Vision: A Resource for Writers
Holly Lisle's Vision
Describing Fantastic Creatures
By Jeff Reeds
2002, Jeff Reeds
I have a problem with animals. The pesky beasts are
popping up everywhere -- and no wonder. The novel Iím writing takes place at
the end of the Bronze Age and its people are reliant on animals for work and for
food. There are pets, beasts of burden, and some alarming animals bred for war.
There are the butchered and the coddled. The animals, in short, are like the
animals of our world.
Except this isnít our world. This is an alien world. It
exists in a land of the fantastic, in a different time, in a different place.
On the one hand I want cats and dogs and cows and rabbits
in my novel. I like them--dogs especially. But on the other, I want orniths,
aardorbeasts, skiros, and scudders.
I want a bestiary that hasnít been seen
since the Monster Manual was first
created. But my job, like yours, is to show a story, not write what amounts to
product descriptions in a catalog. So how does a writer blend the mundane with
Having built all of these neat creatures and inspiring
landscapes, the impulse is to show them off. But if you do this, your story will
come to a grinding halt. Your characters will march along and stop in awe at
some statue, beast, or gustatory pleasure. While this can be good thing--nothing
like resting by a beautiful river after a bloody battle--it can also keep your
heroes from arriving at their goal. To keep this from happening create the
back-story, invent wonderful maps, bestiaries, and magics, and then forget them.
In his latest film, "Minority Report," Stephen
Spielberg does this with the futuristic gadgets that populate the film. In a
recent interview, he said, "I
wanted to make [the futuristic world], but seem to throw it away casually. I
want to celebrate not the walls of the story, the look and gizmos, but the story
itself. If youíve fashioned big new props for a movie thereís a tendency to
show it off, but rather than exhibit the cool stuff, just show the coolness as a
Works the same way in books. In treating the fantastic as
merely mundane it becomes easier to meld cats, dogs, and rabbits with skiros and
scudders. The later two are very common in my novel and it would be easy to
describe them much like Meriwether Lewis described a grizzly when his team
encountered one. "The
legs of this bear are somewhat longer than those of the black, as are its talons
and tusks incomparably larger and longer....its color is yellowish brown, the
eyes small black and piercing."
the novel I'm working on, my heroes have recently escaped a devastating attack
on their city. They're wary, tired, and hungry. This is the perfect time to
introduce a skiro.
They had been
resting at a wide spot in the trail when they heard a rock tumble. Almost in
unison, everyone loosened their swords in their scabbards. Then sharp-eyed Elos
pointed out the skirosóthree of themóclimbing seemingly impossible ledges.
Superficially they looked like the goats of the eastern Tolbaads, but their
pointed, soft hooves gripped the rock like pincers and their thin bodies enabled
them to cozy up to the cliffs. Their horns came out of their skulls just behind
the ear and arched forward like two scorpionís tails.
Elos held up his
bow and notched an arrow. "Dinner anyone?" he said, as he stepped
forward on the trail.
One trap that Iíve fallen into, and Iíve seen others
do the same, is calling a creature something--Smeech, or Smerch, or
whatever--when in fact the creature is a rabbit. It looks, acts and tastes like
a rabbit (or a chicken), but itís given an odd name just to make it seem
weird. The reason this doesnít work is that it comes off as lazy. Itís too
pat, too easy. It can make your carefully constructed world seem shallow at
exactly the point where it should have a casual depth. One thing you can do is
give the animal a sort of one-off attribute, like differently-shaped horns, and
call it a relative of the familiar creature. That's what I tried to do with the
Inferring one animal by comparing it with another, more
familiar animal is one way to describe your creature. But in most fantasy stories there are beasts that
arise entirely from our own imaginations. Perhaps this is why
writers--particularly fantasy writers--can sit in an empty room for hours and be
far I have three animals in my story that have no real parallel in our world.
Sort of. When I was a cub reporter
in high school, I covered a story about the photographer that took the sports
photos at our games. I went over to his house to interview him and see his
operation. Lying on his couch was his Halloween costume--he had a party he was
going to that night. I asked him about it and he showed me how it worked.
had taken one of those big ice cream barrels and covered it with purple fur.
From this "body" came a long faux-suede neck. At the top of the neck
was sewn a sock modified with little eyes and bushy eyebrows. Two long, skinny
legs dangled from the bottom, ending in stuffed feet that looked like five-point
stars. The guy had a jacket with a hole in one of the pits. He'd put on the
jacket, put his arm through this hole and snake his arm up the thing's neck
while the empty sleeve went over the barrel. Then, while casually sipping
martinis or whatever, he would have his creature do and say things that would
normally be, well, inappropriate.
about it some time later, it seemed that such a devious little creature would be
fun to write about. Thus scudders were born. But like Spielberg, I didn't want
to call too much attention to them. I wanted them to be present in the world
like raccoons. You're aware of them, they have a whole host of attributes people
wonder at and make jokes about, but they're so much a part of the fabric of the
world they are mentioned mostly only in passing. I decided when I first
introduced one I would start small.
also decided that they are well-suited for pulling sleds across mountainous,
snow-covered terrain. My main character Jon Aandor, is looking to buy a scudder
from a local merchant for just such a purpose. By staying within his point of
view, I can have him comment only on the things important to a buyer and in the
manner of a hard bargainer.
reached down and rubbed the leathery neck of the scudder. "A mottled color
on this one. Bad eyes. Questionable teeth and claws. What'd you do to this
Throughout the book a clearer picture of scudders
emerges, but this introduction is plenty and it keeps the story moving.
Another way to describe a creature, of course, is to have
someone look at it who is unfamiliar with the beast. They are apt to notice
details that a person who is familiar with the creature would not. However,
itís easy to fall into too much description here. You can just imagine the
person standing there gawking. This would work if the person is at a zoo,
observing a parade, or perhaps viewing animals in the market. But that seems too
easy. What if the person seeing the creature for the first time is scared
out of his or her skin? If kept from the point of view of the character, it
seems to work.
Vena stopped and looked back
at the trail. "Has anyone seen Orici?"
Jon and Lila, who had been
walking with her, also stopped. The trail stretched back, empty. Vena noticed
the birds had ceased their endless chatter. As she reached for her sword, a
quick movement of bush revealed a flash of gleaming black and green. Then she
saw the large saber-like teeth come gnashing at her. She jumped back but fell
into Jon, knocking him down. Even as she fell, she felt locked in its gaze.
Hard, cold, black eyes bore down on her. She didnít feel its teeth break her
skin so much as she felt the weight of them on her bones. Then the creatureís
head jerked back and it fell. Lila had sidestepped the beast, and in one smooth
motion, drawn her sword and brought it down on the thingís extended neck.
Quickly it went from a hard spear of terror to a lump of flesh and bone. Still
terrifying, but clearly dead.
Vena squeezed her arm where
the big teeth had cut her and looked at the black, bony plates splotched with
green. The plates--shaped in squares, rectangles and triangles--covered the
thing's back. Breathing hard, Vena tried to calm
herself. More details popped out at her--the rim of horns around the body, the
black lashes over the eyes and red gums holding a row of small needle-sharp
teeth. She saw that its chin sported a beard of short, coarse hair. "Was
that Ö is this what they call the tombata?"
"We call it an
aardorbeast," Jon said. "That is an aardorbeast."
Vena watched Jon get up and
push the creature with the toe of his boot. She saw it was only about three feet
long. So small for such a frightening animal.
Jon said, "Perfect cut,
Lila. You okay, Vena?"
breathed deeply and nodded yes. "Iíll be fine." She took Jon's
offered hand and gained her feet. "That thing attacked three people,"
she said, still staring at it.
they're mean little curs. They even hunt together sometimes."
again looked down the trail. "We need to find Orici."
The aardorbeast has a more complicated history than the
scudder. When I first envisioned the story, I had a society of people who relied
on the horn of the aardorbeast for their mating rituals. And I may still, I'm
vacillating on that one. At first it seemed to me that such a creature should be
rare and beautiful--like a unicorn. But unicorns and their special properties
have been done ad nauseam. I wanted something mean-looking and very dangerous.
But how would it look? An image popped in my mind of an ankylosaur. They always
looked to me like a really mean version of a Cretaceous
armadillo. Throw out the fact that they were plant-eaters, mix in some large
teeth and a bad attitude. Voila.
The trick in describing them, I feel, is to keep the
details small. The above description is about as far as I'm going to go with how
they look (unless an editor tells me otherwise).
For most of my creatures I start with the natural world
as it exists now, or did, or may. I try to make all the creatures follow some
sort of logical sense--work according to the laws of bio-mechanics as we know
them. I also root them in the larger world. The skiros are like the goats on the
other side of the Tolbaad mountains. The aardorbeast is a distant off-shoot of
another animal that is domesticated in one culture. The ornith have wild cousins
that are smaller and less resplendent. In this way I hope to avoid the problem I
have with dragons. Ever notice they are often the only animal in a book that has
six appendages? Why is that?
I guess this is all pretty obvious stuff. But itís very
easy to fall in love with your creations and throw the spotlight on them. I try
to observe the characterís point of view, show mundane or small details, and
make a dedicated effort to holding such description in check. This seems to help
keep my story moving. It also maintains my interest, and hopefully the
readerís as well.