Seven Traits to Make the Monster

I spent yesterday’s post talking about things that make a monster or equivalent thereof lose my respect. Since it’s my rule to try not to post don’ts without corresponding dos, here are some things that get that respect in the first place.

  1. Intelligence. Sure, this is an alien sort of creature, and I’m not sure I can comprehend its biology, let alone its thought processes. But just because I don’t quite get it doesn’t mean it doesn’t understand me to some degree, and at the very least I can’t fault its tactics. And it’s even scarier when it’s close to human, but not quite—and understands the difference better than I do.
  2. Visible signs of dangerousness. Note that visible doesn’t mean overblown. But things like natural weapons and size advantage are played up because they work, and nasty offensive powers pretty much go without saying. Then there are the really creepy powers like messing with people’s senses—if you’re looking for sheer terror rather than just a healthy respect, that’s the way to go.
  3. Signs of efficacy. While Point 2 is about visible signs of ability to do Unpleasant Things to an opponent, this is about doing or having already done such Unpleasant Things, particularly on something that really doesn’t look like much. So you might have signs like the corpses of those who came before, or NPCs reacting to them in ways ranging from a wary, grudging respect to gibbering panic, or just them coming up against a yardstick character and showing what they can do. One of my favorite examples is the vampire veggies from Ursula Vernon’s Digger; when they first show up, they really don’t seem capable of much beyond gnawing legs, but then they make their first kill….
  4. Description that leaves room for imagination. Yes, I know, a picture paints a thousand words. But on the other hand, it can be very, very hard to get an image as intimidating as the words that are supposed to get it across. People have imaginations for a reason; let them do the work for you, and you’ll end up with a more intimidating result than if you do it for yourself. (This goes triple with creatures that show signs of Should Not Possibly Exist.)
  5. Context. Sometimes a monster on its own isn’t quite going to do it. But if you stick it in its natural environment (or in the environment it feels like visiting right now), it gets a lot scarier. Take the gelatinous cube. If you look at the out-of-context picture, the one that looks like the Jell-O equivalent to the folksong “Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder”, it loses something. But when the only sign something’s off about the room you’re about to walk into is that the chairs aren’t touching the floor, but the person who just walked in ahead of you is muffled-screaming and can’t seem to back out and you don’t know why…. yeah. Context matters.
  6. Unfamiliarity. Put simply, if people don’t know what it is, it’s scarier. Or if people think they should know what it is, but it doesn’t quite fit with what they think it’s supposed to be. After all, if you don’t know what it is, you might have to engage in a bit of trial and error to figure out what to do about it, and that’s risky.
  7. Near-untouchability. For some monsters, the best offense actually is a good defense. If hardly anything hits them, or hardly anything that hits them really damages them, or hardly any damage stays on them, or the damage that stays on them doesn’t slow them down, that gets a bit intimidating.

Respect is a vital trait for a good serious monster. Make sure you know how to evoke it.

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