When world building, I used to think there was no point in inventing animals and plants for a fantasy setting. After all, they’re often just variations on real Earth animals, in which case, why bother? For example, maybe you have a horse with an extra pair of legs, or a tomato that’s yellow and poisonous, or a smarter lion. You call the first a horse, the second a tomato, and the third a lion, but people will forget you altered it in some way unless you keep reminding them, which is unnecessary exposition and feels like housekeeping (for you and the reader).
If you have to keep calling it a “six-legged horse”, that encumbrance isn’t much better. If you don’t call it a horse, but describe it in such a way that people think, “Oh, it’s just a horse with two more legs”, is that really an improvement?
More importantly, unless the alteration matters in some way, why do it at all?
For these reasons, I resisted for many years, but then I changed my mind. Below are some considerations that could help you make a decision for your fantasy setting.
Creating a Different Feel
If you create a variety of animals and plants, each with its own name (you can read more about creating names here), they can give your world a different feel. By contrast, many fantasy books seem to take place in medieval or Renaissance England, for example, but with elves, dwarves, and dragons thrown in, plus an odd creature or two, usually fairly standardized, too, like a hydra, ettin , or giant something-or-other.
This is good for giving the reader the sense of comfort that familiarity brings. It keeps them focused on your story. But maybe you (and they) want something a little different.
How Often You’ll Use The Setting
If you’ll only write one book in this fantasy world, is the extra work worth it? It takes time and you’ll only have so many opportunities to describe things. If you’ll be writing many books there, it becomes more attractive as an investment that pays off for longer. An excellent example is the Gor Series by John Norman. At last check he had over 25 books on Gor, an extensively developed planet. There’s no denying that all of his effort produced a very unique world.
It takes time you may not have to create unique plants and animals. There’s no getting around this unless you invent things during writing. Doing so is fine, but one thing to watch out for is creating items that lack depth because you haven’t thought them through or done some research. You can make a note to yourself to come back to that later and touch it up if necessary, giving you the option to invent on the fly as needed and fix any conceptual details during editing.
If you want your creations to be inter-related, such as your animal eats your plant or they fight each other, it may help to create ahead of time.
Also, inventing at the time predisposes your creations to “window dressing”, meaning they are sprucing up your setting and story but are probably not integral to it. This is fine but limits such work and might make you decide it isn’t worth it.
Do Your Creations Matter?
They might matter to you, but do they matter to your readers? More importantly, do they matter to the story or world? Some people love lots of new things while others are put off by them because they can distract from a story, or the reader has to constantly remember what something is. This is where having an artist draw something for you can really help, if you have the option to include pictures within your book.
Making them matter is one reason to create things prior to writing your story, then incorporate their unique features into that story. This is a natural way to bring attention to what’s unique about your creations so that readers don’t mind or struggle to conceptualize. By contrast, if it’s “window dressing”, they are likely to just ignore it.
Superficial usage is not the best thing, and if done, should be kept to a minimum. For example, in the Harry Potter movies, there are sometimes scenes that seem to serve no purpose other than showing how different the world is. This is a waste of exposition and poor storytelling. On the other hand, the quidditch game is part of the plot.
Using the six-legged horse as an example, it might make sense to keep the “regular” kind of horse and then add the new variety. This allows you to specify that that those two extra legs make those horses faster or have better endurance because the work load on their legs is spread out – and maybe your characters have to go a really long distance so that this matters. You don’t even need to explain why there are two kinds of horses because we often have such varieties here and “mother Earth” has not provided us an explanation, though scientists will invent a theory.
How many things are you creating? Just a few plants and animals or dozens? Will nothing be familiar about your world except humans? Where do you draw the line?
For example, let’s say you create lots of animals but keep the standard horses. Do the horses then stand out as something we have here while we have nothing else from this world of yours? Do you care? Will your readers? You could conceivably call nothing by its usual name because you’ve altered everything, but then your book becomes bogged down in this stuff. Taken to extremes, your work becomes virtually incomprehensible.
I’ve found that I seldom want to mention my plants and animals while writing, which begs the question of why do it at all? I most often mention them when describing a meal, in which case I can easily toss off names of veggies, meat, and rice all in a row without going into huge amounts of detail. The question is whether I’d even bother describing the meal if I wasn’t using alternatives, and the answer is likely that I wouldn’t. However, I find two sentences to be a small “burden” on the reader that likely adds vividness to the scene.
I also mention animals and plants while my characters are traveling through the wilderness and encounter them. Again I use a sentence or two.
Then there are the times when my animal or plant is virtually a character, such as a leech plant I have that attacks people. Or a plant that someone must go on a quest to obtain for whatever reason. These are the times to go into a paragraph about it.
Another great use is products the characters use or encounter. A descriptive clause here and there adds depth and color to your setting.
One thing to avoid is mentioning things simply because they exist, unless this is kept to a minimum. As an author the goal is always to tell a story. If you spend the time creating lots of things, it might be good to let time pass before you write a story using them so that the temptation to write a lot about them diminishes.
If you’ve decided to do it, another blog provides some tips.
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When world building, I used to think there was no point in inventing animals and plants for a fantasy setting. After all, they’re often just variations on real Earth animals, in which case, why bother? For example, maybe you have a horse with an extra pair of legs, or a tomato that’s yellow and poisonous, […]