Earth itself has an amazing diversity of life. This isn’t just limited to people either. There’s over a million known species of animals on the planet. Estimates place the total number, both known and unknown, closer to eight million. The reason for such a wide margin has to do both with the sheer number of animals that currently exist and are known, and the fact that getting an accurate number even on humans is difficult.
That can also carry over to fictional worlds. Whether you’re working on an extraterrestrial pet or figuring out how dragons work exactly, fictional works have plenty of their own animals.
When handling a fictional animal species, it’s a good idea to consider the basics first, and then get into adding any additional features. Start with:
- What does it eat?
- What sort of climate does it live in?
- What kind of threats does it have to watch out for?
- How does it defend itself?
- How does it make a shelter, if it needs one at all?
- Are they lone animals or do they live in groups?
Also consider things like how they reproduce and how much care is given to babies and which parents might be responsible for that care. For aquatic animals, also consider how they get the air they need. Some animals have gills while others will come to the surface briefly.
These basics can give you a good idea of additional features that would work. A deer that hunts prey will need teeth capable of cutting, instead of just teeth useful for crushing leaves. Likewise, remember that even prey animals will need some means of defense. This could be in armor-like hides, or with claws and horns.
Once you know what the animal needs for its basics, you can start playing with an adding features. Consider how adding wings to a rabbit might make it better able to escape from predators, and how it might affect its ability to navigate dense undergrowth. When adding in something like magic or psionic abilities keep in mind how these additional abilities would help them in their natural environment. Obviously when giving magic powers, you have a lot more room to work with, so long as you’re not breaking the established rules of both magic and physics in your world. Remember fire underwater sounds cool, but doesn’t work unless that fire has some way of getting oxygen to continue burning.
It’s also possible you won’t need any additional features for your fictional creatures. You might know what a dog or a cat is on sight, but consider describing them as if you’re seeing it for the first time. You might end up describing an animal like this:
Four long legs held up a lithe, muscular body. Each paw ended in sharp, hollow claws. Aside from the obnoxious hissing, it was also capable of two different growling sounds, one of which indicated it was happy if you believed the stories. If the slitted eyes weren’t unnerving enough, both triangular ears swiveled to catch sounds from all directions, and the tail flipped, curled and twisted as the creature pleased for it to.
Any guesses which creature that is? It’s the common house cat. Play with your words and descriptions, see what you can do to an ordinary animal.
As an exercise: pick an animal you’re familiar with and describe it as if it was the first time you were encountering it and didn’t have a name for it. Think about how it looks, moves and sounds.
Additionally take a common animal you’re familiar with and give it an extra feature–this might be a physical feature like horns, or wings, or it might be a non-physical ability such as telepathy or conjuring. Write about how it navigates its world with these extra features.