It’s not easy playing god. Any writer worth their salt will tell you that creating plausible fantasy creatures is hard work, and usually takes considerably longer than seven days. Unlike a real deity, you don’t have to magic them into existence out of thin air. Biology contains plenty of stranger-than-fiction ideas to kindle your imagination. Here are a few to get you started.
1. The Unresolved Meaning of Life
You could be forgiven for assuming that biologists have arrived at a firm definition of life, but you’d be mistaken. The best they’ve managed so far is a working definition based on the common characteristics of organisms that are very obviously alive. It’s not bad, but it’s far from exhaustive.
We all like to think we’d recognise life if we saw it, but what if we’re completely wrong? Entities we commonly think of as inanimate, or those without physical form, could so easily be living. The possibilities for this scenario range from the comic through the scary to the tragic.
Penguins are cute, aren’t they? But maybe not quite so much if they’re six feet tall and ravenous. A simple yet effective strategy for adding terror to your story is to include creatures you’re already familiar with, then super-size them. If you prefer your fictitious fauna to be exotic as well as big, try taking some of these extinct behemoths as your starting point.
Aside from the element of fear, super-sized animals have inbuilt vulnerabilities. An enormous body slows you down, even if you have wings, and this makes giants susceptible to predation or capture. And, as in the case of the Irish Elk, size gets to be a particular problem when food becomes scarce. These limitations offer numerous plot opportunities, as well as the chance to introduce an engaging touch of pathos.
3. Alternative Body Plans
Nowadays we’re used to relatively little variation in the morphology of plants and – especially – animals. To biologists, the body plan is one of the characteristics enabling classification of an organism at the phylum level. Today there are probably around thirty-five animal phyla, which means the existence of approximately the same number of body plans.
But life wasn’t always so limited. Look back some 500 million years (in the fossil record, naturally) and you’ll find bodies so bizarre they’re a puzzle for the scientists whose job is to interpret them. Inventing a tulip-like animal with its mouth right next to its anus would be a challenge too far for many minds, and yet this creature, Dinomischus, really existed. It’s a gift for the writer precisely because it has a certain exotic beauty tempered by a touch of the grotesque.
There’s plenty more strangeness where that came from, including Hallucigenia, a many-tentacled worm that may have had a mouth on the end of each arm. Fancy meeting one of those when you’re coming home from the pub on a dark night? Me neither.
4. Weird Reproduction
Remember when your parents sat you down for that talk? What you learned then doesn’t apply to the vast majority of life that has ever occupied planet earth. For most creatures, reproduction isn’t a matter of Chardonnay and special cuddles, and so it should probably follow for your creations, too. Horror writers have it easy here, because real-life reproduction is often the very definition of nasty and brutish.
One of the most horrifying reproductive strategies out there has to be traumatic insemination, as practised by bed bugs. It’s every bit as bad as it sounds: in short, Daddy bed bug punches his man parts right through Mummy bed bug’s abdomen, and ejaculates within. Unsurprisingly, not every lady bed bug survives this rough treatment, and females of this species don’t have much incentive to be promiscuous.
If your story calls for something more in the odd-but-touching category, consider the extinct sea creature Aquilonifer spinosus, which carried its young around in kite-like structures tethered to its body. Or you could take a tip from the asexual bdelloid rotifers, who evolve by stealing DNA. Rest assured that there’s enough weird reproduction in nature to populate a whole series of novels, and more.
5. Animal, Vegetable, Liminal
Vegetarians, put down that slice of mushroom pizza right now and prepare for a shock. What you take to be a plant is in fact more closely related to you than to the caramelised onion draped over it. Fungi are liminal life forms: their delicious meatiness comes from chitin, a substance found in the shells of prawns and in other sea creatures.
Weirder still, some fungi share certain physiological similarities with humans. Truffles produce melanin, the very same pigment responsible for your freckles, ability to tan or the blackness of your skin. They’re also rich in the ‘bliss molecules’ called anandamides, neurotransmitters responsible for regulating fundamental urges like appetite, pain, mood and memory in humans.
Now tell me that isn’t food for your fevered imagination.
Conclusion – A Quick Word about Character
Freakish is good, but it isn’t everything. The very best creatures in speculative fiction are multi-dimensional, just like any other character. So if you want your readers to really engage with your creations, do take the trouble to flesh them out with distinctive personalities and behaviours.
Of course, the extent to which you do this should be in line with their role in your story. There’s no point going overboard on a creature who isn’t important in story terms. But character is always worth considering, because, as the unfortunate Dr Frankenstein learned, your creations remain mere curiosities until you deign to breathe life into them.
Further Reading for the Especially Curious
- Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation: Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex by Olivia Judson, published by Vintage.
- Mutants: On the Form, Varieties and Errors of the Human Body by Armand Marie Leroi, published by Harper Perennial.
- Wonderful Life: Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould, published by Vintage.
Banner image by Jamie Durrant, used and modified under the Creative Commons licence.