Fun fact: I used to HATE developing wildlife for worldbuilding. It fact, I loathed it so much that I just altogether avoided it. Until I found this post by Hannah at Ink Blots and Coffee Stains and realized it didn’t have to be as hard as I was making it. I didn’t have to make everything up from scratch. Now I really enjoy developing new creatures. Plants are a bit trickier and I generally don’t develop those unless I have a very specific purpose in mind for them (for instance, they produce a certain color of dye), but creatures I can do. (You should check out Hannah’s post for more info on plants, because she actually gives them a whole section rather than a measly single point like I did.) So here are some things to consider when developing fantasy species.
You can base fantasy species on something else
This is the biggest thing I didn’t get before reading Hannah’s post. Reading it was kind of a “Duh” moment, but I totally didn’t get it prior to that post. You can base your fantasy species on other creatures, be they real or fictional, or you can adapt an existing creature to fit your needs (or interests).
For instance: The Shahr from The Heart of the Baenor are based on panthers, the Caeceus from my Kersir novellas are based on Tauntauns, and I plan to have red-purple phoenixes in Kersir due to an interest in Tyrian purple and everything that goes with that.
You can use existing animals
This sounds really boring, but it can actually be a ton of fun, particularly if you’re writing a story set in a very different climate from what you’re used to. With Kersir, for instance, I was able to look up animals from the Arabian desert and similar places and find all sorts of new animals I’d never heard of before (as well as some that are just cool).
For instance: Sand cats are the most adorable things on the planet, and there’s a thing called a siaga antelope that looks like a cross between an anteater, a koala, an elephant, and an antelope (look it up. It’s really crazy). I didn’t use the siaga antelope for Kersir, but if I hadn’t been looking up another variety of antelope I never would have found it. God is super creative, so you find a lot of cool stuff just by looking up animals that already exist.
Develop fantasy species by need
What purpose does this fantasy species serve? What gap do you need filled? Does your character have a pet but you don’t know what kind? Do you want to use some sort of cool mount but you don’t know what? Does your world’s cuisine need some new kind of meat? Is there some sort of material you don’t know the origin of? Develop a creature by beginning with that need. That material is thick and durable? The creature’s going to have thick, durable hide which will affect how easy it is to kill (that would probably also make the material harder to come by). Your character needs a pet? Then that animal needs to be fairly docile or you need to start by figuring out how it’s tamed. If you need a mount, you’ll need to figure out how much bigger it is than the thing riding it. How fast does it travel? Does it have two legs, four legs, eight legs, a million legs? How does that affect its gait? Start with the need and spiral out.
Also think about how it survives in whatever environment it’s in. For a desert-dwelling animal, figure out how often it needs water and where it gets it. For a mountain dweller, make sure it has thick fur or some other way to ward off the cold. The environment may also determine whether it travels alone or with a pack or herd. A lot of the details of an animal will come from its environment.
Don’t ignore the little guys
It’s easy to just think of mammals, reptiles, sea animals, and birds while we’re developing animal life because they’re the big things we see all the time. But what about insects and amphibians and such? Purple dye was original made from a snail called a murex (which is related to the red-purple phoenix in Kersir). Bees pollinate flowers. Spiders (creepy as they are) eat pesky flies and mosquitos. The big animals have obvious purposes and perhaps affect the population of your story most directly, but small things you overlook can be just as important.
Concerning plant life
Like I said at the beginning of this post, I don’t tend to do a whole lot with the flora of a world, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s unimportant. Interesting, well-developed flora – even if it’s not shown much – can add an element of depth to your world, and most of the above points apply to flora as well as fauna, and looking up existing plants can be almost as interesting as existing fauna. (If you want proof, go look up a dragonfruit tree. It’s like a small willow with aloe instead of fronds.)
What is the most interesting existing animal or plant you’ve seen? What’s the most interesting fantasy species you’ve developed for your story? Let me know in the comments!