My suggestion when creating names and places and creatures is this: add some new to the familiar. If a world is too foreign it can be hard to grasp. I’ll use James Cameron’s Avatar as an example. The creatures in the movie have six legs instead of four. Yet, there are animals similar to dogs, elephants, and horses. The familiarity of those creatures parallel to animals from our own world help us fill in the subconscious gap of their role in nature without the movie taking the time to explain them. They took the familiar and modified it to fit the world. We know that elephants travel in families and are strong and smart. You filled in those gaps, subconsciously, for those creatures in the Avatar movies. You can do something similar with new creatures in your world. Or, keep what you know and add something new that would work within that environment. Speaking of…
This is the number one thing to keep in mind when making new creatures. Would they survive in the environment you place them in? Nothing can jolt a reader out of a story faster than disbelief. If you have a shark living in a desert…you really need to do some explaining on that. And you can! It’s your world do what you like! But if you create something out of the ordinary or it doesn’t make sense in the real world an explanation will save some headache and disbelief. Although, make sure your explanation will do the trick as well. The environment affects how many prey, and in turn predators, you have in the area. If it’s lush and green you’ll have plenty of fauna to hunt.
You can make up a creature that has several branches of species living around the world, but those species differ by the environment in which they live. Lets say you have unicorns. A unicorn in the north might have thick fur instead of hair and looks more like a woolly one-horned goat than a majestic creature. Whereas in the desert it could have a horn flat on the end to help it tunnel down into the earth to cool down. In the forest they would have green and black hair and their horn would look closer to a tree branch to help them blend in from the predators. Think of how evolution applies and environmental influence can make creatures different throughout the regions of your world. Assuming they occupy more than one region, because they don’t have to!
Is your new animal important to the culture surrounding it? Is it endangered from over hunting? Do people believe its eyes have healing properties? Is its pelt beautiful and rare? Or is it a common creature that no one pays much mind to? How does your new creature affect the economy? Does it affect it at all? Instead of a piece of your animal being valuable, does it do a valuable service? Is it an animal of burden? Is it a guardian or pack animal? What role does your new animal play in society?
Never rule out human, or humanoid, intervention. Why is your animal in its current environment? Decide whether or not it started out where it is naturally. In our own world we hear of animals being released into the wild. For instance, people who have let their pet pythons go into the everglades because they outgrew their care have caused serious ecological issues. The state of Florida has even issued a culling to try to combat the snakes that don’t belong there naturally. This could happen in your world too. Has your animal been introduced into an environment in which it thrives and yet endangers the other current creature that fits into its role? A predator may eat or starve out other predators.
This isn’t something to consider just for pedigree, but for trying to repopulate an endangered species. This entirely depends on your new animal’s purpose in the world if there is any. If they’re guardians they might be bred to be bigger and faster. Or if they’re show animals they’ll be bred to have a thicker coat. If they’re animals of burden perhaps family lines with wider shoulders are favored. Keep in mind this usually reflects only those animals who have close ties with the dominant species in the area. We ourselves aren’t concerned with the pedigree of water buffalo, but we’re obsessed with dogs for example. Another important thing to note is mating season. In our natural world few species of animal are capable of mating all year long.
Predator or Prey?
What does your new creature eat? Are they a carnivore, herbivore, or an omnivore? What they eat is determined by their environment. Whether that’s a jungle by the equator or in someone’s home. In addition to figuring out your creature’s food, you need to figure out their digestive system. In times of drought are they able to harvest water from the corpses of prey more easily? Do they have large thick claws to cut open cacti? Do they live off of bugs found beneath the sand? Can they hibernate? If your animal is prey, its life will revolve around not only finding its own food, but to avoid becoming food for another animal. Are they hunted by both humans and other predators?
After figuring all of the above out, you should be able to paint a rough picture of your creature in your head. What it feeds on affects it’s mouth and teeth and claws, or lack thereof. Where it lives affects its build and coat. Whether or not humans have a vested interest in its future or its assets can determine the population. Now determine if your animal has feathers, or fur, or scales! How many legs? Is it capable of flight or swimming? What are its cognitive abilities? Is it a smart creature? Able to understand commands or nonverbal communication? Can your animal walk bipedal? How fast does it run or swim? How well does it see? Hearing? Smell? How does it hunt for food? Herbivore or otherwise it has to find its food. All of this now comes together to make your new creature.
Our living world is rife with culture, religion, and mythology. Where does your creature fit into this? What do your people believe about it? Do they think all bats suck blood? Is a goat in the mountains the source of all evil? Of course the idea of what your creature is or where it derives from will vary by region. It can be considered good luck to some and bad to others. One nation’s symbol of freedom is another’s oppression. Some may consider the animals sacred while others use it as a source of food. Something to consider is your animal may not be prominent in any culture and therefore not mentioned often. It’s up to you how prominent your animal is in the society of the dominant species.
The last thing to consider before you’re done is what purpose it serves to include your new animal in your story. Does it drive the plot? Is it for ambiance? Just cause? As I said in the opening paragraph, consider how many foreign creatures you introduce. It can get confusing to a reader and an info dump on each new animal can get tedious. Not saying you can’t have new animals for an exciting new world, but keep it down to a tolerable number or introduce them slowly. Or better yet add on to creatures that we’re all already familiar with to give it a new feeling without sacrificing page volume to explanation.
Until Next Time…
For inspiration watch any nature show. You’ll see how amazing and strange the animals of our own world are. There’s a slew of them on Netflix and Youtube. As always I hope this part of World Building has helped to flesh out your world a little more. If you’re planning on participating in NaNoWriMo now’s as good a time as any to start world building for your new story.
Dragon Bloode: Covet is out everywhere ebooks are sold.
Added 11/21/2016 World Building Part 10: Science!
Added 12/12/2016 World Building Part 11: Medicine
Added 01/09/2016 World Building Part 12: Names