Turning Reality Into Fantasy: A Wild Example

Feast your eyes on this big game!  This 1,300-pound deer stood– if you include the antlers– about as tall as the average elephant.  That’s enough to get any redneck salivating– but sorry, hunters.  It’s been almost 8,000 years since this beast walked the face of planet Earth.  In this, the first of an ongoing series, I’ll discuss implementing elements of the past into the fantasy fiction genre; specifically, wildlife.

Wildlife has always, to me, felt like something that has been taken for granted in the fantasy genre.  Typically, there are a few outlandishly fantastic creatures– dragons, trolls, orcs, etc.– that are given to us with a sickeningly unnecessary surplus of description.  But with these incredible exceptions, we are usually left to assume that the rest of the wildlife in the fantasy world we are visiting is basically not unlike our own.  Horses, deer, squirrels, birds, and, yeah, whatever…

This is a real shame, in my opinion, because that random wildlife that blends into the background could be a goldmine for transporting the reader out of the familiarity of his/her world and into an entirely new one.  That is why I do my best never to take the background for granted.  When building a fantasy world, I want creatures that go beyond regular old horses, deer and nondescript birds, but I also want to keep a semblance of reality.

That is why, for the wildlife of The Fallen Odyssey, I drew from an already abundant resource: the fossil record.  Earth’s prehistory is filled with creatures that look, at once, real and fantastic.  As a quick example, allow me to introduce you to the Irelk.

The Irelk

It was a huge, elk-like animal– seven feet tall at the shoulders, covered in red fur with white speckles across the back.  Atop its head was a set of antlers, shovel-shaped like a moose, and so large that Justin could hardly believe it was able to stand.  A full-grown steed could fit within the cradle of its enormous, palmate antlers.  All this he saw in the split second it took for the animal to react to their approach and bolt into the trees.

“That was the biggest animal I’ve ever seen!” Justin said, still not sure he could believe his own eyes.

– from The Fallen Odyssey by C.B. McCullough

Its presence is brief, but the Irelk has a lasting impression on our young, lost protagonist– and, hopefully, the reader.  What follows is a discussion between characters about various other large creatures, including tusked beasts with skin like armor, flightless, twelve-foot-tall birds, and colossal land mammals.  From here on out, Justin– a boy from Earth– can assume nothing.  There are animals in this world that are beyond his experience.

Now for a look at the real-life counterpart of the fictional Irelk…

The Irish Elk (Megaloceros giganteus)

The Irish Elk was the biggest deer that ever lived, standing seven feet tall at the shoulders with antlers that measured twelve feet wide, from tip-to-tip.  It had palmate antlers (leaf-shaped like a moose, not branch-shaped like an elk) and, despite its name, is not closely related to any living species of elk.

Like many of the Pleistocene “megafauna,” the Irish Elk was much larger than any modern-day counterpart.  This was a typical trend during the last ice age, when larger body size gave mammals a distinct advantage– like the wooly mammoth and the giant ground sloth.

Like most of the megafaunal creatures of the last ice age, the Irish Elk has long since gone extinct, but it is interesting to imagine prehistoric man hunting down game of such magnitude.

Turning Reality Into Fantasy

Exotic locales and supernatural creatures are a staple of the fantasy genre, but so much of world-building is focused on creating detailed maps with interesting-sounding place-names, that I think some of the most simple and yet effective means of transportive storytelling devices get overlooked.  I would challenge writers not to overlook the “background” and instead bring all dimensions of storytelling into focus to create something new and wonderfully unique.

Write long, and prosper.  – CB

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8 thoughts on “Turning Reality Into Fantasy: A Wild Example

  1. Oh, I absolutely agree. Me, I’m fascinated by trees, and their apparent immortality. The Yew, for example, doesn’t rot away and die along with its trunk: its branches droop down, establish roots, gradually take the weight of the rest of the tree, and become new trunks. Several new trees are thus born, all sharing the DNA of the original one. No wonder it’s called the Resurrection Tree, and planted in graveyards.
    Now, just imagine that the tree is also sentient … and so a new fantasy world comes into existence.

    1. That could play a very cool role in some sort of fantasy setting… And I do find myself trying to focus on trees when writing a strange new environment. Too often in the fantasy genre, our heroes are in “a forest” but we get little description of what the forest is like. Thanks for the comment. It’s important to see the trees through the forest.

  2. As an Australian, I regularly use Australian animals in my fantasy, like kangaroos, that are far from standard in standard fantasy, which tends mostly towards European wildlife.

    In one setting, I have also used the extinct Australian megafauna. They are similar to current Australian species, but a lot bigger. Hippopotamus sized wombats, three metre tall kangaroos, three metrew tall, half ton carnivorous water fowl, seven metre long, two ton goannas and a host of other fun creatures.

    1. That’s a cool and original twist on the fantasy genre– and it’s kind of too bad that it’s a “twist” at all. Why should Fantasy be typified by such a cut-and-paste cast of creatures? Glad to see others are stepping out of the mold. (I especially like the giant kangaroos part). Is any of your work currently available?

  3. It’s interesting that you posted about flora and fauna in your writing. It’s obvious from the detail of your writing that archeology training played an important role. Just so you are aware, when Justin and the Irelk crossed paths, I immediately pictured the Irish Elk. Nicely played…

    P.S. In my mind, I found myself comparing steeds to snuffleupaguses, but that reveals my prior training.

    1. For sure, a lot of anthropological theory and archaeology went into the development of The Oikoumene’s cultures and settings. And I’m glad you mentioned steeds! That’s going to be my next post in this series… Spoiler alert: they don’t come from Sesame Street 🙂

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