10 Steps to Creating Realistic Fantasy Animals
by Ashley Lange
Why do writers write? Because it isn't there.
- Thomas Berger
Arguably, the two most challenging aspects for fantasy/science fiction writers to conquer are originality and believability. In this article, I'll use the study of Ecology and animals (don't worry; it won't be a science lecture! You can actually use this stuff! I promise!) to help your fantasy creatures to be believable, original, and about the common mistakes of making up creatures and matching them to places.
Okay, so why use animals?
The attraction to fantasy animals is obvious. Whether it is the magnificent griffon, the fierce dragon, or the magical unicorn, the "endless" possibilities of imagination can combine to create a lovely masterpiece of a story. Few excellent fantasy stories just feature humans, and their interactions with creatures can vary from the main conflict point of stories to just an aside to make the reader wonder. If you want to harvest this unlimited field, you have two choices: choose mythical animals or make up your own. Of course, every mythical creature has its stereotypes and it can be near impossible to avoid these situations. Read on, and hopefully you'll be able to creature realistic fictional animals as well!
STEP ONE: PURPOSE
The first question you need to ask yourself is why you are creating a creature in the first place. Here are a few purposes you're probably considering:
To attack the hero (wild animal)
To be guarding something/a gateway
To be a feature of the environment (aka, hero sees a herd grazing)
To be someone's pet
To oppose the hero (aka enemy orc soldiers)
To aid the hero (such as friendly elves)
To set the mood (glowing eyes in a dark forest)
For a mount (a variant of a horse/camel/donkey, etc.)
To be hunted
To work (such as on a farm)
To be raised for meat/milk/silk/wool
To race competitively
To fight (such as in an arena)
To draw (Who says you have to write about it?)
STEP TWO: MOOD
"All monsters need a personality," – Peter Jackson
Once you've figured out what your animal will be for, a good thing that is often overlooked is the mood that you want your creature to convey. Is it the terrifying, bloodthirsty orc, the essence of a savage murderer? Or is it the spritely nymph who flutters from flower to flower, spreading the healing thaw of spring? (By the way, I'm using classical fantasy animals for examples. For originality's sake, you shouldn't overuse these!) The most basic ways to label your animals are evil, good, or neutral. From there, stem out into other emotions.
After you assemble your creature, you can define the mood through writing. I'll have more on this later.
STEP THREE: ENVIRONMENT
The environment is one key element to creating your creature. Just as toucans wouldn't live above the Arctic Circle, the reader shouldn't have to question how your animal fits into its surroundings. Before you can start piecing your animal together, you must choose the environment that it will live in.
To find environments, you won't need to look any father than planet Earth. Whether your fantasy land has deciduous forests (trees that drop their leaves in autumn), coniferous forests (evergreen pine trees), deserts, savannahs, rainforests, tundra, prairies, marshes, volcanic plains, beaches, caves, rivers, lakes, oceans, wastelands, canyons, highlands (mountains), scorched grounds, rock fields, or anything else you can think of, chances are that Earth has a similar environment. Go to www.google.com, click on, "Images", and type in the kind of land or water you want. Then, look at the pictures produced. These pictures should give you a feel for what you're working with.
Once you've chosen a type of environment, you can narrow the scope of your environment even farther. For example, let's say you chose a, 'desert'. What images come to your mind when you think of deserts? Is it sandy, barren, with maybe some dunes here and there, some cacti or maybe even a pyramid or some ruins? Congratulations, you have just summoned the image of a cliché. Clichés are one of the major problems in fantasy writing, so why don't we mess with that dry, sandy image a bit?
Some deserts are lush in the springtime. Go on to the next section for climate for more on this.
The Atacama desert, in Chile, the driest place on Earth.
Believe it or not, Antarctica is the only continent that is entirely a desert. Since a desert is defined as a place with very little precipitation, frozen snow planes (with little snow actually falling) do qualify as deserts.
As you can see, not all deserts are barren and dead. When you classify the environment for your creature, keep in mind that not all environments match the common conceptions of them. This allows for you to put your imagination to work!
A good technique to use is through actually drawing your landscape, even if you have no artistic ability at all. Get the shapes down – where are the hills and rocks? Are there rivers, lakes streams, or inland seas? What kind of trees are there; what size are they? What is the vegetation like? Are there valleys, fjords, mesas, canyons, deltas, hills, dunes, icebergs, mountains, holes, cracks, reefs, waterfalls, lava floes, or glaciers? Draw them in! If you are less artistically inclined, the least you can do is write about your environment. I'm more on the artistic side myself, but, nonetheless, here's an example of a descriptive paragraph. Remember, even though they aren't really part of nature, towns, walls, bridges, towers, etc. can be added in here. Also, have residual signs of the local creatures (if any, so far).
The trees in Arca are so tall that the tops and their trunks cannot even be seen from mid level .When one looks down, he sees nothing but shadows, and when he looks up, he sees narrow rays of sunlight pricking through the criss-crossing canopy like pinholes through a dark sheet .The trees are about 20 to 30 feet thick in diameter. Their bark is rough and hewn, and there is evidence of claw marks on the undersides of the branches. Dark, gunky moss grows near the bottoms of the trees while jade green creepers with black spots on their spade-shaped leaves grow towards the tops where they are eventually lost to sight. In some places, there are slimy vines which entangle branches and hang down from them. like rubbery hoses or snakes. There is wind near the tree tops, but mostly the air is still and heavy; there is a swamp nearby. One can smell the humid reek of the swamp in the trees. There seems to be no end or beginning to the forest.
That was a rough mock up of a descriptive paragraph you could write. A good exercise for this is to get someone to read your paragraph and then draw about it. Then you'll know what kind of mood and the basic fundamentals that your environment has. Notice that I included the local shrubbery. You should at least include three kinds of plants, if your environment harbors plants. Don't forget about fungus! Mushrooms, films, and slimes can greatly contribute to your scene.
To consolidate your environments, you should consider drawing a geographical environmental map, also called a topographic map. It basically shows where the features (deserts, forests, canyons, etc.) are in your land. You can reference the books by Brian Jacques if you need an example. His books often feature maps in the beginning.
Use common sense on maps. Arctic wastelands won't be in near the center of your imaginary planet, nor will tropical forests be near the top. Here is a run down of the basic areas that you can place on your map:
CARNIFEROUS FOREST: Forests made of mostly pine trees. Usually found in northern regions or areas of higher altitude. The vegetation isn't very thick and the topsoil is thin and rocky.
DECIDUOUS FOREST: Forests made of branching trees that shed their leaves in the fall. Usually found in middle-temperate regions on sea-level land. The vegetation is thicker and the topsoil is thick and rich.
TROPICAL RAINFOREST: Forests made of very tall trees with leaves towards the tops of the trees but not many under. Wherever sunlight comes through the leaves, vegetation grows. Lots of large fruit, leaves, and nuts grow here. Very wet, and it rains often. The soil is matted with roots and isn't very good for farming (once the forest is burned/torn down) NOTE: Jungles are a type of rainforest where the vegetation is so thick that it's almost impossible to work your way through without a machete (a large, swinging knife made to cut vegetation)
DESERT: Hot deserts occur around the equator. Deserts farther north (in the northern hemisphere) occur when a large, coastal mountain range separates the desert from the sea. The desert will receive little rainfall and usually has two seasons: the wet and the dry. The soil is sandy or rocky and is usually very bad. With annual flooding of a water source, however, the land can be farmed.
PRARIE: Large, grassy, flat areas located in the mid-temperate regions. The soil is too poor to support large trees but it does have expansive grasses. Usually, the poor soil doesn't allow much crop growth.
SAVANAH: Like prairies, but hotter. Found near the equator and usually support grasses, trees adapted to the seasons (wet and dry)
TUNDRA: Cold ground found near the poles of the planet. The soil is thin and might support small plants in the spring, but father north or south, the ground has permafrost (it is frozen all times of the year) and very little will grow. It will not harbor crops.
STEP FOUR: ASSEMBLING YOUR ANIMAL
Now, you must decide what parts your animal has and how to piece them together. Following is a mini-reference guide on parts and features of animals and what they do.
Eyes see. It's their job, but not all eyes see in the same way. Humans see very differently than bees, and bees differently from hawks, and hawks differently from owls. The eye can be found in many shapes, sizes, colors, but, the most important feature of the eye that you should consider is the function. Here is a sampling of the various functions and features of eyes:
NIGHT VISON: Nocturnal animals (animals that are active mainly during night) or cave animals, (who spend most of their lives in darkness), and deep sea creatures (who also never see the light of day) usually possess the ability to see at night. Their eyes are very large and striking. This largeness is for the amount of light that the creature needs to collect. A small eye catches only a small amount of light whereas a large eye can pick indistinct bits of light from the night and see as if it were day. Owls' eyes are so large that they cannot turn in their sockets; instead, the owl must turn his or her head to see to the side. Still, keep in mind, no matter how large a creature's eyes are, no animal can see in complete darkness.
POSITION: Most times, eyes are on the head of the creature, near the brain where the information can be processed. Predators, like wolves, will have their eyes faced forward on the head so that when they're chasing their prey, they can see it readily. Prey, like deer, has bulbous eyes on the sides of their heads. This allows them to have a combination of forward and backwards vision, so that they can watch out for predators. Most of their forward vision is full of their snouts. (I can't stand it when a monster movie camera does a, "from the monster's point of view" shot and there isn't any snout in the camera – even people have a sliver of their nose in their line of sight)
TAPETUM: If you've ever shone a flashlight at your cat when he or she is stalking around at night, you have noticed that your pet's eyes shine brightly. This is the effect of a special reflecting membrane at the back of the creature's eyes. This amplifies the limited light that the eye receives, and, therefore, can help the animal see in limited light.
PUPILS: The pupil is a hole in the eye that allows light to enter the eye. The pupils can expand and contract to control the amount of light that enters the eye. During the day, when nocturnal animals are awake, they need to protect their sensitive eyes from the huge amount of light. Circular pupils are common of daytime animals, while slitted pupils are more common of night animals because they're easier to open and close more quickly.
COLOR: If you go duck hunting in blaze orange, you won't get very lucky. Go deer hunting in camouflage and you're likely to get shot. Deer don't see color vision while ducks do. Animals have color vision usually relating to selecting a mate (hence, the male of a species being more colorful, usually), finding prey, and finding flowers for nectar. Consider these things: what your animal eats, what eats it, and how it finds a mate. These are the bases for success.
PURPOSE: Worms have no eyes, but would they need them underground? Hawks need eyes to scope for the miniscule movements of prey through leaves, trees, and grasses. The intensity of the eye's function depends on the habits of your creature.
INSECTOID: Insect eyes are like those multifaceted viewers you played with as a kid. They can be described as being under a dome of television monitors, each showing a slightly different angle of the same picture. Dragonflies, who hunt for mosquitoes, have huge eyes and can see in almost all directions, even behind them.
EYELIDS: Swift note to J. K. Rowling, author of the awesome Harry Potter series: Snakes do not wink, blink, or do anything of the sort. They have no eyelids. When you "close" your eyes, you are actually lowering an eyelid over your eye. This lid keeps the surface of the eyeball moist and healthy (why you blink every few seconds) and also blocks out unwanted light, disturbing sights, and intruding presences that invade the mind's ability to concentrate. Some aquatic creatures have a second, internal, clear eyelid. This acts like a window for the eye so that it can be opened underwater.
EYELASHES: Camels have great, thick eyelashes. This helps with the glare of the sun against desert sand. Eyelashes simply keep foreign matter out of the eye of mammals and are not found on any other type of creature.
COMMUNICATION: THE EYEBROW The human eye is likened to a window to his or her soul. Because humans are so social, their eyes, or more specifically, their eyebrow, have developed many personalities: downslanted means angry or sly, upslanted means worried or frightened, relaxed means happy and content. The eye can show many emotions, and a knowledge of these emotions will help your drawings considerably. The position of the pupil in the smiling eye's lid can mean the difference between authenticity and falsehood. When drawing from pictures, it is very important that you use actual photographs and not illustrations. The casual observer is usually misled. Horses, no matter how furious they get, cannot lower their eyebrows. They simply don't have them. Cats, dogs, and all other creatures you'll come across outside of monkeys do not show emotion like we do. It is okay, however, to add eyebrows for artistic merit, but don't be fooled. Eyebrows were developed, in theory, to keep the sweat from dripping into our eyes.
For more on eyes:
Smell is a more primal sense, mostly gone in humans but still relevant in the animal kingdom. The sharp-nosed dog can sniff a fence post and know several things about the last dog to "mark" it: the dog's gender, the time of the dog's passing, whether the dog's in good health, how old the dog is, and many other things still unknown to us. People use their nose as a sense of pleasure, as in perfumes, and to sense danger, as in gas leaks.
HUNTING/DEFENSE: Wolves use their noses to track down prey in the wilderness. They follow the fresh scent laid down by recent deer rubbings and can follow the deer's trail for miles. The deer, smelling the wolf on the wind, in turn, runs off. Staying downwind, or, letting the wind pass the deer before it passes you, could destroy the deer's defense, depending on the strength of the wind. Fish do not have noses but some of them, for instance, sharks, do have electrical receptors that can detect the biological signals of other living creatures. Also, sharks can detect single drops of blood from great distances.
TERRITORY: Cats, when rubbing their faces against your leg, aren't entirely welcoming you home: they're marking you with something called the Jacobson's organ, a gland on the roofs of their mouths. When other cats smell this, they'll know that the fencepost, the bush, and you are their property, and it should not be crossed by others of the same gender or the uninvited opposite without a confrontation. Other forms of marking include scratching and urinating.
MATING: Males also can smell when a female is in heat. During this time, he'll follow her smell and enter her territory, sometimes with her protest, sometimes without.
RELATIONS: To make sure that one bee isn't a member of a rival hive, worker bees smell other bees to make sure that the unknown is part of their own hive. Also, when a mother zebra gets separated from her baby, she can smell her baby to find it.
COMMUNICATION: Queen bees, termites, and ants relay orders to worker ants through scent. These animals don't have noses, but they do have sensitive palps, which interpret the information like a nose would.
The mouth can do several things, some not related to eating at all, but a great majority of the mouth's use in creatures is to help digest its food. Mechanical digestion, chewing in lay terms, is not available to all creatures, due to the teeth. Animals are usually broken into three categories, to which their mouths and teeth are related.
HERBIVORES: Herbivores eat only organic material: plants, roots, leaves, maybe bark. Their teeth are chiseled and flat for chewing. No herbivores have sharp teeth for defense, to my knowledge.
Image of a horse skull:
This is the skull of a horse. Note the frontal, wedged, grazing teeth followed by the back rows of flat chewing teeth.
OMNIVORES: Omnivores eat both organic matter and meat. Their teeth usually are sharp in the front, for biting and ripping off chunks, and flat in the back, for chewing. Birds, related to dinosaurs, sometimes have placental teeth, (so much for the 'rare as a chicken's tooth) but have beaks to rip open oysters, swallow mice, and pluck seeds from pods. Insects have pincers to aid in their efforts. Fish sometimes have teeth; it depends on the type of fish.
Image of a human skull:
Humans have remnants of their canine teeth. The front teeth are sharper while the molars (square teeth) are flat for chewing plant material.
CARNIVORES: carnivores eat meat exclusively. They do not chew very well. Cats' jaws can't move side to side at all (the reason that cat food has small pieces). Predators such as the crocodile rip off large chunks of prey with their sharp teeth and swallow the pieces whole. Snakes can have large, hollow fangs (poisonous snakes) or rows of backwards, jagged teeth (constrictors, snakes that coil around their prey and suffocate it to death). The teeth are faced backwards to prevent the prey escaping.
Crocodile's teeth can snap down viciously to ensnare its prey. They're all sharp. It is a common feature of sharp-toothed animals, like crocodiles and sharks, to lose several teeth during each attack. They can easily grow them again. Be careful here: don't give small animals ridiculously large teeth, or they wouldn't be able to use them. An exception to this is the deep sea anglerfish, which has the greatest difference in teeth proportion to body size in the world.
OTHER TEETH: Venomous snakes deliver toxin through a set of hollow fangs on the top of their jaws. Constricting snakes, however, have rows of backwards teeth that discourage the prey from escaping its jaws. To escape a powerful bite to the arm, one must shove their arm into the snake's mouth rather than pull it out.
Of course, the most abundant animals on the planet don't have teeth at all.
Example of an insect mouth:
MANDIBLES: Instead of teeth, insects use mandibles: a pair of pincer-like crescents that slant inwards from the top of the insect's mouth and are used as grippers.
FANGS: Some spiders have hollow fangs which deliver venom into their prey
MAXILLAE: Behind the mandibles, insects may have a set of limb-like jaws called maxillae.
LABIUM AND TONGUE: The labium dwells beneath the other sets of jaws, and the tongue inside the mouth on some insects. For more on insect mouths (and insects in general) go to a great source on insects and other animals:
It also may be noted that some adult forms of insects, like moths, don't have mouths at all (they live only to mate)
The insect mouth dissected:
BEAKS: Each beak is suited to the type of food which the bird eats. There are several types depending on the bird:
LONG POINTED: (herons) used to spear fish
HOOKED: (eagles) for catching prey
CROSSED AND HOOKED: for cracking nuts and seeds
DRILL: (woodpeckers) for hollowing out wood to make nests and search for insects
LONG STRAW: (hummingbird) to drink nectar from flowers
LONG SCOOP: (pelicans) to scoop up fish
SHORT: (songbirds) for many purposes
FISH MOUTHS: http://www.meer.org/generalized-fish-body.htm
Fish have a great variety of mouths to consider, even moreso than birds. Some have teeth, some don't; some have heavy jaws, and others have suckers for mouths.
MORE USES FOR MOUTHS:
COMMUNICATION: WHY CAN'T ANIMALS TALK? The most obvious, but not the oldest, form of human communication became language many thousands of years ago. It is theorized that humans began to use this oral system because of the development of hands: since humans didn't have to carry things around in their mouths anymore, their mouths shrank and their vocal chords developed in accordance. This could be why most animals don't have such a distinct vocal range. Chimpanzees, apes, and monkeys have languages that are difficult to interpret, but simple in meaning. Simply put, these animals cannot talk because their vocal chords and mouths do not function like ours. If they could, they could be taught: Koko the gorilla knows over 3,000 American Sign Language signs. Parrots "talk", but it doesn't involve their beaks as much as their vocal chords. When they do talk, it is more of an imitation than a sign of intelligence. Some species of birds have more than one set of vocal chords: they can whistle two different trills at once. Be careful about the ability of your animal to talk: snakes are not even close to the capacity for speech.
HUNTING: Saber tooth cats obviously used their colossal fang-like teeth for hunting. The teeth would puncture the animal's sides and help bring it down. Venomous snakes have hollow fangs which pump venom into the bloodstreams of their prey. A snap of a crocodile's mouth can render a leg, an arm, or an entire torso useless, aiding in the prey's capture. Hunting spiders also snatch their prey with pincers and crush them to death.
TASTE: Taste is related to smell to a great degree. If you've ever smelled apple pie baking in the oven and then imagined the taste on your tongue, you'll believe it. Taste plays a larger role in insects' lives. They use it for communication. Also, taste tells animals whether something is good to eat or may be hazardous. Taste can be used for pleasure, obviously: obesity is a self-destructive, unhealthy habit, but humans do it anyway, for the sake of tasting their favorite foods. Food is a big industry, and lack of it produces dire situations.
BONDING: Nothing is tenderer than a well-placed kiss in the plot-line. Apparently, humans are not alone in this regard. Apes and monkey species have been seen performing similar behavior. Also, there's that other activity that humans use their mouths for, which I won't touch on. Human-like creatures might or not might kiss according to what you want, but other types of animals, it could be a stretch. Maybe some other gesture could hold the same show of affection.
STORAGE: Some rodents have pockets in their cheeks that allow them to store food temporarily
TONGUE: Tongues are the only muscle in our bodies connected at one end. Tongues are used for taste and to help strip branches from leaves. Giraffes' tongues are black to prevent them from sunburn. Another use for tongues is food: several species of reptile and amphibian ensnare insect or smaller prey with their sticky tongues. Anteaters have long, extended faces and sticky tongues to get ants out from anthills.
Some insects have long, ropelike antennae. These can act as noses, ears, or eyes for insects, as they sense vibration, detect smells, and can feel like fingers
Ears interpret sound waves (vibrations) and usually accompany the eyes in taking in the information around them. Most land-going mammals have ear funnels (ears visible from the outside) while sea mammals and other types of creatures do not. Their ears are located inside their head and sound reaches these ears through an indistinct hole. (Note: Horned owls' ears are not related to the tufts of feathers on their heads) Fish do not have ears at all; fish have what's called a lateral line. The line across the fish's side can detect vibrations within the water, warning it of danger or alerting it of prey. Insects have a similar system of vibration detection: with the sensitive hairs all over their body.
HUNTING/DEFENSE: The most notable feature of a rabbit's head is those large ears. Rabbits can hear tiny sounds from great distances because of the acoustic effect of their ears. The funnel shape and the hair in the ears act for the ear like the tapetum does for the eye: they resonate and amplify sound waves for the animal to hear it. Therefore, predators, like wild cats, have big ears to help stalk their prey, while their prey, like deer, have huge ears to hear the cats stalking them. These ears have the ability to swivel, like satellite dishes. Hunting birds have great hearing for the detection of prey as well, although their ears aren't visible. Other creatures rely more on vibration to detect the presence of predator or prey.
COMMUNICATION: The ears and eyes on mammals can interact for communication. When a cat puts back his or her ears, it's usually a sign that the cat is agitated or frightened. Up and swiveling, and the cat is alert. Cats use these signals for social communication. Dogs, deer, and other mammals use this system too.
NOTE ON POINTED EARS: You all have seen renditions of the Tolkein elf. This is just my theory, but I suspect they became pointed for the elves to push their long hair behind, and out of their eyes.
The fourth sense is the most used sense every day. The ability of touch allows you to hold an egg without crushing it and allows a worm to mow its way through the earth.
FOOD: Many cave and undersea creatures with a low benefit of sight use touch to find their prey. It is as simple as feeling out what it is, and then eating it.
COMMUNICATION: Touch is a vital element of bonding. Young deer rub against their mothers to strengthen their relationships, and therefore, increase their chances for survival.
Horns are ornaments on a creature's head that are used for several purposes. Rhinos have a singular horn (well, it's actually not a horn: it's made out of a fingernail-like material while real horn is bone), antelope have pairs. Triceratops had a great set of three horns mounted on an armored frill around its neck.
DEFENSE: Horns are rarely used for offense, unless it's between members of the same species over territory, food, or female debates. Curved and pointed horns, like deers', can drive off predators like wolves. To use sideways horns, the animal will swing to the side more, whereas singular horns influence the animal's forward movement.
MATING: Male deer rattle their horns when they're looking for females to mate with. This is also a territorial display to other males
AGE: the number of points on horns and the horns' size usually allows the observer to calculate the animal's age
DEVELOPMENT: Young animals might have stumps for horns or none at all. As they grow older, their horns grow larger, or have more points, especially on males. In spring, for deer, their antlers are covered with fine fuzz. By fall, their antlers are fully developed and they are ready to fence other males for females.
ORNAMENTS: Humans make everything from horns. From jewelry to piano keys, we can't seem to get enough. Intelligent members of your animal species might craft horns into tools, jewelry, artwork, or other things. The same thing goes for bones, skin, and hair.
MAGIC?: Unicorns have magical horns, and a creation of mine has electrical. They can be used as an animal's staff or wand, in a fantasy sense.
We use our hands so much every day that we don't even realize it. The use of fingers and an opposable thumb isn't exclusive to intelligent beings, but it has been their mark – thumbs are used to create tools, to hold young, to build empires. Hands remain the symbols of intelligence, kindness, and power.
BUILDING/MAKING: Try drawing a picture without your hands. Difficult, no? Hands are used for making tools, building shelters, knitting fabric, and several other mechanical functions, such as turning doorknobs. Your creatures won't build structures with doorknobs if they have no hands to open them; the same goes for spoons, knives, forks, pens, paintbrushes, toothbrushes, hairbrushes, combs, etc. Common sense, but you'd be surprised. Also, if the creatures have long claws, do you think that they'd develop a skill for playing the piano? Think here.
COMMUNICATION: Give an American a thumbs up, they'd smile at you. Give one somewhere else, and you might get in trouble. Keep in mind the hand signals that can be employed. In America, people clap to applaud people. In France, clapping means that you dislike the performer; you should whistle. In some places, you point with your chin. Pointing at people with your finger is still considered rude. The middle finger gesture, of course, is much ruder. A pat on the head here signifies satisfaction, but one in the Middle East might be an offense. It all depends on you, the writer, as what you wish to show. Holding hands is a well-known show if affection. It's a simple drawing rule that hands should be given as much attention to as the face, and it goes for writing too. Besides our face, they're our most successful tools in communication. What a difference a clenched fist makes in an otherwise placid portrait!
Wings, obviously, allow creatures to fly. Only mammals, birds, and insects have true flight wings, but pterodactyls had them, which in turn would allow reptiles flight as well. Keep in mind the requirements for flight: the wings MUST be large enough for flight (there is no way that Shrek's dragoness would ever attain 2 inches off the ground in the real world), the creature must be light enough for flight, (hollow bones allow this, but bones like this are usually fragile, no 2 ton dragons here), the creature must be aerodynamic, and the creature must have enough energy to sustain flight. Insects were the first on the planet to sustain flight. They have up to two pairs of wings, and some are only sustained during their adult form of life.
FLAPPING: Try this: take two sheets of 5' by 3' posterboard, tape them under your arms and flap them up and down as fast as you can. Then, tape two sheets of looseleaf paper the same way and flap again. You may look stupid, but you'll learn this: the larger the wings, the slower they'll flap. While you can hardly see a hummingbird's wings as they zip around, an eagle's wings stand out as they soar.
Claws can be anything from menacing hooks to stubby fingernails and can be used to show class or to take down prey.
HUNTING/DEFENSE: Cats own the most advanced claws in the animal world. Cats' claws are retractable; they can retract into sheathes set into slits in their paws. Cheetahs have special claws which enable their incredible speed: they have large, un-retractable dog-like claws which help them grip the dirt while they run like tread shoes, preventing slipping. When one runs up to prey, such as a gazelle, he or she expands his or her dewclaws, a set of smaller claws behind the main set, and sinks them into the flanks of the animal to bring it down. Defense implications for claws are obvious. Large bears can take off your head with just one of their massive claws. Domestic cat claws, while much less dangerous, still make for a painful encounter.
GRIP: As I said before, dog-like claws grip the ground to prevent sliding.
FINGERNAILS: Fingernails work sort of like a gripping tool for human-like creatures. They're flimsy, but they can be used to scratch and scrape, and they must be cut. Peter Jackson, director of Tolkein's Lord of the Rings (a great watch; I recommend it: all of Jackson's creatures have adaptations) imagined the cave troll's nails for a different use: they were thick and heavy, and grew over the end of the finger. This would help the troll dig holes for hibernation underground. Key details like this transform the creature from a child's dream to a writer's reality. The length of fingernails and their color have been used as signs of social rank. Lords and Ladies grew their nails long because it showed that they didn't have to toil in the fields like the unfortunate rest. Fingernails can also be painted to signify similar status.
SHOVELS: Like the Troll's fingernails, the mole's shovel-like claws, back and front feet, assist it in digging tunnels
Not a lot of walking is done without feet. Snakes and worms do fine without them, but if you live on land, you'll probably want a pair or two.
LOCOMOTION: Armed with claws, feet make weapons, but their main purpose is for locomotion (moving around). The type of foot varies in accordance to what your animal eats, where it walks, hangs, or perches. All animals move differently. Spiders strut, horses gallop, and fish swim. To get a sense on how your animal moves, it helps to watch a similar animal run, swim, or fly. Be aware that lions run differently than Chihuahuas, and whales swim differently than fish. (a note on that: whales move their tails up and down while fish move them from side to side) Locomotion is also the greatest source of mood. (more on this later)
TYPES OF FEET:
HOOVES: hooves are the signifying element of an herbivore. Horses, goats, deer, antelope, cows, pigs, and sheep are all hoofed animals. Hooves are made of a fingernail like material that grows like fingernails do. Horse hooves need to be trimmed just like fingernails do (Note: not all horse hooves are black. I've seen pink hooves, or pink with black stripes). Hooves once signified animals not fit for eating: if an animal's hooves were clefted, then it couldn't be eaten in ancient Israel. Clefted hooves are useful for animals that live among cliffs and ravines. Imagine climbing a brick wall: Would you rather have bricks strapped to your feet or climbing shoes? The cleft in the hoof acts like a climbing shoe; it allows the animal's foot to bend over knobs in the rock to give it greater stability. Unicorns are known to have clefted hooves, but I truly can't say why. Normal hooves, like horses', are solid and better for running over large, flat expanses like prairies.
PAWS: Mammals are the only creatures with paws. Paws are great, flexible feet; the sneakers of the animal world. Cats, dogs, and bears have different paws than mice, skunks, and weasels. Cat's paws are thick, hairy, padded toes that leave distinguished tracks and also can be utterly silent. Some paws, especially rear paws, are extended on certain animals, like rabbits. Don't forget tracks in the snow of your stories: they could give an aura of mystery to an otherwise lifeless arctic wasteland. Large paws help animals move over snow and sand.
CLAWS: Claws, not in the sense of cat claws, but in the sense of turtle and crocodile feet once were used in a more predatory sense (the dinosaurs), but now are used more to grip the dirt during locomotion. Reptiles being smaller now, they usually will use their mouths and tongues for hunting than their claws.
TALONS: Talons, bird claws, are used to grip prey and to perch on tree limbs. A birds' legs are covered with scales; remnants of the bird's dinosaur past.
FINS: Not exactly feet, not really hands, fins are flaps that are moved for locomotion on fish and aquatic animals. Fins come in several varieties, and some are transparent. Look at pictures of fish when arranging your fins; some combinations wouldn't allow a fish to swim smoothly. The tail on a fish is unique to the species: the tails can be forked, scooped, rounded, squared, arrow shaped, and pointed. Some fins are soft, and some have bone structure underneath. The bony ones may have spines with webbing between that protects the fish. To make the fish relax these spines, the fish can be flipped around and juggled through the air.
SUCKERS: Octopi, squids, and cuttlefish all have suckers. They are ringed structures of muscle that are ridged with teeth. They are used to clutch onto prey underwater. Home have hooks in them, and others lack hooks.
FEET: Humans have feet, surprise, surprise. Giraffe and camel feet are similar to ours in the way that they're padded. Camel feet allow them to move over sand; large feet can act like snowshoes for large arctic creatures.
These define the type of animal you have and relate closely to the environment
HAIR: Mammals are, for he most part, covered with hair. Hair is a great insulator that can keep animals warm in cold weather. Usually, mammals will have two coats of hair: an under layer of fine, warm hairs and an outer layer of guard hairs. Hair also sheds in the spring and re-grows for winter. Some animals grow a white coat when winter comes to help them become camouflaged in the snow.
SKIN: Skin is the covering below hair. The color depends on the sun: near the equator, the skin shall appear darker to compensate with the stronger sun. Up north, skin will be fairer. Amphibians also have skin. They breathe through their skin, so their skin must be kept moist at all times, or the creature will die.
SCALES: Scales appear on reptiles, bird legs, and fish. Snakes have to shed their skin periodically, and when they do they become venerable and need to drink lots of water. Some scales, for added protection, have spines on the end of them. Scales, while good armor protection, do not insulate heat, so reptiles are cold blooded and rely on the sun for warmth. This is why you won't find ice dragons without some kind of magic involved. In writing, have animals sunning themselves in view of the hero.
FEATHERS: Feathers are good insulators as well. They also allow most birds flight, due to their hollow and aerodynamic nature. Some feathers are brilliantly colored on males to attract females while others are drab for camouflage. If you remove a pinion feather from a bird's wing, the bird shall no longer be able to fly.
EXOSKELETON: Insects have a brittle shell of amazing tenacity. Their exoskeleton, in combination with their tiny size allows them to do wondrous things. Cockroaches can fall off of their equivalent of an Empire State Building and can walk away unscathed. They can even get run over by a tank tread, and they won't be harmed. These shells don't grow – they need to be shed and replaced periodically.
METAMORPHASIS: Some insects aren't hatched looking like their parents. Often, insects will go through a larval stage where they resemble a maggoty, wormlike thing. They'll spend this time eating and sleeping until the maggot eventually develops into an adult form. Butterflies begin their live as caterpillars. Later, they spin a cocoon and emerge as adults. Frogs hatch from their eggs as tadpoles, a spheroid head followed by a spade-like tail. These don't go through any hibernation phase; they grow legs, lose their tails, and grow into adult frogs. Large, disgusting, pulsating cocoons wrapped in silk are better (and more original) additions to dreary dungeons than rotten skeletons or spider webs, in my opinion.
ECOLOCATION: Dolphins have a melon-shaped lump on their heads which is the center of echolocation. This system is like radar: the animal sends out clicks, the clicks resonate off of rocks, prey, etc. and the waves bounce back to the creature, who reads them. This is useful to whales, dolphins, and bats.
RESPIRATION: All animals take in oxygen and produce waste gasses which include carbon dioxide. In other words, animals breathe. Mammals and reptiles breathe through their mouths and noses. Since it takes a lot of air to keep mammals to maintain their body temperature and do other internal processes, mammals can't hold their breaths underwater for as long as reptiles can. (Sperm whales, who eat the elusive giant squid on the bottom of the ocean, are the champions at breath holding. They can hold their breath for an hour) Reptiles can slow down their internal processes so that they can remain underwater for hours at a time. Fish, of course, spend all of their time in the water. They use ribbed structures called gills to breathe. Water is pumped through the gills and the oxygen is drawn from it. Underwater invertebrates (squid, mollusks) also have this. (Squid have three hearts: one to pump blood to the body and the other two for each gill) Animals that spend half of their lives in the water, amphibians, breathe through their porous skin. Frogs, who use metamorphosis to turn from tadpoles into frogs, start out with gills but grow lungs later.
STEP FIVE: DEFENSE AND OFFENSE
How does the animal attack prey and defend itself from predators?
METHODS OF KILLING
While humans are terribly clever in devising methods of killing, the animal kingdom has its own methods for ending lives. Instead of just having animals attack with claws and teeth, expand your horizons with these examples from the animal world.
VENOM: Venom is usually inflicted through the use of hollow fangs, through touching the venomous tendrils of a jellyfish, through a lizard's bite or through the bite of an octopus. There are two types of venom: hemotoxin, and neurotoxin. Hemotoxin attacks the flesh of the victim like an acid. After inflicted with venom, the afflicted area swells enormously, (for example: a knee would grow to the size of a volleyball), the muscles would swell and expand until they burst through the skin. To counter this swelling, after anti-venom is administered, the afflicted area has to be cut and laid open so the muscles have room to swell and reside. This can take a week or two. The blood loses ability to clot, and therefore, the victim will bleed more profusely. This toxin tends to be slower than neurotoxin, which is much more deadly. Neurotoxin attacks the nervous system and severs links from the nerves to the muscles. Soon after infliction with neurotoxin, paralysis spreads through the body. This venom can be felt by the victim in a burning sensation that spreads through the body via the blood stream. In about 2 hours, the venom reaches the brain and the heart, and death follows. Death can be avoided by the administration of antivenom. (Note: there are two types of snake strikes. Cobras raise their heads and allow their opens mouths to fall on the prey while other snakes launch their heads forward. Once biting, snakes will chew into the flesh of their victims to ensure the venom reaches its destination)
Anatomy of a Snakebite, The Discovery Channel, July 8, 2004
SUFFOCATION/STOPPING THE HEART: Boas are strong snakes that inflict this type of death on their prey. The snake will strike its prey with a mouthful of backwards hooked teeth and the long coils will wind around the prey, slowly crushing inwards every time the prey exhales. Remember – the eyes of the prey will bulge out, as if they might rupture. In a few minutes an influx of fluids will rush to the head, breath will stop, blood pressure rises, the ribs collapse, and after that, the prey's heart will stop. Then the boa releases its prey and consumes it whole. 4 tons of pressure can kill a human; at 2 tons of pressure, humans can still breathe.
DROWNING: Crocodiles, while owning a fearsome set of teeth, need a little more help when taking down a fully-grown bucking zebra. Therefore, the water dwelling creature will seize the land-dwelling zebra and will hold it under the water until it drowns. Then it can be eaten.
ELECTRICITY: Using biological energy in the form of a shock, electric eels can stop the hearts of (or stun) their prey and anything else that molests them.
DROPPING: Clams have developed thick shells to protect their soft, inner body. To counter this, seagulls snatch them from the ground and fly them high above the rocks. Then, they drop the clam, and the clam will smash open. The seagull then flies down and picks the soft flesh from the crushed remnants of the shell.
ENSNARING: Spiders can create a sticky, string like structure that can ensnare insects and small animals. Some spiders weave these into webs, which hang like hard to see nets that snatch insects up mid air. Other spiders shoot the web at their prey. Some spiders dig holes in the ground, line the holes with web, and ambush their prey. Some spiders even dangle a strand of web down and "fish" for passing insects. Others weave a net between their front pincers, creep up on insects, and ensnare them in the net like a butterfly hunter.
BLOOD LOSS: This is the most obvious method of killing. An animal with teeth, spikes, or claws will rip open the flesh of a creature and too much blood will leak out. Blood pressure drops and the victim dies. The most vulnerable blood passage place is the middle front of the neck and the area just below right and left to the neck.
SPINAL CHORD DAMAGE: The spinal chord controls actions of the heart and breathing. Excess damage to this (where the head meets the neck from the back) will damage these areas and could cause death.
SPITTING: A species of fish in the Amazon spits water on insects on the surface to make them fall into the water where it can eat them. Spitting spiders hack up a toxic glue that entangles an insect's legs so that the spider can attack it
BAIT: Anglerfish use the bioluminescent lights on the end of their stalks to attract fish.
METHODS OF DEFENSE
In the various structures I covered, I touched on defense. Here they are in another context with some more.
SPINES/SPIKES: Porcupines have terrific spines on their back which can stick into other creatures' flesh and hook there. (No, porcupines cannot shoot their spines like the legend suggests, but it might be a good idea for your creature to!) The spines can fall out and be re-grown. A hedgehog's spikes, however, do not remove. To overcome the spikes, predators flick the animal on its back and will try to gore its belly. Hedgehogs roll up in a ball to protect themselves.
SHELLS: Turtles grow their own touch, protective shells. The shells cannot separate from the turtle. If threatened, the turtle will retract its head and legs into the shell for protection. Hermit crabs infiltrate the abandoned shells of other creatures and use them for defense. Only their head and legs emerge. When threatened, they retreat into the shell.
MARKINGS: Some animals have adaptations which let them blend in with their environment. For some, their natural colors match the environment – like brown moths that blend in next to bark.
Other creatures actually look like the environment they live in: stick bugs look exactly like twigs and are very difficult to find. Other mimicked items: leaves, bird feces, seaweed, and coral.
Other animals have marking that don't blend in with the environment, but do confuse predators. Four eyes butterfly fish and some moths have large white and black spots on their bodies. These spots mimic eyes. These "eyes" confuse the predators into wondering which way the animal faces. (When walking through a jungle with tigers used to eating humans, natives wore masks on the backs of their head to prevent the tiger's attack) Some animals mimic the colorations of other animals. Some snakes, for example, have patterns of venomous snakes on their backs but have no venom of their own. Finally, some animals, such as chameleons, can change the color of their skin to match the environment. Although this works very well, you won't find any animals that can match Randall Bogg's talents from the movie Monster's Inc. (He was able to totally vanish)
CLAWS/HORNS/TEETH: obvious implications
DETACHABLE LIMBS/REGENERATION: Lizards have the infamous ability to shed their tails when some predator like a hawk (or a curious child) grabs them by it. The tail regrows easily. Crocodiles also have the amazing ability to stop bloodflow to an area of their body. So, if a creature's limb or a piece of its jaw gets ripped off in a fight, it can live on perfectly fine and will not bleed to death.
SMELL: some insects and mammals emit a musky, terrible odor to ward off predators
COLORATION: poisonous dart frogs are brightly colored to warn other animals of their toxic skin
SPRAYING: Cobras don't spit: a muscle contraction in their jaws launches the venom into the eyes of the attacker. A species of lizard squirts blood from its eyes to confuse predators
EXPLOSION: Types of ants explode to protect their colonies
BOTH DEFENSE AND OFFENSE
STINGING/BITING: Scorpions and insects often sting and bite their prey, injecting venom, but this can also be used defensively.
STEP 6: ANIMAL BEHAVIORS
Animal behavior allows the animal to survive. Categorize your animal's habits.
SLEEPING: You may think that all animals sleep, but ants, in fact, do not. They work until they die, and are easily replaced within the network of the anthill. If your animal sleeps during the day, it is nocturnal, and probably has large eyes, echolocation, or something else to compensate for the lack of light. Daytime animals will have smaller eyes and no specific adaptations to the amount of light.
SHELTER: Animals in the bleakest of places need some kind of shelter to survive in. (excluding deep sea animals, who might never see land or the sea floor in their lifetimes. Their bodies are squishy and soft, because they've never come in contact with a solid object) Shelter is anything that protects the animal from the outside world and the environment. Smaller reptiles, mammals, and insects hide under leaf litter and under logs and other things that hide them. Grasses serve the same purpose. Fish on the coral reef often hide in nooks and crannies. Clownfish hide among the stinging psuedopods of anemones, being immune to their sting. Birds hide in trees, (pine trees in the winter, obviously) and sometimes build large, elaborate nests. Animals live everywhere: in the cracks between rocks, in holes in the ground, inside of dead trees, inside dens, inside people's homes, underwater, in other creatures' shells, in tented webs, between trees, in herds, schools, and flocks, below ice, in caves, in cacti and virtually everywhere. Use your imagination for this one.
ANIMAL GROUPINGS: One form of protection animals have is to group together. Zebras' markings confuse predators because of the herd. When a herd of zebras runs, the members' stripes blend together and it's hard to make any one of them out to strike down. Fish group together in a way that makes them look like a very large, silvery fish to scare off predators. Animals like wolves form packs to make survival easier and to allow hunting. This is the usual structure of the packs: an alpha male and his mate, the alpha female, various other females and younger males, and, finally, the lowest ranked wolf in the group, who often is left behind babysitting while the others run off and hunt. When males get older, they will either challenge the alpha male for control of the pack, or will run away and try to star their own packs. Lions have prides like this, but males are less accepted. If another male challenges and then defeats the alpha male of a pack of mostly female lions with young, the new male will kill off all of the old male's young so that the females can then have his young. Colonized hive animals, like ants, termites, and bees, are born in different castes. Some ants are worker ants, some are soldiers, and others are breeders. The same species of animal may look very different according to its job. Worker bees are always sterile females. (so much for the Honey Nut Cheerios Bee: all males continuously mate with the queen) Some animals only come together to mate and may form huge groups of males and females. For more on how animals congregate, see "MATING"
HIBERNATION: To survive winter or the dry season, some animals go into long periods of sleep that can last for many months. Bears stock up on as much fat as they can and sleep away the winter months deep within a den. Frogs bury themselves in mud to avoid the dry season.
MIGRATION: Animals migrate according to instinct and season. Animals use lunar and solar cycles to determine where and when they go. Some animals go to breed and others go to avoid winter or the dry season. Animals usually not seen together could clump in massive hoards.
FORAGING: Herbivores and omnivores search for edible plants within their wilderness. Ants, finding a source of food, leave scent trails for other ants to follow to help bring food back to the ant hill.
SCAVANGING: Scavengers, such as vultures and hyenas, sometimes, search out for meat that other animals have killed. They'll either drive off the hunter or wait until the hunter is finished for a bite. Other animals, like remora, follow larger creatures for a chance at their feasts.
HARVESTING: Few animals actually conserve what they eat. More intelligent animals (in a fantasy sense) could just eat certain parts or percentages of plants to ensure that the plants will grow into a renewable food source. Sentient animals (animals with wills and reason) could grow crops of their own.
HUNTING: Animals obviously look for prey to eat and this consumes their lives. Shrews cannot go for several hours without eating whereas snakes can eat once a year and be content. Predators will not hunt other predators. This has to do with trophic levels. Very simply put, predators don't get much energy from other predators' meat.
AMBUSHING: A hunting method: predators lie in wait for prey to pass by and surprise the prey. Some camouflaged fish in wait can strike so fast that it looks like their prey simply vanished; it takes thousandths of a second for the strike to occur. (The sargassum fish is one of these; it also has prehensile fingers to creep through the coral)
HEATING/EATING: Reptiles and amphibians cannot create their own heat, so they must use the sun. During the day, they'll creep up onto sunny rocks, flat expanses, and, of course, heated black top highways. The sun warms their blood for them. Because they don't have to make their own heat, they don't have to eat much food to keep them going. (There goes the image of the gluttonous dragon) Some snakes will only eat once or twice a year. Mammals and birds, on the other hand, must make their own heat – they must eat much more. Birds have to eat massive amounts to survive.
MATING: Some pairs stick together and mate for life, Some males have groups of females allotted to him like property, and other animals only meet up when its time to mate. Some female insects, like black window spiders and praying mantises, will eat the male after mating to nourish the future eggs. My favorite animal, the deep sea angler fish, has one of the strangest male female relations in the animal kingdom: since the ocean is pretty big, a male angler fish (who is tiny and looks nothing like the huge, toothed, fishing-light female) meeting up with a female angler fish who is ready to be fertilized (they have internal fertilization) is a rare, rare occurrence. To fix this, upon a male's first meeting a female, he will bite her beside her fin. His latch-like teeth catch into her flesh and he grows onto the side of her body, becoming, in essence, a part of her. Eventually, her blood flows through him and he is fed and protected for life. In turn, she can get fertilized whenever she is ready. (Talk about a faithful man!) It is noted that while some animals have mates for life, they still may stray and mate with others behind their mate's back. Anglerfish are some of the few who are truly trustworthy.
BUILDING NESTS: Eggs, while allowing animals to move onto dry land, are also very fragile and need housing. Birds can build anything from a simple hoop to a tree-housed size condominium. Hanging baskets, holes in tree trunks, and shallow pits can all serve as nests. Humans also build houses for birds – something to consider adding into your rural town areas. For several types of bird nests you can build off of, go here:
DEFENDING TERRITORY: Just as you wouldn't want strangers barging into your house, animals are very possessive of territory. Access to large plots of land ensures great privileges: prey, shelter, and the local females. (Females don't have free run through all territories: a male crocodile will kill females more than not)
GIVING BIRTH/EGGS: Reptiles, birds, amphibians, fish, insects and two species of mammals all lay eggs. Eggs must be kept at a certain temperature for them to survive, and often a bird will sit on her eggs to keep them warm. (the male can help in this regard, but he is often off finding food) Reptiles don't insulate their eggs in this way, but crocodile females will defend their nest site vigorously. (If something, a heron for example, got hold of the eggs and smashed them all, she'd guard the nest site anyway, from instinct) Some reptiles, like seaturtles, will only climb onto land when they must lay eggs. They bury the eggs in the sand and then leave, never seeing the eggs again. Young reptiles have a very low survival rate: 1 in 1000 baby crocodiles survive into adulthood, but the number of eggs laid balances this out. Fish and other aquatic invertebrates have a different method: the female will lay eggs and the male passes over them, fertilizing them. Then, the female will viciously guard the eggs until either they hatch or she dies and they can have her as their first meal. Rabbits have a unique adaptation: since bunnies multiply so quickly, sometimes having babies wouldn't benefit the mother because of famine, drought, etc. so her body can reabsorb the babies and break them down into protein which she digests like normal food. Under extreme circumstances, parents can eat their young, but it's not common.
RAISING YOUNG: Mammals, birds, dinosaurs, snakes, and crocodiles raise young. Mammals, having to be born, are the slowest developing animals. Just think about humans, who take many more years to mature than say a gazelle. Raising young for mammals involves nursing/feeding, guarding, and teaching the young ones how to hunt, forage, and find foods suitable for eating. Born hairless, blind, and deaf for the most part, mammal mothers must protect their young until they can fend for themselves. Bats have developed a special adaptation: the young bat clings onto its mother's side and can nurse out of her armpit while she's in flight. Birds, while not having the ability to nurse young, prepare food for their young: when born, birds can be covered with soft fuzz or can be totally blind and featherless. Mother (or father) birds actually digest the food for their young ones and then feed them the mash. In taking care of the young ones, some birds alternate: a male sits on the nest while the female goes out and get food for herself. Then, after the hatchlings are born, they both take turns in feeding and attending to the young ones. Perhaps the reason that dinosaurs were so successful was in the fact that they cared for their young. Mother tyrannosaurs would feed, protect, and teach their young just the way that a wolf might today. Some snakes, which give birth to live young, also take protect the hatchlings. At the first sign of danger, the hatchlings wriggle into their mother's mouth where she can escape from harm. Mother crocs will also protect their young for awhile, a characteristic derived from the time of the dinosaurs.
DOMESTICATION: Animals that are raised by humans or have calmer temperaments can be domesticated to help humans out. Cattle, horses, pigs, sheep, dogs, cats, and other farm animals and pets can be bred for their tamer qualities. Horses and dogs in particular are bred for certain qualities: temperament, strength, disease resistance, coloration, etc. Race horse owners look for a ferocity in horses that they can use on the race track. Horses are born with skittishness in them, and usually to bring it out, owners must "break" the horse, or give it a show of dominance. It can be interpreted as anything from a stern display to a vicious beating. Studs and dames (males and females used for breeding) can be bought and sold for these purposes. Cows, pigs, and sheep, on the other hand, are bred for food production, good meat, and obedience.
GUARDING TREASURE: No animal naturally guards anything besides territory, females, eggs, or others of its species, so guarding a particular object is a bit of a stretch, but can be considered in all magical purposes – even so, some sharp-eyed birds, such as crows and ravens, and tricky mammals like the raccoon, covet shiny objects like bits of glass or metal. Throwing aside this conviction, most guardian animals will guard either against their own wills by some magical means or because they've been tricked somehow. Only intelligent or semi-intelligent animals place great value on things that don't influence their survival. Depending on the nature of the spellcaster, the animal, or the treasure, the animal will act in different ways. Some animals can be pulled from hibernation at the dislodging of an object; some silently stalk the hero until they make a move towards it. Packs of animals may fight over possession of the object if it holds some psychic or mind-controlling aura. The possibilities here and rooted moreso in your imagination than in ecology, so feel free to express your creativity in this area.
STEP SEVEN: REACTIONS
TYPES OF REACTIONS TO HUMANS AND OTHER ANIMALS
All animals react to stimuli, and the most important ones in your story will be the characters encountering them. Take a look at this list and categorize your animal's reactions. The more lax it is, the more it will be seen; the less, more rare (leaving out population density, of course) By the way, I'm using humans for the examples, but it can be anything you like
VERY FRIENDLY: Approaches people on sight and examines them closely, looking for food or affection
FRIENDLY: Comes when called or when food is present and acts positively with the humans
SOMEWHAT FRIENDLY: This animal will observe people for a minute, and then come forward for interaction
VERY IGNORANT: The animal doesn't care what passes it by and won't respond to anything, even pain or discomfort (Opossums do this, making them easy prey)
IGNORANT: The creature will go about its business until someone causes it pain or discomfort, which is when it will leave
IGNORANT UNTIL BOTHERED: If touched by someone, the animal will walk calmly away
SOMEWHAT IGNORANT: The animal senses the people, but doesn't react until they are a certain distance from it (10 feet, 50 feet, etc.)
SHY: Upon sensing a human, the animal will watch the human until the human leaves
VERY SHY: The animal leaves on sensing a human
EXTREMELY SHY: The animal runs helter-skelter or dives in a hole on smelling, hearing, or seeing a human
DEFENSIVE: The animal will watch a human and might give some warning: bare its teeth, rattle its tail, etc. However, if approached, the animal will flee
SOMEWHAT AGGRESSIVE: This animal might snarl or snap when provoked
AGGRESSIVE: The animal will go into defensive mode on sight of a human (usually when the animal has young to defend) and might charge if provoked
VERY AGGRESSIVE: Upon sensing a human, the animal will seek out the person and drive the person to the edge of its territory
EXTREMELY AGGRESSIVE: Upon sensing a human, the animal will run the human down until either the human escapes or either human or creature is killed
SICK: If injured or sick, animals tend to be more aggressive than usual. Also, not many animals attack humans unless the animal is accustomed to human meat. In jungles with man-eating tigers, natives used masks with eyes on them. Instead of wearing them on the front of their head, however, they wore the mask on the back. That way, a tiger would be confused as to which way the person was going, and wouldn't attack.
STEP 8: DRAW YOUR CREATURE
Ah, finally, you've gotten through the tedious part! Now, it's time to pick up your pencil and start with the designs. In writing, you hope to make other people see what you're writing about, and how can you if you don't know what it looks like yourself? I don't care if you can only draw stick figures, or even if you've never drawn anything in your life: a simple, correct picture is very helpful in writing about your animal. If you absolutely refuse to draw, you can get someone who can to help you. (Me, for example. I'm not Da Vinchi, but I'm certainly glad to help my fellow writers out! See the end of the column for details.)
STEP 9: FILING
Good writers have binders stuffed with information about their story maps of places, character bios, and, for the imaginary creatures, creature profiles. When writing fight scenes, traveling scenes, town scenes, and wherever animals can be found, profiles are a perfect source of information. After all, there's no other source about your animal than your own imagination.
Here is an example of a profile for my story. You can model the profile after yours, but the creature itself is copyrighted to me.
PLURAL NAME: Arish
SIZE: Males are 3 to 4 feet long, females are 5 to 6 feet long. Males are 9 inches tall while females are 12
INTELLIGENCE LEVEL: able to cooperate with members of its own species
MANNER: calm, slow, laid back, lazy when not hunting
HABITAT: calm, shallow, sunny water, 1 to 3 feet deep where deer and people cross; under bridges in shallow water; in marshes near paths during the say. At night, deep pockets of dark water
RANGE: along the flats of the Niar marshes
ANIMAL TYPE: carnivore fish
PURPOSE: to attack two of the heroes, to be hunted by the river people
EVENTS FROM STORY: two heroes are attacked, one is pulled other and the other runs away. The attacked hero is rescued by the river people, but is gravely injured.
FOOD SOURCE: Deer, humans, birds, and anything else that wades through or by the water on the surface.
DENSITY: about 5 packs per river; packs from 4 to 8.
YOUNG: born once a year in spring, most are picked off by birds and other fish. Only few reach adult size
DEFENSE: Has a row of spines along the top of its body. When one is attacked, its pack will materialize. Two will fight the attacker while the rest escort the victim to safety. After the victim fish is gone, the two fish that are distracting the attacker will leave
OFFENSE: In hunting, the male fish sticks up its long arms and wraps them together to create the illusion of a submerged stick. When someone passes by, or a bird lands on the hands, it snaps the prey underwater, seizing it with its jaws where it races to deeper water where the females help to drown it. They usually hunt in packs from 4 to 8 and are nondiscriminatory between males and females
LOCOMOTION: it swims from side to side. Usually they'll spend days on their backs with their arms up, asleep until prey comes by. At night, they'll cruise deep water, guarding their marshy territory from other packs
BEHAVIORS: As a pack, they can take down large animals together and cooperate to drown it. All members are equal.
USES: The River people hunt them and make trade goods with their teeth and a strong, spicy soup with their flesh
REACTION TOWARDS HUMANS: will swim away if at night, but during the day, it will attack the human with its pack not far behind
For animals with a greater role in your story, you may go even more in depth, or less in depth for smaller roles
STEP TEN: DEFY CONVENTION
Not really a step, but still one of the most important decisions you'll make. Too often when you read fantasy books, you encounter the same things: dark, dingy dungeons with old skeletons, fiery dragons in deep caves, a righteous hero and beautiful heroine, and giant spiders. Do you have any of these or other clichés in your story? Get rid of them; your story is the same as countless others and won't be interesting or original to many people. It's just a dusty, reused version of old stories and no one wants to read that.
Instead, swerve away from what's currently possible and blaze your own trails. Instead of a dark dungeon, have a hall with light streaming from the windows and creepers snaking up the walls. Instead of skeletons, have shreds of clothing, pieces of armor, cooking utensils, or anything that could be left behind. Instead of spider webs, have draped cloths. Instead of the dragon, use a different, more frightening creation of your own. Heroes, of course, need a certain level of righteousness, but you can twist that source for a less-than-righteous reason. The heroine doesn't have to be a beautiful princess in need of rescue, but instead can be a creation of your own with a sharp-edged personality and a knack for saving herself. Of course, heroes of the opposite gender aren't needed at all, but they have a nice touch for the romance-inclined readers. And don't even get me started on giant spiders. Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and practically every other adventure story I've read had to do with giant spiders. If you've ever played the game Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, you might remember the first boss, Gohma. If you MUST use a spider, use a mutated form like that.
Another form of cliché to avoid is the use of classical fantasy animals. You know the ones: griffons, unicorns, dragons, elves, dwarves, harpies, centaurs, minotaurs, cerberi, hydras, sprites, fairies, phoenixes, orcs, ogres, trolls, reanimated zombies and skeletons, vampires, manticores (a particular pet-peeve of mine), basilisks, chimera, satyrs, leprechauns, nagas, pegasi, sea serpents, etc. The use of all of these creatures together is quite impossible: their origins come from different lands, different times, different cultures and different sources. How likely, do you think, a hero from our time will enter a land which just happens to have animals that he heard about in bedtime stories? If the land had never come in contact with our world, then there's no way that the animals could be based on the fantasy perceptions here. Perhaps the only way you can really use the animals is that the hero has come from our world through some magical means that has to do with fantasy. (For example: he entered a painting with unicorns, or an old fantasy storybook) Otherwise, to use the creatures, you can use distinct variations on them.
However, Brain Jacques, one of my favorite authors, used a hydra in his strictly non-magical, non-classic style books: The main characters of his stories are woodland animals such as mice, voles, shrews, squirrels, and hares. So it makes sense that snakes are very large in comparison to the characters. In his book, Triss, three snakes' tails were wound together with a barbed wire, forcing them to be stuck together. In effect, he had created a feasible, giant three-headed snake, or in other words, a hydra, without going against the genre of his writing.
BLOWING UP MONSTERS: If you need a disgusting, terrifying monster, don't just blow up a spider or a scorpion to a large size and try to convince readers that it's scary. (Like J.K. Rowling's "Fluffy", a large, Greek-origin monster cerberus who was tamed by music: familiar characteristics of a "scary" beast rescued from the refuse bin of original writers) your own creature. Also, something doesn't have to be large to be scary: my favorite boss in the Nintendo 64 game Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is Morpha, a sphere the size of the hero's head.
MANY-HEADED MONSTERS: There are only so many natural anomalies: while I'll buy a two headed serpent guardian, I'll laugh at a three (or more) headed one. There are no species that need a multiple brain to control the same body, so if you're going to have a multiple-headed monster, have only one so it can be a "freak-of-nature". Not only would it not happen without magic involved, having multiple heads can substitute for a lack of creativity. In other words, don't have a species of many creatures with many heads.
"CHOP AND GLUE": Centaurs are a classic example of the "chop and glue" method of creatures: Take a horse, chop off its head. Then take a human and chop it off at the waist. Glue the human torso to the headless horse and you have an instant cliché: a centaur. This, while never happening in nature, of course, is another overused method of making unoriginal monsters. Manticores and chimeras are my least favorite creatures: sticking pieces of various animals together is rarely realistic or scary. If you want to use methods like this, at least be different: instead of gluing people to horses, glue them to other animals: dogs, bears, foxes, skunks, crocodiles, eagles, etc. Show us something that we haven't seen before.
Creativity is...seeing something that doesn't exist already. You need to find out how you can bring it into being and that way be a playmate with God.
I may have rattled your brains out on animal ecology, but in the end, you are the ultimate source of all information on your animal, and nothing I or anyone can say will change that. You are a writer; you are a god of your own world. Though what I've written may help you, use your imagination more than anything else.
After all, imagination is what separates us from the animals, and we should not forgo its use.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
My name is Ashley Lange, and I'm a sixteen year old living in southwestern Wisconsin, in the United States of America. Though ecology and animals are great subjects of interest for me, I also enjoy writing and drawing. My elfwood gallery contains several animals that adhere to the standards I've mentioned. (It should be up soon.) Feel free to leave a comment or two! As I wrote before, I would be honored to help out any writer who wishes for a drawing, or anyone who needs a creature designed for them: just fill out the profile and send it to me with a nice request for either one. I won't take the burden of all of your animals; I can't write your story for you, but I will help out anyone who's stuck. All I ask in return is that you leave a few comments in my gallery. Note: write, "Animal Design Request" in the title bar for e-mails, or it could get deleted with the volumes of spam I receive. My email is: Thymetwodye@aol.com
Through a great amount of this information came from years of museums, Discovery Channel, National Geographic, Animal Planet, and zoos, the specific bits came from a bit of internet resources. Visit these sites for more information on what I skimmed over.
Also, photo credits for the desert do not belong to me. Don't sell, copy, manipulate or take credit for any of these pictures.
Have fun writing!
September 19, 2004