Storytelling

Should You Use a Monster or a Villain in Your Story?

Return of the Black Company by Glen Cook

Villains and monsters are both antagonists. However, they serve different purposes and provide their own flavor to stories.

To illustrate why you might use one over the other, I’ll use the Chronicles of the Black Company by Glen Cook as a case study. The series follows a mercenary company of the same name as they encounter many dangerous foes. I will be discussing Soul Catcher and The Dominator, a villain and monster respectively.

Spoiler Warning: Chronicles of the Black Company

How Are They Different?

Villains are generally human – or human-like, at any rate. As a result, they have relatable qualities, goals, motivations, and personalities. Soul Catcher has a great many qualities that make her a relatable, though ignoble, character. She is driven to beat her twin sister, Lady, who has been more successful than her. In one arc, she kidnaps Lady’s paramour Croaker. She does this for several reasons, but two of them are notable. Firstly, she wants to spite Lady and take what she has.  Secondly, she is lonely and desires human companionship. These qualities don’t belong to your average monster.

Villains can also interact with characters non-violently. In one scene, Soul Catcher confronts her enemy, The Limper. Rather than fight him, she merely tells him that his boss, Lady, found out that he left the city he was supposed to be guarding. He leaves in a hurry, knowing that he is in serious trouble. Of course, Soul Catcher encouraged some rebels to start a riot during his absence, ensuring his punishment.

Monsters, on the other hand, are, well, monstrous. Most are much larger than humans – either as a single body, or in combined mass, like a swarm of locusts. Most of them don’t bother with trying to look human, instead bulking up into beast-like, threatening shapes.

Of course, monster isn’t a cut and dried definition – it’s a sliding scale. At one end is a monster that has all of the monstrous traits. I consider Jaws to be a very “pure” monster. Jaws only wants to eat ocean enthusiasts, communicates with his teeth, and doesn’t look human. At the other end, we have antagonists that have both villainous and monstrous qualities. Pennywise from Stephen King’s It is one such example. It is wholly inhuman in its true appearance, feeding is a priority, and generating fear is a major quality. However, it also communicates non-violently, and is motivated to harm the main characters out of spite rather than hunger. Pennywise has traits from both ends of the spectrum, and it makes for an interesting antagonist.

Monsters are usually so inhuman or aberrant it is hard, if not impossible, to relate to them in any meaningful way. The Dominator is a god-like wizard that drives the Black Company and other major characters to action. He interacts with the characters much like a natural disaster, indiscriminately destroying everything in his path. His goal is to control everything. If he can’t control it, he destroys it. He never communicates with the protagonists in a meaningful fashion, nor do his motives seem to be anything beyond a lust for power.

When Should You Use a Villain?

When you want fully developed, interesting characters, use a villain. Soul Catcher is complicated and intriguing. One scene highlights her love of chaos and cruelty in particular. Soul Catcher and the Black Company must work together to defeat a powerful wizard known as Raker. She finds him, but does not kill him. Instead, she enchants an altar with a powerful magic aura. Underneath the altar is a wealth of gold and gems. She writes upon the altar that anyone who places the head of Raker on it can have the treasure trove the aura protects. Word passes quickly, and the city begins to tear itself apart to get at the treasure. She later tells Croaker that she cares little whether Raker actually lives or dies. Instead, she wanted to sow fear and discord among the rebels, break their will, and humiliate Raker. Bringing chaos to Raker’s city was an enjoyable bonus.

If you want your protagonists to develop, a villain can catalyze character change. A villain can interact with characters in a more nuanced way than monsters. A hero who converses with a villain might find their dedication to their ideals stronger than they thought – or they may find themselves tempted. Soul Catcher and Croaker have a dynamic relationship that changes from employer, to foe, to captor. In one scene, she terrifies Croaker into silence after she murders the Hanged Man, making him reconsider his relationship with her.

If you want to contrast the qualities of your hero, you need a villain. Contrast is useful because it can highlight the strong traits of any character. While they are both violent and capable wizards, Lady and Soul Catcher are quite different. Lady represents order, and runs her government efficiently. When she joins the Black Company, she integrates well with the military structure. Soul Catcher is a being of chaos. She sows discord, tries to break apart the Black Company on several occasions, and seeks to topple governments by sowing confusion and violence.

A few well-placed villains can make a story’s setting seem more natural. Your protagonists should not exist in a vacuum unless you want to create a very detailed character study. If they are the only movers and shakers in your setting, things are going to get stale quickly. Adding another character is like adding another colored strand to a weave. A wider range of colors makes for a more realistic, and interesting, picture. I’d get bored of The Black Company if it focused solely on Soul Catcher, but the series has more than a few competing villains. Each one brings something new and exciting to the story.

Villains make for better reoccurring characters. Most heroes aren’t murderous, and villains are close enough to people that they can’t getting away with just shooting them in the face. Considering the Black Company consists of a great many violently-inclined soldiers, they serve as a bad example here, but imagine if Superman punted Lex Luthor into space. That would make it difficult for Luthor to come back and bother Superman. Instead, Superman has to deal with Luthor in a non-lethal fashion, allowing him to become a reoccurring character. For a longer series, it’s easier to use a reoccurring villain than create new ones for every arc. That being said, you should have a stable of villains to draw from.

When Should You Use a Monster?

When you want to focus on the major characters, a monster is a good choice. Because monsters are simpler antagonists, they shine a spotlight on the heroes and their efforts. Very little time is spent explaining what Dominator is like or why he is that way. Instead, focus is spent on more interesting characters, such as Raven and Croaker, and their journey to defeat him. Monsters cannot carry the story like a villain can; they need strong heroes to fight. Those heroes will have plenty of space to develop as characters without the monster upstaging them.

Instead of adding tension, as villains can, monsters add threat. They provide a more straightforward motivation than a villain. That’s why they are more common in horror stories. Sure, villains can invoke fear, but it comes more naturally to monsters. It’s easier to be scared of something you can’t relate to, and their large scale frequently makes them very dangerous. Soul Catcher’s plots threaten the Black Company, but the Dominator threatens everyone. If he rises unimpeded, he will restart his empire. This brings together Lady and Croaker, who were previously enemies. If you want a strong motivating factor for your heroes, monsters serve better than villains.

Battles with monsters are usually short, violent, and very exciting. They also generally end in the demise of the monster. While heroes may have problems killing villains, they usually have no such qualms regarding monsters. The Dominator does not return meaningfully after being cut into pieces and burned. He’s great for a single arc, but he is not used as a reoccurring character like Soul Catcher is. If you want a short but exciting fight, a monster is a stronger choice than a villain, but be aware that most monsters don’t return for round two.

Both are Useful

Villains and monsters have their purposes, but they are used differently. Monsters put the focus on the heroes and their struggles, but villains are another character that adds depth and drama to the story. That being said, there is no reason they can’t work together. As a power combo, they can fill your story with tension, conflict, and threat.

Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.

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Comments

  1. Brigitta M.

    I have one story where I’m trying to decide whether the antagonist should lean towards villainous or monstrous.

    At its core, it’s a good old fashioned haunted house story, but I love subverting expectations. The couple who purchased the house together, for example, have a deep trust for one another as opposed to one of them sees something and the other thinks they should go off to the loony bin. Yeah, this is tested to the max but it survives even after one of them dies.

    The ghost in question is where I’m having trouble. She can be invisible, mess with fire, electricity, and heat and when she’s like that, she’s certainly monstrous.

    Yet, she also appears in her pre-death form (as ghosts are wont to do) which is yes, a young girl. She really does have a motivation for being evil (as opposed to something like “The Grudge” or “The Bad Seed” where the scary little girls were just born evil) and I won’t get into it here because mostly I had enough trouble writing about it for the story as opposed to a fear of releasing spoilers. Suffice to say it’s trigger inducing.

    But even that ghost form is an illusion of sorts. She’s been dead for nearly 100 years, has killed more than a handful of people in-between and at best she’s sociopathic but I don’t think she falls into the psychopathic because she doesn’t necessarily enjoy the violence, she just sees the violence as part of who she is now.

    So, yeah, there’s a motive for why she does what she does. Ergo villain. But the differing forms and powers she has as well as not being human for so long, I feel, takes her into monster territory as well.

    If anyone has any thoughts on this, I’d be interested in what you have to say.

    • reddoor

      Hiya!

      Sounds like a cool concept! I hope you don’t mind me throwing my 2 cents in
      I think that may depend on the timeline of your story. If it’s not an epic, multi-volume story – maybe go with the monster route just to keep the threat and urgency all up in the reader’s face?

      Thinking about it – maybe you can have the girl’s backstory be sympathetic, but the ghost/thing she is now is more of a puppet of a bigger principality (like: the girl was murdered or however that plays out by other people, but the people were motivated to kill her by a demon – cause demon’s be jerks like that) so the thing the protagonists are facing/overcoming isn’t actually a ghost, but a demon that is parading around the ghost’s soul for it’s own amusement. That way, you can have the ghost as a villain (more sympathetic, more backstory) and your demon as the real monster too? (Replace demon with: wizard, genie, time lord whatever not telling you how to write your story!)

      • Brigitta M.

        I really need to check my e-mail more often.

        The first draft is done in novel form, but I have some ideas for a sequel, anything past the second starts delving into the mode of ridiculous. Not horror-comedy, which I’d be fine with, but flat out silly. So, the idea of epic sprawl for this just isn’t happening.

        I’m also not too keen on bringing in another demon, whatever. It’s a good idea on its own and with what I’ve proposed here, so it’s not kneejerk rejection. I just feel it would complicate an already complex story (I’ve got about three major backstories already: the FMCs, the ghost girl, and a neighbor’s– there’s a reason, she’s connected to the house and the ghost-girl in a way that can’t be dropped). I tried jerry-rigging the ghost-girl’s abuser into the plot, but he’s too busy burning in hell (even horror has justice) to worry about haunting a house he used to live in. Stubborn characters.

        That said, in the meantime, I think I’ve come up with a solution. Initially, the FMC thinks there are two ghosts: the girl when she can be seen is sweet, but when she can’t, she can really tear the place apart. One of FMC’s weaknesses (horror story weakness anyway, irl it’s a positive) is that she wants to believe the best in everyone so likely the reader will come to the conclusion before the character does (esp one familiar with the genre) so it’s a two-fer in a sense.

        • David Mesick

          I’m inclined to agree that the demon is unnecessary. Multiple villains have a place in some stories, but it can be tough to keep things from getting muddled and confusing. As for monster vs. villains, I think that ghosts do a great job of bringing strong qualities from both sides. They both reflect the person that was before, with all of their qualities and problems, as well as the unnatural and horrific nature of death. Of course, the latter depends a lot on their appearance, but I think having separate forms is a really interesting way to handle it. You basically separate the two natures by having separate forms that act and appear very differently, but represent totally different aspects of the same character in both a literal and figurative sense. I like it.

          If you’re looking for a way to include the previous abuser, you can always include them through secondary sources- journals, old neighbors, etc. A character doesn’t need to be present to be perfectly villainous or to affect the story.

          As an aside, if your looking for other small children within the horror genre that are far more dangerous than they have any reason to be, I highly recommend Rachel Rising, as it’s my new favorite thing. Zoe is simultaneously tragic, hilarious, and terrifying.

          Hope the continued work on the novel goes well.

          • Brigitta M.

            The abuser is definitely there, just not “physically.” He’s in the very walls, the secret room that he built (where the ghost girl died)– tres classic ghost story from that angle with the walled in corpse stuff. He practically built the town, so everyone knows about him. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely kind of thing.

            Ex-wife of his (far younger than he was– both were more or less forced into the marriage. She more so than he) is the neighbor with the backstory, and so on.

            Thanks for the comments, I feel like it assures what I suspected that I’m on the right track even if it does look like a hot mess now.

            And I’ll definitely look into “Rachel Rising.”

    • SunlessNick

      Ghosts are a tricky one. Can the couple communicate with the ghost, or must they find out her motives and backstory through investigation? And can they affect her haunting through their actions (like making her back off by confronting her with what they know about her), or must she be driven off by an analogue of force (exorcism, torching the house)? Essentially, is it possible to accomplish anything by treating the ghost as a person? If yes, she’s villain. If no, she’s likely to read as a monster, so she might as well be one.

      Assuming this isn’t, you know, uselessly too long after the question.

      • Brigitta M.

        See above about how I have to check my email.

        Until near the end, only the FMC can see/communicate with the ghost. The MMC is affected by it, but not like the FMC is, primarily because FMC is home more often, but because, well, there’s something specific about the FMC that the ghost abhors/is jealous of.

        Even then, communicating is very loose-y goose-y and mostly on the ghost’s terms. Ie, when she appears as a little girl, it’d be just as easy as talking to any small child, which is what FMC thinks she is the first time they “meet”– there was a bunch of chaos, fire, that kind of thing and the entire emergency department showed up. While it would be surprising to have a strange kid at the kitchen counter, it’s not shocking considering the many people in and out of the FMC’s house that day.

        There’s also research about the house, not necessarily about the ghost, but new home owner kind of stuff, to learn the history of where they lived (which, in itself, leads to more clues about the ghost– missing and added rooms, all juicy fodder for ghost stories imo)

        The tricky thing is that the ghost will listen… sometimes… just like a small kid would. When they’re in the mood to. Multiply that by “kid knows it has unfathomable powers” and well… classic “Twilight Zone” and folks end up in the cornfield, except here it’s exploding glass, fire and mayhem.

        *sigh* I think I may have created an angry Woobie. Avoid a trope, smash into another one.

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