I enjoy designing ‘em. Whether they’re monsters that are of vital relevance to the plot or ambient creatures vaguely mentioned in passing, I have a thing for them. This may be due to my background in biology, or my general love of animals, or simply because beasties are cool – I know I find things like the xenomorph from the Alien franchise rather beautiful in a way, and the lesser known moorwen from 2008 sci-fi film Outlander is a fascinating creature.
Monsters and such things primarily show up in three main branches of fiction: scifi, fantasy, and horror – all of which are genres I both read and write in, so it’s only natural that I end up designing a fair amount of them (often to levels of entirely unnecessary and likely-never-to-be-used detail).
I’m not going to go through my entire design process step by step, as that’s an article for another day (and may take some time, with complex diagrams, sketches I can’t do myself, and many thousands of words), so instead I’m going to talk about one of the examples from my own work and how I approached its design.
“The Misericorde’s Serpent”
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“The creature moved too fast for Baen to get a good look at it, but as it darted past us and rushed towards the window I got the impression of dark hair or feathers with skin like black, exposed muscle, larger than even a charr, patches of sinew glowing here and there on its body with a fell green light. I couldn’t imagine how it had managed to tuck its bulk under the bed, but as it burst through the window, a skeletal, whip-like tail trailing behind it, neither Baen nor I had time or inclination to ask any questions.”
” cite=”Raven van Dijk,
“City of the Chimera”” parallax=”off” direction=”left” revealfx=”off”]
Early on City of the Chimera, my protagonist encounters a monster that she’s never heard of – much less encountered before. It becomes an important element of the story, playing a key role in later chapters.
While I can’t reveal too much about it(for fear of spoiling things), it went by the working name “The Misericorde’s Serpent”, or simply “The Serpent” for a long time in my notes and though it changed in design as I planned things, I originally based its design on a combination of traits from various sources.
Inspiration began with the vague concept of a skinless, feline creature where the spine was essentially the exposed, writhing skeleton of a snake instead of a healthy mammalian back. I wanted an undead carcass combined with an alien monster.
From there I expanded on the idea, fuelled by what I wanted it to do in the story – it had to be strong, fast, and nigh-indestructible, but I wanted it to retain a sort of unpleasant elegance. A large, flayed thing, maybe, but sleek in its movements – more like a great cat than a bear in general vibe. Something that oozed a subtle, sinuous lethality.
I eventually settled on a basic skeletal structure, leaving as few things to “because magic” as I could, and there’s plenty of information in my notes that were of no relevance to the story – its juvenile form and growth, its method of locomotion (facultative bipedalism, for those who are interested), inherent weaknesses, and other things like theoretical top speed, weight, and so on. Fun stuff, maybe not directly useful, but fun.
Deciding what sounds it would make was easy – I wanted to steer away from roars as its call, but instead wanted a high-pitched shriek to contrast its bulk but compliment its sinister sleekness. It’s a monster that screams and hisses instead of bellows – more menacing and subtle, in my eyes, and while I’m not convinced that the creature is terrifying to read about (City of the Chimera was not written as a horror novel, after all) I wanted the characters to be unsettled and frightened of the beast.
After that, it was a matter of basically picking out the colours (green and black), filling out some details like what could and would stop it in the story, what it would actually do to serve the plot, and what character’s reactions to it would be. How would they see it? What would they think? Things like that.
Behaviour was a major factor to consider in design, but to explain why it does what it does here would again be another spoiler, so instead I’m going to end it here.
If you’d like to read City of the Chimera and actually see the beastie in action, the entire story is available to read over at Chronicles of Tyria.