What Do You Look For in Magical Beasts?

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One of the staples of the fantasy genre are the magical beasts from mythology and the recesses of the author’s imagination.  Yes, I’m aware that some people feel that such things are overused and no longer have a place in the genre.  In fact, I’ve gotten into that debate several times.  Seriously, how can someone say dragons are fine, but they get angry about unicorns, griffins, mermaids, and the rest of the menagerie?  I digress and now I will repress the anger.

Balrog from Street Fighter

Balrog from Street Fighter

Magical worlds are filled with unique creatures ranging from large versions of regular animals to off the wall critters.  Look at Middle Earth for this.  You have beasts that range from giant spiders to sentient trees to the terrifying Balrog (as seen to the right).  They roam the wilds and attack cities.  They appear to the pure of heart or obey the darkest of wills.  Most of them tend to be living in the ruins of ancient civilizations that were destroyed by the citizens’ own hubris.  The point here is that nearly every fantasy series has at least one creature that is not from the real world.

The challenge with including such beasts is the ‘HOW’.  The Hobbit (book!) had Smaug the dragon as the main enemy and other creatures were smaller obstacles.  This is before the time where people got bored with the adventure tale.  This type of story allows for the unique flora and fauna of a world to be displayed at relatively random intervals.  D&D and video games would call these random encounters because they were typically not main plot essential.  They were more for character evolution and world building.  For example, the Hobbit would have gone the same without the giant spiders of Mirkwood, but Bilbo Baggins found his courage and Sting’s power there.  Also, any creature could have been used for the effect, which seems to be another sign of how beasts are used.

Most of the new fantasy that I’ve read doesn’t touch on magical creatures unless the story focuses on them.  Bears and wolves have taken the place of ogres and pegasi. Yet, dragons still show up and you see magical beasts on emblems.  I’m not sure if this is a push to make fantasy more realistic or it’s just part of a cycle where the focus is more on human enemies than monsters.  Personally, I like a balance, but I will admit that it’s difficult to put a monster into a story without it feeling like a random encounter or a dungeon crawl.  The Compass Key has tons of battles against unique creatures, so I do worry about this.  The first act has the heroes wandering a swamp, the second act involves a lost tomb for a chapter, and the third act is in a place I can’t talk about.  Monsters are everywhere in these relatively untouched regions of Windemere, so it makes sense to me that they would be there.  To a reader though, it might not be seen that way.  Yes, I know the adage ‘you can’t please everyone’.

So, what do people think of the use of magical beasts in literature?  Are the days of anything that isn’t a dragon over?  Seriously, why do dragons get a pass when they’re the most overdone critter?  People get angry over a hobgoblin being used, but swoon over another red dragon.  I just don’t get it.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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32 Responses to What Do You Look For in Magical Beasts?

  1. Wanderer says:

    I think it’s all about suspension of disbelief. Fantasy already has to put the reader in a state where they are ready to believe whatever the author tells them. So, if you build you world well and “teach” your readers about it, then, when a mermaid/siren appears from a lake and tells the travelers to definitely NOT go into the creepy dark woods (or do), it has to be seamless.

    I also think too many authors use magical beasts as a plot device (re: the giant Eagle argument in Tolkien). I found myself doing this in my earlier fantasy writings and decided that maybe magical creatures were not for me. When you have six talking animals and several dragons in a story, it’s time to rein something in–although I was thirteen, I’ll cut myself some slack.

    Great fodder for thought and discussion, Charles!

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    • I actually love bringing in monsters and magical creatures, but I think it fits the world I’m making. I’ve always wondered how these creatures are so rare in every world, so I went the opposite. A walk in the forest can have deer, squirrels, and griffins during the trip.

      The world build you mention is a great factor too. If the world is slowly built into one where such creatures are commonplace then using them shouldn’t create any waves.

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  2. VarVau says:

    Dragons have this odd cult fan following. Considering many mythologies about them are similar with minor differences (except in Japan, China), it has likely become the best symbol of X-characteristic that can be tied to a dragon for X purpose, thus everyone resorts to it by a default. That’s all I have on that particular subject except the common depiction of dragons as winged quadrupeds. I can’t say I’ve ever seen an animal outside of insects with such anatomy.

    Unicorn: The odd thing about them is they were never in Greek myth, but in writings by naturalists who believed they were real. If I had to name anything on why people don’t like them, perhaps it is due to the idea of them being ‘pure’ and in other contexts they subconsciously become a symbol of hamfisted environmentalism.

    Griffins: I have no idea why people would be angry about these. Rather, I didn’t know people were angry about these. They are tied to Greeks, but the Persians and Egyptians had their own version. Nobody ever seems to touch the idea that it sired the hippogriff with a mare. Or the other part of that stories in which the offspring, upon maturing, ate the mare that mothered them (in some versions).

    Mermaids: Just about every story I’ve seen with mermaids has been too lighthearted or a comedy, with exception to The Little Mermaid. Also, they seem to be merged with the Sirens on many occasions. Simaids? Sounds like a robotic abomination.

    For me, one of the primary problems with the modern use of traditional lore is laziness. These ‘urban fantasies’ just slap creatures into a modern setting and it tends to not work so well as they’re completely out of the environment they’re usually depicted in. Unless these creatures escaped from a magically hidden zoo and went ape@#$% because the borders of that zoo just happen to be located near Yet Another New York City Stand In or Some Other Los Angeles.

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    • Good analysis on those. Truthfully, I was working more toward people being angry about the use of magical creatures in general. The term ‘cliche’ gets thrown around as if fantasy stories should no longer use such beasts. I happen to like them more than human only. I always found it odd that in stories without monsters, the humans are killing other humans with no repercussions beyond revenge.

      When taking an established creature, I do think some alterations need to be made. They can’t be identical to the original if they’re not in that environment.

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      • VarVau says:

        The most curious defeat of fantasy is the overall inclusion of humans as the majority population without balancing their numbers with the others.

        There are also creatures from lore that many who don’t study mythology would find entirely disturbing in an H.R. Giger/De Sade way. With that, I’m referring to some Inuit beasts.

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      • I never noticed that with humans, but I have a theory about it. The magical races seem to rarely breed or have shorter lifespans. Humans appear to breed like rabbits, so there ends up being more of them. It also seems that in cross-breeding, the human genes are dominant as generations progress.

        Not familiar with Inuit beasts, but now I’m very curious.

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      • VarVau says:

        Inuit beasts. I’ll give you a perfect example of one that’d disturb people:

        Katyutayuuq

        This is the name of a female monster in the traditions and beliefs of the Inuit of eastern Hudson Bay in Canada. Katyutayuuq is described as having a humanoid shape, but on her small head her breasts are above her mouth and her genitalia below her mouth. She and her male counterpart, known as Tunnituaqruk, follow the humans or seek out their recently abandoned snow-houses to search for discarded scraps. They have a nasty habit of hiding in abandoned bedding and terrifying anyone who might happen upon them.

        -Entry from Giants, Monsters & Dragons by Carol Rose.

        Also, bonus for you from the same book, since Unicorns were a subject:

        Cartazonon

        This is the name of a class of Unicorn. Aelian (c. A.D. 200) mentioned a beast that he said is called the Cartazonon of India. It was described as being like a horse, yellowish-red in color, with a black horn and long mane. It was also said to be very aggressive and to inhabit the deserts and wastes of the mountains, where it was the enemy of the lion. According to legend, the beast could be killed but never taken alive.

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      • What is it with monsters and oddly placed genitalia? Seriously, that first one sounds really creepy. Interesting unicorn variation. I like how it’s an enemy of the lion instead of prey. You don’t usually hear myths about unicorns being the enemy of something specific.

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      • VarVau says:

        The first time I ever heard about oddly placed genitalia was in Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country.

        “That was not his knee.”

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      • Same here. My mind always goes back to that scene when the topic comes up. Odd how often it comes up in the fantasy and sci-fi circles.

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      • VarVau says:

        Perhaps that is the secret reason for it being called sci-fi/fantasy.

        Conspiracy!

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      • The seedy underbelly of the genres.

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      • VarVau says:

        The abyss of abducted Jawas, misplaced Hobbits, and sociopathic unicorns where burlesque Oompa-Loompas deal shady games of craps in sewer tavern.

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      • Such a dangerous and disturbing world.

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      • VarVau says:

        Yes. One must be mindful of the Fizzgig for is a fierce beast encountered by the eldenfathers that ended regal families in a single night after the royal weddings.

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      • I admit to looking that up, but all I could find was Dark Crystal. Forgot about it.

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      • VarVau says:

        I’m practically an encyclopedia.

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  3. tjtherien says:

    what about the Drider… does the Drider count as a mythical creature (Giant Spiders are obligatory in a story with Driders and Drows) because I have them in my NaNo story…

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  4. Jack Flacco says:

    Great knowing about magical creatures and the like in fantasy. I must admit, my reading of fantasy is somewhat lacking. I think the last title I read was The Hobbit, and that was a number of years ago. But I know what Pegasus, an ogre, a cyclops, and a ghoul is, although a ghoul may be a bit in the creepy horror genre. I think dragons have been around for a long time, and any story that features a dragon makes the story all the more exciting. I also am all for character building with random events that although may seem random, the reader gets a point delivered to them by the final resolution of a battle. At least, that’s what I think.

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    • Ghoul is an odd one because it gets used for different thinks. Vampire servant is one and a zombie variation is another.

      I just finished scheduling my Wednesday post about Random Encounters in books. Went a little off topic with my personal opinion on how to use monsters in the first place though.

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  5. Dragons got a pass from me…as in, I passed on them. They never really made sense to me. Wouldn’t they overrun the world, eating entire herds in a night and wiping out a world where they’d have no real competition? If you locked a lion in the chicken coop what would you have when you opened the door? Anyway, I’m tired of dragons and couldn’t summon a fresh take on them so, PASS. As for the others, it depends on how they fit and how they’re used. There’s a unicorn (it’s incidental) in my first book, but I’m way over the whole “purity” thing. That’s like having a character with no flaws. Ho-hum.

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    • Depends on how the dragons are used. I’ve read somestories where dragons eat gold or they only eat a little bit that gets metabolized slowly. So, they aren’t over-eaters in these worlds. It’s really all about how you design them. Their reptilian nature tends to be a standard though.

      With the dragons of Windemere (poems on Thursday), I went with two routes. There are constructed dragons that are built for evil, so they don’t eat. The natural dragons are good-natured and feed off the energy of the planet. It works for a world where magic is everywhere and I took away the berserker beast idea.

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  6. L. Marie says:

    Good question! I grew up reading The Odyssey and watching those old Sinbad movies with those Ray Harryhausen monsters. So I’ve always loved fantasy creatures of all types. The more the merrier I always say. I know some people don’t like to mix creatures of various mythologies (i.e., adding Norse creatures in a story geared toward Greek mythology).

    Like

  7. Sahm King says:

    You know, I actually heard this brought up in a documentary about life on other planets (of all things). Some astronomers and physicists and astrobiologists highlighted the issue some fantasy and sci-fi writers have with creating fantasy/magical creatures in accordance with universal laws of physics. Of course, magic itself is a violation of all known laws of physics, so far as we know. I personally would like to see magical creatures and beasts used more, but taking more central roles, like in the ancient mythologies. I’m thinking about this as I write this thing for NaNo (though I couldn’t call my creatures “magicaL’, exactly). How can one make the various creatures a central part of the fabric of the story and not just a random diversion simply meant for world building? Good questions indeed.

    Like

    • I’ve got a post today that might answer your question.

      I admit that I get annoyed when people try to bring science and reality into fantasy. To me, it’s supposed to be fun and magical. If it held to laws of reality on everything then it might as well be non-fiction. Imagine how boring the genre would be if every monsters and beast was human or real. No fantasy village would ever be terrified of an angry bear attacking.

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      • VarVau says:

        I maintain a certain level of realism, preferring low-fantasy/low-sci-fi approach to my own project. Primarily that’s due to both my vision and the influences I have, which are mostly not in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. Jack London, William Golding, Joseph Conrad, Ruyard Kipling, Oscar Wilde to name five. I’ve required reading in private schooling to thank for that and I’ve deliberately avoided reading Tolkien, Herbert, McCaffrey, Le Guin, or H.P. Lovecraft. The reason why involves what’s out of every single author in the genre I’ve ever seen interviewed: they inevitably say one of these three names is a major influence.

        To be able to say one wrote at least their first sci-fi/fantasy without the influence of these three is practically non-existent today. Oddly enough, the circle of test readers I maintain often say I’m like a strange hybrid of two or three of these names (typically, Herbert/Lovecraft with Tolkien elements yet somehow none of these–mind boggling, no?).

        However, I do like writing in this genre. To not have things based in staples of fantasy (this in particular since mythology is a large function of what I do) would not be exciting or fun. Though I admit, I tend to lean more towards dark fantasy/sci-fi. Wasn’t always the case, but that’s life.

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      • Tolkien is hard to avoid even if you never read him. I read his books when I was in Middle School, but they weren’t the ones that influenced me. Though, I was influenced by D&D, which was created around Middle Earth. The series that got me into writing was by Fred Saberhagen, who you don’t hear very often. He had dragons and demons and some basic magic, but that was it. What I liked was how he made characters that could develop over a double-digit series and remain memorable. New characters stepped in and they fit instead of stealing thunder from old or being overshadowed. These are aspects I focus on, so if I do a Tolkien-ism it’s not because I’m influenced by him.

        Oddly enough, people say I remind them a lot of Terry Brooks and Pierce Anthony. They say I have a similar wit because I put humor into my stories. Never read Lovecraft though.

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      • VarVau says:

        For wit, I’m often compared to Oscar Wilde.

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      • That’s pretty good company to keep.

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  8. Pingback: The Beast Within | Bookgirl

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