Wednesday, December 28, 2011

How To Make A Monster

This past June, I had the opportunity to lead a workshop called Vamp Camp as part of the Teen Writers' Conference at The Loft Literary Center here in Minneapolis. About 40 teen writers joined me in the performance hall at the Open Book literary arts building and together we chatted about what it takes to do world building - and specifically creature creation - for YA paranormal novels. Now, I'm a big believer that monster stories are all about the rules (check out this past post on my author blog if you want to know why) so I came up with a list of questions to help us get at the guidelines that govern our monsters' lives. Recently, as I work on Crossfire (the second book in the Darkride Chronicles) I find  myself coming back to this list, touching base with the rules that affect my vampires and werewolves, my Hunters and thralls. So, I decided to share them with you in case they might help you in your own creature creation. Answer as few or as many of the questions as you like, and don't be afraid to stray away from the questions if you get a good idea. Most of all, have fun with it!

1. What do you look like? Are you hideous? Are you super humanly beautiful? Do you look the same all the time, or do you change forms? If you do change, what triggers your transformation? What makes you change back? (remember, it can be anything! Maggie Stiefvater's Wolves of Mercy Falls series, in which the werewolves' transformation is triggered by heat or cold, is a great example of how an original take on the rules can spark a fresh premise). Is your transformation under your control or out of it? If you are a vampire, do you have fangs? Are they always there, or do they come and go? Do they change by magic or do they retract like a cat’s claws?  (Don’t worry too much about anyone else’s ideas about what fangs - or any other detail of your monster's appearance - might look like.  Remember that our ideas about monsters have evolved over time. For example,we used to think of vampires as ugly monsters with ruddy complexions and bellies distended from drinking too much blood.  Then actor Bela Lugosi played Dracula and we began to think of vampires as rich, sophisticated and handsome. Now most people think of vampires as extremely beautiful - and some people think they sparkle. So take the time to research what other people have believed about your particular type of monster, but don't feel beholden to anyone else's ideas. You need to serve your story, so do your own thing!)

2. How did you become a monster? Were you (cue the Lady Gaga song) born this way? Were you made by another monster? How? Was it a choice or was it forced on you? Were you made by science or by magic? Are there others of your kind? Could you make more if you wanted to? Would you make more?

3. How do you feed? What do you eat? Do you have a choice about what you eat? Can you survive on normal food? How do you feel about what you eat? (Note that a lot of our modern-day monsters are morally conflicted about what they eat, which isn’t that far off from how we humans feel about our food! See also this post on the Tofurky/Vampire Connection)

4. What are your super powers? Most monsters have perks! Are you fast? Strong? Are your senses heightened? Can you change your form? Do you heal quickly? Have a psychic ability? Fly? What do you love about being the monster you are? Let your imagination run wild! A lot of the fun in reading and writing monster stories is about the perks!

5. What are your weaknesses? What limits you? Do you have a personal kryptonite? (Traditionally vampires have had a lot of these— they can’t go into a home without an invitation, can’t see themselves in mirrors, are afraid of crosses and garlic, burned by the sun or holy water… Readers have these things in the back of their mind when they come to your story, so know that and be ready to either use those expectations to your advantage or to replace it quickly with a different different set of weaknesses that are even more interesting. Remember, weaknesses are what’s going to give your story drama and conflict! Also, the more weaknesses your character has the more perks you can afford to give her!)

6. How can you be killed? Are you immortal? Can you be killed by ordinary means, or does it take something special like a stake through the heart or a silver bullet? Can you come back from the dead? What can keep you from coming back? Do you have natural enemies? (We think of werewolves and vampires as enemies, but that’s new. Did you know the original Dracula could turn into a wolf and had wolves who did his bidding? At some points in history, vampires and werewolves were almost the same monsters!) Is anyone out to get you?

7. What about the world you live in? When and where do you live? Does everyone know that creatures like you exist, or is it a secret? Who is in on the secret? Who do you need to hide it from? What would happen if they knew? (This question has everything to do with the stakes of your story—by which I mean how much does it matter? This is also where monster stories become great metaphors for the world we live in. A lot of modern monster stories like the True Blood TV series or Daniel Waters' Generation Dead books include monsters who are a persecuted class of citizens fighting for their rights. Monster stories can say a lot about how we view differences like disability or sexual orientation.) What could give away your secret? Are there certain signs that you are a monster?

8. How do you feel about being the monster you are?  If you were ever human, do you miss it? Are you proud to be what you are? Ashamed? Do you think of yourself as better or worse than humans? Is there a cure for you? What is it? What will you have to sacrifice to get it? Would you want to be cured if you could?

These are just a few of the questions you can ask yourself, so feel free to change the questions to suit your story's needs. Feel free to change your answers, too; at some point, your world-building will have to become consistent, but when you are just starting to plan your story you should feel free to experiment. Try changing the answers to one or two important questions and see how it affects your story. What happens if your werebears turn human when they hibernate? What if your vampires can telepathically control dogs? What if your zombies become living humans again when kissed under the full moon's light? See what the story repercussions of each choice might be, and decide on the rules that best fit your story, the ones that will challenge your characters in ways that will make them grow, the ones that will express how you really feel about life and the way it works, and the ones that will stretch readers' expectations in new and interesting ways. Enjoy!   

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