I want to write a story about fantasy monsters but I’m finding it hard to make it recognizable with all the rules and such while making it original. Do you think this is possible?
I think it’s absolutely possible. You need to decide if you’re working with something, “real,” or if you’re inventing your creatures wholesale. Once you’ve made that decision, you’ll have a better path towards shaping your creatures.
If your monster is coming from some real world inspiration, you’ll have a wealth of literature to dig through. Pick any mythical creature, and you can read up on them.
There are two major warnings here:
First: Some creatures cross multiple cultures, and there are significant discrepancies between how they function between them. The excellent examples are vampires and dragons, which have many real world myths, and those myths are often contradictory.
Second: Some creatures have very specific cultural contexts which you probably want to have a concrete grasp of before you start playing around with them. The two examples that come to mind immediately are Skinwalkers and Wendigo (from First Nations myths.) These are not analogous to European Werewolves (and not analogous to one another.) So, if you’re looking for a creature, absolutely do you reading, but if you don’t understand how this creature fit into that culture, you might want to keep looking.
If you’re wanting to make your own creature, that’s where things get interesting. More than that, if you did the research suggested above, you have a head start here.
Nothing says the monsters in your world need to conform to the conventional creature lists. They don’t need to be recognizable, compared to someone else’s fiction. You do have the freedom to make your own monsters.
When you’re writing a monster, you’ll want to have an idea what kind of rules you’re working under. While you don’t need to explain these to your audience (and may not want to), you will need this for personal use.
You can break fictional monsters into roughly three categories: Mundane, Supernatural, and Mythological (or Folklore.)
Mundane creatures are simply animals (potentially very intelligent ones) that inhabit your world.
If your dragons are just massive lizards, with no magical powers, they would be mundane. If your werewolves are just normal humans who have been mutated by a virus, and can’t transform, that would be mundane.
Mundane doesn’t mean it can’t be interesting. It simply means that there’s a non-supernatural explanation for the creatures that inhabit your world.
Mundane fantasy can be interesting. There’s no mystical explanation for the elves and minotaurs inhabiting your world, they’re simply there.
When you’re looking at mundane monsters, you need to consider them as part of the local ecology. Yes, a race of massive, carnivorous lizards would be monstrous, they’d be a danger, but one that a sufficiently advanced civilization could plan around.
Limitations and weaknesses for mundane creatures should fit their status as living animals. You might see a nocturnal creature that has excellent night vision, but poor diurnal vision.
Mundane monsters are the cryptids of your world. They’re elusive, hard to find, and if you do finally identify it, it’s probably a crocodile, because those little bastards like to teleport.
Supernatural monsters break rules for conventional reality. Your werewolves aren’t mutated by a virus, they really are mystical shapeshifters. Your elves aren’t just another humanoid native to the world, they really are magical beings. Your minotaurs might be the result of a wizard’s human-hybrid research program centuries ago.
Where mundane creatures are limited by conventional reality, supernatural ones might exhibit behaviors, or powers, that are impossible to rationalize.
The rules for these creatures are open to the author to create. Now, obviously, if you’re starting with a conventional fantasy creature, some of this may already be completed for you.
Creatures that can go invisible, levitate, psychically manipulate their victims, shapeshift, conjure and control elements, and many other potential powers would be supernatural in nature.
Limitations for supernatural creatures are likely to be a function of the kinds of powers they wield. I realize that might sound obvious, but it’s worth remembering the limits of magic in your setting, and then tying similar limits into your supernatural creatures.
It’s also possible that supernatural monsters might specifically bypass certain limits which affect your world’s characters. For example, if it’s impossible for magic to heal wounds in your world, you might still see a monster with the ability to heal itself or others. Obviously, in setting, that’s a very big deal, and probably something that mages and academics would want to study.
Incidentally, if we’re talking about aliens, they’d end up on the mundane end of the spectrum. Even if they have technology that’s difficult (or impossible) to understand, they’re still a function of the universe, and not a whim of magic. (Though, if your aliens are space wizards, then everything gets a little strange.)
The last variety are mythological or folklore. I probably shouldn’t bundle these into a single header, because they do behave in slightly different ways. The important thing about a mythological monster is that’s it’s not just, “a monster.” It’s a character in the myths it comes from. It’s powers and limitations are a reflection of who it was in those myths. More than that, it has a role in the belief system that created it.
For example: when you’re talking about Jormungandr, that’s not just, “a dragon.” It’s a harbinger of the end times. More than that, it’s a harbinger of an apocalypse that already happened. This isn’t “a monster,” it’s “a monstrous character.” If your minotaur is “The Minotaur,” condemned to the Labyrinth of Crete, that’s a character with their own history and eventual fate at Theseus’s hands.
There’s a lot of room to play with mythological figures, but you’ll really want to read up on those myths, and the culture that created them.
If you want to create your own mythic background for your world, you’ll want to start by reading up on actual myths. Every major civilization has created their own myths (to one extent or another), and digging into this stuff can be very instructive for how those cultures viewed their world. Pay special attention to just how off-the-walls-bonkers everything becomes.
Folklore is similar to myth. In some cases, folklore overlaps with myth. The distinction (I’m choosing to make) is that monsters in folklore are more about enforcing cultural norms and discourages taboos.
One, classic, example of monster in folklore is the vampire. Now, I’m going to be a little reductive here because nearly every form of vampire can be boiled down to, “corpses are weird.” With that said, a lot of vampire folklore is about the proper handling and disposal of corpses, specifically with things going wrong if a corpse is mishandled.
Usually, if your monster has very explicit rules, they’re a folklore creature. If they can’t cross running water, or enter an abode uninvited, that’s folklore.
As with myth, folklore gets really wild, and so you can end up with really elaborate rules, where a creature needs to be in a certain state at a certain time of day, or something goes very wrong for them. Vampires are one of the most common folklore monsters in popular culture, that’s fully separated from myth, which is why I used them as an example above.
Slightly more problematic, but certainly a, “creature,” of folklore, are witches and hags. These are an excellent illustration of how you can blend across multiple genres with your story.
A witch could be a simple alchemist. In this case, I don’t even mean, “alchemy,” as a magical discipline, I simply mean, “alchemy,” as a precursor to chemistry. You have a character who is entirely mundane, but spends their time picking medicinal herbs, which the general population doesn’t understand.
A witch could be a magical practitioner, potentially even an inhuman one. This links into the suggestion above where magic doesn’t heal wounds, but a witch might be able to achieve that feat.
A witch could be a mythical figure. Russia’s Baba Yaga comes to mind as an example, though there are many more examples all over the world. Again, these are specific characters, so if your writing a character interacting with Hecate, you might want to read up on your Greek myths.
In myth and folklore, witches become a very complicated subject, because you’re looking at creatures (or powerful beings), which need to be treated carefully. They can offer powerful boons, but also are incredibly dangerous.
Related to myth and folklore are the concepts of geasa and curses. This is one of the reasons you want to be careful with these kinds of creatures. They may have the ability to apply either one to your characters.
Geasa (singular: gaes), are restrictions applied to someone. They may be required to perform some action, or prohibited from violating some taboo. Failure to do so could have dire consequences. Usually, the geas also comes with a boon of some sort, and violating the terms will break the spell.
A classic example of a Gaes is Cu Chulainn (from Irish myth), who had (at least) two. First he was prohibited from eating dog, and second he was obligated to accept food served to him by a woman. A crone (The Morrigan) intentionally served him dog meat, breaking his powers, and leaving him vulnerable ahead of a battle.
Curses are a little easier to keep track of. Something bad happens to the recipient. There may be a built in way to break the curse, requiring some specific feat. In many cases, those feats are designed to appear impossible.
The consequences of a curse could easily lead to supernatural monsters, separated from their mythic origins. For a pop culture example, Vampires in Vampire: The Masquerade are descended from (the Biblical) Cain. Cain is the first vampire, and a mythical figure. The vampires wandering around the 21st century are merely supernatural creatures.
Once you have an idea of the kind of creature you want, get out a notepad, and sketch out the power and rules you want to work with. For mundane creatures, it should look more like a zoological writeup.
Example: “The common minotaur lives in the lowlands, foraging for food in small tribes.”
For supernatural creatures, you’ll probably want to look at a short list of powers. Try to balance these powers against what you want from them in the context of your setting.
Example: “The Moorian Newt: amphibious, limited mind control. The newt frequently preys upon travelers who wander into the moors at night, using it’s ability to draw them into deeper waters, where it quickly drowns and consumes them.”
When you’re writing a mythic figure, that’s going to be more of a character biography. Possibly with some powers added in to keep things coherent.
With folklore, you’re looking at a writeup that will probably get a little out of hand. These can be fairly straightforward, but you can also engage in some pretty intricate whimsy.
Again, if you’ve never spent much time looking at myth and folklore, I strongly recommend you do some reading on the subject. The pure level of, “weird,” is hard to articulate.
Once you’ve written out some rules, and fleshed out your monsters, you’ve got a very important decision to make, how much do you share with the audience?
If your character is dealing with a common creature, one well understood and studied in the setting, then your character should have easy access to that information. Even if a creature is uncommon or rare, if it’s a normal part of the world, it’s probably been studied, and that information may be out there.
An excellent example of this behavior is The Witcher, where there’s in-setting scholarly research on the post-conjunction creatures wandering The Continent. The Witchers study that research, and supplement it with their own experiences. It is an excellent template for how you can handle a universe where monsters (including ones with complicated rules and behaviors) are a natural part of the setting. (Even if they are supernatural in nature.)
Except: Back near the beginning, I said you might not want to explain the rules to the audience. It’s an important choice to the kind of story you’re writing. Is this fantasy, or is it horror?
If your character is an expert in monsters, they might be able to identify the creature they’re dealing with and articulate the rules. However, if they’re not an expert, they might have no idea what the creature can do. Similarly, even if they are are a professional, they may still need to determine exactly what they’re dealing with (again, The Witcher is an excellent reference back to this point.)
In horror, there’s a real incentive to keep the full capabilities of your monster unknown. This can be through mistaking one creature for another, or mistaking a mythical creature for its supernatural counterpart (if the supernatural version is known to exist.) In the end, you’ll probably want your audience to have a grasp of the creature’s limitations, but you might never clue them in.
It’s important to have access to the rules for your own use. It is far less important that your characters (and by extension, the audience) has that information.
One final thing you may want to consider, if you’re creating a monster and it’s unrecognizable from the inspiration you started with, that’s not a problem. You’ve created a new monster. You can still use the old name (if you want), or you can call it something new.
I’ve said it before, my favorite, “vampire,” movie is Ravenous (1999). If you’ve watched it, right now you’re probably thinking, “there’s no vampires in that.” And, you would be correct; it’s about cannibals empowered by evil spirits. Except, structurally, it’s a vampire movie. The part where the monsters are distinct enough from vampires is a benefit, not a flaw. It helps keep the audience off-balance, it helps create an unfamiliar tone. It’s a fantastic film, and part of what elevates it is its willingness to eject vampirism when it doesn’t benefit the film’s themes.
So, yes, I believe it can be done. You can populate your worlds with new monsters of your own design. You can also sample myths and folklore for inspiration. You can invent your own creatures. The only secret is, “write it down,” which you should be doing anyway. Not everything you write will end up in your audience’s hands, so having a reference guide for yourself can be incredibly useful.