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Writing Excuses 7.2: World Building Flora and Fauna

Writing Excuses 7.2: World Building Flora and Fauna


Key Points: Use descriptive names. Realistic evolutionary biology versus that's cool. You don't have to explain everything. Consider water, wood, other finite resources. Consider food. And what about lifecycles? And don't forget weather! Work animals build civilization. Another resource is extinct animals.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Seven, Episode Two, World Building Flora and Fauna.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.

[Brandon] All right. Flora and fauna, world building. It's self descriptive. We're going to talk about building the plants and animals for your science fiction or fantasy book. So, this is a big, big topic. I thought we'd start by seeing if anyone could lay any sort of... Some easy rules of thumb for how you can build up your vegetation and your plant life, and errors that people make. Mary, you're nodding your head.
[Mary] Well, this is a trick I use in short stories where you don't have a lot of room. That is that I play with the names. So I named things descriptively. Like bark mellon, fuzzy worm. These immediately tell you that this is not something that you have on Earth, but it also gives you...
[Brandon] A feel of what it is.
[Mary] Exactly.
[Brandon] That's a really nice trick.
[Howard] What's interesting is that if you look at the South African... The names of a lot of the animals in South Africa in Afrikaans... It's Dutch settlers basically looking at something and saying, "Oh, my gosh, what is that? Wildebeest!"
[Mary] Well, that's actually what I... Yeah, wild beast. That's actually where I came up with the trick, because most animal and plant names... Like strawberries. Those are berries that are planted in the straw.
[Brandon] Yup. It starts that way a lot of different cultures.
[Mary] Blueberries. Oh, my goodness, what could those possibly be?

[Brandon] Right. Okay. That's a good trick. What else? What other advice can we give? One of the things that I will suggest, that if you're... One of the big decisions you're going to have to make when you're doing this is whether you're going to look at realistic evolutionary biology or if you're just going to say what... And decide what's cool. This is a constant tug-of-war for the fantasy writer.
[Dan] Okay. Now in light of this, Brandon, why don't you talk us through a little bit of the animals you created for Way of Kings. Because... Like the giant crabs and stuff. Which side of that coin did you fall on, and why?
[Brandon] I usually start with the "this is cool" how can I explain it with as much science as possible. That's what I do with my fantasy. [Howl in the background] So Way of Kings has giant crustaceans. I wanted... Why did I want to do this? I haven't seen it done very much. I thought it would look interesting. I felt dragons were overplayed and some of these other giant reptiles, giant beasts that you see. I wanted to do giant crab monsters. So from there, I had to try and decide what was going to be the science of it. So I actually had to decrease the gravity on the planet, and actually build in finally some magical reasons why these things could exist. Which is fine in fantasy. In fact, I like this in fantasy, because it ties the magical aspects into the world building and creates a cohesive whole. But it is the cheating that we can do in fantasy that you can't do in science fiction... Cue luxury from Howard.

[Howard] I cheat all the time, but it's a different sort of cheating. I want the biology to look... I want the biology to look real, I want the biology to look plausible and well thought out, but often all I'm showing you are the interesting bits up top and I'm explaining... Sometimes in a footnote, sometimes not even bothering to explain it at all. Hey, you know what, there's a good reason for this, but I've only given you the tiny half of 1% of the biology on this planet. There's another 99.5% that explains why these flowers can eat people.
[Brandon] Yup. I really do think... You're going to just want to ask yourself these questions... How much... If it's a story that's got a hard science aspect to it and you want to talk about the actual evolution and reason these aspects exist in an alien flora and fauna... That's great. That's a type of story. A lot of fantasy, you're not going to want to do this, probably. You're going to want to have some good, rational reasons, but rational doesn't necessarily mean scientific.
[Howard] When I picked up Larry Niven's Legacy of Heorot, the back cover blurb... Some blurb that I read about it said, "This book was inspired by the fact that we were looking at biology and found this African frog who has some really, really nasty habits." That was all the information they gave us. Well, in Legacy of Heorot, you realize that there are these horrible, horrible monsters who gender change when there's no males or females around. What they will end up doing is laying lots of eggs, and making lots of baby fish, which they then eat because if they don't eat them, one of them is going to grow up and become a competitor to them. It was fascinating to look at. The thing that the story turned on is that when you kill the top predators, suddenly all of these little fish that you been ignoring because you didn't think they were related grow up and you are just swarmed by these predators [gunshot in the background] I recommend the book to anybody who wants to look at how a science fiction writer takes a neat piece of real biology from our world and extrapolates it into a fascinating, fascinating story.

[Brandon] Excellent. Yeah. Do we have any tips... Any other tips for doing this ourselves? One thing I'm going to suggest is for our own world... If it's going to be similar to our own... Where the water is in a given biome really influences how the creatures live. That may be the single most fundamentally important thing in explaining the flora and fauna. So look toward the... Whatever the resource equivalent of water is. Usually, for a lot of fantasy writers, it's going to be the water. Where is the water? How do they get to the water? How does the water involve their breeding cycles, because it usually does influence the breeding cycles of the flora and fauna? Build yourself your creatures and your plants from there.
[Mary] Also, wood. Wood is another thing that has a huge impact on a civilization. Iceland is really interesting because they started off having wood, and cut it all down. There are no trees... There are very small stands of extremely scrubby trees. So that meant that by the time the British came around in World War II, everybody was living in turf houses. Because that's what you could build out of. The wood was stuff that washed up on the shore from other places.
[Brandon] That's really cool. Yeah.
[Howard] Easter Island is actually the same way.
[Mary] Yeah. But it's something to look at, that when you have your people there... That looking at which resources are finite, and what happens when these two things interact. Like if you have a civilization that is building lots and lots of things out of wood, at some point they're going to run out, if they're on an island.
[Brandon] So another one I would suggest to you, building your creatures and plants... Think about what eats what. Water is number one, food is number two. What eats what? And so, what are your apex predators, because there's always going to be one or two. They are generally going to have fewer children, fewer offspring. They're going to breed a little less frequently, or at least have smaller litters. They're going to have a smaller population than the thing below them. Which is often going to eat the plants. Which then are going to have to actually grow very quickly, because something is eating them. [Throbbing in background] Which are different from the plants that grow very slowly that a lot of other creatures live in. This is just kind of a basic ecology. Is that the right word? It doesn't seem like the right word.
[Howard] Ecology's a good word.

[Brandon] All right. I think I'll stop us here for our book of the week. Which is A Fire upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge. This is probably my favorite science fiction book of all time. It's very appropriate here because he has one of the most fascinating alien races I've ever read. Which is a low-tech alien race, just starting to attain sentience. It's like a group mind where you'll have four or five individuals that get together and make one personality. Fascinating. It's also got lots of great human characters interacting with these. It's a brilliant book. One of the best science fiction books ever written. It's got kind of an epic feel to it. He just did a sequel a couple months ago. Brilliant book. I highly recommend it to anyone who's interested in world building at all.
[Howard] Excellent. Head on out to You can download a free copy of A Fire upon the Deep, after kicking off a 14 day trial membership.

[Brandon] Okay. Let's go ahead. I've got another thing that I can suggest, if you're thinking about writing flora and fauna of your books. Lifecycles. The lifecycles of your creatures... This is actually something that's really interesting to play with. It is also something that you should consider. What are... Do they have a... How fast do things mature? Do they have a different form? Do they have a pupa and then an adult form? [Cardboard box breaking open in the background] These sorts of things. Dan, when we were talking about this podcast, you mentioned Dune.
[Dan] Yeah. Dune is a wonderful example of... And Dune is kind of cheating, because Frank Herbert was an ecologist, and Dune is about ecology almost before it's about anything else. So he... Basically, and I don't know if this was his process, I have to assume that he started with the same process Brandon did, of what would be awesome. How about gigantic worms that my characters can ride around on?
[Brandon] Exactly.
[Dan] Then working backwards from there... Why is life cycle important? Because he's able to find little bits of this... The worms' lifecycle that play into every aspect of the culture on this planet. From there, every aspect of the universe. I mean, the spice that the worms create is what makes space travel possible. Another really good example of this... And again, it's a story where the ecology is kind of the whole point, is Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card.
[Brandon] Fantastic book.
[Dan] Where the lifecycle of these different plants and animals on the planet are the root of the whole mystery.
[Brandon] Yeah. And even the cultural aspect of the aliens.
[Dan] They become very, very interesting.
[Brandon] Really great. But research... There are Earth cultures that have kind of based their lives around the migration habits and lifecycles of a distinct animal or a plant during hunter gatherer sort of society. I mean, the Native Americans with how they move with the buffaloes and how they regarded the buffalo... This is a great way to kickstart you into thinking about how the cultures of your world will interact with the ecology.
[Howard] James P. Hogan's Giants novels... He turns some of this on its head a little bit. You were talking earlier about apex predators and the like. One of the discoveries in the books is that these planets had... Or this planet... The evolution... Animal life on the planet had all evolved very toxic blood. Plants hadn't, but the animals had. All of the animals were vegetarians, because the switch to become a carnivore... Just the bit didn't get thrown that allowed you to not die from eating somebody else's meat. Those critters when they discovered Earth thought our planet was just an absolutely horrid, horrid nightmare planet. Because everything eats everything else.
[Brandon] Oh, that's a genius. That's a genius story. Wow. Do we have anything else? Mary, you had mentioned the idea of weather?

[Mary] Yes! I was like, I know that I did. Yeah. One of the things to look at when you're developing the flora and fauna is what the weather patterns are, and where they are. Because with the exception of things like Dune, for the most part, planets are not homogenous in the way the weather plays. So that's going to have a huge impact on the way flora and fauna...
[Dan] No, but I've seen Star Wars. Every planet is just one... The ice planet, the desert planet, the forest planet. Come on!
[Mary] Sorry. You're right.
[Brandon] What are we thinking? Speaking of ways that people do things wrong...
[Dan] Well, before we get into the ways people can do things wrong, I want to promote one resource in particular, which is the book Guns, Germs, and Steel. Which takes a really interesting look at how civilizations develop with different plants and animals around them. One thing I had never considered before is, you look at the areas of the world that have civilizations less technologically advanced than others. They tend to have animals that don't work very well as pack animals. You talked about the Native Americans. They had the buffalo. Buffalo is a horrible pack animal. Impossible to domesticate. You can't use it to plow a field, you can't use it as a work animal that moves stone around to build big buildings. Whereas in Europe and Asia, they had horses, they had elephants that could do these things very easily. So that's another thing to consider as you look at the effects that plants and animals are going to have.
[Brandon] That's great.

[Mary] The other thing that I've found handy is looking at things that have gone extinct. Because a lot of times, they have gone extinct for... Giant meteors hitting the earth. But they are a good source for looking at creating animals that don't bear any resemblance to what we have now.
[Brandon] Yeah. No, that's a very good point. We have... I think there is enough we can talk on this. We really should can of worms... Going into another episode eventually on flora and fauna, specifically things people do wrong, because we didn't even get there. So I'm going to go ahead and use my powers as moderator and say we've run out of time. Let's go ahead and make sure we do a second podcast on this. Let's go ahead and bring it out right now and throw a writing prompt at Dan.
[Dan] At me?
[Brandon] Yeah. Ha ha.
[Dan] Okay. Well.
[Brandon] You looked like you were dozing.

[Dan] No, I don't. I'm hiding it very well. What I want you to do is take...
[Dan] Thank you, Howard. Take an animal that is... Because I was just talking about this... A horrible pack animal. Take a pig. Then devise a culture where someone has actually trained pigs to plow fields, and to move all this stuff, and how does that work when your only pack animal is a wild boar... Or a domesticated boar?

[Brandon] Okay. Thank you very much, Dan. That was actually pretty... Very good.
[Dan] You sound so surprised.
[Brandon] This is... Howard chair trying to put our listeners to sleep. Most of them are commuting right now, I think. So if you cause a wreck, I'm sending them to your insurance.
[Dan] Writing Excuses disavows all knowledge of the man who caused this wreck.
[Howard] Your writing prompt. Come up with a good excuse for why you rear ended that car in front of you.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: awesome, explanations, flora and fauna, lifecycles, realism, resources, weather, world building
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