Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Creating Creatures for Your Novel

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

Storyworld First is now available in just about every format that exists. To celebrate, I condensed the Creating Creatures chapter down into this post. Enjoy!

Ever read a book and come across a creature so strange you could barely understand it? What about a creature that was pretty much the same as something on earth but had a different name, like calling a horse a gorse?

Then there are authors who choose to write about the stereotypical creatures that have been so overused like the centaur, dragon, fairy, ghost, griffon, harpy, manticore, minotaur, pegasus, phoenix, satyr, unicorn, vampire, werewolf, zombie, or even giant versions of cats, dogs, birds, or spiders.

None of the above are wrong. But the first choice usually means that the author is trying too hard to be original. (For an example of this, see my daughter Kaitlyn's amazing drawing of the Three-Eyed G-Wing.) The second two options often means the author isn’t trying hard enough.


If you are trying to create a unique storyworld, you want to invent creatures that are both awesome and believable. Here are some things to keep in mind:


WHY DO YOU NEED THEM?

Is your animal a pet? A messenger? Part of an animal-human team? Is it a warrior? A source of food? Or is it domesticated and raised as livestock? Is it a predator? A minion of evil? There are endless ways you could work beasts into your story. The point is to give the creature a purpose. 


WHAT DO THEY LOOK LIKE?

Part of the fun of creating mythical beasts is deciding what they look like. I included a Creature Creation Guide in my Storyworld First book. And you can really have fun coming up with what it looks like. Just don’t forget your reader’s suspension of disbelief. They’re trusting you not to leave them lost and confused or to break the laws of plausibility.

Take into consideration the environment in which this creature lives. Also think about how this animal will be perceived when your main character crosses paths with one. What emotion comes over him? Fear? Awe? Disgust? Amazement? How do humans interact with these animals?


WHERE DO THEY LIVE?

What kind of habitat does your animal call home? Does it sleep? Where? Wild animals live in a wide variety of places: burrows, trees, dens, caves, nests, hives, water, webs, and even under rocks or in rotting logs. Domestic animals live in houses, pens, and barns.

Some dog-like mammals live in packs, lions live in prides, grass-eating herbivores live in herds, ants live in colonies, bees live in swarms, and birds live in nests and travel in flocks. Many animals migrate to stay with the best climate and food sources. Some animals are territorial, keeping other animals away from the place in which they find food, mate, nest, or roost. Some animals live in a home range with many other animal types.


WHAT DO THEY EAT?

Three are three types of animals: herbivore, omnivore, and carnivore. What does your animal eat? This will help you determine what kind of a mouth it has. If it is a predator, how does it hunt?


DEFENSE MECHANISMS

How does your animal protect itself from danger? Speed is one of the most common ways for animals to evade predators. Many animals are able to camouflage with their surroundings. Turtles have a thick shell which helps them hide in their environment and also provides natural armor against predators.

Porcupines have quills, skunks have their smell, opossums play dead. Some animals travel in groups for protection, like herds of wildebeests or schools of fish. Packs hunt together to better bring down prey and to share the food with each other.


MATING

Some animals mate for a season, some for life, like many types of penguins. Some male animals have groups of females all to themselves. Some males fight each other over one female. Some female insects eat the male after mating.

Many egg-laying animals spend time building nests and watching until their young hatch. Male and female penguins take turns incubating their egg while the other looks for food. What kind of parent is your animal? Does it abandon its young or take care of it for a while?


DAILY LIFE

What does your animal do all day? Many animals spend most of their time foraging or scavenging or hunting. Lizards sit in the sun to soak up heat so they’ll keep warm at night. Some animals climb trees, some play (especially the younger ones), some go for a swim to cool off. Knowing these things might inspire a scene in which your protagonist happens upon your animal.

How does your animal respond to other animals or humans? Do they attack? Give chase to scare the intruder away? Growl and stay back? Run for cover? Completely ignore the visitor? Observe from a distance? Come when called? Or wander over on its own to say hello?

Does your animal have any special abilities? Think of some of the neat things earth animals are capable of. Roosters crow in the mornings. Monkeys and opossums can hang and swing from their tails. Dogs have acute senses and can be trained to track. Chameleons are able to camouflage themselves. Cattle have four stomach compartments and chew their cud as do sheep, deer, giraffes, and camels. Rabbits can see behind themselves without turning their heads. Owls can see in the dark. Bears hibernate. Mockingbirds can mimic any sound. Galapagos tortoises can live over 170 years.


NAMING CREATURES

First, and most importantly, keep it simple. You want readers to be able to remember the name and be able to pronounce it.

The name should feel right. Don’t name a beautiful bird a slithlop because slithlop sounds slimy and heavy and slow. Names can give readers hints about the creature. One would expect a timber gator would live in trees. You might also be able to give a name that fits the animal’s personality or paints a picture in the reader’s mind. Andrew Peterson is great at this with his bumpy digtoads, snickbuzzards, and toothy cows. Or you could combine animal types like Peterson’s ratbadger.

Play with the obvious. Make a list of describing words for how your animal looks, sounds, or behaves. I did this with two creatures in my Kinsman project: the bluegem beetle; and lightworms, which glow like jellyfish. You could also combine description with an animal type, like furry pigs or red-beaked hawks.

Foreign languages can be an easy way to come up with names. I used Hebrew for many of my fantasy words in my Blood of Kings trilogy, and for some of the animals I simply looked up the word. If you use this approach, you might have to vary the spelling to make it easier to pronounce.

Be consistent with the tone of your world. It would be strange to use French names for creatures if you used Inupiat-style names for everything else in your story. Unless you’re choosing names purposely to match different cultures.

Always Google any foreign or made up words just to make sure that the word doesn’t have some strange or offensive meaning.

If you get stuck, you could try some of the online name generators. I’ve never used a name straight from a name generator, but I have played with them and been inspired. So it might be worth a peek if you’re at your wits end.

This excerpt was taken from Storyworld First by Jill Williamson and greatly condensed. Click here to learn more about this book.


Do you have any great tips to add for how to create creatures? Share in the comments.

31 comments:

  1. So, I don't think there were any magical creatures in my book…
    AND NOW THERE'S THESE THINGS CALLED EMBER WOLVES AND THEY'RE REALLY COOL AND SOMEHOW HELP WITH ONE OF MY MMC'S CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT AND WAHT. THANK YOU.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great post! You see stereotypical creatures in a lot of books. Unfortunately, I do not have a lot of magical creatures in my book due to the setting. I personally love to take a creature that has been overused and turn it on its head.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Love it when authors turn things on their heads, Kari. It's so much fun.

      Delete
  3. ahhhh...in my current WIP, there aren't any creatures, but in my NaNo novel that I'm prepping, there are spirits that I'm having to create from scratch. And it's hard. But I think this will help me greatly get a hold on what they are like!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hope so, Ely. Sounds like a fun project. :-)

      Delete
  4. I loved reading this. I write fantasy, yet have never attempted to write with any made up creatures in my stories. I have made up flora, I guess that is the first start perhaps to move on to fauna next.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sure, Arlette! Which animal likes to eat that flora of yours?

      Delete
    2. Oh that question is just boiling up some inspiration. Hmm..maybe I can carry on from there, at least as a practice for myself. Thank you, Jill!

      Delete
  5. Hmm... I just realised that the missing elements in my character's journey are treacherous terrain and magical beasts.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. All right! Sounds excellent, Jessica. :-)

      Delete
    2. I can't believe I just made up something as ridiculous-sounding as shark leopards. :P

      Delete
  6. The three eyed G-wing. Pure brilliance. (You wake up at lunchtime the next day so you won't starve... that was cracking me up.)

    The only animals I have in my fantasy novel at all are cats and horses... Hmm. I might need to put on my brainstorming cap and come up with some new ones! Thanks for the post, Jill!

    ReplyDelete
  7. I love this :) I actually am SUCH a sucker for animals in books, fantasy or otherwise. I find it helps me connect to the character. I have dragons and a talking beetle in my WIP

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Is it weird that I want to read your novel now, just from the talking beetle? Haha.

      Delete
    2. Whoo hoo! The talking beetle sounds awesome, Stefanie! Fun. :-)

      Delete
  8. Yes! I had pre-ordered the book. I just checked and it is now downloaded to my Kindle. Thanks, Jill! :-)

    ReplyDelete
  9. My novel has dragons, which are definitely the overdone creatures. And let's see...they're telepathic, live in caves, and at one point form close mind-and-heart bonds with humans. Yup. But I'm hoping the fact that they use fire as a form a communication and body language and have an advance written language based on claw marks makes up for some of the clicheness.
    Still I fear I've ripped them straight from Dragonriders of Pern and Eragon. But hey, if my novel is doomed for the "learning experience" shelf, there are other problems that will kill it much faster than the fact that the dragons are telepathic...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And the three-eyed G-wing! Adorable!
      I think I'll get Storyworld First in the near future.

      Delete
    2. Ha ha, Miri. You never know. Someday you might break this novel back out and change some things and ... voila!

      Delete
  10. I have mythical stories mostly so I use a lot of myth creatures, but one way I like to spice it up is find mythical creatures that are mentioned briefly or where only ever in pictures and not stories.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sounds like a good plan. There are a lot of neat creatures that never get used.

      Delete
  11. I'm thinking of possibly adding across breed, almost like how scientists put a jellyfish glowing gene in a mouse, though it's more high tech I think. My creature, a luma (panther that can luminate) was from my first draft, so it may or may not be scrapped. Definitely using it sometime, though!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lumas are a goos idea, I needed a creature so bad in my story that I made up a shark leopard on the spot.
      Luminous + Puma = Luma

      Delete
  12. Not only was this insanely entertaining but extremely helpful! At present I do not have any fantasy stories, but now I almost feel like writing one once my current story is finished, just for the creatures. Thanks so much for posting!

    ReplyDelete
  13. I usually just mash a few animals together till I get one that sounds cool XD In my current WIP, there are Caluuks and Katzums. (No idea where the names came from.) Caluuks are basically fire-breathing goats. With dragon-ish wings. Katzums have the body of a turtle, the head and wings of an eagle, and the legs of a cheetah. Now that I describe that one, it might need some working on. Though, the turtle shell would be used for protection, and the cheetah legs might help it run fast. The wings could help it fly away from danger. So, it might work :)

    ReplyDelete
  14. In my WIP- which as of now is only a rough ROUGH draft- I have a giant green creature similar to a lizard. Except she has wings and scales. And she breathes a green goo that sets her enemies' wings on fire.
    The unique thing is that she is a gentle, mild creature- unlike her looks.
    No ideas about mating or habitat, however...
    B

    ReplyDelete
  15. Thank you! I love your posts, you always came up with something related to fantasy!
    I created creatures since my childhood, but naming them just make me now: what the hell!
    Thank you, really! Some aspects that I never thought

    ReplyDelete

Home