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Share-It Saturday: Tips for More Believable Sci-Fi Creatures

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Tips to Create Better & More Believable Fantasy & Science Fiction Species

Whether you’re looking to create aliens to fill your space opera galaxy with, or trying to figure out what kind of subspecies of orks you need, or trying to develop an SF world from the ground up, here are some things to keep in mind when creating science fiction and fantasy creatures.

Table of Contents

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Remember, you’re creating creatures for your world, not someone else’s.

If the first thing going through your mind is “I want it to be like X book I’ve read because that book was awesome!” stop. Think about what made that book enjoyable to you. Some of the most enjoyable books are enjoyed because they brought you something you had never seen before, not because they repeated what another writer had already done.Rather than borrowing someone else’s finished SF species to use as a template, start with a blank slate and add things on as they make sense in the context of your world, not as you think they would be cool to have. Alternatively, if something strikes you as cool to have, stop and ask yourself whether it makes sense in the context of your world, or whether it needs adjusted or modified to fit, or whether it doesn’t make any sense at all and should be discarded entirely.For example, if I’m trying to create a world where my elves are A: inspired by actual myths and legends, and B: more or less supposed to follow laws and principles of real-life biology, then there’s no sense in shoehorning other peoples’ elf races (eg, night elves, dark elves, moon elves, etc) into my world – I’m making my world, not theirs. This means that not only can things be different, but they also should – the tone and style I’m trying to set will always trump what anyone else thinks “should” be in a fantasy or sci-fi world.

Give your creature the right equipment for the job it’s supposed to do, and let your creature use its equipment right.

Some people want their fantasy creatures to behave in a certain way, and so they give them these behaviors – failing to check whether the behaviors even make sense given the biological tools and body plan of the creature in question.For example, in a lot of popular fiction, vampires are depicted as using their fangs as primary weapons much as a big cat would – they pounce their victims or enemies and take a strategically-placed chomp and once they do that, the fight’s pretty much over. In reality, this would be a horrible strategy for most vampires, especially in combat with anything of equivalent physical strength, or even anything that would realistically flail and scream. Big cats have huge mouths and fangs, and their bodies are shaped in such a way that their momentum is well-focused on their heads when they attack. But most vampires follow the basic human body template, and the human mouth is pathetically tiny in comparison while the shape of the human body does not lend well to putting force into the mouth and bite. Unless your vampires also have secondary shapeshifting powers to make their mouths a whole lot bigger and positioned better, their fangs shouldn’t even come into play until the victim is already subdued, or as a last resort against a convenient target in a grapple. Deliberately putting your entire face into an enemy that’s fighting back at the same time doesn’t do so well for your situational awareness.The primary weapons of the human body are the hands and feet – which means that any vampire with a lick of sense would do something like… oh, up and kick the pouncer’s pretty pointy teeth in.Remember, real-life creatures have the behaviors they do for a reason. While giving humanoid creatures unhumanish behaviors can be a great way to invoke the uncanny valley effect or make them seem more alien, you also need to ask yourself if the behavior would actually help or hinder with the body plan the creature has.

Everything about your creature’s physiology should exist for a reason.

In the real world, no feature or body part exists without a reason. Everything either serves a purpose, or is a vestigial remnant of something that served a purpose for its ancestors.In a world where creatures lack eyes, features such as camouflage or warning colors would have no reason to develop in the first place. If peafowl were sightless, peacocks would not have their magnificent tail feathers because there would be no point – they serve as a visual cue to the peahens that the peacock is a healthy and fit mating specimen. A creature that doesn’t or never lactated to feed its young would have no reason to have teats.And remember – creatures don’t evolve to handle hypothetical scenarios; they evolve to handle ones that already exist. Evolution is driven by natural selection, which is to say that those that are best-suited to the environment are the most likely to produce the next generation.For example, let’s say we have some sort of rodent that feeds primarily on beetles, and most beetles around hide down in small rocky spots. If the smallest rodents are the most capable of finding these beetles because they can fit into places that larger ones cannot, then the smaller ones will survive to produce small offspring, and thus natural selection will select for smallness. But if circumstances change – say, a new non-burrowing species of beetle moves in while dropping temperatures make the area inhospitable for burrowing beetles – then large rodents might be selected for if their larger bodies keep them from losing heat as quickly as their smaller relatives and/or make it easier to catch non-burrowing beetles. And just as easily, the environment could go back to favoring the smaller rodents. The advantage of one generation can be the undoing of another.(And just a quick note – creatures do not have to die from unnatural causes or starvation to be removed from the gene pool; all they simply have to do is fail to breed before they die. Also, in eusocial and semi-eusocial organisms, having non-breeders can be an advantage, as they can contribute to the survival of the group as a whole without worrying about tending its own offspring.)

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