In this post, we discuss why writers should know about monsters before they write a word about them.
Monsters are a key element in many genres of writing. We associate them most with horror, but they appear in fantasy and science fiction just as often. They may even be used as a backdrop to your romance movie (see Warm Bodies – a “Zomcom”).
I recently compiled a glossary of fantasy terms that contains several common monsters. In this post, I discuss why you need to research these creatures before you write about them.
Why Writers Should Know About Monsters
You need to know what you are dealing with or your writing will seem inauthentic and shallow. Using the examples of devils and demons below, I hope I will convince you to do your homework on our spooky friends before you commit them to the written page.
Note: You need not be bound by the common rules for monsters. You can make your own, but only if you have a better idea. At some level, all monsters are made up, but you need to get the big picture right. If you don’t, your monsters won’t feel real.
The Origins Of Tolkien’s Monsters
If we look at the world-building in The Lord of the Rings, we are hard pressed to find examples of “made up” monsters.
Tolkien gets the vast majority of his monsters from Scandinavian folklore. Trolls, Elves, Dwarves, Dragons, Goblins, and even the Hobbits are not unfamiliar to anyone who has a passing familiarity with Northern European myths.
He does make up two new creatures the Orc and Balrog (There may possibly be more, but don’t overthink this).
Orcs are just human-sized goblins or hob-goblins. Sometimes, they have been crossbred with elves or men to make them bigger. The Balrog is just a devil or demon (I think it’s a devil but he never makes this very clear) because it serves the Devil, Morgoth.
Now you might say, “What about the spiders and ‘werebears‘ from the Hobbit?”
I have not looked it up, but if Tolkien invented the idea of giant spiders, I’ll eat a bag of change.
The idea that people that can change into animals, especially wolves, probably comes from Ovid. Werewolf means man-wolf and comes from the Old English while the Greek word is Lycanthrope or Wolf Person.
Tolkien changes wolves to bears, but otherwise leaves the myth intact.
This maintains a sense of continuity that the reader needs to buy into the story. It also saves the writer time and energy, because they will not have to explain the new monster in detail.
Demons And Devils: Don’t Confuse The Two
The devil originates in Christian Mythology as Lucifer the Light Bringer. He is a fallen angel who rebelled against heaven.
Important character traits of Lucifer are:
- He never lies but may mislead.
- He always keeps his word.
- He greatly resents his father, God.
- He wants to overthrow the rule of heaven and take over himself.
These traits have been applied to devils in general.
Notably, he is not really a devil, even though he is perhaps the leader of the devils.
Named devils include:
- Asmodeus, the contract devil. If you want to play the guitar better than anyone else you sign your soul over to him. I like to think of him as a southern gentleman.
- Azazel, the King of the Devils. Does this mean Azazel is in charge of hell? Maybe he is like an operations guy and Lucifer is the CEO? One assumes Lucifer does not answer to him because Lucifer is actually a fallen angel.
- Baphomet, this is the goat-headed devil you so often see in horror movies. Baphomet is the Devil of Order and Perfect Balance. Often, witches worship him although I don’t see why.
- Bellzebub, the Lord of Flies. And, one assumes other things.
- Belial, the Lord of Pride.
- Samael, Mephistopheles, Satan, Iblis, Al Shaitan. These are all possibly just Lucifer by another name, but are often treated as independent devils. For example, Mephistopheles is seen in English writing as a contract devil who will grant you great power in exchange for your soul.
It is important to note that the thread that ties devils together is that they all respect the law. While demons don’t.
Demons predate devils. They come from a greater variety of religions.
Their character traits are:
- Being evil.
- Causing chaos in the world.
For example, Lucifer might give a mortal power for the price of their soul. A demon might just do it to see what trouble they could cause.
Named demons include:
- Abadon, the Sower of Discord.
- Awar, Demon of Laziness.
- Lilith, the first witch.
- Thoth, the Demon of Magic.
There are thousands of named demons. They usually have a history. Sometimes, they were gods from other religions that were incorporated into Christian mythology.
Demons are also treated as examples of the seven deadly sins.
For example, a Succubus is a demon of lust and a Nalfeshnee is a demon of greed. The first looks like a beautiful woman, the second like a beast with a pig’s head.
A show that understands devils and demons is Lucifer. You can see the creators do understand the differences between devils and demons. Which creates a sense of mythology and history. This helps viewers buy into the world.
Most monsters come from mythologies. You should know about these before you start writing your stories. It might help you make them seem more real.
For example, do you know that genies are actually called Djinn? They are horrific monsters that want kill all humans. To find out why, read A Complete Glossary Of Terms For Fantasy Writers
They are found in Arabic and Islamic mythologies, just as elves and pixies are found in Celtic lore.
My advice is to get to know the following traditions:
- Christian/Judaic/Islamic traditional monsters
It may seem like a lot, but you know most of them already. If you don’t, let me suggest a few books:
- Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
- Mythos by Stephen Fry
- The Element Encyclopedia of the Celts by Rodney Castleden
Once you have read these, you will be an expert on monsters. You will be able to spot a Bugbear from a Hobgoblin at 100 feet on a foggy day.
I hope this helps and that you have fun adding to the mythology of monsters in your stories.
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Christopher writes and facilitates for Writers Write. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisLukeDean
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