I remember when I first started reading Kim Harrison‘s Hollows series. At first, I was put off by the idea of pixies.
All I could think of were squeaky voices and Tinkerbell — but then Jenks turned out to be a trash-talking, dust-making badass who had a family of over 20 children and a heart to match. What made him so effective was the fact that Harrison made a four inch character into a three-dimensional dynamo. He has his flaws and his pride, and he is an integral addition to the cast of the Hollows.
I think even more than vampires or werewolves, some of the other creatures of urban fantasy are prone to cliches, from sparkly pixies in bluebells to fairies with butterfly wings in an array of purples. There are some creatures I would like to see more of, so here’s a few examples — and some ideas on how to keep them fresh and new!
These guys saw a rise to prominence again with Harry Potter — as bankers no less! That is a perfect example of putting a spin on an old stereotype. While still warty and rather unattractive, J.K. Rowling made expected characteristics (greed, pride, tricksy-ness) into a respectable position as the owners of Gringott’s. While goblins are known for rather nasaly cackles and boniness, there are plenty of ways to make a goblin character interesting.
- A shy goblin with a stutter.
- A chubby goblin who steals Twinkies.
- A goblin with perfectly manicured nails who only wears designer clothes.
Dryads are the traditional tree spirits of Greek mythology,but they also exist in Celtic mysticism and neo-paganism. I haven’t seen any interesting dryads lately (although I try to write them into my trilogy!), but David Eddings wrote some fun ones. Instead of being trees themselves, his dryads were humanoid creatures who were tied to a specific tree but could mate with humans. They were also all female and very frisky — with a fondness for chocolate.
Dryads are often depicted as scantily-clad and anatomically correct females. Here’s some ideas for making them different.
- Make them androgynous, male, or asexual.
- Make them capricious or self-serving.
- A dryad who smokes — or even better, a dryad who owns a lumber company.
While your visitors might not be little green men or aliens at all, a lot of fantasy involves visitors from the Otherworld — whether that be an extraterrestrial sort of Otherworld, another dimension, or fairyland.
In recent pop culture, Paul was a great play on aliens. Irreverent, outside the box, and goofy, Paul was a visitor who defied the bright lights and tractor beam stereotypes.
Otherworldly visitors tend to be greeted with awe and shiny things. What makes them fun is changing it up with elements of the creepy, the gritty, or the unexpected. They don’t have to be godlike to inspire awe. Instead, you could have:
- A Celtic sidhe who hates whisky and goes bonkers for technology.
- A succubus from hell who happens to be a virgin.
- An alien terrified that humans are going to invade his home planet.
There are plenty of ways to make the fantastical creatures of urban fantasy and sci-fi interesting and three dimensional. Here’s a fun little exercise to open up the imagination!
Pick your critter. I’ll use vampires because they’re handy. Imagine your first picture of this creature. For instance, in spite of the fact that they’ve moved away from this norm, I still see:
Male, pale, swirling cape. Prominent fangs. Beauty. Aura of mystery. Blood.
Now. Start switching these things — take the opposites.
Female, copper-skinned. Spandex. Tiny teeth and an awkward appearance. Reading a tabloid and sipping orange Fanta.
By articulating the stereotypes, it’s easy to combat them and create more interesting characters — or you could even show someone a stereotype and make them think you’re giving them a vampire only to have it be an ill-informed alien or an amnesiac who believes he’s the reincarnation of Vlad Tepes.
Great writing keeps you guessing and delights you with surprises — if you can do that, the markets matter less and less.
How do you create your fantasy creatures? What are your favorite standouts from current urban fantasy? What’s got you hot to trot right now? What do you want to see more of?
- Mommy, Why do Vampires Sparkle? (emmiemears.com)
- Treading the Tightrope Between Worlds (emmiemears.com)