Worldbuilding Fauna II |Worldbuilding 13|
Spoiler Alert for The Wheel of Time: The Eye of the World and season one of The Wheel of Time Amazon Prime series.
Hello, dear readers, and welcome to part two of our discussion on how to develop new animal species for your novels. Last time we discussed the more physical aspects of your animal species—it’s anatomy, biological cycle, diet, and so on—and this time we’re going to take a look at your animal’s behavioural traits.
The same disclaimers from the last post apply to this one, namely: this is not the be all/end all to prepare you for inventing new animal species for your world. It's merely meant to get you started on your journey. It’s up to you to decide how far your journey of research needs to go before you're ready to tell the story you want to tell.
Second, as usual we're mainly looking at how animal life on Earth functions. If you're wanting to create fictional animals to inhabit a world unlike Earth, take whatever inspiration you need from this post and edapt it to suit the needs of your world and story.
Now let’s get right into part two of developing your animal species.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating but underutilized ways to make your animal species feel unique is its social structure. Unless your animal species reproduces asexually or can fertilize eggs without ever coming in contact with another of its species, living its entire life in solitude, then even more solitary species will have at least a basic social structure in place that will determine their behaviour when interacting with others of their own kind.
As with everything else we’ve covered so far, that species’ social structure will have evolved to help them survive and meet the basic needs of the individual and group. These needs may include such things as meeting nutritional requirements, defense, reproduction, raising offspring, and emotional well-being.
Is it easier for your animal to meet these needs while being more solitary? That might be possible if resources are scarce, causing competition, or if the species has reason to be aggressive toward its own kind. Or perhaps it’s easier for your animal to meet their needs while part of a herd, a family unit, or a hive.
If your animal lives in a group, does that unit have a distinct hierarchical structure? What are the roles and privileges assigned to each caste and what physical or behavioural qualities are attributed to them? Who holds authority in a group: males, females, the oldest or strongest, the parents, or something else? Does an animal become the leader because they are literally born to lead or chosen from youth? Think of queen bees, who are fed a special food while they are in their larval stage that allows them to develop into the largest female of the hive and the only one capable of producing more bees.
Who looks after babies and young in a group? Who feeds them? Protects them? Who is responsible for teaching them survival skills? Often the answer will be “the mother,” but that isn’t always, and certainly doesn’t have to be, the case. When offspring reach maturity, are they welcomed into the group, do they leave on their own, or are they forced out of the group with violence?
How does any hierarchy affect how your animals obtain food or who is allowed to eat what and when? Maybe your herbivores have a caste that eats last, keeping an eye out for predators until everyone else has had their fill. For carnivorous animals, maybe only certain members are allowed to hunt with the pack.
There are so many variations to consider with an animal’s social structure that can make the creatures on your world feel like an integral part of your world, so think about how your animal’s social structure might be best utilized for your story.
Apart from your animal’s social hierarchy, there are many other places where you might want to consider what constitutes normal behaviour for your animal.
Think of how your animal displays aggressive behaviour. Many species might try to make themselves look bigger: making their fur stick out, spreading their wings, or standing on their hind legs. They might make threatening sounds: a growl, roar, or hiss. They might swat a paw or snap their teeth.
Likewise, how does your animal behave when threatened? Do they automatically turn and flee? Or do they try to intimidate the aggressor in turn? Do they pretend to be dead? Do they spray their attacker with a nasty smell?
Does your animal migrate? Where and why? Are they avoiding harsh winters? Do they follow the migration pattern of the herd they hunt? Are they like salmon that return to spawn in the place they were born?
Also consider what your animal’s mating behaviour is like. What do they do to attract a mate?
MAGICAL OR UNIQUE BIOLOGICAL ABILITIES
If you write fantasy or sci-fi, which I’m guessing you do if you’ve made it this far into a post about designing your own animal species for a story, then you might also want to consider if your animal has any unique magical or biological abilities.
If your world has magic, can your animal wield it the way some animals can in Avatar: The Last Airbender? Do you have animals born of elemental magic, and that’s why your dragons can breathe fire? Or do you sci-fi writers out there go for a slightly more scientific approach, and your dragon breathes fire because certain biological processes alter the composition of its breath when its angry, causing it to exhale combustible gases?
Can your animals turn people to stone with a look? Do they have a hypnotic call that acts as a magical lure?
In The Wheel of Time, Perrin has an affinity with wolves, through which he learns that wolves communicate with each other across great distances using what’s effectively telepathy.
If you’re feeling creative, there are many ways you can make the animals in your story truly magical and out of this world. If that sounds great for your story, it might be worth your time to think how your animal might have magic or unique biological abilities.
ANIMAL FAMILIES, SUB-SPECIES, AND BREEDS
This is something I don’t often see utilized in novels, but it can be a relatively easy way to make your world feel larger without necessarily having to put in the work to develop an entirely new ecosystem for every town or city your characters visit.
Animals often have other, closely-related species that share an abundance of traits while being different enough to help you make your world feel more diverse. Perhaps there’s a horse-like animal in your world that is stocky, curly-coated, and always in shades of brown where your heroine is from, but when she visits another country, she finds the animals are sleek and coloured black or grey, and in another place still the animals are spotted and the size of an alley cat. Maybe that horse-like animal has another species for a cousin that’s better adapted to certain climates and labour.
You can use these differences to put your characters into sticky, scary, or entertaining situations too. Maybe the rabbits where your hero is from are fluffy, docile creatures and petting one is considered good luck. What happens when he visits the neighbouring country without knowing the rabbits there were specifically bred to be attack rabbits?
Tiny details like this can be a wonderful way to make your world feel diverse while conserving both the amount of work you have to do in creating your world as well as how much work you have to do explaining your world to your readers.
RELATIONSHIP WITH HUMAN(OID)S
Friendly reminder that there are lots of books out there with animals for main characters, so there’s no requirement to have human or human-like species inhabiting your world. But most books do, so if your story has humanoids for main characters (I’m just going to refer to them as “humans” for simplicity), you’ll definitely want to consider what their relationships with your animal species are. Think about how dangerous or useful your animal species are to your human characters and civilization.
First, consider how much interaction humans have with this species, if any at all. What form does that interaction take? There are many forms to choose from. Here are just a few I came up with:
1. Myth: Perhaps this animal exists more in story than in reality. Perhaps travelers brought back tales of animals from another land, and those tales got twisted into something strange and unique, securing a place for a half-true, half-imagined creature in legend and lore. Maybe it once lived but is now extinct on your world or so rare that anyone who claims to have seen one either won’t be believed at all or will be treated like a hero who’s done the impossible. Looking at The Wheel of Time again, there is a foretold and controversial hero dubbed “The Dragon Reborn,” but in the books even the Dragon Reborn himself doesn’t really know what a dragon is. While a few relics bearing the image of this creature remain, even its legend has been so lost to time that few would be able to name it by sight.
If you have a mythological creature in your world, how do the people view it? What character or symbolism do they attribute to it? Is it used in bedtime stories to frighten children or inspire them? Do nations or lords put them on banners? Or is use of its image outlawed or restricted? For a real-world example, let’s look at dragons again. In the western world, many people associate certain kinds of dragons with Chinese aesthetics. Go to any Chinatown in North America, and you’re likely to see a lot of dragon imagery. But this display is mostly for tourists. Go to China itself, and you might have a harder time finding dragons.
This is because the use of dragon, especially yellow dragon, imagery has sometimes been restricted in China. It was a symbol of imperial power, and thus was not the sort of imagery just anyone could use on the sign over their shop. At different times in history the image of the yellow dragon might have been used for high-ranking officials, princes, or even only for the emperor himself. If you want to know more about this, see Accented Cinema’s video on Kung Fu Panda.
2. Hostile: Maybe the human relationship with your animal species is one of a hostile nature. Why is it that they can’t get along? Is your animal resistant to domestication? Is it violent? Known to carry deadly diseases and pass them on to humans? Is your animal a danger to crops or livestock? Is it a danger to human property the way termites might be a problem for someone’s house? Or is your animal a pest that people don’t want rooting through their trash, pooping on their lawn, or nesting in their boxes of cereal?
Or perhaps it’s humans who are the pest, encroaching on your animal’s territory or reducing its food supply.
Whichever the case may be, how do your humans respond to this hostile relationship? Pest control? Incentivizing hunters? Building fences or laying traps? Consider not only how what humans do to deal with these animals will affect those animals but also how it might affect the ecosystem as a whole or even the humans themselves. Laying traps, for instance, might be a great way to keep these animals out of town, but they might be dangerous to people too. Does the doctor or healer in town constantly have to help people who’ve gotten caught in a trap? If these injuries are common or severe, how does the town justify the need for these traps? How do they respond to the dwindling of an able-bodied work force?
3. Labour: Is your animal species domesticated and used for labour? There are many ways an animal might labour for a human cause. It could be a beast of burden, carrying people or supplies along roads, pulling a farmer’s plough, or hauling coal through a mine. It could be a guard animal, protecting homes, livestock, or people. More than that, your animal could be a warrior, trained to kill enemy soldiers in battle.
You could have animals trained to help humans with the work of their day-to-day lives. Perhaps your animal herds livestock, or maybe it’s even trained to feed and care for livestock so your humans can sleep in each morning. Your animal might be trained for hunting, search and rescue, sniffing out dangerous or illegal substances, and more. In a fantasy novel, you could have animals trained to recognize magic-users, which would be a trial for your main character if they’re a magic user and magic is illegal. Or, if magic is legal, maybe your animal is a familiar that helps your wizard learn magic faster or utilize certain spells they wouldn’t be able to do on their own. Or perhaps it’s the animal that does the magic itself, and the human simply gives orders on when and how the animal uses its magic.
Another thing you might want to consider is whether people in your world with disabilities have access to service animals. How might your animal be of use to someone with limited mobility, hearing, sight, someone with severe allergies, or someone who might be prone to meltdowns or anxiety attacks? In science fiction stories, you might prefer to aid disabled characters through technology, but if you’re creating new sentient races, that also opens up questions of what might be considered a disability among a race that communicates through dreams or a race that absorbs all its nutrition through the skin? Is any attempt made to help these people? Is it done through technology, or can your animal species be of help?
4. Resources: Another common relationship humans have with animals is one of resource extraction. Is your animal one that people eat or feed to their livestock? If so, is it an animal they have to hunt or one they raise? How do they make sure the population of that animal is kept high enough to support them getting part of their diet from that animal? If they hunt the animal, how does reducing the population of that animal affect local ecosystems? If they raise the animal, does this have any negative impact on the quality of life of wildlife or people who live near where these animals are raised or slaughtered?
Perhaps humans get other resources from your animal instead, such as milk, wool, feathers, or perhaps a few drops of venom for a potion your witch is concocting. Perhaps its hair is used for making brushes, it’s feathers for plumes on a fancy helmet, or its tusks carved into knives, ground into glue, or whittled into pretty figurines. Do your humans obtain these resources ethically and sustainably? If your humans use the animal’s milk, what happens to the baby animals that don’t get that milk? How often can your humans safely trim your animal’s hair to knit a new sweater? Does that animal’s hair have special properties that make it highly sought after?
If your animal has medicinal or arcane uses, is its use regulated in any way? Are only healers allowed to possess bone powder from your animal? How easy is it for someone else to get their hands on it? Is your animal rare and these ingredients difficult to find?
5. Companionship: Perhaps your animal isn’t your hero’s beast of burden, side of steak, or his favourite wool sweater. Maybe instead it’s his best friend, providing companionship during a voyage across the stars or a long, arduous journey through a cursed land. What sort of personality does the animal have? How does your hero look after it and keep it fed? How do they play together or bond? Does your animal obey his every command, or does it have a mind of its own?
What kind of laws do your people have regarding pet ownership? What behaviour is and isn’t allowed? Do people in your world respect the physical and emotional health of their pets? Are pets protected by law? Can just anyone go to the pet store and purchase one of your animals, or do they have to pass a course, earn a certificate, and have a home inspection first? What happens to people who break any laws regarding pet care and ownership?
6. Entertainment: Another type of relationship I came up with that your animal might have with any humans is one of entertainment. This is the category for your circus animals, TV stars, racehorses, dog fights, and so on. What forms of animal entertainment exist on your world? Do the animals enjoy these activities too, or is it purely for the entertainment of people? What protections are there for the animals? What risks? Which brings us to:
7. Abuse (I'll discuss this topic in general terms, but if you’re particularly sensitive to this kind of material, please skip to the next section!): This is the final type of relationship I came up with, though it's one that can be found alongside pretty much any other form of human-animal relationship. Unfortunately, once any concept of human ownership or superiority over animals exists, as long as someone can use an animal for profit or simply pick up any pet they want at a pet store with minimal regulation, some animals will be subject to abuse and poor health and living conditions. Irresponsible breeders. People who buy kittens for Christmas presents then get rid of them once they grow up. Neglect. Improper diets. Crowded living conditions. Dog fights. Circuses. Poaching. Being overworked. Dangerous sports and gambling.
Do the people in your world care about the wellbeing of the animals around them? How are any regulations meant to protect animals enforced? Are there certain animals they protect but others they don't? How do they justify protesting the slaughter of horses or dogs when they won’t think twice about the hamburger they're stuffing in their face? What animals do they view as worth protecting? Do different views on animals cause tension between cultures?
So, those are seven categories for which your human-animal relationship might fall into, but of course your animal can fall into more than one category. Your animal might be your heroine’s beast of burden and her trustworthy companion, with whom she shares all her joys and fears on her journey. For a video game example, look at Sakai's mount from Ghost of Tsushima. Kage (the name I chose for the horse in my playthrough) is not only a beast of burden and war horse but also one of Sakai’s closest companions. The friendship between Sakai and his horse was a lovely gem that added a lot to the story and gameplay experience. The animals in your world can do the same for your characters and story.
Going off of what I developed for Project: Noveljutsu’s flora in a previous post, I thought I’d develop a little animal that could have a symbiotic relationship with my healing herb. There are two main things I want to keep in mind as I figure out this little guy. First, since those healing herbs I designed are found near water, my little animal is going to need to be adapted in some way or another to living in or close to a water environment. Second, since that herb also has poisonous, numbing effects, my critter is going to need a way to avoid getting poisoned. So this is what I developed.
I decided this little guy is going to use my poisonous herb as protection from larger animals, most of which will have learned to avoid going near this nasty plant by the time they’re old enough to be a real danger to my animal. My animal will be readily found wherever this plant grows in abundance, sleeping, eating, and making their homes in patches of this plant where they will be protected.
To avoid getting poisoned, my animal shouldn’t have any sensitive skin that could be easily harmed by the plant. Instead, it should be covered by a thick, tough, armor-like skin that will protect it from absorbing the plant’s poison. Vulnerable body parts like ears and nostrils should also be smaller to make them less likely to come in contact with the plant. Since it spends time hunting under water, it'll need larger eyes adapted to seeking food in lower light levels, but those eyes still need to be protected from the poisonous plants around its home. So I'm giving this little guy a protective brow to help keep leaves away from sensitive eyes.
That thick, tough skin that covers the animal will also help it move more easily through the water by which it lives. I’m also giving it webbed feet, since I imagine it spends time in the water, where it obtains food. I’ve decided it dives to eat aquatic plants as well as the fish eggs it finds among them, so I’ve given it a long face and body that will help it dive more easily as well as teeth that will be good for scooping up eggs and snapping off leaves. I’ve also decided that, kind of like a pelican, it will have a little pouch where it stuffs eggs and leaves before carrying them back home to eat grind up and eat.
There is so much to think about when it comes to creating an animal, so the challenge for this post is just to work on one animal. If you’re already putting together a world of your own, come up with one animal that would fit well into an ecosystem there. Figure out a few things about your animal’s diet, life cycle, behaviours, and how it defends itself.
If you haven’t been building a world of your own yet, I want you to take an animal from Earth and change something about its anatomy. Dogs all now have six eyes. Ants are a foot tall. Or all rabbits are attack rabbits. Be creative! Try to figure out why that animal might have evolved that way. How would that evolution affect other areas of that animal’s anatomy or behaviour? If your rabbits are attack rabbits with fangs, are they carnivores? How does being a carnivore affect everything else about their existence?
That’s it for this episode! We covered a lot today, so I hope some of the questions I raised will get you thinking about how you can make the animals in your world serve your story. We’ve got more worldbuilding episodes on the way. If you found this post helpful, stay tuned for more!