Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Building a Fantasy World - Fantastic Creatures by Matthew Presley

Just as humans are boring, horses are boring. In a fantasy world where magic allows any animal to be trained, why bother with horses? Why not bears or lions or dinosaurs? What do small races like gnomes or pixies ride into battle? Not all animals are war-mounts either; why have cows in the farm when there’s better eating on a diplodocus? What in the animal rooting through your bins is something worse than a fox.

Lets start with some bullet points;

Ecology of the X: Even creatures that didn’t evolve need to fit into the world at large. Let’s say you have griffins, and to avoid arguments, a wizard made the first ones. Where do they live now? What do they eat? What impact did introducing a giant flying predator have on, for instance, sheep farming>? Or children playing outdoors? When a bird crap hits you, it’s meant to be lucky; if a griffin crap hits you it’d break your neck. And how much would a griffin need to eat to stay airborne anyway? Flight isn’t the most economic form of movement.

Fantasy ecology has been written about, particularly in Dragon Magazine articles relating to Dungeons and Dragons monsters. Beyond that, looking at similar creatures (Lion prides, for example, might be a useful basis for our griffins) can give you an idea how your new creation fits into the world.

Beast of a thousand Adjectives: When a person reads a story, they get their own mental picture of an animal. It needn’t be exactly the same as the mental picture you have when you imagine it, and leaving a description with no room for interpretation will put a reader off.

For example;

An ostrich.

We all know what an ostrich looks like (and if you don’t, image search for ostriches, I think you’ll find it worthwhile). If we’re being fantastic, though, we don’t want just ostriches!

A yellow ostrich.
There! We now have a slightly more fantastic ostrich for our story. But why stop there?

A yellow ostrich with a lizards tail.

Why stop there?

A yellow ostrich with an iguana’s tail, and cloven hooves.

 Why stop there?
A yellow and red ostrich with a deep crimson iguana’s tail, flat wide cloven hooves and a thin curved vestigial spur running parallel to its ulna...

Over-describing becomes a barrier to a reader. If you’re artistically minded, by all means draw the creature you’re describing. But don’t spend longer describing a creature in-story than is vitally necessary. Let the audience imagine the creature they want, even if it’s not exactly how you picture it. Take, for instance, the Balrog from the Lord of the Rings books. There’s a lot less description of it than you’d imagine; the book doesn’t even specify how big it is or whether it has wings; artists have depicted it as demonic even though the text makes no assertions as such. We’ll never be entirely certain how Tolkien envisaged the Balrog, but it doesn’t really matter. The description of the creature is enough for artists to interpret in many different ways.

Also, when describing a creature, never ever do this;

A yellow and red ostrich with a deep crimson iguana’s tail, flat wide cloven hooves and a thin curved vestigial spur running parallel to its ulna went past, never to be seen or spoken of again.

Those blasphemous Qliphoth!: This is at the other end of the descriptive spectrum, where the audience is given too little to actually envisage anything. Sometimes, this is the point with truly alien creatures. It defeats the point of an unimaginable horror if the author goes on to describe it. However, if its a creature we don’t have any clear idea of, its hard to imagine how it interacts with the world. For example;

The Qliphoth attacked.

The who-what-now? How do you even pronounce that? How does it attack? Does it bite, or shoot a gun? Let’s try again;

The protagonist couldn’t see the Qliphoth clearly; ungodly adjectives obscured its unknowable, blasphemous form. Raising its surreal tentacle, it struck out to attack.

Did you spot the most important word in that example? It was ‘tentacle’. Soon as you say tentacle, the audience know what to expect; some form of squid-lord, probably borne from Lovecraft’s allergy to seafood. But the Qliphoth isn’t Lovecraftian! It’s a totally different unknowable horror with tentacles! Now there’s nothing wrong with squid-like monstrosities, but if the protagonist can see the thing, he’ll understand it as a squid like monstrosity and therefore so will the audience. Giving more description of the weirdness, as viewed by a protagonist looking at it, makes the creature seem more real.

The protagonist could see the Qliphoth, though what he saw didn’t make sense. What could’ve been oily skin tore away from metallic bones, leaving them exposed before new flesh quivered to the surface. It was as if it was trying to appear human, but the protagonists shape was as alien to it as the Qliphoth was to him. Razor teeth rose to the surface like bones at low tide, converging at the ends of its boneless limbs. With a metallic screech, it lashed out at the protagonist with every limb it had.

Example creatures

Before we make some new creatures, let’s figure out some variables to work with.

Description: What does the creature look like? How big is it? Does it resemble any real creatures?

Origin: If a creature didn’t evolve, where did it come from? I consider this one optional; the best creation myths are multiple choice, after all.

Ecology: How does the creature interact with its environment? Is it in balance with nature, or a destructive parasite? Where does it like to live? How is it adapted to its habitat?

Relationship to humans: Which eats the other? Is the creature feared, or hunted? Can it be domesticated, or is it too wild?

Looking at our example kingdom, we’re already got two new creatures; our first King was Darus of the Golden Steed, and we’ve hinted that the Shadow Way ends up with its casters becoming Dark Horrors. These two seem like fittingly disparate examples.

Golden Steed

Description: A gold coloured horse isn’t particularly interesting; how about a literal gold horse?  Although a solid gold horse would be worth more dead than alive (in the few seconds before it sank into the earth and imploded), I like the idea of living metal. Perhaps only its coat and mane are golden; its body is magic-infused metal, with the flesh flexible and light, while its bones are hard as steel.

Ecology: What would a metal horse eat, other than metal? It’d roam round otherwise barren rock fields, breaking down boulders to chew on whatever ore it could find. Like a real herbivore, doing this propagates a whole ecosystem; if it’s unable to digest soil or organic material, the horse’s gravelly droppings would be the most fertile soil in the kingdom. Herds of metal horses could convert indigestible mountains into loamy hillsides in a few months!

Making the Golden Steed a species rather than a one-off lessens Darus, in my opinion. Perhaps a golden horse is incredibly rare; tin, iron and copper horses are more likely to form herds. Capturing and training a gold horse is a Herculean task, and worthy of our king’s legend.

Throughout writing the example kingdom, I’ve pictured it on flat prairie land rather than mountainous regions. Perhaps the land was full of outcrops and boulders long ago, until the rock-eating horses flattened it out.

Origin: I’m leaning towards ‘Forged by the Gods’ for this species. It’s a bit of a cop-out, as it handwaves the creation myth and means the creature needn’t have a prupose beyond ‘divine curio’. Some things in the world, though, should be inexplicable; even if the metal horses aren’t divine creations, the kingdom’s people might believe them to be.

Relationship to humans: We don’t want metal horses to usurp regular horses entirely. There’s a lot of reason why humans domesticated horses, most of which don’t matter in a magical world. But the example kingdom is low-magic, with unpredictable powers; the horses, therefore, must stay. Changing one thing could make the metal horses less desirable as steeds; what if we changed their temperament? Looking at cousins to the horse, zebras are more aggressive than horses, and panic under stress. They can still be broken or trained, but doing so is far more risky than horses. Our metal steeds could be similarly wild; this would make Darus riding one into battle even more impressive.

Dark Horror

Description: Unlike the Golden Steed, Dark Horrors are insidious body-stealing parasites. Details vary from one individual to another; we’ve established that there’s been a grand total of seven potential Dark Horrors in our kingdom. Let’s say not everyone who practices the Shadow Way inevitably turns, but there’s been a few; enough to be considered more than one-offs. It’s not entirely clear when the Dark Horror takes over; some believe the human side never truly dies, but becomes trapped in an alien body, still able to see and hear and sense the world but unable to control the Dark Horrors actions. As no-one’s ever recovered from becoming a Dark Horror, details of how they work aren’t common knowledge.

Dark Horrors begin as humanoid, but as the spirit takes over, it ‘forgets’ how the body fits together and begins to mutate. Hands split into claws, bones begin warping before being spat out altogether, and skin falls away to reveal swollen musculature and withered organs. No-one’s witnessed further mutations; at this point witnesses are usually stabbing the Horror till it stops twitching, then burning what remains as far away from their crops as possible.

Ecology: Let’s say there’s been three Dark Horrors thus far. No-one’s sure what equilibrium they might have with their environment, due to the aforementioned stabbing/burning. Seeing as the ashes of a Dark Horror are toxic enough to kill any plant life they fall on, it’s unlikely a living one would benefit its host ecosystem.

Origin: The bound spirit that was mother to the Shadow Way was the first Dark Horror; although it started with human appearance and personality, the darkness took over in the end. The spirit that was bound wasn’t analogous to the spirits of the Wild Way; I like the idea that it was a forgotten spirit, older than the Wild Way. It didn’t resent the binding as a Wild spirit would; this doesn’t mean it was entirely benevolent. Perhaps Dark Horrors are its method of procreation, using humans as a host.

Relationship to humans: Remember the whole ‘stabbing and burning’? Don’t think the Dark Horrors aren’t deserving of this fate; once their cover’s blown, they’re unlikely to be friendly. Perhaps if they start appearing in less manageable numbers, our example kingdom will see some other form of social interaction with them. Or the Horrors will eat entire continents and leave nothing but ash in their wake. I’m not sure which makes the more interesting story right now.

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