A Day at the Zoo

Monsters in fiction are as old as the first campfire around which stories were told. Human beings may no longer be puny creatures who venerate oak trees, but the terror of being so small in a world—and now universe—so vast has never left us. The same readers who regard goblins and pookies as whimsical relics of a credulous past still want to buy the next Harry Potter book. Awe is as instinctive to us as eating.

The introduction of monsters into a novel, however, lays traps for the unwary. The difficulty stems from the core thrust of fiction, to tell a story about people. As readers get to know a character’s qualities, we can find a place in the story to occupy. We can root for the hero, or find their thoughts intriguing. The fictional concept may be amazing. But before obstacles can be strewn in the path, first we must have a character worthy of following.

This central tenet is why novels that are filled with hordes, no matter how terrifying their appearance, or how distressing the results of their gnashing teeth, can become numbing after the first blush. Creatures do not have personalities. They merely snarl and lurch. I am scared by a menacing watch dog, but I also find its relentless hostility tiresome. Come on, what did I do to you? The dog can’t tell me, and neither can a fiendish mob.

Such books rely on the reactions of characters who are trying to avoid being overwhelmed. Such a plot driver is familiar to readers of military thrillers, in which heroes struggle against a mainly faceless enemy. We care about the one character, or core cast of characters, whose qualities are known to us. The urgency of the threat is communicated by how dire that one character’s circumstances are. Or, we realize the gravity by how the pressure of the situation is changing the character’s personality.

When an author adds what I call the “buddy element,” the possibilities multiply. If two friends start off the book as a wisecracking duo, smart and funny in a typically American adolescent way, the story has a gauge by which to measure the growing threat. If one of the friends changes the relationship, such as panicking or abandoning the partner, that is the change that affects readers emotionally, more than all the warts in the world.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with a focus solely on the main characters that started the book. If you have a strong relationship, chart scene by scene how that is progressing. Are you, for instance, isolating them later on, due to the exigencies of the plot? As a result you are robbing the book of one of its early sources of power. Can you find a way that they can rejoin, at least for the climax sequence?

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche

Copyright 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.