For this blog’s first edition of ‘Worldbuilding Wednesday’ I thought I’d tell you all a little more about one of the most popular races in the Tales from Undersea series – the merfolk!
Merfolk are a race of human-fish hybrids, born from women (and occasionally men) thrown off ships or into the sea to their deaths, but survived thanks the sea goddess Sulis. Some of them have mated (don’t think too hard about that…) and created sea-born mermaids. Both human and sea-born merfolk have long lifespans, generally reaching sexual maturity at around age 50 and living for several hundreds of years.
They are generally friendly to humans and attempt to help any people who have also run into trouble on the ocean that they come across. In dire circumstances, they turn them into merfolk to save them. Outside of these race instances, merfolk tend to avoid humans, sometimes out of spite for being thrown overboard but mostly so they won’t be discovered. This is why few humans have seen merfolk and fewer have seen their settlements, so most still believe they are only myths. Some merfolk who have never seen humans believe that we are mythical.
However, some other groups of merfolk (particularly around Haiti) are vengeful towards humans and lure men to their deaths.
A merfolk can turn into a human, but it is a complex process which involves the ‘voice’ of a human who was responsible for throwing a person overboard and creating a merfolk.
They can only breath for short periods outside of water.
Merfolk cities are grand, full of works of art both hand-made and salvaged from shipwrecks. They are also innovative and have developed their own forms of technology, such as the anti-sonar device. Due to their rarity, this technology is greatly prized and sought after amongst humans.
Merfolk have domain over sea creatures and can command large creatures such as the dire-ray, which they often ride into battle. Merfolk are vicious in battle and wear their own armour, usually brandishing spheres.
If there’s anything you’d like me to cover in the next Worldbuilding Wednesday, let me know in the comments!
If you polled fantasy readers on the most overdone tropes in fantasy fiction, chances are that most of them will name something like ‘the rebellious princess’ or ‘the stableboy who becomes king’ or any of the other numerous royalty tropes which frequently appear in fantasy. Yet it doesn’t stop fantasy authors from churning out a constant stream of books about royals, or readers from consuming them. It has reached the point that members of a royal family have almost become the go-to cast for a fantasy novel, and sometimes it can be difficult to find a fantasy book which doesn’t feature a member of the monarchy in some form. If royals are such an overdone fantasy cliché, why are we still so obsessed with them?
…And they lived
happily ever after
It all goes back to where modern-day fantasy spawned from –
fairy tales. The standard fairy tale plot is a princess gets captured or
imprisoned, a hero shows up out of nowhere to save her, and he is rewarded with
the princess’ hand in marriage and half the kingdom.
They may be old and horribly outdated much of the time, yet they are still the stories we are told as children, whether it is through bedtime stories or Disney movies. This teaches us from a young and impressionable age that being a Princess is something special and desirable and that a Prince is ideal marriage material.
The real-life fairy
This also explains why society is so obsessed with royalty
in real life, despite several dark periods of history making royalty almost
entirely obsolete in modern times. We’re well aware that modern monarchs are
only figureheads with no real power anymore. Most of us are also aware that
they’re living comfortable lives which none of us can ever hope for. Yet that
didn’t stop tens of thousands of people from descending on London last year to
watch the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in Windsor Castle, or
thousands more from watching it live on television. They have what we’ve been
taught to desire, but instead of feeling jealous, we adore them for it.
Escape into fantasy
explains that our obsession with real life royals is a parasocial relationship,
similar to our relationships with our favourite fictional characters. We form
one-sided relationships and become invested in the drama and stories of their
lives without actually interacting with them or having them directly impact our
lives in any meaningful way.
Whether they are real life or fictional, royals provide us with a necessary means of escapism. The British people don’t care that the royal family are costing them money at a time when their financial and political future is uncertain. They ignore the fact that high expectations and constant media bombardment probably make the life of a royal more stressful than it appears in pictures. They prefer to think about the dresses and parties and the smiling faces they see in the newspaper.
Fantasy is one of the prime forms of escapist fiction, and what could be more escapist than picturing yourself as the beautiful princess living in a fairy tale castle and falling in love with the handsome prince? Even the old fairy tales provided an escapist fantasy for regular people to envision themselves rising above their stations and becoming royalty.
In reality, being a public figurehead would be incredibly
stressful, a castle would be cold and drafty to live in, and falling in love at
first sight with a prince you barely know probably wouldn’t work out in the
long term. Yet even knowing all this, it’s still much nicer to just think about
the happily ever after.
The media cycle
Media outlets know that royalty is used as a form of
escapism and that they can use this obsession to increase their sales. Being
fed a constant stream of articles, images, and news pieces about royals keeps
them in our collective consciousness and keeps people buying newspapers or
clicking on news websites. Disney keeps on making movies about princesses
because they are fully aware that they will sell more toys and more trips to
Disneyworld. Similarly, publishers keep putting out book after book featuring
royals because they know that as overdone as it is, readers will keep buying them,
and the publishing cycle will continue.
Updating a tale as
old as time
Yet a constant stream of books about royalty doesn’t
necessarily have to be a bad thing, or a sign of an unoriginal writer. Our
knowledge of royalty also comes from history and folklore. Historically, a king
was much more of an ‘everyman’ and representative of the people with a lot more
say in the management and safety of his kingdom. This makes royals ideal
protagonists for fantasy fiction based upon a historical setting, since they
will need to make decisions which affect their entire kingdom. It provides more
leverage for everybody’s favourite trope, the forbidden romance, with the royal
finding a way to marry for love rather than political reasons. If you look
closely enough at history, you’ll find that there are many more obscure royals
or little-told-stories which would make for great fantasy books.
There are a multitude of creative ways that modern readers
can use royalty to subvert the old tropes and put a fresh spin on them to
attract more readers. This is why we are seeing more stories about overweight
princesses, transgender princes, or royals from cultures which aren’t
quasi-European. The beautiful princess and the handsome prince are still good
starting points for writers, but it is up to them what to do with these old
How often has this happened in a book you’re reading: A character has encountered a deadly creature. They can’t run because the creature is too fast. They try ducking out of the way but they can’t do that forever. They throw stones but that just enrages the beast even more. Just when all seems hopeless, they pull out a sword from their belt and…Wait, since when did that character have a sword? That was never mentioned before!
Even worse is when the character is in the middle of a fight, and you, the reader, know they have some kind of weapon or object that would flatten the enemy in a second. But the fight scene just goes on and on but it never appears. You spend the entire scene screaming at the book ‘Just use it, you idiot!’ but they never do. Either the battle is won by random chance or an ally is killed in the process.
You can avoid this in your own writing by keeping an inventory of everything that your character has with them on their journey, like the inventory screen in a videogame, and a record of when they pick things up and when they leave things behind. If you don’t then it is easy to make errors like the ones I mentioned above and your readers will notice.
The way I keep my character’s inventories is fairly simple. I make a document and mark out every chapter when the characters are on their journey. I list the things that each character has when their journey starts and in which chapters they lose or acquire new things. I also consider what bags they have and how much they can carry at any one time. If a character left home with only the clothes on their back then they won’t be able to fit much in their pockets. If they have a horse with them then they can load up on much more. It’s as simple as that. I always have a reference to check when I’m writing. If you’re more of a visual thinker then you could make a collage or vision board of your characters inventory instead. Experiment a little and find what works best for you.
Much of the time, the acquisition or using up of equipment will happen off page. You’re not going to describe every time your characters go to the marketplace or stop for a snack. That would make for a very boring novel. If you keep a timeline of how much time passes within and between each chapter of your novel then you can use this with your inventory document to list what things were used up or bought during these intervals.
Be careful that you don’t fall victim to the videogame logic which says you can carry dozens of everything in your bags. It may work in Pokemon but it doesn’t work in reality, or indeed in a novel. Don’t have your characters do what they do in games either and pick up every useless thing they find in the hopes that it might be useful later or be sold for pennies at the next shop. Do you pick up every twig and mushroom when you go for a walk in the forest?
‘Now what did I do with that plot essential item?’
Then again, maybe this does fit some characters personalities. The items your character carries can also be used to say something about them. If you want to show that a character is fussy and overly organised then describe them carrying a huge bag containing everything they could ever need, but probably won’t. If you want a character to be scatter-brained or ill-prepared for their adventure, show them carrying useless items or forgetting the essentials for their quest. Do any of your characters carry or wear items purely for sentimental reasons? (E.g. Katniss’ Mockingjay pin in The Hunger Games which becomes very important later on.)
Finally, don’t forget to also keep track of the amount of money in your character’s purse. You keep a close eye on how much money you have in real life, don’t you? If your character lives in a society that uses bartering instead of currency, how will that affect what they carry?
It’s something that is often overlooked, but these few simple tricks can help you avoid embarrassing errors in your novel, make the writing easier for yourself, and help you to visualise your novel and engage with its world and characters.
I love dragons. And griffins and pegasi and unicorns and mermaids. That’s why I populate my fantasy worlds with them, as do many authors. But these standard fantasy creatures have been done to death so much they have become boring and unoriginal. Writers don’t need to restrict themselves to fantasy archetypes. There are numerous creatures in mythology and monster manuals that are just as interesting, weird and terrifying and serve the purpose just as well. These are just some of the creatures I’d like to see more of in fantasy:
From Scottish folklore, they look like those weird water ponies from My Little Pony except that they can take on human form outside of water, except for their hooves. They lure people to ride on their backs and then drag them under water and drown them. An interesting and twisted alternative to mermaids.
Or ‘white women’ are like the bridge keepers that show up in fantasy and won’t let you pass unless you answer a riddle, except instead of a riddle they’ll throw you into a thistle patch if you refuse to dance with them.
A Japanese myth of objects gaining life and sentience after 100 years. My favourites are the ittan-momen, bolts of cotton that wrap around people’s necks to choke them and the kasa-obake, living umbrellas that hop around on one leg. There is a whole list on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsukumogami. This sounds like the sort of overblown whimsy you see in Ghibli films, but there’s no reason a fantasy novel can’t have a similar concept.
Possibly one of Dungeons and Dragon’s most famous creatures, they look like big floating heads with scary huge teeth and single eyes. From their eye stalks they fires rays that can cause damage, put you to sleep, restrain, levitate, confuse, induce fear, or disintegrate.
As they are registered property of Wizards of the Coast, you probably can’t use the word ‘beholder’ but you can use them as the base for your own monster.
Tree nymphs from Greek mythology, with similar creatures in many other countries’ myths as well. They usually appear as human women and their lives are tied to their trees. They must replant their trees whenever they move somewhere new and if the tree dies then they die with it.
Anyone who’s ever played Dungeons and Dragons has just groaned. These things are horrible and nearly impossible to defeat. They are literally just ten foot cubes of ooze which cause paralysis when touched and absorb anything they come into contact with. You’d better have a good magic user in your party because they can’t be hurt with physical force or weapons.
There are many stories of lights that float over swamps or bogs, seemingly to lure unsuspecting travelers away from safe paths to their deaths, but there are many variations. Scandinavian folklore says they point the way to treasure, especially on Midsummer’s day. The German version likes to make fun of couples making out. There are numerous possibilities that your wisps can have.
Also known as a construct, guardian, homunculus, and many other names, these are inanimate beings made of metal, stone, wood, mud, or sometimes even human flesh brought to life by magic, spells or some kind of energy. I don’t know why but I’m fascinated by things like these. Maybe it’s because mythology had the concept of a robot long before science fiction ever did.
Some tips for filling your fantasy world with monsters:
Use mythology books or RPG monster manuals for inspiration. But if the creatures are under copyright, such as the ones invented for the Dungeons and Dragons games, use them as a base instead of directly copying them.
If you still want to include dragons or griffins or any other standard fantasy creature into your book, that’s still fine, as long as you find an original angle for it and don’t rely on decades old stereotypes that have long since become old. For instance, Futurama had a beholder working an office job!
‘Please don’t tell my supervisor I was sleeping!’
Avoid the ‘calling a rabbit a smeerp’ trope. This is where authors are trying to be clever by using a made up word for something that doesn’t need it, which only confuses the reader. It would make sense if the dragons in your fantasy world are called ‘wryms’ or ‘drakes’ but not if they are called ‘Qiznars’.
Use real life animals for inspiration. How about a dire hyena or a ten foot tall swan? All mythology has a basis in reality, after all.
Combining two animals into one is another popular option. Just off the top of my head I have penguin-monkey, owl-toad, and horse-bear. Ok, those need work but you get what I mean.
Mix and match your mythological creatures to create original combinations. One of the best short stories I ever read was a dryad who fell in love with a dwarf.
Fantasy writers and readers, are there any little known creatures you’d like to see in more fantasy stories?
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