It may sound like the title to the next cheesy blockbuster kids’ film or a badass battle to-the-death, but the differences between monsters and villains in fiction are poignant and critical to tone, thematic trajectory, and character development.
Though the labels “monster” and “villain” are often used interchangeably with regard to fiction, their differences are much more potent than their similarities, and it is essential to consider which label your character warrants. What you call your characters or how you brand them speaks volumes. Considering your character’s identity within the piece will help you refine, develop the character appropriately, and ensure the character and dialogue are well-rounded and believable.
The modalities upon which monsters differ from villains throughout fiction include their motivation, appearance, and reception. All three should be considered when constructing a character in order to properly depict the character, whether monster or villain.
Your villain should be an antagonist, though she doesn’t need to specifically antagonize the protagonist and could instead be antagonizing a village, or more generally, the protagonist’s society. A villain is antagonizing, challenging the interests of whatever is branded as “good” in the story – a protagonist, village, or society. A monster does not share this directed, antagonistic motivation. Your monster’s motivations may be nebulous or possibly incomprehensible to your protagonist. Monsters are often alien or magical and may serve as a metaphor. The monster doesn’t necessitate a clearly defined motivation and is often passive, rather than active – she simply is, and characters react to her otherness.
Your villain should appear sinister, whether it be through vivid evil imagery, or through a clever disguise of virtue. Your monster’s otherness should be clear, perhaps even readable on her body, though her otherness may also be invisible. Consider the implications and figurative meanings surrounding her otherness. Her tentacles or scales may brand her as a monster (i.e. other, grotesque) but not as a villain since monsters don’t necessitate cruelty or antagonism.
Your villain should be received with hatred and contempt – after all, she is trying to harm your protagonist or the society which has cultivated your protagonist. There is very little sympathy for the villain, and she is regarded as a threat or evil. Your monster, on the other hand, can garner sympathy, disdain, curiosity, or more potently, fear. Often the monster is misunderstood and must necessarily lack knowability; she is entirely foreign to the protagonist and the reader. The reader’s reception of the monster may shift throughout the story from fear to curiosity, to sympathy or admiration. The nuances of this cycle have weighty implications for the thematic trajectory of your story. Consider what you are saying about otherness and its reception and weave the intended morality into your monster’s story arc.
Before sending off your story draft, consider if you have successfully defined the scope and purpose of your characters: are they monsters or villains, and how does this affect the narrative? Make sure you’re leaving the reader with the intended effect by using your characters effectively and creatively. Be mindful of the temptation to use characters thoughtlessly; merely as devices to further the plot and to generate fear or hatred. Be sensitive toward your characters and nurture them with considerate, careful words. Treat your character as you would like to be treated – as a fully-formed, valuable person.