Pep Talk - WHRN 2009 - A Fresh Take on Mythical Species by Shark
A Fresh Take on Mythical Species
Elves and dwarves, unicorns and dragons. Only four species out of the many found in mythology, yet they are everywhere.
Is that a bad thing? one might ask. After all, what are knights to do without dragons to fight? Who lives in the forest if there are no elves?
The answer to the first question is a straight NO. The other two have vaguer answers: anything and anyone.
Thatís what fantasy is all about. Anything can happen to anyone.
When you hear the word dwarf, no doubt the definition in your mind is something like ďshort, stout miner who likes alcohol.Ē Words such as Elf, Unicorn, Dragon, Vampire, Werewolf - the list goes on - are the all the same. Each has a stereotype, used by almost everyone.
Itís fine to use these stereotypes. I use them all the time. But sometimes you want, you need, something different. Not new, just a variation.
Maybe you want elves in your story, but it takes place in the desert. So what? Elves can live among sand dunes as easily as they live among trees. Or youíve built a land in the air, and want dwarves to populate it as slaves of some other species, why not? Thereís no reason why dwarves canít cook, or wash clothes, or even baby-sit!
Perhaps you have a world where the top dogs are dragons, but itís thickly forested without much access to stone. Ahhh, you think, how to build a place with wood without it being burned down during the first argument between its inhabitants? The dragons donít have to breathe fire. It could be that only the Ďroyalí ones can, and they live in a stone castle, so no problem.
Those are just a few examples of non-stereotypical roles for well-known species. There are many, many possibilities waiting to be discovered. However, thatís not where it ends. Thereís also the choice of using lesser known but well-loved species.
I donít see many harpies or Sirens around nowadays, but they are there, found deep in Greek myths. Centaurs, nixies, dryads, giant crabs - Cancer was one and he fought Hercules...and died...and became a constellation! - some species less known than others, but all there, waiting to be found. Stereotypes are found there as well, but can be avoided. Gail Carson Levine had centaurs in the world of Ella Enchanted, but they were semi-intelligent beasts, not bow-and-arrow carrying wise guys.
But wait a minute! What if you want something brand-new? Like feline vampires,
were-rabbits (oh, wait, thatís been used in Wallace and Gromit. Strike!), or purple-banana-eating trolls?
Then there's the option of using a virtually unknown species, such as a tavara or haetae, a kachina or fuath.
Let your imagination soar. That is my advice. You will always find new species just beyond the horizon, waiting for you.
As a footnote, Iíve discovered a List of Legendary Creatures for those of you interested in using unknown species (the four I mentioned can be found here), and as an aid for creating new ones.