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Monster Role vs Environment: The issue of convenience vs pointlessness

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Zero Angel, Jan 19, 2013.

  1. Zero Angel

    Zero Angel Auror

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    Hi guys,

    One theme that seems to be reoccurring in our forums is the idea of do we have things happen in our stories because that is what we wanted to happen or does our story develop a life of its own.

    Obviously, most people use some combination of this. I personally have some highlights and goals for each story, and then let the characters and setting decide how to get there.

    Anyway, in fantasy specifically (and other speculative fiction probably), there is this problem of having new creatures (be they monsters or races) show up when convenient versus you put forth the effort in making the creatures only to have them have no purpose in your story.

    E.g. I created a plant monster that feeds on undead. It is attracted to undead magick signatures and has undead paralyzing properties that can be utilized by living people that harvest the plant specifically for these purposes. Although this is an interesting plant (I think) and it's nice in that it fleshes out the world a little bit, specifically the alchemy system, I can't see it showing up in any of my novels ANYTIME soon (maybe a short story, but that's not more than a paragraph right now and is about 20 deep in my to-do list).

    On the other hand, creating creatures and monsters specifically to satisfy some role in a story (maybe villain, helper, possessing something the characters need, etc), even if retconned, has the possibility to be Deus ex Machina-y and cause people to lose faith in the world.

    I pretty firmly fall on the create as much of the world as feasible so that you have whatever creature you want whenever you need it, but I'm interested in how people go about the other way. Looking for some good conversation.

    What side do you fall on? How do you avoid creating creatures that will never see the light of your story, or what do you do with them after? How do you avoid continuity errors if you make and dispose of creatures when you need them? What other pitfalls or ideas come up with these writing philosophies?
     
  2. Wanara009

    Wanara009 Troubadour

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    My "monster" are all flesh-and-blood, explainable by science no matter how fantastic it appears to be. As such, all play a part in the ecosystem. I also link them with the people they lived around so even if the creature itself didn't show, the reader will still get passing mention of them.

    For example, I envisioned a large, extremely territorial herbivore Yaamaut (Direceratop titanis) that will attack at any animal above certain size that dared to enter its territory. It has thick dense armors covering the head, limbs, and dorsal area, impossible to breach with swords/spears/arrows and offers a pretty darn good defense against firearms munition. In-setting, Yaamaut serves as a 'divine beast' for the people and it's a part of the ecosystem that provide food for the superpredator Fatarex (also serve as population control, since Yaamaut always fight back against predator) and keep a species poisonous and prolific cactus at bay. In-story where it doesn't appear, Yaamaut's ferocity became something of a descriptive phrase (e.g.: "She's fiercer than a Yaamaut.") for some characters.

    I actually keep a tight tab on my creatures and also had a chart of how they link to one another in their respective ecosystem. Furthermore, I also keep a chart listing how the characters react to each creature when they encounter one/heard mention of one based on their cultural upbringing and history (e.g.: one character might regard a creature with caution and curiosity while the other don't waste time putting a saddle and a rein on it).
     
  3. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    In the pre-writing phase, I try to think about the Ecology as a whole (Ecology is one of five that I go through), and I fill in details as they would relate to my story. Sometimes it doesn't take much. Sometimes old notes carry over easily. But I like to mess up the setting a lot, so sometimes there's a chart.

    If there's a chart, there's probably a placeholder, like "Bear-like Carnivore" or "Super Spider Predator," so that I can understand the role this creature plays in the setting without wasting time on details I may or may not need. When I understand its role in the story, pieces of the placeholder will start to get filled in.
     
  4. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    In most of my settings, I mention between zero and two extant unintelligent species that don't exist on Earth. (Presumably, they have evolutionary relatives, but I tend not to go into detail on that.) I can have as many as five extant intelligent nonhuman species (or even more in a sci-fi setting with FTL), but those are a lot easier to integrate into the story, since they have personalities and motivations beyond "Get food! Eat food!"
     
  5. Saigonnus

    Saigonnus Auror

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    Depends for me... I had a concept idea that was centered around a lone city in a valley surrounded on all sides by "natural" geological barriers and a vast forest. It is home to a remnant of a culture that was enslaved and mostly eradicated 500 years before and "defenses" put in place by the captors including plants and animals that act as a deterrent from leaving the safety of the valley even after they left the area (and were later destroyed themselves).

    I think if you suggest the creatures were created for the purpose they have like in the above example, then it's fine to have them in the story. If not, then use something else that perhaps would work better in the environment the characters are in. I tend to create creatures to fit the environment and if I can't come up with anything, I use a placeholder.

    As for carrying the story forward, I believe that anything you add should affect the story in some way; whether being a direct threat to the MCs, lapdog for the antagonist or simply something populating an area the MCs have to go through. Even adding background/depth to the story is a possible reason for their inclusion, but I don't think I would go into terrible detail about it if that is the only reason for it being there.
     
  6. Amber

    Amber Scribe

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    With monsters I am very careful. I love creating my own world with my own ecosystems (I am a biologist after all) but I tend to use it for different livestock then horses or something other to eat then potatoes. Monsters fall into clichés very rapidly. An enormous spider or a bear but then bigger and scarier. It is extremely hard to come up with a truly new horror. And then you have the problem. If you did indeed invent a true new horror, then it will affect all your characters. They will have heard about it, believe it or not, tell stories or dream about it. To only make them pop up that one time your MC is in the forest by him/herself is just not helping the deapth of the story.

    I must say that I do not keep track of everything my mind came up with. I noticed that the moment I start writing things down my mind stops developing it so I need to be really sure that it is finished in all depth before trusting my creation to paper. And I am a good example of a writer who gets led by her characters and the story. I usually come up with the world an the main characters and their story unfolds itself. How successful I am at that seems disputable :p
     
  7. Zero Angel

    Zero Angel Auror

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    Sounds like you have a pretty great grasp on the ecology of your world. Do you ever find yourself making a creature up to fit a role or do you think that having such a thorough ecology lends it naturally to creating what you need?

    That's interesting. Do you feel your placeholder creatures have the kind of depth that you want from them? What are the other four after ecology in your pre-writing?

    You only mention 0-2, but do you have more? And by "have as many", does that mean you have a limit to how many alternative species you have or do you mean something else?

    Did you do anything with your concept idea story-wise or haven't found the right story for it yet?

    What sort of livestock and vegetables do you come up with? Exotic variants of horses and potatoes or something else entirely? Are there fantastical elements?
     
  8. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    To be clearer, I tend to go for "gimmick" settings--"It's just like the real world, but with crystals that speed up or slow down time!" "It's just like the real world, but everyone's born with magic related to the body, mind, or soul!" "It's just like the real world, but people who go insane develop supernatural powers!" I don't have monsters out of nowhere, because every monster that shows up is somehow related to the gimmick. It sounds like you're going for more of a D&D feel, where monsters can appear for no other reason than that hey, why not have a monster that does this?
     
    Zero Angel likes this.
  9. Wanara009

    Wanara009 Troubadour

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    @ Zero Angel
    No, there were never any problem. Animals in my story usually occupy roles as something to admire, adversary, domesticated cattle/mount/pet, and/or source of material. Rarely anything else. If I need a specific role like say... 'Guardian of a Treasure', I'm not going to make it a single immortal creature (if I had to do that, my world has golems and robots). Instead, I take a creature that is known to be territorial (like the Yaamaut), set the setting in its natural habitat, and have the protagonist face them to get to the treasure... or perhaps the treasure is inside/on the creature (e.g.: a stone inside their gland with curative properties, horns/tusk that can be used to make tools/weapon/decoration/etc and worth a lot of gold)

    Animals also change their behaviour when they are exposed to human. For example, the cat fish in Ganges river now actively prefers human meat after thousand of years of eating the corpses dumped there. My world is the same as well so I have everything need to find an animal that fulfill a certain role related to human (anything from docile pet to predator that hunt human out of spite).
     
  10. Amber

    Amber Scribe

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    I can give an example. Nothing of this has been translated yet so it is hard for me to just "Englishify" all my creations so fast.
    In one of my long stories the main cattle consists of heti's. They are three legged creatures with a profound but slow intelligence. When standing still their legs work like a stool, when walking they form an almost straight line. They are about 1,5 meters tall and very round looking creatures. That is because the grasses and shrubs they eat are very hard to digest so they have an immense set of stomachs and intestines. Their skin can be made into a soft leather but their milk is not drinkable. The herds can be up to thirty or so heti's with one leasing matriarch. She is usually the one with the quickest wits. They communicate trough sound. The sound they make is a little like a baritone. They can make this sound by filling op a small sack of air underneath their chin and pressing the air out through their nose. They can be used as pulling animals although they can not stay away from their herd to long, it makes them sad and depressed and unwilling to do anything.

    It is up to you if you think it is just an exotic variance of something or something else entirely. My main character is a survivor, knowing a lot about the wild that surrounds her, so that gives me plenty of chances to name a root she can eat or a helpful plant she finds. I personally don't believe that much in making up a few creatures. I (try to) rename all of it or nothing. Although I am less critical at this for short stories.

    Oh, and my worlds don't have horses.

    Animals and spite are hard for me to unify. It is like saying a dog hates you, dogs can not hate. They can be fearful, or think you are easy prey. Like elephants that kill humans, they are just trying to beat us at killing them. But this is a very different discussion so I just wanted to mention it. I always find that one very intelligent beast in a whole book very annoying. Cause they are only made intelligent so they can 'hate' humans or love killing children or whatever, very one-dimensional. Do you see what I mean?
     
    Last edited: Jan 22, 2013
  11. Zero Angel

    Zero Angel Auror

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    That's a great way to approach the problem, although it involves some finagling to get the characters in the proper spot. Still, I find that having the ecology basically set up helps me figure out whatever I need whenever I need it. So I tend to have the characters in the spot already and there's usually a monster or creature around that can fit whatever I need it to do. If there isn't, then I haven't worked out the creatures as well as I would like.

    "Gimmick" worlds doesn't sound like it's doing you any credit. Those worlds can be just as deep or deeper than entire "secondary creation worlds" like what you've correctly assumed I go for.

    Wow. It always amazes me how ESL (English as a second language) people have a better grasp of the English language than English as a first language people. Sounds like you've done a great job English-fying that creature. Sounds very cool. What do the hetis taste like?
     
  12. Wanara009

    Wanara009 Troubadour

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    Well, you can get around this problem by applying the quirk to the whole species, which is exactly my approach on the whole 'hunting human out of spite thing'.

    Animals can show something akin to spite (though not exactly). Bottle nose dolphin for example, kill porpoise seemingly no reason. They don't eat the same food, so there goes the theory of competition. And they're not fighting for territory since dolphin actually stalk and kill porpoises rather than just chasing it away. Hell, they don't even like the same environment (dolphin like warm water while porpoise prefers colder oceans) so porpoise and dolphin rarely meet, yet the latter kills them anyway for whatever reason. I based the 'hunt human out of spite' on this particular behavior.
     
  13. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Well, when I decide where and how I want to use them, I flush them out and fill them in. So at that point, yeah. It helps, though, because I can figure out what role the creatures might play, and then move on, giving me enough to work with if I want to. Half of the placeholders get crossed off, so it helps me come up with a lot of story ideas with much less work.

    I go through Ecology, Culture, Warfare, Government and Magic when I think about the worldbuilding of a story. ("Culture" includes religion, "Magic" includes gods, "Government" includes economics and history, and so on). Depending on the story, I go through some of them pretty quickly or flush out a lot of detail based on what I'm doing. In one, I had to pull "Social Structure" separately from Culture because it was getting to be a big deal.

    On paper I have a way of making notes that looks more like a chart with placeholders that I fill in when I need to. In a longer story, I use OneNote. But the idea is to visualize a lot of ideas and possibilities before having to do a lot of work that will influence me when I decide whether they're the right ones for the story or not. It also helps me keep things loose because ideas change over time. I do similar things with timelines.

    For instance, I need a mercenary warrior who uses magic during combat to become a dangerous mid-way antagonist. So I list "Mercenary with Magic." I know nothing about the mercenaries or about the magic system. Later, I decide that one of the bad guy governments was hundreds of years ago a mercenary group that was "promoted" to Lord, so to speak. Now I have something to play with, like making the old mercenary group see the new one as a threat, giving me an opening to play the bad-guys-betray each other card if I want to. I don't know yet if I do or not. I won't decide until it's appropriate for the other decisions I have to make to keep things moving forward.
     
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  14. Amber

    Amber Scribe

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    Never thought of that... And hard to describe without using meat everyone knows. I am thinking of something a bit sweetish but wild. A mix maybe between wild rabbit and a nice read steak. But I am just making this up whilst typing so open for suggestion :p

    And thank you :) We hear the (relatively) well thought trough English on tv a lot but do not speak it that much. So for the native speakers I think a lot of the 'sloppiness' during speaking gets incorporated into the writing language. Some of my friends actually prefer writing in English because Dutch is hard :p And they have a hard time making the distinction between what they say when talking and the rules they have to follow when writing.

    That we do not yet understand the behavior doesn't mean they kill for the sake of killing. Maybe they are practicing, maybe they confuse porpoises with deformed young of some kind, or maybe the porpoises give of some sort of smell or signal that drives them nuts. Or maybe it is something entirely different.

    If animals would hate or carry spite around, why are not more people slaughtered by wildlife? If we look at the damage we still do on a regular basis, cars should be hit by dear on a daily basis just out of revenge. Children should be eaten by bears and attacked by foxes or kidnapped by vultures. If animals where truly angry/spiteful/hateful, humans could not have made it this far because we would have been driven to extinction by a constant attack of the wildlife we so carelessly treat.
     
  15. Wanara009

    Wanara009 Troubadour

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    @Ambers
    Alright, perhaps using the word 'spite' isn't the best. However, there are action taken by animals that can be mistaken as this. Most animal don't exhibit them probably because they are wired to ensure survival first and they would've learn to treat us like apex predators. First rule when facing an apex predator: never mess with them (unless you're a wolverine or honey badger). Animals in that never met human before don't fear us, you know? Because they didn't have the experience of dealing with us. Perhaps hunting human down whenever they meet us is one of those responses predators learn, perhaps to eliminate competition.

    For example: Crows. They can remember your face and attack whenever they see people who harass them in the past. It is a defensive behavior, but it's something that can bee seen by characters in-story as spite or grudges, especially in setting when zoology or behavioral study haven't exist yet. Mongoose also seem to exhibit dolphin-like behavior with snake (attacking and killing them but prefer to avoid eating it, perhaps clearing out competition). Wolverines also actively stalk and attack larger predators like bears or wolves even though there must be an easier prey items (can be argued it's to clear out the competition).

    Thank you though. I shall take note of your opinion and see if I couldn't restructure the ecology a bit.
     
  16. I think George Lucas said it the best: "When you create a world, part of what you do is whimsy and part of what you do is for plot movement and a part you do for your own interests and psychological excentricites."

    It's not a deus ex machina if it was established and forshadowed ahead of time.
     
  17. Zero Angel

    Zero Angel Auror

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    I think your intention is correct. If done well, we can incorporate a creature to specifically fill a specific role, but it is prey to being too convenient depending on how it is done. There is a very strong possibility that the encounter or creature will feel forced or unnatural to the reader that likes to think about the world (In fact, this is true for everything we might want to incorporate if we are doing it to match up to what we want to happen in the story--although for this thread we are keeping it a little more specific). To help prevent deus ex machina, we can establish the creature early or foreshadow it or whatever, but if it exists merely to serve the author's will, it can still be considered deus ex machina.

    Heck, even if deus ex machina is not only foreshadowed, but logical, then it can still be deus ex machina. For instance, in the original Greek tragedies, the audience expected gods and goddesses to interfere, but this is the literal beginning of deus ex machina and what has been criticized. Anytime the audience has cause to say, "that's kinda' cheating" can be considered deus ex machina.

    I'm willing to agree to this being an argument of semantics though if you have a specific definition of deus ex machina in your head that you hold inviolate. In that case, change everything I said above from "deus ex machina" to "the author imposing his will unnaturally on the story."
     
  18. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

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    I'm with Anders on this one. And besides, even if it is cheating, there's nothing says you can't do it. I say, it's alright to cheat as long as the audience doesn't notice. For example, I often frame my stories in such a way as to skip or get out of writing things I know I don't do well, like romance.
     
  19. Cheezyb10

    Cheezyb10 Scribe

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    To me a monster means a mindless freakshow that likes to hurt people and/or things. So I don't really give a lot of thought into monsters ruining the story or having much personality.
     
  20. Zero Angel

    Zero Angel Auror

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    Please insert "creature" anytime you might have seen the word "monster". Does this help in participating with the thread or are there further issues with semantics?

    Although, if you like, you can still use your monster definition. Do you have random mindless freakshows that fit a particular role in your story as you need them or do you plan out the mindless freakshow monsters ahead of time?
     
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