Thursday, 7 February 2013

Dragons and Werewolves and Bears, Oh My! - Charley R's Guide to Fantastical Beasts

I've not done one of these in a horrifically long time - and for that, first of all, I apologise.

Secondly . . . how on earth was I supposed to resist this topic when it came into my dream-dazed head this morning? Evidently seven thirty wake up calls are good for something after all.

Budding fantasy writers of every ilk will doubtless have had some encounters with the joys of inventing their own fantastical creatures. They're practically icons of the genre: dragons, unicorns, talking beasts and all manner of thousand-year-old humanoids who either want can't decide if they'd rather help, harangue or horribly masticate the unfortunate traveller who stumbles into their lairs.

Of course, as with most aspects of the creative process, the potential in this area is endless. There would be no point in me trying to give you a conclusive guide to how to create every single fantastical beast in existence - I'd be here until I was one thousand, and I don't know if my concentration could last beyond the second or third century. It would certainly give out faster than my fingers.

So, today, I'm just going to give you a little pick-and-mix bag of top tips for starting the process of creating your critters. How? By taking you all along to the One Stop Fantasist's Pet Shop!

Aisle One: Kennel, Cage, or Kraken Pit?

When caring for your new beastie, there are two really important things to take into consideration, and the most immediate is of its setting - what sort of environment is it going to live in?

You can go about this in two ways, really. If you're starting from a blank slate, you might want to start out by designing the setting, and then fitting the creature in around it. For example, if you decide you want to set your tale in a desert, and want a fantastical beast involved, then you'd best gear the aforementioned towards survival therein. It's not half as much fun trying to set an ice titan on your hero if all they have to do is wait for it to melt.

On the other hand, if you already have your critter, then build the setting around their strengths and features. Are they carnivorous? Are they built for speed, agility, or endurance? What do they eat? What sort of features do they have that would be advantageous in a certain environment? 

Looking around the diverse environments of our own lovely planet can be a great help when looking for the ideal environment for your new pet, too.

Aisle Two: Sit! Stay! Recite Poetry!

Drawing the line on the intelligence of your beastie is very important, as it'll affect a lot of their subsequent behaviour in the story. And I don't just mean the difference between sentience and non-sentience - even creatures who don't articulate in recognisable speech patterns can be incredibly clever, as the antics of that pesky fox who keeps stealing your leftover takeaway from the rubbish bin every Tuesday is testament to.

Intelligent critters may be more or less inclined to approach and interact with your characters, depending on their environment. If they know they have the advantage, because they're pretty sure that squishy biped can't see them in this pitch-dark cave, they might be more inclined to approach and investigate. However, if the aforementioned biped appears to be wielding something large, pointy and indigestible, and stands among a considerable pack of its fellows wielding equally unpleasant items, then it might be more inclined to hang back. Dafter animals will do this too, but they might possibly not have quite the same level of self-preservative instinct when backed into a corner.

Aisle Three: Alpha, or Omega?

This point probably applies more to highly intelligent sentient species than others, but I feel it is nevertheless worth mentioning. If your beastie comes from an intelligent race or species, it will likely have a more sophisticated style of interaction with members of its own kin. Even loners will meet on occasion, whether accidentally or during set meeting times, particularly to mate. That said, societal or pack creatures will likely have their own hierarchy - especially if these packs are based around family. 

Once again, the natural world can provide plenty of help in deciding how your particular species will operate. The pack systems of wolves and lions can provide helpful guidelines with regard to body language and behaviour of different members of the pack, depending on their social standing. Deciding where each member stands will affect their behaviour; a low-ranking member of the party is less likely to make the first approach on anything new in the territory, and will probably stick to acting as backup to its social superiors. Likewise, if by some miracle you have a member of your adventuring party who can communicate with the beasties, they will likely address the leaders, who will then impose the standard treatment for the others to follow.

Aisle Four: "Fluffy", or "Killer"?

Depending on the level of detail, and the importance of the beastie or race to the story, you may want to think about what they're called - both by others, and among themselves. The "us and them" mentality comes into play here - we only think of ourselves as humans when comparing ourselves to non-humans, otherwise we look for distinctions in our country of origin, gender, family, or views on the usefulness of ping pong balls in a game of water polo.

This is especially important for species who come in a wide variety of clans or family units. Though they come from the same common ancestor, and their differences may be negilgible, if they are a competitive species - especially predators - they will draw distinctions. And, likely, so will your party members. It's always lots of fun to have the budding zoologist of your group being uncertain as to whether this brand of snake-dogs are the venomous, or non-venomous, variety.

Aisle Five: Accessories (and Worse)

This list really makes it look like I've sucked all the fun out of the creative process, doesn't it? But that's not the truth entirely - just because there are things one needs to keep an eye out for doesn't mean that the process can't be fun. And hey, it's fiction - you can be as creative as you please in creating your critters, and no one can tell you otherwise. Want them to be purple? They can be purple. Want them to speak backwards? They can speak backwards.

In the end, they are your creations, and it is entirely up to you how you work with them. Have fun. Enjoy creating the beastie. Because if you don't enjoy them, I doubt your readers will either.

Enough from me - what you all of you think! Are there any other aisles you'd add to this proverbial pet shop? Is there a particular approach you like to take when inventing something weird and wonderful? Do you prefer original creations, or reworking an old classic?

Leave a comment, and let me know!

~ Charley R


  1. Ooh! Beasties. Very high on the "fun" list. Even though I write fantasy, I actually haven't created very man scary things, but I'm considering working with leeches. I really DO hate leeches.

    And the scarier and more elusive the critter, the higher we'll JUMP when it pounces. ;)

    1. Ehehe, I reserve a special hatred for leeches myself. I love creating critters, though - so much fun! Especially when, as you said, they pounce unexpectedly!

  2. I prefer my own creations, based off of old classics-- usually real animals. For instance, my assassin duck, my volatile buffalo, and my sharpshooting hare. I like messing with the normal. I quite agree with all your points here, however much I have ignored them in the past. Probably the first point is what I've done the most with. All three of the aforementioned animals live in an energy-based world, and all three of them are weird precisely because of their energy-based powers. The duck explodes at intervals, for instance.

    Good post!

    1. Ahaha, that's not an approach I've heard of before! Sounds pretty wicked, though - I applaud you for the originality!

      Glad you liked :)

    2. Indeed, as much as I like them, I have never used a dragon in a story. Well. Except Gologer.

  3. I love these Writerly Guides. :D

    This was pretty helpful... I don't usually have beasties in my stories. Except for dinosaurs. And then sometimes when I'm lazy I just make up facts about their size or whatever because I don't want to bother using the encyclopedia. xD