How to Build Your Bestiary

In the earliest stages of building my world of Endrion, I took a lot of inspiration from Dungeons & Dragons.  Specifically, The Monster Manual.  I liked the idea of a world filled with every kind of imaginary creature, and I wasn’t the only one.  Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms were big.  Brian Froud was big.  JK Rowling even came out with a bestiary for the Wizarding World.

So I filled up my world with everything I could think of.

I had six mortal “races”; humans, elves, dwarves, goblins, trolls, and ogres.  I had at least a dozen types of types of faerie, ranging from the great Aes Shi lords down to housekeeping brownies.  I had scores of magical beasts that traveled in and out of reality via The Mists.  I ended up with notes detailing more than a hundred different mythical species, some borrowed from world mythology, some cribbed from other writers.

And then I scrapped most of that nonsense on my second draft.

No, I didn’t lose interest in mythozoology.  It just wasn’t practical to have this Gygaxian cornucopia of beasts and beings.  It gummed up my story.  It took too long to introduce all six mortal “races”, and the faeries and their Mists — while fun — were so whimsical and powerful that they distracted from the seriousness of the perils faced by my mortal characters.

So I cut out the dwarves — all but one, who is now just a human afflicted with achondroplasia, because as much as George RR Martin frustrates me he still has some ideas worth stealing.  Goblins, trolls, and ogres became one “race”; orks.  All the faeries and more nebulous beings vanished along with their Mists into a cauldron on the back burner in my mind.  Someday I’ll recycle them, but they just didn’t fit in Endrion.  Most of the monsters also disappeared, or got themselves reclassified broadly as “chimera”.

A few, like duwende and merfolk, became myths within Endrion.  Because why would people stop making stuff up just because there’s magic in the world?

This is today’s lesson: streamline your bestiary.

Don’t throw it all out, just be smart.  Choose magical creatures for their symbolic potency, not just their cool factor.  Describe the ones you do include, even if you think everyone should know what a “dragon” is already — Smaug and Saphira may both be “dragons”, but every fantasy novelist has her own twist on just what a “dragon” is.

Be aware that the less human your major characters are, the less your reader will connect with them.  My elves used to live for hundreds of years; now, they have ordinary lifespans of eighty years, give or take.  Why?  Because you can’t feel empathy for bad life choices if the character always has more time to try some other walk of life.

Fantastic beasts and magical peoples are an intrinsic part of speculative fiction, and done right they will enhance and color your story.  Just remember, you’ve got to have a story too.

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