RSS Feed Print
Creatures in Fantasy: What works, what doesn't?
Posted: Wednesday, May 4, 2011 4:13 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 245

Okay, so I know I've asked specifically about dragons, but the debate in there got me thinking.

When it comes to fantasy creatures (basilisks, dragons, centaurs, etc.), what works and what doesn't for you?

Take the basilisk for example.  I've read stories where the basilisk turns you to stone on sight and I've read them where the basilisk has to do something to turn you to stone, be it a series of whistles (a la Tamora Pierce) or what have you.  I've seen basilisks that are straight up killing machines and ones that are benevolent toward humans and fight on their side.

I've seen Centaurs that are the same, some benevolent, some very antagonistic toward humans.  (Some slavering and vile and some almost human except for the whole half-horse thing.)

So, what works for you and what doesn't?  Do your fairies have to be true fey, allergic to iron and all?  Can you not abide your griffins (gryphons?) not wanting to kill humans?

Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 4:20 AM
Joined: 5/3/2011
Posts: 2

I think for me it really depends. When somebody "tweaks" a very familiar fantasy creature, I like it if their take is really original and justified or else hearkens back to less familiar mythology. For example, "sparkling" vampires didn't really work for me, but making them red-headed, or prone to obsessive counting does. I'm a research nut, so I guess I appreciate it when people hunt down the more obscure bits of lore. Of course, I reserve the right to be persnickety and inconsistent in my tastes; sometimes people will change a mythological creature for no clear reason, and I'll love it. I've even done that myself with dryads, making them seasonal/hibernating creatures as befits their association with deciduous trees.

One thing that really doesn't work for me is the current trend in paranormal romance and some urban fantasy to make virtually any mythological creature into a sex symbol, no matter how ugly OR NON-HUMAN he happens to be. Sexy gargoyles don't really cut it for me.

As far as your centaur example goes, even in the original myth they were mostly wild, but Chiron was certainly benevolent. So there's already some room to play around.
Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 4:24 AM
Joined: 5/4/2011
Posts: 11

I tend to agree with Ancientgirl. As long at the new twist isn't something completely out of touch with what we have seen in the past, then it will probably work. In some cases, I think it would be easier for the writer to create a new creature rather than spend so much time making their old creatures feel new.
Alex Hollingshead
Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 4:39 AM
Joined: 5/2/2011
Posts: 61

I agree with the other two, mostly. Convince me that this creature is your take on a vampire or centaur or whatever, and I'll accept it. But make it your take on a vampire, not your creation which you have chosen - perhaps at random - to call a vampire. The line is blurred, though. To use Twilight as an example, on the one hand, very little about Edward and the rest is vampiric, save for two things that are - admittedly - pretty defining. They drink blood, and they can't go in the sunlight (albeit for... different... reasons). Would I have liked it if Meyer had called these blood-sucking avoiders of the sun something else? Not really, I'd have probably said "why not just call them vampires?" Of course, you'd have to be Shakespeare to make the idea of sparkling vampires work in the first place, so that is likely the root of that problem.

Still, I don't care if centaurs shoot arrows and gaze at the stars, as long as they are half-horse.
LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 6:28 AM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

I too agree with Ancientgirl as well, and think that Twilight be the best example of what not to do. A person should make them as familiar as possible for the reader, yet they should not balk at trying to make them as original as possible. Another thing to consider is that if the original mythos does not work with the world that you have created, than why not change a few things? I find that sometimes its necessary to change original lore so that it can flow with the story or its world. I know some of the original mythos behind the elves (thank you LOTR class!), but I don't use hardly any of it in my work. Instead I have made the elves something else, yet something that people can recognize without thinking.

As a side note about vampires in general, most of the commonly used "symptoms" of vampirism have connection to a series of diseases. Rabies is one of the more popular ones, but then there are the prophyrias which have earned the nickname "vampire diseases" which fit the bill the best, even to this day. Modern doctors still know very little about prophyrias despite the diseases being around for a few hundred years. Blood drinking was actually a treatment for it (there are actually about 5 different prophyrias) during the nineteenth century. Sun sensitivity is a symptom of all 5, and only two exist from birth. The one prophyria that is currently being studied the most is EPP (eurythropoietic protoporphyria), of which there are only about 300 documented cases in the US. Its been in my family for 4 generations, and I currently suffer from it. So, you could say I know what its like to "burn" in the sun. I find if fascinating that most vampire "fanatics" don't know that people like us exist. I guess my point is, its nice to see when someone respects the history of a creature used in their work while trying to make is "original" (I'm looking at you Meyer).
Amy Sterling
Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 3:06 PM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 26

Ooooh - sexy gargoyles! Now I've got an idea . . . (not). That's hilarious! I thought sexy zombies were bad. "I kissed my boyfriend and his nose fell off."

The fantasy book I posted features a Gryphon with an independent frame of mind, and numerous additional invented creatures, some of which I just thought of, and others which are inspired by mythology of other cultures, such as native peoples of Taiwan and Polynesia. But so far, no one has tried to have sex with them. It's just not that kind of story.
Joe Selby
Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 3:57 PM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 30

I'm prone to demons and twists on less-used classics like dryads, etc. More frequented creatures like vampires and werewolves are pretty much dead to me. They're like Alice in Chains' "Rooster." It was good, but I've heard it so many times I just can't listen any more. I have a really hard time getting into books that have vampires or lycanthropes as *tagonists.

I onced used the classic picture of the Jabberwock (sans vest) as inspiration for a monster. It's still one of my favorites.

I think the ogre is underappreciated. I always make them deformed humans, though. Someone suffering from gigantism or something and cast out from his village.
Alex Hollingshead
Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 5:39 PM
Joined: 5/2/2011
Posts: 61

Anyone who grew up watching "Gargoyles" on the Disney Channel would know that sexy gargoyles are pretty easy to pull off. Particularly if they are voiced by Keith David.
Rachel Russell
Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 7:24 PM
Joined: 4/29/2011
Posts: 27

Honestly, as long as it's well-written and there's a clear explanation as to just why this traditional fantasy creature is vastly different in this world, I'm cool with it. I'll go with it and enjoy it if it's a good read, and if the creature seamlessly fits in with the world.

If the fantasy creature is changed up for absolutely no reason other than for the simple sake of BEING changed, then I'm probably not going to buy into it. I wasn't a huge fan of the whole "we're vampires and we sparkle" bit, but at least there's a backstory and explanation behind it all. That isn't to say I want to see vegetarian vampires. That way lies craziness.
Michelle L Ross
Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 8:47 PM
Joined: 5/8/2011
Posts: 9

It would not be too difficult to explain changes in a species. Pale elves, for instance, might become darker complected over the years as they spend so much time outdoors.
Robert C Roman
Posted: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 3:39 PM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383

@Rachel - I've *read* one about a vegetarian vampire. Sort of, anyhow. Dryads beware!
Posted: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 3:34 AM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 245

Sexy gargoyles. Hmmm. After reading Charlie Fletcher's Stoneheart trilogy, gargoyles aren't the same for me. (Nor are statues, for that matter.)

Sparkly vampire rubbed me wrong, too. (Just one of many with those books.)

Basilisk in steampunk. Hadn't thought of that one. I put dragons in mine, though, so it works.
Robert C Roman
Posted: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 3:08 PM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383

@Shelundra - The problem is making sure that there is an *in world* reason for those things to exist. You've mentioned a lot of plot driven needs for the things, and that's fine, but if there isn't a reason for something to be there, suspension of disbelief will suffer.

Fantasy more than anything else suffers from failure to adequately suspend disbelief. Without reader buy in, a thriller or mystery or romance or even low-tech sci-fi can still say 'Hey, we're in the real world, you don't NEED that much suspension'. Fantasy, on the other hand, often asks us to suspend just about every bit of disbelief that's been ingrained in us by the modern world. If we don't assist with that suspension, or worse, actively detract from us, we're shooting ourselves in the foot.

That's what gets me about some fantasy races; they break my suspension, or make me *work* to remain suspended. I read fantasy for entertainment. I'll work for a lot of things, but working to suspend my disbeilef? Not my cuppa.
Jack Whitsel
Posted: Thursday, June 2, 2011 3:10 AM
Joined: 5/7/2011
Posts: 35

The rules to fantasy are as follows:
1) There are no rules.
2) Refer to item #1.

That's why it's fantasy. However, it's the writer's responsibility to "flesh-out" whatever creation they've made or augmented in a fashion for the reader to enjoy. Sparkling vampires or not, Meyers was able to attract an audience nonetheless. Dragons, serpents, elves...they're all mythical creatures with a plethora of adaptations. Tweek them as you see fit and enjoy the process of making them your own.

FJ Hansen
Posted: Wednesday, August 10, 2011 7:52 AM
Joined: 8/10/2011
Posts: 6

I won't read fantasy if the dragons are merely fierce monsters or evil just for the sake of being evil. I don't mind bad dragons, but there must be a reason behind they're antagonism. I prefer intelligent, reasoning dragons, who are good or bad as characters not as a species. That goes for other species as well.
Jay Greenstein
Posted: Wednesday, August 10, 2011 4:09 PM
Before Anne Rice Vampires were pretty much on the Dracula model. After, they were like hers, because people tend to forget that it's your world. But it is your world, not theirs, so as long as the creatures in it behave consistently to the nature you gave them, and logically to the rules set up, everything's good.

The only problem is that if you use a label from mythology, or someone else's book, the label creates expectations. Call a character Snow White, for example, and you've called up all kinds of images and expectations in the reader's mind. But I'll bet that in the world you envision the beings you call elves don't call themselves that. They probably call themselves "The Mashne," or "The People," or some other title. Why not use their name and then demonstrate their characteristics as needed and as the situation dictates? That way the reader will say, "Hhhh, they're like elves, except that... An that way there's the joy of discovery for the reader. And, you've built your own unique world, one that others may set their characters into if you do it well enough.

The trick, though, is to take the the abilities you give the characters to their logical conclusion. If you give the characters the ability to fly, for example, there will be those who use it for delivery service, and in construction, and...

So each special ability has repercussion in the character's world that should be taken into account.
M Tucker
Posted: Thursday, August 11, 2011 5:12 PM
Joined: 8/9/2011
Posts: 13

I'm like the rest in that if you can make a twist on the convention work within your world then okay. There are lots of things in the fantasy genre that have always been a bit more fluid in their model template and those can easily take on whatever best fits the world they inhabit.

However, that being said, I get a serious twitch when someone takes an established model of a fantasy race/critter (usually something D&D-based) and just jams some new addition in or completely disregards the general model without a clever explanation. Some things have been done so long a certain way that to just go and butcher it feels wrong.

Examples - Vampires and the myriad of things they don't like.

Good: When the vamps themselves drop the info that -they- started the rumor about garlic and it's actually paprika they are deathly allergic to, I giggle and love it.

Bad: Sunlight doesn't burn us, it makes us sparkle. I'm sorry but No; not even explained well, does that work. Why not just say they were blood-sucking Fey?? Seriously, that woulda worked just fine for me!
LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Friday, August 12, 2011 5:50 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

@MTucker: Blood sucking Fey would be cool.

I do agree that something new shouldn't be added unless it fits the construct and has a reasonable explanation.
Posted: Sunday, August 14, 2011 10:13 PM
Joined: 3/30/2011
Posts: 10

I have to admit I was burnt out on Tolein-esque fantasy races/creatures by the time I hit high school (which was about fifty million years ago). I think some people find them comforting. Sort of like a go-to comfort food in a way. But I don't. I like to be surprised. I like to see new things in familiar situations and familiar things in new situations. There's just enough of an anchor to relate, but not enough to become boring.

I do watch some anime, for example, and I find no lack of different combinations - often without any explanation that "makes sense" - yet it often works beautifully.

Not always... but many times. There's a lot of repetition in any genre. If you haven't been to tvtropes, I've found most authors can spend a lot of time there on their first visit.

But part of what interests me is the idea of creativity vs copywork. Earlier today I was reading an article from an art teacher which addressed how to foster actual creativity. How to teach students to pull from their own lives and imaginations instead of just assembling premade components in a new way. It got me thinking about writing and the difference between making a variation on a theme and summoning something unique to that author.

Do you think there is such a thing or do you go by the adage "there's nothing new under the sun"?
Posted: Thursday, August 18, 2011 1:02 AM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 245

I think that there are classic themes that are written about time and again. There are tropes that crop up again and again. Books are referential, whether it's intentionally or unintentionally. There isn't much by way of an original theme or anything. But every story and every author has the infinite potential to create an entirely unique and original story. It's all in what your imagination sparks and where the muse leads in that initial idea.
Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Wednesday, June 20, 2012 9:40 AM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 356

Bumping up for the new members to see.