Fantasy creatures are a staple of many of the most well-known fantasy stories out there. The unique beasts, beings, and creatures of The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings series are perhaps the most readily available in the cultural zeitgeist. But it's not just fantasy novels in which unique creatures appear. They're also found in many science fiction, horror, and YA stories as well.
The genre you're writing in doesn't really matter all that much here. If you need a fantasy creature, then you need to know how to create a fantasy creature. Which is exactly what you'll learn in this article.
The best way to create a fantasy creature is to combine traits from plants, animals, and humans. You can build on mythological creatures that have been around for centuries, or you can come up with something completely unique by letting your plot inform what you need from your creature character.
- When To Use Fantasy Creatures
- Tips to Help You Make a Creature for a Story
- A List of Fantasy Creatures to Inspire You
- Tips for Naming Your Creature
Using Creatures to Great Effect
Fantasy creatures fill all kinds of roles in stories. Sometimes they're helpful, acting as a mentor. Other times, they pose a threat to the protagonist(s). Sometimes a great creature is even the antagonist or the Big Bad. Heck, your fantasy creature might even be your protagonist.
The point I'm trying to make here is that your fantasy creature should serve a purpose. Having a creature in your story just to have one isn't usually a good idea. Just like having scenes in your story that don't add to plot or character development isn't a good idea.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to creatures — especially those that are intended to scare the reader. One school says you shouldn't ever let the audience “see” the creature.
Proponents of this school insist that the unseen creature builds suspense and scares the audience more than the one you describe in detail. Humans are scared of the unknown, and once you quantify the creature, it becomes less scary. H. P. Lovecraft did this well in his stories, if you need a reference.
The other school says that describing the creature is a payoff for the audience. And that your ability to scare or engage the audience should rest on more than whether you describe your fantasy creature. Who's to say which school of thought is right?
But for the purposes of this article, we'll discuss how to create original fantasy creatures you're going to describe — in as little or as much detail as you want. So, let's get to creating.
How Do You Make a Creature for a Story?
Whether you're writing a fantasy novel or a short horror story, you can use the following tips to help you create unique fantasy creatures to populate your story and fulfill whatever roles you need them for.
1. Let Your Story Dictate Your Creature
I spoke above about the importance of having your creature in your story for a reason. This reason can help you determine what kind of creature you'd like it to be.
If it's going to be a threat, trying to kill your character(s), then you know it needs to be intimidating or maybe even downright scary. This narrows things down a bit.
On the other hand, if the creature is going to serve as a supportive character or a mentor (think Yoda from Star Wars), then you'll probably want to make it something a little less scary. And for characters you want your readers to like or sympathize with, it's a good idea to invent anthropomorphic creatures — that is, creatures with human traits and characteristics.
2. Borrow From Your Influences
Whether creating monsters or designing a fantasy race of creatures, chances are you won't be able to come up with something completely unique. And that's okay. Every writer to ever live — even the titans like Tolkien — borrowed from their influences. Trolls and Orcs in Tolkien's masterpieces are influenced by folklore and mythology, so don't be afraid to borrow ideas for your fantastical creature. Just make them your own!
In a similar vein, going too outlandish with your creature design can make them unrecognizable to your audience. Too much detail and exposition about your creature can slow the action and make for laborious reading. This is why it's best to stick with creatures that have major characteristics in common with things your readers are familiar with. Which brings us to the next tip: taking inspiration from animals.
3. Animals Make Great Starting Points
Even the most iconic mythical beasts have clearly recognizable traits in common with animals. From Greek Mythology we have the Minotaur, which has the body of a man and the head of a bull. We also have Medusa, who had snakes instead of hair.
Animals are used to great effect when creating creatures in all types of speculative fiction. You can argue that the infamous dragon is just a large flying lizard that can breathe fire. Even J. K. Rowling used many creatures that were easily recognizable, such as unicorns, werewolves, and the winged horses. Not to mention other creatures like the Hippogriff, which has the back half of a horse and the front half of an eagle (also influenced by Greek Mythology).
If you're stuck creating your fictional creature, just do a quick image search for “strange looking animals” and you'll find plenty of pictures to influence you.
4. Combine Animal and Plant
Many fantastic creatures combine animals and humans, but you can also combine animals and plants for a unique and intriguing fantasy animal. Even something as simple as using an animal with a furry anatomy and replacing that fur with grass or moss can be a start.
You can create a whole species that look like plants but have animal traits. Depending on what you need the creatures for, you can even decide that they speak — in English or any other language, fictional or otherwise. This is one of the nice things about being a fantasy writer — you get to build your own world!
5. Look to the Sea
Inspiration for an original creature can be easy to come by in the depths of our oceans. There are all kinds of fantastical creatures down in the deep (and even not-so-deep) seas. Depending on what you find, you may not even need to change the real animal much for it to fit right into your fantasy story.
From vampire squids and anglerfish to giant isopods and moray eels, there are plenty of creepy creatures you can use for inspiration right here on earth.
6. Brainstorm Your Fantasy Creature's Features
You don't have to follow any particular rules when you create your creature. After all, think of any mythological creature and see if you can work out an evolutionary reason for that creature to exist. Nine out of ten times, you won't be able to.
But you can create your creature this way if you want to. To do this, think about the following factors to determine your creature's features.
- Eating, Drinking, & Sleeping Habits
- What does your creature eat? It is a hunter, eating flesh, or is it a herbivore, spending its time gathering plant food for sustenance? Does it drink water, or does it survive on something with violent connotations, like blood? Where does it sleep at night?
- Physical Features
- A creature that survives primarily on a diet of porcupines will probably have a pretty tough skin or even a shell. It may also have long arms with sharp, hook-like claws at the end, so it can incapacitate the poor porcupines without putting itself in danger or getting an eye poked out with a quill.
- If the creature spends much of its time in the water, it may have webbed feet or large hands, so it can swim fast. And if it drinks blood to survive, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it only comes out at night.
- Colors and Defense Mechanisms
- Real animals are colored the way they are for a reason. For some, it's to attract mates. For others, it's a good way to blend in with their environment so they don't get eaten. And for yet others, their vibrant colors are a defense mechanism, serving to disorient predators for long enough to slip away. Other defense mechanisms include shells, scents, sprays, and the ability to change colors.
I'm not saying you should study evolution (unless you want to). But what I am saying is that an article or a documentary about animals on, say, Madagascar, could help you come up with some good creature ideas. This can help you with world-building as well!
List of Fantasy Creatures for Your Inspiration
Here are just a few creative fantasy creatures for your inspiration.
- Cerberus – A three-headed dog that guards the underworld in Greek Mythology.
- Fauns – Half goat and half human, with origins in Roman Mythology.
- Griffins – Body of a lion but the talons, head, and wings of an eagle.
- Bandersnatch – Created by Lewis Carroll, described as vicious and fast, with a long neck and snapping jaws.
- Changeling – Believed to be a fairy left in place of a person stolen by other fairies.
- Monopods – Creatures resembling dwarfs but with only one big leg coming out of the middle of their bodies.
- Fuath – A race of malevolent water spirits in Scottish Gaelic folklore.
- Graboids – The giant, worm-like monsters from the Tremors movie series.
- Rabbit of Caerbannog – The cute little rabbit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail that is actually a vicious killing machine.
- Cthulhu – A vaguely described combination of a green octopus, a dragon, and human from the H. P. Lovecraft story The Call of Cthulhu.
How Do You Make a Mythical Creature Name?
Naming your mythical species or creature can be even more difficult than coming up with it in the first place! And while you don't usually want to name your characters anything that will be too difficult to pronounce, these guidelines tend to go out the window with creatures. The only exception is if your creature is one of your main characters.
Many authors take inspiration from Latin to name their creatures, while others simply mash together some letters until they find a name they think describes their creature. Luckily, there are free name generators out there you can use. Check out our article on name generators here.
Hopefully this article has helped you come up with anthropomorphic fantasy creatures for your book or series. Even if you don't want to give the creature human characteristics, there's plenty to work with in the world of animals, plants, and creatures that other authors have already created. Take inspiration from these and more to come up with a memorable creature that will scare, delight, or add a whole new level to your story!