A number of years ago I encountered a workshop where, all at once, every one of the very talented writers I was working with seemed to want to write only fantastical short stories about monsters. Story after story came into workshop containing not just monsters, but the most fantastical of monsters: vampires who could fly and suck blood and seduce. Wolfmen who were as hirsute as the hirsutest of all wolves. Dragons that breathed fire and stole princesses and encountered hobbits. It was in a moment of desperation that, together with the most self-searching writers in that group, finding their stories needed something—but what?—we came up with a tool we called "The Monster Scale."
The Monster Scale was pretty straightforward: it was a horizontal line, drawn in chalk on a chalkboard, with vertical lines on either end, like this:
|NOT AT ALL A MONSTER
Rightmost, the vertical line represented the most monstrous a monster could be. Rightmost was the time-traveling vampire who could fly while time-traveling and seducing raven-haired women he could later feast upon, metaphorically and otherwise. But here's where the Monster Scale grew useful: Leftmost had to represent the same character, only scaled down to its least monstrous.
What did that mean?
Therein lies the rub. To make a story, to make characters we believe, we needed to know them, through and through. So we started talking about it. For the Time-Traveling Seducer Vampire, it meant, say, a very fit 20-year-old lothario at a big state college who never seemed to know what time it was. Maybe the women he seduced noticed, upon meeting him, that he didn't wear a watch. Suddenly we were asking useful questions of this character. So could said watchless lothario be likeable? What was the worst he could do? What did it look like when a seduction failed him? In any of these cases, wouldn't he potentially be, oh, I don't know—awful, another kind of monster? And if so, what story was the writer telling?
Now this might all sound a little obvious, a little facile, but where it has come to grow truly useful as the Monster Scale has developed over the years—and I do use the Monster Scale in the classroom more often than I'd like to admit—is when we try to figure out where in the vast muddy middle of the Scale a given story fits. Let's say we've got on the right side a werewolf, and to the left just a very hairy Bostonian who can't seem to explain why he's so enraptured by amateur paintings of the moon. I like to ask questions like: what would it look like if we moved a third of the way to the middle from the left? Say, a hairy Israeli poet who's just won a major international prize for lunar-image-inflected poetry? What would it be a third of the way from the right? Maybe Kafka's "The Hunger Artist," only with sleep deprivation instead of hunger—and again, more hair?
I've also come to find that the Monster Scale grows useful in approaching reading as much as writing. We often think of genre distinctions as fixed: we think of Kafka as Kafkaesque, of Cheever and Roth as staid realists. But reconsider, for a moment, Roth's Swede Levov—was he a monster as Roth presented him in American Pastoral, even if a realistic one? What if he'd been, rather than a Jew so blonde and athletic that people called him "the Swede," an actual Swedish Jew? What if his daughter Merry had been, instead of a radical who bombed a post office, more merry, as her name ironically suggests? Or what if she'd done worse? What if she was Bernardine Dohrn? Roth was always balancing those questions the Monster Scale is asking, and always shifting the ground of that world to see what he could do. David Kepesh woke one morning from uneasy dreams to find he was a human-sized breast. As writers we're at our best when we understand the myriad iterations of a given story—and then we select the version of the story that best tells the truth we're looking for.
I've always been just a tad more than allergic to genre distinctions, and I suspect that the Monster Scale has come to help show me why. Turns out that the Monster Scale isn't a scale about monsters. There are no monsters. There are simply fallible humans living in complicated worlds, the world imposed upon them and worlds of their own making, and the characters we make from them to put in those worlds. What I've come to see is this is an exercise in considering the distance between realism and the fantastic—and in seeing they're never too far, always on a horizontal line with vertical lines at either end, or maybe even bending just enough to form one big circle.