Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Creature Building 101:

by Marilyn Glazar
Marilyn Glazar

In fantasy and science fiction novels authors are often called upon to come up with creatures that have never before seen the light of day.  Sometimes these creations are aliens or monsters, and sometimes they are mythological creatures such as unicorns or vampires.  If such a creature spends very much time at all under the scrutiny of the reader it's important that it live and breathe in the reader's mind.

Fortunately, there are a few tricks that can help lend verisimilitude to made-up and imaginary beings.  The first and foremost of these is to pay close attention to the rules that creatures on this planet follow.  It's perfectly fine to break these rules, just as it's all right to break some grammatical rules occasionally, but it helps to know what rules you are breaking and why.  In fact, taking one or two rules and breaking them on purpose can make for an interesting creature.

Holly Lisle pointed out in her article on character creation (see link below) that it can be helpful to create a character's personality and background before worrying about what that person looks like.  This technique seems to work better for some writers than others.  You may already have an idea of the appearance of your creature.  If so, keep it in mind but set it aside while we consider a few other factors.

In staying alive, a species (type of creature) has to have strategies for coping with its surroundings.  These strategies can be divided into three categories that we'll call Survival, Sustenance, and Reproduction and the three are interlinked.  A species will not survive without sustenance and if it doesn't survive it doesn't get the chance to reproduce.  We will deal with these categories extensively one at a time and then consider the appearance of newly created creatures.  In this issue we will look at survival.

Survival is the means a creature uses to avoid death.  Every environment on this planet is rife with danger.  Animals have to keep warm but not too warm, they have to get plenty of oxygen, they have to safely get rid of and avoid toxic substances, and they have to evade becoming the main course in another creature's meal.  These dangers are inherent to the environment that an animal lives in.  Arctic creatures have a different set of problems than tropical and desert creatures.  It stands to reason that the problems faced by magical creatures and alien creatures would also be different.  For this reason, creature building and world building must go hand-in-hand.  Let's look at a couple of real-life examples and then examine a fictional creature to see how each solves its survival problems.

There is a really nice article in the March 2004 issue of National Geographic about harp seals (see link below).  You might remember this creature from campaign that has been going on since the 1960's to stop fishermen from hunting it for seal oil and fur.  This is an animal that lives in cold places and it has adapted to its environment.  Harp seals have a thick layer of fat that protects them from the cold.  The body is streamlined for swimming, which is important since it spends a lot of time under water.   Harp seals are also pretty prolific which helps it to stay ahead of losses from predation and hunting.  Females have one pup a year from the time they are between four and eight years old until about the age of thirty.

Each spring the harp seals migrate south where there are no 'natural' predators and the conditions are just right for giving birth and raising young.  People kill these creatures in their southern homes of Newfoundland and Greenland.  In addition, ice that is too thick or too thin in their spring quarters can cause the death of pups.  However, for a type of creature to exist, the survival of the individual is not important.  Harp seals still exist because (so far) they reproduce faster than they are killed off.  This is a common and perfectly acceptable method of solving the problem of a high mortality rate.

For a second example, let's look at a creature in a completely different set of circumstances, the Gila Monster.  Who can resist a real-life creature with the word, "monster" in its name?  These lizards live in desert areas in the western United States and Mexico.  The biggest problems they have to deal with are heat, cold, and a lack of water.  They survive because they are designed to deal with these problems.  Scales keep whatever water is in the lizard from escaping easily.  As an extra precaution, the lizard sleeps under rocks and in the burrows of other animals during the day.  It comes out to hunt at night, and although a lizard can be sluggish due to low body temperature, it's venom helps it take down its prey.  It even stores up extra food as fat in its tail.  This helps Gila Monsters to survive the other difficulty of its environment which is the cold.  Summers may be hot, but winter comes, even to the desert.  The Gila Monster survives the winter by hibernating and living off of the fat in its tail.

Anne McCaffery created a creature in her Dragonrider series that has lived in the hearts of several generations of readers.  It is not at all a creature of this world and could not possibly exist on Earth as we know it, but it does follow the rules of creature creation and the self consistent rules of the of the fictional world where it exists.  It is based on the mythological dragon.  In order to survive on its planet, it has to associate closely with humans.  In fact, these dragons were created by humans in order to help them deal with an environmental menace.  In order to get along with people it has a form of telepathy and impresses upon a human companion at birth (a little like some birds impress upon their parents), forming a permanent relationship.  In order to fight the environmental menace, called thread, it has the ability to chew a stone containing phosphorous and produce fire.  The fire burns the thread that falls out of the sky while teleportation ability allows it to quickly duck out of danger's way.  In reading these books it's hard to determine if the creatures were created before the world or the world was created for the creatures.  Anne McCaffery's dragons could not live without Pern.

Considering survival mechanisms gives your creature grounding in your world.  It helps work the new creature into the ecosystem around it.  Looking at these relationships can give a writer a better understanding of a newly created creature.  In fact, especially if the creature doesn't figure into the plot too extensively, this and a description may be all you need.  It's a nice snapshot of the lifestyle of a species.  However, if your creature is the reason for your plot, or if it's on stage extensively, you might want to stay tuned for the Sustenance, Reproduction, and Appearance articles.

Article Mentioned: How To Create a Character, by Holly Lilsle,  

Article Mentioned:  Harp Seals:  The Hunt for Balance, by Kennedy Warne, National Geographic, March 2004

Series Mentioned:  The Dragonriders of Pern: Dragonflight, Dragonquest, the White Dragon, by Anne McCaffrey, ISBN 0345340248