Volume 1 Archives - Page 2 of 8 - The Art of World Building

Where to Start with Inventing Plants and Animals

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Feb 222018

Inventing an animal or plant is easier if we base it on one or more Earth equivalents, of which tens of thousands exist. Analogues free us from becoming experts in botany, for example, because our lifeform has details that largely match an Earth life. By contrast, inventing from scratch means needing to understand more about what defines a lifeform type, though this chapter provided enough high level details for us to do so. Generally, we’ll want to portray our inventions to an audience in simple, non-technical terms unless the details are required, as in the case of an actual botanist trying to create a serum from something to cure a disease, for example.

Remember the rule of three when using an analogue: make at least three changes. Some items to alter are coloring, the number of appendages, whether an animal is trainable or not, and how the life form can be used by our humans and species (if at all). We can borrow traits from other things, like inventing cats who obey like dogs.

Be aware that many Earth lifeforms are different than we might expect. For example, in America we’re used to only seeing red tomatoes. We could create yellow ones, thinking we’re being different, when yellow tomatoes already exist here. Cats can actually be highly trained. We may be accustomed to seeing something portrayed a certain way when that thing is more complex or varied than we realize.

Research will often surprise us and it’s worth doing for our inventions and even personal enrichment, if you care about such things. Google any plant or animal that you want to start with and read about it, making a list of interesting attributes or things that could be mentioned when writing. The details can surprise us, and when we use those details, altered or not, to introduce our plant or animal, it’s more engaging. Consider this example: “A large, four-legged, herbivore with huge tusks, they mostly graze or eat leaves and other plants. Their tusks are prized. They can be tamed and are often used as pack animals, either carrying the load or pulling it.” That gets us thinking and picturing it far more than if we just said “elephant.”

Creating a List of Animals and Plants

There are so many things we could create that it’s advantageous to have a categorized list of possibilities to decide on. Start with analogues in each class. Below is a small list of staples we might want to invent, using the rule of three to make each different from its source:

Mammals: boar, deer, bear, cow, goat

Sea Life: shark, whale, ray, plain fish, flying fish, dolphin

Lizards: snake, crocodile

Birds: vulture, pigeon, falcon

Flowers: rose, nightshade, lily

Trees: oak, weeping willow, pine, maple

Vegetables: corn, tomato, potato

Other Plants: wheat, rice

Creating a Products List

Another approach is to make a list of products our characters might need or use and then determine their plant or animal source. Goats are used for cheese, for example. Potatoes make chips and fries. Wheat makes beer and bread. Grapes make wine. Trees are turned into all sorts of products and have typical uses depending on the tree. Research an oak tree and how it’s used (and why), and then give it some different properties and similar uses. We can write something like, “He dipped the bird-name quill into the sea-life-name ink and signed his name.”

How to Use Animals Effectively

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Feb 152018

As with plants, humanoid species use animals in many ways, including as food, pets, transportation, entertainment/sport, guards, domestic work, and for materials such as hides, bones, and even fluids. Other humanoid species can also be used for these things, as distasteful as humans usually find the subject. We can use Earth animals or invent our own, which can be inspired by a desire to do something new or have an Earth animal do things one on Earth doesn’t do. Maybe the only horses available for riding are similar but much harder to control or train. Or maybe they are carnivores and sometimes eat their riders. Maybe we can ride one but never with a saddle. Each of these might pose a problem for characters, adding dynamics to a story. We’d probably want to call this something other than a horse, changing physical attributes while we’re at it.


Domestic work like pulling wagons isn’t very thrilling, but such animals are likely to be more commonly experienced by characters in urban settings. They can be mentioned during scenes directly involving them or just in passing as they contribute to smells, filth, and other delights only animals can add to life. In SF, machines may have replaced such uses, at least for those wealthy enough to afford them. World-hopping characters may visit a world without such technology and have an inability to deal with animals like this, struggling to ride them, for example.


Humans often use animals for sport, whether hunting them, fighting them against each other, or racing them against each other. Some see animals as trophies and the hunt a sign of their virility. This can be used to characterize our characters. Inventing unique attributes for an animal can make this conquest worthwhile. While making it faster, more ferocious, or just rare is good, consider granting abilities like teleportation, hiding/disguising of its tracks, or greater intelligence and cunning than we expect of Earth animals. The name of such an animal can become a nickname for a ship or character.


Animals used as food are either hunted or kept in a pasture. The former is a more entertaining use in our work and requires preparation, skill, knowledge, and the right tools. This also exposes our characters to risk if the animal can fight back. Even if they can’t, hunting typically means the wild, where other animals, species, monsters, and even supernatural phenomenon could impact the hunt. Dinner scenes can be spiced up with brief mention of the taste, feel, and desirability of what’s being consumed. Animals can also produce eggs, milk or other fluids that others imbibe.

Animals kept in a pasture or pen are usually more docile, but not always; think of a bull. They can be docile until approached or threatened. They can also go wild if a predator comes near, howling with fear, which can aid a scene in which characters hear a bellowing animal and realize a threat to it—and them—is encroaching.

Ferocious animals are usually not considered food on Earth because the dangers they pose aren’t worth the trouble, but maybe our characters have no choice or enjoy the challenge, even considering the eating of a docile animal a weakness, while the eating of something aggressive is strength; if that’s the case, they probably want to hunt it, too. Such a scenario can suggest a cowardly character who dines on this beast to appear strong, but loses others’ esteem when it is revealed he hasn’t hunted them, but eats caged ones. This is one way we can use such animals.

How to Use Plants Effectively

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Feb 122018

Beyond our purpose in inventing a plant or animal, we can think about how they are used by our world’s inhabitants. Food is an obvious way, and some food will have cultural or religious ideas associated with them; some items might be forbidden or ritually slaughtered first, though we’ll want a rationale for such decisions, such as deciding an animal offended a god. Imagine a deity who was once on an important mission that became delayed by a herd of animals, or by a forest of a given tree type; now this is seen as the reason the god failed to achieve something. The resulting religion could forbid use of the item, either by the god’s decree or not.


Plants are used in many ways that we can adopt when inventing one. The obvious example, besides creating oxygen, is for food, but there’s also decoration, medicine, building materials, toys, clothing, tools, fuel, and everyday items like pencils and paper. Chemical processes often require or benefit from plants, such as fermenting beer or brewing coffee. Many of these aren’t glamorous or of much interest to an audience, but when doing research on analogues, you’ll learn what any given plant is typically used for and can leverage the information.

Often, not every part of a plant has the properties that make it special. The leaves can be deadly while the stem or seeds are not. When crafting a plant, decide which part makes it valuable and if anything must be done to that part for it to acquire its purpose. Leaves might need to be crushed. The pulp might need to be boiled.


Decoration is a useful subject if we decide that people in a given culture have assigned certain properties to a flower, for example, and assume that a female wearing one in her hair is revealing something about herself to others. Garlands of a given flower type can be used at ceremonies, such as burial or graduation. These uses require less invention of details because an audience will accept them as cultural and having little basis.


Plants offer a good opportunity to have our characters and story affected by interesting foods. They can be poisonous, addictive, a bland staple for adventurers, freely found in the wild, or a cultural or religious expectation to serve or consume at certain moments. A culture clash can result for traveling characters. Even if we don’t use plants in a significant way, they can still be briefly mentioned during any scene involving their consumption.


Invented medicinal plants are great for healing or poisoning our characters or for use in spells. We need no explanation for why a plant has these properties because audiences don’t expect one, though in a more scientific world or story, one will help. Plants with supernatural properties are often said to grow near something like a special spring or dark place. The habitat can be the reason the plant acquires unique properties—or even loses them if away for too long, such as once plucked. Are the plants themselves supernatural?

How to Classify Fish, Mammals, and Reptiles

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Feb 082018
Fish and Other Aquatic Life

Fish are aquatic animals that have fins and gills and are cold-blooded, their body temperatures affected by environment. This includes eels, actual fish, lampreys, rays, and sharks, but not some animals that have the word “fish” in their name, like jellyfish and starfish. Technically it excludes dolphin and whales, which are mammals. Some can breathe air just like us and can survive several days without suffocating. Fish may not hear well and instead depend on sensing motion, but they have excellent color vision, taste, and smell. A number of small fish have developed the ability to glide through the air for over a hundred feet, typically to evade predators.

Some fish form schools or shoals, which are slightly different. In a school, fish move at the same speed and direction, being tightly synchronized as if of one mind. By contrast, shoals are more loosely organized, the fish independent but staying close. Like birds, they are sometimes assigned religious symbolism, which we can leverage. For example, if there was once a drought on land and fish had allowed people to survive, they might be revered.

As world builders, our primary use for fish is as food during dining scenes unless we want one to threaten humanoid species that enter the water or sail upon it. People can be stung, paralyzed, poisoned, and outright killed by sea life, whether immediately or in time. We can have someone meet their end by drowning, by being swallowed whole, or most dramatically, by being bitten to death. Piranha, sharks, and other animals with significant teeth are good models for threatening sea life.

Only the largest marine life is likely to threaten or destroy a ship-of-the-line, but giant squid and octopus have been done. You’ll want to invent something unique, either a single large creature or a coordinated group of smaller ones. If we invent some unusually smart sea life, maybe they’ll have another agenda or just be attracted to pretty things, like those armored knights seen upon deck. This comes close to inventing a monster (see chapter five).


Mammals are the largest and smartest animals, generally, though this can be different on our world. Most have four legs, though some have adaptations extreme enough that we may not realize they’re a mammal, such as whales and dolphins.

Other sea mammals include otters, polar bears, and seals, and while some aquatic mammals can survive outside of water, others will die. If inventing one, this is something we must decide on. All of them depend on the sea for food and can submerge far longer than humans. Many must come on land to breed. Either blubber, large size, or waterproof fur can be used to retain heat. Large animals use their weight to stay down where their food is (on the bottom) while lighter animals have food that is more likely to be nearer the surface. Habitat is either open sea or coastal, with the latter including kelp beds, beaches, reefs, and even rocky cliffs. Sea mammals are hunted not only for food and fur but a substance like spermaceti, which is used to make wax. These give us product ideas.

Other mammals have developed aerial locomotion. Cats have a limited ability to essentially parachute themselves to slow their fall.  Tree-dwelling animals can glide between tall trees that are spaced far apart. Bats can outright fly. These traits can be used in our work.

Living in trees poses challenges that cause adaptations, which include far better balance and ability to grip a vertical surface to prevent pitching backwards or slippage. Gaps between branches must be overcome by reaching between, jumping, or gliding. Longer limbs, claws, and a prehensile tail (i.e., one that can grab things) aid these.

Walking is a distinguishing trait that comes in three types. Primates (including humans) and apes are among those with plantigrade locomotion, meaning the toes and metatarsal bones (those between toe and arch) are on the ground, along with the heel. The disadvantage is speed, caused partly by shorter, thicker legs. The advantage is being more weight bearing. Digitigrade animals like cats and dogs walk on their toes and are faster and quieter as a result. Then there’s ungulate locomotion, meaning walking on the tips of the toes, which sounds painful to us, but these animals have a hoof that is perpetually growing and wearing down like our nails; these animals are usually herbivores, are faster, and often have antlers (on males).

Most mammals give live birth and nurse with milk, but a few lay eggs. Communal raising of young is the norm with pack animals in particular, unlike with non-mammals. Mammals are warm-blooded, meaning the body regulates temperature instead of relying upon ambient air or water to do so; the ability has limits, which is why mammals can die from heat stroke or hypothermia. Being warm-blooded causes higher metabolism and therefore greater need for food. Mammals can replace a tooth once or never, but we could always decide that our mammal can replace teeth every time one is lost, like sharks.

Lastly, mammals are used for food, leather, wool, experiments, pets, transportation, and entertainment, discussed in a subsequent section of this chapter.


Reptiles include turtles, crocodiles, snakes, and lizards. They either have four legs or none. Cold-blooded, they cannot control body heat without environmental help; while some have adapted to extreme temperatures, most stay in water or seek sun or shade as needed. A slow metabolism means less food is needed than for a mammal of the same size (as much as ninety percent less), and some can go a half year without food, though this means they aren’t moving much; movement burns energy that must be replaced with a meal. Reptiles can dominate areas with little food, because there isn’t enough to sustain birds and mammals. All of this also means reptiles don’t do long chases and have a sit-and-wait strategy as predators, but this doesn’t have to be true of ones we invent. Some small reptiles can glide through the air.

All Earth reptiles have lungs, but some have permeable skin, too, suggesting we can create a reptile without lungs if desired. Reptiles have watertight, horny skin/scales so they can live on land, unlike amphibians, but it isn’t thick like mammals and can’t be used for leather except in decorative fashion (as opposed to for protection or clothing). Most are carnivores or eat insects, but herbivores exist. Some reptiles consume rocks to help with digestion; such a stone is called a gastrolith. Reptiles are less intelligent than mammals and birds due to small brain size, but we can invent more intelligent and therefore more frightening ones. Most are diurnal (i.e., active during the day) but some that operate at night have a kind of thermal sight that we can make more extreme and useful, especially if we invent a humanoid species that’s reptilian.

Reptiles usually produce sexually but some are asexual (where’s the fun in that?). Genitals are stored within the body. Some do live birth while others lay hard or leathery eggs that almost immediately hatch.

Smaller reptiles rely on avoidance to not become a meal of birds or other reptiles. As such, they hide within underbrush and can often camouflage themselves, whether basic skin color does this or they can change it; the ability to lie still for long periods aids this. If unable to flee, they may hiss or make noise, like the rattlesnake; others make themselves appear bigger, like the cobra. Some are brightly colored to indicate they are venomous. Some actually play dead. Others can detach their tail and run away, the tail still wiggling for up to twenty minutes to distract their predator from their fleeing; some of these tails are brightly colored to encourage an attack there, but regardless, the tails grow back but not usually to the same length, and may be discolored compared to the original.

How to Classify Amphibians and Birds

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Feb 052018

While there are many types of animals we could create, some are more likely candidates than others. To get started, knowing how they’re classified might give us ideas.


Animals are either invertebrates or vertebrates; i.e., spineless or not. The distinction has no other significance.

Invertebrates, which make up 97% of animals, include worms, sea urchins, jellyfish, snails, arachnids (spiders, scorpions), crustaceans (lobster, crab), corals, and insects. On Earth, they tend to be smaller than vertebrates, but Jabba the Hutt from Star Wars was a huge worm, and the giant spider from The Lord of the Rings is infamous. Our characters are unlikely to use invertebrates for domestication, sport, guards, or transportation unless we make them enormous, so our use of them is limited, but they can be food, pets, and used for materials. These purposes will be discussed in the next section. Swarms of such small animals, like insects, can pose a problem, and we can invent a swarm that takes place at given intervals (as with cicada) that people prepare for, for example. Imagine that with giant insects.

Vertebrates include the animals you probably thought of when starting this chapter: amphibians, birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles.


Amphibians include frogs, toads, and salamanders, and require water to breed, laying larva that metamorphose into the adult form. They are capable of living on land or underwater but need moist habitats to keep their skin damp. They can acquire air through their skins to assist their lungs, with a few having no lungs at all; this allows them to remain submerged indefinitely. They are typically small but one extinct species on Earth was up to thirty feet. Being cold-blooded, they rely on environment to regulate body temperature and have slow metabolism, meaning they require less food and expend less energy. Their tongues are muscular and can often protrude surprisingly far, being coiled up when not in use.

Some species have skin glands that secrete poison, whereas some secretions just make them taste bad so they’ll be spit out instead of consumed. Some are lethal to humanoids and this is a good reason to invent some amphibians for our world, for use as poisons. The poisonous ones are often brightly colored as a warning and are more likely to actively search for prey, their appearance warning away predators. The camouflaging amphibians ambush prey.

Frogs can be venomous, too. The difference between venom and poison isn’t well understood by lay people, but venom must be injected into the body. This typically means being stung, bitten, or stabbed. By contrast, poisonous animals can merely be touched and are relatively passive. Venom is typically for both offense and defense while poison is for defense.

Frogs and toads appear similar except the former has smooth skin and the latter warty; both have no tail, long folding legs, and big eyes. Salamanders look more like lizards, being low, flat, and possessing a tail. All have four legs, webbed toes, and no claws. Frogs and toads have excellent hearing. They periodically shed skin in one piece and sometimes eat it (yummy).

Virtually all amphibians are predators who hunt by sight and swallow prey whole, dining on small, slow moving insects and only chewing a little to subdue their meal. Holding still is how potential victims avoid being detected and eaten, but some amphibians hunt by smell and may be able to locate prey that doesn’t have a scent, even in the dark or when it’s not moving. Many amphibians are nocturnal and hide during the day.

While they are seldom seen (unless you invent large ones), amphibians are heard quite often during mating season, but their calls are fatiguing to themselves and could draw predators, in addition to attracting females. A deeper voice typically means a bigger amphibian. Frogs can actually scream when attacked and their vocalization can be aggressive to ward off competition. Some amphibians are territorial about sites for breeding, shelter, or food, and physically attack if necessary. Like reptiles, some salamanders can detach their tail if a predator has them by the tail, and regrow it.


There’s a tendency to overlook birds during world building and storytelling, probably because they have limited use to us except as food or symbols (like associating a dove with peace). Birds consume food smaller than them, so unless we have giant birds, they’ll be keeping clear of our species unless they’ve been domesticated and used like carrier pigeons, for example, or as pets, as in the parrot. Birds of prey like hawks can be used as hunters, possibly bringing our adventurers small game like rabbits or fish for dinner. Bird eggs are among the more useful aspects, but then what’s different about our bird’s eggs that we can’t get from a run of the mill chicken, for example?

As with all animals, when deciding to invent a bird, consider our purpose and those of our characters. We may find there’s little reason to invent one that isn’t an analogue; we can just combine aspects of different birds, like plumage, behavior, trainability, and prevalence, and slap a different name on them and be good to go.

Migration is one of the characteristics of a world that might be more worthwhile to consider. Not all birds migrate, but land birds can migrate 1600 miles and shorebirds up to 2500 miles, with the longest distance for one species being 6300 miles. Some species don’t necessarily return the next year, based on food availability (if that’s the driving force behind migration, as breeding is the other big motive). It isn’t just the carrier pigeon that can return to a specific place, as most birds can navigate incredible distances and return home.

Some species flock for safety in numbers, especially in forests where predators are harder to detect, and more eyes offer more chances to warn each other. Some birds also cooperate with other animals, such as sea-diving birds that take advantage of bait balls of fish; this happens when animals like dolphins herd small fish to the surface for themselves to eat, helping out the birds, too.

For general characteristics we might not be familiar with, most birds are diurnal but some operate at night, during twilight, or when tides are appropriate for feeding if they’re a bird that wades in coastal waters. Some birds are more intelligent than most other animals, which could be interesting when combined with ferocity and large size. In contrast to reptiles and amphibians, birds rapidly digest food so they can fly again; they have no teeth and swallow most things whole. On isolated islands, birds may become flightless due to a lack of predators.

Not all birds create a nest for eggs but generally hide them from predators if so. Incubation is from ten to eighty days and in many species is only once a year, with from one to nearly a dozen eggs. This is useful to know if we’re using enormous birds as in The Lord of the Rings because there would theoretically be a demand for such huge eggs.

How to Classify the Plants We Invent

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Jan 292018

When creating plants, we must know their climate, which is covered in Creating Places, (The Art of World Building, #2). But unless ours is an ice world, for example, it can be assumed that all climates exist somewhere, which means that we don’t need to know which continents or regions our plant is found in just yet. It can be invented for a climate, and when we decide where on our world those climates exist, we’ll know if it could be found there. We may want to name it after a place, or vice versa, but that’s easy enough to accomplish later.


There are broad categories that plants fall into, but we’re most likely interested in only a few.

The seedless plants include algae, liverworts, mosses, and ferns, with only mosses being something we’re likely to use in our stories partly because no one thinks algae or ferns are interesting, and no one knows what a liverwort is (and it’s not interesting or useful when you do). If we have sea dwelling species, algae can be more useful if there’s a dangerous or useful kind that can develop.

The usefulness of moss is debatable, but it can be needed by wizards or have properties to make it deadly or otherwise cover a landscape with a color different than the green we expect on Earth. Mosses grow in damp areas and need plentiful water to reproduce. They can grow on rocks, trees, or discarded items. A special kind of moss, called sphagnum, can form floating islands found in bogs, where trees and other plants are growing in the shifting mat of clumped-together moss.

Among the plants with seeds are cycads, conifers, and flowering plants. An internet search on cycad will reveal plants that look like a palm tree, or an evergreen fern with very large leaves atop a branchless tree trunk (sometimes quite tall) and with cones in the middle of these leaves at the top. They grow slowly and live up to a thousand years, so they could be admired by a long living, humanoid species. They are in tropical and subtropical climates. These large cones can be imagined to contain useful material in them and to have predators who desire them.

A conifer also has cones but prefers colder climates and often forms enormous forests. Conifers include pines, cedars, Douglas-firs, junipers, redwoods, spruces, and more. Most are trees but some are shrubs. Their conical shape helps them shed snow and their wood is soft.

Then there are the flowering plants that dominate temperate climates; unless you live somewhere always cold or hot, this is what you see when you look out the window, and as such, these are the most common plants you’ll be inventing. These include not only flowers, shrubs, and vines but trees like the oak, maple, elm, aspen, and birch.

Regarding trees, the deciduous variety lose their leaves in autumn while the evergreens lose them continuously all year in such a way as to appear, by contrast, that they never lose their leaves, hence the name.

What does this all mean to a world builder? Not much other than having a better understanding of what we probably want to invent: mosses, conifers, and flowering plants, with algae and cycads bringing up the rear.

Why You Should Create Plants and Animals

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Jan 222018
Creating Something Different

One reason to create plants and animals is that they can give our world a different look and feel. The more we create, the more pronounced this impression, especially when we link choices and behaviors of our characters to the life around them. This could be steeds that are ferocious and require great strength of will to control, but could be predators which cause travel plans to change. James Cameron did this to great effect in the movie Avatar (italics).

Characters can learn hunting, attack, and defense skills based on those predators. Maybe they know what it means when a predator flees, such as when great white sharks suddenly swim away from a person in the water; it means an even bigger great white is moving in. This sort of thing is how we integrate everything. If done well, this can make our world stand out in a good way that makes audiences eager for more. The more life forms we create, the more different our world begins to feel.

How Often the Setting Will Be Used

If we’ll only write one book in this setting, the extra work to create many plants and animals may not be worth it. Just do what you need for the project. Some of what we create for one world can be used in another instead, so inventing things we don’t use right now is not an issue. In SF, we may have multiple worlds in a single work or across our career, so we can still just invent life forms for their own sake and figure out where to use them later. Integrating things is great, but that arguably matters more with humanoid species than plants and animals.


It takes time we may not have to create unique plants and animals, though this time investment is less than with other things in this book. We can get around this by inventing during writing, but we must watch out for creating something without much depth or impact on our work. If inventing on the fly, always make a note to add this lifeform to your files and work it out in more detail, then touch up your depiction if necessary. Integrating it with other things is a continuous process anyway.

Do Our Creations Matter?

In the film and TV industries, having interesting plants and animals in the background is easy and fairly standard with today’s special effects, and they need no more than an appearance. It’s only when they affect character decisions or storylines that they achieve relevance, which is the point at which they should be mentioned in written stories. If we mention an irrelevant plant or animal in passing without some hint that it’s a large cat, for example, it can be off-putting, especially if we name too many in a row.

As a case in point, in my story “The Epic of Ronyn,” a character gets pelted with vegetables. I had originally named the different items he’s struck with, but beta-readers commented that they had no idea what I was talking about and it took them out of the scene. I wasn’t going to explain each item in the paragraph (and there was no room or reason to beforehand) because it wasn’t worth it, so I replaced my list of vegetables with the word “vegetables.” While not exactly descriptive, it helped the scene stay on focus.

On the other hand, “The Garden of Taria” story features a character who keeps invading someone’s home and preparing a meal for himself and sometimes her, too. All of their conversations occur while food is being prepared, consumed, or cleaned up. This provided a good chance to name and very briefly describe various items, but it proved challenging to keep it to a minimum. A few choice words are recommend when writing.

For example, consider this line: “She saw a line of yellow drops (italics) leading from kitchen to couch, discarded juna peels tossed here and there along the way, the perpetrator licking the running juices from dirty fingers as he popped another fruit piece into his mouth.” I added the italics to indicate the key words carefully strewn through this sentence to get across what the food is. Is this better than writing, “He ate a yellow citrus fruit called juna?” Both have their merits.

Should You Create Plants and Animals?

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Jan 182018

It takes less time to invent an animal than a humanoid species, gods, or even monsters because animals aren’t as complex. Plants are even simpler. First we’ll consider whether we should invent them or not. Then we’ll look at specifics for each and then considerations that apply to both.

Appendices 5 and 6 are templates for creating a plant or animal respectively. They include more comments and advice, and editable Microsoft Word files that can be downloaded for free by signing up for the newsletter at http://www.artofworldbuilding.com/newsletter/

Should You Create Plants and Animals?

Creating plants or animals unique to our setting is one of the more optional world building tasks for fantasy, where no one expects it or will complain if we don’t. We tend to assume a fantasy world is much like Earth, with the addition of elves, magic, and monsters, for example. We can create just a few plants or animals, tons of them, or none at all. Given that it’s optional, we can benefit from thinking about why we’re creating them, which is the focus of this section.

In SF that takes place exclusively on space craft, we can ignore the subject altogether unless the ship is from Earth or if we want to comment on what the crew are eating, for example. Or if they have an area similar to a greenhouse, zoo, or nature preserve for the same reasons we have parks in major cities: respite from steel, plastic, and concrete surroundings.

In SF that takes place on non-Earth planets, or ships originating from them, we can’t expect the same plants and animals. Even if the world is Earth-like, the life could be very different. Something that looks like a bear at first glance might be an herbivore that makes a good pet. Details are what distinguish life forms from each other.

Vegetation doesn’t need to be wildly different in basic form; there will still be trees, shrubs, and flowers, for example, but we have the option to imbue them with new properties, colors, and significance. This is fairly easy and maybe even necessary to be believable, but we don’t need to invent an entire ecosystem.

Similarly, animals from another planet will still fall into broad categories like fish, amphibian, mammals, birds, and more. Since animals move and are prey and/or predator, behavior becomes an important aspect of inventing something different from an Earth analogue. For example, a horse with two more legs will strike the audience as exactly that. The appearance, size, temperament, and behavior of such a non-Earth “horse” (we’ll want to call it something else) should likely be different in meaningful ways so the audience does not have that reaction. Details are how we achieve this. How to do so is discussed more in the next section.

What is our purpose with inventing this life? Do we need an animal that’s based on an Earth one but which has physical or behavioral attributes that Terrestrial ones don’t? Our characters might use a horse-like animal or giant bird for travel. Maybe we need a lion that can be tamed and ridden like a horse. We might need a snake for its venom that an assassin will use. We might have a humanoid species that wears a bear pelt, except that in the absence of bears, we need a similar (but not too similar) animal. Perhaps we have a wizard who needs a rare plant for casting a deadly spell. And most common of all, we could have either a plant or animal that preys upon our humanoid species. Having a goal helps.