Categorized | Nonfiction, Reviews

Philip Athans’ Writing Monsters Review

Posted on October 2, 2015 by Steven Dawes

Available at

    I’ve always enjoyed reading “how to” guides on a variety of topics. Even if I’ve read a similar subject before I’ll read them to see the different thoughts, beliefs and takes that particular writer has to say about the subject. Such was the case with Writing Monsters: How to Craft Believably Terrifying Creatures to Enhance Your Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction. I’ve read a few guides on writing monsters, but it’s been awhile so this was a good refresher while learning Mr. Athans take on monsters and writing about them.

    Being a fan of H.P. Lovecraft’s works myself, this book was off to a good start as the forward was written by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. “While Mr. Athans draws from an extremely impressive array of monstrous sources, we are, of course, particularly delighted to see the works of H.P. Lovecraft cited so frequently and so appropriately in this discussion. Lovecraft was indeed, as Athans states, a master of the monster.”

    With such a good start, I was ready to dive in, head first.

    The introduction goes into some thoughts on “Realism vs. Plausibility” and the responsibilities that come with writing monsters. Philip makes a good case and ends it with “Artist Francisco de Goya wrote, “Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.” This is the genre author’s primary responsibility. If you’ve asked readers to sign on to your fantasy or science fiction assumptions, you have the responsibility to make sure those settings—and all the scary and outré denizens of that setting—seem real. Take this responsibility seriously.”

    Following the Introduction there’s a passage on how to use this book. In particular it goes into knowing what a monster is before you can really write about one. At the end of the passage he presents you with a “Monster Creation Form,” along with an example of how to use it and then provides a link to where you can download the form if desired.

    From there the book is written in three parts. Part 1 is aptly titled “What they are” and is covered throughout the first five chapters. This part covers questions like “What makes a Monster?”

    “What Makes a Monster Scary?” and “Where Do They Come From?” Chapter five is titled “Monster or Villain?” and between Philip’s personal thoughts, his presenting some examples from a couple of different sources and a passage from Steven E. Schend’s novel Blackstaff, this chapter has arguably some of the best information in the book.

    Part II covers why they’re here. “Everything that happens in a story must happen for a reason. And since neither science fiction, fantasy, or even horror actually requires the presence of a monster, monsters shouldn’t show up in your book or screenplay “just because.” In this section we’ll discuss what monsters are for, what they represent, and how they interact with your characters and story.” For you new monster writers out there, this section should be mandatory reading.

    This section goes in to several discussions, including how “monster-rich” should the world you’re writing about be and different ways of writing or using your monsters, such using them as metaphors, obstacles, agents, sources of pity, sources of magic or technology and finally bringing out the good and evil in people. Along the way he sources some great monster examples and what makes them all tick, such as Godzilla, the sandworms in Dune (coincidentally Philip provides one of the best shorthanded explanations of Dune that I’ve ever read in this book), a couple of different zombie and vampire references, a few cryptids like the Loch Ness Monster, cursed items (Necronomicon anyone?), various Lovecraftian monstrosities and even Mother Nature.

    Part III gets to the heart of the book with how to write your monsters. There is a lot of good practical advice to be found here on how to create monsters, how to reveal them over time, and how to describe their actions in a compelling fashion. “Always think about how this monster moves your story forward. How does it make your story more interesting, how does it play into the core conflict of the tale, and what makes it personal to your characters? Is it something they find frightening or pitiable, or even useful? Don’t try to build a story around a monster; build a monster from within your story.”

    This section covers a lot of ground over nine chapters, including setting the rules of your monster, including its size, powers and abilities, weaknesses, description, the five senses, staging the reveal of your monster, using isolation in your writing, and what is Cliché vs. Archtype. As a nice change of pace Mr. Athans looks at monsters from different writing perspective such as writing short stories, novels, video games, movie scripts or even Role-Playing games. As a freelance RPG writer myself I was especially appreciative of this angle.

    And for those of you who took the time to download the monster creation form will be rewarded here as he references
    and uses it as an example thought out Part III.

    From there a conclusion is provided discussing what monsters mean to us, what they say about us and why we continue to write about them today. As an added bonus, Philip added the short story “The Unnamable” by H.P. Lovecraft to enjoy. “This classic monster story was written in September 1923 and published in the July 1925 issue of the famed pulp magazine Weird Tales. The writing is classic Lovecraft—more than a bit dated, even overwrought by today’s standards—and yet it remains a staple of the genre.” I completely agree with this (it’s one of my favorite Lovecraft scribes) and it’s presented here to read and see how the various aspects discussed in this book come together to make a whole.

    Finally Philip adds three different appendixes that are all worth a read. The first is “A Monstrous Style Guide” that provides craft and style tips to help you present your monsters, such as when to use he, she, or it and provides a list of Lovecraft’s favorite monstrous words (“Squamous” is not used enough these days). The second appendix covers suggested reading of other authors, and the third is a works cited section, which is useful as there were sources I’m not familiar with and would like to be.

    If I have any gripe at all it would be that this guide was too broad to be anything more than an extensive 101 guide. The author obviously knows his stuff but it felt like he held back at times.

    That being said, Philip has written other guides that go into specific subjects like fantasy and science fiction, so deeper wells are out there for those interested.

    But on the whole I found this book to be an ideal monster writing 101 guide and anyone who’s even considering looking into writing monsters in any format should read it. There a wealth of information in here for the new writer and useful bits and pieces of good info to remind the grizzled old timer writers (like myself) of what writing monsters is all about.

    Review by Steven Dawes

    Writing Monsters: How to Craft Believably Terrifying Creatures is available at

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