It’s Alive! But is it Scary?

Doc Frankenstein knew what he was doing. Body parts, check. Sturdy thread, check. Giant lightning rod, check. Et violà! One of the scariest monsters ever. Except Frankenstein’s monster wasn’t created by some mad scientist with far more knowledge than common sense but by the imagination of author Mary Shelley. So what does it take to create a monster that’ll send shivers down a reader’s spine? Authors John G. Hartness, Clay and Susan Griffith, Patricia Briggs, and Gail Z. Martin joined moderator Nancy Knight for a virtual discussion of all things monstrous at the “My Monster Can Beat up Your Monster” panel Sunday at 8:30PM on the Fan Tracks channel.

The panelists discussed how their earliest monsters compared to the ones they currently create. Clay’s first monsters were more mindless, like his bone dissolving aliens. Although he still enjoys a giant, mindless, stomping bug, he gets more into their heads now and gives them some motivation for what they do. Briggs agreed that monsters need an understandable motivation—except when they’re not at all understandable (think aliens). The most horrific monster she created, she said, was human.

Hartness likes to ground his monsters in something familiar to the reader, so he won’t have to spend too much time describing it. He shifts the familiar a bit for comic effect, like lizardmen and were-gators. Martin pulls monsters from mythology and obscure folklore, where you can find some “wild, trippy” things. Briggs agreed and said it’s easier to use familiar monsters—dragons, zombies, werewolves—so you don’t have to break the flow of the story for lengthy descriptions. But if the monster is going to inhabit a long-running series, it will need motivation. Some types of stories work best when started with a villain in a place with a motivation, and the protagonist has to go stop it.

No discussion of motivated monsters would be complete without bringing up Darth Vader. Clay noted that Vader is so powerful a villain because we learn his backstory and understand what motivates him. J. K. Rowling did the same thing with Voldemort.

The favorite monsters they created:

Martin: The fire mage and vampire Foor Arontala
Hartness: The Chupacabra, whose name Bubba can’t remember
The Griffiths: Flay, war chief of the evil vampire prince
Briggs: Wolf, a smart-mouthed vampire with a broken brain who looks like a boy

Do their creations ever haunt their dreams enough to wake them in the middle of the night? If they do, Briggs says she gets up and writes it all down. Some of her scariest scenes have come to her that way.

The panel ended with some nuggets of advice:

Susan: If you want your monster to be frightening to your reader, make sure it frightens you.
Briggs: Motivation, motivation, motivation…and take an acting class so you can get into its head
Hartness: Don’t get hung up on being original, just take something known and put your spin on it
Clay: (Laughingly repeated word-for-word what Hartness just said.)
Martin: Explore what scares you. Take a walk on the dark side. When it resonates with you, you’ll be able to write it in a way that scares others.

Find out more about these authors and their works at:

Clay and Susan:

Author of the article

Debbie Yutko lives near Atlanta with her husband and two cats. When she isn’t gardening, rescuing homeless kittens, or cramming math formulas into teenagers’ brains, she can be found stringing words together at her computer and dreaming of adventures in far-off lands. She is a lifelong reader of Science Fiction and Fantasy and a veteran of Dragon Con, where she enjoys attending panels and working with the talented staff of the Daily Dragon.