One Way by S. J. Morden
 

One Way

Review

 
#SPFBO 5 Cover Contest
 

Cover Contest

#SPFBO 5

 
SFF and Queerness – We Need To Do Better
 

SFF and Queerness – We Need To Do Better

Article

 

Fantastical Biology – Part One: Fantasy Creatures and Their Habitats

DNA by Andrey ProkhorovFantasy novels often include magical creatures. Peruse the fantasy section of your favorite bookstore and you’ll see plenty of dragons, vampires and other impossible things on the front covers. Dragons can fly because they’re magic, and this is enough for many fantasy stories. But what if you want to create a fantastical creature that’s a bit more plausible, and doesn’t rely on “a wizard did it”? Real-world biology can give you a good starting place for populating your fantasy world (whether for short story, novel, or even campaign setting) with creatures that fit into their habitats. Expertise in physiology or ecology not needed.

Who cares if dragons aren’t realistic? This is fantasy!

Regular visitors to Fantasy-Faction will probably have heard the term “suspension of disbelief”. All fiction relies on a reader’s willingness to accept unrealistic things, fantasy more so than most. A well-written novel keeps the reader engaged with the story, even if something completely impossible is happening. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (spoilers ahead), the time-turner is introduced. Not only is it hard to believe that Hermione would be allowed to use such a powerful device simply to attend extra classes that year, but after book three it’s never mentioned again (end spoilers). These are the sorts of little things that can make a reader think twice about what they’re reading. Prisoner of Azkaban is still my favorite Harry Potter novel, so a great story can make up for minor inconsistencies.

Creating a fantastical creature that fits with its environment is one way to maintain suspension of disbelief. Real animals are adapted to their environments. Their physiology and behavior helps them thrive in their natural habitats. So creating fantastical creatures that arise from their fictional habitats can keep a reader from pausing to wonder exactly how your fantastical creature makes sense.

Flora and Fauna

Radix Flora and FaunaThe setting for every story needs to be robust and feel real to the reader. For creating fantasy creatures though, we need to go beyond the usual things you find on the maps in the beginning of your favorite epic fantasy novels. What is the climate: wet or dry, hot or cold? The length of seasons, the terrain, how good the soil is for growing; all these things influence what plants and animals can live in a particular habitat. If there are four seasons, will our hypothetical fantasy creature hibernate, or even migrate? I would enjoy seeing a V of dragons flying overhead, seeking warmer weather.

Once you have your setting, try to find a similar Earth environment and see what sorts of animals and plants live there. How have they adapted to live in that environment? Wikipedia may not be acceptable as a source on school term papers, but here it’s a great place to start. Let’s say our story takes place in a desert. The main character is a wizard, and needs eyes from a magic toad for a potion. But toads are amphibians and require water (and usually lots of it) to live, so finding some in the desert may seem unrealistic. As it turns out, there are toads that live in deserts. They spend dry seasons buried in the ground, surrounded in a sort of skin-cocoon, and come out during the few times it rains. So our wizard just needs to wait for some rain, or perhaps use magic to cause it himself.

Warm blooded or cold blooded?

Besides setting, determining what kind of animal this fantasy creature is will tell us how it might fit into its environment. Reptile, bird, mammal, or insect may be the first things that come to mind, but don’t forget plants, or even bacteria. Single-celled organisms can survive in some of the most extreme environments on Earth.

Radix Fauna

One of the deciding factors on where an animal can live is if it is an endotherm (regulates its own body temperature) or an ectotherm (relies on the environment for heat). Mammals and birds are endotherms; rain or shine, night or day, they keep a constant body temperature. This is why you can find them all over the globe; they can survive in a great range of environments. Reptiles, like lizards and snakes, rely on basking in the sun or lying on hot rocks to warm up. They couldn’t survive somewhere cold like the arctic because there wouldn’t be enough heat for them to get up and moving every day. But relying on outside influence for body heat also means they may not need as much food as a mammal does to survive, which allows them to thrive in areas like deserts, in which resources are scarce.

Beyond Biology

Dragon Anatomy Skeleton by Eugene ArenhausHabitat will also have an impact on culture. I think this is more familiar territory for most fantasy writers and readers. Studying how human cultures have adapted to their environments can help when creating a history and culture from scratch. All of the previous advice works for creating humanoid fantasy creatures as well. A society of bipedal, intelligent reptiles may spend every morning speaking prayers to the sun as they warm themselves for the day ahead.

But don’t let the science get in the way of creativity. Think of the above as a base from which to build. Knowing how living organisms adapt to their environments means we can also bend those rules with fantastical elements to create something unique to your story’s setting.

Title image from Radix.

Share

5 Comments

  1. Avatar Hawa says:

    Good advice on how to adapt your fantasy creature to make it more believable in relation to the world we live in.

  2. […] with lots of resources for fantasy writers. Be sure to check out my first article in this series: Fantastical Biology: Fantasy Creatures and Their Habitats. And browse through their other articles as well, they’re all […]

  3. Avatar Xen says:

    One thing I dislike in modern fantasy is that all dragons must be wyvern-like. Honestly, it would not break my suspended belief if a dragon had six limbs; it’s a dragon, that’s what I expect. I think sometimes art and style are sacrificed for the sake of “realism”.

  4. […] predators, and give insight into how some popular fantastical predators work. As discussed in the previous Fantastical Biology article, using biology to create fantasy creatures that evolve from their settings keeps readers engaged in […]

  5. […] first time visitors here, I write a regular series about biological realism in fantasy at Fantasy Faction, so it’s a topic I like to discuss. But here’s a question I don’t tackle in those posts: […]

Leave a Comment