Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

Fantasy

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 the fantastic? 

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 given." 

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."  

In 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 example above. 

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 completely entertained.   

So 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.  

He 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.  

Thinking 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.  

I 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.  

Jon 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 animal?" 

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?" 

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. 

"Yeah, they're mean little curs. They even hunt together sometimes."

 Vena 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.