The monsters you choose to include in your story help define your fantasy world. The overwhelming tide of evil, the dark horror lurking just beyond the reach of your light, perhaps enemies with a uncomfortable familiarity, or do you choose to include everything available?
Dictionaries define monsters depending on the context, like abnormal size and structure or evil and cruel acts.
A monster represents our fears in its many forms. A monster story is about defeating a terror and facing our fear and our primal drive for survival.
There is no right or wrong way to do this, but realize that the creatures you choose to include or omit, the number of different creatures, and any theme they share, will shape your world.
As with races, ancestries, and languages, strong monster themes help fantasy worldbuilding.
So let’s explore monsters for a bit.
The Monster List
The idea of creating a specific monster list is to define the world as efficiently and consistently as possible and support the theme of the world.
Folklore and Books
Monsters are drawn from real-world myths, folklore, fairy tales, and a growing literary canon of fantasy books.
This is yet another way your cultural bias may show. I do not think this is necessarily a bad thing and probably impossible to avoid, but it is important to realize this is happening.
I would draw from Norse and Greek myths, R.E. Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dungeons and Dragons, and Hollywood if I were to create a list of monsters on the top of my head:
Devils, demons, trolls, giants, giant snakes, slithering things, orcs, wraiths, dragons, vampires, zombies.
Looking at different parts of Europe may give us the following lists with distinctly different feels:
Basilisks, catoblepases, cyclopses, eidolons, giants, hydras, sirens, spirits, manticores, minotaurs, lamias.
Draugs, dragons, trolls, giants, linnorms, sea serpents, vetter, wargs.
Bodak, dhampir, dragons, koschei, rarog, striga, tugarin, vampires.
Tolkien and Dragon Age
The mythology of Middle-earth looms large in fantasy, and rightly so. Tolkien developed his world in the span of his adult life. The first draft of Fall of Gondolin was written in 1917, twenty years before the publication of the Hobbit (1937), and was not released until after Tolkien’s passing.
Middle-earth has many dark places with room for monsters, but the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings (1954) included only a handful:
Goblins, orcs, giant intelligent spiders, wights, wraiths, trolls, winged lizards, corrupted horses, dragons, big hulking demons.
It is not a long list for a mythology with such an imprint on the fantasy genre. On the one hand, some may consider this boring. On the other, a concise list gives identity and possibly a theme. Tolkien’s influences include Germanic, Nordic, and old-English myths. The list reflect this.
The servants of the Enemy are the corrupted, insidious, and irredeemable evil corruption Melkor and Sauron. The darkness employs orcs and goblins as soldiers, driven by supernatural darkness and corruption. They appear in the story to oppose the heroes as tangible enemies.
Are the orcs of Middle-earth born evil or just fearful victims who pass on the abuse they themselves have suffered, driven by the dark will of Sauron? The orcs were around in Sauron’s absence and appeared to survive his destruction, possibly only to face genocide at the hands of humans.
The monster list of Thedas, the world of the Dragon Age franchise, is essentially the same, at least in my selection, if you swap orcs for darkspawn and rebrand the balrog, showing that tone and execution give us a very different story despite featuring the same monsters.
Dragon Age also explores, a little bit, what happens to the darkspawn when they lose the corrupting force that drives them. Dragon Age gives, best to my knowledge, no answers.
The Hyborian Age and Conan the Barbarian
R.E. Howard’s approach to worldbuilding must have been very different than Tolkien’s. The Conan the Barbarian stories were written over a much shorter period and largely published when finished. Although Howard probably loved writing, it was not an academic pursuit as it was for Tolkien. Howard’s world echoed a more primitive world, populated with prehistoric animals and Lovecraftian horrors, and the monster list reflects that:
Giant snakes, giant apes, sabretooth tigers, Neanderthals, giant slugs and toads, cosmic horrors.
I got a reminder of the importance of consistent monster themes when I finally got around to reading some of the Witcher stories by Andrzej Sapkowski, where the striga appears in the Last Wish (1993).
I believe I have seen the striga in various bestiary-type books over the years but never really found the creature very interesting.
Now, reading a dry Wikipedia article is not very evocative. I will read the bestiary text with a Nordic perspective and fill in the blanks with mental imagery from Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Why use the striga when old Vlad and the brides are more striking characters?
Reading about the striga in compelling fiction and meaningful contexts, like Sapkowski’s book, is a very different experience.
This taps into the idea that in the world of the Witcher, humans are the real monsters. As I read it, this strong theme is part of what makes the Witcher stories so compelling.
Shadow and Bone, A Song of Ice and Fire
The night is dark and full of terrors.
– George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords (2000)
Two other interesting examples include Leigh Bardugo’s Ghrishaverse and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Both fantasy series have a distinct feel but features few monsters.
In Bardugo’s Grishaverse, starting with Shadow and Bone (2012), the known monsters, the volcra, are manifestations of the sun and shadow symbolism created by the story’s premise, the Shadow Fold. All other magical creatures are myths and fairytales to the people in the world. These mythic creatures are closely tied to how magic works and even act as McGuffins in the story.
The last book at the present, Rule of Wolves (2021), hints at more stories, so hopefully we will learn more in the future.
In Martin’s Westeros, the horde north of the wall includes frosts giants, mammoths, zombies, and wights, and Daenerys has her dragons. The monsters are manifestations of the supernatural elements of this world and the fire and ice symbolism in the story. In addition, the valyrian blades appear to be McGuffins related to the monsters, at least in the tv-series. We should know more when the books are done.
The point is, both stories do not have extensive monster lists. Every creature included is there to highlight the world’s magic and serve a purpose in the story. This does not diminish the magic of the world.
Sample Monster Themes
So, to get down to it, let’s make some monster lists for a few established fantasy tropes:
A planar war between devils and angels: Ox men, goat men, devils, undead, angels.
Supernatural horror on the high seas: zombies, wights, wraiths, undead pirate captains, krakens, sea serpents, serpent folk, cosmic horrors.
The fire horde: dragons, lizard folk, fire salamanders, elementals, ifrits.
The mummy: mummies, zombies, wraiths, golems, giant snakes, giant insects.
Cosmic horror: zombies, ghouls, serpent people, all sorts of slithering things, alien tentacled gods.
How do you Build Your Monster List?
Your initial design choices are important as they will shape your world and be difficult to reverse when your story has begun.
As you begin your monster selection, revisit your initial ideas for the world.
Are you able to sum up your idea in a single sentence? What is your story? What makes your world special? The list of monsters for your world should support your vision for your world.
As a checklist, consider the following to make the monsters work in your world:
- The Monster Origins.
- Monster Motivations.
- Changing History.
- Monster Weaknesses.
- Story and Endgame.
Monster Motivations: The monster’s purpose may only be to be slain by the heroes, which may be fine, but at the risk of creating a shallow story. Any character in a story should have wants and needs (of course, two different things), which also applies to monsters.
The Blake Snyder Save the Cat! Beat Sheet, see Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat! Writes a Novel (2018), argued that the monsters of all “monster in the house” stories are rooted in sin, which should be an interesting can of worms. We find this idea in both Shadow and Bone and the origins of the darkspawn of Dragon Age. Or the Bible, undoubtedly.
Changing History: With origins and motivation in place, we should be able to review our world’s history and identify moments in time the monsters changed the world in some way.
When and why Smaug claim Erebor?
How did the Tevinter Empire change with the Fall of the Golden City?
How did the Darkling’s change and the Shadow Fold change Ravka, and how did his new power change him, his options, and the grisha’s place in society?
What changed when the king returned to Gondor and encountered the dead?
Note that individual monsters are always more interesting than stock monsters. For example, the Lord of the Nazgûl was the most powerful of the ringwraiths and a former king, the Witch-king of Angmar, and possibly a lord of Númenor. Note that inflating your story with fancy titles may backfire and make the whole thing overblown. However, when used with care, these things compound and add gravitas.
Monster Weaknesses: It a way, a monster is only as interesting as its weakness.
Cosmic horrors cannot be defeated and the inevitable doom can only be delayed. Perhaps the McGuffin needs to be dropped into a volcano, or is a specific weapon. The archdemon can only be permanently slain if a particular type of person is present.
Why was the darkspawn finally defeated at the end of the First Blight? Why is the ring so important to Sauron?
The monster’s weaknesses give the protagonists actions to perform and lead to the endgame. A true monster is always stronger but requires weaknesses for the protagonist to exploit, or there is no story.
Story and Endgame: Finally, or perhaps it should be first, is the story you want to tell and its endgame. The monsters you choose to include must challenge the characters throughout the story. Both the Balrog and the Witch-king defeated Gandalf, and the influence of Sauron could turn trusted friends into enemies. The darkspawn include very powerful individuals, posing credible threats to the end. There is always a bigger cosmic horror.
Types of Monsters? How Many Monsters?
The lists above are short. The challenge of creating an effective monster list is not finding creatures but making the right cuts. For every monster you add, you risk diluting your theme.
Types. Adding monsters to your world is about scope and depth, as with any other aspect of worldbuilding. The Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual (2014) or the Wikipedia of legendary creatures are great starting points, but you do not want to include everything.
Focusing on fewer species and adding variations and background will provide depth and storytelling possibilities that otherwise get lost in the crowd.
You may find eight darkspawn variations more useful than eight different new monsters if you are looking for focus and depth. You are building a society with those variants. Perhaps the monster is an individual with motives and emotions just like us.
A monster in a society is also more grounded and perhaps more scary than just a thing of unknown origins. There is also the realization that there may not be such a thing as a monstrous species.
How Many Monsters? The number of monsters appearing changes your world. If you’re telling a monster-of-the-week story, you need plenty of monsters and a large variety.
For instance, Buffy the Vampyre Slayer (1997) tv-series, one of my favorite stories of all time, had primarily weak villains. Which worked regardless because Buffy is a story about taking responsibility, finding family, and friendship.
A different take, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, starting with Storm Front (2000), has a vast menagerie of supernatural creatures drawn from folklore. Butcher introduces them gradually and firmly roots them in his story world. Sure there are creatures referred to as vampires. However, they have little resemblance with the Transylvanian undead cursed by God, and their motivations are probably too differentiated and complex to simply be written off as monsters.
Add mad wizards and cultists, opportunistic mercenaries, and old-fashioned greedy people in addition to the lists above. You will have the basic building blocks to tell an exciting story ready to go. Mundane protagonists will highlight the monsters and make the story more relatable.
This is why I would argue why Johnny Marcone of the Dresden Files, Denethor of the Lord of the Rings, and Mayor Richard Wilkins III of Sunnydale are the most exciting villains of their respective stories.
Show Us Your Monster List!
So, what do you think? What did I miss? Show us the monster list of your world!