Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

The Care and Feeding 
of Fantasy Creatures

By Stephen Bresnehan

Ó2002, Stephen Bresnehan 

Knowing your world is a critical part of creating your novel. World building, no matter how you do it, will provide the information necessary for your dramatic needs. With fantasy creatures, there is a certain dual quality to the information you need to invent - first and foremost are the creatures themselves, and then comes how your fictional societies view these creatures. As a starter, it is worth revisiting a few articles that have appeared in prior issues of Vision.

In Vision Issue 1, “Building a Better Beast” by Sarah Jane Elliott explores the possibilities of how creatures can be invented, or re-invented, to suit your story's dramatic needs and internal consistency. You can devise animal behaviour, fundamental physiologies and ecologies, even a spot of evolution if the world building calls for it. Follow “Building a Better Beast” and your creatures, whatever they may be, will avoid the cardboard flatness of poorly planned beasts. Don't forget, you control the absolute essence of your world, and the physiologies and ecologies can be as bizarre and exotic as you want so long as they are internally consistent. Most modern fantasy seems to overlay a thin film of magic over an essentially mundane Western European medieval world. Don't feel you have to conform to this.

Vision Issue 2 contains “Man in Beast's Clothing,” by Sarah Jane Elliott which discusses the fun and games to be had with anthropomorphisations - talking animals, intelligent animal characters, and the pitfalls of ”overhumanising.” Any fantasy creature that fills a dramatic role in your work will be so much more fun if it has a certain essence that is not exactly human. A certain quality of dragon-ness or evil-reptilian-homunculus-wizard-ness will carry dramatic weight and verisimilitude and drag your audience further into the tale. It is up to you to define exactly how this unique essence is expressed, and so long as it all has what you think is the right flavour, then you can't be far from the mark. It is also likely to help you determine, or polish, the fantasy creature character's drives and philosophies, which can't be a bad thing.

Horses for Writers,” by Mary K. Wilson in Vision Issue 7, deals with what is perhaps an artefact of our very urban world -- how easy it is for creatures whose role is to support or facilitate the story to be treated as machines, or nearly so. In reality, a horse isn't just a horse: it is a retired racehorce with a suspect gait, or a riding hack that shies at falling leaves, or an otherwise placid Clydesdale who knows how to put his hooves just so to step on your toes every time. Basically, they each has his own personality. Extrapolating on this, horses are not the only animals to regularly fall afoul of an over-glib treatment in modern fantasy; they all do. Discussing the minutiae of, for instance, beasts of burden in a novel is not likely to thrill the readers, but a quick description of the sight, sound, and smell of the bullock pens will make an immediate impression that an ox-drawn log wagon isn't quite the same thing as a Peterbilt truck. Animals are biological entities and, think what you may, all animals have personalities. Talk to anyone who lives or works around animals, and if they're honest or sufficiently perceptive, they'll tell you how animals can bond with some people and dislike others -- and (this is the important bit) they will tell you how the animals express it. This can add some amazing touches of realism to the non-character animals inhabiting your story.

So where to from here? You've got your world built up with just enough background ecology and history to put the creatures you want where you want them. Your fantasy character creatures are well-realised and your support creatures, fantastic or otherwise, are real creatures as much as they are plot devices. (Just think -- you now have plot devices you have to clean up after!) The next thing is matching the understanding of the fantasy creatures to the society concerned.

The author should know all the essential information on the creature for the purposes of the story, but the characters themselves might have a very different understanding based on the information available to them, and this will be a product of their society. Folk knowledge, proto-sciences, philosophy, guild teachings, and so on can form the backbone of their knowledge. Non-literate communities will have systems like oral tradition and apprenticing for passing on this knowledge. Literate but non-technological societies may rely on the same sort of information but in written form. Either way, just as you'll find with the people around you, your characters will have imperfect and often simply wrong ideas about their world and the creatures in it.

The accuracy of such information can vary from individual to individual, class to class, and society to society. If a character's vocation is to be a unicorn ostler or dragon wormer, then this is (in theory) what they'll know best. If it isn't, this in itself might be a nice little plot twist! The unicorn ostler will understand much of the day-to-day life of the unicorn, and an old ostler will have a lot of experience to draw upon. They'll understand temperaments, breeding habits, and illnesses particular to the unicorn. They'll know the personalities of their animals, and of unicorns in general in their part of the world. Their understanding of unicorn-ness is likely to differ from that of any other character. Even the unicorn ostler's supervisor, or the overlord funding the unicorn enterprise (or whatever) will have a different understanding and, like as not, the two perspectives won't match up because the characters’ exposure to unicorn life is different. An overlord doesn't need to know what an ostler knows -- that’s the ostler's job, which is why he's there.

The same will be the case with non-domesticated fantasy creatures, except nobody may have truly definitive knowledge of what the creature is or does. You, as author, will know (you built the creature after all), but the characters can't know the creature so thoroughly unless you've specifically thought of a way for such comprehensive expertise to be consistent with the rest of your world.

Determining how the fantasy creatures fit into the societies will determine how your characters react to them individually and socially. The breadth of possible reactions is considerable and the ones you decide to apply to any particular character are constrained by only two things. First, the reaction has to fit the dramatic purpose necessary to further your story, and second, it must be reasonable for that character to have that response. Unusual reactions should be flagged ahead of time, or at the least explained soon afterwards so it doesn't jar the reader out of the story.

Knowing how your characters perceive the fantasy creatures in your world will provide you with one more tool to beat your story into shape and hopefully see you with a novel that is individual, well-rounded, and conveys a feeling of completeness that a reader will want to revisit.


The author of this article has written a grand total of no novels or short stories, and isn't likely to for a while yet. He is, on the other hand, having an enormous amount of fun with world-building, plotting, character invention, and all those thousands of fascinating things a writer does when they're not writing.