Creating or Using Existing Creatures
One of my favorite things about writing Fantasy stories is creature design. So, I thought I’d put together a few writing tips about, well, designing creatures. What do I mean? Well, Goblins exist because someone else took on the effort to create them. If you want to make new creatures, you have to not only think them up, but you also have to name them. That’s Creature Design. If you’re a writer, the art is optional.
Lazy Creature Design, Or, “The Problem With Orcs and Goblins”
If you don’t want to push things too far, there are a standard group of creatures that you can snag. Orcs, fairies, trolls, dragons, griffins, and satyrs are all fair game. (No pun intended there, though I left it in which kinda makes it intentional.) You can introduce them without causing your readers to lose any footing. That’s level zero of creature design.
But the problem with using something that already exists is that they already exist. I’m sure that you’re not going to write “he was an orc,” and leave it there. The chances are good that you’re going to give your readers a bit more than that. But you don’t have to when you write about something they already know. And that’s the dilemma with using existing creatures instead of designing your own.
Let’s take away the laziness aspect here. I’m going to assume you’re doing a lot of writing around the character, and you’re not lazy. You’re not just relying on predefined things so you don’t have to be creative.
So, you have an orc. Great! Let’s say he’s charging your protagonist.
There’s almost nothing left to the imagination here. The reader can draw a complete mental picture of what the scene looks like. A green or grey-skinned monster with a rusty sword, and makeshift armor.
If you create something new, there’s anticipation. Your creature could be orc-like. But not having that word “orc” in play is a powerful thing. Perhaps your hero doesn’t even know what this thing is. That’s even more nail-biting for your readers.
Designed Creatures Are Flexible Creatures
I’m going to just make this up here, but maybe your creature also has wings. That’s not orc-like at all.
When this large, ugly, creature takes flight and dives on and wraps up the hero, things are intense. In most cases, I wouldn’t characterize a fight with an orc as something dramatic. Not without a bit of strain on the writer to pull that off anyway. But the scene where the unknown, lumbering creature spreads its wings and attacks is more fun. It’s fun in a split second.
When you write something they don’t already know, you can change the rules.
Everyone knows about orcs and goblins, even your characters. (Okay, maybe they don’t.) But as the writer, you get to craft the unknown. You can use that little bit of mystery to smack your characters around. And that gives you a starting point to take your work in a much more creative direction.
Creature Design For Existing Creatures
Let’s say you’re a huge fan of goblins. I don’t know why, but you are. Maybe goblins fit the bill for the scene at hand. Cool!
That doesn’t mean you have to keep every last part of the expected creature. In fact, if your readers know what a goblin is, you’ll have to inject some of your voice into that creature. These are a few of the ways that I mess with creatures that already exist, though it’s not an exhaustive list.
Give them a quirk.
There’s a show my daughter watches called Wallykazam! For a kid’s show, it’s pretty great. One of the characters is Bob Goblin, who as you might have guessed is a Goblin. (I’d rank him at the top of my list for characters in kids shows, by the way.)
What I like about Bob Goblin is how the writers use him to throw a wrench in the other character’s plans. He’s not bad, he’s just curious and mischievous. He’s also selfish. When Wally (the main character) forgets about a key plot item, Bob Goblin will use it for his own enjoyment.
There are two ways to apply that to a more serious work. You can bring in a character who challenges the social norms by just showing up. Let’s say you have a “serious party,” you know the type, but their newest recruit is a goblin. Don’t think too hard there, just go with it. The way that single character acts will determine the success and failure of the rest of the team. Their quirks get magnified when they’re the oddball of the group.
If adding them to the main line is too much, there may be other ways to include a character like that. Maybe one of your cities has a zoo, but they keep a goblin locked away. That goblin has a personality and carries on a thoughtful conversation with your protagonist.
Or, you could apply that kind of trait globally. If you’re not in need of a new character, you can adjust every goblin in the story to match. Maybe goblins in your story couldn’t care less about fighting. Instead, what if they have this never-ending drive to investigate everything? Pair that with subpar intelligence and you have a great setup for comedy. There may be entire sections of legend books dedicated to goblin antics.
Apply Something From a Known Animal
You can even take something we know about a type of animal and apply it to your creatures. In that last case about the goblins, you could give them a desire for shiny things instead. That’s more raccoon like.
Let’s apply this to dragons, because they’re so available in most fantasy writing. We often see them as creatures who breathe fire, fly around, and collect treasure. (See, dragons like shiny things!)
But, if we’re honest, in a real-world comparison, dragons would relate closest to lizards. If we were to apply some creature design to them, we could give them the ability to blend in like a chameleon. Or we could look at how the Komodo Dragon has loads of disease in its mouth, which is usually how they down their pray. You could write dragons with smaller heads that have to rely on that disease to get something to eat.
We don’t have any modern day flying lizards, so we could look to how Pterodactyls work. But lizards in our era are usually shy, not bold and aggressive. Some snakes will pick fights with anything. And of course size plays a role in creature design.
In my story, I created a small species of flying lizard that just hangs out in the tops of trees. Iguanas do that, but without all the flying. They don’t serve a lot of a purpose as animals, but that’s true to what animals actually do in real life.
Dragons don’t have to be huge creatures, either. They can be smaller, too. Over the years we’ve followed what other people have written. Sometimes that’s for the best, other times it’s to avoid the effort of creature design.
Change Something “Core” About The Creature
As with quirks, there are things that people expect about a certain type of creature. Centaurs are often portrayed as noble creatures, minotaurs as aggressive and angry. Those traits come from our perception of horses and bulls.
Let’s adjust the centaur a bit.
I’ve met some skittish horses. Sometimes they’re downright impossible to predict. When the horse is out standing in the field with the other horses, it seems almost regal. But the moment you get a saddle on the horse and start to ride it, it gets weirded out by every single thing. And that kind of horse can be dangerous.
What if centaurs were all a bit like that? From a distance your characters might expect that they’re noble, maybe even haughty. But when your party approaches, they go nuts about the littlest things. I’ve even had a horse try to charge me because my dog was at my side. So aggression does come after fear in some cases.
Don’t forget that neither horses nor cows are the most intelligent creatures. They’re not even close to fish-level dumbness. But especially for cows, their stubbornness trumps intelligence almost every time.
You can make that whole thing as comical as you want. But playing against what the reader expects can be an interesting thing.
Change Their Appearance
This one is less useful for centaurs than it is for something like trolls. Taking away either side of the centaur makes it a horse, or a person. So let’s work with trolls because I mentioned them at the beginning of the paragraph.
We tend to think of trolls as these overweight, dumb, creatures with missing teeth. They also seem to prefer clubs. Not the dancing clubs. (Although that would be pretty fantastic if someone wants to write that scene.)
And there are exceptions to that, of course. The movie Boxtrolls invisioned them more like what you might expect a goblin to be. And the Norwegian idea of trolls are different than the usual fantasy troll. But what if we went the other direction?
What if we said trolls have terrible vision, and they’re nocturnal? That means they’re out hunting at night, and then they can only just find enough to survive. That would explain why they’re prone to grumpiness. They might eat more berries and plants, because berries and plants don’t tend to move. It’s likely that they would be hunters of opportunity. In that case, they would most likely stay thin, not fat. But if they’re thinner, it means they’re likely more mobile even at larger sizes. In just a few sentences, we went from semi-comical to terrifying.
Every detail plays into how you write your creatures. Something that lumbers around dragging a club is different than one that stalks around. Nobody said you have to write a clumsy oaf of a creature, it can be quiet out of necessity, too.
How you design your creatures affects the core of your writing in fantasy literature. So, when your plot calls for an encounter, give yourself permission to change the rules. Your story might just be better because of it. If not, just use a goblin.