I have always been a big fan of monsters and are regularly disappointed by the lack of them in most modern fantasy books. It’s always about wizards, soldiers, and assassins fighting to protect an empire. Which sounds like the most boring thing ever to me. I want monsters!
Writing about monsters has turned out to be not quite as easy as I thought. When working on the Ancient Lands setting, one of the first things I started with was making a list of cool creatures I want to inhabit it, most of them coming from videogames and RPGs. But eventually I realized that monsters in narrative stories work very different from monsters that are fought in games. You can’t just have a dozen different hostile creatures in various locations throughout a castle or dark forest in a story and then have the protagonist run into them to have a cool fight. In games this works great. There’s anticipation any time you come around a corner or open a door and every fight is different. But when writing a story that just doesn’t work at all. Any fight scene needs to have some narrative function and that means whatever monster the protagonists encounter needs to have a function in the plot as well. Having a fight scene just for the sake of having a fight scene or making the story longer just leads to terrible results. In movies you can at least show off some pretty special effects, but even then it’s noticable when a fight scene has no point. When writing stories you don’t even have that luxury.
So before I went ahead with making a new list of monsters for the Ancient Lands, I first set down to try figuring out what kinds of roles and functions monsters can have in a story. And the ones I came up with are really not that many:
- Wild People: These creatures are pretty much people, but they are as foreign as it can possibly get. Trolls, giants, lizardman, fish people, and the like. Not only is their culture incomprehensible and their morals loathsome, they are almost always also very much sub-human. They are stupid and violent, but generally very strong, which makes them a threat. They hate our Freedom and want to steal our stuff!
- Fair Folk: Like the wild people they are basically people, but instead of being fearsomely sub-human, they are incomprehensibly super-human. They are very intelligent and have magical powers and often live very long or are outright immortal. If they wanted to they could easily destroy and conquer all mortal people and the only reason they haven’t already is that they don’t really care. Normal humans are usually insignificant to them and the best way to stay safe is to keep it that way. When they are around, everything you do can spell your doom because their minds are so alien that it’s impossible to really know what they want and what might provoke them. And they can be very cruel, simply because they don’t really think of humans as actual people but more as talking animals.
- Guardian Spirits: These creatures are being tied to the land they inhabit and serve as its guardians. Nymphs, ents, some dragons, the sphinx, and so on. Their main motivation is usually simple to get any intruders to leave and stay away. However, they might be convinced to let some people pass through their territory or to grant a request, which requires the observance of strict rules. Their direct interactions with people are usually very limited, but their real role is to serve as a threat what happens when the rules are not observed. Struggling to not break the rules is the real obstacle the characters are facing.
- Maneaters: These are the most simple monsters. They are really just pimped-out carnivorous animals that will eat people when the opportunity presents itself. The only interaction with characters they have is attacking to eat some of them. Their main role in a story is to be nearby but unseen, posing a constant threat that keeps everyone on edge. They don’t talk, they have no complex motives. They just jump out from behind some trees and disappear again once they grabbed a few people or have been badly wounded. While they behave like animals, they still can look very human-like. Ghouls are one example and some versions of Medusa.
- Soul Stealers: These creatures are predators as well, but they are usually very much like people and instead of wanting to eat you, they want to make you theirs. These are vampires, succubuses and some other demons, rusalkas, and sirens. They are manipulators who want you to join them, which at that time they make sound a pretty attractive offer. But the true fate of anyone who gets caught by them is much more horrific. Their role is to tempt characters and make them lose their hold over themselves and submit to their own doom.
- Deathbringers: This type of monster only wants to kill. They are not looking for food, they don’t want to leave, they don’t want anything you have. All they do is kill and continue to kill until they are destroyed. These are zombies, barrow-wights, some demon hords, and darkspawn. Sometimes they want to harvest the bodies of their victims as a resource to make more of themselves, like the Flood, the Reapers, or the Borg, but every place they visit they just kill and destroy everything. They aren’t not even like ammoral forces of nature, because they will target you and try to come after you.
- Troublemakers: A usually small creature that doesn’t attack people directly but instead damages and destroys things and makes life hard for them. Though when they destroy food or set things on fire they can still be a very serious and deadly threat. Usually they don’t have any real motivation and do it simply out of spite.
- Fictional Animals: Some creatures are like ordinary animals in every way but don’t hunt and eat humans. From a narrative point of view, these aren’t actually monsters. They are just animals like any other.
By looking at the subject of monsters from this perspective I realized that I had a lot of redundancies on my list. You don’t need seven different types of giant crab-spiders that all fall under the maneater category. Two are already more than enough. And some creatures I had added just because of their looks. There really wasn’t any point to harpies and giant hyenas. I ended up cutting the monster list down from about 110 to 46, which really looks a lot sleeker and more tidy now.