277 – Realistic Monsters

Creative277 – Realistic Monsters

277 – Realistic Monsters

Where does animal end and monster begin? Are monsters just particularly dangerous or mysterious animals? What effect would monsters have on an ecosystem? We talk about all that and more, because this week’s topic is realistic monsters. It’s time to discuss what monsters eat, why they might attack humans, and how the real monster is the damage caused to infrastructure. Plus, a touching personal story about why Oren is afraid of dogs.


Generously transcribed by I. W. Ferguson. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]

Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren, and with me today is Wes and Chris and I have a pop quiz for both of you. And the question is, what is the difference between a monster and an animal. And since I know no one wants to answer pop quizzes, I’m just going to go in the order of how I introduced them. Wes, you first.

Wes:A monster is a scary thing that will threaten me, and an animal is a cute, forest friend that will befriend me and we’ll all be okay.

Oren: Chris?

Chris: I would say an animal operates like all of the real animals that we know on Earth, even if it’s technically not a real animal and it’s on an alien planet, it would have all of the characteristics like intelligence level and abilities that we would consider animals on Earth to have. Whereas, a monster, it might be scarier, but it might also have weird supernatural stuff or do other weird things that we would not expect animals to do.

Wes: Wow, I really teed you up for that one, Chris.

Chris:You’re not wrong though. That is definitely the connotation that we have with animals and monsters.

Wes: I wanted to sneak that in from the start.

Oren: So today’s topic is using realistic monsters, and by realistic, I mean having the monsters act in a way that is more accordant with the way that you would expect a creature of that monster’s intelligence to act. Because one of the things that’s common with monsters in more trope-ey settings is that they’re always out to try to murder humans, and it’s very often not at all clear why. Why is this monster out here trying to eat humans? When in real life there are many animals that are physically more powerful than a human, but they aren’t usually wandering around trying to wipe out human civilization. That’s not a thing that happens.

So I just wanted to talk a little bit about that because it can get kind of silly. People are willing to excuse this trope to a certain degree because we like fighting dragons, but I’ve read some books recently where the monsters just feel completely out of nowhere. What is happening with these monsters? Why are they here? Why are they acting this way? Especially true in sci-fi settings, because I think there’s just a slightly higher standard of believability in sci-fi, but I can get it in fantasy, too.

Chris: I think of this as being, “I want my monsters to be realistic-feeling, but also not feeling like animals.” And there’s almost like a balancing factor. Where on the not animal side, but not realistic we have things like in season five of The 100 there’s these parasitic worms and there has just been a second nuclear apocalypse, so the entire Earth is dead. But somehow there’s parasitic worms that come out of the sands and infect people, and grow really fast.

How could these things possibly be alive? What were they eating earlier? How could they still exist after nuclear bombs went off? I don’t understand. And then on the other side, we have things like, Oren and I recently watched this trailer for an anime called Drifting Dragons where there’s airship crews that are hunting and eating dragons as though they’re sky whales.

Okay, we could come up with a whole ecosystem and compare dragons to sky whales, but now they’re animals and I don’t really want to watch people kill and eat them, especially if we’re comparing them to whales.

Oren: Right. And it’s not like I’m watching this thinking, “Oh, how immoral—hunting.” You know, I eat meat. I know where meat comes from, and I’m not against characters who hunt, but as the premise of the show, that’s a little weak. I wouldn’t particularly want to watch a show about deer hunting, either. It’s just not a very interesting premise to me.

Chris: So there has to be a way to have monsters that, if we want the protagonists to fight them, we wouldn’t feel bad about it, but they still feel realistic or like they could be there.

Wes: I’m thinking of connotations now, if you were introducing me to a science fiction novel or a fantasy, doesn’t matter, and you made up a creature and gave it a name, whatever, but you described it as an animal. For example, the air bison in Last Airbender, they’re domesticated cows. They’re animals. That tells me that we know a lot about them, and a monster tells me that we don’t know a lot about it. Does that hold true? We want monsters because they’re unknown and therefore we don’t know and what we don’t know we are afraid of, but an animal, an animal connotes that we know everything about it.

Chris: That is definitely a correlation that happens. Not all of the things that we call monsters are scary. We’re definitely capable of having things that we consider a monster, but it’s not really scary. But certainly the connotation is there and things are scarier when they’re mysterious.

Oren: And just to be clear, I should mention that we’re talking about non-sapient monsters. I often call vampires and werewolves monsters, but, that’s not what I’m talking about here, right? I’m talking about chimeras and stuff like that. I originally wanted to talk about this because the Jurassic Park franchise is slowly lurching towards a post-apocalyptic, ‘walking dinos’-type show where somehow a few dozen dinosaurs that escaped at the end of the last Jurassic World movie have literally destroyed human civilization. We are now in the dino land. I’m amazed that this franchise has gone in that direction, but looking back on it, I could kind of see the roots of it, even back in the first movie where they were like, “Oh man, the dinosaurs can breed because of their frog DNA.”

That doesn’t really change what’s happening in this movie, right? In the actual movie, the threat is from the dinosaurs that are there. They’re not really worried that the dinosaurs are going to hatch up a bunch of reinforcements. {laughter, merriment}

That line is the start of what would become stronger and stronger with each iteration of the franchise. The idea that dinosaurs are an existential threat to humanity and it’s like, “Okay, I guess that’s what we’re going with now.” It’s somehow more ridiculous than zombies.

Chris: Look, Oren, life will find a way, but specifically dinosaur life. Human life doesn’t find a way to kill dinosaur life. Only the dinosaur life finds a way to kill a human life.

Oren: I guess the dinosaurs are the virus. So that just made me think, I don’t like it, bothers me a lot. But one of the main things that I would advise thinking about when you’re crafting some kind of fantasy ecosystem evolving monsters is, What do they eat? Do they eat? In a fantasy or sci-fi setting, it’s possible you could have a monster that doesn’t actually eat. There’s a PlayStation game where it’s a post-apocalyptic game and you have a bow and arrow and there’s a bunch of robot dinosaurs. I would love to see the lore on how the setting got to this point where there are a bunch of robot dinosaurs running around.

It makes more sense. At least in the moment because you don’t have to worry about, “What are the robot dinosaurs eating?” You can just have them out there and they kill humans on sight and they’re made of metal, so they’re probably hard to kill.

Chris: The other thing I would say, that if you want your characters to specifically kill monsters, and we’re not supposed to feel bad about it, there should be plenty of those monsters around. In other words, they should be not the last wampa! {laughter, merriment}

I still haven’t forgiven Oren for his ‘last wampa’ story.

Oren: The Last Wampa! It’s so, so good. Everyone loves The Last Wampa.

Chris: No, no, it’s not. There are lots of wampa! There are lots of wampa.

Oren: Well, you’ll be glad to know that the Star Wars extended universe writers agree with you. There is a story where they go back to Hoth for some reason and they meet a bunch of professional game hunters who are a bunch of jerks and we are clearly supposed to cheer when the wampas come in and kill them all.

Chris: Wow, that’s amazing.

Wes: That does make me feel better.

Oren: That’s a thing that happened in that story. And the one that Luke cut the arm off of is their leader. He’s the wampa leader.

Wes: Okay. I like that less.

Chris: That’s the remedy I need to this ‘last wampa’ story here.

Oren: In general, if your monsters are huge and have giant teeth, they’d have to have those things for a reason. It’s unlikely that a predator is going to evolve to be way bigger and way stronger than it has to be to take down prey because at that point, it’s just being inefficient. And so if you have a giant monster with big armor-penetrating teeth, there had better be an armored, large herbivore around there somewhere for it to eat, assuming that it’s a predator.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be. You can also have monsters that come into conflict with humans because of territory. And that’s not a predation instinct. That can also happen. You know, if it’s a giant herbivore there’d have to be a lot of plants around.

Wes: We’re really about to spill into ecosystems, aren’t we? How much foliage is there to support large herbivores and how much sunlight does this planet get? A big old rabbit hole.

Chris: And hopefully this is not a monster that is protecting its young and that’s why it’s aggressive, and please don’t make it cute. This is my list of requests.

Oren: If you want to have your characters treat the monsters more like animals, a good thing you can do is study the way that park rangers do it, because you’ll notice that park rangers don’t go into the park with swords and machine guns in case they run into a bear. Because there are better ways to handle this. Fighting an animal’s not efficient.

And so you can have an adventure story where your PCs or your protagonists—depending on if it’s a roleplaying game or prose story—wander into an area that has dangerous animals. But fighting the animal is the last resort because you probably have other ways of dealing with it.

I did this once in a Torchbearer game where I had the main “magical creatures”, were basically just dinosaurs and the main characters came upon one in the first dungeon they came into and they were like, “Okay. We have to figure out a way to get around this animal without fighting it.” They did a bunch of animal handling stuff and it was super fun, and I really enjoyed it.

Wes: That makes sense because if you have animal monsters in an area and they want to battle them, the animal will react based on fear and pain. You can maybe have your characters choose to fight to the death, but animals won’t do that.

Chris: Just like people won’t do that. I’ve talked about this many times on the blog. It’s racist to think that any group of people are just going to randomly throw themselves at the enemy until they’re all dead. Something really, really awful would have to be happening. People don’t do that. They want to live. Animals are like that, too. They are risk averse. They’ll fight as much as they have to. If they think they’re going to get gored, they will not.

Wes: They’re also not always hungry. That brings me back to Jurassic Park. Even as a kid, I was like, “Aren’t those raptors full? Didn’t we see them getting fed earlier that day?”

Oren: And then, “They’ve already eaten four humans by now, how much room could they possibly have left?”

Chris: But the big issue, of course, with this Jurassic Park franchise is it’s not about a couple of characters going alone into the wilderness and then encountering big animals that they’re not prepared to deal with because they don’t have the necessary weapons or equipment. It’s about what are essentially animals taking on the entirety of human society and humans can kill everything.

My personal theory for why orcas don’t eat humans, even though they definitely could, is because they know we’ll just murder them all. Maybe I’m attributing a little bit too much sophistication to orcas, but we’re out there with our boats.

Wes: Unlike those monstrous sharks that don’t have such thoughts.

Oren: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know a whole lot about animal intelligence. I would kind of wonder if maybe with the orca is that it is smart enough to know that humans are not it’s normal prey. Because my understanding is that a lot of shark attacks are generally considered to be caused by a case of mistaken identity. It’s not a hundred percent, sometimes a shark does seem to just attack a human for no reason, but a lot of the time it seems like the shark mistook the human for something else, and very often will bite once and then be like, “Uh, that’s not a seal,” and then leave.

Wes: To what Chris said about animals being risk averse: But how hungry is the animal? It will take bigger risks depending on how hungry it is, and perhaps pursue something outside of its normal food supply.

Chris: For a lot of animals when they attack humans, they are just getting desperate.

Oren: Another thing to consider is, is your monster actually strong enough to be a major threat to a human? Because humans are actually better at fighting than we give ourselves credit for. We can actually be pretty dangerous. And then if we have a club or something heavy to hold in our weird grasping limbs. What are these things, guys? It’s like having five tentacles at the end of a stick. I don’t get it. But yeah, if we can have those things, we’re actually pretty dangerous. And so that’s one of the reasons why I was so amused in Maximum Ride when the characters are running from this big dog, it’s like, “Oh, it’s such a scary dog.”

I personally am scared of dogs because a dog pushed me into a fire once when I was a kid. But I think if I was a hardened resistance fighter, I could probably take on a dog. I think I could do it, if I had to. I still wouldn’t want to, but I could. The werewolves that are chasing them are probably more threatening than the dog.

Chris: You mean the erasers?

Oren: Excuse me. Yes. Yeah, the erasers.

Wes: Oh, yeah. That story. That’s what we’re talking about. Oh, I hate that.

Chris: I do think that if you want monsters that are going to take on the entirety of human society just beyond encountering a few people in the woods: “Now we want to actually threaten civilization.” They pretty much have to have supernatural characteristics of some kind. It doesn’t have to be explicitly magic. It could be things like, they could be weird aliens, like in the movie, Live, Die, Repeat, or Edge of Tomorrow, more forgettably named Edge of Tomorrow. There’s a bunch of aliens. They don’t seem individually that intelligent, but they have Groundhog’s Day powers. So they can just keep replaying time until they succeed.

Oren: And those aliens are definitely pushing the line between a sapient and non-sapient monster. They very often didn’t really act like they had the ability to do complex planning, but I think they were supposed to, since they have like a weird invasion force going on. I was a little unclear about that.

Chris: I think it was supposed to be one of those ‘hive-mind’ things where they had a central omega that maybe did the thinking. The individual drones didn’t seem to have intelligent thought as far as we could tell.

Oren: Another thing I wanted to talk about as a potential role for your monsters can be something other than direct threat to human life. They can be basically a pest, and that can cause a lot of problems depending on the type of story you’re writing. If you’re writing a very high-stakes, fast-paced adventure story, then it might not be such a big thing, but if you’re writing a story about someone who’s trying to keep their village going through the winter, having a particularly nasty type of vermin that can tunnel through the walls of your barn and eat all your grain, it could be a really serious threat. That could be a problem, and that’s just a slightly more realistic thing you could do with your monster that wouldn’t require it to be an ‘extinction-level event’ problem.

Wes: Except the humans would get so annoyed by the pest that they would seek to exterminate them, because that’s such a human thing to do.

Oren: Although it’s generally pretty hard. That’s one of the traits that we use to define a pest is that it’s hard to get rid of. We generally don’t consider apex predators to be pests because we can get rid of those pretty easily if we want to. They’re actually very vulnerable. Rats, or giant hornets, as the case may be, are a little bit more of an issue.

Wes: Especially if they’re called ‘murder hornets.’

Oren: Yeah, they are sometimes called that.

Wes: The premise of the monster threatening the town is tough, but it seems like just such a staple of fantasy. Wasn’t that how the Witcher show opened? With him hunting a “monster” in a swamp?

Oren: The Witcher just does straight up D&D monsters. It’s not even trying to make them a little bit realistic.

Wes: Although wasn’t there a later episode where somebody said, “And one less of those monsters in the world”? It tried to—I’m going to say animalize—the monster that he killed. “Oh, you’re hurting our ecosystem. That thing probably had a family.”

Oren: There is an episode of the Witcher where they talk about hunting dragons, which are sapient. So that’s a sort of a different scenario. There’s a difference between hunting a creature that can talk to you, versus hunting the last tiger, or the last wampas the case may be. {laughter}

Chris: You stay away from that last wampa!

Oren: Those are different problems. Hunting a species to extinction is bad for a number of reasons, but hunting a sapient species is not only way worse, but it also doesn’t matter if it’s the last one because—hot take—murder is bad. {laughter}

All your hot philosophy from Oren Ashkenazi on mythcreants.com.

Chris: The Witcher, they definitely don’t seem like natural occurrences to me, but the world building is kinda messy. You’re not really sure where they all come from. It does feel like maybe there were dark mages a couple of hundred years ago that spawned a bunch of dark magic that out of it grew monsters. It seems like that type of setting.

Oren: Yeah, a wizard did it. I am a really big fan of the premise that there’s another reality that sometimes intersects with our own and monsters come out of it. At that point you can kind of cover up a lot of the issues of, “Well, what would this creature eat?” And it’s like, “Well, nothing, cause it’s not from here.”

Chris: The Upside Down, for instance, from Stranger Things. Of course, in the Upside Down, the place is so desolate you’re like, “Okay, what did they eat?” But I think there, the idea is that the mind flayer, or what have you, has been moving through universes, consuming them. So it’s eaten that one up and it has to come to the next one.

Oren: Running out of food in its pantry. It’s been self-quarantining and now it’s making its trip to the grocery. {laughter, merriment}

Wes: Yes, fleshy delights.

Chris: But certainly with supernatural stuff, you could get a lot of things that you can violate more normal rules. Maybe these are demons that escape from hell running around. They only eat souls.

Oren: A good way to do this is often to have your characters be in an area that otherwise doesn’t see a lot of humans. If there are monsters running around that are capable of eating humans and do this regularly and are made of armor and murder, I think that you would have a hard time forming a civilization in the first place.

You would either have to destroy most of the monsters or you just wouldn’t be able to. I think that in a lot of cases, that’s why it’s useful to have your character be either on an alien planet, or on another area of your fantasy world that hasn’t been inhabited by sapient creatures yet, or in the case of a lot of fantasy stories, the premise is more that for some reason the wilderness has advanced, and it’s not really clear why a lot of the time. Why is the wilderness advancing now? It’s like, “Hey, it just is. It’s fine.” That’s probably the best take you’re ever going to get for a D&D type setup—why you have to constantly go out and kill monsters and come back.

Wes: In striving to make them realistic, thoughts on whether or not you should include that character that points out that they’re just misunderstood and in fact can be befriended and tamed.

Oren: Only if that person is right. {laughter}

Let me put it this way. A character who is like, “We shouldn’t kill the murder monsters,” is both really irritating and also a weird environmental straw man. In real life, if tigers were an existential threat to humanity, I don’t think you would see a lot of people protesting them being hunted.

If we were in danger of being wiped out by tigers, I think environmentalists would be okay with us fighting the tigers. So the person who’s like, “It’s just an animal. It’s misunderstood”, if they are correct, that can be a fun twist, but if they’re wrong, they’re just an obnoxious straw man of actual people who get enough of a bad rap as it is.

Chris: As long as it’s done with some thought. Sometimes, in some stories, having the protagonist be like, “No, everybody else is so cool and wants to kill, but I understand that it’s an animal,” and sometimes that can get a little repetitive and feel like it’s a little bit slapped on there. Like the writer is purposely making the world full of assholes just so that the protagonist can stand out by not being an asshole.

Oren: It does raise the question of why would your protagonist be the only person who thinks that.

Chris: But I think as long as you apply some thought to it. These people, what is their normal way of handling the situation? Or, if you have a group of characters heading into a place that they’ve never been before, credibly establishing their fear, and as long as you think through it a little bit, I wouldn’t be too worried about it.

Wes: The person who cares, they could not be the only one. I’m not saying that you need PETA in your worlds, but they can’t just be the one person that thinks that those are not monsters. Probably someone else has had that thought, too.

Oren: But the one that I really hate is the reveal that, “Oh, these monsters were sapient the whole time.” Did they not ever try to tell us that? Even if they don’t have the ability to make human speech, demonstrating intelligence isn’t that hard if you have human level intelligence; there are lots of ways you could do it. Especially in a modern or sci-fi setting. In a fantasy setting, maybe it would be hard, but in a sci-fi setting, it’s like, “Hey, why is that monster tapping out the first 10 prime numbers over and over again? That’s weird.”

There’s a whole field of study on this about how we would try to communicate with an alien species that we don’t share any mouthparts with. And I just find that really unbelievable, and especially if we find out that these monsters have some kind of super power and are really, really strong, and then we find out they also have human level intelligence. Why haven’t they been using it and why do they act like animals most of the time and not use their intelligence to keep themselves alive? This is a thing that I see a lot in fantasy and sci-fi and I don’t like it. I always find it very contrived.

Chris: Things that have that level of intelligence will act like it, right? Nothing else will be a degree of a coordination among them that indicates high intelligence.

Oren: Right. It’s like, yeah, okay. That thing might look like a weird monster because it has lots of claws and stuff, but when the time it starts building a trebuchet to siege your castle, you might have to wonder. It’s like, “Hmm, I think maybe it’s got something going on.”

In general, people like animals. And so the idea of humans going out and fighting animals as if they were monsters is just probably a bad idea. If you’ve ever played D&D with younger players, and it’s like, “Some wolves attack you!” and they’re like, “What? Why do we have to fight the wolves?” Even if you can come up with an explanation for why the wolves are doing that, they’re probably not going to enjoy it.

And that’s the same thing in books. Again, if I have to read a story about the main character killing a bunch of wolves. All I’m going to think is that this main character is just kind of incompetent and that there were probably some other way to deal with this problem.

Chris: Do you hear that, Dragon Age? Maybe you should stop making the bears eat me.

Oren: It’s hard enough to believe that wolves would attack a party of heavily armed adventurers.

Wes: But how else are you going to grind for that sweet, sweet XP?

Oren: Oh boy. We’ve talked about game design now. Think we’re going to have to call an end to this one. Thank you everyone for listening. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is a urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. Finally, we have Danita Rambo, and she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.
[closing theme]

Post a comment:


Type at least 1 character to search