Choosing the right magical creature for your story

As a fantasy writer, I’ve come to look at including magical creatures in my stories as almost a given. My manuscripts have included quite the variety over the years—leprechauns, banshees, hellhounds, witches, nymphs… and plenty more that I can’t quite think of off the top of my head.

Their given status, however, doesn’t mean there isn’t work involved. Including a magical creature in your manuscript isn’t just a matter of dropping one in, especially if it’s your main character or an important side character.

Well, technically, you could go that route, but you risk your characters either coming out flat or appearing mismatched. Neither is likely to leave your reader overly satisfied with your story. Instead, I recommend doing some background work, including a bit of research.

To help out, here’s a bit about the process I like to follow.

The Witches' Ride by William Holbrook Beard, 1870, charcoal on paper, 35 by 47 in
The Witches’ Ride by William Holbrook Beard

What fits your character?

A great first step is to take a close look at the creature’s arc. What does this character need to learn? How do they need to grow? While this affects your plot, it will also have an affect on what skills, powers, or physical attributes your character either needs access to or needs the inability to access. Some creatures, for example, are often linked to characters that can sing well. Others may not be able to step out into daylight, and others still can’t travel too far from water.

The personality traits you want to bring across in your character may also affect what type of creature you want to choose. Stereotypical or not, creatures often have certain traits associated with them, and it can be an interesting writing exercise to bring these traits across in a subtle manner. Why might your main character be protective of certain types of other characters? What type of creature might your mischievous love interest turn out to be? What about that cunning coworker vying for your main character’s promotion? There are a lot of ways to take this track, and a lot of fun to be had with it.

Research, research, research

Learning which abilities and traits apply to which creatures isn’t going to be an easy task. You’re going to have to do some research.

However, this research doesn’t just come down to what a creature can and can’t do, or what traits it’s likely to exhibit. You also have to take elements like their lore or cultural roots and country of origin into consideration. Yes, there may be some flexibility here if your world is one similar to ours, wherein a lot of emigration and immigration has taken place. But it’s still best to keep those roots, and to try to keep to the country of origin, or at least show how your creature moved from that country of origin to wherever you’re setting your story.

There are some areas of lore surrounding certain creatures that are a bit vague, and this is where it’s best to do as much research as possible. Read books. Read articles. If you’re worried you may be straying too far from the lore, speak with an expert in the field (more than one is better) to find out if what you’re writing is within the realm of possibility. It’s entirely possible there’s some flexibility, and that you can either bend the rules or create your own set. But you have to know what you can or can’t do before you go ahead and do it.

And if you need a place to start, I, admittedly, like Pinterest. It has a whole lot of infographics and images that just act as inspiration. It certainly won’t do as your source of research (Google, Wikipedia, and the library are all great next steps for that), but it may help give you some ideas of creatures to work with. If you like, you can take a look at my Creature Inspiration board; it may give you some ideas to start with.

To sum it up…

Those, really, are my big points: Find a creature that fits your character’s arc and personality, and then research the heck out of it. All, of course, while making sure it fits your plot. Because there’s no sense in dropping a pixie in the middle of a realistic, contemporary romance. It simply isn’t likely to fit.

Then again, if you’re creative enough, it just may work. And that creativity—that fun—is the whole point. So why not go out there and prove me wrong?

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