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Describing Something Without Using Real-World References

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Mythical Traveller, Sep 20, 2015.

  1. I've been thinking about using Criosphinxes in my story which, as many of you probably know, are creatures with a lion's body and a ram's head. I'm thinking of taking my version up a notch, though, and having them be more like grizzly bears in size and bulk.

    The problem is that my world doesn't have lions, sheep or grizzly bears. So how do I describe these fantastic creatures to my readers? I'm hesitant to simply make the real world comparisons as this practice hasn't served me very well in the past.

    Similarly, I'm imagining that the major deity one of the tribes worships will be depicted in their idols and art as being a gorilla-like being. Same problem: there aren't going to be any gorillas in the story.
  2. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    Well, you can't use the Earth animals for describing them if those animals don't exist in your world. The moment you mention them, readers will assume they also exist in your world.

    What you'll have to do is describe them as if you are only seeing them for the first time. For instance, imagine an explorer from early European history travelling to Africa and seeing a gorilla or a lion for the first time. How would he describe it? There are some examples in Earth history; you can pull up a search of Aristotle or Pliny or a number of others who have undertaken to describe animals not native to Europe. (Those two and others had the names for ape or lion already, but you can see the lengths they went to to describe them for readers.)
  3. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    My question:

    Is there a relevant reason those mundane animals don't exist in your setting?
    TWErvin2 likes this.
  4. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

    Also question: If they don't exist, then why are there creatures that look like them?

    But as to descriptions, think about how you describe these animals to someone who's never seen them or heard of them, like Fifthview said. Think about fur textures and colors and teeth and claws. Think about the sounds the animals make, the way their nostrils flair when they breathe. Feel and hear and smell your way around for the reader.
    Malik likes this.
  5. You mean in terms of the deity, right? Fair question, as pretty much all animalistic deities that mankind has come up with were
    either based off an animal that the culture who worshipped them were familiar with, or a combination of such animals. So how come my tribe is worshipping a god that resembles an animal they haven't seen?

    In all honesty, I haven't completely solved that mystery myself. All I know for certain is that gorillas aren't a part of the world as it is uncovered within the bounds of my story. Perhaps they exist in some foreign land that my narrative never ventures in to. Actually, in the course of trying to solve some other problems, I have been toying with the idea that the religion was originally founded by a foreign missionary, so perhaps he brought an image from his native land and the image has just persisted throughout the centuries, even though the tribe has no idea that it relates to a creature that exists somewhere else in the world?

    I suppose another explanation could be that gorillas did exist once upon a time in the region, but they've since gone extinct and the local tribe has forgotten that they ever existed. However, they continue to worship the gorilla-like deity, unaware of his basis in what used to be an actual animal.

    Well, for one thing, much of the story takes place in a rolling sandy desert. Think Tatooine. I realize this doesn't exactly preclude the existence of lions or sheep (bears might be a stretch), but it's also a far cry from rolling green meadows, so they would be in short supply if they did exist.

    For another thing, I simply don't need them.

    For another, I'm kind of wondering if the existence of lions and sheep would make the idea of a lion with a sheep's head seem like an absurd idea, if you know what I mean? I mean taking one bit from one animal and putting it on the body of another - significantly unrelated animal - that's the kind of thing man does when he's creating mythology - it isn't the kind of thing god or natural selection tend to do when they're building the ecosphere. I'm thinking the criosphinx seems less absurd when you take lions and sheep out of its world; make it an animal in it's own right, rather than some far-out hybrid.

    Hmm... Sound advice. Thanks, guys. :) I guess this creates some room for misinterpretation between my mental pictures and what the reader envisages, but I suppose if I can't communicate my ideas effectively, I shouldn't be writing in the first place.
  6. PelenTan

    PelenTan Acolyte

    In my books, I generally use what my father calls the Star Trek description. Meaning I name it, using it in context. For example:
    That way you get the use out of the animal that you need and you allow the reader to fill in the rest.
  7. TWErvin2

    TWErvin2 Auror

    The size of a camel without the long legs, or oxen, or the size of a small cart, or shoulder height, built like a warthog, but stockier with deep brown fur, etc.
  8. I have similar problems with describing creatures, mainly because if i can't say "similar to a _____" it's hard to make a concise description that also creates a clear image. I haven't quite found a way around it yet.
  9. I have similar problems with describing creatures, mainly because if i can't say "similar to a _____" it's hard to make a concise description that also creates a clear image. I haven't quite found a way around it yet.
  10. Ruru

    Ruru Troubadour

    I've struck this a few times, mostly because my current POVs are third person limited, and there are everyday objects that my characters have never seen before. I took the tack that FifthView suggested, describing the new things as best I could from the characters POV, with the intention that the reader (with their greater knowledge of objects/animals) would then cotton on to what the thing was.

    For example: The white beasts hitched to the wagon were huge, taller than the mountain ponies she'd known, with cloven hooves and great curved horns sprouting from their heads.

    My character doesn't know that we would call this a white oxen or similar, but the idea is that the reader can probably pick up that this is what it is, and fill in the image from their own knowledge.

    I of course have to accept that what the reader pictures and what I was trying to convey might be slightly different, but sometimes leaving a bit of room for other peoples imaginations isn't a bad thing, especially where the detail isn't so important.
  11. pmmg

    pmmg Auror


    You'll just have to describe them as they appear, and not use a comparison. I am sure they have other creatures on this world they might compare these two, but the readers wont know those either. How about a powerful, lean and low body with large curving horns on its head.

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