Introducing animals into stories creates some interesting problems, especially fantastical or mythical creatures. In fact, we have three possible classes: the mundane (animals we know well), the fantastic, and the highly intelligent. We can complicate matters, of course, by introducing a new factor – creatures that are artificially enhanced by genetic manipulation. Also, theoretically, we can introduce animals that have become extinct at some point in Earth’s long history, such as the ever popular dinosaurs. The truly important decision we must make is just how our creature population will interact with, or impact on, our characters. Of course we can bring animals in as we go, just as we would new characters, but that really doesn’t apply so well with all mundane animals. Mundane animals of the domesticated variety are ever present and should be integrated into the story as early as possible.
Non-domesticated mundane animals fall into two groups: the common (think rabbits and birds) and the uncommon (think foxes and tigers). A chance sighting of, or confrontation with, an uncommon animal can form a mini-feature, providing a small hook into the ‘real’ world. Common mundane wild animals are something that can be mentioned in passing; they’re usually part of the scenery, in effect, much like many domesticated animals. It is possible to incorporate what would normally be one of these creatures in a different way – as a ‘pet’. This would most often be birds, like hawks or parrots, but could be other animals, such as wolves. And don’t forget that some animals are to be found both as domesticated and wild, such as elephants.
Fantastic or fantastical animals are inventions. They exist only in the world you create, and they may or may not fit into the mundane rôles. They will need descriptions! I suggest that, at the moment of inception, you make a sketch of each one. Don’t panic! Your sketch can be in words if you prefer. The important thing is to know what hey look like, what their rôle is and what their nature is like. Adding wings later will just cause confusion and upset your readers. When inventing animals, try to be consistent. If you have hexapods (six legged) animals, then they can’t be in isolation. There must be many such creatures. It’s an evolutionary requirement. And remember that a four legged animal with true wings is still a hexapod. ‘Legs’ is loosely used, in this context, for ’limbs’, and wings are definitely limbs. Also, be reasonably scientific. A gigantic creature of great strength will be slow, ponderous even, unless you can come up with a very good reason why that isn’t so.
Mythical creatures. I use the word ‘mythical’ to represent those creatures which populate mythology and of which there is, to date, no firm evidence of existence. This covers unicorns, dragons, satyrs, centaurs, flying horses (‘Pegasus’ was the name of a specific flying horse!), griffins, gargoyles, and so on. If you are going to use more than one of these, make up your mind early on as to whether or not you are going to adhere to a myth tradition (for example, Greek) or mix traditions. You can get away with mixing them, if you assume that all such creatures were, at one time, to be found mentioned by all human tribes, in a distant past, before traditions changed by separation. For instance, dragons are known all over the world. You may include some degree of description, for the uninitiated or to provide some personal touches or refinements of the classic beasts.
As for intelligent animals, these have always tended to be popular. The anthropomorphism of animals is part of the desire to find equals to share our world with. Incidentally, this rôle has been taken over by aliens, to some degree. But here we’re talking about animals whose intellect is at least equal to our own. You need to be clear, from the outset, as to the level of intellect. You will also need to know how your characters interact with them. You can opt for normal speech, telepathy, or non-verbal (using sign or gesture, perhaps). Again, you can add your own refinements, to put your own stamp on them.
Whatever class of animal you include, the two big keys are: the nature of their interaction, if any, with the peoples of your world, and the need to be logical and consistent.
Have fun! And if you have any favourite creatures, why not tell us? Even better, show us, if you have created your own. (Note: please don’t post any images that you don’t own the rights to!)