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Worldbuilding: Creating Bestiaries and Fantastic Monsters

Aang and Appa by masterarrowheadA well-defined bestiary is a must for every fantasy world, unless the creator plans to stick to mundane animals identical to realistic fauna, or there are no animals or creatures at all. In any fantasy world, it is perfectly acceptable to have mundane animals; it actually helps make a world relatable and provides perspective. But having a unique quirk in some creatures is an important element. For example, the animal mash-ups created by DiMartino and Konietzko for Avatar: The Last Airbender was a simple but unique way to incorporate an otherworldly feel into their series. To have the characters puzzled by the Earth King’s bear – yes, just a bear – is a great way to alter the sense of normalcy in a fictional world.

A bestiary for a fantasy world can be as simple as a list or as intricate as the D&D Monstrous Compendiums, which contained a description, game statistics, images, and summary information regarding their combat habits, ecology and habitats on almost every kind of beast you could encounter in any given campaign. This information was useful for dungeon masters to help create detailed and fleshed out campaigns. But that level of detail is not necessary for building a world, except for a select few creatures that play an important part in the world. At the very least, a bestiary should note the following aspects:

– Creature’s name
– Geographic area where found
– Description
– Behavior towards humans
– Is it a magical creature or magic wielding creature?

Other details you may want to note are intelligence level and any special attacks or defenses. Also, if the creature affects any aspect of the current state of the world, this must be noted and detailed. An example of such a situation might be a case where the impending extinction of a certain animal will have a detrimental effect to the world, or cause some kind of chaotic imbalance.

Paper Art Monster by Patrick GannonDistinguishing a monster from an animal is important. A monster plays a more complicated role than ordinary animals. There could be several reasons for this. Maybe the monster is not a natural inhabitant of the area or world, and is wreaking havoc as an invasive species. Or it could be an artificial creation by humans or other races. But a vital aspect of any monster is that it poses some kind of direct threat to humans or any sentient beings inhabiting your fantasy world, regardless whether it is benevolent or malicious. This threat does not have to be an active threat per se. It could be a danger that has been neutralized. But a monster is a creature that your inhabitants should be wary of. A good way to define a monster is to view it as a creature that keeps mankind from reaching its place at the very top of the proverbial food chain.

Captured by Anton MarrastSupernatural, outlandish monsters are also essential in a fantasy world, much like magic and the underlying conflict between good and evil. A fantasy world should have at least one. These monsters make convenient villains, since there is no need to develop them into a character with any kind of depth if you do not wish to do so.

Monsters rise and fall in popularity throughout the years. Zombies are all the rage these days, while vampires and lycanthropes have migrated from horror to the more romance-friendly paranormal genre. Dragons seem to be an enduring favorite, but golems, such as the once iconic Frankenstein’s monster, have not successfully evolved to appeal to the twenty-first century. Not yet, anyway.

Of course, there are no hard and fast rules for creating monsters. However, I like to start by defining the type of monster I am developing. My monsters tend to fall under one of these categories:

Undead
These days, little explanation is needed to describe undead. A once former living creature that is animated and partially or entirely sentient in a body that is either decomposing or has certain powers to prevent it from rotting away. In other words, anything that used to be dead or should logically be dead, but for some reason is not, is undead.

Mutation
A mutation is an alteration or damage at a creature’s genetic level, which causes the creature to evolve into a being that is so different from its original form that it can be considered a different species. The evolution can be advanced or primitive. This category is the one with the least ‘guidelines’. I also include hybrid monsters in this category.

Mythological
These monsters are classic favorites that are universally known. They do not have to originate from mythology (although most do); I just feel the term fits best. These can fall under the mutation or undead categories, but are simply too recognizable. Dragons and vampires are the most popular ones. Other examples are krakens, beholders, sirens, and drow elves, just to name a few.

I have listed several mythological monsters below that may serve as a good basis for a bestiary unique to your fantasy world. Remember, there are no rules, only guidelines.

Lich Queen by AdrianDadichLich – ruler of the undead
Liches make vampires look like preschoolers with potty-training issues. A Dungeons and Dragons favorite, the lich is an undead being that was a powerful wizard during its lifetime. Liches are self-made, and the process is rather complicated, but if successful, the wizard becomes the most powerful of undead, retaining full intelligence and magical ability while gaining rare undead powers such as immunity from spells that affect life forces (since it is undead) as well as the ability to animate and command other forms of undead, such as mummies or zombies.

Their life essence is contained in a separate vessel that is stashed in a very safe place. Destroying this vessel, called a phylactery, is the only way to permanently destroy a lich. Most liches do not have the weaknesses or constraints that other undead monsters have. Fortunately, their introverted nature and advanced intelligence keep them hidden away and unwilling to wreak havoc if there is no direct benefit to them.

World of Warcraft has adapted the lich to a more social being where they command armies and scheme among each other. Their undead status is a bit different form the D&D lich, but the phylactery aspect remains with World of Warcraft liches.

Gelatinous Cube by Jean-Francois BeaulieuOozes – subterranean horrors
Oozes are cave-lurking monsters that are amorphous and deadly, seeping through walls, floors, cracks and holes. It dissolves just about anything it can reach. Oozes can be categorized by color, preferred terrain, or characteristic. Slimes are not mobile like most oozes, but they can drop from ceilings. They are extremely hard to defeat. Oozes can be immune to different things depending on its characteristics. Puddings are a similar monster, immune to environmental factors such as heat and cold, thus making it an even trickier adversary to kill.

Oozes are great examples of monsters that are specific to a location, with powers and abilities that require an adventurer to use planning and strategy to defeat it instead of simple hacking and slashing.

Manticore by Stepan AlekseevManticore – Magestic legendary heraldic symbol
Also called manticora, the manticore is a monster with the body of a lion, the face of a man and a spiked tail with a scorpion stinger. The creature is mentioned in a twenty-four volume Persian bestiary written by Ctesias around 400 BC. The manticore was believed to be real for a long time, with reported sightings as late as the twentieth century in Ugíjar, Spain. While considered an evil being that hated humans, the manticore was popular and used in heraldry.

The manticore is a magnificent creature. However, its special characteristics leave the manticore open to broad interpretation. There are also many adaptations to the manticore. George R. R. Martin adapted the manticore into an extremely poisonous insect with the marking of a man’s face. It is also used as a herald in his A Song of Ice and Fire series.

basilisk by AshiRoxYale and Basilisk – Mortal enemies
I grouped these legendary creatures together because they illustrate two mythological creatures as natural enemies. The yale, also called centicore, was an antelope-like creature with boar’s tusks and horns that swiveled, allowing it to attack in any direction or hold one horn back as a reserve. It is also widely used in heraldry as a symbol for defense.

The basilisk was a chicken-like hybrid that had a tail like a snake. Some descriptions of basilisks portray it as more of a lizard form than a bird. Some basilisks could shoot fire from their beaks to bring down flying prey. The basilisk had a lethal bite and a squeal that could also kill. The Dungeons and Dragons basilisk was a giant reptile version that petrified most living creatures and could sometimes spit acid as well as fire.

The North African version of the basilisk would infest farms and fields. Yales were used to control the basilisk outbreaks since they were immune to the monster’s squeal. The two species also harbored a hate for each other and would attack on sight. It is theorized that the two creatures drove each other to extinction.

I hope the info above sparks some ideas. Happy monster making!

Title image by Turtle-Arts.

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5 Comments

  1. Axelander says:

    Thanks for this article. The manticore and basilisk are two of my favorite monsters, however, I had never heard of the yale before. Many other bestiaries mention the mongoose or the weasle as natural enemies of the basilisk, which makes sense, since the basilisk is most likely derived from the cobra and mongooses are one of the few animals that can kill a cobra.

  2. Ro Lamb says:

    Great post! Thank you!

  3. D. M. Almond says:

    Great article! It’s so interesting to hear another writers take on this topic. I find myself spending hours just daydreaming of different creatures for my worlds, which I believe is some of the most fun in fantasy writing. A question for you. Out of all the novels you’ve read, what is your favorite fantasy world?

    • B. Pine says:

      Thank you. There are so many wonderful fantasy worlds that I love, but if I have to pick a favorite, it would be Melanie Rawn’s world in the Dragon Star series. It’s not as intricate as GRR Martin’s or Raymond Feist’s worlds, but her incorporation of Sunrunner magic and the relationship between dragons and humans made for a true epic fantasy world.

  4. Luka-Michaela says:

    Just head over to Japan for messed up creatures, you could mistake a light hearted fantasy for horror real fast.

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