How to Describe a Fantasy Creature
Last time, I went over some techniques one could use when trying to describe a fantasy city. This time, I’m going to focus on fantasy creatures. (Not to be confused with "characters." If you'd like a guide on character creation, I've created one of those as well.)
Once again, this guide could be used for non-fantasy writing. But since I’m a fantasy writer, that will be the focus of most of my writing articles. Below you will find important traits to consider and build upon in order to make a creature that is both memorable and terrifying.
Describing Your Fantasy Creatures With Detail
Here are some important elements to think about when crafting your creatures.
Start with the standard traits.
These are the things your character will notice first. Things like color, size, and shape matter. But think more along the lines of its similarities to existing animals (more on that below) or one memorable trait, such as glowing eyes, enormous wings, or a distinct screeching sound.
You want the beast to have a presence even when it is not visible.
For example, a clicking noise might precede the monster before it attacks. Maybe a swarm of bugs follows it around, so when your character sees the bugs, it knows the monster is near. Or it could be that the air gets colder and mistier, or the other animals in the area go silent. You want to let the reader know that something bad is coming, but only with subtle clues to build the tension.
What real-life animals can it be compared to?
When I say this, it doesn’t mean that your fantasy creature has to look just like a lion or a bear. Pick and choose traits to paint the best picture possible. Does it have the legs of a horse and the head of a lizard? Is its body structure skeletal, like an insect, or meaty, like a mammal? Also consider its movements/mannerisms in comparison to real animals. That way if it’s stalking your character like a cat or lumbering like an elephant, the audience knows what to picture.
Think about the beast’s primary means of attack and defense.
Sharp teeth aren’t your only option. If its mouth is big enough, flat teeth with a strong jaw can be just as deadly. Also, consider where the mouth is concerned—if it has venom, dripping saliva, bad breath, or a forked tongue. All of these details will come out as you’re describing the creature. The mouth isn’t the only method of defense either, think about whether or not it has claws or constricting tentacles and what sort armor the beast’s skin provides (hair, shell, leathery skin etc.).
Does the monster look as dangerous as it really is?
I believe the kids today call this "fronting" when something pretends to be what it’s not. Think about those fish at the bottom of the ocean that lure other fish into their jaws with a misleading tentacle light. Maybe your monster takes on the form of a little girl, then asks people along the road to help her walk home. Then BAM! They’re monster food. Similarly, you could go in the opposite direction and have a monster that is huge and horrifying end up being clumsy and easy to defeat. In this case, think of lizards that puff up their necks in an attempt to look larger and menacing. These are all things you should consider to help make your monster more realistic.
What is the beast’s weakness?
Though you may be trying to make your monster invincible, it doesn’t always make for good storytelling. If you want your protagonist to die, that’s fine, just make them fail to hit the weak spot. Horror loves to give the character that last glimmer of hope before snuffing it out. But whether you want the beast to die or not, you’ll still need to figure out some sort of weakness. Werewolves have silver, vampires have wooden stakes, and I’m pretty sure some monsters are killed by love—but I wouldn’t recommend that weakness (unless the beast was once a human and the only person they ever loved is their weakness). Your weakness could also be a timeframe, such as only killing it during a full moon, which can actually help with story pacing and progression.
Consider Tying in Your Creature's Characteristics to Certain Plot Elements
For example, your creature's weakness could be a timeframe—such as only killing it during a full moon—which can then help with story pacing and progression.
What does the creature leave behind?
This is similar to the first category in that it’s something that suggests the creature rather than its physical presence. For example, it could leave a lingering smell, footprints, scratch marks, corpses, or droppings. You want something left behind for your character to find in order to know the beast was there. This could imply the thing is following them, or allow them a means to track the creature.
Think about how this thing moves.
Like I said above, you can make comparisons to real animals (walks on all fours, rippling muscles, etc), but also consider your options when it comes to non-animal movements. This is a creature that doesn’t exist, so you want something to set it apart from everything else out there. Maybe some of its movements are mechanical (a crab’s claws could attack like machine turrets) or fluid like water (as opposed to things that live in the water). Think about how quickly it moves and what sort of image this creates in the character’s mind. It might ooze out onto the floor like spilled syrup or break down a door like a gust of wind. Raw strength and sharp teeth aren’t the only reason a creature can be dangerous or feared.
Where is this creature from?
You might think that only your characters need back stories, but even that random monster in the forest would benefit from a brief history. They could be corrupted humans from the past, guardians of the underworld, or beasts that crawled up from the ocean. An origin will not only give the creature a purpose and a fun story for the main character to learn, but it can also lead to further things like its weakness and why it looks the way it does (claws were originally meant for digging).
Figure out a catchy name.
You don’t necessarily have to give the creature an original name or meaning. You don’t need someone to tell your main character that this lion elephant creature is called a Liophant. A lot of times a creatures is named and identified by what it does. For example, a beast that howls can be called a howler, or a beast that steals souls could be a reaper. As the author, you can use existing words to identify these things. That’s not to say giving it an original name is bad, just don’t think that it is a requirement for a good creature. The benefits of having the name—other than it being more recognizable to the character and the reader—are that you avoid writing "the creature" over and over again, and it can help with its backstory as well.
Gross out your reader.
At this point, we know that the creature is a mishmash of other animals. We can picture its lion legs and elephant head or whatever, and we’ve accepted that it has horns and bat wings. But until that image in our head starts moving and slobbering all over everything, we aren’t going to feel it. Think about the real details you would see on a wild, ferocious animal. Snot might drip from its nose, blood could be stained on its paws, or chunks of its flesh might be missing where it got into previous battles. Make the creature come alive, and don’t be afraid to get into the filthy details. Dirt was caked in its fur, bits of flesh hung from its teeth, one of its eyes was missing, leaving a soulless black socket that followed the character wherever he ran. That sort of stuff.
Specific Details Help Paint the Picture
It's not enough just to say that your creature was scary or gross. Instead, snot might drip from its nose, blood could be stained on its paws, or chunks of its flesh might be missing where it got into previous battles. Just be sure to get into the nitty gritty to help your reader really get a sense of your monster in all its vivid detail.
Figure Out What Flows Best
In the end, I can’t guarantee your monster will be perfect; it’s all trial and error. And, like with the city description, you can’t stop the action of the story to give the reader a laundry list of characteristics. You have to pick and choose and figure out what flows best.
But hopefully this has gotten the ball rolling for you. Soon your horrible creation will burst forth from beneath the earth and wreak havoc on the living.