A Monster Is Only As Good As Its Victim

30 10 2012

Think of Dracula. Now think of any other monster either in print or TV or movies, video games, whatever.
What do you know about any of the permutations of Dracula, novel or movie versions? Evil, sexy, an indomitable will, holy water, cunning, that whole schmeer. Now let’s take that random other critter, I’ll say Jason from “Friday the 13th.” He’s evil, unstoppable, violently prudish against teens.
Who is scarier?
Has to be Dracula.
We’ve seen Dracula in action against sympathetic victims. Mina Harker and her bff Lucy Westenra were burgeoning young modern women, intelligent, filled with life. Jonathan Harker was a devoted, smart, ambitious young citizen. Van Helsing was well-educated, creative, and had a passion for the truth no matter where it led.
The three of them added together had admirable qualities, any one of which would be formidable against a normal human. Together, they comprised a mirror to Dracula’s own qualities.
What if you combined Mina, Jonathan, and Van Helsing together into one character? The immediate answer would be Buffy. A not-so-immediate answer would be Clarice Starling from “Silence of the Lambs”. Hannibal Lecter is Dracula without the sex; one could argue he is the perfect Dracula for the U.S. ‘90’s in that he was affluent, educated, ruthless, sexless, and fighting for European values like old school etiquette and well-played piccolos.
Buffy herself would be a bit vulnerable without the Scooby Gang, which was Whedon’s intention. He wanted a series with dramatic human relationships.
I realize this meanders a bit, but stay with me. A monster has to have challenges to overcome, just like a protagonist. Otherwise, you end up with Jason who kills unmemorable or annoying teens, with the only variety being how Guignol those deaths can be made. Monsters need challenges, vulnerabilities, and a hierarchy of needs. This makes the monster perversely sympathetic and more memorable.
Few writers put their monsters at risk. It can be a challenge to have a creature be thwarted, and still maintain suspense.
Has anyone thought of “Alien” or the sequels yet? Those Xenomorphs weren’t gonna quit. They want to reproduce and kill off whatever mammals they need to get those kids going. But they hid when they had to. They were sneaky when outgunned.
We know this because Ripley showed us through her determination and smarts when she fought them every step of the way through way-too-many movies.
Imagine what other lesser classic monsters would have to do to step up to Ripley. The Wolfman? The Creature? The original Mummy? They’d need new qualities to level the field, and those qualities would have brought them up from visually iconic to actual fearsomeness.
Yeah, yeah, zombies would be a challenge for Ripley, or Starling, or Van Helsing, but only because zombies work through strength of numbers. Those three would end up like Michonne in “The Walking Dead”, which is why she and Rick are such powerful characters.
So, for me, when I design a new monster I want to keep all this in mind. I have some old stories which editors told me had neat monsters, but were not engaging. Now I see I didn’t give the victims a fighting chance and make those monsters work harder.