Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Monsters and Mayhem, Part 2 of 6

Recap: for those who are new to the blog (welcome!), I am in the middle of a 6-week course at Grub Street ("a non-profit creative writing center dedicated to nurturing writers and connecting readers with the wealth of writing talent in the Boston area") called Monsters and Mayhem, taught by Sue Williams and KL Pereira. As a commenter once said, I basically do a Cliff's Notes version of all my Grub Street classes, and they've been a reasonably popular series of posts.

I hope the posts from this class will be applicable across multiple genres, but if you're really not into the speculative fiction genre, you can read the older posts in this series, or you can wait until the end of March, when I'll once again be taking some one-night-only seminars; specifically, I'll be taking "All The Right (Opening) Moves" and "Crank the Tunes, Crank the Prose: Music as the Path to Literary Improvement."

But back to the mayhem! Yesterday's class was all about monster psychology.

I urge you to take a few minutes to read Ramsey Shehadeh's short story Creature. After you've read it through once, take a look again at the second section (sections are separated by "* * *"), and look at how the author portrayed Creature's desires, insecurities, and motivations. Consider its wants and needs, its internal and external influences. Look at how much character development the author gives you in just that one paragraph following the section break.

Even if you're not a genre writer, let's think about this for a moment. How much do you know about your villain/monster/antagonist's backstory? How was s/he born or created? How was s/he raised, or not raised? (Tell me about your mother, we hear in a deep Freudian accent.)

Maybe try your hand at the following writing exercises:

  • Describe your monster's birth or creation (in the case of my creature, hatching);
  • Write a scene in which your monster/antagonist becomes frightening or repulsive even to him/herself;
  • Write a scene in which your monster/antagonist fails to overcome his or her evil (or merely naughty) impulses... and does not regret it.

That short story I linked to? Includes all three such scenes. Yowza.

They say that the way to make vivid, well-rounded characters is to remember that every character is the hero of his or her own story. That includes monsters and villians. That includes characters who are self-loathing, or who wish they were more than they are... or less.

I hate to quote Ally McBeal (note to my foreign readers, I swear that show had nothing remotely to do with law as it is practiced in the United States), but there was one episode where a much-abused friend asks Ally, "Why are your problems so much bigger than anyone else's?" And in a rare moment of honesty, Ally replies, "Because they're mine."

No matter what genre you're writing, no matter what species your characters are, no matter how big or small their roles in your stories are... their problems are THEIRS. And that's what going to be important to them. They're probably not out to just be evil or get in your hero's way. They may want power, or love, or just to be left alone.

If those characters of yours get a lot of time on the page, you could do worse than to get inside their heads with them for a while, and see what got them started down those paths.


  1. I'd like to think I accomplished this in my most recent post-wouldn't mind if you said I did or did not.

    I hope I conveyed the "monster"s inability to be in control of the situation he was pressed into.

    Of course I may be up in the night.

  2. Just returned from a weekend in NYC and viewed the Tim Burton exhibit at MoMA. So......after all that writing about your monster, relax your brain in another direction and DRAW it. Or DRAW it and then create the story out of your work.


  3. Monster Psychology! Oh that sounds like heaps of fun!

  4. I love this post - I'm dipping into the psychology of my antagonists and I love it. I haven't thought of their life as children though - maybe I should. Our problems do seem bigger because they're ours - so true. Thank you for the award I really appreciate it. I'm assuming you're giving me the Over the Top award. Thanks again

  5. You assumed correctly! Today's post is up now...

  6. Great post. I'm so happy that there's a class out there in monster psychology--thanks for passing along the highlights!