Our world is full of mammals. Big mammals, small mammals. Cats. Dogs. Elephants. Aardvarks. Bears. The world is just teaming with animal life, and yet, how often do you see mammals in fantasy books?
Yes, the wandering wizards always have a horse or a donkey.
Yes, the witches always have a black cat.
Yes, the wolf is always out the get the little girl.
Every fantasy novel has a horse, a cat, or a wolf.
Reading most fantasy stories you'd think the world was devoid of mammals, other than the humanoid people and one horse. Reading stories like that, makes me put the book down and ask:
Did this author ever set a foot outside?
Did he ever turn on the Animal Planet channel?
Did he ever have a pet cat or dog?
What the hell is wrong with this guy?
How can he write a story about a world so full of life and yet so devoid of animal life?
You know what? I always think there is something wrong with a story that never once mentions animals. I find it weird that the characters have no pets. It's freaky when there are no squirrels chattering in the trees as the wizard wanders through the forest. Think about it: is it realistically possible to think that you have this world full of faeries and demons and dragons, but no cats and dogs or lions and tigers?
Look at my stories. What do you see?
And with the exception of the talking cats, not one of those animals is important to the plot at all.
I know. I know. Every body always tells newbie authors: "If it isn't important to the plot, cut it out!"
I guess no body every told Stephen King that one. He could cut at least 700 pages of none plot important stuff from every one of his novels without effecting the story at all. We don't need to know the main character lives in Maine, drinks Coke, reads Tales From the Crypt, listens to AC/DC, or that the driver of the car ahead of him has expired plates on Maine crawdaddies...and yet we learn all of those things in the first 10 pages of Dark Half. Not a one of those things moves the plot forward or is ever important to the plot.
Or J.K. Rowlings. Who here, remembers Hermione's campaign to save House Elves, which had absolutely nothing to do with the plot, and not only did NOT move the story forward, but in fact, held the story up, de-railed the plot, and ranted on in a 36 page lng tangent of the pros and cons of saving House Elves, while Hermione bought a button making machine and set about to printing up buttons to hand out to everyone.
Those 36 pages of House Elf history, only made us feel sympathy for Dooby and see Hermione as a tree hugging hippie on and animal rights PETA crazed vendetta, that was completely out of character for her and had nothing to do with the rest of the Harry Potter story whatsoever.
So, WHY did Stephen King let his main character sit at the red light listing off everything he loved and hated in life, for 10 long, drawn out, pages?
WHY, did J.K. Rowling let Hermione go on a 36 page House Elf rescuing tangent?
Neither of those scenes fit in with the rest of the story they came from, yet,nither scene moved the story forward. Both scenes are completly off-topic to the book's main plot.
So WHY did each of these two authors leave those scenes in, instead of following the often preached advice of:
"If it's not important to the plot, remove it."
Because it adds flavour to the story.
It draws the reader in, gives the reader something to hook on to and identify with.
The book Dark Half could easily take place anywhere and not change the story, but now we know it's set in Maine. It's not important to the plot, for the story to take place in Maine, however, the reader knows something about Maine, so when the reader reads that the character is sitting at a red light in Maine, suddenly, concrete images of real Maine cities, form in the reader's headd. Maybe they think of Biddeford. Maybe Bangor. Maybe Portland. But the thing is: a visual cue has been placed in the readers mind.
Later in that same novel he talks about a bird, and at first, it's just a bird. Could be anything. Could be a robin. Could be a blue jay. It's Maine, it could be a sea gull. We don't know... yet. But then, he looks again, and it's not just any bird, no, it's a sparrow. It's specifically a sparrow. Now we know, without the author describing it, what the bird looks like. We know it's a small, fat, brown bird, with dark spots.
A tiny unassuming bird. Until he looks again, and there's more sparrows on the lawn. More on the bushes. More on the wires. More on the roof tops. More and more and more and more.... and suddenly, that one tiny innocent little bird, harmless and nothing to fear, becomes the most terrifying thing in the words as the sparrows are flying again...
Something as simple as a tiny unassuming bird, suddenly brings the story to life. And that's why, I say, it's bad advice to follow the oft heard chant of:
"If it's not important to the plot, remove it."
Think about it for a minute. How much better is that story, BECAUSE of that memorable scene with the birds? The birds, brought to story the life. They cue the reader to the fact that this character is not existing in some bland cookie cutter world... no... this character exists in a world that is alive...and in his mind, out to get him.
And that's why I say adding animals to your story is important, even if they have nothing to do with the plot.
That's why you see tavern scenes in my own books, where, it's not just the people sitting at the bar and tables... but you also see the drunk wizard tripping over a goat, as the goat clammers through the room. No more is it just the main character being a talking head, but now it's a character in a world, interacting with that world. Why a goat? Because in real Medieval life, goats were often kept indoors and had free roam of inns and taverns and pubs.
Now granted not every fantasy story lends itself to having animals in it. If your characters never leave their castle you may not need anything more than a dog or cat or a canary or a ferret. But if your characters are spending a lot of time in wilderness than you can be sure they will be seeing animals somewhere along the line. When creating your world, remember not to overlook the animal life that lives there too.
Always remember that your world is alive, and your reader needs to feel the life in that world if you want them to be drawn into the story.
The list below are the original pages written in 2003, and republished on Squidoo in 2007:
Even more articles have been written for this series since then:
As there are now more then 100 articles for this series, it now has it's own index page on which to list them all, as there are just too many to keep adding them to this end of article list. You can find the complete listing of all the World Building articles here now: