The Trouble with Monsters

Hi! I’m new around here. The founding bloggers have graciously given me a spot here on Seeking New Earth. I’ll be joining the fun in earnest at the end of this week, but for now, I thought I’d share some ruminations I had this weekend on badguys and monsters.

I love monsters. They tickle the imagination. They tend to have a higher sense of personality and motivation than wild animals. They give the protagonist something to smite that is unambiguously evil or unacceptably dangerous.

But there’s a trouble with monsters. The trouble is… they’re monsters.

What does this mean?

By and large, monsters lack what you could call “moral agency.” In other words, monsters are wholly and intrinsically evil. They cannot choose between good actions and evil actions. They must do evil actions. Since they have no choice, there is a sense that they can’t really be blamed for their actions. We can dread them and despise them, but we can’t really blame monsters for being bad any more than we can blame a lion for eating a gazelle. It’s what lions do. It’s what monsters do.

It’s the difference between Grendel and Gollum.

Grendel, in Beowulf, is a monster. He eats humans. There is no dialogue with Grendel. There is no way to try and reason with him. Beowulf just knows he has to go kill him. The story of Beowulf wouldn’t be all that different if Grendel were a humungous wolf rather than a hulking monster.

Gollum, on the other hand, made a choice. He could have realized what the One Ring was doing to him. He could have avoided it. He could have abandoned it. Bilbo did, to a degree. So did Frodo. Bilbo and Frodo chose good. Gollum chose evil. Even more interesting, Gollum struggles with a desire between good and evil. Gollum becomes a complex character of both pity and revulsion specifically because he has “moral agency.” Unlike Grendel, you can’t plug a senseless animal into Gollum’s role.

There’s another important reason to include a badguy with moral agency in your stories. If all you have is monsters, it tends to flatten your protagonists’ morality. The brave and daring knight can always feel morally superior to the depraved and evil monsters. But when the big bad has moral agency, then the knight may have to do some soul-searching. “Who or what determined that I should be on the side of good and not in league with this evil fellow? Is there some wicked part of me that isn’t all too different from my nemesis?” Perhaps most interesting of all, “Am I really justified in destroying my nemesis, or is there the possibility of redemption for him?”

All of this shouldn’t dissuade you from using monsters. Monsters are still cool. It’s good to have monsters in your story. Just remember: your really compelling badguys are the ones who chose to be bad. And maybe, just maybe, they won’t always make that choice.

13 thoughts on “The Trouble with Monsters

  1. What about John Gardner’s novel Grendel? That puts a very different spin on the monster, casting him in the sympathetic role… kind of. (I read this in high school as part of a class, so my recollections are… not the best.)

    The best bad guys are usually ones that the audience can at least see themselves identifying with. There’s a reason Magneto is such a strong villain/hero for the X-Men franchise; the audience can sympathize with him. At the same time, though, what about characters like the Joker? He’s one of the most popular villains in popular culture, and yet we don’t really see any kind of moral agency in him in any version I’ve ever seen. How would he fit into your picture here?

    Again, I agree that the best bad guys usually have some sort of moral standing. George R. R. Martin does this superbly in Game of Thrones, for instance. But… there are exceptions.

    1. I never really got into Batman much and I have to admit I haven’t seen any of the Dark Knight movies of recent years. So I suppose I just can’t say much about the Joker.

      What I can say is this: the Joker has never really appealed much to me personally for a lot of the reasons I talked about. He’s a psychopath. There’s not much more to him (that I have read/seen, anyway).

      Twoface, on the other hand, seems a lot more interesting. There’s some small part of him that still remembers the good guy he used to be. I think he’s a lot more compelling, honestly.

      I’ve heard of Gardner’s novel on Grendel, but haven’t read it yet.

      1. And yet you have to admit that Joker has a popularity that belies the theory… though, as I said, he’s an exception, not a rule. I have a hard time coming up with a convincing bad guy outside of Joker that doesn’t have some kind of “code of honor.” Perhaps the appeal of Joker is simply in his unpredictability? Some of the best Joker stories capitalize on that aspect of the character.

        I WILL agree that Two-Face, when properly written, presents a much deeper villain. I have been disappointed at how he’s often enough presented in the comics, as opposed to really seizing his potential.

        I wasn’t a fan of Grendel in high school, but it was also one of those books that you’re forced to read, so I might have a different opinion should I read it today.

        Thinking further about your premise, I can offer another villain that has moral qualms of one sort or another — think the Phantom of the Opera, either the Webber musical or the original Leroux novel. While he was definitely the bad guy of the piece, he did follow a certain moral code. He wasn’t a “monster” as you’re using the term.

      2. I agree that the Joker is a popular villain. I also think you’re on to something with that unpredictability factor.

  2. Ken, good analysis of the difference between monsters and baddies. A little different thought than Jon’s – what about characters that choose the bad to the extent that they BECOME monsters? To follow your Lord of the Rings track, Sauron at one point in the history of the story had a chance to turn good, but he chose instead to follow his evil and betrayed the elves, thus creating the one ring and starting all that came after. At that point he was no longer capable of redemption – he had become completely a monster. At yet, he is still a volitional being, and you might say he has a “moral agency” in that sense. I guess that’s kind of a blurring of the lines? An inbetweener? I don’t know, I’m just musing here. What do you think?

    1. I think monsters can definitely be volitional. They can plot and plan and have a higher purpose than a lion does, for instance. They can even choose one course of evil over another.

      But notice something interesting about your Sauron example: If you think about it, Sauron’s influence in LotR is fairly small beyond being the guy kind of “behind” the problem. Does he even have any dialogue in the books (I don’t recall)? He’s definitely not the badguy that Tolkien spends the most time on. Tolkien spends lots more time on Gollum (badguy with a chance at redemption) and on Boromir and Faramir (goodguys with some fatal temptations).

      Sauron, in a way, becomes part of the background. And I would argue that it’s precisely because his lack of moral agency (at that point in the story) makes him much less interesting as a character.

      1. Interesting observation about the non-role of Sauron. You’re on to something there I hadn’t really thought of. I suppose I’m partly influenced by having read a lot of the history of LotR, so I see his backstory in what he does.

  3. Now just imagine a creature whose depths are so black that his every inclination is only evil all the time! What power would be necessary to slay such evil! Especially if there were billions of such creatures!


    1. Indeed.

      It’s worth noting that the whole issue of moral agency gets a little murky when you consider the human condition of original sin and non posse non peccare. But I was just working from within the bounds of fiction.

  4. On the subject of the Joker, here’s something that kind of adds to the appeal, I believe – While we never really get much of a backstory for him, what made him very compelling, at least in the recent rendition of the Batman mythos, is the constant hints of a complex background that led to his psychopathy.

    The draw is the combination of the cryptic and the pathology, because it forces us to ask the question, “Could it have been me?” After all, I can think back to events in my life that were potentially traumatic, but I didn’t snap, and why not? And why did he? In some ways it makes him a sympathetic character, because while I can’t relate to the insanity, I can imagine the trauma.

  5. Hello, kenichi. I see you like death note. Monsters are amazing, but characters like gollum are even better! The complexity makes them more interesting and deeper. You feel a pull to know more about them, all the time!

    1. Speaking of Death Note, Light Yagami is a great example of a fun and complex villain. Although, the series is really more about his chess match with L/N rather than character exploration.

      Still, it’s Light’s complexity as a villain (after all, we can understand why he does what he does even if we disagree with it) that allows us to enjoy the chess match.

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