(A table of contents is available. This series will remain open for additional posts and the table of contents up-to-date as new posts are added.)
Part Four: Writing Travel With Non-Humans
If a list were made of the top mistakes made by–particularly fantasy–writers, surely travel, travel times, distances, and the needs of animals during that travel would be right up there. Consider for a moment that Frodo and Sam’s journey took approximately 6 months to get from the Shire to Mount Doom. But Pear, you say, it’s not like they were walking that whole time! They stayed in Rivendell for two months after he agrees to take the ring! And of course, you’d be right, but consider that they are two days in Moria, and it takes the group 7 days to get from Bree to Weathertop, a time frame which was just travel, for the most part. Take a look at it on a map:
And now consider the entirety of the world map:
Taking into consideration breaks for eating and sleeping, difficult terrain, horses, boats, and walking, Tolkien did a fairly good job of making sure the travel times for his world were accurate or at least plausible.
Now consider that 30 miles is the maximum a human can walk in a day without stops and without considering gear, and it’s more accurate to guesstimate ~10-15 miles. It’s ~40 miles from Washington DC to Baltimore, Maryland and can be driven in ~1 hour. Now consider that roads and highways have turned difficult terrain into easily navigable areas, and that cars have drastically lengthened how far and how long we can travel. A team of horses pulling a carriage can expect approximately 50 miles over an 8-12 hour day. A horse will tire from a gallop after approximately 3 miles, but could trot 15 miles without too much strain as long as a few breaks to walk were interspersed. It’s been recorded that on one particular journey, a horse averaged 31 miles per day, though 20 is a more reasonable. (I haven’t put anything regarding companions with wings due to severe variability. Migrating Alpine swifts have been known to fly 200 days straight while other birds don’t even really glide very well. If your companion has wings, do very thorough research into wing bones and strength and do your best.) My point is: We don’t go as far as we think we do, and neither do our creature companions unless we care for them properly.
Long story short, distance matters.
When you’re trying to decide how long it takes to get from one place to another in your story, or attempting to figure out how long it would take an advancing army to reach their destination, consider that our modern view of maps and distances has become severely warped. “It’s not that far,” and “They could make it there in a couple of hours,” and “They’ll be here tomorrow,” are common assumptions for writers, but they might not take into consideration that our characters, creature or otherwise, cannot travel all day without pause, even on roads.
Remember to take terrain into consideration. Your creatures accompanying your characters have different physiology than your humanoid characters, so how fast can they travel? Do they have the body strength to be able to carry someone, specifically the spinal strength? Remember that the more people you add to the back of a creature, the slower the creature will travel, even horses. Additionally, consider what their feet are made from. A horse’s hooves are a dense material that takes long usage fairly well (rocks and terrain difficulties aside) which is part of why they (and other hoofed creatures) make good pack animals and “vehicles,” alongside other factors. We don’t go around riding creatures with paws because paws rub raw faster when burdened with weight and asked to go long distances. Creatures traveling on their own legs will travel differently over different terrain. Remember when I mentioned earlier in the series that you should be thinking about where your creature companions originate from? Their physiology will be tailored to travel best over that kind of terrain. If they’re from meadows, rocky mountains will slow them down. Obviously, travel speeds will change depending on the terrain, and the endurance of your creatures will, too. Horses will become lame if rocks or other materials become lodged in their hooves (think about having a rock in your shoe!). Consider how terrain could impact your creature companion in similar ways depending on the construction of their feet.
Food & Water
The most common trope for feeding our humanoid characters on their journey is that they have rations in their packs: dried fruit, tough bread, hunks of cheese, dried meat jerky, etc. What’s often forgotten about is sufficient and appropriate food and water for creature companions. Water retention and metabolism rates vary widely across creatures. You can’t assume that they’ll function like your humanoids do.
When you were planning your creature companion and where they came from, I asked you to consider what kind of eaters they are (herbivore, carnivore, omnivore) to get a good basic idea of what your companions eat. They’re likely not going to be carrying around their food like your humanoids might, so you need to plan for your characters to either be hunting for the creature or to allow the creature to go off and hunt. But don’t just say, “They went off to hunt, returning three hours later with a bloody maw.” You need to know if the area they paused in has the types of foods your creature eats available. Know the environments they’re traveling in; know what’s around and what’s not. It’s okay for your creatures to go without a meal now and then, but it’s not going to make them happy or pleasant to be around the longer they miss out on food. Be aware of how their personality, their travel speed, their fighting capability, and their focus will be impacted when they are forced to go without food.
For emergency water supplies, it’s recommended to carry 1 gallon of water per person per day while cats and dogs generally need 1 gallon each per 3 days. These measures are not taking travel into account, which would raise the predicted amounts. We almost never think about having that much water hanging around our characters for their trek across wherever, but giving our creatures the breaks they will need and the water they’ll need often gets entirely forgotten. Take breaks. All-day travel is hard, hard work on anyone, car or not. Make sure your characters are traveling between places with potable water, whether that’s sources like rivers or cities with wells.
Stress, Sleep, and Special Care
Travel isn’t a walk in the park. It’s a long, grueling journey, filled with difficult decisions and dangerous encounters. There’s socializing and surviving, and it’s not as simple as going out to do the thing. Stress is going to come into play more and more the longer your characters and creatures travel. Think about how this increase in stress will effect your creature companions. Do they know what’s going on? What’s their perspective on the trip? Have they perceived themselves in danger yet? How will they react when they do? How do they deal with being forced to spend a prolonged amount of time in close quarters with others? Is that normal and welcome to them, or is it strange and not preferred? Will they seek out their own space or stick close to the others?
Remember that sleep is not going to be ideal. It may be few and far between, after long days of intense activity, interrupted by attacks, unfulfilling because of discomfort or anxiety, or any number of other things. You still need to consider how your creature would normally try to sleep, and then think about how they could if they needed to, because, trust me, they’re going to need to. Similar questions to those above should be considered including how your creature will handle going some sleepless nights. How will its mood and ability to handle changes in plan be impacted by lack of sleep? How about appetite and willingness to perform? All the problems we encounter with sleep, sleeplessness, interrupted sleep, and less-than-preferred amounts of sleep will need to be considered for your creatures, as much as for your humanoids.
Some creatures will need tending to when travel ceases, whether for a break or at the end of a day. They may need special attention like horses having their tack removed and a nice rub down, or creatures that traveled in a backpack or on a shoulder may need to wander a bit and stretch the legs. Please, please, pay attention to these things. There’s nothing worse than reading poor animal care from a farm boy going on their first big adventure. Casual mentions of the care and attention are sufficient, but completely ignoring this facet leaves out a big part of what travel is with a creature companion. If your creature is a mythical beast, break it down to its root characteristics to determine how they may need to be bedded down for the night. Are your dragons more lizard-like and likely to seek out warm places for the evening, perhaps burrowing for a nest in the ground? Are your hippogryphs able to find enough materials to nest in or do they take more to the horse side of things and sleep standing? Break things down and determine appropriate care for your creatures, then make sure your humanoids are performing those actions they need to ensure comfort for their companions.
Look. Just don’t forget you’ve got another character who has different needs. Don’t pass them off, don’t forget about them, don’t gloss over them. If you’re going to have a creature companion, you need to make sure you’re treating them like any other character and paying attention to their wants and needs the way you do for humanoids. Make sure you’re not asking them to go too far, too fast, without appropriate access to food and water. Take care of your creatures!
Next up: Contributing abilities!