in Transylvania’s isolated, foggy mountains?
The setting can play a huge role in enhancing the terror of your monster. Here are some aspects to consider when you’re building a world for your monster character.
Pick the Perfect Place
Dark and Creepy: Dark forests, old houses, or spooky towns make great homes for monsters. The shadows and sounds can make everything feel scarier.
Unknown Lands: Putting your monster in a place people don’t know much about adds mystery to your story. This might be something like a distant planet, a hidden underground landscape, or an uncharted island shrouded in mist.
Make the World Feel Real
Details Matter: Describe details like the weather, what the vegetation or buildings look like, and what sounds you hear. This helps readers feel like they’re really there.
How People Live: Show how your monster changes how people live in your story. Are they scared to go out at night? Do they have special rules to stay safe?
Use the Setting to Build Tension
Traps and Challenges: Use the setting to create traps or challenges for your characters. Maybe they have to cross a dangerous bridge or find their way through a maze to face the monster.
Hide and Seek: Use the setting to play a game of hide and seek with the monster. Maybe it can move through walls, or maybe it only comes out during a certain time.
Step 6: Introduce Your Monster Correctly
How you first show your monster can pump up the thrill for your audience!
Build Up the Mystery
Hints and Clues: Before the monster shows up, drop little hints. Maybe it’s a weird footprint, a strange noise, or a shadow that moves just out of sight.
Tales and Legends: Have another character talk about the monster like it’s an old story or legend. This makes the first real appearance a big shock.
Use the Senses
Sounds: Maybe your monster has a creepy sound it makes. Let your characters hear it before they see it.
Smells and Feelings: Sometimes, a cold wind or a bad smell can tell us something scary close.
The Big Reveal
Just the Right Moment: Pick a really tense moment for the monster to finally show up. Maybe it’s during a storm or when the protagonist is all alone.
Don’t Show Everything: The first time we see the monster, maybe we only see part of it. This keeps everyone guessing.
Step 7: Use the Feeling of Uncertainty and Unpredictability
As we continue our journey into monster writing, let’s talk about an important ingredient that can make your monster story better: uncertainty and unpredictability.
Just like in reality, the unknown can be frightening. And when it comes to monsters, this fear can be amplified tenfold.
Why Unpredictability Works
Remember when you were a kid, and you’d imagine something was lurking under your bed or in your closet? You didn’t know what it was, when it would come out, or what it would do.
That’s uncertainty and unpredictability at work. It’s this element of surprise that keeps us on edge.
Examples of Unpredictability
Here are some examples of monsters from pop culture that highlight the power of unpredictability:
The Thing (from John Carpenter’s The Thing): The otherworldly creature in this film could assimilate and imitate any living organism. This made it difficult for the characters (and the audience) to predict who was human and who was “The Thing.”
The Xenomorph (from Alien): This space monster was frightening to look at but also sneaky and hard to see. It could hide in the smallest spaces and strike when you least expected it.
Pennywise (from Stephen King’s IT): This monster could shape-shift into a person’s worst fear, making its appearance erratic and unpredictable. The audience never knew what form Pennywise would take next.
The Predator (from Predator): This extraterrestrial creature was known for its hunting abilities and the way it could become invisible. This made its attacks unpredictable and sudden.
Norman Bates (from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho): While not a traditional monster, Norman’s unpredictable split personality kept audiences on edge, never knowing when the seemingly harmless motel owner would turn into a killer.
Practical Advice: How To Write Unpredictable Monster Behavior
So, how can you make a monster unpredictable? Here are a few tips:
Vary the monster’s actions: If your monster does the same thing every time it appears, it’ll become predictable. Mix things up. Maybe one time it strikes from the shadows, the next it toys with its prey, or maybe it even helps them unexpectedly.
Play with timing: Don’t have your monster appear at the same points in your story. Sometimes, it might strike early. Other times, it might wait, building tension.
Keep its motives unclear: If your characters (and readers) can’t figure out what the monster wants, it’ll make it more unpredictable. Is it just hungry, or is there something more?
Use misdirection: Make your characters think the monster will appear in one place, then have it show up somewhere else entirely.
My Experience Writing An Award-Winning Monster
I’ve written elsewhere about my inspiration for writing the Strigoi in Iron Dogs, so I’ll focus instead on the crossroads demon, Johnny, in my award-winning short film and feature screenplay, Boneyard Racers.
I wanted to create an original monster grounded in a mostly-human appearance. With small black horns and glowing eyes, coupled with a greaser’s pompadour and a leather jacket, Johnny looks otherwise human – if perhaps a few decades out of time. But his utter disdain for human beings shows him for what he really is.
And that’s the key to his character – his nature and backstory. He is a product of his environment, as much as of his own poor decisions, and he inflicts pain on others because of it.
But as evil as he is, I gave him a sliver of goodness to make the audience wonder – can he be redeemed?
This is what you must consider in your horror films and stories. What made the monster the way it is? What drives it? And what can undo it?
What is the Monster Archetype?
The Monster Archetype represents the embodiment of our deepest fears (see more here).
It’s a character or entity that often stands in opposition to the hero, symbolizing the darker aspects of the human psyche or the natural world.
Monsters can take many forms, from supernatural beings like vampires and werewolves to human monsters like serial killers or corrupt officials. But regardless of their appearance or nature, all monsters serve a similar purpose: they challenge the hero, create conflict, and help to convey a story’s theme or message.
Through their interactions with these scary adversaries, characters are forced to confront the monsters themselves and their own personal fears and weaknesses – which leads to growth and transformation.
Here are some of my favorite archetypical monsters in films and literature. Notice how each relates to the story’s theme(s), and what kinds of emotions they bring up when you think about them.
Dracula (from Bram Stoker’s Dracula): He’s the classic vampire, showing our fear of the undead and the dark allure of immortality.
Frankenstein’s Monster (from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein): This creature represents our fear of science going too far and the consequences of playing God.
The Wolf Man: He shows the fear of losing control and the beast within us all, struggling between human and animal instincts.
The Mummy: This ancient being brings fears of curses and the past returning to haunt us.
King Kong: A giant ape that symbolizes nature’s power and the consequences of human curiosity and greed.
Godzilla: This giant monster represents the destruction caused by nuclear power and mankind’s helplessness against natural disasters.
The Wicked Witch of the West (from The Wizard of Oz): She embodies the fear of evil magic and the classic battle between good and evil.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon: This monster shows our fear of the unknown depths of the ocean and what mysteries lurk there.
Jaws (the shark from Jaws): This giant shark represents the fear of what’s hidden just beneath the surface of the water, turning the familiar into a place of terror.
We’ve taken the first steps together on the path of creating a monster that your audience will love.
From brainstorming your monster’s unique traits and designing its appearance to coming up with a backstory that adds depth, you’re well on your way. But remember, this is just the beginning of writing a terrifying monster for your horror story or science fiction novel.
You can read more about the world of the monster archetype to discover even more ways to make your creature unforgettable. Explore different monster names to find the one that perfectly captures the essence of your creation.
Keep learning, keep imagining, and soon, you’ll have a monster character design that not only haunts the pages of your story but the minds of your readers, too!
Common Questions (FAQs)
How do I come up with a unique monster concept?
Start with your real fears and add a twist, like a creature that thrives in the light instead of the dark. Use your imagination to blend different traits and create something new.
Should I incorporate real-life fears or societal anxieties into my monster?
Absolutely! Drawing from real-life fears can make your monster more relatable and truly terrifying. It’s a fantastic way to add depth to your story!
What are some key elements to include in my monster’s description?
From my own writing experience, focus on your monster’s looks, its actions, and the sounds it makes. You’ll find these are key to painting a vivid, scary picture for your readers!
How can I make sure my monster is believable within the world of my story?
Make your monster fit the story world by giving it a reason to be there, like a legend or a natural part of the environment. Show how other characters react to it.