Classic Creatures: To Alter or Not to Alter
Thank you to Briana Vedsted for asking me to do this guest blog. Her question was how difficult it is to give creatures new abilities. This stems from how many classic monsters are taken and changed to give a new twist or suit a genre change. Dragons without fire, sparkling vampires, tall goblins, and other examples can be found throughout literature. Some are successful and others come off as horrible insults to the creature. I’m going to start with the most extreme example from my writing: Orcs of Windemere.
I decided that I wanted to make a major change to the orcs in my fantasy world. Now, you can change the appearance of a lot of creatures relatively easily as long as you keep a few key features. For orcs, this is large size and pronounced incisors of either overbite or underbite variety. I changed up their color (made them gray) and gave them perpendicular ears, but the big change was in attitude. Orcs are typically the vicious savages that need to be slain by the heroes because they side with the villain. In Windemere, I gave them a central government and replaced their bestial nature with a wild philosopher mentality. There are still orc bandits that wish to do harm, but there are such groups of all races in Windemere. The orc government even goes political by letting the bandits survive to remind the other races what would happen if the orcs had no central government. Another twist on the orcs is that a female orc is statuesque, blonde, and more gorgeous than another other non-magical race. This is because in orc history, they were cursed to find their women repulsive and never breed. The female orcs set out to reverse the curse and ended up being transformed to undo the curse. So, they’re a beauty and the beast society that rarely sees anyone as beautiful or ugly.
That long example brings me to the simplest answer: retain some of the original and change enough to make your creatures stand out. You should have some reasoning behind the changes too. I’m not talking about a book explanation, but your own reasoning. Remember that these creatures have survived in literature for longer than you’ve been writing and they have done so for a reason. A dragon can exist without fire, but you need to keep the menacing power and some reptilian features. A large bat with six legs isn’t a dragon and calling it such can be seen as the author being too lazy to come up with a name for it.
It was also asked about powers being added to monsters. For example, a Pegasus that can spit fire or a troll that can change size. This is an easier way to differ your monsters from the original, but it requires that you put some thought into it. The powers need to make some type of sense for the creature. If you have your trolls weak against fire then it makes little sense for them to be spitting it. Something like this is very sloppy and can make it too easy for the monster to be defeated. An example from my own world is that the griffins of Windemere are able to fire lightning in certain situations. At a certain age they’ve gathered enough static electricity to do this. Another ability is that they can understand every spoken language after a few words because they have been used as flying mounts of centuries. Both of these abilities make sense for their role and have a logical explanation, which helps make them more acceptable.
Now if you go very far off the beaten path, like sparkling vampires, then you should have an explanation somewhere. People are very attached to their monsters and you have to be ready for the backlash. The bigger the changes, the more necessary an in-book explanation might be. It could be a simple mention of an evolution or a demonstration of why the changes are necessary in that world. Still, you’re not going to make everyone happy with the changes you make. This is something you will have to understand, but not let it stop you. The beauty of fictional creatures is that they are malleable and you can alter them if you need to. As long as you retain the core of the creature, you can do a lot and not get yelled at too much by fans.