They lurk in dark corners of our houses when everyone else is asleep. We see their shadows at the other end of that abandoned alley where the street lamps are broken. They watch us in the woods, close enough to feel but still hidden by the gloom.

Monster: How to Build Memorable Monsters

I’m talking about monsters. The kind that go bump in the night and leave a chill running up our spines.

Terrifying Monsters Make for Memorable Stories

When we build terrifying monsters into our stories, they will ingrain themselves in our readers’ minds, making our stories unforgettable.

The Netflix show Stranger Things does this with great success. In addition to nailing 80s nostalgia, the show has created an amazing monster that will keep us talking about the story for years after the buzz has faded. We will remember the thing with no face that lurks in the woods at night.

We want that for our stories, too. We want people talking about them long after they’ve read them. We want our characters to be seared into our readers’ brains.

3 Traits of Memorable Monsters

How do we create monsters that leave such lasting marks on our readers’ psyches? Memorable monsters have three things in common:

1. Memorable monsters take something normal and twist it.

These perversions of the everyday seal horrifying images into our minds.

Nothing is unusual about an old woman living alone. But replace her hair with snakes and give her the power to turn men to stone with a single glance, and you have Medusa, one of the most famous monsters of all time.

A bull in a pasture is not scary. Give that bull the body of a man and a craving for human flesh, and you have a Minotaur. This monster is used so often in stories that just saying its name sends frightening images racing through our minds.

I live near a forest, and we spot foxes routinely. An animal hunting in the woods is common. But take away the animal’s face and give it the ability to appear from nothing, and you have the beast in Stranger Things.

To build great monsters, start with an everyday thing. Then twist it and make it memorable by adding something to it that makes readers want to turn away.

2. Memorable monsters play on existing fears.

Before we design them, we have to decide why they scare us. The good news is, there’s no need for us to create new fears for our readers when there are so many things that already go bump in the night.

Lovecraft knew we were already afraid of large unknown things we struggle to describe, of things outside of our control on the fringes of our world. He played on our fear when he built the great beast Cthulu.

Stephen King knew a clown outside of the circus trying to lure children with balloons would make the hairs on our necks stand at attention, so he took our fear that we will be unable to protect children and turned it into Pennywise.

We feel safe in our homes, behind our locked windows and doors. Secretly, we are afraid that our castle isn’t as strong as we think it is, that there is something out there in the night that can breach its walls. Matt and Ross Duffer, the creators of Stranger Things, played on this fear when they gave their monster the ability to take people from their places of safety.

When writing monsters, we don’t need to design new fears for our readers. We simply need to ask ourselves what we are afraid of, and build the monster from there.

3. Memorable monsters show us something about ourselves.

Before we describe them, and before we set them on a foundation of existing fear, we need to ask what they say about us.

HG Wells revealed the terrible nature of social classes with the Morlocks of The Time Machine. His monsters reveal to us that placing half of society below our feet will ultimately lead to our destruction.

Tolkien’s Nazgul in The Lord of the Rings speak to us of our addiction to power and how it can consume us, leaving us hollow slaves.

And the Duffers’ character Dr. Martin Brenner forces us to stop and think about what we unleash when we sacrifice morality in the pursuit of the next great weapon to help us defeat our political rivals.

If our monsters reveal something about ourselves, they will be truly terrifying.

The Makings of Memorable Monsters Are at Your Fingertips

You have all the fodder you need to create memorable monsters in your own daily life and secret fears. Draw on your own experiences and twist regular creatures into vivid beasts, and you’ll create monsters that will lurk in the darkest shadows of your readers’ imaginations long after they put your story down.

What memorable monsters are branded into your imagination? Let me know in the comments.


For today’s challenge, build a monster.

Take fifteen minutes to write a monster using the three traits we discussed above: first, hold a mirror up and find something terrible about ourselves we don’t want to see. Then set a foundation for your monster on an existing fear. Finally, give your monster shape by taking something mundane and making it grotesque.

When you’ve created your fearsome beast, share your fiendish practice in the comments below. Give us a memorable monster, and we will talk about your story long after we’ve read it.

Jeff Elkins is a writer who lives Baltimore with his wife and five kids. If you enjoy his writing, he'd be honored if you would subscribe to his free monthly newsletter. All subscribers receive a free copy of Jeff's urban fantasy novella "The Window Washing Boy."