A Monster’s Place
The terrifying monster has been a staple of the fantasy genre since its earliest origins, when bards told tales around a fire at the dawn of time. They frightened listeners with descriptions of horrifying creatures, they talked of scaled hides, the fearsome length of its claws, of hungry eyes peering out of the darkness. This tradition has continued into contemporary fantasy literature with scores of fiends populating the pages, from the dragon guarding the princess, the horde of orcs pillaging villages, or the unnameable horror the arch villain keeps chained up to protect his one weakness. The descriptions may change, and the concept may evolve but after millennia the monster remains a firm fixture of our stories.
Despite numerous slayings by a parade of heroes the monster endures as a concept for a number of reasons. These creatures represent the strangeness of fantasy made flesh, an icon of the imagination the genre provides. Readers choose fantasy because they are looking for something different, they want to see what amazing creatures and enemies the protagonists have to deal with, they want an epic sense of threat to the character that only a monster can provide. When the hero wins out over a man it’s a victory, when they defeat a giant multi headed hydra with acid blood it’s a triumph. Monsters can provide exciting and deadly challenges, forcing characters to use skill and intelligence to survive, they can serve as metaphors for fears and themes, and they teach us that horrors can be overcome.
With the endless variety of the fantasy genre comes a host of roles for the monster to fill. No longer content to hang out in a cave, these fascinating beasts have taken on a number of positions in our novels as stories have developed. Some are mindless tools, others are true antagonists, some are vital to the plot while others are just scaly redshirts, but they all have their place in our novels.
Monsters as Antagonists
We’ll begin with this one for clarity, to help establish and differentiate the monster from other potential roles. The antagonist is the force that opposes the hero/protagonist, and many fantasy works will happily cast the monster in this role.
Remember all those dragon slaying stories where the dragon is the final battle in a long adventure and the hero uses what he has learned to triumph? Was it an elegant speaker like Smaug? Or a hellish beast like the one who was bested by St. George? This choice can greatly affect how the story unfolds, depending on factors like the agency and level of sentience the monster possesses.
It might be the antagonist of the piece has some monstrous qualities or abilities but retains the intellect of a human (think Sauron as dark lord then the as the eye) and can also match wits with the hero and think strategically. Equally possible is a creature with only animal intelligence running rampant that must be stopped by the hero. Either way this means the monstrous being is the main opposition to the characters and will be heavily involved in the plot structure for the story.
Monsters as Obstacles
To pass through vale of darkness you must defeat the terrifying shadow beast. To secure the treasure you must slay the great serpent that guards it. To breach the castle you must face the terrifying, bloodthirsty – wait, where are you going?
A monster as an obstacle or guardian is a classic premise from the genre, requiring the hero to defeat some terrible beast in order to advance the story and prove their courage and skill. It can provide a thrilling moment of action and heroism, building the legend of the hero with another trial in their journey.
Such a creature need not be defeated by sword. Many tales require the hero to pass a challenge or answer a question as with the sphinx and its riddle.
Monsters as the Enemy
Green skinned with tusks jutting out of its face, heavily muscled, bloodthirsty and violent, sounds like a monster. What happens when ten thousand of them march in rank and file, are they less monstrous?
Fantasy writers have been recruiting armies of hideous creatures for years in their novels, again it helps to solidify the concept of the genre, a world where not one or two, but thousands of these beings exist. Not to mention having a ferocious beast as a common foot soldier can make the arch villain seem more powerful and threatening. Yet it’s almost inevitable that if used in this fashion, the idea of the monster becomes somewhat diluted. Once the reader becomes accustomed to it the monsters will become a generic enemy and part of the world. Think about how disposable orcs have become in fantasy works. Mary Gentle’s Grunts is a novel based on just that premise.
Monsters as Species
In a similar manner to monster as the enemy, there are novels which might focus solely on beings that would normally be found in a horror film. Books like the Drizzt series set in the Forgotten Realms universe are heavily populated with all manner of dark and sinister creatures. There are the brain sucking Illithids, the ruthless demons, or even the Drow themselves, who are cold, cruel and fond of torturing lesser species. Fantasy races have always been quite varied and the evolution of the genre allows authors to tackle new and interesting stories from different perspectives like these.
Monsters are unknown and threatening, and possibly a fixed part of the ecosystem. Predators exist in reality and so there’s no reason they shouldn’t exist in a fantasy world, complete with all the strangeness the genre provides. Giant serpents that feed on ship sized fish, tunnelling worms that devour fields of crops, mobile trees that mulch humans up for compost, just another day in the magical land of Belaris.
These creatures can provide trials and dangers for the characters, while also serving to make the world more vivid and spectacular, by giving a greater sense of depth to the setting.
Monsters as Slaves
The arch villain sits on a great throne of bones, one hand loosely curled about an iron chain. A great beast lies on the other end, a spiked collar about its bleeding neck, hateful eyes stare from a pitiless face, directed at you, or the lord on the throne?
Another common role for the monster is that of a pet or slave to the villain, an enforcer for their will and symbol of their power. It adds a greater sense of menace to a character to know they can control such a beast, possibly used to give a sense of brute physical power to a character without any special abilities. This role can also provide numerous plot opportunities for the story depending on method of control, is the monster loyal, must it be killed, could it be freed or turned? The monster as a slave is a popular and effective method, capturing the nature and fear of the monster and using it as a weapon.
Monsters as Creations
Orcs might be bred for war but some monsters are just accidents. With all the potential for magic and mystery in fantasy these monsters are what happen when things go wrong. Creatures that epitomise the consequences of meddling and mistakes, can serve as a horrific anecdote or a stern warning, all the more scary because they were unexpected. These creatures can be particularly effective when twisting good intentions as in one version of the Fullmetal Alchemist series where the twisted homunculi are the by-product of attempted human transmutation and serve as the antagonists of the series.
Monsters as Places
The ghost ship, the haunted castle, the creepy manor, the monster doesn’t need to track you if it surrounds you. Both horror films and fantasy stories are filled with sinister locations that bring misery and pain to their occupants. Rather than being a physical foe, this monster is something that cannot be fought and is all the more terrifying for that, it can evoke a feeling of being trapped, of helplessness, in a way that a creature can’t. If written well, a location can have presence, it can have personality and become as real as another character, making it interesting to write as well as enhancing the overall world of the story.
Monsters as Objects
Evil can reside in anything. The sheer number of potential objects creates an ocean of possibilities to explore. It might be a terrifying mask worn by an ancient warrior that slowly takes over its owner in battle. It might be a harmless looking piece of jewellery that draws violence and misfortune to its wearer.
Objects can have monstrous qualities. They can even be made to appear as if they have a sentience or agency, as in many horror works. Yet equally they have the potential to place responsibility on the user for their actions, perhaps serving as a lesson or to convey an idea like “The Monkey’s Paw”. In fantasy the options can be even stranger as with Elric’s sword Stormbringer, with its symbiotic relationship to the character and unfortunate habit of turning on his loved ones, it gives the story a lot more complexity and a darker tone.
The monster can appear in many forms throughout our novels, it may be a manifestation of our fear of death like the vampire, it may be a deadly enemy like the orc or dragon, it may even be the hero of the book, forcing us to re-examine our opinions. Its role may change but the monster is a part of our fiction for good reason, it’s a part of the magic. They might be scary, unnatural, the other, but they will always have a place in our stories.