Sarah Jane Elliott, Associate Editor, Fantasy
Issue #1: 01/01/01
a Better Beast
Sarah Jane Elliott
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.
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 dont 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.
fill your world with invincible dragons who look like snakes with feet?
Its nothing new anymore, and its not going to capture your
readers attention. But all you have to do is look at reptiles,
and youre presented with countless variations on a theme that you can
borrow for your story.
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. Hes going to hibernate during
cold weather, or hell get sluggish. Hes going to spend a lot
of time curled up in his den to conserve body heat. Hes going to
like the sun and warm rock. You can work the dragons 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.
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 peacocks 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 its sometimes the opposite
or mutual) to see if hes a suitable mate. And this means
theyre 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.
dont 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 theyd 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.
can also borrow traits from one animal to help out another. For
example, centaurs, part human and part horse, are enormous, and theyre
going to require a lot of air to keep themselves going. More air
than piddly little mammal lungs can supply. We dont even use all
of the air we take in. Theres 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. Thats 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 birds lungs. Voila! Your centaur
is no longer fainting every time he tries to walk up a hill.
no matter what you do, its 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
doesnt 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 theyre
not particularly fast, since theres 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.
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.
versions of Vision