Podcast Episode 9 – How to Create Animals

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Mar 132018

Episode 9: Learn How to Create Animals

Listen as host Randy Ellefson talks about how and when to create animals. Consider the purpose your animals will serve for you as a creator or for your characters in their lives, including products, food, decoration, symbols, and medicinal uses. Learn how animals are classified to better organize your inventions, determine what to create, and have a balanced portfolio. Finally, learn how to get started.

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • How to invent animals you can actually use
  • How to decide whether you should create animals or not
  • How the classification of animals helps us determine what to invent
  • How to get started with inventing animals for your fantasy or science fiction setting

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Episode 9 Transcript

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number nine. Today’s topic is how to create animals. This includes talking about whether you should do it at all, how to classify them, and what uses we can put them to. This material and more is discussed in Chapter 6 of Creating Life, volume 1 in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.

Should We Create Animals?

The first question we should ask ourselves is whether we need to create animals or if we just want to, and why. If we’re doing science fiction and our story takes place almost exclusively on a ship, we may have no reason to invent an animal. After all, it’s less likely that they will be walking around. On the other hand, we do have pets here on Earth, and they can stay in our houses, so why not have some pets that can be on a ship?

That said, a pet is not usually considered integral to a plot, but there’s no reason we can’t change this. How would we do that? Something like a guard dog comes to mind. We can also have pets that have special powers, like the ability to sense certain kinds of radiation or energy. Such an animal might be so useful that it’s not a pet but part of the ship, in the sense that maybe the ship is going to travel to certain kinds of places in space where that kind of radiation is expected, and this animal will help them detect it. Most likely, there are other ways of doing that, such as technology, but you get the idea.

We can also invent animals that give the person holding them special powers. Maybe you can read one person’s mind as long as you’re holding this animal. Maybe this animal produces something like an egg that if consumed, gives you the power. This could obviously be true in fantasy as well.

And that brings us back to the idea of stories that are not taking place exclusively on a ship, but on a planet that is either Earthlike or not. If the planet is like Earth, then we could just get away with using the same animals that we have here. This means that we could exclusively use existing animals, or mostly use them and invent a handful of our own. Both of these are significantly less work than inventing hundreds of animals. Most of us aren’t going to have the time or the desire to do that because most of us are storytellers. Even if we are a gamer, the goal is to create a game that people can play. As always with world building, we want to find a way to create something different while not spending too much time doing that, so it doesn’t take away from our real goals.

And on that note, creating something different is one of the main reasons to create animals. Why does this matter? Well, you might want to take your audience out of their comfort zone. If people know how a parrot acts, but you’ve created a different kind of bird that is similar, they don’t know how that bird acts. They therefore cannot predict what that bird might do.

This is true across all of your world building when it comes to life forms, because even standard races like elves and dwarves in fantasy have a typical way that they act. Therefore, people expect certain things. If you create all of your own species and races, no one knows what to expect. For some people, this might be good, and bad for others. This is why it can be good to have a mix of both of these. In other words, use a little bit of what is standard and then add something new of your own.


One of the great things about animals is that they do act on things, including our characters. A major reason to invent our own animal is that if we want to use something from Earth and it doesn’t behave a certain way, and we wish that it did, we can use that as an analogue for a new animal of our invention. And that animal has the behaviors that we want.

When we create it, we should change more than one thing about it. I’ve talked about my Rule of Three when it comes to using analogues. That means create at least three important and distinctive changes from the original. If you are starting with a tiger and you wish that it could be trained like dogs, then create a new version of the tiger, change the way it looks and acts, add a couple other things, and you’ve got a new animal that is similar but it does what you want and it satisfies the needs you have. By doing an analogue, we’ve gotten a lot of the work done for us. We just have to do some research. In the case of a tiger, you would want to understand what it can and cannot do. Then make sure that if you are changing things, you know what you’re changing. It’s like that idea to know a rule before you break it.

One of the things animals do is prey on each other and our species and races. This is another great reason to invent one. We can take an animal that is not normally a man eater and make it be one. We might also decide that only certain species get eaten for some reason. Maybe one of your species has special eyes that are considered a delicacy. Or maybe it’s just easier to catch.

Our characters might also acquire certain skills for hunting, attacking, or defending against this predator. We could have a character who grows up around this predator and acquires these skills. Then they go on to become a knight, for example. This is one way to give a character from a rural area fighting prowess that they might not be expected to have. We could have a knight run across this character, get into a fight with him, and be surprised by his skills. We may not have an Earth animal that will cause someone to develop those skills, so this is why we would invent that animal.

One world building question we are often faced with is whether it’s worth it. One way to decide that is to think about how often you intend to use the setting. If you only use it once, then maybe you don’t spend too much time creating things for it. But if you intend to use repeatedly across many works and years, then this becomes more worth it.

If using the setting only once, this is a good opportunity to do something unusual with an animal. After all, if we end up deciding that we don’t like what we’ve done so much, we weren’t planning to reuse it again anyway. We can just move on. Otherwise, if using the setting repeatedly, we might be stuck with that animal

More Resources

Let’s take a quick break here and talk about where you can get more useful world building resources. Artofworldbuilding.com has most of what you need. This includes links to more podcasts like this one. You can also find more information on all three volumes of The Art of World Building series. Much of the content of those books is available on the website for free.

And the thing that you might find most useful is that by signing up for the newsletter, you can download the free templates that are included with each volume of The Art of World Building series, whether you have bought the books or not. All you need to do is join the newsletter. You can do this by going to artofworldbuilding.com/newsletter. Sign up today and you will get your free templates, and you will never miss an update about what is happening in the great world of world building.

Classification – Invertebrates

Let’s talk about classifying the animals we invent. This might not be a very glamorous subject, but it helps us stay organized. This is one of the challenges of world building. Classifying things can also help us decide what to invent.

Something to be aware of is that animals are either invertebrates or vertebrates. This means they are either spineless or not. Otherwise, this has no significance. That said, invertebrates make up 97% of animals. These are the spineless animals. This includes things like worms, sea urchins, snails, jellyfish, arachnids like spiders and scorpions, crustaceans like lobsters and crab, coral, and insects. On Earth, they all tend to be relatively small but we see no shortage of enormous ones in science fiction and fantasy.

Something to consider about the spineless invertebrates is that we are probably not going to use them for domestication, sport, guards, or transportation, unless we do make them truly enormous. This means we might have less use of them. Remember that there are two uses for everything, and what I mean is the author, like yourself, has a use for these creatures, and the characters may or may not have a use for them. If we have no use for what we are inventing, don’t invent it.

Our characters may not typically use an animal, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t interact with it in some way. For example, maybe no one is taking the venom from a scorpion and using it to create poisons, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t have that scorpion exist and just accidentally sting someone. The character doesn’t have a use for it, but we as the creator do.

We may not think that insects are interesting because they’re so small, but we can always create a swarm of them like with locusts. They are known for devouring a huge area of vegetation and causing a problem by doing so. Why is that a problem? Because if you’re a farmer and they eat all of your crops, you’re kind of in trouble. So is everyone who’s counting on your food, like that the local town. In horror films, we often see a swarm that attacks people, but that’s not normally what happens, because they don’t care and are not carnivores, but there’s no reason we can’t do that.

Classification – Vertebrates

I’ll spend more time looking at vertebrates, which are the animals you probably thought of when downloading this podcast. They fall into five categories we will look at one by one: amphibians, birds, fish and other aquatic life, mammals, and reptiles.


Let’s talk about amphibians. This includes frogs, toads, and salamanders. There are some basic facts that are similar for all amphibians. They need water to reproduce and they typically need to stay near that water to keep their skin damp. They are also cold-blooded, which means they rely upon their environment to regulate body temperature. This also means that have a slow metabolism, which means they require less food and expend less energy. They also have muscular tongues that can stick out surprisingly far and which are usually coiled up inside their body when not being used.

To avoid being eaten by predators, they can excrete, through glands on their skin, something that either makes them taste bad so that they are spit out, or they are actually poisonous. Predators will learn a lesson about the latter. The poisonous ones tend to be brightly colored to warn people, so instead of hiding, they’re actually announcing their presence. Sometimes that doesn’t work, because there can always be a kind of bird, for example, that is immune to the poison and eats them anyway. This happens for real on Earth, so it’s definitely an option for your world. If you like this idea, create something like a frog that is this way and decide which species is immune to the poison.

These poisonous amphibians tend to be more active predators because they are less worried about being consumed themselves. By contrast, an amphibian that camouflages itself is more likely to lie in wait and ambush its prey. That prey could be one of your species if the amphibian is truly enormous. Such a large one is probably not too worried about being consumed itself due to its size. Therefore, it might be brightly colored even if not poisonous. However, if it is relying on your species to walk by it without realizing it’s present, it will be camouflaged.

Based on this, you could imagine a scene where a group of characters comes across this enormous, possibly red amphibian, and one of them states aloud that they must run away from this. Then someone else responds that it’s obviously not a predator due to its color because it would be something that camouflages itself if it was going to eat them, but then he’s wrong and they all become a meal.

The Difference between Venom and Poison

Venom must be injected into the body. That’s usually from a sting, a bite, or being stabbed. On the other hand, something like a poisonous frog, all you have to do is touch it and the poison could be transferred to you. A very important point here is that poison is used for defense and venom can be used for both defense and offense. If you’ve decided that an animal is poisonous, that is to protect itself. It’s not poisoning its victim. It’s poisoning the thing that wanted to make it a victim. On the other hand, something that is venomous is actually a predator who is using that on their prey and for defense. This is one of the reasons why a snake may attack a human even though it has no chance of consuming us.

Make sure you pay attention to this difference and consider its implications when you are inventing a poisonous or venomous animal.

More Classifications

Most amphibians are diurnal, meaning they operate during the day, but some do so at night. Know your rules before you break them. When it comes to their food, virtually all of the amphibians will swallow it whole. If there’s any chewing, that’s just too subdue the prey.

If you find yourself being hunted by a giant amphibian, there are ways to avoid becoming prey. Most of them hunt by sight and this means that holding still is one way to avoid detection. One problem with this is that most of them can hold still for a very long time, so you would need the ability, too. If you can’t take it anymore and decide to run, you might find a very long tongue reaching out, snatching you, pulling you into its mouth, chewing you once or twice to subdue you, and then swallowing you whole. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

There are a couple more details about amphibians in the Creating Life book, but I’m going to save that for the readers.


Let’s talk about birds. There are many uses for birds in our fiction. They are often used for symbols, such as the dove for peace, or the hawk for something like war. They can be eaten and so can their eggs. Some birds are also hunted, and we can also create giant birds that can be used for transportation, even though this is likely impossible. We’re all used to seeing it, however, and accept it.

There are many are birds on Earth, so it’s pretty easy to use one that is an analogue and change things about it such as plumage, behavior (such as how trainable it is), and how rare the bird is. Like amphibians, birds have to swallow food whole because they don’t have teeth. Unlike amphibians, they digest things very quickly so that they can fly again. Some birds are also very smart, which could be interesting if you combine that with ferocity and very large size.

Most birds are diurnal but some of them operate at night, twilight, or when the tides are changing as if they feed on animals from the sea. One reason birds form flocks is for safety in numbers. This isn’t necessarily an “every bird for himself” kind of thing because, in that scenario, you’re thinking that maybe one of your friends gets eaten instead of you, but that’s not really the issue. The more birds there are, the more pairs of eyes exist to warn all of them about predators.

You also want to consider whether the bird migrates. The biggest reason is that your characters may be interested in using this bird but it’s not all around all year.


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Let’s do some classification of fish and other aquatic life. Some of this you may know, but some you won’t and other information will act as a refresher.

Fish have fins and gills and are cold-blooded, which means they rely upon their environment to control their body temperature. There’s an important distinction to make here and that is that there are animals that have the word “fish” in their name but they are not actually fish. So what is a fish? We’re talking about actual fish, eels, lampreys, rays, and sharks, but we’re not talking about jellyfish and starfish. Neither of those are fish despite their names. Dolphins and whales are also not fish. Those are mammals.

It may surprise you to know that some fish can actually breathe air just like the rest of us, which means they can go several days without suffocating. Some fish also don’t have very good hearing, but some of them are very good at sensing motion. They have very good vision, taste, and smell.

Another characteristic is whether they form a school or a shoal. These are slightly different. A school of fish is one where all of the fish move at the same speed and direction, and change direction at exactly the same time. This makes them appear synchronized. We sometimes see this on nature shows and it usually looks pretty cool. By contrast a shoal is just a group of fish that are in the same area and they are all kind of doing their own thing.

This distinction kind of resonates for me because I recently took up keeping fish in a fish tank. I was told that if I bought six or more of a certain type of fish that they would form a school together. I therefore expected them to be moving in synchronization and they don’t do this. They act more like a shoal: they’re all in the same general area but doing their own thing. And yes I am disappointed and I want my money back!

How are we going to use this? Well one of the ways is as symbolism. For example, we could have a fish be the reason that a group of starving people didn’t perish. Maybe all the food on land was gone due to a drought, but they caught a particular type of fish that saved everybody. There were enough that everyone survived and people came to revere that fish.

But remember that fish are not always good. Sometimes they can sting us, paralyze us, poison us, and sometimes just outright kill us. Sharks come to mind. However, remember that sharks don’t typically attack people on purpose. It’s usually a case of mistaken identity. However, as a world builder, there’s really no reason you can’t invent a shark that preys upon your species. Before you do this, you may want to consider a couple things.

For example, normally a shark is feeding on something like a seal, which has a lot of fat and blubber and not much in the way of bones. By contrast, humans have mostly bone. We are really not that appetizing to a shark. You can ignore this, of course, because many filmmakers have sharks purposely eating humans and we have accepted that premise. Know your rules before you break them.

Something to bear in mind is that a shark can kill people by accident, where the shark just does an exploratory bite to see what this thing floating in the water is. But this bite is so severe that it kills a human. Any similar animal that you can create could have the same effect, where they are not actually killing people on purpose. This is one way to be a little bit more realistic about the danger they pose. We just talked about sharks wanting to eat seals because of the fat content. Having them purposely attack humans to consume us doesn’t make as much sense as having them do it accidentally or out of curiosity. This is a little more believable.


Let’s talk about mammals. They are typically the smartest and largest animals, although we don’t have to do that on our invented world. Most of them have four legs, but some of them have adaptations that are so extreme, like dolphins and whales, that we may not realize that they are mammals. Other examples include otters, polar bears, and seals.

Something to consider is that some mammals can exist outside of water, like a polar bear, but others will die. Mammals are warm-blooded and use their own body to regulate their temperature. This can be done in several ways and includes something like blubber, large size, and waterproof fur. Many of us are unfamiliar with this sort of thing and may not realize it on first looking. We might see a polar bear and think it’s probably freezing because it’s so cold and wet, but it’s got the waterproof fur and some fat protecting it. Larger animals also use their weight to stay down on the bottom where their food is, while lighter animals consume food near the surface.

There are also animals like a cat that can spread their body out while they fall so that they are sort of parachuting themselves, slowing their decent. There are also animals that can glide between trees. They are not really flying. They’re just able to spread themselves out. We can use some of these traits for our invented animals.

There are some other details discussed in the book but we’re not going to cover those here. In the next section, we’ll talk about some of what mammals can be used for, such as food, clothing, experiments, pets, transportation, entertainment, and more.


Let’s talk about reptiles. This includes turtles, crocodiles, snakes, and lizards. They are cold-blooded, and as you’ve already heard, this means they rely upon the environment to regulate their body temperature. This also means they have a slow metabolism. They need less food and tend to conserve energy. For that reason, they often have a strategy of lying in wait to ambush prey. The crocodile does this. They can need as much as 90% less food compared to a similar sized mammal.

What if you had a species that was like a human but was based on a reptile? Obviously, they are not going to have the same kind of fast food industry that we have here on Earth because they’re not going to be eating all that often. That’s a funny example, but this is something that you should consider if you’re building a culture that’s based on that species, which is based on a reptile. Maybe they are not going to have three meals a day. They might have one big meal or three really small ones, which in turn means that those meals will be over really quick. There might be less formality. These are things to consider and make your work more believable. Bear in mind, that if you’ve invented an active reptile, then it needs more food. These are the things to research and understand.

Due to this lack of need for food, there are reptiles that can dominate an area if there’s not that much food there. They can eat just once or twice a year whereas a similar sized mammal would need to eat regularly and there isn’t enough food there to sustain one. You could have characters traveling through a desolate area with no livestock and reach the conclusion that there probably aren’t any predators when there really are, and they’re reptiles. If you’re thinking that most reptiles are carnivores, you are correct, but herbivores do exist, so this is an option.

Reptiles tend to have smaller brains. As a result, they are less intelligent. Most of them are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day, but some are active at night. By knowing this, we once again have another option to use.

Smaller reptiles will usually rely upon camouflage to avoid being eaten. Some of them will make a noise like the rattlesnake, and then there’s the cobra, which will make itself look bigger by fanning out part of its body. Something that’s really interesting, especially if you have a humanoid species that’s based on a reptile, is that some reptiles can detach their tail so that they can escape. Sometimes the tail will be brightly colored to attract the predator to that part of the body. Why? Because they’re hoping that if they are attacked, it’s at the tail, which they can detach while they run away. Meanwhile, the predator is distracted by the still wiggling tail in its mouth.

These tails can also regrow, but sometimes they’re a little bit discolored and don’t grow back to the same length.


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How to Use Animals

Let’s start wrapping up talking about how can we use the animals we’ve invented. After all, if neither us or our characters have a use for them, what’s the point?

Domestic work is one use for them. This includes pulling wagons. This isn’t very glamorous but this can be a good place to start with inventing animals because it’s something that’s not more prominent most of the time and we can get some experience inventing a less important animal. If you’ve never created an animal before, maybe this is where you start.

You might be thinking that this is not worth it, but you can create the impression of somewhere different by citing different animals pulling that wagon train. In science fiction, such animals may have been replaced by machines. This certainly suggests that we have less use of them. However, they still could be a symbol of former times, such as an ox being seen as a stable animal. A company might use this as a symbol. A character may use this as a nickname. This is still true in science fiction and fantasy.

Another use for animals is as entertainment or sport. This could be because we are hunting them, or racing them against each other, whether we are riding them or not. Horses come to mind. They can be used for riding them, racing them, or as pack animals pulling a wagon. We can have multiple uses for one animal. The names of such animals can also be used for ships or sporting things. The Broncos and Colts from the National Football League come to mind. Bronco is also the name of a vehicle, while Colt is the name of a gun.

Of course, there is food. We might decide that some of our animals are not very good to eat, but for the most part, many of them will be, and they will taste different from each other. We can just invent the quality of the meats, such as whether it is tender or tough. We can also decide that people prepare it certain ways. If you’re not sure how to cook tough meat, then you can just research this.

Many animals used as food are kept in pastures, so this is something we might mention while our characters are approaching a town or farm, for example. This isn’t a very exciting, but the little detail can add some realism. If you were approaching a farm on Earth, you would probably see cows and horses in the field. This, in turn, might tell you something about the farm that you are approaching. We can do the same thing. Not all animals can be kept in a pasture because of their aggressive nature.

Hunting scenes are a classic staple of both fantasy and science fiction. We might want to invent some animals that must be hunted. The capturing and killing of such an animal can be considered a heroic or great thing for our character to do. It’s something that shows his strength or virility.

Sometimes the animals in pastures are docile unless they are approached, in which case they may act differently and become aggressive. If there’s a nearby predator who feeds on the animal, the animal could sense or smell it and it might start howling. This can be an indication to the characters that there is a dangerous predator nearby, one that might prey upon them, too. In other words, this is an early warning device. This could be one reason people keep certain animals around their home.

As an example of this, I’ve always had cats, and sometimes I will hear a noise in the house. My cat will hear it, too, and perk up. The cat will casually look over and go back to what it’s doing, which tells me there’s nothing for me to worry about. But there are times when the cat gets freaked out, and that’s when I go to investigate. Dogs are famous for barking at things, but sometimes they do it when there’s no threat at all.

There are several other uses for animals that I’m not going to go into detail here, but they are discussed in the book. This includes as guards, materials, pets, and transportation.

Where to Start

What I want to do now is a wrap up on where to start with inventing animals. Analogues are a great way to get started and I highly recommend this for animals. Most of us have neither the time nor the interest in becoming an expert in certain kinds of animals. We don’t want to invent something from scratch, so it’s a lot easier to take something that’s similar to what we want and modify it. This avoids the problem of inventing something that doesn’t make any sense.

Remember the Rule of Three when inventing an analogue: make at least three significant changes. If you don’t do this, people are going to recognize that it’s really an Earth animal with minimal changes. This can actually backfire on us instead of transporting the audience to another world with something that’s different, it just makes us look like we’re doing a poor job of this. We don’t really care. They recognize the source for what it is.

Make sure you do your research before using an analogue because many things on Earth are different from what we think. This is because we only have a casual understanding of what they’re like. This research doesn’t need to be time-consuming. Much of it can be off of Wikipedia, although you should try to verify that what you’re reading is correct, but if you are going to use an analogue, you almost don’t have to worry about it too much because you’re going to alter it anyway.

Another way to get started is to create a list of animals that you would like in your world. For example, we could list some mammals like boar, deer, bear, cow, or goat. For sea life, we might want something like a shark, whale, rays, regular fish, flying fish, and dolphins. For lizards, we might want a snake or several, and crocodiles. For birds, we could use a vulture, pigeon and a falcon.

We have some variety in that list I just mentioned. For the birds, a vulture is good for flying above a battle scene looking for something to eat. Our characters can approach the site of a battle that ended in the last day, and these birds are circling overhead, and that’s the first indication from a distance that there was something going on. By contrast, a pigeon is mostly just a pest to most of us. It might be something we encounter at the seashore. A hawk or a falcon is something we might use for hunting. Here we have three different uses for birds. The characterization of them is very different.

My point here is to invent something with a variety. Don’t create a hawk and a falcon, for example. Those are very similar. Keep this in mind when making your lists.

Another approach is to create a products list. These are products that will result from these animals. Our characters can use them and we can reference them in scenes. For example, goats are used to make cheese and cows can make milk. Just research some of the basic animals that you are aware of to learn what kind of products result from them.

Hopefully with all of this information, you have a good idea for how to get started with inventing animals.


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Where to Start with Inventing Plants and Animals

 Book Blog, Volume 1  Comments Off on Where to Start with Inventing Plants and Animals
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 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.