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?
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.
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?
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.
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.