Monster Writing 101

Monster Writing 101

Posted on October 22 by Philippa Dowding
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I’ve always had a thing for monsters. It started in an English class when my professor asked me to explain what made John Milton’s Lucifer, the main character in Paradise Lost, so compelling?

I wasn’t sure. But I was intrigued. I began to wonder about monsters in literature: human monsters like Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, and literal monsters, like Dante’s demons in The Inferno, or Mary Shelley’s monstrous creation.

Why do they move us, I wondered? What was the secret to creating a memorable, haunting antagonist?

A few years later I was sitting in a screenwriting course (Robert McKee’s excellent class, I highly recommend it), and the answer fell into my lap…

… as the creator, you have to love your monster.


McKee used an example of the monster (played by Peter Boyle), tipping his top hat to himself in the mirror in the movie Young Frankenstein. Who doesn’t look great in a top hat and tails? Who wouldn’t tip their hat at themselves?

I know I would. Boyle’s monster is as vain as the rest of us!

But I can think of other examples: the vampire Silas handing a banana to Bod in The Graveyard Book, because the boy was hungry; Ahab seeking out Starbuck at the gunwale on their last night hunting Moby Dick, because he’s lonely; Lovecraft’s alien monsters burying their dead in At the Mountains of Madness. Each moment holds up a mirror, however briefly, to ourselves: vanity, kindness, loneliness, loss.

We can relate. 

I have lots of love for my own monsters. My first three middle-grade books in the Lost Gargoyle Series, were about a curmudgeonly 400-year-old gargoyle, a monster if ever there was one, who had a weakness for hot chocolate and a sad secret: he couldn’t fly. My middle-grade horror stories, in the Weird Stories Gone Wrong series, are literally all about monsters: a giant who loved and lost, a monster made of fog who whispers in the night, an old gardener who ensnares bored children in a maze. I’ve loved creating all of them, and see something of myself in each one (I happen to love hot chocolate, for instance).

But my favourite monstrous creation of all is my latest: Abilith the Rogue.


He appears in Everton Miles Is Stranger than Me, which is the sequel to The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden, shortlisted for the OLA Red Maple Award in 2015.

Abilith the Rogue is an immortal Spirit Flyer. He’s brilliant, handsome, beguiling, and powerful. He even has a dark sense of humour, but he has a weakness that anyone can appreciate: he fell in love with the wrong person. It made him bitter, angry, destructive, a liar and in the end, a dangerous outcast.

It also makes him a very human monster, and we can’t help feel just a little sorry for him, at least I can’t. I shed a few tears for him.

I can’t say if Melville cried over Ahab, or Mary Shelley for her abomination, or if Dante had some love for the wicked demons and monsters he created in Hell, as they stirred their human-stew and chatted about work. But I can tell you that they’re memorable monsters, I think, because we see something of ourselves in them, even if only for a moment.

How to create a beautiful monster?  Love them, or perhaps love to hate them, enough to breathe life into them with a touch of humanity.

Philippa Dowding

Posted by Kendra on October 30, 2014
Philippa Dowding photo

Philippa Dowding

Philippa Dowding is an award-winning children’s author, a poet, musician and a copywriter. Her many literary nominations include the Silver Birch Express, Red Cedar, and Red Maple awards. She lives in Toronto.