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June 26, 2008 8:51 PM   Subscribe

Aliens, monsters, and ghosts. The big three. But is there a fourth?

I am working on a writing project and am struggling with a conundrum that I thought I'd bring to the hive mind.

It seems to me that in speculative fiction (which encompasses science fiction, fantasy, and horror), there are three major elements, or adversaries:

1. Aliens
2. Monsters
3. Ghosts

The brave souls who fight these creatures have been the basis of all kinds of exciting stories.

For example, in the comic book and the movie, the Men In Black fought aliens.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer fought monsters.

Ghostbusters fought ghosts.

Mulder and Scully fought all three.

So my question there a fourth category? Spirits, maybe? Elves? Combining the categories has already been done -- remember the alien ghosts of "Final Fantasy"?

Any thoughts?
posted by Flying Saucer to Media & Arts (42 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
posted by mdonley at 8:55 PM on June 26, 2008 [4 favorites]

Best answer: ROBOTS! (Slash/evil computer.) Matrix, terminator, etc. etc.
posted by paultopia at 8:55 PM on June 26, 2008 [4 favorites]

Time Travel - Don't screw with the continuum.
posted by brookeb at 8:58 PM on June 26, 2008

Bad Guys - evil corporations, etc.

Mad Scientists (sometimes allied with evil corporations, sometimes eccentrically independent)

Super Villains - mutated humans with extra powers.
posted by amtho at 8:58 PM on June 26, 2008

Ourselves? (That is, other people.)

Seriously, this is a major category of adversary in all the genres you mention, probably much bigger than "ghosts", which honestly, play a pretty minor role in sci-fi and fantasy, and I doubt are even all that big in horror all told.
posted by advil at 8:58 PM on June 26, 2008


Vengeful Nature (the birds, the trees in Shyamalan's latest, natural disasters)
posted by amtho at 9:00 PM on June 26, 2008

Don't forget robots / AI.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 9:01 PM on June 26, 2008

Powerful evil humans. Sorcerers, mutants, foreign kings, CEOs...
posted by hattifattener at 9:03 PM on June 26, 2008

Zombies are a kind of monster, spirits are definitely a kind of ghost... but I think paultopia and Dipsomaniac are right: robots/machines/computers deserves to be a genuine fourth category along with your other three.
posted by rokusan at 9:04 PM on June 26, 2008

Response by poster: I'm good with robots, paultopia. Well done.

As for they go in the monster category? They're undead, like vampires, and vampires are definitely monsters, yes?

Super villains I struggle with. Possibly because with the big three, it's possible that ordinary people could summon the courage, the knowledge, and the means to defeat them. Super villains almost require superheroes to be defeated -- or superspies like James Bond.

Or am I alone on this?
posted by Flying Saucer at 9:04 PM on June 26, 2008

The Natural World.

(Space, center of the earth, under the sea, Medical catastrophe. Discovery. Exploration.)

Social dystopia is a good one not entirely covered by technology or anything else above as well.
posted by cowbellemoo at 9:06 PM on June 26, 2008

Your list comes quite close to my vaguely defined "list of things that are generally righteous and badass to be fighting" which included sundry combinations of:

Unfriendly aliens
The undead (Ghosts, Zombies)
Robots, including evil cyborgs
Satan & other dark magic allies

the one thing you are missing on this list?


As evidence, I submit Return To Castle Wolfenstein which had you fighting Cyborg/Robot Nazis and Satanic Zombie Nazis, and, it's been a while since I played it, but maybe Robot Zombie Nazis. See also the Star Trek Borg which are basically Unfriendly alien Robot Zombies.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 9:09 PM on June 26, 2008

Dragons, Disease and "Others" (as per above -- "Ourselves? (That is, other people.)").
posted by ericb at 9:09 PM on June 26, 2008

Best answer: The Gods! Always meddling in the affairs of mortals... 'specially the Greek Gods.

Women! Everything is their fault, especially Eve, Pandora, Mrs Bates...
posted by Tixylix at 9:09 PM on June 26, 2008

Response by poster: Hmmm. Some of these responses make me want to clarify. Or maybe I never was clear in my OP.

My idea here is to create a new hero. Imagine you're launching a new comic series, or a new TV show. It's called (for the sake of argument) Jack Callahan, _____ Hunter. What does he hunt?

He can't hunt space -- no offense intended, cowbellemoo -- and hunting evil corporations makes him sound like Erin Brockovich. Hunting evil robots is kind of a cool idea, though I assume they're from space and may qualify as aliens. Or maybe it's the future and killer robots are made right here in the U.S. of A.

See where I'm going with this? And feel free to steal these ideas for your own creative writing.
posted by Flying Saucer at 9:12 PM on June 26, 2008

posted by Aquaman at 9:23 PM on June 26, 2008

Zombies, robots, Gods, demons/devils/Lords of Evil, cyborgs, artificial intelligences, animals, intelligent/talking animals, anthropomorphic animals, Authors, faceless corporations, laws of physics, cultural values, subconscious neuroses/psychoses, and bureaucrats are a few spec-fic Nemeses that come to mind just off the top of my head.

I think you might not have been reading very creative SF.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:25 PM on June 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

I liked how in the movie, Men in Black, they called the alien/monster combo thingys, "bugs". Maybe you could make Jack a "Bug Hunter" or else use another kind of general, common name and give it a whole new meaning. In other words, create your own 4th category. Does that make any sense?
posted by pearlybob at 9:28 PM on June 26, 2008

If you want an unusual nemesis, you're better off trying to ask for things people won't normally consider as evil.

I nominate water bottles.
posted by divabat at 9:32 PM on June 26, 2008

Duh. Clowns.
posted by Lou Stuells at 9:33 PM on June 26, 2008

Best answer: Demons?
posted by The Light Fantastic at 9:48 PM on June 26, 2008

posted by claudius at 9:50 PM on June 26, 2008

Things that transform or take over your companions or friends into evil things.

This would include zombies, vampires and some aliens.

It just seems like a common enough and important enough theme to incorporate.

But are they fundamental, who knows?

Why are your categories fundamental? (To paraphrase the Justinians question more politely).
posted by sien at 10:10 PM on June 26, 2008

If you're looking for something to "hunt," what could possibly be categorized as something that's not a alien, ghost, monster or robot? (Assuming being "huntable" excludes things like corporations, nature, etc.)

If you really want to be semantic, aren't ghosts "monsters?" Aren't aliens "monsters?" Even fearsome plants (e.g. Triffids) could still reasonably be called "monsters." If you're going to classify zombies as monsters, I can't think of much that's a distinct thing that's not a monster.

One perfectly reasonable classification scheme seems to be:

1) Mundane life
2) "Monsters"
3) Artificial life (maybe)

Maybe I just don't understand exactly what you're trying to do, but if you're looking for a non-ghost/monster/alien, you're either going to have to relax what can reasonable be "hunted" or find some interesting subclass of "monster." All things considered, those are probably both pretty fertile options.
posted by Nelsormensch at 10:13 PM on June 26, 2008

Evil people alleged to be 'journalists' or 'talk show hosts' that don't report the facts or distort them to suit their evil intentions.

Real Estate Agents.
posted by Goofyy at 10:15 PM on June 26, 2008

I am Nthing the Faceless Overlord category here -- this can include computers that take over the world, an inhuman and merciless social system that just has no sympathy for the common man (Phillip K. Dick, 1984), the Matrix, things like that. You're just a cog in the machine.

Jack Callahan

Fighting faceless overlords since 1984
posted by salvia at 10:19 PM on June 26, 2008

When I first read the question, I was stumped until I realized that yes, robots/computers was the obvious answer. (I don't think Mulder and Scully have fought robots, per se, but there was the "Ghost in the Machine" episode. And I think there was one written by William Gibson about someone who downloaded his/herself into cyberspace or something?)

You might want to check out How to Survive a Robot Uprising. It's a humor book in the vein of the Worst Case Scenario series, but it was written by a roboticist. They're making a comedy feature out of it, although I'm inclined to think it couldn't possibly do the book justice.

They should make a movie about a guy who hunts down pesky evil robots. There was an old comic called "Magnus: Robot Fighter," and I think a movie adaptation was kicked around but never made it.

"Black magic" and its variants might be the fifth. Zombies/mutants would fall under the monster category. And there have been enough horror movies lately based on them. I wouldn't call ghosts or aliens "monsters." I think of "monsters" as being "earthly" and biological. "The Thing," "Predator," "Alien"... alien villains, not monsters.

I guess you could add mad scientists and such, but I'd think it's usually their work and not the character itself that creates the sci-fi/fantasy aspect.

Is your idea sort of an A-Team, Equalizer, X-Files hybrid?
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 10:26 PM on June 26, 2008

Response by poster: This discussion has gone to some interesting places -- most of them good.

Nelsormensch and a few others are advocating changing the categories, so perhaps we should look at them this way:

1. Aliens -- biological beings from another planet (or dimension, I guess). These things could exist right now, and may even have already visited Earth. And left behind crystal skulls.

2. Monsters -- are things that can't exist under our current scientific laws. Some kind of magic or religion is necessary. Creatures that cheat death, come back from the dead, are partly dead, would fall in this category. Vampires, werewolves, mummies. Demons and dragons are borderline in this category, if you ask me.

3. Ghosts -- are spiritual beings. Perhaps demons go here. These are non-corporeal things, so if you hit them, your fist goes through them. You need either magic or a proton accelerator to kill these. What else goes here besides ghosts? Genies, I guess. In some mythologies, elves and fairies are more spirit than matter.

4. Maybe the fourth category is a more mundane monster that can exist in our modern world. Robots go here. Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, dragons.

#1 and #4 can be killed with a gun. #2 and #3 can't.

Am I on the right track?
posted by Flying Saucer at 10:38 PM on June 26, 2008

posted by NickPeters at 10:45 PM on June 26, 2008

posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 11:02 PM on June 26, 2008

posted by loiseau at 11:26 PM on June 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

loiseau nailed it. Jack Callahan, Ninja Hunter is hott. For semantic purposes, you could probably generalize ninjas into something like "thugs" -- regular humans who through innate ability, learned skills or other acquired advantage are more powerful than an average person. Mafiosi, pirates and even faceless corporations could go in this category too. Ninjas and pirates, together at last.
posted by Rock Steady at 11:44 PM on June 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

posted by Artw at 12:09 AM on June 27, 2008

Best answer: You may find Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained helpful; Boyer delineates categories of attributes that define things like ghosts, witches, demons and gods.

Basically, he opines that what we find interestingly strange are (hypothetical) things which partake in all the normal attrbutes of a category, bur with one or a few attributes contrary to that category, or borrowed from another:
"Religious representations are particular combinations of mental representations that satisfy two conditions. First, the religious concepts violate certain expectations from ontological categories. Second, they preserve other expectations... The religious concept preserves all the relevant default inferences except the ones that are explicitly barred by the counterintuitive element.... The concept [ghost] is that of a PERSON that has counterintuitive physical properties. Unlike other persons, ghosts can go through solid objects like walls. But notice that apart from this ability, ghosts follow very strictly the ordinary intuitive concept of PERSON.
E.g., talking (sentient) animals, which are kind of monster or alien. (Really, what's the difference between "the Greys" and Grey Elves? The former possess big eyes, ancient wisdom, a small and delicate stature, and a flying saucer, and come from Outer Space; the latter share all those traits but the saucer, and come from the deep dark woods.)

E.g, things with human traits and emotions (lust, greed, overweening pride, anger, etc.), which like humans are not omniscient, but are super-powerful: the Greek Gods

E.g., non-sentient persons: zombies.

Boyer points out that by varying only one trait (or stealing it from another category), we make these fictional things understandable: a zombie may have no soul or sentience, but otherwise it acts like a human -- it can't walk through walls, it needs sustenance (brains!), etc. A ghost is like a human, but it can walk through walls -- but it can't be in two places at once, or read your mind, or fly through the air.

Animist religions invest human traits in trees and places: it's a normal tree, you can cut it down, but it also (like a human) can hear and understand you if you stand near to it. But it can't walk through walls.

A witch is a normal human, who can fly through the air and fulfill his very human desire through magic.

A Christian-style god can be in two places at once, but we normally don't attribute walking through walls to a Yahweh. We -- well, the early books of the Torah, that is -- do attribute to Yahweh human desires and emotions: for fealty (the sacrifice of Isaac), for obedience (the Fall of Adam), for power (wrestling with Jacob), and wrath (destroying all the world in The Flood, or all of Sodom and Gomorrah). Jesus is theologically explicitly a man (otherwise he can't redeem Adam's sin), but he's a man who, unlike all other men, isn't mortal.

(Boyer will explain that he's investing folk inuition of "the other", and that teh modern Christian God, omniscient, omnipotent, and mostly abscent from the world except in super-subtle ways, is more of an intellectual creation of theologians than a conflation of intuitive psychological categories.)

So I think what you want is to take a intuitive category (e.g, human, animal, plant, place, tool) and reverse one attribute, or borrow one attribute from another category.

Sentient animal: alien, elf, Bugs Bunny: alien.
Human animal: centaurs, mermaids, etc: monster.
Human without a body: ghost
Sentient tool: HAL 9000, Terminator, R. Daneel Olivaw, etc: robot
Sentient (malevolent) place: haunted house, god-volcano we sacriice virgins to, etc.
Sentient plant: animist religion (malevolent) that crappy movie by M Night Sham-a-lam.
All-knowing human: god, etc.
posted by orthogonality at 1:02 AM on June 27, 2008 [10 favorites]

Really good breakdown there from ortho. Though "sentient plant" makes me think more of Audrey, a la "Little Shop of Horrors". (FEED ME!!) Or those tree people from "Lord of the Rings".
posted by FuzzyVerde at 2:17 AM on June 27, 2008

Howbout "ideas" or "beliefs", rather than creatures, as an oft-used adversary in speculative fiction?

For example, in Neil Gaiman's American Gods, the protagonist supports a bunch of old pagan gods in a war against new American "gods" (e.g. "the internet", "media", "mass transit", etc). It's been a looooong time since I read anything by Terry Pratchett, but I think in a lot of his books' adversaries are not so much members of your "Big Three" but more like manifestations of ideas (e.g. the gods in "Small Gods", or the elves in "Lords and Ladies").
posted by laumry at 3:48 AM on June 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I love categorizing creatures! To help keep things simple, I'm going to use the term 'Antag' for a generic-thing-to-be-fought.

First, let's break down the Origins of an Antag:

1) Other Place: Antags exist concurrently with hero, just from a different physical place. This covers Aliens, Molemen, Conquistadors, and so on.

2) Other Dimension: Antags come from a different reality (ie, things/physics work differently there than here), but exist concurrently with the hero. Demons (Hell), Evil Twins (Mirror, Mirror), Fae, and some spirits/ghosts (Afterlife) can fill in here.

3) Other Time: Antags come from same reality as hero, just from a different time (past/future). Dinosaurs, pirates, T-1000s, etc.

4) Secret: Antags have always existed along side hero's place/time, but are not widely known to exist. Vampires, werewolves, goblins, Illuminati, etc.

5) Fictional: Antags do not actually exist except in imagination of hero/populace. Red Scare, Jabberwocky-come-to-life, etc.

6) Multiple Origins. Antag comes from more than one of the 5 above. For example, if the hero were to fight Evil Spock, he'd be fighting a Fictional Antag from an Other Place, Other Time, and maybe even Other Dimension. Cthulhu is from an Other Place and Time.

Okay, so now that we know where the Antag comes from, how did it get here? By 'here' I mean 'being dealt with by hero'.

1) Eternal. Antag has for all intents and purposes always existed. Gods, Xenu, Demons, etc.

2) Summoned. Something brought the Antag into conflict with the hero. Antag has history of its own before arrival. Someone called it here, but did not make it. Say Bloody Mary into the mirror three times, etc.

3) Created. Antag did not exist previously, but was built. Someone else is responsible for its creation. Frankenstein, zombies, NWO.

4) Evolved. Antag became what it is over time, possibly from lesser parts. Nobody is responsible for what it is today. Could be by chance or just logic progression. Godzilla, the Mangler, the Knights Templar.

5) Visiting. Antag came here of its own free will. UFOs, vengeful ghosts, etc.

6) Multiple. Satan could be an Eternal Antag who is just Visiting the hero in the desert.

What fuels the Antag's power?

1) Science. Antag's abilities come from replicable exploits of the natural laws. So if the hero gets one of the Antag's Science devices, they can use it too. UFOs, mind control helmets, etc.

2) Birthright. The Antag's power comes from what it is. It may be limitless in one aspect, but limited in another, as defined by its own nature. The hero can not stop the Antag from being what it is, but they can exploit its limitations. Death can kill anybody, but if you beat It in a game, you don't die. A tiger is just a tiger.

3) Acceptance. The Antag has power because people accept that it has power. If enough people refused to believe, then the Antag weakens. The IRS, charlatans, the bad guy from Needful Things, the hero's self-doubts.

4) Supernatural. The Antag's power comes from the manipulation of rules of reality that do not necessarily apply to everyone else. The hero must work to learn these rules to defeat the Antag. This is different than Science in that it takes more than just training to use the Antag's power. For example, anyone can figure out how to use the Death Ray, but it takes a special scenario to figure out the Black Staff of Annihilation. Wizards, demons, etc.

5) Supplication. The Antag is powered by something even bigger than it. Remove that connection and its power fades. This can be done without interacting with the Antag at all. Dirty cops, mid-level criminal masterminds, the IRS Auditor, the EPA guy from Ghostbusters.

6) Multiple.

So what's the Antag doing that brings it into conflict? What's its motive for impacting the hero?

1) Intentional. The Antag intentionally wants to impact others.

2) Side Effect. The Antag doesn't care or maybe isn't even aware of how it's impacting others. It's just doing its own thing.

3) Duty. The Antag does not necessarily have a choice in what it is doing. Maybe it's under orders, maybe it's just doing its job, but it is aware that it is impacting others.

4) Target. The Antag is just minding its own business and is being hunted. Any impact it has is because it's trying to get away. It would rather be left alone.

5) Unavoidable. Nothing can stop the Antag from impacting others in a certain way. Maybe it's fate or destiny, or just will be. The hero must manage the impact as best as possible.

6) Multiple.

How is the Antag organized?

1) Single. It's just it and its power. The hero can face it mano-e-mano.

2) Single-with-minions. The Antag has minions (mini-antags) of its own. If the hero defeats the Big Bad, then the minions become less of a threat.

3) Multiple - Organized. Taken alone, the Antag isn't too tough, but it usually comes in groups. The hero will be one vs many.

4) Multiple - Unorganized. Taken alone, it's not too tough, but there are more than one of them that sometimes conflict with each other. The hero may be able to exploit that.

5) Not There. The Antag doesn't actually exist or isn't even present. It could be a rumor, a banging shutter, or a scheme put in to place by a the Real Antag.

6) Mix multiple. A hybrid organization of multiples from the above. The Borg could be Single-with-minions (Borg Queen) and Multiple-Organized.

After that, everything else is pretty much a special effect. Does the Antag bleed acid? Have metal skin? Steal souls? No body? This stuff matters when it comes time to fight/hunt the Antag(s) themselves, but less so when it comes to how the overall conflict or hunt is organized.

These categories are by no means complete, but if you break out some six-sided dice from a Monopoly set, you can roll up some quick Antags and see what you get. If you get a 6 (multiple), roll again. On a 1-3, roll twice (rerolling 6s) on the table; 4-5, roll 3 times (don't reroll 6s); and 6 roll 3 times (rerolling 6s). Anything more than 3 would be a bit complicated.

Lemme know what you think!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:08 AM on June 27, 2008 [24 favorites]

While not directly answering your question, you might find inspiration poking around the TV Tropes wiki (despite its name, not limited to TV), particularly the Villians page (which includes both types of enemies and tropes about villians) and the various sub-pages off of Our Monsters are Different (main lesson: just because you're using vampires, for example, doesn't mean you have to stick too closely to what others have done with vampires before; Stoker's, Rice's, and Whedon's vampires each have their own distinct set of rules, and you can pick and choose the rules for yours too.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:33 AM on June 27, 2008



posted by Vindaloo at 10:50 AM on June 27, 2008

posted by amtho at 6:33 PM on June 27, 2008

posted by thebrokenmuse at 8:17 PM on June 27, 2008

It's the other survivors you have to watch out for.
posted by Artw at 9:18 PM on June 28, 2008

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