Over the years I've consumed a variety of different media, resulting in a very specific taste in creature designs. Most of what I look for is obviously subjective, but I'd like to take the time to discover a baseline for good monster design.
A few areas that might help with our research are listed here:
- Storied (formerly 'Monstrum') - A channel dedicated to the dissection of folkloric monsters into their cultural and social origins.
- The work of Keith Thompson - A fantastic artist who personally inspired a lot of my own work. His concise yet detailed descriptions of the creatures add to the overall atmosphere of his work.
- Trevor Henderson - Another drop dead dreadful artist. As far as I remember, he has included short descriptions to accompany some of his monsters.
- Bloodborne Art Book (DLC included) - speaks for itself. I love this game.
When I think about monster concepts, I divide them into two elements: the Physical and the Conceptual.
- Physical: How you physically describe the thing. Whats it's weight, skin tone, size? Does it vocalize, does it have weapons or growths? How tactile is it, where you can make the reader actually FEEL the creature standing behind them?
- Conceptual: How does it sound on paper without seeing the finished product? Is it a '12 foot tall man with a knife that can teleport?' (Consider this a thumbnail description, the literary equivalent of sketching). How scary does the concept sound to you?
A good monster in my eyes is something representative of the most primal human fears, usually leading back to fear of Death. Usually I find a good design has the primal fear as the centerpiece, and multiple smaller, more personal fears attached and supporting the design further. For example: Dionaea House's core would be fear of being in an enclosed space/being trapped/predators. Underneath that is the uncanny fears created by it's flesh puppets, and perhaps the alien aspect of it's inner geometry and biology.
Visual aid is not necessary to create a good design; I've personally grown accustomed to drawing creatures alongside my work. If anything it can be more challenging to include an artistic depiction because the reader is focused on the writing first, creating their own interpretation of the monster. Including the image can somewhat take away that personal development of the monster and take away the 'open to imagination' element. Really, it's up to you how much of your attention you want to divide between writing and art design.
Some monster descriptors have been used (derivatively) so much, I am hesitant to use them. A few of these include anything described as having 'pale skin, a wide mouth with hundreds of sharp teeth, long arms with claws, and hollow eyes' (barring my entry Anatomy of the Wraith). Sometimes people don't think about the why of a scary design, and that can lead to an ineffective monster.
A few concepts are just cultural constants, where virtually every culture in the world has some sort of vaguely familiar version of the creature. For example, almost everybody in the world pretty much agrees demons are evil looking humans with horns, wings, sharp teeth, whatever. It's not a crime to rely on traditional designs to create your monster, but building on existing designs can be an effective way to draw the reader into new territory without totally destroying the 'comfort' zone. Take Bloodborne for instance: werewolves are now 'Beasts', blood thirsty townies who are weak to quicksilver and can punch their claws straight through your body.
Making little adjustments to existing ideas and making it your own is a totally valid technique, as long as you recognize the source material and do not directly plagiarize. You will be successful if by the end you have something that feels unique to your style and interpretation of an existing idea. At the same time (and feel free to take this with a grain of salt), using the name of an existing design and having the physical/conceptual description be totally different can be jarring if not handled carefully. For example, if you wrote a story about an angel of death but described it as like...a hooded boy with dragon wings and golden bird feet, I'd feel almost cheated out of a potentially cool design that was minimally representational of a traditional design.
Overall, conceptualizing a creature takes as much time as writing the actual narrative around it. It will always be proportionally relevant, I find, unless the monster itself is less of an antagonist and more of a force of nature used as a deus ex machina.
Post note: I had typed and lost this whole thing earlier, and I'm on about 4 hours of sleep. Thanks for bearing with me