How To Create Believable Monsters With Randy Ellefson

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How To Create Believable Monsters With Randy Ellefson

In today’s episode, we’re going to cover something really fun—and that is how to create believable monsters. Now, even if you’re not writing horror or science fiction or fantasy, I want to encourage you to stay put and listen to this episode because you never know what could spark inspiration for your own story. I think it’s super valuable to read outside the genre you write in, and it can also be equally helpful to learn some of the tricks of the trade of the other genres as well. 

So, like I said, we’re going to talk about monsters. And I have a special guest joining me today—someone that knows wayyy more about creating monsters than I do. His name is Randy Ellefson. Randy is the author of The Art of World Building books, the creator and host of the accompanying podcast and YouTube channel, and he has a suite of online courses specifically for authors who need to do some worldbuilding—it’s called Worldbulding University—we will link to all of that in the show notes. And lastly, but certainly not least, he writes epic/urban fantasy and LitRPG. 

In our conversation today, you’re going to hear us talk about things like what the word “monster” actually means in terms of storytelling (and how this kind of depends on whose perspective you’re looking at the monster through). We’re going to talk about how monsters are different than animals and species (and he’s got some great examples to share). We’ll cover the three main ways monsters get created—so three possible origins for you to consider when crafting your own monsters. And finally, why getting inside the mind of your monster and figuring out what’s motivating them can help you not only write a believable monster, but brainstorm elements for your plot, too. 

So, it’s a really fun, jam-packed episode, and I can’t wait to share it with you. With that being said, let’s go ahead and dive into my conversation with Randy Ellefson that’s all about creating believable monsters.


Transcript: How To Create Believable Monsters With Randy Ellefson


SAVANNAH: Hi Randy, thank you so much for coming on the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast. I'm so excited to have you here today! 

RANDY: Thank you for having me on. 

SAVANNAH: Yeah, I'm so excited. We're going to talk about monsters, but before we get into talking about that, can you, in your own words, tell my listeners who you are and what you do?

RANDY: Sure. I've been writing fantasy fiction since the 80’s on and off, and I've also been building worlds ever since then. I've spent about 30 years building the same planet because I just like to do a lot of detail with that planet. So I've created pretty much everything in my series of books called The Art of Worldbuilding, which teaches you how to create everything from life to places and everything else. And there's a whole chapter in one of the books on how to create monsters. 

SAVANNAH: Yeah. And literally he's not joking when he says there's everything in there. So we will link to that in the show notes if you want to check it out. It's a great way to walk through the exercises, but it also gives you so many ideas just reading it. So it's a very cool book. I love it. I have a copy. And like I said, we'll link to that in the show notes. But okay, so we're talking about monsters, right? How do we define monsters, or can you give us your definition so we're all on the same page? 

RANDY: Sure. You know, typically in history when storytellers have created monsters, whether it was for a book or just an actual local myth, they were trying to describe something that was harmful or unnatural or morally objectionable. That's a big one. There are things where people say, okay, we don't like this moral trait, oo if you act like that, well, we're going to shun you the same way we would shun this monster. So the monsters don't necessarily have to have physical deformities, but they usually do mostly because we want something where we immediately see it and go, Oh my God, it's a monster! But it can also be like a psychological deformity. We don't normally think of psychological stuff as a deformity. We just say, Oh, that's messed up or something, or this person's a jerk or something, but you know, something like vampires physically, when they're not in their vampiric state, they look fine. They look like you and me. I could be a vampire right now and you would have no idea. But what they do to people is psychologically horrifying and they're okay with that. So that's like a psychological deformity. 

SAVANNAH: Yeah, that's cool. And, you know, sometimes they could look a little different—current vampires these days are sparkly and pretty. But like you said, it doesn’t really matter what that physical appearance is—this is a great way to heighten what monsters are and what they represent. I also like that you said sometimes the monsters can appear as monsters to people that disagree with kind of that moral trait, but others might not disagree with it, right? So are monsters subjective? 

RANDY: They can be and we've seen this a lot with children's stories where, everyone thinks it's a monster, but then like the hero of the story is like, no, it's really a nice guy. He says he's misunderstood. You know that's actually gotten to be to the, to the point of being a cliche, you know what I mean? I have my seven year old daughter. I read her these books and sure enough, one of them is just like that. So yeah, at this point… There was a point where that was like an original take. Now everyone was like, oh yeah, we can do that. So that's getting overdone, too. Everything gets overdone when people realize something’s a good idea. 

SAVANNAH: Yeah. And there's a lot of fun ones that exist in current literature and even older literature, so that's a great definition. I love thinking of it that way. You also have something in your book about sentience. Like, are monsters sentient or not sentient? Is that a good way to kind of decide if something's a monster or not? Do you want to talk about that a little bit? 

RANDY: Yeah. People often misunderstand what sentient means. It really just means the ability to feel and experience and what's the other one? I think it's to react to things. So by that definition, not only is an animal sentient, but so is a plant. Because a plant reacts to sunlight. A flower opens up to sunlight. Whenever it rains, it might close up. So, the way we tend to use the word sentient, we act like that means it's intelligent and it can. I can follow this conversation, for example, but that's not actually what sentient who means, so I don't think it's a good way to really distinguish it. I try to use the word sophistication instead. For example, things like having a society, having a language, having culture. That's really what for what's missing with a monster.

SAVANNAH: Yeah. I used to say that a monster is something you usually can't reason with in our framework of reasoning but I know even that's a little squishy because in theory you could reason with a troll that lives in a cave that wants food, right? Well probably talk about motivations and stuff later… But yeah, I like how you defined it a little bit better. 

RANDY: Yeah, monsters are used as a warning. So, like we were saying earlier, don't do these things or you might turn into this monster, right? So, it's just a general thing that can also be used for foreshadowing. It's kind of the same idea. But one reason they can be feared is not what they are or what they do, but what they portend. So if you think this monster is going to bring about the end of the world, well, then that's why everyone in the village is going to go kill the thing.

SAVANNAH: Right. I worked with an author a couple of years ago, his name is Edward J. Cembal, and I'll link to his episode of this podcast in the show notes, but he had a really cool monster. It was more of a group of monsters he created that were basically a manifestation of anxiety and depression and the town that they live in didn't want to acknowledge that anxiety and depression were a thing. So, you know, that made them… I mean, they do terrible things in his story, but also it made him more of that monster because of what they represented to the people. That's kind of cool. But I love that you brought up kind of the purpose of monsters because I think with most things storytelling, we want to have a purpose for why we're putting something in our story. So, you know, that purpose could be just to create something crazy and evoke fear, right? But I love that you said you can also have it represent something that is thematic or that does a lot more than just represents fear. 

RANDY: Yeah, and I think that originally in literature, they always represented something. Since then, we've got things like Dungeons and Dragons and all these games—you're playing a first shooter, you need something to kill. So what do you do? You kill the monsters. 


RANDY: In gaming there's no history behind them. They don't represent anything. It's just something that you're going to add. So in that sense, we've sort of dumbed down what a monster can be—and we can still do that. If I have my characters going from point A to point B across the landscape, and I just need them to not waltz through there with no problems, maybe I just come up with a monster and I throw it in their way. But you know, we, as storytellers, we can add a lot more to that and make the monster much more interesting by having meaning that’s associated with them. 

SAVANNAH: Yeah, and even kind of on the most basic side of that scale where you said, like, maybe I do just need something to throw in my character's way, there's still a lot of stuff you can play with. So like, does that encounter with the monsters create future consequences that are going to be a big deal? Is there a way to strengthen bonds between people as they deal with the monsters, or things like that? So even if, for listeners, if they think they're just creating a scenario where it's simple and it's just like an obstacle in between A and Z, there's so much you can do. So I love that point. Okay, so I like that we were talking about sentience and sophistication. Now, I know there's always conversation like, what is a monster? What is a species? What is an animal? What's a creature? What's your take on all that? 

RANDY: So I like to divide things up. The first comparison I want to do is monsters versus species. Oourse, with the typical species example, we have a society. Most of us have culture, we have a philosophy, we have written language, sense of history—monsters typically don't have any of that. So, they don't have a language or if they do, they have a language because they once were a human or another species and they acquired all that, just like we all do through education. But with a monster… They typically don't have a society or any of that stuff to teach them that if he originated as a monster, so they're just not going to have that unless they originated from a species that does have it. So they're typically unsophisticated and that's one of the reasons why they can be hard to reason with. Now, if they're hungry and you have a giant turkey leg, you can try to hold it up and say something to the effect of, okay, I'll give you this if you let me pass. But it may not even understand that's something that simple. They could just see that turkey leg and it's coming straight at you. It wants the turkey leg and it happens to rip off your arm in the process. They can be that unsophisticated. 

SAVANNAH: Yeah. And I think you have a point in your book too about how usually you only see like one monster and I think this speaks to what you're talking about now. 

RANDY: Yeah. Then we kind of move into the difference between monsters and animals. With the animals, there's house cats, right? There's whatever kind of cats you want, not just house cats. There are lions and all these different kinds of cats just from that. But with monsters, there's typically only one, and that's part of what we were talking about before. When you want to create something that's an abomination, well, there's only one of them. If there are 10,000 of them, they're commonplace. They might still be monstrous and frightening and all that stuff, but we stop thinking of it as a monster, and maybe we now think of it as a creature (even if it’s a really horrible one). And you see this a lot in scienc fiction in particular—the Aliens movies, for example.


RANDY: We still tend to think of it as a monster. But we know from that movie, it’s really an animal. Because we see all the eggs and stuff like that. But the thing is, they’re actually a species. So numbers to me has a lot to do with it, but none of this is really a rule. You can certainly have hundreds of things that are considered a monster. Vampires are a good example, but with vampires, we typically think, okay, there's the master vampire, like Dracula and everyone he bites. A certain vampire turns a person into another vampire. So that's how he's creating them. And another point there, too, is how is he creating them? He's creating them from humans. So since there are billions of us, he could create billions of vampires. 


RANDY: And that's the thing, we would call them vampires. Once there's more of them, we have a name for them—vampires, zombies, etc. I don't know if there was ever a name for the alien in the Aliens movies, probably not because by not giving it a name, we keep it mysterious, so maybe there isn't… But the reality is, there's a whole bunch of them in that universe of the story and sooner or later, somebody would have named it. If the ship was called Akira, they might be “the monsters” and the next thing you know, they’re called “Akira.” If they’re from a planet called Akira, you can now call them the Akirans, you know? If there’s enough of them, you name it. If there’s not, you’d probably still call the monster “it.” It's not he or she, even if you can tell the gender, you still think of it as an “it.”

SAVANNAH: When you're thinking about creating… Let's say you want to have something like a group of vampires that you do want to be monsters, how would you recommend that listeners go about kind of building them so that they are monsters even though they're in this group? What are your thoughts on that? 

RANDY: It kind of depends on how much we want to put into the word “monster.” Again, we can still make them be really horrifying and monstrous without ever necessarily calling them a monster. Another issue there too is… Let's say I'm on a spaceship and then I crash land somewhere and I'm maroon there for a long time. And then some alien species comes and they think I'm a monster cause I'm hideous to them. You know, maybe they have three heads and I'm afraid because I got one. So, sometimes it's perspective. The flip side could also be true. You know, me, you, and a hundred other people could be on a ship. We crash land somewhere and we see something, but we only see one of them initially. And we think, oh, it's a monster. And as it turns out. It's actually an animal, or it's actually a species and we didn't make any attempt to communicate with it. Maybe it didn't either. And we have no idea that it has society and culture and all that. So some of this is really how it's portrayed or shown. Again, Alien is a good example because you see the one—you do see how there's all these egg, and so, you know there are a bunch of them—but for almost the entire movie, you just see the one. So, even though there's more, it still comes across as a monster. 

SAVANNAH: Right. And that's actually part of the fear that it evokes is there could be more. There are more. Where are they? So, that's monsters versus species, and we talked about monsters versus animals, right? So, now, and we kind of bridged into, like, how do we even start creating these monsters? So, you talk about accidental monsters versus monsters by design. Do you want to go into that a little bit? 

RANDY: Sure. Yeah. One thing you mentioned before was creature. When I looked that up, because I was curious too, well, creature actually really just means animal. So it's just another word for animal. I think in colloquial usage, we tend to make it like creature is a little more bizarre than animal, but that's not like a rule. 

SAVANNAH: Almost like a misunderstood animal or something potentially, right? Or an animal we don't have information about. 

RANDY: Yes, that, that's true. Something that creeps us out, basically. 

SAVANNAH: Yes, which again is all dependent on our perspective and like, if we're a native to the world, how long we've been here and things like that. So in your book, speaking of like creating monsters and how do we start? You talk about three kind of origins for monsters—accidental monsters, monsters by design, and monsters by evolution. Do you want to go into those?

RANDY: Yes. You know, evolution's the easy one because if one of us turned into a monster, that would be something where we had adapted in some way. Most likely, the adaptation is going to be relatively small, so we might basically look like we still do, but maybe we've got, you know, I'll use a tail as an example. I don't think most of us would see me with a tail and go, oh, you're a monster, but you kind of do get that because, you know…Something that this is sad, but in human history, someone born with birth defects was often viewed as a monster. They could have had a missing nose or a cleft chin or something. So, it can actually be something that simple, but that's not an evolution thing. But you know, anything that where we have evolved, people can look at us like a monster. And the best example of this is the X-Men franchise. It's such a basic part of the whole story where either you've got powers like the X-Men or you don't. And people who don't are afraid of them. And some of them look at them as monsters. Their own family are rejecting them and kicking them out of their house. But you know, these evolution versions are typically about survival. So in order to create one of those, you would have to kind of like… Take me, I crash landed somewhere and I’m there for a certain amount of time. Do I evolve to my new environment? Maybe I acquire a tail or whatever. And then 40 years later, a rescue ship shows up and they think, what's up with you? Maybe my skin changed—I could have like reptilian skin now and of course they're going to take one look at me and go, “It’s a monster!” And since I'm the only one, of course, that lends credence to that. So, evolution… That typically takes a long time, but that doesn't mean we can't suddenly have that appear just like in the X-Men. 

SAVANNAH: Right, right. And do you typically see these types more in like science fiction stories than fantasy, or do you see them in both?

RANDY: I think it tends to be both. But one thing about fantasy is that the history goes way back. We always talk about there's an ancient civilization, it’s 10,000 years old (or the magic is 10,000 years old)... Because there's this idea that the older the magic is, the more powerful it is. Somehow ancient is better. But with science fiction, it's the exact opposite. So we tend to see newer stuff. It can go either way, really. I mean, you can decide that the evolution has been going on for 10,000 years in fantasy, or you can decide, well, it happened very quickly in science fiction due to relative extremes. Because that’s one of the things about science fiction, people can move from planet to planet. So, relatively quickly, you are in a very different environment, and your body might actually go into overdrive to adapt, because otherwise you're dead. In fantasy, you stay in the same planet typically for so long that the evolution tends to be slower. 

SAVANNAH: Right, yeah, that's super interesting to think about. Okay, so that's monsters by evolution. What do we want to talk about next? 

RANDY: Let's talk about accidents, because that's a fun one. In science fiction and fantasy, we have all sorts of weird forces going around. You know, we've got magic, we've got technological stuff. We were out in space and stuff happens to people. A good example of this that we are usually familiar with is from comics—the Fantastic Four. There's four of them out there in space when they get hit by something. I don't know if they call it a gamma rays or what it was, and all four of them developed abilities, but they were all different. So we talked before about numbers. Well, in this case, you've got four people hit by the same phenomenon in an accident, but you don't end up with four people who have the same exact mutation. They've got four different mutations. So each one of them is still an individual and we don't consider that monsters because they are characters. They are people who have feelings. But it’s still that idea of we could have turned them into monsters. And in fact, one of the characters, I forget his name, I think Ben, the rock monster, his body was transformed into rock and he's like that 24/7. So one of the things you see in the comics or in the movie pieces is that people look at him like he's a monster. They run away because he looks like one. So again, it goes back to appearance. Here's a guy who's still perfectly human on the inside, but he looks like a monster, so everyone's afraid. 

SAVANNAH: Yeah, and I think of some of the other movies like Bruce Banner and Spider Man. They're not monsters, right? They're characters, but it's kind of the same idea that there was an accident and something happened. And I liked one of the points you made in the book is that typically these type of monsters evoke empathy or sympathy from readers because at some point they were human or animal, so we feel bad for them. Do you want to talk about that a little bit? 

RANDY: YeahTypically if you're on the receiving end of an accident, you didn't ask for this. It's not like you signed up for it, you know? You were busy doing something else and this happened to you. So this can evoke some sympathy for the monster. And I think one of the, again, we talked about this earlier, but one of the reasons like the Fantastic Four or the Hulk—we don't consider them monsters because they still have their sophistication and their culture. It's their mind that distinguishes them from monsters. Now, if they were all turned into something that really stupid by what happened to them—the phenomenon that they were exposed to—well, yeah, then they would become monsters. We tend to think of monsters as being kind of dumb. The smarter they are, they might not be monsters.

SAVANNAH: Yeah, and that's interesting too because you did point out in the book that the accidental type of monsters, these are the ones that can have more of that intelligence just because, like you said, they were human or they were animal or whatever so they have all that unless that accident rendered them the opposite. So, I think that's a really interesting and cool point. You also bring up thinking about kind of the origin of these accidents, so like who or what caused this, right?

RANDY: Yeah, because this can cause the monster to have a beef with whoever did it, if they know who it was. Now, one of the things we all do, unfortunately, is we might cause something ourselves, but not take responsibility for that. So, you know, you can have a character who's basically mad at themselves, but they're projecting that onto other people, or they're saying, well, I wouldn't have, like Bruce Banner, I wouldn't have done this. I wouldn’t have been exposed to that technology if it hadn't been for the experiments that I was doing… And you funded my experiments, so it's actually your fault. So there's all those projections stuff we all do. But you know, when we think about who caused the accident… This is great for giving our characters motivation, which is something we can talk about more, but, you know, because we may want revenge on whoever did it to us.

SAVANNAH: Right. And, you know, whether that's used in the story or not (it could be!)... It could be something that's dripped out and like causes that the reader to feel curious, it could be something we know up front and that's how we understand their motivation or whatever. So I think that's a really interesting thing to think about if you have a monster who's been created by an accident. And then the last one is monsters by design. So talk to me about this one. 

RANDY: You know, there are characters who create a monster on purpose. We think of the, the mad scientist or the evil wizard, or maybe even a God. Now, if you take someone like Dr. Frankenstein… I always like to point out that we think Frankenstein is the name of the monster, but it’s actually not. The monster doesn’t have a name, which is one of the things that tends to define monsters. I always mix up which one is the monster, so I like to point that out…

SAVANNAH: No, I get your point though. If anything, it's referred to as “Frankenstein's monster.” So it has no name. You call it that. But yea…

RANDY: Yeah. And there's something about the name Frankenstein that sounds like the name of a monster, right? And movie posters will put it out there—FRANKENSTEIN, you know? With evil letters, and so you think it’s the monster, but it’s not. Dr. Frankenstein was trying to create a monster, so that’s kind of what I mean by creating a monster by design. 

SAVANNAH: What about Bane from Batman? Wasn't he kind of created or manipulated to become who he was? 

RANDY: Yeah. Sometimes we have someone who wants to do something like create a super warrior. This is really common in in science fiction and comics. Even Captain America was supposed to be a super soldier. Now he happens to be a good guy, but he signed up for it, I believe. But these experiments that are supposed to create someone they could turn into an accident—or someone could literally set out to create a monster. For example, I want something that is terrifying and I'm going to park it outside my treasure so no one can get in and a monster will to kill anybody who tries to get in (unless they're me, because I have this turkey leg. I have the holy turkey leg and it recognizes… Oh, if you're holding up that I'll let you pass. But if not, I'm going to kill you..). So a monster could be created to protect the creator or to protect the place. It could also be created to terrorize a place. Let's say you've been cast out. You're a wizard, you're a nice guy, but people are afraid of you for whatever reason. You get shunned by society. And now you're like, you know what? I'm going to go create a monster. I'm going to send it into your town and freeze you people out or kill somebody. So we can have these characters who do this. If you ever watched the old show, Hercules the legendary journeys and Xena, a warrior princess, you know, there was a character. I forget who it was off the top of my head, but she was the mother of monsters. She was a God. She kept creating all these monsters. And so, and she hated Hercules because he was always killing these monsters, you know? So these were her children. This is someone who's actually creating monsters, and she loves her monsters because she doesn't see them that way.

SAVANNAH: Yeah, which again goes back to that perception thing, which is so fun. But are you familiar with the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind? 

RANDY: Yes, but I haven't read that in a very long time. 

SAVANNAH: Okay, so that was like one I used to reread all the time, and there's not a ton of monsters like in the forefront of the main characters necessarily, but I think he did a good job of like… There were monsters in the background kind of created for war purposes, there were other ones that were created to do duties within the law so they could get the truth out of people if they needed to, and then help the victim of crimes. Then there were also like monsters created that could help us travel. So there are so many things that you could do with this, but I think what's key is really kind of knowing the WHY. I mean, like most things in writing, right? Like what's the why, what's the purpose for having it? And I think it's pretty cool.

RANDY: Yeah. And I think that we can always draw that out. We don't want to tell people right up front. I mean, sometimes we do. It really depends on what's going to drive your story. A lot of times people wanting to know the answer as well, but sometimes they don't. Like a murder mystery, sometimes you drag it out that the Butler did. Other times you tell people chapter one, the Butler did it. And here's the story of what actually happened because there's something other than ignorance driving the reader to keep reading it. So when you reveal it depends on what your driving point is gonna be. 

SAVANNAH: Yeah. And I like to talk about this as like, what do you want your readers to feel? Do you want them to feel concerned so they read forward? And like, it's kind of like that car crash waiting to happen. Like we know what's coming. Or do you want it to be curiosity that drives them forward and you can play with these both of them throughout the story, but yeah, it's all purposeful, ideally.

RANDY: And one of the things that we talked about before about sympathy that happens with accidents, but it can also happen when a monster was created by design because it didn't ask for this, you know? Especially if, if they were taken or if they thought it was one thing and then it turns out they're being made into a monster. 

SAVANNAH: Yeah, there's a lot of things you can play with within not only this bucket of how to make monsters, but all three of them, which is super cool. And so we talked a little bit earlier about how some of these like origins can help us brainstorm motivations. Do you want to talk about that? Because you have a section on it in your book and I thought it was super interesting.

RANDY: Yeah. We all want something including monsters. And one of the basic things a monster may really want is just to be left alone. 


RANDY: I mean, if you think about it, if people are hunting you all the time, you probably don't want anybody coming over, you know? So, even if you're not being hunted, but you're just despised every time you show up, or people like throw rocks at you until you run away, even if they don't follow you, like, oh, okay, well, I just would rather be alone, you know?

SAVANNAH: Yeah, especially if you don't like the state you're in, right? Maybe you're embarrassed to be a monster and you just don't want to be around people. 

RANDY: Yeah, you might see all these people doing stuff, like, oh, I want to fit in, but they're gonna throw rocks at me…


RANDY: So that's one. Another one that I think is kind of suspect, but it's very common is monsters want to hoard treasure. Well, I think this is really a suspect because first of all, if you're a monster, you've been shunned by society. So if I have a bag, if I'm a monster and I have a bag of gold, what am I going to do with that? It's not like I can walk into the market and buy that turkey leg that I want so bad, you know? I'm going to get stoned if I go anywhere near it. So treasure is really for one of the reasons obviously is for bartering and that's denied a monster by the nature of it being a monster. Now if it's one of the things we can do is, okay, the monster is not too bright and just likes shiny things. So that's why it's, it's got this stuff. You know, that's not that bad explanation, but it's kind of a cliched one at this point.

SAVANNAH: Right. And it's interesting because as you were saying that my brain's kind of going a million miles an hour like what could a monster want to hoard treasure for? And I got to this thought of like, well, maybe it wants to hoard treasure because it doesn't want the humans to have it. And I'm like, but is that a sophisticated thought? Like, is it too sophisticated for a monster? So, you know, I can kind of see all these things you're talking about coming into play. 

RANDY: Right. I think one of the other things that does make sense is people are carrying a certain amount of gold or wearing their nice golden armor and they come into its lair and it kills them and it doesn't understand the value of any of that and it just leaves it there. So it's not actually hoarding it, it's just collecting, you know? 

SAVANNAH: Right. It's kind of guarding its habitat after that. 

RANDY: Yeah. And another good thing for that, if it does understand that other people see it as aluable, well, it could leave it there as a lure to trick people to come in. But that's, you know, that's not a motivation so much as like, if it wants to eat those people, well then yes, it will leave it as a lure to bring them in. 


RANDY: But the question is, how is it going to know that it's valuable? And the answer would be… Let's say over however many years it kills 20 people and they've left valuable items around and it doesn't know they're valuable, but people come into the cave or whatever, and they see it. And the monster sees people going for that item and they really want it, and then this keeps happening and then the monster might figure out, okay, the humans want that. Maybe I'll bring it deeper into my cave, and they'll come further in, and it'll be that much easier for me to kill them so I can eat them. 

SAVANNAH: Right. And I could see this one kind of being important for gaming too, because t's an obstacle, right? Sometimes the obstacles in gaming don't have to have that big why or that explanation because you're, if you're the protagonist of the game, you're just getting the treasure. So the monster is an obstacle to that.

RANDY: Yep. Another big one is food. Because we all gotta eat, you know? Unless it's.. One of the jokes that I made in that book that I like is what if it's a vegetarian plant? What if it’ a alad eating monster? It doesn't eat people. It’s funny but it doesn't create as much horror, of course, as eating sentient people. I shouldn't use that word again, sentient. But, you know, when it eats sophisticated species, that's much more horrifying than eating an animal which to some is more horrifying than eating a plant. So, you know, if there's nothing around for it to eat, then yes, that might be one reason it eats people. But I like to go back to the example of sharks. Sharks sometimes bite people, but it's almost always an accident or they're desperate or some of them are just too aggressive. Like most bull sharks are very aggressive. Typically they spit us out. The problem is that their test bite is lethal for us. But they would rather have a seal because that's got way more fat and not just, you know, nutrients. We're like a cracker compared to a steak. It really doesn't want to eat us. 

SAVANNAH: Yeah, which is kind of like a good thing to know about your monster too, Not that you have to spend like 20 years in the world building of your monster, but these little things just help you write a much more rich story.

RANDY: Yeah, and another thing about food too is, you know, livestock is something to think about. If it's near a village and there's livestock that are unprotected, it's probably going to be eating those. It's sort of a cliche, but it's also so obvious that no one's going to complain. Those livestock, they're very valuable, especially in something like a fantasy setting. So that monster is going to be causing problems. And you know, if it wants to just be left alone, but it also wants to eat… Well, when it goes out and eats your pal and then you leave footprints, you're going to go after it because of this. So it can unknowingly bring trouble on its head, or it can be doing it on purpose if it is a little more sophisticated knowing you're going to come after it. But why would it do that? You know, like if you think about sharks, we're very dangerous to sharks. We kill way more sharks than sharks kill people. This kind of goes towards monsters. They don't want a big fight. Now, like if you watch a lion chasing antelope, what do they do? They go after the old one and they go after the young ones. They don't go after the big alpha male antelope if there is one, because that one's going to cause them damage.


RANDY: They don't have a doctor they can go see afterwards. So they have to avoid this stuff to begin with. If we didn't have doctors, maybe we wouldn't do some of the stupid things that we do. 

SAVANNAH: Right. Yeah. There's an idea for a story world without doctors. Okay.

Yeah, we talked about how monsters want to be left alone, so they just kind of want to do their thing, be left alone. Possibly they want to hoard treasure, but you were saying that one's not the strongest for the reasons you said. Or they want food for their survival. And then there's two more, right?

RANDY: Yes. Security is a big one, because we all want to feel safe. Monsters might give this impression of being super tough, but one of the things that children's stories get right when they, you know, the humanize these monsters or whatever, as they show them being vulnerable, right? Monsters can also feel vulnerable. This might be one of the reasons why this is going to be a good reason why it will be hard to find their lair unless they're using it as a way to get you to come to them so they can kill you. And they're not going to kill you just to kill you. Monsters are going to have some other reason, you know, like you are threatening it or it wants food. 


RANDY: Security is a big reason. 

SAVANNAH: I like that you said the word vulnerable too because that can vary so much. There's so many degrees of vulnerability at the simplest. It could be that literally their survival is threatened and they feel physically vulnerable, right? And then who knows what degrees you could go to. Also being aware that we don't want to make them too intelligent because then are they really monsters? So yeah, it's really interesting to think about.

RANDY: And then the last one is revenge, which we kind of talked about a little bit before, you know, in the case of its origins. So if we want a monster that wants revenge, working on its origins is a great idea because that can give us the reason for its revenge. And it can also have selective revenge. Let's say humans are really obnoxious to it, but the elves are not. So what does it do? You can use this in a mysterious sort of way where there's a party of elves and humans out and the monster showed up and it appears to be a targeting of a human and people will notice afterwards or during it. And they're thinking, okay, why did they go after the humans? And the reason it could be, well, the humans are the ones who created it. 

SAVANNAH: Yeah. And I like how with all the stuff you're saying… My writer brain instantly is thinking of like, oh, how cool if I know all this stuff, or if I at least think through it a little bit, you know, maybe I don't like to plan a ton, but if I at least think through it, it gives me a lot of ideas for things that can get in my protagonist way and, and be meaningful for whatever reason it's meaningful, but I think that's… It's a cool exercise, whether it's you're getting in your antagonist head, or if your antagonist is a monster or you have a monster in there. It gives a lot of ideas, so it's very cool. 

RANDY: Yeah, and I recommend people read worldbuilding guides, not just mine, but the other ones, because even if you disagree with something I say, well, that just caused you to think of something, right? Especially if you’re like… I don't agree with them because of this, because I think this and this, and that's what happened instead, well, you just started having ideas.

SAVANNAH: Right. Yeah, I think that's really cool. And I personally like that kind of conversation, you know, when people disagree about things and it's like, here's my perspective. It just makes us all smarter if we do it respectfully. So speaking of things people could disagree on, I wanted to run five monsters by you to see if they are monsters, or are they not monsters... I want to get your thoughts. The first two that come to mind are the basilisk and the dementors from Harry Potter. Are these Monsters? Are they species? Are they animals? What are they? 

RANDY: The basilisk… I was gonna say creature. It's the sort of thing we would typically call a creature, but it is basically an animal. You do only see one in the story, but “Basilisk” is not it’s name (like Beowulf). It’s what type of animal it is, so therefore it's an animal. However, it is used like a monster, and it's frightening in the same way that a monster is, because it can do things, you know, a typical animal or regular animal can't do, but I would go with animal.

SAVANNAH: Yeah, animal or creature, right? Because I liked what you said earlier about it being a creature where you get the gist of it, like it's a big snake, right? That's an animal we're familiar with, but there's a lot about basilisks we don't really know. So I think, yeah, animal or creature is kind of where my head went to, and then what about the dementors?

RANDY: I can't remember now, were the Dementors created by somebody? 

SAVANNAH: I believe they were created to be guards of Azkaban prison. 

RANDY: Right. You know, that's a tough one because there is more than one of them. And they're, they're certainly monstrous… I don't think they have things like society and culture and all of that, but they might have a little bit… What do I call it? They might have routines or… they might say, I’ll go this way, you go that way… But I think they’re relatively simple, which makes me think they’re monsters.

SAVANNAH: I agree with that. I know they have like no loyalty. That's not a thing for dementors. They have no weakness, although there are ways to like ward them off and keep them at bay. But I don't think we ever hear about like someone killing a Dementor, so it's really interesting, but I would tend to agree that that's probably more in monster territory, even though there's more of them, so interesting, right? What about someone like Pennywise? 

RANDY: Yes, the famous clown! He certainly seems like an “it” for most of the story, and at the risk of spoiling things, towards the end, we find out that he's, you know, he's not a clown. He's, I don't know what he is… He's an “it.” I don't know what to call it. 

SAVANNAH: I think they describe him as an ancient cosmic evil that takes the shape of a person slash clown.

RANDY: Right. And I think in one of them, it looks sort of like, when you saw the lair where it was, it looked sort of like a spider or something. It certainly gives the impression of being a monster in all ways. The question is: where does it come from and are there more of them? But I think in this case, we don't really care because we don't ever see that. We just see the one. And because of that, it is not only physically monstrous—it’s a clown that may look like human, but it's a hideous clown… it's an extremely creepy clown—but this is a great example of psychologically abnormal, you know? So, to me it’s a monster.

SAVANNAH: Well, and especially when it appears human like for most of its iterations. But yeah, I would agree it's a monster, which is really, that's one of those ones that I get asked about a lot if people are writing horror and they're like, but is this a monster? Is this like a normal antagonist person, like what is it, right? So that, I'm glad that you said monster. What about in the Wheel of Time series, the Trollocs? 

RANDY: Those, to me, are a species. Because there appear to be… There are a lot of them adn they have a name. Once it's got a name, it tends to move away from monster. But there's a lot of them. My impression is that they do have society. They follow orders. They appear to have a language. I don't know if they ever speak or not, but they certainly understand like commands that are given to them. So to me, they are species. 

SAVANNAH: Yeah, I agree with that too because I knew they have like tribes and hierarchies within those tribes and they have sigils, which is a, you know, interesting. So yeah, they're kind of… They're more on that intelligent scale and they're taking proactive well thought out actions, right? So that's more species than typical monster. What about, this is kind of similar, but the White Walkers in the Song of Ice and Fire series? 

RANDY: Those are undead. So in a way, that's an easy one. We don't consider undead monsters really. We call them undead, you know? 


RANDY: So again, once you have a name, something that can refer to a whole bunch of them, it’s different. And you know, we have so many different kinds of undead. Even in that series, there's more than one kind of undead, but you know, they're still all lumped under the umbrella of general undead. 

SAVANNAH: Yeah, and so that's interesting too, because again, it's kind of perspective and like what the world has going on. Because if there was only one White Walker that we see and experience, who knows what's out there, that might classify more as a monster. 

RANDY: Yeah and I think in the opening scene, there's just a few of them. And so they kind of come across a little more as monsters. 


RANDY: But of course, we end up finding out the truth later. And of course, they can replicate… So, yeah, I would go with undead. 

SAVANNAH: I agree. And then we talked about Frankenstein's monster already. So I'm going to pull another example from your book and go off that. I work with a lot of writers who are writing horror and they're like, well, what about a house or something or like a haunted object? And you talk about the broom in The Sorcerer's Apprentice about being just like an animated object, right?

RANDY: Yeah. So, it’s a broom. a\Anytime we see it, we can end up thinking, okay, it's a broom that is now moving on its own. So we, we don't think monster, we think it's a broom that's moving on its own, you know? So so even if it's like an evil broom and it's, you know, smacking people or something, we still think, okay, I have to do something to make it go back to inanimate. We still don't think, oh I have to kill it. 


RANDY: You don't kill objects, right? You kill living things. It's not quite the same, so I don't see you as being a monster.

SAVANNAH: What about like a haunted house though? I guess depending on how you write it, it could be haunted by a ghost and then is that ghost the monster or the undead, right? Or like what's the monkey paw and all those like, is it from Goosebumps? Do you remember that? 

RANDY: Yeah, I do remember that. Where every time you make a wish the finger comes down, I forget what it's from…

SAVANNAH: I don't know what it does, but it's scary. If you're writing something like that, it feels to me, based on what we've talked about, you're not really writing it like a monster. It's more just of a something. And the reason I'm asking is because there are a lot of people who have something like the monkey paw and they're like, well, that's my antagonist. It causes conflict. And part of me is like, is that enough though? 

RANDY: Yeah. Because is it really causing conflict? I mean, is that's one where you make a wish or something and then it makes it come true? Yeah, yeah. But the object itself didn't cause the conflict. The person who made the choice with the object caused the conflict.

SAVANNAH: Right. Yeah, so it kind of is, it's like none of the things we talked about, right? It's just a thing that's causing problems, but it, you know, when I see it in drafts, it's not usually the thing that that is the overarching sense of antagonistic force that's driving the story forward. 

RANDY: It's not acting on its own. It's doing it's doing something because you made it do something. That's that would be like saying a gun is the antagonist because I fired it. 

SAVANNAH: Yes! And that's actually a great point because things like that… even something like a haunted forest… If you really want to get technical, it's acting on its own because it's trying to survive or whatever, but usually it's more about the person who's either viewing the forest or the object and kind of what they're bringing to it that ends up creating the fear that they face later.

RANDY: Plus, you can see see the forest and still think, “it’s a forest.” You know what to call it. I mean, sure, sure, forests don't normally do this, but it's a forest that does this.  It's not, I don't have any idea what this is. 

SAVANNAH: It's not really an unknown, and it's more the creatures that could be in it, and potential monsters that could be in it, that evoke the fear. But I think that's, that's all super interesting. So we're gonna link to your book and all your resources. You have a great website with all this information. Any ginal tips for people who are struggling to create monsters or who want to create a really great monster?

RANDY: Yeah, when I wrote the book series, I always ended every chapter with where do you start? Cause I just filled your head with all this information and your head's going to explode. I always say with monsters… write down whatever ideas you have now, I'll just do that first. Probably just so you don't forget it, but any order that you created in can work. What I would say is habitat really helps us with body creation—if we want that habitat to have something to do with their body, especially for something like evolution. And then the origin really helps with the location and its abilities, because, you know, if it was created by an accident, wherever that accident happened is probably where the monster still is generally. I mean, we can truly have all sorts of creative license, but we use the accident to help think of the abilities or vice versa. So I would say starting with habitat and origin are two of the really good places to get started. I also have a template that you can use to fill out. You can get it for free by joining my newsletter at and you’ll get over 20 worldbuilding templates. One of them is for creating monsters and it comes with explanations about how to fill out each section.

SAVANNAH: Great, we will link to all of that. Also, at the time this recording goes live, we are both going to be participating in the Fantasy and Sci Fi Authors Summit. You are one of the hosts and then  I will be guest speaking on one of the days. Do you want to quickly tell people a little bit about that?

RANDY: We're going to have over 20 speakers and it's focused mostly on fantasy and sci fi, but we have general storytelling advice as well. A lot of it is free. There are premiums passes that you can get and get extra content, for example, I'll be offering one of my courses at a discount during that. So it's going to run for about a week and you know, my co-host has run more of these summits than I have, but she's a romance writer. When she first contacted me to talk about culture at her romance summit, I thought, why would a romance writer want me to do world building? That's usually sci fi and fantasy, but she said, well, there's historical romance… and I went, oh, of course! 

SAVANNAH: If I can interrupt you quickly, I love that you said we have general topics too, because I personally think it's great for writers to go to genre talks or seminars or whatever it is about other genres because you will get so many ideas and just see things in a different perspective. So even if you're not writing fantasy or sci-fi or even historical fiction, you are totally welcome to come and you should come. And we'll put all the dates and the links to that and everything in the show notes along with where we can find Randy around the internet and all that. But thank you so much, Randy, for being here. I feel like we could geek out about monsters and world building forever. 

RANDY: I'd be glad to. Thank you so much for having me on!

Final Thoughts

My favorite takeaway from this episode is Randy's advice about using your monster’s origin story to flesh out who they are, what they want, and more. I love how he said that if your monster is created by someone else, this can help you evoke empathy in the reader, which isn’t something you’d normally think about when crafting monsters.

If you want to learn more about Randy, you can visit his website at You can also check out his books about worldbuilding or take one of his many classes about worldbuilding here.

And if you want to join Randy and me at the Fantasy and Sci-Fi Authors Summit from May 13th to 17th, 2024, you can click here to register FOR FREE. I hope to see you there!

Savannah is a developmental editor and book coach who helps fiction authors write, edit, and publish stories that work. She also hosts the top-rated Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast full of actionable advice that you can put into practice right away. Click here to learn more →