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FIVE WAYS TO BUILD A BETTER MONSTER

Written by Tim Waggoner

At the center of every horror story lies a monster, although perhaps not a literal one. In Edgar Allen Poe’s A Descent into the Maelstrom, a gigantic oceanic whirlpool is the monstrous force, and in Richard Matheson’s Born of Man and Woman, the mutated child isn’t the monster so much as its parents who keep it imprisoned in the basement. And in the Purge films, the dark side of society is the monster.

One of the problems with writing about monsters is that once they become too familiar, they lose their power to frighten us and engage our imagination. Over the years vampires, werewolves, and their kin have become cartoon characters and children’s toys, figuratively – and sometimes literally – defanged. So does this mean monsters are dead (as opposed to undead?). Not at all! But it does mean that we need to approach how we create monsters for our stories with more thought and creativity if we want them to keep on creeping on. Here are few tips on how to do this.

1) Deconstruct Tropes

A trope is any concept – a character type, an idea, a setting, a story pattern – that appears over and over within a genre, and monsters are one of the most common tropes in horror. Ghosts, witches, zombies...One of the ways to develop an effective monster for your fiction is to take a trope and deconstruct it, to try to determine what it’s underlying quality is, and then build a new monster that embodies that quality. For example, modern zombies – the kind that appear in George Romero films – have multiple qualities. They’re reanimated dead, they work in groups, they’re cannibals, and they spread their contagion to those who survive their attacks. Let’s focus on one of their qualities, reproduction by contagion. What if scientists created a Jurassic Park-type dinosaur, perhaps a small one, that escaped into the wild, and this little dinosaur can spread its DNA to other animals (perhaps like a disease), causing them to revert to their primitive ancestry? Birds become dinosaurs of all types, dogs become dire wolves, cats become sabretooth tigers, etc. By taking one aspect of zombie, boiling it down to its essential nature, and building a new monster from it, I’ve got a creature that could work for a fun adventure/survival horror novel.

2) Disguise Tropes

Another way to breathe new life into old tropes is to disguise them. This is what happened – consciously or not – when the horror icons of the late ‘70s through the early ‘90s were created. Jason Vorhees is a reimagined Grim Reaper (skull-like white face, monochromatic one-piece outfit, sharp scythe-weapon), Freddy Krueger is Satan (associated with fire, torments people in a netherworld, glove is like a trident), and Hannibal Lector is Dracula (intelligent sophisticate with an important title – and a European accent in the TV series – who feeds on humans and can manipulate them psychologically, which serves as an analogue for vampire hypnosis). You can take well-worn horror tropes like these and make them new and fresh simply by giving them a makeover.

3) Reverse Tropes

Take a horror trope, like a vampire and figure out its core quality: Extending its life by feeding on humans. Now reverse it: A being who is able to extend the life of humans – for a price. How about a werewolf? Reversed, a human that can shapeshift into a bestial form becomes someone who can transform others into monsters against their will. You can reverse the same trope in different ways too. You can create a character who’s a wolf that transforms into a human or a parasitic being who implants false memories of friendship into a human so it can manipulate them. Reversing a trope is a simple but effective technique to help you come up with ideas for any number of interesting monsters.

4) Combine Tropes

Before Romero, zombies were walking dead servants created by voodoo magic. Romero combined the walking dead trope with the ghoul trope (a creature who feeds on human flesh) and an aspect of the vampire and werewolf tropes (a creature that transforms humans into others of its kind via its bite). Add in the trope of a Horde of Monsters (as opposed to a lone creature), and voila! Romero created a wildly popular new member of the pantheon of classic monsters. Attack on Titan combines Romero zombie-like creatures with the trope of the Giant Monster. Stephen King took the Scary Clown trope and combined it with the Shapeshifting Alien trope. Mixing and matching different aspects of horror tropes is a great way to come up with original ideas for your stories.

5) Create Your Own Tropes

Use from your own experience, observations, and fears to create monsters only you can write. Draw on your childhood fears. When I was a toddler, I was afraid of feathers. (I don’t know why.) I drew on this childhood fear to create a story called “Feathers”, which was accepted by publication by Weird Tales. Draw on your dreams. One night when I was a child, I had a waking dream/hallucination that a pair of glowing white eyes was coming toward me from the foot of my bed, accompanied by a sound like a rattlesnake’s rattle. Years later, I used this experience to create the monster in my story “Night Eyes.” Pay attention to the wonderfully weird world around you. A few years back, in the same week, I saw two different men walking backwards. I had no idea what they were doing, but those men stayed with me. Those men inspired my story “The Backward-Walking Man.” I created these “Tim Waggoner” monsters using my own imagination, and by doing so I developed horror tropes that no reader had ever encountered before – and you can do the same to come up with your own fascinating and frightening creatures.

Horror DNA would like to thank Tim for sharing this great piece with us and our readers. You can purchase his latest book, Writing in the Dark by clicking a link below!

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Critically-acclaimed author Tim Waggoner has published over fifty novels and seven collections of short stories. He writes original dark fantasy and horror, as well as media tie-ins, and he’s the author of a book on writing horror fiction called Writing in the Dark. He’s won the Bram Stoker Award and been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award, the Scribe Award, and the Splatterpunk Award. He’s also a full-time tenured professor who teaches creative writing and composition at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio.

Links: Website | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

Writing in the Dark:

In this comprehensive textbook devoted to the craft of writing horror fiction, award-winning author Tim Waggoner draws on thirty years’ experience as a writer and teacher. Writing in the Dark offers advice, guidance, and insights on how to compose horror stories and novels that are original, frightening, entertaining, and well-written.

Waggoner covers a wide range of topics, among them why horror matters, building viable monsters, generating ideas and plotlines, how to stylize narratives in compelling ways, the physiology of fear, the art of suspense, avoiding clichés, marketing your horror writing, and much more. Each chapter includes tips from some of the best horror professionals working today, such as Joe Hill, Ellen Datlow, Joe R. Lansdale, Maurice Broaddus, Yvette Tan, Thomas Ligotti, Jonathan Maberry, Edward Lee, and John Shirley. There are also appendices with critical reflections, pointers on the writing process, ideas for characters and story arcs, and material for further research.

Writing in the Dark derives from Waggoner’s longtime blog of the same name. Suitable for classroom use, intensive study, and bedside reading, this essential manual will appeal to new authors at the beginning of their career as well as veterans of the horror genre who want to brush up on their technique.

From Raw Dog Screaming Press, it will be available September 16, 2020. It’s available in hardback and paperback for pre-order before that date, and usually mail early.

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