How insanely inventive can your monsters be? Be like Bosch & Think Surreal

I wrote a fairly detailed chapter on creating your own monsters for your novel in my non-fiction manual: “So You Want To Write Fantasy?” and I don’t want to go over old ground — but I have been asked how crazy our quirks and extravagances can be when we are creating scary and grotesque creatures … and I guess the simple answer is that you should allow your sleeping brain (your dream mind) to do the creative thinking for you when it comes to Writing Monsters. Surrealism, with its emphasis on spontaneous, automatic, or subconscious creation, has always been the best place to find the most terrifying yet believable monsters.

Surreal art

The power of creative imagination is limited by the prosiacs of science, convention, and acceptability (perhaps even permissibility, in certain cases) but brain activity is not limited by social conventions or self-imposed impediments while sleeping, so the manifestations you experience in your dream state is said to be driven by your deepest desires (obsessions) or by your greatest anxieties. So the monsters of dream visions become:

  • Wild and untamed
  • Motivated by obsession
  • Spurred by desire
  • Ambitious
  • Unbound and unlimited

The 16th century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch created around 25 works of art (which we know of) but the best known is a triptych altarpiece called: “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (shown below)

Garden of Earthly Delights - Hieronymus Bosch

There are three parts to this creation, on the sides (these are painted in wings, which fold inward) it represented the Garden of Eden and the Last Judgment. In the center, it depicted an image of an unholy existence that begins (as you look at it) to be a familiar scene, perhaps, a theme park or a holiday camp, but when you examine the ideas more closely, you see that it contains an a bunch of surreal monsters.

For example, there are giant unicorn cats, men who make love to owls, children with plums for their heads, and camels with human bums instead of humps. It is certainly driven by the artist’s subconscious cue: his dream mind. This is the first “surreal” art that became world famous, but there have been many others since. The right hand panel (the hell panel) contains images like a giant bird eating humans, which are excreted like eggs, only to fall into a vat of vomit that has been seasoned with pieces of silver released from another man’s butt.

A squashed albino flying fox holds another guy against a table and stabs him in the shins with wooden spoons. A pig wears a nun’s habit, while dogs in armor and thumbtack helmets bite into a man’s windpipe. I don’t know what Hieronymus Bosch had been doing, having such bad dreams, but I guess he would have kept the famous dream interpreter Sigmund Freud in work for a few years!

Pig in a Habit

Be like Bosch. Try these techniques to create surreal monsters for your fantasy fiction:

1: Découpé aka chaos magic

This is where you allow your unconscious brain to decide the shape of your monster for you (from a set of inputs). It is often a matter of writing a few words on separate sheets of paper and shuffling and rearranging just two (maybe three) into a new “concept”.  The trade-off, of course, is that your final creation has been limited by your previous original choices. Would your dream brain have done the same? Yes, maybe. Perhaps a brain that is asleep can only use images it has “cut out” of your day-time waking experiences (thus, découpé) and so derives from your conscious brain. In other words, you cannot come up with something completely new, but a variant of something you are already familiar with. The advantage is that if you’re thinking a thing up from a set of inputs given by society, then others too (your readers) will identify and appreciate the horror of what you imagine. That’s why “The Garden of Earthly Delights” is so horrifically monstrous, it’s because we recognize the demon within.

stay puft

2: Razor blade chaos

This is more or less exactly the same as decoupé, to some extent, but the inputs do not come from your own brain but, instead, from the brains of others. So, using this technique, you find and cut out nouns from printed matter  (hence the razor blade) and this is normally done from a newspaper or magazine and you mix them up and come up with new two-word creations. Apparently, the poet T. S. Eliot used this technique for some of his ideas in the 1922 poem, The Waste Land. And pop artists David Bowie and Thom Yorke used razor-blade chaos techniques to create surreal ideas for their lyrics. If you look for “monster nouns” in printed mater then employ the razorblade technique you might come up with truly innovative ideas.

3: Startle response

Regardless of what comes to mind, make sure your monster startles the reader — that is, your concept will be so totally unexpected that it will make them jump! You will know how much I dislike worn, hackneyed or overused themes in fantasy: spooky sheets, headless horsemen, flashy vampires, naive goblins, callous trolls, exalted dragons and so on. I call all of these monsters “scooby doo constructs” not only because you can find them in any kid’s cartoon mystery, but because the writer clearly does “not have a clue…”  If you use shop-worn monsters, ask yourself this: where is the surprise? Where is the horror? Where is the alarm? A monster in your dreams will be so horrible it will literally knock you out of bed. It’s so scary it gives you a jolt. A real bad monster will flabbergast and awaken you. It will jab you into consciousness. Surprise represents the difference between expectation and reality.

The Knight's Dream

4: Unexpected awakening

The appearance of your monster must be totally unforeseen and unprecedented. I don’t just mean that your monster shouldn’t resemble anything else in creation (it might) but its manifestation should be unforeseen. To bear witness to this, remember that millions and millions of people will have seen “The Garden of Earthly Delights” and yet the albino flying fox (to take just one example) is totally remarkable and the concept stuns the viewer. It’s adventitious — and that means it seems to be there by chance or whim rather than by plan (that’s the genius of Bosch) and is therefore not an integral part of our expectations. That’s what makes it so scary, so creepy. That’s what makes it surreal.

So the environment influences the nature of any interaction with your monster (in other words, the thing isn’t just weird, but it’s in the “wrong” place at the “wrong” time.) To capture this thought and represent such ideas in your work, focus on describing touch, body movement, how time “moves” when the monster is nearby, and the pitch, volume, and intonation of any sounds your creature makes; (remember that sounds don’t just come from the creature’s voice box either… they come from the bones, guts, butt, muscles, hair, skin, teeth, etc.) The monster will also violate acceptable social behaviors or act in a way that most readers wouldn’t anticipate (a good example of this type of monster is “The Joker” in the Batman franchise.)

5: Juxtaposition

Dreams overlap and play with duality and counterpoint in a way that can cause night terror. So you should use juxtaposition to create monster visions: with this technique you move two different or contrasting items closer to or next to each other to make a comparison. The obvious example of juxtaposition is Beauty and the Beast. Less obvious, but still explicit, is Jekyll and Hyde (it must have been a spectacular idea when it was first published.)

Bosch used juxtaposition when he painted those pretty songbirds eating humans. The best of juxtapositions places two elements side by side to allow the reader to form their own opinions. Don’t forget that both “sides” can be represented within the same body, so Jekyll and Hyde are one and the same. And a monster can be wise and greedy. Or crafty but forgetful. Or blood-thirsty but gracious. Nevertheless, there should be an easily comprehensible contrast between the two elements.

And once you’ve created your monster, don’t forget to double-check with the surreal checklist. Is your monster?

  • Wild and untamed
  • Motivated by obsession
  • Spurred by desire
  • Ambitious
  • Unbound and unlimited

If it’s not one or more of the above (the more the better) go back to the drawing board and try again.

Good luck with your #monstercreation. Tell me how you get on and share tips, ideas or experiences on twitter @neilmach

Words: @neilmach 2021 ©

Comments? Tweet me @neilmach

Neil Mach is author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast.

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