Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Creating Creatures for Speculative Worlds

E. J. Wenstrom, @EJWenstrom

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: The creatures that inhabit our novels should make sense and feel as real as our worlds. E.J. Wenstrom shares tips on how to create creatures that enhance our story.

E. J. Wenstrom believes in complicated heroes, horrifying monsters, purple hair dye and standing to the right on escalators so the left side can walk. She writes dark speculative fiction for adults and teens, including her new release, a young adult dystopian novel titled Departures. When she isn’t writing fiction, E J. Wenstrom is a regular contributor to DIY MFA and BookRiot, and co-hosts the FANTASY+GIRL Podcast.

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Take it away EJ…
In speculative fiction, we’re not just writing stories—we’re creating worlds. And no matter if those worlds are alternate realms, possible futures, distant planets, or secret portals hidden at the back of the closet, at some point, your characters are likely to run into some of the creatures who inhabit it.

Because yes, your world has creatures! (If it doesn’t, that’s a statement—even in outer space, four different kinds of microbes have been discovered so far.)

The creatures who inhabit the worlds you write make them feel all the more real and multidimensional. Done well, they can also offer a lot to inform your world and fill out its details.

Let’s break down approaches and considerations to imagine these beings into life.

Consequences of the World’s Dynamics

What kind of world is this? How did it get this way? For good or for bad, this has surely influenced the creatures living within it.

In The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton, the members of the high court keep all sorts of teacup animals as pets, from elephants to dragons. This detail works double time to create a sense of magic, while also evoking the feeling of a lap dog often associated with socialites today. Very quickly, we see this is a world filled with superfluous, indulgent comforts for the affluent.

So what about your world? Perhaps your story is set in a hot, barren wasteland—your creatures might draw inspiration from life forms that can store great amounts of water, such as camels, or even cacti. Is it a low gravity environment? How might that impact the life forms over time?

Has pollution led to a dystopian future? In what ways have animals had to evolve to adapt?

These are key factors that can give your readers cues about the challenges and strengths of your world.

(Here’s more with 7 Keys to Creating Bloodcurdling Monsters)

Plotting and Practical Considerations

The right magical creature can add texture and dimension to your world while helping to address certain plot points. For example, do your characters have somewhere they absolutely must be ASAP, on the other side of your world? Good thing your world has those unicorns with the tesseract dust you can shake from their tails.

You can gain just as much by creatures of inconvenience—something every plot needs! For example, in The Hunger Games, when Katniss gets stung by tracker jackers, she can’t tell hallucination from reality when Peeta double crosses the Careers and tells her to run, adding to her confusion over the nature of their relationship.

How can creatures add to the challenges that get in the way of what your character is pursuing? How can they add to the arc and push your plot forward?

(Here’s more with 7 Tips for Creating Believable Fantasy or Science Fiction Worlds)

Thematic Considerations

What motifs and themes does your story explore? How can these concepts be reflected or expanded upon in the creatures that inhabit the world?

My newest release is a young adult dystopian, so a key theme running through it was the idea of control versus the cost of freedom. But at first glance, the world the government has created for this future society seems to have created an optimal society. I needed to create a subtle Big Brother is always watching vibe to introduce the idea that this optimization comes at a cost. I ended up creating little AI creatures with camera feeds—watchlizards—that crawled around at random. Because of course this benevolent government wouldn’t monitor its people all the time…but you might not always see when it is, so better to just assume you are.

If you tie into your themes, the creatures of your world can much more than just background filler—they can become part of the symbolic dialogue.

(Here’s more with (World) Building on a Theme)

Populate Your World and Elevate Your Story

Just like our real world, the speculative worlds you create are sure to have all sorts of creatures within it. By introducing your readers to some of them, you have an opportunity to add depth and texture to your world. All it takes is a little creative consideration and exploration of how your creatures interplay with your world, plot and themes.

Tonight, seventeen-year-old Evalee is scheduled to die.

She’s planned her celebration for weeks, and other than leaving her sister Gracelyn behind, she’s ready. The Directorate says this is how it should be, and she trusts them, as all its citizens do. So tonight she dresses up, she has a party, and she dances. Then she goes to sleep for the last time … except, the next morning, Evalee wakes up.

Gracelyn is a model Directorate citizen with a prodigious future ahead. If she could only stop thinking about the shuffling from Evalee’s room on her departure morning. Even wondering if something went wrong is treasonous enough to ruin her. If she pulls at the thread, the entire careful life the Directorate set for her could unravel into chaos.

Swept away by rebels, Evalee must navigate a future she didn’t count on in a new, untidy world. As the Directorate’s lies are stripped away, she becomes determined to break Gracelyn free from its grasp—before Gracelyn’s search for the truth proves her to be more unruly than she’s worth to the Directorate.


  1. I enjoyed reading your comment about creating creatures in roles similar to those found in human characters: both good and evil. "You can gain just as much by creatures of inconvenience—something every plot needs!" I agree that a variety of interesting character traits add depth and texture.

    1. Thanks Gail! Yes, if we can't have a little fun with the creatures we make up ... well, where can we find it.

  2. An interesting post, and it's set me off thinking about what creatures inhabit a world I'm currently creating. Many thanks for the inspiration.