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Monster Role vs Environment: The issue of convenience vs pointlessness

Amber

Scribe
I do not like mindless monsters. They are almost never original or interesting. Most of the time the only reason they are in a story is to give something to do to the MC's and I thin a truly terrifying monster should be an integral part of your whole world, not some distraction on the journey of the MC's.

@Wanara, always nice to have a civilized discussion on the internet :) We also had big discussions on this (and closely related) topic(s) during my courses here on the University, complicated issue.
 
I think your intention is correct. If done well, we can incorporate a creature to specifically fill a specific role, but it is prey to being too convenient depending on how it is done. There is a very strong possibility that the encounter or creature will feel forced or unnatural to the reader that likes to think about the world (In fact, this is true for everything we might want to incorporate if we are doing it to match up to what we want to happen in the story--although for this thread we are keeping it a little more specific). To help prevent deus ex machina, we can establish the creature early or foreshadow it or whatever, but if it exists merely to serve the author's will, it can still be considered deus ex machina.

I think you're probably overthinking it. Basically all literary devices "exists merely to serve the author's will." Works of fiction are not random things, nor do I believe they should be.

Heck, even if deus ex machina is not only foreshadowed, but logical, then it can still be deus ex machina. For instance, in the original Greek tragedies, the audience expected gods and goddesses to interfere, but this is the literal beginning of deus ex machina and what has been criticized. Anytime the audience has cause to say, "that's kinda' cheating" can be considered deus ex machina.

I'm willing to agree to this being an argument of semantics though if you have a specific definition of deus ex machina in your head that you hold inviolate. In that case, change everything I said above from "deus ex machina" to "the author imposing his will unnaturally on the story."

Well, keep in mind that the original deus ex machina was invented at least 2500 years ago. Times have changed a bit since then.

Technically, if you are very strict about it, I guess you could define a deus ex machina as "a conflict being resolved by any means the protagonist has no influence over". Only, I think most people today rather treat it a contextual thing: Most readers probably consider blind luck to be an acceptable way to solve a problem at least once in a while, provided it doesn't seem too implausible and you've already established the possibility ahead of time.
 

Mindfire

Istar
I do not like mindless monsters. They are almost never original or interesting. Most of the time the only reason they are in a story is to give something to do to the MC's and I thin a truly terrifying monster should be an integral part of your whole world, not some distraction on the journey of the MC's.

Um, why? No, really, why? I can't see any particularly compelling reason why a cool beastie can't just be a cool beastie. Random encounters happen. Sometimes the dice roll is simply not in your favor. If my band of companions encounter a giant cobra while trekking across the desert, I see no reason why I should spend any more than a sentence or two to explain what it is, much less its role in the local folklore. Sometimes you just want a monster attack to shake things up.
 

Wanara009

Troubadour
To me a monster means a mindless freakshow that likes to hurt people and/or things. So I don't really give a lot of thought into monsters ruining the story or having much personality.

Put yourself in the proverbial shoe of the 'monster'. When the Hero not around, what is it doing? Does it sit in the land of impossible dreams, gathering dust until the protagonist stepped on his cue button somewhere in the ground? Or does it play 52 pickups with its fellow monsters for three millennium (from the creation of the world to the point where the hero get around to it)?

Um, why? No, really, why? I can't see any particularly compelling reason why a cool beastie can't just be a cool beastie. Random encounters happen. Sometimes the dice roll is simply not in your favor. If my band of companions encounter a giant cobra while trekking across the desert, I see no reason why I should spend any more than a sentence or two to explain what it is, much less its role in the local folklore. Sometimes you just want a monster attack to shake things up.

That work in role playing game. When telling a story, you need a rhyme and reason. You can't just say... throw a giant frog monster in a desert environment because that wouldn't make sense unless you mention something that explain its presence there (i.e.: the frog has tough armoured skin/encased in gummy case of slime and your reader will automatically assume that it prevents the amphibian from drying out). You can always spare a few sentences to explain the presence of a creature and what the local culture regarded them as.
 

Steerpike

Felis amatus
Moderator
If something looks bizarre on its face, a brief explanation of things is helpful to the reader. Barring that, there's no reason to get into the ecology or raison d'etre of animals unless it has some impact on the story. If the characters are in a forest and see a strange, furry rodent, your reader doesn't have to know that it descended from a population thousands of years ago and received its coloring due to a genetic bottleneck effect when the population was almost wiped out by disease. When it comes to world-building, you're going to know far more about your world than the reader. Don't over-burden them with things they don't need or want to know.
 

Wanara009

Troubadour
@ Steerspike

Thank you for the tip. One of my bad habit is to over-explains animals, a remnant of my days in the Speculative Evolution crowds :D
 

Saigonnus

Auror
Did you do anything with your concept idea story-wise or haven't found the right story for it yet?

I haven't really done anything with itbeyond basic world-building, since I have to manage my time fairly well to get everything done and often it doesn't lend itself to getting any writing done. I haven't even been on MS as much lately due to the time constraints I have in my everyday life.

I have been worldbuilding on the project, getting the world a little fleshed out as far as geography, flora and fauna (since they act as deterrant/defense mechanisms) social dynamics and all the other goodies to give me some place to start from. I DO have an idea on what I want to do for the story, just haven't even wrote a single page yet of the story.

The runes the people use for magic were taught to them by their ancient captors and incorporated in the runes themselves are smaller runes that act to remove their sense of curiosity and drive to do anything more than accept life as it is; whatever your station happens to be and removing the desire to leave the city.

I was thinking perhaps of a child being born and the child's single mom dies in childbirth and their father died just a couple months before their birth in a quarry accident, so there are no relatives in the picture. During their first moments of life an aged monk performs the "rite of birth" (working title) where the "protective" runes are placed over the infant. During the process of drawing them on the child's sternum, the smaller ones that act as the first stage of their "prison" get skewed so don't function. The monk who placed them doesn't say anything for fear of being cast out of the church and as the child grows they become more and more curious on why things are the way they are. They become so "troublesome" to the foster foster family and send him off to stay with the monks who vow to "straighten him out". At a chantry, they spend much of their time in the library and accidentally finds a tunnel beneath the building that leads to a chamber constructed by the captors of the people 500 years before. In the chamber he discovers objects and writings on parchment from before their imprisonment and begins the quest to discover the truth about his people. This will lead him of course to explore the forest, which has "defenses" in place in the form of plants and animals. There is also 2 clans of "the people" in the trees, those like him that got their runes messed up (only a handful of occurrences have taken place) and the "watchers" (working title) who are charged with patrolling the forest and keep their own kind unknowingly captive (They willing bent knee to their captors and were eventually allowed to take over the defenses). To propogate their special species, they kidnap people from the city as breeding vessels so they are always fairly numerous.
 

Amber

Scribe
Um, why? No, really, why? I can't see any particularly compelling reason why a cool beastie can't just be a cool beastie. Random encounters happen. Sometimes the dice roll is simply not in your favor. If my band of companions encounter a giant cobra while trekking across the desert, I see no reason why I should spend any more than a sentence or two to explain what it is, much less its role in the local folklore. Sometimes you just want a monster attack to shake things up.

I do not say that you have to explain the full history of that monster in that moment of your story. And offcourse random things do happen. But random encounters with monsters that never ever get mentioned in any other part of the story just annoy me. That indicates to me that the writer didn't know what to do at that point in his story and for the sake of action invented a monster to let something happen.
Apart from that I always have a hard time believing in mindless monsters. Areas that are inhabited by a pure evil creature which the hero's will casually slay is not very original or exciting to me. Like a random bear encounter in a forest somewhere. Off course this can happen, but the animal will never attack you without good reason. You either came to close or it has young it wants to protect. Monsters that sniff out humans and are desperate to kill each and every one of the traveling group are just not very believable to me for some reason.

I don't know if I explained it very well but its hard to describe why I feel this way in this regard... Maybe it is just the general feel of the story. It will feel more thought trough to me if there are no mindless slaughtering things in a dark forest/cave/swamp that serve no other purpose that to force some sort of action scene.
 
Apart from that I always have a hard time believing in mindless monsters. Areas that are inhabited by a pure evil creature which the hero's will casually slay is not very original or exciting to me. Like a random bear encounter in a forest somewhere. Off course this can happen, but the animal will never attack you without good reason. You either came to close or it has young it wants to protect. Monsters that sniff out humans and are desperate to kill each and every one of the traveling group are just not very believable to me for some reason.

I'm a little more forgiving I think. I am OK with assuming that there is an explanation the reader/characters are not privy to, and in a fantasy I am also OK with "real evil"–or however you want to think about it–existing in the world. In my books I do have certain unique monsters that do not have a species that can be classified as "evil", although they generally have motivations. The one mostly mindless unique baddy–which is based off the Tarasque–is a mindless terror because it is dominated by its mother–which is a melding of Leviathan and Cthulu and set in the logic/history of my world.
 

Saigonnus

Auror
I am of the opinion that using undeads and mindless creatures are a bit of a sell-out really in comparison with a well thought out critter that perhaps could fit the role better. I mean sure, most villains want a service creature that doesn't ask questions, but in the scheme of things it's more believable to me that a villain would rather have a creature that didn't stop to wait for new orders every time they couldn't accomplish their "mission" for whatever reason to one with enough intelligence to carry on with the mission in a different way without having to be told.

"The skeletons are coming!" She shrieked, following Connor into the darkened cave, the clicking and clacking of their bony pursuers close behind.

The rough hewn tunnel opens into a cavern lit by iridecent lichen adorning most of the rough surfaces. A tumultuous stream winds its way through the chamber, a spray of water and mist heavy in the air.

"Quick, we'll have to jump for it!" Addie shouts over the roar of the water as she launches herself full speed through the air to land on the opposite side eight feet distance from where she was. Connor follows suit and they stop to catch their breath and watch the skeletons milling on the waters edge, even jostling each other enough to send two or three of them into the turbulent flow.

They head toward the only other opening downstream, passing a battered stone bridge that arcs over the water with a rueful shake to their heads.

"At least we are safe." Connor replies casually, looking back at the skeletons still milling around on the bank.
 

Sheilawisz

Queen of Titania
Moderator
In all of my stories, the Fantasy monsters that I have imagined always have a relatively minor role in the worlds and the development of the story.

My first Fantasy series features the Kareltyans, a species of 60-feet tall demon-like monsters that spit a fiery, incendiary liquid. They were the first inhabitants and legitimate owners of their world, until said world was taken over by Mages that simply decided to live and settle there.

The Kareltyans have a limited intelligence and a simple social structure, they are not exactly mindless... However, the Mage that came up with the idea to use them as pets/troops simply controls them mentally and they cannot resist that.

The same series features snake-like dragons that are magical in nature, and in my Joan of England story I have a variety of other, smaller monsters that have minor roles in the story as well...

I believe that the monsters are an important ingredient in Fantasy literature (must of us love our imaginary monsters, really!) but it's equally important to avoid creating too many monsters, unless the story is, well... More about monsters, and less about characters and magic and the other Fantasy things.

I do not limit my imagination when I imagine monsters, even though many of them have never been part of any story. I would suggest that we are free to imagine all the monsters that we want, and that way we will eventually come up with the perfect kind of monster to use in our stories =)

If you have created a monster that is not part of your story, and you do not want to use it yet, you can make drawings of it and write a list of what powers the monster has and what is the background story... Who knows, maybe this monster will have a place in your stories later!!
 
In all of my stories, the Fantasy monsters that I have imagined always have a relatively minor role in the worlds and the development of the story.

My first Fantasy series features the Kareltyans, a species of 60-feet tall demon-like monsters that spit a fiery, incendiary liquid. They were the first inhabitants and legitimate owners of their world, until said world was taken over by Mages that simply decided to live and settle there.

The Kareltyans have a limited intelligence and a simple social structure, they are not exactly mindless... However, the Mage that came up with the idea to use them as pets/troops simply controls them mentally and they cannot resist that.

The same series features snake-like dragons that are magical in nature, and in my Joan of England story I have a variety of other, smaller monsters that have minor roles in the story as well...

I believe that the monsters are an important ingredient in Fantasy literature (must of us love our imaginary monsters, really!) but it's equally important to avoid creating too many monsters, unless the story is, well... More about monsters, and less about characters and magic and the other Fantasy things.

I do not limit my imagination when I imagine monsters, even though many of them have never been part of any story. I would suggest that we are free to imagine all the monsters that we want, and that way we will eventually come up with the perfect kind of monster to use in our stories =)

If you have created a monster that is not part of your story, and you do not want to use it yet, you can make drawings of it and write a list of what powers the monster has and what is the background story... Who knows, maybe this monster will have a place in your stories later!!

Great advice, Sheilawisz. I'm curious what went into the name Kareltyans--I assume the "tyans" part is an alteration of "titans" since that is sort of the role that you have them play in your world?
 

Sheilawisz

Queen of Titania
Moderator
Oh, not really... They were called Kareltyans by the Mages that discovered them, because they had given the name Kareltya to the region of the world where these monsters lived.

I enjoy making drawings of monsters on paper and pencil, that way you can easily erase any part that you don't like and keep drawing until you have a nice design.

I remember your drawings, by the way... great artwork!!
 

Mindfire

Istar
I do not say that you have to explain the full history of that monster in that moment of your story. And offcourse random things do happen. But random encounters with monsters that never ever get mentioned in any other part of the story just annoy me. That indicates to me that the writer didn't know what to do at that point in his story and for the sake of action invented a monster to let something happen.

Well to give some perspective, the giant snake I mention is called a duneviper and it's indigenous to the Mavari Desert region. No one quite knows where it came from, but it's speculated that it might be descended from the Thervan Dragons who conquered humanity in millennia past (it's not). They're a fairly rare species with a long lifespan and they can and will eat pretty much anything that moves. The only animal known to successfully prey on them is the rahorak, a giant hawk powerful enough to pick up freaking cows and fly away with them. And the name duneviper? That comes from the fact that they're so big, when they're hidden under the sand they appear to be actual dunes. When the duneviper attacks, it's not just there to be there, it shows that the Mavari Desert is a hostile, forbidding wasteland and that people who live in it need to be tough and resourceful. It also underscores the reason that Mavarian culture is so family-focused. When you're in the middle of the desert with hardly anybody to count on, that family bond is going to be extremely important. There is rhyme and reason behind the monster's existence and it's attack, but does all that need to be spelled out when it first appears? I don't think so. I trust the reader to put the pieces together on their own.

Apart from that I always have a hard time believing in mindless monsters. Areas that are inhabited by a pure evil creature which the hero's will casually slay is not very original or exciting to me. Like a random bear encounter in a forest somewhere. Off course this can happen, but the animal will never attack you without good reason. You either came to close or it has young it wants to protect.

Or maybe it was hungry and thought you'd make a good snack? :D And when we're talking about animals, I don't think that terms like "good reason" are necessarily applicable, unless your animals have extremely high intelligence (which some of mine do). Animals do things on instinct. Sometimes to protect offspring or territory, sometimes get food. Whether that's good or bad depends on which end of the fangs you're on. In that sense, an animal could be considered "mindless".

Monsters that sniff out humans and are desperate to kill each and every one of the traveling group are just not very believable to me for some reason.

Well there's the Crocodile in Peter Pan. But it was only after Hook. Animals that pathologically hunt down all humans would be harder to justify, but not impossible. Mind control or behavioral conditioning could provide answers.

I don't know if I explained it very well but its hard to describe why I feel this way in this regard... Maybe it is just the general feel of the story. It will feel more thought trough to me if there are no mindless slaughtering things in a dark forest/cave/swamp that serve no other purpose that to force some sort of action scene.

Well, yes and no. I'll let you in on a little secret. You can throw things in just for an action scene. You just have to conceal your true purpose from the reader. Example: plot's dragging a bit and you decide you need some action. But you can't just plop in a Giant Space Flea From Nowhere because your audience will see right through you and recognize the cheat. So you look around in your setting and see what you can use. Where are your heroes? What sort of environment are they traveling through? What lives there that might want to take a bite out of them? Are they encroaching on the territory of a dangerous beastie? Did they accidentally come between a mother monster and it's baby? Flesh out the setting and your random encounter will appear more organic. The reader never has to know the scene started out just because you wanted some action. As long as you develop it some, it'll appear to be (and perhaps actually be) a bit more than that.
 
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WyrdMystic

Inkling
I'd love to see a scene where travellers in the deep dark wood, sitting round a campfire and a monstrous werewolf jumps out and says, "Hi there! How ya doin'? I'm a little lost, could you point me North? Ooo...is that bacon? Can I have some? Please? Please? Please?"

Anyhooo....I don't see the problem with random encounters, they don't even need to serve the story directly (the interactions of the characters can serve the story while the scene plays out), just be realistic to the setting (like the duneviper in the desert - if it showed up in a jungle or the middle of the ocean I'd have a problem). It all depends on your world and the hazards there. If you were alive however many million years ago and walked through the forest chances are you'd be eaten by something, even today people are snapped up by crocodiles, bitten by snakes and spiders etc - on the side of the human, they were just walking along, on the side of the animal they were hungry and/or threatened in some way.

Where a story can fall down for me is more to do with the escape - if that isn't believable then it would jar me, like Anne E Person turns out to be a Giant Space Flea From Nowhere Whisperer or something.
 
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SuperRonnie

New Member
I believe that the more developed your world is - even just in your personal notes - the more realistic it seems. J.K. Rowling had tons of characters and creatures that she developed that never made it into her published works. But that's okay, because it put her, the author, into a deeper mindset of 'this world is real, it has a life of its own beyond the story,' and readers pick up on that.
As for me, I have two separate notes compilations for each story. One that's sort of a 'get it out of my head, throw it up on paper,' sort of thing that I can refer back to when I'm looking for a new character, creature, ect, and another that I actually keep at the bottom of my writing document. The second one is where I keep notes of creatures, potions, characters, languages and so forth that I've actually used, and a reference point of where to find them. This way, I don't confuse what has actually made it into the main body of work. :)
 

Amber

Scribe
Well, yes and no. I'll let you in on a little secret. You can throw things in just for an action scene. You just have to conceal your true purpose from the reader. Example: plot's dragging a bit and you decide you need some action.

I would just skip to the part too where they get somewhere again (A) I would just skip the journey altogether and zoom in on the evening they arrive at the city gates or where-ever something happens again.

For the first part, about the giant snake. You actually confirm my point I think. The snake is not a mindless monster you put there for no reason. You actually thought it trough to make it a valuable addition to the story and setting. And even when I am just a good snack, that is still a good reason ;)

With mindless I didn't mean instinctual - like all animals are - but the mindless evil that some stories have. Like an evil formless darkness that creeps around forests in the night or darkhounds that run around drooling and hunting for their next human. I just don't believe that much in creatures that have the born instinct to only hunt humans. Even if they are creations of dark magic, send into the world to corrupt it, that still is a bit of an easy exit to me.

But, from where I am standing, you seem to agree with me for the most part, its just a matter of semantics...
 

Mindfire

Istar
I would just skip to the part too where they get somewhere again (A) I would just skip the journey altogether and zoom in on the evening they arrive at the city gates or where-ever something happens again.

For the first part, about the giant snake. You actually confirm my point I think. The snake is not a mindless monster you put there for no reason. You actually thought it trough to make it a valuable addition to the story and setting. And even when I am just a good snack, that is still a good reason ;)

With mindless I didn't mean instinctual - like all animals are - but the mindless evil that some stories have. Like an evil formless darkness that creeps around forests in the night or darkhounds that run around drooling and hunting for their next human. I just don't believe that much in creatures that have the born instinct to only hunt humans. Even if they are creations of dark magic, send into the world to corrupt it, that still is a bit of an easy exit to me.

But, from where I am standing, you seem to agree with me for the most part, its just a matter of semantics...

Oh, I get what you mean. I think the standard term for the kind of mindlessness you're talking about is "chaotic evil". And yes as a matter of personal preference I tend to not use villains or creatures that are chaotic evil. I prefer "lawful evil" or "neutral evil" villains. Doing chaotic evil well is difficult because they tend to not really have a motivation. But notice I don't say using chaotic evil is impossible, just difficult. I'm sure there are good examples out there (the Joker is kind of the poster boy for this trope), but they're likely to be somewhat rare.

With that in mind, I think you're selling your darkhounds short. On their own they may not be very convincing, but there's something primal and intimidating about a hunter that is always on your trail, that doesn't need food, water, or sleep, that cannot truly be killed, and will never stop hounding you. This makes for a great recurring narrative device- like the Nazgul.

But again, there are two caveats:

First, these implacable hunters should have a clear goal, and must have enough intelligence of their own to carry out these goals without coming back for instructions every five minutes. There's something very unsettling about a "mindless" or "instinctual" predator that has just enough intelligence to set traps and overcome obstacles, like the raptors from Jurassic Park. For bonus points, your hunters could even seem to appear out of nowhere at the worst possible time.

Second, the backstory plays a big part in making it all come together. "Who are they hunting and why?" is the big question. It might be even better if the hounds are coming, not because the villain sent them, but because one of your heroes has done something wrong or violated something sacred. Now his conscience is guilty and he knows the dogs won't stop coming until he atones for his misdeeds. He deserves to be hunted. When the monsters are sent by the forces of evil you can always expect for good to save the day. But if the monsters are good, then there's nothing left to appeal to and running will only delay the inevitable. Or take it one step further: maybe the "monsters" are actually guardian spirits and they only appear to be monsters because the way his guilty conscience perceives their spectral form.
 

pmmg

Vala
Well, OP is long since gone, but I though this a neat question.

I make up plenty of stuff that will never make it into the written word, not just the monsters. For me, I feel it is still important because its part of the world and makes the world more real to me, which I hope makes it more real to how it is written, and eventually to the reader. I dont often have creatures that I create and never show up, and if I do, its only cause a better reason came along.

I find with my own writing, I rarely get on page, what I had exactly in my head. More so, I aim to hit the bullseye, but often only manage to hit the dart board instead, yet, I can still score points ;)

If I can push aside monsters, and since no one participating in this thread will care anymore if I do, I wish I could fit more of the world building into my stories. But the characters dont care, and so they dont ask about the where or how or why of many things. They dont ask why are the trees purple and not all green? Or why cant we see the stars? No one living on this world would think to ask such questions, because it always been that way. You cant ask about stars if you dont know that there even are such things. I try to fit it in where I can, but I am not like Tolkien. The ruined tower may have a history, no one looking at it has any idea what it would be, or cares.

There are many creatures on the planet, and I suspect they are in many areas of the world the characters will never investigate. But I might have big worms, or mucky swamp creatures, or even demons and princes of hell thought out in my mind, but not all of them make it to the page. Its enough though that I know they are there. Maybe I dont know who it is the Angel contests with, but I know there are some in the dark place that are contesting back.

That swamp creature? Well...if I find my characters in a swamp, he may make the page.
 
The thing with worldbuilding is that you should sneak it in. Now, with not having any stars visible, that would be difficult to manage in a way that makes sense to both the reader and the character. But there are plenty of opportunities to add a line or two to add some worldbuilding seasoning to your writing. You might never get to a swamp, but you could have an image of a swamp creature on a painting, or a swamp creature gargoyle stuck on the side of a building.

One of the best lines of worldbuilding from Tolkien is a simple one, which does this, and it raises more questions than it answers. It's from the Council of Elrond, and Frodo has just accepted the ring. Elrond remarks on this and says: "and though all the mighty elf-friend of old, Hador, and Hurin, and Turin, and Beren himself were assembled together, your seat would be among them."

Now, we never find out in the Lord of the Rings who these people are or what they've done, and indeed they're never even mentioned again. But that sentence for me completes the world. It shows that the world was always there, and that there is a history, and that there are ancient elves who remember and have lived it. And while Tolkien can be very long winded and complete in some of his worldbuilding, he actually does this sort of things a lot. He doesn't paint a complete picture, he gives an outline which you can fill in in your mind. That is how you introduce swamp creatures, or purple trees, or the history of a tower.

For instance, have a character shout at another one that "a prince from hell may come get you!" That sentence does so much. It shows there are princes in hell in your world. It creates a unique vocabulary for your world, it can even show a bit of character.
 
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