Sarah Jane Elliott, Associate Editor, Fantasy 

Issue #1: 01/01/01

Feature Articles
Making Histories
By J.S. Burke
Women and Childbearing 
in Fantasy

By Bryn Neuenschwander
Matching Your Money to Your World 
By Ron Brown
Capturing Time for the Muse
By Vicki McElfresh
In Praise of Praise:
A Second Look at Critiquing

By Lazette Gifford
Building a Better Beast
By Sarah Jane Elliott
State of the Horror Genre
By Ron Brown
Poetry and Everyday  Life
By Jennifer St. Clair Bush
Your Characters Are 
Not Puppets

By Anne M. Marble
Science Fiction: 
Are We Going Somewhere 

By Bob Billing
Stage & Screen: 
The Promise of Premise
By Robin Catesby
Suspense & Mystery:
The Motives of Villains 
and Heroes in Suspense Fiction
By Shane P. Carr
Young Adult & Children:
The Gulf
By Justin Stanchfield
Young Writer's Scene:
Five Practical Tips for Young Writers
By Beth Adele Long
Book Reviews
Web Site Reviews
How Critique Circles Work
By Jim Mills
Doggerel Contest Winner
News from Forward Motion

The actual writing of the story, along with the creation of the text, the choice of words, the dialogue, the style, the tone, the point of view -- that is the performance, that is the part of our work that earns us the title "writer."

Orson Scott Card, 
The Elements of Writing: Characters & Viewpoint
Writer's Digest Books
ISBN: 0-89879-307-6

Building a Better Beast

  Sarah Jane Elliott

2001, Sarah Jane Elliott  

There are 1.5 million identified species on this great and wonderful planet of ours, representing only a fraction of the species actually out there.  Current evidence shows that the total number may be anywhere from ten to thirty million.  In other words, there are a lot of critters out there.  And all of them fodder for the writer.

Fantasy is populated with many fantastic creatures, but most of them get their start in everyday, run-of-the-mill nature.  Unicorns come from goats and horses.  Dragons come from reptiles.  Griffin come from eagles and lions.  But all too often, writers fall into the trap of assuming that since these are fantasy creatures, they don’t need to share any of the more common traits or limitations of their ordinary predecessors.  Adding a touch of mundane to the magic can be a little trouble, a lot of fun, and can give your tales a missing touch of realism that make them all the more believable.

Why fill your world with invincible dragons who look like snakes with feet?  It’s nothing new anymore, and it’s not going to capture your readers’ attention.  But all you have to do is look at reptiles, and you’re presented with countless variations on a theme that you can “borrow” for your story.  

Reptiles are cold-blooded; they need to rely on their environments to regulate their body temperatures.  If you make your dragon cold-blooded, this is going to dictate how he behaves.  He’s going to hibernate during cold weather, or he’ll get sluggish.  He’s going to spend a lot of time curled up in his den to conserve body heat.  He’s going to like the sun and warm rock.  You can work the dragon’s hoard into this too -- metal conducts heat well, so situate his den near some sort of geothermal heat source, like a hot spring, and have him sleep on gold, which would have picked up heat from the ground.

Don’t just think about physiology -- think about behaviour.  Some reptiles have frills, and generally, in the animal kingdom, big conspicuous traits like a neck frill or a peacock’s tail mean a mating display.   These displays are a means for one prospective mate to evaluate the other (usually the female checks out the male, but it’s sometimes the opposite or mutual) to see if he’s a suitable mate.  And this means they’re going to vary.  Give some males big frills, some small, some lacy, some coarse, some blue, some red -- invent a system that lets you evaluate the health, or aggressiveness, or diet, of your dragon by the kind of neck frill he has.

And don’t just stick to one phylum when designing you mythical creatures.  Mixing and matching can be lots of fun!  Griffin, for instance, are part eagle and part lion.  This raises a number of questions.   How do they groom?  What do they eat?  Flying takes up a lot of energy, so there must be something special about their digestive systems, or else they’d do nothing but eat.  Do they give birth to live young, or do they lay eggs?  Do they nurse?  Are the males bigger, like lions, or are the females larger, like birds?  Do they have a keen, leonine sense of smell, or do they essentially lack the sense of smell as eagles do?  Once you know the answers to these questions, you can use them to manoeuvre your way around a situation instead of getting stuck against an invincible creature and having to resort to a miracle to get your characters out again.

You can also borrow traits from one animal to help out another.  For example, centaurs, part human and part horse, are enormous, and they’re going to require a lot of air to keep themselves going.  More air than piddly little mammal lungs can supply.  We don’t even use all of the air we take in.  There’s a dead space of air in the bottom of our lungs that just sits there -- it has to or our lungs would collapse.  Birds, on the other hand, have a system of air sacs throughout their bodies in addition to a set of lungs.  They breathe in a two-part process that essentially circulates the air through a circuit of chambers, which makes it a lot more efficient than our in-out method.  That’s how birds can still breathe when they fly up high, where the air is thin.  In other words, a little air goes a long, long way.  Your centaur is only going to need one heart, one digestive system, one liver,  so fill the rest of the space with air sacs and chambers like a bird’s lungs.  Voila!  Your centaur is no longer fainting every time he tries to walk up a hill.

But no matter what you do, it’s important to remember variety.  Variety really is the spice of life -- without it, species tend to stagnate and die out.  And one of the biggest causes of variety is location.  Someone from Canada looks different than someone from Africa, and both of them look different than someone from Japan.  The same is true for plants and animals.  You have subspecies within a species, and species within a genus.  This is because of one of the rules of thumb of Biology:  “the environment shapes the organism.”  Over time, species adapt to their current environmental conditions, and the farther apart populations are, and the bigger the barriers between them, the more likely they are to diverge.  For example, say you have a big population of unicorns minding their own business, when all of a sudden a geological uplift sticks a mountain range between them (okay, so it doesn’t happen quite that fast, but the appearance of mountain ranges is a common cause of speciation).  One half of the population ends up stuck in a forest, and on the other side of the mountains the second half of the population finds themselves on a scrub plain.  The forest unicorns have lots of shelter and few predators.  They grow large and stocky, so they can force their way through the underbrush, and they’re not particularly fast, since there’s no need to be.  The plains unicorns, on the other hand, are hunted by a large feline predator.  The fast ones survive, and the slow ones are lunch.  So the plains unicorns have long, slender limbs, are built small for speed, and are more of a cream in colour to better blend into the amber grass.  And not all of the unicorns within either population are the same -- some have fringe around their hooves, some are mottled, some are pure white, some have wavy manes, some straight.  They can become subspecies, or new species entirely, depending on the niche they fill, whether or not there is gene flow between populations, and how long they have been apart. 

Remember, there is no “model” individual for a species, because there must be variation between individuals in order for a species to persist.  Think about it this way:  what makes a ‘typical’ human, since even identical twins have some differences?  Thus, your mythical creatures are going to vary too.  New populations bring new problems, new puzzles, and new paths for your characters to take. New takes on an old idea are going to give your story a richness and flavour that will set your tale apart from all others and make it live. Variety is the spice of life, so season liberally.

Copyright Information

Downloadable versions of Vision
(Adobe Acrobat™ and Palm Systems™)