Many writers spend dozens or hundreds or even thousands of hours agonizing over the big problems in their manuscripts—the plot holes, the cardboard characters, the confusing timelines. But they fail to notice many smaller issues with their work, and if those issues aren't fixed before they submit, writers risk marking themselves as a novice.
Over the next several months, we'll explore these common mistakes and how you can avoid—or eliminate—them in your writing. Each month we'll expose two novice errors, one related to world-building or character development and one technical/grammatical error.
Today we’ll start with something I often find missing from my own first drafts but always add later:
Even in cities, animals are part of daily life. Birds in the trees, welcoming spring. Raccoons and skunks lurking in alleyways. People keep pets of all kinds. Yet, in books, animals are frequently ignored or used only as plot devices.
Incorporating animals in your novel, not just as plot devices but also as part of the background of your world, grounds your readers in the reality of your setting. It shows readers that your world doesn't exist solely to prop up your story.
You can choose to incorporate animals from our own world, borrow some from mythology, or even make up your own. You can do a little bit of all three. The most important thing is actively choosing the animals people will encounter in your setting ahead of time so you can build them into the story as you write.
Pulling animals from our world is the obvious choice if you're actually writing about our world, but it's also the easiest way to build animals into a fictional setting. They already exist, so you can research rather than invent them. Your readers will likely have at least a basic understanding of what the animal is, so you can mention it in passing rather than being forced to describe it in detail.
The best way to choose the right animals for your setting is by looking at the climate. What animals live in similar climates here on Earth? Those are the animals you want to focus on.
You don't need to know every animal that exists in that climate; in fact, for most books that's way too much information. Instead, choose 3-5 animals common in settings like yours and sprinkle references to them throughout the story.
Not sure where to start? Check out the Animal Facts Encyclopedia.
A quick note about horses
In a lot of fantasy, if you encounter any animals at all, they're all horses. Not only that, but something is fundamentally wrong with the way they're written. They're treated like cars with hooves, not living creatures with physical needs and limitations.
This typically comes from having no experience with horses. Frankly, there's only so much compensation research can offer. If you've never worked with or ridden horses and your fantasy book includes lots of them, find a beta reader who is experienced with horses. Their advice will be invaluable, and over time, maybe you'll learn to write them properly on your own.
Sourcing animals from mythology
The second way to populate your world with animals is to source them from mythology. This is an easy way to mark your world as different from ours and to root yourself in a specific genre. You can rely on the descriptions provided by mythology. If the creatures are well-known, you might not need much description. For example, readers likely already have a solid mental image of a mermaid.
You can also go completely outside the box. There have been thousands of cultures throughout humanity's development, each with their own mythology. Some are more commonly known than others, and even the most well-known mythologies contain creatures most people haven't heard of. Choosing obscure mythological creatures can set your work apart from others, but you will need to provide more detailed descriptions for the average reader to "see" them.
No matter what animal you choose, make sure you thoroughly research the myths behind it. Understand the rules the creature must obey in existing stories, so if you break those rules, you're doing it on purpose. Many genre fans are also big mythology buffs, and you never know when you'll get called out for getting something wrong.
Creating your own animals
The final way to populate your world with animals is creating them yourself. This topic could easily warrant an entire article on its own, maybe even a full book, but for the sake of brevity, let's say there are two approaches: basing your creature off an existing real or mythological animal, and creating something from scratch.
Basing your animals off existing creatures allows you to capitalize on the familiarity of the real/mythological animal while creating something unique for your world. Eagles in our world aren’t as big as the giant eagles of Middle Earth, but most people can easily imagine what they would look like if they did.
Creating your animals, or even one animal, from scratch allows you to bring a completely unique element into your world. It's also a daunting task if you don't already have something in mind. You'll need to build everything about the creature: its appearance, ideal environment, food source, even its movement style and mating patterns.
To get started, check out the Ink and Quills guide 3 Steps to Creating Realistic Fantasy Races and Cultures.
So how should you build animals into your story?
In the end, only you can decide the best approach to populating your story with animals. If you're writing in our world, you'll want to use real animals. If you're working in a fantasy or science fiction setting, you might want to incorporate mythological creatures or build some of your own. Many authors use all three techniques within a single world.
Once you've chosen or created animals to work with, weave them into your world’s background as your characters travel through it. What animals do characters hear in the forest? What animals are brave enough to wander the cities? Even a brief acknowledgment of birds singing or a stray dog investigating garbage can give your reader the feeling that yes, your world is a real place, not just a receptacle for your story.
Little Things Writers Miss is a series exploring common elements of worldbuilding, character development, and story that novice writers often neglect. Every month, on the 15th and 30th (or the closest weekdays), we will explore two of the little things writers miss, helping writers identify and eliminate issues in their own work.
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Dianna Gunn is the author of YA fantasy novella “Keeper of the Dawn” and the Write Plan content writer. She also blogs about creativity, life and books at The Dabbler.
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