(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 Three: Ability Checklist
Once you’ve figured out what creature is appropriate for the area and you’ve settled on what it will be, your next step is determining what it can do, specifically those directly linked with the biology of your creature.
Real-world Animals: If your companion is any kind of real-world animal, you have a wealth of information at your fingertips via the internet. Your initial research took you into environment, but now it’s time to look at the creature specifically. You need to know what this animal does:
- Is it predator or prey? What is its dominant sense?
- How does it defend itself and in what kinds of circumstances will it choose to either attack or defend? Does it have any camouflage? Special colorization to scare or warn others away? Armor plating? Tough hide? Scales? Shell? Spines? Tusks? Horns?
- Talons? Claws? Hooks? Pincers?
- Wings? Are they functioning wings or vestigial leftovers?
- Two legs, three, more? What’s its speed like?
- Tail? Trunk? Feelers? Whiskers?
- What kind of teeth does it sport? Depending on what it eats, it may be very good at fighting with its mouth, or it may have the wrong kind of teeth to do tearing damage, but instead it can apply a boatload of pressure.
- Does it have any secretions that allow it to do things? Does it produce webbing, or have secretions to help it climb easier? Acid? Stink glands? Poison?
- How about its eyes? How much light does it need to see? Does it have other ways of seeing or understanding its environment?
Mythical Creatures: Unfortunately, research materials that all agree on the details associated with many creatures of lore are lacking. Do the best you can with what you can find to make the clearest, most succinct definition of what your creature looks like and what its physical features afford it. The above checklist can carry over for these creatures too, but you’ll also want to add in what kinds of magic they may have access to, and any special abilities or hindrances caused by their body.
Make sure you also consider what kinds of rules govern these abilities. When do gorgons turn others to stone? Is it eye contact with the human or the snakes? Is eye contact even required, or can the gorgon simply look their direction? The rules of your world must be defined, even for the abilities of your mythical creatures, and to some extent, even more so than the rest of your world. Just like with magic, internal consistency and making sure your creatures can’t do anything they want are key to maintaining believably, tension, and good storytelling.
So What? These details seem intuitive, particularly once you’ve decided on what form your companion should take. After all, when you say, “I’m going to write a wolf into my story,” you immediately think of its fighting ability–teeth, claws, general intimidation–so why do you need to take stock of all these things, too? Simple: If you don’t know what tools you have at your disposal, you don’t know what you can (and can’t) do with them!
Plot and conflict and complication are partially driven by the characters you’re writing, their decisions, and their tactics when faced with problems. By giving yourself a quick run-down of the creature’s features, you give yourself a toolbox of things to work with, both in order to solve problems that are presented in the story, but also to create problems and build your plot with. After all, these creatures are characters, too, just in a different shape. (We’ll talk later about how you can use your companions in your narrative and how they can shape the other characters.)
Doing this quick outline of what your creature has at its disposal will also help as you’re trying to characterize them. Your research and the time you devote to thinking about how this character is put together will help to dispel any preconceived notions you had or outdated knowledge about the creature that’s no longer true (think of your research like a refresher course!), and will give you insight into aspects of the creature you may not have been familiar with previously. They say you don’t know what you don’t know, so don’t let the most basic of research like this go by the wayside. You might be in for a surprise the could play a part in your story!
Next up: Travel considerations!