Whether you’re a reader, writer, or both, if you do anything in the realm of fantasy, you’re likely a big fan of the creatures that come along with the genre. For me, it’s one of the biggest draws.
As I’ve been continuing forward in my series, I’ve taken a closer look at the creatures found in some of my favorite fantasy worlds so that I could learn from them. It’s amazing how much creature choice and creation contributes to how comprehensible and immersing the world is.
I found that the absolute best worlds (in my personal opinion) were a mixture of brand new types of creatures, a few well-known genre staple species, and a collection of less-known creatures from a variety of mythology. We’ll take a closer look at these three categories and why having the right balance and drawing from all three sources really makes for the most enjoyable fantasy worlds.
Coming up with a new creature, picking out a name, and deciding on its appearance and habits takes a tremendous amount of creativity and time, and I love to read about these new creations that authors come up with: C. S. Lewis’s Marsh-wiggles, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Hobbits and Orcs, J. K. Rowling’s Dementors and House-Elves, and so many more.
These authors drew far more ideas than you probably realize from folklore which I will talk about in a second, and while I think that it is important to have original creature ideas, I think it’s important not to overdo it. I’ve read books that have over a dozen unique, new creature types in their world, and while it’s impressive, it’s very hard to keep up with. Sometimes I’m still trying to sort out what’s what by the end of the book or series. Even Tolkien, who has a higher ratio of totally original creatures compared to other well-known fantasy, mixes in enough familiar creatures to make it easy to follow (elves, dwarves, dragons, goblins, etc).
These are all of the very familiar creatures that we almost expect to see in fantasy books: creatures like dragons, fairies, dwarfs, trolls, unicorns, centaurs, mermaids, goblins, and elves, just to name a few. I love seeing all of these creatures exactly how I expect to see them, and I also love it when authors add their own twist to the creatures: twists like tiny dragons, large fairies, friendly goblins, or centaurs with a horse’s level of intelligence (well done, Gail Carson Levine).
A high density of these types of fantasy creatures creates a very quintessential fairytale-style book, I think. I enjoy books like these, but the ones that have really stuck with me, those worlds which seemed wildly fanciful and immersive, have this one last source for their creatures.
Did you know that not only Fauns, Dryads, Minotaurs, Naiads, Wraiths, and Phoenixes, but also Monopods, Wargs, Boggarts, Basilisks, Thunderbirds, and Hippogriffs were first dreamed up and recorded in Roman, Greek, Norse, European, and American mythology and folklore? I didn’t. I knew of a few, but I had no idea the extent to which my favorite fantasy worlds were borrowing fantastical creatures from our own ancestors.
In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis lists a host of creatures under the White Witch’s command: Ogres, Wolves, Bull-headed Men, Cruels, Hags, Incubuses, Wraiths, Horrors, Efreets, Sprites, Orknies, Wooses, and Ettins. This is a fantastic list because it illustrates what it looks like to combine all three categories. To my knowledge, only four of those creatures are his own creations. I would recognize maybe an additional five without having to look them up, which means the remaining four are less-used and unfamiliar mythological creatures.
Why it Works
First off, the well-known fantasy creatures are grounding. If we, as readers, dive into a world full of completely new creatures, it’s going to be a little bit overwhelming. Hearing about creatures we already know gives us a sense familiarity which helps us place the setting.
Secondly, new creatures are exciting and interesting. If we are fans of fantasy, we are likely fans of using our imaginations in new ways, and we’re excited for the chance to stretch our creativity with a novel concept. We also recognize and appreciate the author’s effort to make their own world unique.
Finally, the creatures from mythology and folklore bring the story depth. Unless the author is willing to put in years to create in-depth histories and legends surrounding every one of their new creatures (like Tolkien did), they will either have a very short list of creatures at their disposal, or they’ll have a long list of shallow creatures. Underdevelopment in any area shows through (I’m planning to write more about that another time), so if we read about an underdeveloped creature, it is just not going to be as interesting. Therefore, the easiest way for authors to get a long list of interesting, well developed creatures, is to borrow a good portion of them from folklore.
So that’s what I’ve started doing. As the Eilinland series progresses, you can expect to see more creatures of all kinds. Here is an exclusive *sneak peak of how I’m adding in Rain Birds from Native American legends:
“Oh, look over there!” Rheen pointed to a booth a little farther ahead where there were several cages full of glistening, incandescent blue birds. She and Jess rushed over to get a closer look.
“Rain Birds,” announced their owner to no one in particular, “from the Marshes.”
They had a lovely, soft chortling noise which, when they were all calling out together, sounded very much like rain.
So there you have it: my random discoveries about fantasy creatures. I hope some fellow writers find it helpful and some fellow readers find it interesting.
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*All sneak peaks shared on this blog are subject to change and may not actually appear in the final draft. Read: probably will not because that excerpt is from the first chapter which I’ve rewritten at least five times.