If you know Warhammer, you probably know it because of the very successful tabletop game. Newer fans might know it from the Total War: Warhammer series of video games. If you’ve been around a while, you might have found it through its fiction.
I found it through the tabletop game, but I stayed for the writing – the many epic heroic fantasy series published by Black Library that I chewed through as a kid. For days at a time I lived in the dark shadows of the Great Forest, watching from behind a bush as heroes like Gotrek Gurnisson cut through hordes of rampaging beastmen and mutants. Good times!
Some of the best heroic fantasy, in my opinion, was set in the Warhammer universe. It’s heyday seems to have passed now, sadly, with Black Library turning their focus to Warhammer 40,000. But those old books are still out there, and they’re well worth a read.
Not because the lore is especially unique. It was 90s fantasy – some of it feels very cookie-cutter. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for the heroes, either, though I do love them. No, the best thing about the series – and the Warhammer setting as a whole – is its monsters.
Now, monsters can do many roles in fiction depending on the genre. The greatest monster is almost certainly Shelley’s monster in Frankenstein, but he’s doing very different things in that than the monsters in Black Library books or The Witcher are. In short, he’s a literary monster and they’re genre monsters.
I’ll write about literary monsters some other time, but genre monsters are much simpler: they aren’t there to make you contemplate the differences between man and monster (they might occasionally, but it’s not their main function). In genre fiction, they’re there to put up a fight before the hero sticks his sword in them.
They’re there to be entertaining.
Tragic, maybe. Majestic, sometimes. Always scary – the scarier the better. But at the end of the day, they’re there to create the most enthralling action they can before they’re killed – and this is especially true in Heroic Fantasy, where we expect to read about big heroes killing scary monsters.
With that in mind, the most important thing your genre monsters have to be is interesting. Mostly this means being scary in a fight. Of course, the reader ultimately expects the hero to succeed. But you need to make them have that moment where they think: “Oh my god. How on earth is the hero going to survive that?!“
But they also have to be consistent. And by consistent, I don’t mean they always behave the way we expect them to. They should tend to do certain things – maybe because of their religion or culture, maybe because of their natural traits – so the characters and the reader can predict how they might behave in a certain situation. We all love to see the veteran monster-hunter character preparing for a fight by listing the strengths, weaknesses and traits of a particular monster. But we also love it when, when the hero has to fight them again, chapters – or even books – later, we know, too. We feel like we’re beginning to understand the world, the monsters in it, and the hero him or herself. This makes them feel like real creatures – because all living things, no matter how complicated, can be predicted to some degree.
They should also be badass. But that one’s harder to define.
This is what Warhammer‘s monsters are best at. Because when we see a green-skinned orruk (or orc, as we longbeards knew them as), we instantly know what to expect. We know what drives the actions of the man-eating ogors and the sinister daemons. But my heart belongs to the Skaven, and that’s who I’m using as my example.
Why do they work? Let’s break it down.
- They live in tunnels, so they can pop up anywhere – this makes them both terrifying and extremely conventient, because they can be written in as an enemy in nearly any scene.
- They come in many different forms – from the huge ratogres to the lowly clanrats. Having different types means they pose different threats – and each fight can be slightly different, requiring varying skills to confront them, so the fights don’t get boring or repetitive.
- They have a defined goal: obtain warpstone wherever possible. This makes it easier to write them into a story and have them be active villains rather than passive, and keener readers can begin to predict what the Skaven might be doing in a particular plot.
- They have a personality – they work well in numbers, are cowardly alone, and prefer to operate in the shadows. Again, this makes them feel like real, living things – and gives the reader a nice surprise when a cunning Skaven turns up who behaves in exactly the opposite way to the rest of his brothers.
Whenever a Skaven appears ‘on screen’, we already have ideas of what they’re like, how dangerous they are and what they might be doing here. Which not only makes the world feel more consistent (and therefore real, which is the goal here, right?), but also makes the reader want to read on and find out if their assumptions are justified.
So when you’re writing your genre monsters, you need to know a few things right from the start:
- Where do they live? What is their day-to-day life like? How do they choose leaders or lairs, if at all?
- What are they capable of?
- What have they done in the past? (Don’t get bogged down here though, or you’ll spend the next month worldbuilding instead of actually writing).
- What are they trying to achieve?
Having monsters that are scary and big and dangerous is obviously necessary. But to take your monsters a step further, make sure they behave consistently. This only adds to the weight and realism of your setting, and makes the reader feel like they’re getting to know more about your world.
And then find exciting ways to break these rules. Because all rules are meant to be broken. In fact, that’s what takes your storytelling from good to great.