World Building from Scratch: Creature Features

So, you have a sci-fi or fantasy world. You know that the atmosphere is more or less like Earth’s so you are not going to have to do a lot of research into what sort of xeno-biology would be needed. Your fantasy world has the usual dragons, maybe a unicorn or two, exotic birds (or exotic people with otherwise normal birds), horses, oxen, sheep, emus that pull wagons—

Screeech! What the huh? Emus pulling wagons?

Oh, and proto-wombats pulling wagons. Because wombiform mammals are so stinkin’ neat that I decided what the heck, why not? And animals are good for humor, usually at the expense of someone else.

OK, to back up a looooong way. The Cat Among Dragons world of Drakon IV had reptiles. Nothing but reptiles, with a very few exceptions. I was tired of reptiles, and guessed that my readers might want something different. Keep in mind, I’m not that imaginative when it comes to things like creature-building. I need a basic idea or beast to riff off of, just like I do for planets and cultures. You might not have to do this—you lucky son-of-a-biscuit.

Paleo-mammals are always odd, interesting, and offer a starting place for alien species, be they fantasy or science fiction. The Great Haulers of the Merchant books are based on “terror birds” and rheas, with some modifications and reasons for their use (explained further in Noble, Priest, and Empire.) Anyway, I thought I remembered that Australia and South America had once contained a large number of strange variations on “mammal”, so I went looking. Talk about riches for a lazy writer! Mammals, monotremes, marsupials of Unusual Size, you name it, Australia/New Guinea/South America had it. I rubbed my little paws with glee and set to work.

Wombiform is the scientific term for “creatures that look like wombats.” That means four thick legs, a rounded body form, relatively small ears, a large nose, and a minimal tail. These came in all sizes, from “knee high or so” to “large as a Hereford cow,” to “um, round hairy rhino, anyone?” Some grazed, but most browsed, especially the larger ones. I could use those.

Sort of like basing the sapient species on Shikhari on the proto-kangaroos that stood 10′ tall and ate meat. And other things. Predators that could unhinge their jaws and had grasping claws and jumped out of the trees at you, large lizards that waited in ambush and then poisoned you with their bite (see the ancestors of Komodo Dragons), and so on. I borrowed what would work, modified them in some ways, and added in humans who followed a minority religion that was pretty much fine with the idea of other sapeint species. In a society that could be Kipling in Space.

In addition to cart-pulling wombows and their wild ancestors, I developed the Staré. They were based on one of the extinct kangaroos, an omnivorous kangaroo-ish marsupial. Since I was riffing off of Kilping, and the question, “What if the colonized species wanted the colonizers to stay. For reasons that the subaltern-species isn’t telling?”, I made the Staré society caste based. Biologically caste based, not just culturally. This would throw a major monkey-wrench into the dreams of anyone wanting to bring equality and liberation to the lower-caste members of the species. And would enrich the world building, move it farther from “OK, talking kangaroos in space.”

For my fantasy stories, the first thing I did was swear off dragons. Everyone does dragons, so I didn’t want to. No unicorns, no basilisks, none of the traditional fantasy creatures were going to appear in the stories. Which fit a protagonist who had no magic, was a middle-aged businessman, and a world where magic was a tool used by many, not something especially special. [Little did I know . . . ] I didn’t want to exactly duplicate our world, so I started thinking about traction animals. Now, we don’t use birds to pull things, mostly because our birds are too small aside from emus and ostriches, and neither of those are exactly domesticable. But this is fantasy, and so . . . The Great Haulers were created, with all their behaviors, misbehaviors, and so on.

Image by Peace,love,happiness from Pixabay

10 comments

  1. From my Jaiya series, the Vazata (Good Ancient Ones) and Avazata (Evil Ancient Ones) are never fully explained in the books proper, beyond “good and bad shapeshifters in the scriptures who intermarried with humans and produced humans with superpowers” although I did write a religious text for the setting stating that they were the guardians of the world before the humans came, and their original destiny to move to another world when the humans took up stewardship of this. (Due to the sins of the Avazata and the first humans, it didn’t necessarily pan out that way.) They change shape very slowly (weeks or months), if they want to do it at all, and if you want to kill them you need to hit them in the brain.

    The Avazata appear in a number of guises in the books, including a yeti; a tall, female Gollum analogue; a pterosaur thing patterned vaguely on Rhamphorhynchus, complete with swimming capabilities; and a couple of human disguises. The “base” form, seen when the Vazata show up at the end of Seeking the Quantum Tree, kind of resembles both James Cameron’s Smurfs from Avatar, and some of the Hindu iconography for their deities.

    I came up with the Gnosha of Jaiya after reading about similar mantis-people in other fantasy novels, only later learning that this was a known cryptid/alien “type” in cryptozoology/ufology circles. I gave them ugly-cute frog-faces and did some things to their social order in an effort to distinguish them from my inspirations. The trollfolk (originally orc-folk) started out as an attempt to make Gurion’s former brother-in-law (who is one) more interesting in Slaying a Tyrant, but then I got the idea that they and the Gnosha had been engineered by warring Avazata and then rebelled against their masters.

    Shadow Captain has very pulp fiction-y aliens: “cattle” who would not be out of place on Piper’s Lone Star Planet, dangerous asteroid burrowers with a solar sail “butterfly” life stage, owlbears as K-9 units, angels who live inside stars (shades of the sapient star entities in Frank Herbert’s BuSab setting), demons who live in the void between star system.

    Of the leading “next project” candidates, one deliberately has very traditional high fantasy creatures (including a unicorn, an evil river-siren, and an eviller were-basilisk), and the other is basically Gothic Monster Mash with more Tolkienian metaphysics and backstory. (It will *probably* have a were-dragon vs. steam-powered mech showdown somewhere in the final book, if it gets that far.)

  2. I really admired the draft birds of that series as creations. Daft, but, sure, why not? They came off well (along with their training/usage/support desiderata).

      1. It’s always a fine line in world-building as to where to turn a blind eye.

        No horses or beer on an alien planet in SciFi to bother you with choices, but once you start thinking too hard about Fantasy in a default faux-Earth, you have to wonder — where should you stop?

        Replace horses? Some other draft animal. (But what about other equines?) No beer? (Surely there’s some way to produce alcohol.) OK, but what about arbitrary culturally-contingent
        things like hours/day, days/week, weeks/month (assuming there’s even a moon (and only one)), months/year? If cloth, then sheep/flax/cotton/silkworms/alpacas/goats? If holidays, what’s “holy” about them? Compasses? Wheels? Fire? If you look carefully at just about any noun or concept you use, you can come up with a fantasy version that’s different (though hopefully not all at once).

        The more you change the unimportant “background” in fantasy, the more overt world-building you have to do (and info-dump to the reader, one way or another). It takes a deft hand (and a certain amount of still-learning clumsiness) to get it really satisfactory.

    1. Well, in Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind, Lord Youpa rides a giant turkey, and has a second one as a pack turkey.

  3. Paleo-mammals are always odd, interesting, and offer a starting place for alien species, be they fantasy or science fiction.

    Final Fantasy 14 has a *ton* of extinct animals as fantasy animals, plus some of the classic not-so-much used options, like lindwyrms.

    1. I can’t play video games. I get screaming headaches playing anything other than the old 1980s stand-up games like Frogger or Pac-Man. I read about modern games, so I can keep up with some of the pop-culture references, but that’s it. Some sound neat.

      It’s fun to see who borrows what for which pop-culture element, and what gets tweaked.

      1. :sympathy:

        The story is definitely worth following. (Uh…post the original launch. Original was a hot mess, but A Real Reborn and on is good.)

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