When I talk about monsters in Writing Monsters and elsewhere I tend to start by first explaining that when I say “monster” I mean some kind of non-human creature, some kind of unknown animal or other force, usually not terribly intelligent, and one that as often as not thinks of your human characters as prey in one for or another. In various courses I’ve taught before and since writing Writing Monsters I invariably encounter an author who has no interest in those kinds of monsters—the things that show up in D&D or Lovecraft—and instead see the scariest monster as a human with evil intentions.

Okay, I tend to respond, but in that case you’re actually using—and we all tend to do this from time to time—the word “monster” to dehumanize a particularly terrible person. By calling a serial murder or other aberrant fellow human a “monster” we carve that person out of the rest of civilized society, we cleave ourselves off from them. I am a human, he is a monster. But for me, the proper term there, at least in terms of talking about fiction in general and genre fiction in particular, is “villain.”

Trust me, I understand perfectly well that I am indeed mincing words here, but stick with me.

A villain is a person, or a non-human creature with the human traits of consciousness and individual agency, that does evil, that does the wrong thing on purpose, for any of an infinite number of reasons up to and including pure madness. A monster is a predatory animal (often rather loosely defining the word “animal”) we’ve never seen before. This makes Dracula, even though he’s a vampire, not a monster but a villain. Zombies that have no other thought in mind but to shamble around looking for someone to eat are monsters because though they might have once been human now they’ve lost their individual agency, their consciousness, souls… what have you. This is true even though both vampires and zombies share the human form and are both humans transformed into something unhuman or post-human in behavior, abilities, and so on.

Stephen King hit on this in his book Danse Macabre, in which he wrote: “All tales of horror can be divided into two groups: those in which the horror results from an act of free and conscious will—a conscious decision to do evil—and those in which the horror is predestinate, coming from outside like a stroke of lightning.”

For me, this is the difference between a villain and a monster. And don’t get me wrong, both can be terrifying. Here are examples of both, starting with a “monster,” or an evil that comes “from outside like a stroke of lightning.” For this, who better than H.P. Lovecraft to present a truly bizarre monster, an otherworldly evil of epic proportions, from his story “The Colour Out of Space”:

When they looked back toward the valley and the distant Gardner place at the bottom they saw a fearsome sight. All the farm was shining with the hideous unknown blend of colour; trees, buildings, and even such grass and herbage as had not been wholly changed to lethal grey brittleness. The boughs were all straining skyward, tipped with tongues of foul flame, and lambent tricklings of the same monstrous fire were creeping about the ridgepoles of the house, barn, and sheds. It was a scene from a vision of Fuseli, and over all the rest reigned that riot of luminous amorphousness, that alien and undimensioned rainbow of cryptic poison from the well—seething, feeling, lapping, reaching, scintillating, straining, and malignly bubbling in its cosmic and unrecognisable chromaticism.

Then without warning the hideous thing shot vertically up toward the sky like a rocket or meteor, leaving behind no trail and disappearing through a round and curiously regular hole in the clouds before any man could gasp or cry out. No watcher can ever forget that sight, and Ammi stared blankly at the stars of Cygnus, Deneb twinkling above the others, where the unknown colour had melted into the Milky Way. But his gaze was the next moment called swiftly to earth by the crackling in the valley. It was just that. Only a wooden ripping and crackling, and not an explosion, as so many others of the party vowed. Yet the outcome was the same, for in one feverish, kaleidoscopic instant there burst up from that doomed and accursed farm a gleamingly eruptive cataclysm of unnatural sparks and substance; blurring the glance of the few who saw it, and sending forth to the zenith a bombarding cloudburst of such coloured and fantastic fragments as our universe must needs disown. Through quickly re-closing vapours they followed the great morbidity that had vanished, and in another second they had vanished too. Behind and below was only a darkness to which the men dared not return, and all about was a mounting wind which seemed to sweep down in black, frore gusts from interstellar space. It shrieked and howled, and lashed the fields and distorted woods in a mad cosmic frenzy, till soon the trembling party realised it would be no use waiting for the moon to shew what was left down there at Nahum’s.

Looking for examples as far to the ends of this spectrum between villain and monster, here’s the internal or personal evil from one of the most terrifying novels ever written, and one that features no supernatural elements at all. Patrick Bateman, Bret Easton Ellis’s perfectly-drawn psychopath from American Psycho, is all too real, all too human:

I take the Wayfarers off and hand them to him. Maybe I really did kill Solly, though I’m positive that any cabdrivers I’ve killed lately were not American. I probably did. There probably is a wanted poster of me at… where, the taxi—the place where all the taxis congregate? What’s it called? The driver tries the sunglasses on, looks at himself in the rearview mirror and then takes them off. He folds the glasses and puts them in his jacket pocket.

You’re a dead man.” I smile grimly at him.

“And you’re a yuppie scumbag,” he says.

“You’re a dead man, Abdullah,” I repeat, no joke. “Count on it.”

“Yeah? And you’re a yuppie scumbag. Which is worse?”

He starts the cab up and pulls away from me.

While walking back to the highway I stop, choke back a sob, my throat tightens. “I just want to…” Facing the skyline, through all the baby talk, I murmur, “keep the game going.” As I stand, frozen in position, an old woman emerges behind a Threepenny Opera poster at a deserted bus stop and she’s homeless and begging, hobbling over, her face covered with sores that look like bugs, holding out a shaking red hand. “Oh will you please go away?” I sigh. She tells me to get a haircut.

What made American Psycho such a terrifying masterpiece, and why I described Patrick Bateman as a perfectly-drawn psychopath can be seen in the equal weight given to any particular random detail in the mind of a man unable to experience empathy or real human connection. He’s only sort of upset when he feels he’s being dismissed, but surrounding that are the otherwise unnecessary details of the brand of sunglasses, his frustration at not knowing what you call the places taxis are dispatched from, or the specific show being advertised on the poster. Did he kill this particular cabdriver? That doesn’t register in any way more significant than that the homeless woman tells him to get a haircut.

Now that’s a villain.


—Philip Athans



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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Joy Pixley says:

    This is the kind of mincing words that I enjoy. Defining terms precisely helps us think and communicate more effectively about writing and writing analysis. Hear, hear!

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