Friday, May 30, 2008

Creating fantastic animals

A new world often needs new animals. I like playing Diablo II partly because of the creatures that populate its landscapes – giant scarabs, goatmen, pulsating maggot eggs half-buried in the ground, foul crows emerging with a fluid pop from their great organic nests, like yeast cells budding off. Such animals make a land both recognizable and strange, and are fun to come up with as well. Here are some of the methods I use to do this.

1. Evolve existing animals

I recommend Dougal Dixon’s books for ideas on how modern animals can develop into extremely bizarre and yet believable creatures. Check out After Man : A Zoology of the Future and The New Dinosaurs. Evolving existing animals is easy to do – just imagine altered conditions, put your animal in them, and change the animal to enable it to survive and breed.

For instance, let’s put an eagle in the desert. Eagles would find it difficult to hunt there – the heat during the day would be intense, especially if they were flying for long periods of time, and prey would be scarce, meaning that they would be expending a lot of energy for little reward. You could change that by allowing the eagles to see in the dark. Or if you wanted to go even further, give the eagles the ability to teleport at high altitude, meaning they could cover vast amounts of land to search for prey. And they grow silver feathers along the backs of their wings and spines to reflect sunlight (rather than absorbing it). Of course, this means that they’re hunted by desert tribes… and when the eagles descend to grab prey, they can’t teleport.

2. Splice existing animals

There are a lot of these in role-playing games. Fighting Fantasy has skunkbears, Dungeons and Dragons has owlbears. Mate the two and you could get a skunkowl. I haven’t done that (yet), but I’ve had winged serpents. As long as this isn’t the method used to create every animal in the story, and as long as the creatures aren’t too bizarre – I’ve come across cat-dogs in published novels, and I wouldn’t buy them – this can work adequately.

3. Make ordinary animals sentient or magically skilled

Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass has armored polar bears, which sound fascinating even before he gets into the details of their culture and their behavior. The same thing could be done with any animal. What if herds of wild mustangs occasionally produced a blue horse, which had the power to open portals into another dimension? What if snakes had the ability to see the future and communicate it to people – if they wished to do so? If the story was set in ancient Greece, you could have a Python at Delphi.

4. Turn ordinary objects or phenomena into animals

Harry Harrison’s novels of the Yilane - West of Eden, Winter in Eden and Return to Eden - used animals to substitute for whatever technology the Yilane required. Need a depilatory to remove hair from the face? A sluglike creature crawls over the skin and digests keratin. Need a blowpipe? A long-bodied animal with a hollow interior produces a gas that could propel a dart – sort of a modified bombardier beetle. This is a lot of fun because whatever you come up with is very likely to be original.

5. Think outside the box

Fantasy animals don’t need to have eyes or limbs or skin or brains in the conventional sense. Wayne Barlowe’s Expedition is a great example of this – none of the animals of Darwin IV have eyes or jaws, and most of them look very different from anything on Earth. What if there was a creature that looked like an amorphous slimy mass, but which could change its appearance to mirror whomever it encountered, on the principle that people are less likely to attack something which looks exactly like them? Or a gestalt entity that was made up of hundreds or thousands of smaller organisms? Its overall shape would depend on its component creatures, and could change depending on where they/it was.

Have fun with zoology!


kiwi said...

Fascinating post, Queen. The idea of evolving and splicing existing animals was particularly interesting.

I guess the next step would be creating environments suitable to such organisms ...

kiwi said...
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Arachne Jericho said...

Wow! I loved Dixon's books. I'll have to go see if I can find them again. They're awesome science fiction in a naturalist non-fiction kind of way.

Marian said...

arachne - there's another illustrated book which also addresses future evolution, but which assumes that thanks to humans, the vast majority of animals are now extinct. The only ones that survive are those who live off the fringes of human cities and civilization, scrounging off garbage heaps and so on. It's bleak, but these animals have also evolved in new and bizarre ways. I'm planning to get a copy some day. I believe the book is called Future Evolution by Peter Ward.

Marian said...

Hi kiwi :)

Spliced animals are pretty common in RPG games (and mythology in general - the chimera, Pegasus, the hippocampus and so on). They're also present in the Xanth novels. I'd use them if I was able to either present something which hadn't been done too often, like the winged serpents used for carrying messages, or if I could develop them as individuals and show they had a culture (which I believe Piers Anthony did with centaurs).

The mention of environments makes me think of fantasy worlds with heavier gravity or other unusual conditions, like Asimov's "Nightfall" world which was only in darkness every thousand years or so. GRRM does something like that with the cycle of seasons in Westeros too.

Thanks for commenting!

Loren said...

Nightfall's sort of environment is rather unlikely, but another kind of odd environment may be common: high axis tilt (obliquity), like what Uranus has in our Solar System.

J. Laskar and others have calculated what precession Mars has had, and they find that because Mars has no big moon, its precession is slow enough to interact with orbit precession cycles, causing its axis tilt to vary by much more -- in some of the runs, it would go as high as 60 degrees. This happens over several hundred thousand years, so it's not a sudden tipping over.

Darren Williams and others have calculated the sort of climates that an Earthlike planet would have with such high axis tilt, and not surprisingly, they find that the poles get *very* hot in the summer, 30-40 C in the oceans and 60-80 C in the continent interiors. However, winters only get cold in the interiors of big continents, and the tropics have more-or-less mild weather all year around.

And there are serious speculations that such climate effects have also happened on Mars, making its summers warm enough for water to melt and flow.