Fiction writing lends itself to all kinds of possibilities, from the setting to an endless array of characters, human or not.
“We do not, or need not, despair of drawing because all lines must be either curved or straight, not of painting because there are only three ‘primary’ colours. We may indeed be older now, in so far as we are heirs in enjoyment or in the practice of many generations of ancestors in the arts. In this inheritance of wealth there may be a danger of boredom or of anxiety to be original, and that may lead to a distaste for fine drawing, delicate pattern, and ‘pretty’ colours, or else to mere manipulation and over-elaboration of old material, clever and heartless. But the true road of escape from such weariness is not to be found in the willfully awkward, clumsy, or misshapen, not in the making all things dark or unremittingly violent; not in the mixing of colours on through subtlety to drabness, and the fantastical complication of shapes to the point of silliness and on towards delirium. Before we reach such states we need recovery. We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses—and wolves. This recovery fairy-stories help us to make.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories
Think of your favorite fantasy novels. What are the first details that come to mind? Maybe you picture a map of Middle Earth, or the Hogwarts castle. Maybe it’s a bow and arrow flying toward its mark, or physical representations of magic at work, like sparks or gale-force winds. Or, more likely than not, your thoughts gravitate toward the story’s characters―humanoid, furry, feathery, and everything in between.
Every good writer knows that the characters populating a novel steer the plot, affect the setting, and ultimately color your readers’ perception of the story, both with their actions and with the way they think and feel about their world and its other inhabitants. And in fiction, what species these figures belong to, not to mention how that plays into the narrative in general, is entirely up to the writer. What would the plot of Peter Pan look like if pixies didn’t exist, or have the same vain, bitchy tendencies we know and expect? If Harry Potter couldn’t speak Parseltongue, would J.K. Rowling have even bothered to write the basilisk into the second book of the series?
Which brings us to one of the most pressing questions at the start of the creative process for writers looking to branch into fantasy, science fiction, and every other genre that allows them to bend the rules: to borrow from previously conceptualized myths, or make shit up off the top of the dome? There’s no right or wrong answer, and no one saying that you can’t do a little mixing and matching along the way. Just do not plagiarize, rip off, bogart, or otherwise swipe someone else’s ideas in the process. There’s a huge difference between stealing and basing your work off that of the greats, and it’s something we’ll explore in terms of inserting standby, original or hybrid creatures in your novel.
Let’s clear the air now; using monsters like dragons, vampires, werewolves, griffins, mermaids, unicorns, etc., does not automatically make you a cliché. Anyone who reads or watches works of fiction has a favorite creature and doesn’t mind seeing it pop back up in different books and movies. What drives a story into the ground, or elevates it to new literary heights, is how you incorporate these beings and make them stand out from their counterparts in other books.
Want to write about the age-old feud between vampires and werewolves? Great! Just don’t rip off Twilight or Underworld. Create your own history for these two clans and have them go at each other for reasons all their own. Because what will turn people off from your work is if they get the nagging feeling that they’ve read it somewhere before. Not every dragon has to be Pete’s, and not every sea monster has to live 20,000 leagues below.
And, just like you wouldn’t copy the plot of another book just to fill in the blanks in your story, it won’t do to take a well-known mythical creature and plug it into your work without first doing some serious revamping (pun intended). Even if they aren’t the main focus of the narrative, treat each of these monsters as their own characters. That means crafting their backstories and keeping in mind the history of their species as is needed to drive the plot forward in a way that makes sense and keeps your readers engaged with your mad world-building skills. This is where it’s ok to lean on previously established origins, but only so you then have room to expand them into the present events of your story.
Who says you can’t put on your mad scientist cap and create an entirely new beastie? If there is such a person, then talented authors have been giving them the finger for some time. One of the best things about fiction is that, so long as you can follow your own rules without bias, you have the last say in what goes on in your world. That includes what sort of creatures live in it.
So, if you’re worried about your ability to go against the grain while incorporating a standby or two from the classics, dream up your own creatures of myth and legend. Sirens may use their song to lure unassuming sailors to their deaths, but what else lurks beneath the surface of the deceptively calm ocean? What if something looked sinister, but turned out to be your hero’s most reliable friend? Maybe you had a crazy dream once and your mind already got you started without even meaning to. There is literally no limit on your imagination when it comes to writing fictional places, characters and creatures, so go nuts. As long as your story flows, makes sense, and entertains your readers, you’ve got absolutely nothing to lose by piecing together your own fantastical critters.
The tricky thing about concocting a new species is that sometimes, we step back and realize that we’re really just blurring the lines between what’s been written before and what we think is our original design. Don’t sweat it; some of the best things in this world, and others, come from meshing one great idea with another. If you notice this pattern in your own work, it just means that, rather than a brand new creation, you’ve been throwing hybrids into your plot.
There’s nothing wrong with the classics. But, we writers often find that there’s a little something extra we think would be cool to add, or some minor detail that we just can’t get on board with. This mindset doesn’t just apply to settings or human characters. Consider the many different versions of fairies, sprites and pixies in stories. Or, how many descriptions of dragons, water nymphs, or god-like entities have you read? It’s like a literary version of the telephone game. As time goes on, and as the stories circulate, everyone adds or takes away a detail here, a personality trait there, or even special abilities, and there you have it―something new out of something familiar.
Luckily for all of us creative types, this doesn’t count as plagiarism. No, basing one’s work off of something that’s already well-established is perfectly ok as long as there is an element of originality to it (see the section on tagging in the classics as they are). What does that mean? Say you aren’t an avid fan of how leprechauns are painted in that creepy 1993 movie with Jennifer Aniston, but you want to pay homage to the older fairy tales they star in without leaving your story in the same time period. So, you start mixing and matching the facts. OG leprechauns would have to adapt in order to survive in a modern world, so you take their foundational features and traits and use them to their advantage. Maybe you even take things a step further and weave a few tactical developments into the group’s backstory, like if they found a magical way to disguise themselves among the regular population, or if they adopted modern conveniences to hide their gold (are rainbows now obsolete?).
The point of fashioning a hybrid mythical creature is to use something familiar as the starting point for your characters, and use new elements to drive the story in the right direction. Writers have been doing it for ages, so you’ll be in good company. And, it takes some of the pressure off you during the planning/first draft phase. The reason for that is because you can redesign a creature all you want, but at the end of the day, if it’s still going to essentially be the same beast you started with, then certain aspects must remain constant. It’s not a vampire if it doesn’t drink blood, or a witch/wizard if it doesn’t cast spells, or a griffin if it doesn’t fly. With these hard and fast rules to fall back on, there’s a solid foundation for you to refer to if your creative frenzy takes you off the rails at some point.
Fiction just wouldn’t be the same without the weird, the unexpected, and the magical to keep us guessing. And whether you’re a writer or a reader, there’s no denying that creatures of myth can make or break a good story just as easily as a plot device. So whatever beastie you add into the mix, and wherever it comes from, make sure that it’s the right monster for the job.