Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Monstrous and ordinary

Let's talk about how to make a new type of monster out of an ordinary creature.

Monster is a fuzzy concept, but for now, we could do worse than assuming a monster is:
  • an animal — A virus or an earthquake might be scary, but they don't feel like monsters.
  • somewhat intelligent — If you can ascribe malice to a creature's actions, its deeds become villainous, not merely dangerous.
  • feared for a reason — It has to actually be harmful to people for it to be a monster, something that's dangerous and hard to defeat.
I like starting with a creature people are already familiar with; not something fantastical, but something completely mundane, something you might have experience with yourself.  Instead of starting with an orc or a dragon, let's start with something simple: a crow.  (I'm assuming you have crows where you live.)

(Sue Coleman)
(You might also enjoy an earlier post on generating random creatures.)


What are crows associated with?  What do they feel like?  What kinds of stories do people tell about them?

Monstrous versions of regular creatures should probably stick to the same theme, amplifying and extending what those creatures feel like.  Using theme from the real world lets you build on your audience's preconceptions, on stories they've heard and ideas in the culture around them.

So what theme do crows go with?  Night, death, and trickery come to mind.  If you know stories about a creature, use them when you make a monstrous version of it.

crow from Resident Evil concept art


Crows have two out of the three monstrous characteristics already: they're fairly intelligent animals, but they aren't really feared by anyone.  Let's take a look at characteristics of crows and see what we find:
  • intelligent, good at solving problems and making simple tools
  • raucous, noisy, calling out to each other
  • collect trinkets and shiny things
  • daring, stealing tail feathers from eagles just to show off
  • skittish, quick to flee from unexpected danger
  • feed on just about everything, from carrion to small animals to grain
Haida raven (Bill Reid)
For each one of these bullet points, let's dial it up until we get something scary.
  • The monstrous crow is intelligent, more so than any other animal.  They know how to make tools, pick locks, get into doors and closed rooms.
Not too scary by itself, but if these crow-like creatures are dangerous, you certainly wouldn't want them picking locks.
  • They make noise to call for their friends and coordinate their actions.  They call for other dangerous creatures to arrive.  Things that gnaw bone and sip blood show up when monstrous crows cry out.
  • They is collecting things supposed to be scary?  Maybe it's what they collect: skulls of creatures they've killed, deadly poisons, sharp blades.  Maybe it's how they collect them: taken from their living victims, mementos of people they've killed.  Maybe it's what they do with their trinkets: bait to lure in children, valuables to trade for...murderous stuff?
Using trinkets as bait fits well with their theme of trickery.
  • They're not afraid of anyone.  Make some noise and throw things, and they'll fly off for a while.  But they're only tempted and angered when you chase them away.  Throw rocks at them and they'll come back for you one day.  Monstrous crows live for the daring assault on a prideful victim.
  • They're always watchful.  It's very hard to sneak up on them, as they're always looking over their shoulders and stopping to listen for sounds.  At the first sign of danger, they flee to watch from a safe distance.  (This isn't scary yet, so let's dial it up a bit further.)  They listen for every sound, knowing when your heart is beating a bit faster, when you've cocked the hammer back on your gun.  They pay attention to everything around and are constantly thinking about plans for escaping danger.
  • They eat everything, but most importantly they eat people.  Individual crows are pretty small and weak to take down a person, but we know these ones work as a team and use tools, so if they're hungry, they can certainly take down a human.
It sounds like we're getting to something scary here.  Glossy black birds that watch from the trees at night, watching for lone people to kill.  They call out for their cohort when they find a target, and by the time you know they're around, they've already been watching you, observing every move you make.  And when they decide to strike, they'll come at you from all around, eat your flesh, then each take a little trinket of you as they fly away.


The best monsters don't just pop up out of nowhere.  Tension and fear build up as protagonists stumble across signs of the monster's presence, signs that they too could become its prey.

Some signs of these monstrous crows: trinkets of the dead used to lure people in, cawing to call for the others once you're already alone and deep in the woods, footprints of scavengers that take the bones from crow kills, leftovers from previous prey (bones cracked open, possessions with all the shiny pieces stripped off).

Consider signs of a monster from its footprints, voice, remnants of its food, things it plays with.

Monsters also end up with rumors about them.  The local people tell stories that are mostly true, or at least based on a kernel of truth, but with exaggerations and shortcomings.  Rumors about a monster should probably stick to the themes of the creature.

Inaccurate rumors about monstrous crows: that they can see in the dark, that they're afraid of light, that the sound of creaking branches is actually them, that any small discarded item you find is bait by the crows.


Every monster is vulnerable in some way.  It could be a single spot, like Smaug's missing scale (or Achilles' heel, I guess), or it could be something less substantial, like greed or self-loathing.

My favorite method is to draw the monster's vulnerability from the same characteristics that make it scary.  Considering attributes of the crow, let's pick one or two as vulnerabilities:
  • collect trinkets
  • daring
These crows are intelligent and cautious, but they can be lured into making mistakes if the trinket is alluring enough.  So what do they like enough to risk their lives for?  I'm guessing shiny, round objects, tools that help them get food, unobtainable mementos of dangerous creatures. 

More monsters!

Here are a few more monstrous versions of ordinary creatures you might enjoy:
  • RaccoonsThey grab their prey with their dexterous hands, then drown their prey in streams.  They're much larger than ordinary raccoons, strong enough to grab a person and hold them under the water.  They ought to be more concerned by the presence of other creatures, but they're not.
  • Skunks — They spray a terrible noxious fluid that causes sickness and death, and also stains your skin.  They seem like they'd be cute and friendly, but they'll spray you, wait for you to die, then nibble on your corpse.  They're overly reliant on their spray for defense, so any creature that's immune to it has a major advantage.
  • Porcupines — They can shoot their barbed quills quite some distance.  They can climb just about anywhere, waiting patiently to strike when people come too close.  Their bellies are soft and vulnerable.
  • Buffalo — Thundering giants of muscle and horn, they get together as a group and run through buildings and fields, trampling people to death and destroying their livelihood.  They flatten whole villages that encroach on their territory.  They're prone to panic, though, if too many buffalo in the group become frightened.
raccoon washing cell phone

1 comment:

  1. Much better than a random glob of tentacles and claws, for certain.