In the book “Writing Monsters” the author explains how to make a monster for your novel, short story, or screenplay. Although monsters are often associated with the horror genre, monsters can be less fantastic in ordinary situations as well. For example, Satan is the monster in “The Exorcist” but all the mean people the hero faces in “Legally Blonde” are monsters in a sense too because they oppose the hero. They just don’t use supernatural powers to do it.
So when you consider a monster for a horror story or a regular story, you can still apply the same principles and just omit any bizarre features of your monster. Instead of a giant creature with tentacles, your monster might just be an overbearing boss, but the principle remains the same. All villains (monsters) must be scary to the hero and the way they create this fear is by demonstrating their awesome power early and often.
In “Star Wars,” Darth Vader’s stormtroopers under his command blast their way into Princess Leia’s starship. Then Darth Vader chokes a general from a distance without touching him. Finally, Darth Vader orders the Death Star to blow up Princess Leia’s planet. Later Darth Vader kills Obi-wan. By constantly showing the villain’s power, “Star Wars” makes Darth Vader scarier and scarier, and that’s the whole purpose of a villain whether it’s a real monster or just a scary person.
In “Inglorious Basterds,” the Nazi Jew Hunter smoothly talks to a French farmer and gets him to admit where the Jewish refugees are hiding. Then he calmly points to the floor so his Nazi troops can machine gun them to death. That shows his power in both force and intellect, which makes him as scary as a monster.
Your monster (villain) must be scary by being more powerful than your hero. The scarier the monster, the more intriguing your story will be.
Besides being scary, a monster is often unknown. Through the course of the story, we gradually learn more and more about the monster, but this initial mystery makes the monster frightening because it’s so unknown. In “It Follows,” the monster is a ghost that follows a person relentlessly. Even more frightening is that this ghost takes on different appearances so it’s unpredictable.
By introducing the monster with a mystery and gradually revealing what this mystery is, a story can keep the monster as frightening as possible through the unknown. This is exactly how ordinary dramas work too by keeping the villain’s goal a mystery.
In “It Follows,” the initial scene demonstrates the monster’s power as we see a frightened girl running around for no apparent reason. Then she sits and waits until the next scene shows her mutilated body. At this point, we don’t even know what the monster is, but we can see its power and its scary enough. Now when the hero faces the monster, we already know how scary the monster can be simply because we don’t know much about it.
Imagine being attacked by a pit bull. Since most people know what a dog looks like, a dog attack can be scary, but not overly frightening. Now imagine being attacked by an invisible creature that behaves like a pit bull. Even though its attack may be identical, making it a mystery enhances its fright appeal. The less we know of the monster, the more terrifying it can be. Eventually we need to stop being terrified of a mystery and understand the monster\’s nature to the final conflict in the end.
A third element that makes the monster scary is isolation. Horror stories almost always isolate the hero in places where he or she can’t call for help and must fight the monster with limited resources, which usually means no weapons. Being helpless and trapped makes the monster even scarier.
Isolation forces the hero to confront the monster, and that’s always more satisfying than letting someone else defeat the monster. Imagine how boring “Alien” would have been if Ripley could have called for help in the end and had a platoon of space Marines blast the alien to bits.
So the three elements of making a monster involve:
- Make it scary by making it powerful
- Make it scary by keeping its nature a mystery as long as possible
- Make it scary by forcing the hero to fight it in isolation
Ordinary stories use these exact same techniques to make the villain scarier, just to a lesser degree without excessive gore. In “Tangled,” the villain is pretending to be the hero’s mother, so she’s keeping the hero isolated and taking advantage of her ignorance of the world. She has more power than the hero, all of her powers are not known until near the end when we learn how she tries to trick the hero into going back to her tower again, and the hero must confront her in the end alone. The hero has the help of her ally and mentor, but ultimately she has to defeat the villain by herself.
The best movies have the best villains. In fact, many actors so they prefer playing villains because villains are more interesting. In the movie “Face/Off” both John Travolta and Nicolas Cage said they preferred playing the villain instead of the hero.
If your story has a great villain, you have the elements of a great story. If you don’t have a scary, frightening, and absolutely terrifying villain, your story won’t have a great conflict. Without conflict, you won’t have a great (or good) story.
So make your villain like a monster because that’s what villains really are underneath. The more powerful the monster, the more mysterious the monster, the more exciting your story will likely be.