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S2/E20: Writing Monsters by Philip Athans

Updated: Aug 1, 2021

Hello – and welcome to Season 2 Episode 20 of The Rookie Writer Show! I’m Robin Knabel, and I will be your host today. I am a horror and speculative fiction author, and I love monsters! You can find me on Twitter @LaConteuse and at Robin Knabel on Instagram.

This week, we’re reviewing Writing Monsters: How to Craft Believably Terrifying Creatures to Enhance Your Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction by Philip Athans. It was published in 2014 by Writer’s Digest Books.

The author, Philip Athans, is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and has written more than a dozen other books. He is well known for writing the novelizations of the first Baldur’s Gate computer games. He is also a freelance editor, ghostwriter, and publishing consultant at Athans & Associates. You can find him on Twitter @PhilAthans and http://www.athansassociates.com/.

I had my eye on this book for a while, and it kept peeking out at me from the shelf every time I visited the bookstore. I finally gave in to it, and I am so pleased that I did. As I read this book, I found myself jotting down a lot of notes for some of my own stories. The ideas he shared as well as the examples really got my brain working, and I came up with some great ideas to use to enhance the monsters in my stories.

Philip Athans includes a lot of great excerpts and examples throughout his book from different classics such as Cujo, Jaws, King Kong, Frankenstein, and numerous H.P. Lovecraft tales. He also includes a tool, a monster creation form to help you flesh out your monster and all of its details.

I am going to discuss three tips and one hack from the many categories that Athans mentions to help you create a plausible monster.

Three Things

1. PHOBIAS – What makes a monster scary? There is a wide variety of monsters out there. There are creatures based in reality, such as Jaws. Creatures that lurk in outer space, like the organisms in Alien that feed on the ship’s crew. Sometimes the monster is human. Perhaps it’s a loving family pet turned bad. Does Cujo ring a bell for anyone – or maybe Church the cat from Pet Sematary? I get chills just thinking about him. No matter what the monster is, it has attributes that create fear in the reader. Philip Athans suggests studying your readers’ deepest fears and injecting them into your monstrous creations. A few of the top 10 phobias ring true for most people – Arachnophobia, Claustrophobia, and Acrophobia. These three are quite common, and most certainly there are many more you can use to prey upon your readers’ fears. A favorite of mine that Athans mentions is Richard Matheson’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” The main character suffers from a fear of flying, which is aggravated by a monster outside his plane window ripping off pieces of the wing. This story became one of the most famous episodes of The Twilight Zone. Using phobias isn’t the only way to make your monsters scary, though, and Athans does a great job laying out other suggestions and guidelines you can follow.

2. WEAKNESS – Your story isn’t going to be much of a thriller if the monster comes in, kills everyone, and then goes on its merry way. Athans quotes Lynn Abbey who stated “Unless the writer intends for the monster to be the ‘last man standing’ after the climax, it’s going to need a weakness and the characters are going to have to exploit it.” It will be more satisfying to the reader, too, if the characters hurt or dispose of the monster through actions they have had to think through versus a lucky shot with a blaster, for example. The weakness of the monster is what gives your hero (or heroes) a fighting chance in the end. Allow your characters to be intelligent and resourceful. Also, be sure to make the weakness well thought out and fitting for the monster. A note to remember: a monster’s limitations are the furthest extent of its powers, not its weakness.

3. CLICHÉ – “What makes anything cliché is a lack of imagination, care, and plausibility.” Athans says that what keeps your monster from “becoming a cliché depends on how much originality, effort, and creativity you put into it.” He continues by saying the worst cliché is when you copy something you love without any real understanding of why everyone else loved it. You can look to your favorites and take note of how they were constructed and what makes the monsters so beloved by readers, but then go a step further. Think of why those monsters scare you. You can combine common fears and the traits of one or more real animals into your creation. Build off myths and folklore, scour the darkest recesses of your mind for inspiration. In the end, though, be original. Don’t follow trends in the hope for success. By the time you complete and edit your story, that trend might be done. Trust in your own ideas, and by all means use your imagination.

The hack for this book is an homage to Dungeons & Dragons, a game fraught with monsters of all temperaments, shapes, sizes, and skill levels.

*Hack – Role playing games, better known as RPGs, can be fun and effective sources of inspiration when creating a monster, especially in terms of balancing out its powers, weaknesses, showing how it moves, even its speed. Athans discusses Richard Baker, an RPG creator, whose rule of thumb is that a good monster needs “an offense, a defense, and a utility feature.” Athans includes a detailed example of this, which I found to be helpful. He also believes you should keep a detailed list of your monster’s traits to make sure you stay consistent throughout your story since, as he says, “consistency is king” at making your monster believable.

This book weighs in at 217 pages, and it was an easy and enjoyable read. When I finished it, I was ready to sit down and flesh out more details on the monsters in my current works in progress. If you are working on a book that needs a well-rounded, believable monster, I highly suggest picking up a copy of Writing Monsters by Philip Athans.


I hope this was helpful to you and that you allow your imagination to run wild. Let those monsters come to life! Next week, I will be back to review the Masterclass Dan Brown Teaches Writing Thrillers. I know I cannot wait to hear what he has to say.

In other news: Dair and I recently posted a new episode of our new podcast, Unsettling Reads. Come check out our spoiler-free review of Raymond Fleishmann’s How Quickly She Disappears and browse our other reviews of books from the crime, fantasy, horror, literary, mystery, sci-fi, suspense, and thriller genres. You can find it all at www.UnsettlingReads.com.

Until then. . .

Happy writing, people!

Robin Knabel

Check Out these other books by Philip Athans

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