Disclaimer: I am not the owner of any of the works referenced in this guide, nor am I attempting to insult them. Continue on.
The Sane Writer's Guide To: Fantastic Creatures
The Monsters of Myth
One of the most well-known parts of fantasy writing is the creatures, from dragons to giants. These various beings range from sentient to bestial, from logical to illogical, from near-realistic to completely out there. Although the portrayal of such characters varies from work to work, there are a few types which show up with sometimes monotonous regularity.
Dragons are easily the most common fantasy creature. Wikipedia defines a dragon as a creature with "typically...serpentine or otherwise reptilian traits." TV Tropes mentions that "nearly every culture has myths about something someone is willing to call a 'dragon'." Although dragons are one of the most varied types of mythological creatures used in fantasy, they can be split into two main subtypes.
The most commonly seen subtype of dragon is the European dragon of fairy tales: fire-breathing, leather-winged, scaly and horned, dinosaur-esque, quadrupedal, and usually evil. They are often hoarders of treasure who steal maidens and fight the archetypal knights in shining armor. Their intelligence varies from bestially low to much higher than the average human. They are often portrayed as antagonistic characters, although the benevolent European dragon is becoming increasingly common, especially in works with a dragon-rider premise. The European dragon, although never referred to as such, plays a major in the books Eragon, Eldest, and Brisingr, all written by Christopher Paolini.
The lesser seen subtype of dragons is the Eastern dragon, or the Chinese dragon. True to their name, these dragons originated in Chinese myth. They are more serpentine than their European counterparts, and have been described as being pieced together from stags, camels, demons, snakes, clams, carps, eagles, tigers, and cows, having traits of all of the above. They are godly figures in eastern myth. Unlike their counterparts, they are often benevolent, and are commonly said to have powers over water, rainfall, and floods. The Chinese dragon has been referenced in Naomi Novik's Temeraire series.
However, the dragon is becoming a fantasy cliché. Far too often is the same cookie-cutter beast shown in different works, without any new additions to the stereotype. Although the classic dragon can be pulled off and has, the ever-changing definition of what a dragon is gives writers a lot of room for originality. Dragons with more avian characteristics, such as the wyvern, are becoming more prominent; while water-dwelling dragons, sometimes overlapping with sea serpents, offer a realm of possibilities for the fantasy writer.
Next, there are what TV Tropes refers to as the Mix and Match Critters. These fantasy creatures are created by "taking existing animals and combining their parts." Although the possibilities for Mix and Match Critters are endless, there are a few specific types which are often used.
The hippogriff, or winged horse, seemingly originated in Greek mythology, where it was known as Pegasus. This creature is the fusion of eagle and horse, although the overall appearance varies from work to work. Although Disney states that the idea of the Pegasus originated in the myth of Heracles/Hercules, the Pegasus was actually first seen in the myth of Bellerophon. Hippogriffs or pegasi are one of the original magical creatures, and have recently gained popularity after being featured in the Harry Potter series, playing a major role in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Griffins and hippocampi are the lesser known relatives of the hippogriff. A griffin is the fusion of a lion and an eagle, and in the past was seen as an incredibly powerful and majestic creature. They are often seen as treasure-guardians; are considered to be protectors from evil, witchcraft, and slander; and served as a favored decorative theme in classical Greek art. The hippocamp or hippocampus is the mixture of a fish and a horse, and is typically depicted as a horse with scaly, coiling hindquarters. In Greek mythology, they were attributed to the sea god Poseidon. Although neither have been prominently featured in recent years, the hippocamp was recently used in Rick Riordan's novel The Sea of Monsters.
There are numerous other species of beings in fantasy worlds, and the ones mentioned below are only a brief sampling. Those mentioned below are merely some of the most well known fantasy creatures.
The siren is also a Greek creation, and is normally depicted as a vulture with a woman's face and an enchanting voice. They lure sailors to their island with their singing, causing the ships to crash against the rocks. They then proceed to devour the humans within the now-wrecked ships. Contrary to popular belief, sirens and mermaids are not interchangeable beings, although they do have their similarities.
Giants and ogres are also seen in fantasy. On a whole, they tend to be characterized as enormous, extremely ugly humans with large appetites and little intelligence. Although there have been cases of giants behaving merely as oversized humans, as seen in the book Dealing With Dragons, they often follow the above formula.
Banshees are a Celtic creation, and usually classed with the undead and ghostly beings. They are most widely known for their voices, which can be anything from hypnotically powerful, or filled with horrible screaming. The latter ability is utilized in modern works as a sort of sonic attack on their victims.
Gargoyles are a relatively recent creation in fantasy, and are usually depicted as a race of winged humanoids which like perching on high terrain and which possess the ability to turn themselves or others into stone.
Finally, the phoenix is one of the most well known fantasy creature to date, and is often associated with death and rebirth. They are portrayed as magnificent birds with fiery plumage, although some stories depict the phoenix as having fire-based powers or even being made out of flames. Unlike most creatures of fantasy, there is normally only one phoenix, not a species. They are either immortal, or lay a single egg before dying themselves. Its tears and song are said to have healing powers.
Fantastic creatures are relatively simple to create, whether by TV Tropes' mix-and-match method or by pure imagination. All parts of the fantasy genre have unlimited boundaries and possibilities, and magical beasts are no exception. The world of fantastic beasts is constantly expanding, and new additions are always welcome.
Author's Note: Thank you for reading this installment of the Sane Writer's Guide and good luck to you all.
Yes, I know that I did not cover all of the various fantastic beings. For the sake of time and that of space, angels, demons, and beings of the godly persuasion will receive their own chapter; as will elves, mermaids, dwarves, and the other assorted fantasy races. Ghosts and other aspects of the supernatural world will be addressed in a separate guide.
A future chapter on magic is in the works.
The analysis of The Hero With a Thousand Faces is in the concept stage and will soon be written. It will be posted chapter by chapter either weekly or biweekly upon completion.
Thank you, and review if possible.