Beasts, Monsters and Eldritch Abominations

25 Jul

A lot of fantasy worlds tend to be populated by the same sorts of creatures: dwarfs, trolls, giants, elves, things that look like elves but are called something else to show you that they’re not your typical elves and are possibly speshul, etc. It can be fun to play around with these standards, like giving your own twist to vampires or mermaids, but it can be even more interesting to find an obscure creature or to create your own. If you want to make your own fantasy world, you’re going to need more than a few old standbys as well to give it enough complexity to make it believable.

One source to look at for inspiration is folklore. Folklore is the origin in one way or another of most of our traditional monsters, like vampires and werewolves, but there is far more variation on these creatures in the original stories. Can your vampires cross running water? Or do they have to be beheaded and buried at a crossroads to stay dead? It depends on which area your vampire tales come from. In particular I like creatures from American folklore. Books of folklore are a handy source too, along with folklore journals. If you’re still in college or have access to academic journals, there are whole journals devoted to folklore studies. There’s also an encyclopedia of American folklore and a dictionary of English folklore.

Extinct animals are great for adding flavor to a new world. Mammoths, cave bears, and saber-toothed lions are recognizable enough that they don’t need explanation but extinct so they immediately let your reader know they’re dealing with a slightly different world. Moa, flightless birds bigger than ostriches, and giant sloths are odder. While something like a Paraceratherium, a long-necked hornless rhino bigger than any mammoth, or a tasmanian tiger would need some explaining but add depth and detail to a new world.

And for the terrifying and bizarre I’d suggest looking at the world’s oceans, especially those animals that lived with or before the dinosaurs, or at bugs. For example, the sea creatures from the Cambrian look particularly alien: Of course you don’t have to go for species that have been extinct for millions of years to get inspiration. Tube worms, jellyfish, and deep sea crabs are strange creatures that could give rise to plenty of nightmare fuel if used properly.

However, you want to be sure you have the right sort of creatures for your setting. Horror can get away with almost anything because monsters in horror don’t need a reason to exist. They are just there to be scary. On the other hand, for sci-fi and fantasy the point is usually to create a congruous world where the various elements fit together to make a setting that feels complete and real (according to its own rules). Essentially, don’t have a swamp monster living in a desert, unless you put it in an oasis. Similarly, don’t have a dark forest filled with only predators, they’ll end up going hungry. But it’s fine to make the things they eat dangerous too.

And finally, it’s always good to over prepare. Just look at J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. She has tons of magical creatures that don’t appear in the Harry Potter series. But should she want to write about Ron and Hermione taking the kids on a vacation to any part of the world, she already has the creatures that they’d encounter there. The more you have worked out beforehand, the less chance you have of things seeming slapped together or incongruous. So go ahead and start working on a bestiary.

What’s the strangest creature you’ve come up with, or your favorite published monster?

8 Responses to “Beasts, Monsters and Eldritch Abominations”

  1. Regina July 25, 2011 at 7:59 PM #

    I think that folklore is really mesmerizing. There are so many things to be discovered.

  2. Lara Dunning July 25, 2011 at 9:05 PM #

    Very resourceful post. There is so much folklore around the world to research. Frightful creatures are not lacking in folklore and stories. I’m not sure what my favorite creature is. I liked the elephant looking creatures in The Dark Crystal and of course the gelflings were really cool.

  3. Asia Morela July 26, 2011 at 9:39 AM #

    I’m writing a non-classical fantasy book right now, and most of their animals don’t exist in our world. I don’t feel the need to prepare, though, I just make them up as I go. Right now it’s more like name-dropping anyway, and I won’t get into the details of what they look like, what their habitat is, etc. unless the plot calls for it. My imagination kinda wishes I could, but that sort of thing just doesn’t have its place in a novel. It would only bore my readers to death… 😉

  4. Tim July 26, 2011 at 11:19 AM #

    I don’t think i’ve ever done any backstory on animals:O Um, I had animals that were human shaped but made out of flames? I kind of thought that since they’re energy they’d get their energy from burning creatures. Like, how a dynamo can turn kinetic energy into light energy. You know? Although there was meant to be hundreds, but that number was way too large for an alpha predator in a desert. Although the desert was kind of big.
    Quick question: Has anybody heard of banshees?

  5. 5kidswdisabilities July 26, 2011 at 8:22 PM #

    I do not have enough creativity to write fiction. I only write about my family…which, I think, maybe be stranger than fiction…

  6. Chantal Mason July 27, 2011 at 9:44 PM #

    Always love your posts Jenn! I have a lot of fun coming up with bestiaries for different worlds, both folklore and the ancient world are great resources for fantasy/sci-fi/horror fiction.

  7. Anna Falcone August 2, 2011 at 7:44 AM #

    To find awful monsters, you only need to go to a textbook of parasitology. Imagine something like this rolling around inside you.

  8. authorguy August 2, 2011 at 8:53 AM #

    I use other people’s creatures, like elves and whatnot, mainly if I need to fill in some blanks quickly, like in a short story, or for comic relief, by making them different from the expected in a very silly way. My elves in ‘Off the Map’, for example, are homicidal maniacs as juveniles and not much better as adults.
    When I was writing my first novel I wrote myself into a corner by putting my heroes onto the shortest shortcut around, which meant of course that it had to be the most dangerous! So I had to invent a bunch of creatures real fast. Not especially dangerous ones but fun to do. My very first was the whipsnake, a boneless creature of pure muscle that kills by anchoring one end to a tree and the other to prey, then pulling them together.
    My current WIP has a unique monster as well (at least I hope it’s unique, I’ve never seen one like it), developed out of the logic of the main character and his powers. He kills ghosts for a living, but if his abilities ever get out of control…

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