Monstrous protagonists

From, this: Six Books with Monstrous Heroes

I’ve read one of these — Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw. I’m often up for a nonhuman protagonist, whether technically monstrous or otherwise, and it seems to me there are quite a few more who feature in books I’ve read. Let me see.


I love Elda! I mean, griffins in general, but Elda is especially delightful among griffins who feature in school-buddy stories. That may possibly be a smallish category. Anyway, this and the prequel, Dark Lord of Derkholm, are some of my favorite stories by DWJ.

Another griffin:

I didn’t find that one as compelling, but then it’s hard to compete with DWJ. The griffins — gryphons — are certainly more diverse in this one. I am still delighted and amused whenever I think about the peacock-based griffins in this series

In fact, if you’re interested in griffins, then K Vale Nagle has a Guide to Gryphons Reading List that you have to check out.

Meanwhile, if you’re interested in nonhuman protagonists in fantasy, then there’s this post: How to write nonhuman characters. Good advice:

Talking animals will, of course, have been born in their current form. As such, it will be natural for them to think and act in ways that differ from human customs. You’ll want to research the behavior, the abilities, and in some cases, the social structure of these animals (if you’re dealing with a social animal) so that you can blend human-like thoughts and intelligence believably with the animal form in question. Try not to give an animal some personality quirk that simply doesn’t fit its nature.

By all means, give the nonhuman character thoughts and impulses and so on that suit the character in question. Definitely don’t make your nonhuman character psychologically indistinguishable from a human person, or what is even the point? Also:

If your character is either an animal or part animal, that will certainly affect their body language. 

You know who does body language really well — Martha Wells for the Raksura series. She gives the Raksura catlike reflexes, which works so well to make them come across as not quite human when they are psychologically very much like human people (except much less easy to physically intimidate). I get that the Raksura are not a typical fantasy nonhuman species, but the same basic principles apply to griffins and dragons and whatever.

Of course if you decide for no particular reason that your griffins are also essentially fire elementals, that may nudge your story off in directions you didn’t initially expect …

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9 thoughts on “Monstrous protagonists”

  1. Funny, I thought you meant pov isn’t morally good, like Soon I Will Be Invincible has the supervillain as the narrator.

    For this theme, Sirena by Donna Jo Napoli is narrated by a Greek Siren, and I’m thinking there must be some books narrated by dragon characters, but I’m drawing a blank.

  2. Thinking deep philosophic thoughts about whether Heartstrikers counts — by Rachel Aaron — where Julius is a dragon, but a shape shifter and is in fact bound to human form starting in the first book.

    Donn Kusher’s A Book Dragon the dragon stays a dragon.

    And there’s always The Last Unicorn.

  3. I would highly recommend the gryphon (although her spelling of gryfon drives me bonkers) books Jess E. Owen writes, starting with Song of the Summer King. The whole four-book series is fantastic, and it looks like she’s got a new one out now that I haven’t read yet. Her unusual take on dragons (when they show up much later) is also really good.

  4. Mary Catelli — same with Tea With the Black Dragon. If we never see the dragon except in human form, does it count? Probably not.

    Megan, I’ll check out the Owen’s series! I can adapt to any spelling of griffin, though obviously my own spelling is objectively superior.

    Actually, where did the word come from? Okay, Wikipedia says, “The griffin, griffon, or gryphon (Greek: γρύφων, grýphōn, or γρύπων, grýpōn, early form γρύψ, grýps; Latin: gryphus, meaning “curved”” … so, I guess we can see which three spellings eventually became semi-standard. Personally I rather like “grypon” and can imagine using that some time.

  5. For body language and animal affecting the character don’t forget Dun Lady’s Jess and sequels, which are stellar examples of the horse turned human category.
    (I just reread it, so it’s fresh in mind.)

    For books narrated by dragons there’s Walton’s Tooth and Claw in which every single character is a dragon. I think Dragon with a Chocolate Heart is also.

    I ran across a sample recently where one reason I dumped it was the draconic POV which didn’t work at all – far too human.

  6. you know, your character Kes could count – if she hadn’t started as human she would be completely incomprehensible as the book goes on.

    I asked if The Teen had any suggestions for non-human ‘monstrous’ narrative POVs. Immediate answer: Tristan from Fortress. As TVTropes says ‘an eldritch abomination, but a very nice one.’ Then started rattling off some fanfiction examples, such as “How to Train Your Dragon'(movie, not the book) as if from Toothless’ POV. or the Bug and void monster perspectives in (good) stories based on the game Hollow Knight, particularly good example without needing game background in the story Of Thread and its uses” Narrated by a monster of shaped Void. available to check on AO3.
    A Phoenix POV on AO3 here – it’s part of a connected set or I’d’ve just provided a title the link is just for that bit –

  7. Elaine, that’s true, Kes is very nonhuman by the end.

    Also, very much yes with Dun Lady’s Jess. Very impressive job with the horse/human and also just a good story.

  8. I don’t mind playing second fiddle to DWJ =]

    I feel like creature fantasy protagonists exist on a spectrum between “humans with a new coat of paint” and “completely alien.” In reading all of those gryphon books this last year, I find that I kind of like every point on the spectrum. Sometimes the extremes don’t feel as good to read, but I do appreciate getting to read non-humans.

    Since creature fantasy seems to rub some people the wrong way, I started out milder than I should have for Eyrie, then started to move more interesting as new gryphon types appeared (owls, sand cats).

    I’m glad you liked the peacock gryphons =] I’m partial to the saber-toothed tiger + extinct Haast’s eagle gryph, Hatzel, myself.

    Echoing Elaine’s thoughts above, I really loved Kes as a character. She’s stuck with me since reading your books last year. I wouldn’t call her a creature protagonist, at first, but I love that she’s a human protagonist who doesn’t believe in humanity the way the other characters do.

    Did you read KJ Taylor’s Dark Griffin series? It’s grimdark, but it does a good job of subverting my creature fantasy, gryphon, and dragon rider expectations I didn’t even realize I had. Definitely don’t read unless you want to be sad, though.

  9. I haven’t read the Dark Griffin series and … um … yeah … not entirely sure I feel up for that!

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