Dragons, flying bisons, heffalumps, hobbits, even the oompa-loompas, readers love them. Fantastical beasts are everywhere.
Imaginary and mythological creatures are as much a part of fantasy literature as magic and enchanted lands. And science fiction is just the same: Daleks, xenomorphs, robots, Morlocks, kaiju, the list seems endless.
People find them fascinating. Look at how folklore and urban legends like Bigfoot or the Lock Ness monster catch on with the public. We want to believe in them. They bring a spark of wonder into our lives.
All the more reason for putting them into your creative writing. They can help sell your work. Naturally, they need to be convincing, to sound authentic.
So how do you go about inventing a species, a monster, an alien? Here are eight steps to creating fantastical beasts. They are all suggestions I discovered over the last ten years, while writing the Zeke Hailey saga of sci-fi novels. There’s a reading list at the end if you’d like to check out my sources.
Step 1: Purpose
Is it a guardian, a pet, a working animal, a source of food, a danger, a warrior, a wild animal, and so on?
It is also important to be clear of its purpose within the plot. Don’t create a beast for the sake of it and then get saddled with a creation that is pointless and hinders the story.
Harry Potter’s Dobby the house elf is a good example for this step. Within the story he is a servant with no rights. Within the plot, Rowling uses him to pass on information that Harry would not be able to know, thereby kickstarting the narrative.
Once you are clear on why the creature exists, the rest starts to fall into place.
Step 2: Emotions
Is it terrifying, bloodthirsty, a savage murderer?
Or is it a kindly wood elf who tends the forest flora?
The most basic ways to label your beasts are evil, good, or neutral.
From there, you can branch out into other emotions.
Of course, the more evolved your creature is, the more emotions it can be experience.
The xenomorph doesn’t seem to have much going on in its head other than kill and reproduce.
Tolkien’s elves are probably more emotionally developed than us.
Have a firm idea of your creature’s emotional profile and it will be easier to write.
Step 3: Environment
The environment is one key element to creating your creature. Polar bears do not live in the Sahara, for example.
If readers question how your animal fits into its surroundings, he or she might start questioning your story. Before you can start piecing your beast together, mull over the environment it lives in. How will that shape the creature?
Jungles? Arctic tundra? Forests? Under the sea? Beaches? Savannah? Mountains? Volcanoes? Something totally alien?
The environment will influence a lot of the next steps. The Morlocks, for instance, live beneath the ground, so they are pale and almost blind in daylight.
Step 4: Animal behaviours
Think through what animal behaviours the creature might have that helps it to survive.
Is it a lone animal or a herd animal or even in a colony?
How does it sleep, eat, drink, or mate?
Does it hibernate, migrate, hunt, harvest, nest, scavenge, protect its territory, and play?
Not all of these will apply to every made-up creature, but again mapping these out before you start writing saves time later on and guides you as to how your creation should act.
Step 5: Appearance
Bearing in mind the creature’s purpose, environment, and behaviours, you can now sit down and design its physical body.
I find this step the most enjoyable. What size is it? Microscopic, gigantic like the kaiju, or anywhere in-between?
Take inspiration from nature. Think through its eyes, noses, mouths, tongues, teeth, ears, limbs, claws, wings, skin, scales, feathers, feet, hands, tails, horns, tentacles or something new. And don’t lose sight of the purpose these organs serve. For example, if it’s nocturnal it needs night vision, so cat’s eyes? Bug eyes? Whether it is an herbivore or carnivore which will affect teeth and other features, etc.
At the stage, pick up that pencil and start sketching. You don’t need any talent as an artist. These images are just for you. But there is no better way to visualise your beast. And you can always come back later to add features or remove them.
Step 6: Defence and attack
Just like in real life, give your creature defence and attack skills. This bit is fun!
Venom, crushing, electric shocks, webs, spitting, camouflage, claws, horns, fangs, spikes, shells, markings and camouflage are some examples taken from nature.
The Craton in the Zeke Hailey SF novels can spit venom, teleport or disguise itself as a rock. It is fun to write and keeps the story lively for readers.
Step 7: Advantages and disadvantages
Give your creature at least one special advantage to make it more interesting. A magical power? A super power? It can turn you to stone. It becomes invisible. Its blood prolongs life or burns like acid, and so on.
This is speculative fiction after all—readers expect something unreal.
And give it at least one disadvantage. Daylight kills vampires and gremlins. Silver does the same to werewolves. If your creature is indestructible, there’s the danger of backing yourself into a corner with the plot.
Step 8: Mythology…with a twist
One more thing. Fantasy writers frequently take inspiration from mythology and why not? It is so colourful. Basilisks, gorgons, elves, goblins and that old stalwart, the dragon. But can you defy cliché with a twist to make your creature more interesting? Or bring it up to date in some way? A misunderstood Medusa? A cowardly dragon? Lusty fairies? A carnivorous phoenix. The only limit is your imagination.
There you have it!
So, there’s a step-by step guide to creating new imaginary beasts or for revisiting your existing creations. Good luck!
Ian C Douglas is author to the Zeke Hailey SF novels for young adults. His first break into writing came as a golfing correspondent in Bangkok. Despite knowing nothing about the sport. He graduated from Nottingham Trent University with a Creative Writing MA (Distinction). Since then he has built up a writing practice, with 2 non-fiction books for children and 3 SF young adult novels. His short stories have been published around the world and he has contributed to several anthologies. He still writes for the press and is one of LeftLion’s theatre critics. Find out about Ian’s work at www.iandouglas-writer.com and more about Zeke Hailey’s cosmic adventures at www.zekehailey.com.