It's Not About the Monsters
This is an essay I wrote a few years ago for Locus magazine, since revised, though I still very much stand by these words. When I tell people I’ve written fantasies, many inevitable respond with, “But how do you do that? How do you keep inventing new creatures and worlds?” And I tell them that you don’t focus on the newfangled creatures, you focus on characters. You concern yourself with people. That’s how you create a true connection with others—on the page, over distances, through time.
It’s Not About The Monsters
I have to admit that I didn’t even know if there was a market for what I was writing when I began the Signs of the Zodiac series. I had this a bare-knuckled heroine, a mouthy first-person narrative, and an urban setting that embodied the gritty darkness of the noir fiction that I read and so loved. And then there were those supernatural beings who’d popped up, mushrooming on the page as if waiting for optimal conditions. The truth is, I never chose to write about superheroes. They chose me.
So when I’m asked “Why superheroes?” as if I was baking a paranormal cake and needed to measure out ingredients in order to get it right, my reply is almost always disappointing. I thought I was simply writing a story about a woman with a dark past and an uncertain future. Since my only job was to follow wherever the ‘What ifs…’ chose to take me—since I’d recently decided that I was going to write whether I was ever published or not—when a mere side character popped up to declare himself ‘super’ on the page (and as he’d just survived being struck by my heroine’s car, it was pretty clear he was right)—I decided to follow this beady-eyed bum in sore need of a bath and shave … and found out that he was right. He was a superhero. One cheesy throwaway line later, and my budding series had been turned completely on its head.
Yet I think what people really mean when they ask me this question is why didn’t I write about vampires (especially) or werewolves (often) or witches (also tried and true)? Yet I’ve never written specifically to genre, much less followed trends. I’d been working on my writing for eight years by this point on CompuServe’s Books&Writers forum, schooled along with other budding writers (an inordinate number of whom have gone on to be publisher; it was extremely fertile ground) on how to be a professional writer. We watched the working writers as they conducted their daily lives—in particular Diana Gabaldon, who has always been extremely accessible (though is likely less so now).
I mimicked those writers. (How? Write daily. Read widely. Don’t stop.). I clearly also mimicked Gabaldon’s ‘Write it and they will come’ approach to a series. I mean, what is Outlander? Where do you shelve those books? She didn’t even know, she didn’t care, and so I didn’t care, either, and just believed, “If you write something that’s good, it will be published.”
Back to the monsters.
Fantastical or not, it’s easy to recognize an author who is passionate about the characters peopling their world. It’s equally transparent when something like a vampire is thrown in merely because the conventions are already cemented in a readers mind. (Dark – check. Brooding – check. Fangs – double check.) Twisting myths to create something new is one thing, but plugging a monster into a plot hole is quite simply cheap. As my entree into urban fantasy was a fortuitous accident—remember, I didn’t know where this book would be shelved, either—I was a bit mind-boggled to find myself a part of a cultural shift in reading that resulted in a demand for hot chicks in leather and a penchant for attracting all things that go Bump.
All I know is that along with Harrison and Hamilton, Butcher and Harris (and why God, didn’t I create a pen name starting with the letter ‘H’?) readers discovered a genre that had something fresh to say about the human condition. Urban settings, the most tangible window dressing in a twenty-first century life, became characters in themselves. The myth-twisting was fun … a wizard P.I. solving supernatural crimes in modern-day Chicago? Yes, please! Female driven stories where the women weren’t devices to provide a male protag with agency? Hell yes!
But a half-vamp-half-wolf with fairy wings who’s been bitten by a zombie while having sex – all for the sake of creating a ‘new’ monster? Frankly, that makes me want to bite someone.
Because it ain’t about the monsters.
We read for a specific character’s journey. We want to explore the world’s pitfalls along with someone we care about. And just as most people want to recognize the person reflected back in their morning mirror, when a reader gazes into the pages of a book, they too want to catch a glimpse of themselves. After all, the ‘self’ (as exemplified by a Twitter-mad society) is everyone’s favorite subject. If all you show the readers are the monsters on the page, that connection is obliterated.
Yet create a person with shiny new facets, one re-imagined, and up against unthinkable odds (prior to your having thought of them, of course) and now you have stakes strong enough to pull words from a page and tuck them into the gray matter for later examination. I wanted my readers to think of my first protagonist, Joanna Archer, whenever they saw a flicker of movement in their rearview mirror, or better yet, when they’re brushing their teeth – baring them – and they are forced to pause. Show someone the monster lurking within them, and you’ve tapped into a very real way of dealing with an unreal world. Ambiguity lurks deep inside all of us, and our job as writers is to slide an ink-tipped finger alongside that raw emotion. Suddenly a mythical and multicultural archetype – like a vampire or shape-shifter, or a hero who shows up when you need them – has a place of relevance in the modern world.
It can be tempting for any writer to chase what’s hot. But developing monsters that play to reader expectation is the least creative way to work. Doing so undermines the writer’s passion, the reader’s intelligence, and prevents fresh fables from being born.
Short-change your readers like that, and don’t be surprised if their inner monsters rear up and bite back.