One of the things I’m attempting to do with my current fantasy novel is to stuff it full of animal life–not only because Rhi and Ferrus are naturalists, hunters, and proto-zoo keepers. But it’s always been a pet peeve (no pun intended) that the fauna is very often lacking in fantasy worlds.
I think it’s a failure of understanding on our parts as writers. We live in a person-oriented time; we live and write in cities; we live in climate controlled boxes, and wildlife really isn’t much of a daily consideration. We vastly outnumber animal–or perceive that we do. And if we’re not looking for them, it’s easy to overlook how many we pass by even in a city: sparrows and pigeons, rats and squirrels, cats and dogs, bats and the insects we never see unless they impinge in our personal space. But there are so many animals moving around us, living their lives.
And in a fantasy world–which is so often under-populated, agrarian, and rustic (no climate control for these folks!)–the characters would be constantly exposed to or dealing with wildlife. As small as the weevils infesting the flour and as large as oh, say a stampede of bison. Mostly what I see in fantasy is the domesticated animal–the horse, the cat, the hound, the message pigeon or the magical versions of those. I see the dangerous animals–the dragons, the wolves, the serpents. I see the food animals–chickens and rabbits and fish. I see human-adjacent animals, basically. The ones that have uses to humans or the ones who threaten humans. I don’t see the rest. The vast array of the rest.
I want to see them.
I crave them.
The lizard skittering across the leaves. The butterflies that migrate through the hero’s path. The freaking dung beetles. The scavengers. The song birds. The harmless pests. The spiders that aren’t poisonous. The garter snakes. The alligator sunning on the bank with the anhinga clicking and croaking away. I want the fantasy world full of animal sounds. I want cicadas droning away. I want my characters to be sleeping outside by their firepit and be woken by possums poking around or to have an annoying owl hooting all night over head.
So my challenge to all of us is to just look for the animals in our world then apply that number to our fantasy worlds. I get up. I see my pets. I go outside. I startle robins on my lawn. I drive to work. I see red-tailed hawks on the wires. I park in the parking garage. I see sparrows and pigeons. At night, in warmer weather, there are bats darting around the tall streetlights. I dig in the garden and turn up worms and cicada grubs–white and unfinished and ghostly–and spiders skitter away from my hands. A trip to Home Depot brings me more sparrows in the rafters, their wing beats audible even when they’re not. A flash of movement. I can smell skunk on the road from a conflict I never saw. Coyotes run the park and I hear them yipping. An owl cries “who cooks for you”. Pillbugs wander through my garage. And my cats kill stinkbugs and wrinkle their noses at the acrid smell. In the spring, an orb weaver covers my door every night and has to have its web wiped away with my leaving. My life is FULL of animals. And I live a sedate life in the city.
So my question is why should our fantasy characters lead a less full life than we do?
If you’re a writer and you’re writing fantasy (or even science fiction–don’t get me started how somehow all the animals have vanished in SF), do that for me. Look for the “unimportant” animals in your life. Count them up. And then, apply that to your characters.
Also, if you know of any good writers who do include the “irrelevant” animals, sing out and let me know!