A few weeks ago I had a blip on creating races for your fantasy or sci-fi novel and then using them to create diversity in your novel.
Today, I’m here to look at a slightly different topic, but one that is related nonetheless. Today, we’re going to talk creatures.
I mean, who doesn’t love a good monster?
Unfortunately, that seems to be the only way we look at the creation of creatures: to make monsters. Why? After all, there are so many other ways to use creatures in your story.
Before we talk about that, let’s consider a few things:
New World, New Fauna
Remember back in elementary botany when you learned the word “flora”? It’s basically a fancy, sciency way of saying “plants”. Yup. The study of plants wanted to be special so it came up with its own word for plants. Yay.
Then along came elementary zoology and what does it decide to do? Well, if plant-scientists get to make up a word, then why not animal-scientists?
Yes, I realize these words do have legitimate uses and meanings. I’m here to make fun of science because I love it, okay?
Anyway. “Fauna” is a fancy way of grouping all the animals that live in a given area under one word. The fauna of England, for instance, is super diverse and interesting. The fauna of Ireland includes very few snakes (thank you very much, St. Patrick).
Each continent has a massive fauna and flora diversity. Even simple lines drawn on a map to represent countries can create huge boxes of natural diversity.
It’s kind of awesome.
So why does your novel need creatures?
Now, it’s nearly impossible and far too time-consuming to create every single animal that will ever come up in your story, and fully impossible to create enough creatures to sustain life in your world. Good luck creating a few thousand species of insects.
What can you do, then?
The Importance of Cameos
One of the worst ways to create diversity through creatures is to reference names and do nothing else.
I don’t often condone the phrase “show, don’t tell”, but I do with this case. Telling us about creatures you’ve supposedly invented is not equal to diversity.
And it’s not equal to good worldbuilding.
If you create a creature, it should be shown in your novel in real-time. You can’t just warn us of the dangers of the Pither Snake and then never have this creature show up.
No. We need to see it, hear it, and feel it. Our senses need to be overloaded by your description so that we can feel the right emotion when this creature shows up.
There are many ways you can show creatures in your novel, but I would suggest these:
-The shorter your novel, the less creatures you should put in it. Too many creatures create a sense of “the author is trying too hard.” Be content with two or three of your own, and then borrow freely from our world.
-Don’t contrive meetings with these creatures. A walk in the forest is sometimes just that. I’ve walked through dozens of wooded areas and never met up with wild animals, so why are all these novels portraying simple walks in the woods as being super dangerous and full of fluffy and potentially evil creatures? The scene has to truly fit in your story.
-Describe them with the senses, not the facts. In just a minute, I’ll give you tips to creating creatures, and one of those is to create a fact list.
This list is NOT for the reader. Your descriptions of the creature should rarely come from this list of facts.
Don’t do it. This list is for you. It tells you exactly what you need to know about the animal. But your reader doesn’t care about the exact length of the creature, they care about relative size. They don’t care about how many teeth it has, they care about how carnivorous they look.
The reader wants to feel these creatures, not read about them in a zoology textbook.
How do you make a creature that’s unique?
There are hundreds and thousands of novels out there with their own monsters and creatures and diverse fauna. How do you keep yours from just borrowing from others?
First, try not using a dragon.
Yup. I said it. Of all the dragon loving people out there, I had to be the one to say it.
Thing is, everyone uses dragons. For good reason: dragons are the most awe-inspiring fantasy creatures out there. Everyone loves a good dragon.
Unfortunately, this also means your reader has a thousand cliché formats of dragon encounters that your novel has to combat with. You’ve got to stand out so far from the crowd that your story gets remember.
And it can be hard.
What do you do when you create a creature?
Well, there are dozens of sites out there on the internet with “checklists” for developing creatures. I’d suggest you use one as a guideline, at least as first. These are those fact lists I mentioned earlier.
They include things like eye color, height, weight, life span, body proportion, living environment, maternal/paternal instinct, predator/prey instincts, place on the food chain, skin type, fur/scale type, number of eyes, mouths, heads, ears, tongues, toes, legs, arms, and more. I’ll link to one or two down below.
Some of the good lists will have you consider the environment, but I want you to really, really think about it. Where the creature lives can tell you a lot about the creature.
Does it live underground? It probably has poor eyesight and instead depends on other senses to live.
In the water? It’s probably not (but can be) a mammal.
In the tropics? The creature can probably climb trees really well.
Environment plays an important role in the way a creature lives and develops.
Places for Creatures
A lot of adventure stories use creatures as a kind of “side villain”. You know, while the hero is traveling to fight the villain, they encounter wild beasts that have an unnatural hate of humans.
These creatures are often feared above all others, yet the hero also dispatches them with ease.
Okay fine I’ll stop being passive aggressive and just say it: this is a strange and often silly conflict. In my mind, these creatures would a) run at the sight of humans and instead search out easier prey or b) slaughter the humans because they are, after all feared and supposedly the most evil creatures on the planet.
My experience and knowledge of our world’s predators tends to confirm this. A predator will ignore you if you act the right way (some will ignore you if you play dead or climb a tree – do your research), and others will run at other actions (again, research is your friend). And others will kill you because they’re hungry and you’re not smart enough to react properly.
In nature, predators are looking for the easy kill. They’re not malicious and conniving, they’re clever and resourceful. Rather like humans, but with less wasted time talking.
But in books? The wolves always hunt the main character for an excessive amount of time without provocation. A bear will chase them hundreds of leagues.
Of course, this is not problem for the hero and/or the mentor character. Despite, you know, the hundreds of skulls that this creature has been… collecting?
Basically, I suggest you not do this. Don’t use random predator attacks to show your worldbuilding. Sometimes, it will make sense. Such as when your story is about hunting a very specific creature (AKA The Hobbit can have a dragon because the dragon is the point).
How else do you show off your creatures?
Well, look at the ways you see creatures today:
-In the zoo. Is your world advanced enough to have zoos? Are there people who will pay to see them? It’s easy to have exotic animals when people want to see them.
-At the circus. A traveling menagerie is an excellent way to showcase the expanse of your world by showing creatures and hinting at the far-off places they come from. (The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan does this very, very well.)
-House pets. People in our world love pets, but you hardly ever see people in other worlds with pets. Sure they have a dog. Or maybe a cat or hamster. But what about otherworldly creatures? Cats and dogs don’t have to be the only domesticated animals on your planet. (The Stormlight Archives series by Brandon Sanderson is an excellent example.)
-Hunters pelts and the butcher’s shop. Yes, this is less “animal friendly”, but it gets the job done. People don’t just eat venison and boar in fantasy novels, do they? And sci-fi worlds have more options open for diversity, too. When the hunter sells his pelts to the merchant, he won’t just have fox and minx. He’ll probably have some unearthly pelts, too.
And the butcher’s shop? A sci-fi shop could have hunks of meat belonging to a space-dwelling snake that’s considered a delicacy. Boom, a fantastic creature that I really want to see someday. (Looking at you, NASA, where’s my picture from Hubble?)
-Far off in the forest walk. Not every walk in the forest has to end badly, as I’ve mentioned. But on my walks, I’ve still seen some nature. Dozens of rabbits, a handful of dear, that one random fox, raccoons, opossums, squirrels, chipmunks, otters, fish of many kinds, countless birds, snails, insects, and that one really cool spider with the massive web I might have walked into… whoops.
None of these creatures are horribly violent. Your creatures don’t have to be violent.
And your characters don’t have to fight them to the death to show the worldbuilding you’ve done.
Creatures are a great way to show depth and diversity in your world, if you do it right.
A vibrant world is diverse and full of beautiful things. And ugly things.
Depends on how many teeth that octopus-fox hybrid has.
(NOTE: do pardon the lateness of this post... it was unintentional, I assure you.)