Tag Archives: world-building

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: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anomalocarid. 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?

A Vlog about World Building Using Maps!

7 Mar

by Julie Eshbaugh


Hi Guys!  For today’s post I made a video about world building using maps and floor plans.  I hope you enjoy it and find it helpful!  Please leave comments letting me know your thoughts and suggestions.  Thanks!


Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency.  You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.



4 Jan

I’m making the slow and sometimes rather painful transition from a full-on pantser to an outliner. The changes aren’t just about the outline, though. I used to be on much more of a need-to-know basis with not only what was going to happen in the book, but with the back stories of my characters and my worlds.

Sometimes, I’d start writing an entire book with no more forethought than a single scene. A single conversation. Hmm…. Okay, so there’s this boy hidden in a tree, trying to keep quiet as this mass of white-hooded figures glide through the woods below him, moving to some unheard music. Suddenly, one of the figures stops moving. It’s a girl, snapped out of some kind of trance. She begins freaking out, trying to push out of the mass of humanity around her. The boy watches, mystified and helpless…and that’s it. I know nothing else, not even the character’s names or why they’re in the woods or what the heck is happening with the girl or the white-hooded people.

It was a fun way to write, and I loved learning about the story as I wrote it, developing the plot and the characters as I went along. But it was a tangled process, and more often than not, I’d get caught up in one mess after another, write myself into corners, and realize that I don’t really know the motivations behind my character’s actions or the laws of my world.

I was sort of doing things backwards. Instead of cause and effect, I was writing the effect first and then scrambling to figure out the cause. Sometimes it worked out great. Other times, not so much–especially if the world was complicated.

Enter the world-building document. I’d had “random notes” documents before, and moleskines are always handy, but I’ve recently put together my real world-building document. Now, I didn’t even start working on it until I was well past my first draft, but my second world-building doc is for an unfinished WIP.

I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to go about making a doc like this. I like to write about worlds unlike our own, so I start out by outlining all the important history of this world. Basically, what has happened in the past that leads up to events in your books? This section doesn’t directly mention my characters, only the world they live in.

I then have sections for each of the main characters and write their backstories. What has happened in their lives to make them them? What motivates them to perform the actions they undertake in the novel proper? How did they get to be where they are?

I don’t know about you, but I actually adore this kind of stuff, so I can go on for 10k just in the world-building doc alone. I never thought it would be so useful–not only for checking up on facts to make sure they stay straight in the book, but just to make things more concrete.

I had nebulous ideas about much of the history and backstory included in my world-building doc, but typing it all out really helped me see where the potential plot holes lay and where I needed to strengthen motivation or some such. Plus, it was so much fun!

I highly recommend it 😀


Kat Zhang is a Spoken Word poet and a Creative Writing major. She is represented by Emmanuelle Morgen and spends most of her free time whipping HYBRID–a book about a girl with two souls–into shape for submission to publishers. You can read more about her writing process and books at her blog.