The Monster Mash—Creating Believable Beasts

[Lauren Scharhag]Guest post by Lauren Scharhag

I grew up in the 80s. It was a magical time when bug-eyed, glowing-fingered aliens crashed in suburban back yards, when heroes rode luckdragons, when David Bowie danced with goblin puppets, when nightmare creatures battled for the fate of a flawed purple gemstone … well, you get the idea.

For me, the creatures of science fiction and fantasy are just as compelling as the main characters in the story. Anybody writing in the genre knows how important world-building is. Part of good world-building is creating believable creatures for your distant planet or magical realm.

Here are some things to consider when designing your monsters from the claws up:

Magical or Cryptozoological?
Is your creature born or conjured? Did it hatch from an egg, or did a rabbi scoop some mud together and slap a sign on its head? The way a creature comes into being tells a lot about what its habits will be like, where it lives, what it subsists on, etc. Magical creatures don’t have to be as convincing from a biological standpoint—or stand up to close scrutiny at all, for that matter:

  • Don’t feed a mogwai after midnight. Um, isn’t it technically always “after midnight”?
  • How the hell does a Pegasus fly? Does it have hollow bones like a bird?
  • What about Beholders? How do they—ahhh, you know what? Never mind.

As magical creatures, it’s part of their charm. But if we’re talking about an animal that is born or hatched, this takes a little more thought.

What Is Your World Like?
What is your world’s climate like, its ecosystem, its culture? Animals adapt to their environment to survive. Consider how the animal might have evolved in relation to where it lives. Is the animal native to the area you’re writing about or did they come from someplace else? If they’re not native, how did they get there? How do they interact with other species?

Some of my favorite fantasy beings are the elephant-like Mulefa from Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass. Now, it helps that he was writing them from the point of view of a scientist who made keen observations regarding their anatomy, habitat, social behavior, etc. But Pullman obviously put a lot of thought into their ecology. A species of pod-bearing tree combined with some solidified lava beds gives the Mulefa the means to move—and I don’t mean that in the sense that they use pods for transportation. I mean they have evolved in such a way that they now require the pods to peregrinate, attaching them to spurs on their legs and zooming around on them like Tony Hawk.

I was blown away by the level of detail, planning, imagination and originality the Mulefa required. How in the world did someone dream something like that up?

Real Creatures, Alive or Extinct
Start with real critters. I know this seems like a no-brainer, but coming up with good, convincing and memorable creatures for your book has to be more than a Horse of a Different Color (enchanting though that rainbow-hued equine was, he was still just a horse with a dye-job).

I co-author a series called The Order of the Four Sons with Coyote Kishpaugh. It takes place across multiple dimensions. In the second book, the heroes find themselves marooned in an inhospitable, desert world called Carcosa. Keeping the Mulefa firmly in mind as we began to design the world, we gave a great deal of thought to what sort of flora and fauna could thrive under its harsh conditions. We researched animals and plants that live in the Australian and Saharan deserts, as well as Death Valley. To give the animals an otherworldly bent, we turned mainly to creatures that have gone extinct like the Tasmanian tiger for inspiration.

We also took into consideration the symbolism of the place. We have stranded the heroes in a world where everything is either aggressive or toxic. We looked at some of the fiercest-looking desert dwellers we could find, like the Solifugae, an order of desert spiders that can get quite large and look like an ungodly mixture of arachnid and scorpion, with pale, segmented bodies and pincer-like mandibles. They’re not terribly threatening to humans, but the point is, they look scary.

Another type of creature we looked at was some sort of animal to transport people around our deadly fantasy desert. Ultimately, we found our way to tapirs, an endangered South American animal with a prehensile snout (maybe Pullman influenced me even more than I realized!). Related to horses and rhinos, tapirs are decent runners, so with some alteration, we thought they would make fine pack animals. In the course of researching them, we found out that tapirs appear in Asian folklore. In Korean, their name is maek, so we named the creatures “meks.”

Finally, there are the real, live animals that share space with you. I can’t tell you how many creatures in my oeuvre have been influenced by an ugly, runty, squinty-eyed, foul-tempered little cat I found by the side of the road one day and decided to bring home. She has way more attitude than a five-pound bundle of dirty-looking orange-brown fur ought to have, but she’s my little beast, and I love her. Without her, I wouldn’t have stories full of dragons, mermaids, ehlems and man-eating blobs. At least once a day, I pay homage to my little feline muse with offerings of tasty treats. She seems as pleased with this arrangement as I am.

So all those hilarious pet stories you love to tell at parties? Yeah, turn those into fantastical adventures.

Barring that …

Tap into Some Folklore
There’s an entire world of myths, legends, fairy tales and folklore from which to draw inspiration. From kitsunes to skin walkers, from djinn to Baba Yaga—there’s always some creature or entity begging to be remade into a new story.

Obviously, you have the perennial favorites: vampires, werewolves and zombies. Personally, I find those to be a bit tired, but even they can have new life breathed into them—reanimated, if you will. (I know, I know. Feel free to throw things.)

To use another example from our books, in The Order of the Four Sons, we have an Eastern European sorceress who practices necromancy. Eastern European folklore is rich with blood-suckers and the undead. We came up with creatures called eretics, a sort of zombie en flambé. The amount and type of magic it takes to raise and sustain them burns their flesh, so they’re blackened, red and quite disgusting as they lumber about, flaking off patches of skin and doing their mistress’ bidding.

Another resource is the good ol’ D&D monster manual. I’m not saying to blatantly rip something wholesale from the Eberron or Forgotten Realms playbooks or whatever. What I am encouraging you to do is a monster mashup—create composites. Synthesize. It’s amazing what sort of literary Frankenstein might emerge. A fang here, a bit of drool there, some galvanic action and voila! Your creature will be up, wreaking havoc on a poor, unsuspecting populace in no time.

I hope you find my thoughts on monster-making helpful. Thanks for reading, and best of luck dreaming up your own ghoulies, ghosties and three-legged beasties!

Book Blurb

[The Order of the Four Sons Cover]

For centuries, two ancient, magical sects, the Order of the Four Sons of Horus and Starry Wisdom, have battled for possession of the sacred, powerful Staff of Solomon. Whoever possesses the staff can open doors to other dimensions—or rip open the very fabric of existence.

The staff was broken into pieces and scattered across the cosmos.

Now, a member of the Order, Fernando Rios, has disappeared in a small Missouri town.

When a team is sent to investigate, they discover that Rios was close to finding one of the lost segments.

The problem is, he wasn’t the only one.

The Order of the Four Sons by Coyote Kishpaugh and Lauren Scharhag is a classic tale of good versus evil. An epic, magical journey of fantasy and adventure.

Join members of the team, Colonel JD Garnett, novice mage Kate West, Detective Ryan Murphy, scholar Doug Grigori, and field techs Bill Welsh and Cecil Morgan, as they race to stop evil from destroying not just Earth, but a myriad of worlds.

And life as we know it.

Where to Buy
Amazon US
Amazon UK
Amazon CA

About the Author
Lauren Scharhag is a writer of fiction and poetry. With Coyote Kishpaugh, she is the co-author of The Order of the Four Sons series. She lives in Kansas City, MO with her husband, two cats and a squinty-eyed beastling. You can find Lauren on Twitter, on Facebook and on her blog, www.laurenscharhag.blogspot.com.