Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Flora et Fauna: Creature Genesis (Part 1)

If you are like me, you have a stack of notebooks. They are probably full of notes regarding plot,
Public Domain image found via Pixbay
characters, snippets of dialogue, and gods only know what else. You may even have a recipe or two that you scratched down off of a site you found via Pinterest when looking for menu ideas for dinner. (I confess, I have more than two written down. They're also on note cards shoved into notebooks as bookmarks. Because anything makes a good bookmark, except for ketchup. Trust me on that last point.)

Last time, I spoke a little bit about how I come up with plants for Evandar's world. I wanted to take a minute to give you some tools for how to create creatures unique to your world. This is going to be a combination of techniques that I've acquired over the years and a few things that I have shamelessly stolen from other authors. (Not plagiarizing them as much as finding the concept too awesome not to play with, i.e. the elves with exceptionally LONG lives and divine origins a la Tolkien.)

The first question that I find I have to answer is what purpose the creature (plant or anything else, to be honest) is going to serve in the story. In book four, for example, dragons come on to the scene. The presence of the dragon is not just to look cool. (Even though dragons do look cool! Check out the real one here! They're just awesome!) The dragon fills a role in the story. It explains various quirks about the setting. The first one that comes to mind here is the utter lack of apex predators in Dragonwood forest, but there are others that are less obvious. The dragon also explains details about the history of the region, like why is the place called Dragonwod. And the dragon interacts with the main characters. It serves to move forward the plot lines for individual characters, that specific novel, and the over arching story arc of the series.

The dragon in this story is as much of a character as they are a creature. Many of the considerations that are taken for this creature are similar to those taken in character development because this is a creature with intelligence that is somewhat akin to human and it has agency in the story. Creatures that become characters, no matter how minor, require authors to determine their role in the story and how it is shaped by the fact that they are not human. This can range from a stock antagonist that is limited in its forms of communication because it lacks the ability to speak (such as the Shadow Rider that is in book two, they get more developed in the later books) to a creature that has a terrifying but undeserved reputation on the basis of what they are rather than who they are (like the dragon named GerĂ°a who is feared as monstrous when she is actually rather benevolent).

Then there are the creatures that are vehicles for plot but not strictly characters. The best example I can think of here is the Deamon Hounds. They show up fairly regularly but they are not characters. They are instead plot devices. They fit the slavering monster trope and hit the age old primal fears of the snarling predator in the dark buttons (ideally). They are a cross between generic cannon fodder and a recurring menace of an almost natural point. The Deamon Hounds are creatures that exist in the world as a work animal of sorts and don't merit much deeper thought than what their characteristics are and how you can use them to harry characters. Their depth is about the same as what is contributed to a faceless foot soldier in combat. Except they're not going to rate even as human. Given the generic hierarchy of what we're socialized to have empathy for, the animals are really low with the notable exception of the ones we're taught have a special place. (Check out the discussion of the Shoot the Dog trope to see what I mean.)

So, we have figured out what the creature is supposed to do in the story. Now, how do we figure out what they look like? How do we figure out what they need to fulfill their role within the story? And just how do we puzzle out what these creatures are like outside of that specific scene? Do they even matter beyond that scene?

These are four very important questions to answer. As tempting as it may be to jump to the details of what they look, sound, and smell like, we need to look at those last two questions first. Some of the creatures that you have may be recurring ones that show up for scenes far beyond the one where they are introduced. And some of those creatures are just there for a single scene. When you are considering the placement of a creature in the story, you may want to take a minute to pick how frequently you are going to use it. A single use creature is going to require less work, generally, than one that is going to show up many times. Thus, you don't need to worry about things like how that creature is going to play with your antagonist or if it is going to muddy up the details of your protagonist's next five plot points by simply existing.

Also, single scene creatures, if they're of relatively low importance to the plot line, can be described with minimal detail and not be terribly dissatisfying for your reader. If the creature is a background element that is there to serve as nothing more than window dressing or a secondary prop to the action unfurling, you can gloss over many details with relative impunity. Because your reader doesn't need to know that your exotic bird species have a distinction in the number of tail feathers for the males and the females of the species if that detail literally serves no point to your story. If those tail feathers, however, are crucial to the scene, you can include them and leave out something else that is non-functional to your story, like if they only eat red berries on Tuesdays in March. (It now strikes me that I am describing something that could have been in a Dr. Seuss book. I apologize for that, I've been reading a lot of that with my boys over the last two weeks. Gods save me from the Cat in the Hat.)

Now, let's say you have a creature that regularly shows up and is actually a part of your plot rather than a background 'image' to your story. How do you nail down the pertinent details and flesh it out? In my next post, I will share with you my check list of questions for creature development. I also hope to have some sort of a worksheet put together for you too. Because sometimes worksheets help, a lot. (True story: I forgot how much difference a worksheet makes in brainstorming until I saw my son working on one for his homework and how much easier it was for him with that bit of gentle direction. I've been out of school for too long, folks. I'm forgetting the basics now.)

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