Every now and then, I come across a book where the protagonist finds themselves dealing with the dangerous creatures inhabiting that place. I especially loved the way man and tiger developed a wary cohabitation in Life of Pi.
Strange beasts are a common trope in speculative fiction.
We all approach this aspect of our work differently. Lindsay Schopfer‘s Beast Hunter series is one series of books where this is done well. When planning this post series, I asked Lindsay how he approached designing his beasts.
Connie: “Is Kelton’s world a colonized planet? If not, what natural mechanism spawns the creatures in your Beast Hunter world?”
Lindsay: Of all the questions I get asked by fans, yours is probably the most common. Folks want to know where the beasts come from in the Adventures of Keltin Moore. The truth is, I’ve intentionally not answered that question for a long time. I consider it the single biggest conceit of Keltin’s stories, which is why I work so hard to make other elements in the story feel as authentic as possible.
So, why do I feel the need to be so vague on a subject that fans are obviously interested in? The original idea for Keltin Moore’s world came from a RPG video game, which is one of the main reasons why the series shares many conventions with role-playing games, including the presence of a variety of dangerous creatures in an otherwise ‘normal’ world. While some games may give token explanations for their wandering monsters, the majority of enemy units in these games are just accepted as a part of the RPG world, no more unusual than ability cool-downs or health regenerating potions.
Of course, there’s a second, more deeper level to this question. Whether or not I choose to tell the fans where my beasts come from, do I, as the author, know what their origins are? Honestly, I have an idea, but it isn’t set in stone. This felt like a dirty secret of mine until very recently as I was rereading my collection of Hellboy library editions by Mike Mignola.
Within the collection, there are several interviews and insights provided by the author, and I was shocked to learn how little Mignola actually knew about his own world. His methodology for building the mythos of Hellboy seems to have revolved around whatever interested him at the time that he was creating each individual element.
If some deeper meaning was necessary for fans, then it would be their responsibility to puzzle out these conclusions on their own. While this kind of shoot-from-the-hip world building may be abhorrent to highly organized speculative fiction writers, it was very validating to an impulsive creative like me.
So, will I ever give a definitive answer of where the beasts in Keltin’s world come from? I don’t know. While it could be rewarding for both me and my fans, I’m also mindful of the fact that leaving some questions unanswered gives my readers more opportunities to share in the creative process with me.
After all, as soon as my books are published, they are no longer mine alone. They are also my readers’, and I owe it to them to give them the freedom to imagine their own explanations for questions left unanswered. If I ignore that, I run the risk of repeating the mistakes of other creatives that decided that they needed to answer all the questions on their own, resulting in a dissatisfying, authorial dictatorship. Metachlorians, anyone?
As he says, Lindsay doesn’t over-engineer anything, and that is his style. In his books, the plots revolve around the discovery of predatory creatures in a populated area and how the protagonists devise ways to hunt and kill them. Schopfer’s creatures feel as if they’re formed out of nightmares.
You can find his books on Amazon at this link: Amazon.com: Lindsay Schopfer: books, biography, latest update. I highly recommend his work.
I am more of a planner. Like Lindsay, some of my fantasy work is RPG game-based. My mind works in a linear, logical manner. In real life, if something anomalous to the native plants and animals exists, it arrived there via external means.
But I am curious monkey – I want to know how it got there. So, in Mountains of the Moon, (RPG game-based fantasy), the war of the gods resulted in a few creatures born from other worlds being cut off from returning to their home world.
These creatures are rare but have elemental magic to defend themselves and are often predatory. In the case of water-sprites, they are annoying but cute. As large predators do in real life, each beast has a preferred place to nest and a favored range where they will hunt. As in real life, this knowledge affects how people travel.
We don’t walk into a place where lions are known to hunt.
My beasts aren’t inherently evil but will hunt and kill humans for food and must be removed from inhabited areas. A culture of mercenaries exists to protect travelers and traders.
In my books, the origins of the rare beasts are not really discussed, but I know how they got there. I like knowing that, so I don’t contradict myself.
I don’t only write fantasy. Many of my short stories are contemporary fiction set here in the Pacific Northwest. I use the plants and animals native to the Puget Sound area, and that familiarity makes dressing each scene easy.
When I am writing fantasy, I take what I know and reshape it to fit my fantasy world. By using what I know, I can visualize as I am writing, and it emerges as an organic part of the background. I don’t have to explain it. It just is.
Our subconscious minds recognize the trees in our neighborhoods and the animals that call our areas home. We know how our part of the world looks and smells with each change of the seasons, just the same as we know that racoons or the neighbor’s dog will get into the trash can if you don’t bungee cord the lid down.
Suburban coyotes, racoons, possums, deer – they all make their living in our backyards. In real life, our local fauna is there, part of the environment. Some are predators, so we keep our cats inside and work around the wildlife as a matter of course.
When your characters walk out their front door, what do they see? I only notice our yard when the grass is too long or a favorite plant is in bloom. But I feel the chill a cold March wind brings from the west. I see the way the heat rises from the pavement in August. The local bird species might come and go with the seasons, but they are noisy, calling to each other off and on all day.
You may be a pantser like Lindsay, or you might be a planner like me. There is no one perfect way to do this.
No matter how you approach creating the plants and animals of your world, write them as if they’re just part of the scenery. The environment must be the background, set dressing that frames the narrative without taking over.