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.
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
Thanks so much for listening this week. Want to subscribe to The Art of World Building Podcast? Have some feedback you’d like to share? A review would be greatly appreciated!
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
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.
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.
So let’s talk about how to subscribe to this podcast. A podcast is a free, downloadable audio show that enables you to learn while you’re on the go. To subscribe to my podcast for free, you’ll need an app to listen to the show from.
For iPhone, iPad, and iPod listeners, grab your phone or device and go to the iTunes Store and search for The Art of World Building. This will help you to download the free podcast app, which is produced by Apple, and then subscribe to the show from within that app. Every time I produce a new episode, you’ll get it downloaded right onto your device.
For Android listeners, you can download the Stitcher radio app, which is free, and search for The Art of World Building.
This only needs to be done once and at that point, you will never miss an episode.
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.
If you’re enjoying the podcast, please rate and review the show at artofworldbuilding.com/review. Reviews really are critical to encouraging more people to listen to a show haven’t heard of before, and it can also help the show rank better, allowing more people to discover it. Again that URL is artofworldbuilding.com/review
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.
All of this show’s music is actually courtesy of yours truly, as I’m also a musician. The theme song is the title track from my Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid album, but now we’re closing out today’s show with a song from my album Now Weaponized!, called “Mesmerize.” You can hear more at RandyEllefson.com. Check out artofworldbuilding.com for free templates to help with your world building. And please rate and review the show in iTunes. Thanks for listening!