Writing Excuses 7.2: World Building Flora and Fauna

Let’s build the plants and animals for your science fiction or fantasy book!

We begin with a discussion about naming, and about deciding how much evolutionary biology to put into creating cool beasties. We also talk about planning a food chain, building around water, and considering other resources (especially wood, for growing fantasy civilizations.)

Other considerations include migration patterns, life-cycles, and the possibility of turning the whole thing on its head.

We offer examples from Dune, Legacy of Heorot, Inherit the Stars, Ender’s Game, and other places. And if you’re looking for resources, check out Guns, Germs, and Steel.


Take a horrible, hard-to-domesticate animal, and then create a culture in which somebody has figured out how to domesticate these beasties.

A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge, narrated by Peter Larkin

39 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 7.2: World Building Flora and Fauna”

  1. As a child I loved reading the bestiary of a D&D world almost more than I enjoyed playing the game. So much so that I created many of my own for projects that rarely advanced beyond the bestiary, atlas and pretty pictures phase.

    Verisimilitude is great. Detail is great. Finishing a book – priceless!

    I didn’t know what a bestiary was until I found D&D.

  2. So, I had not heard of Guns, Germs, and Steel before you guys mentioned it, this book is going on my to buy/to read list, thanks for the heads up.

  3. What are people’s thoughts on combining common and fantastic creatures in a secondary world fantasy setting? It always felt odd to me to explain some flying, two-headed serpent in detail (including why it exists, what it eats, etc), and then have the story’s hero ride a horse. Are my readers to believe that the fantastic evolution that created so many strange beasts also just happened to produce horses?

    On the other hand, re-creating entire ecosystems sounds like a lot of work! I suppose it worked for the movie Avatar, but horses, dogs and birds seem such fantasy staples. What do other folks do in their fiction?

  4. Not that I’m a large fan of Avatar or anything, however, I feel that the flora and fauna are exactly what makes that story. It gives the ground work for the fundamental conflict between humans and all life on that planet.

    I think it’s fairly important to note however, that providing a reason or evolutionary context for the existence of our created Flora and Fauna is not nearly as important as perhaps following Sanderson’s First Law. Switch Magic with Flora and Fauna, and there you go.

    E.G. Avatar. We don’t know why the ecology of that planet developed in a manner where everything was connected so intimately. However, as viewers we understand that it is so, and it is clearly shown to us throughout the protagonists character arc, and the overall development of the story.

  5. Another thing to consider is luxury goods. Things like red and purple dyes, ivory, and ambergris all come from very specific animals. If trade is a thing, those precious commodities will often drive an economy. How common or rare cochineal/dye snails are will also affect whether only royalty wear red and purple.

  6. Well, Single Biome (ice world, desert world) planets can exists (in fact Earth has been one several times in it’s existence) if the planet is going through and ice age, or you have a super-continent grouping at a certain latitude or going through a intense period of volcanism. Or that life there is rather minimum (bacteria-analogues).

    I wrote a post about it sometime ago:


    Hope it helps.

  7. Some minor details of Guns Germs and Steel are wrong. For example, people often followed coast lines rather than travel east to west… this is because the least poisonous materials come from the sea–how many poisonous fish do you know? How many poisonous seaweed? Now tick off the list of plants. There are only 1 species of poisonous seaweed in Great Britain. Thousands of poisonous plants (Some of which we cook and select) and very few poisonous meats. Jared Diamond is more of a geographer rather than an anthropologist, so take the general idea, but verify it with real up-to-date anthropology. For example, current anthropology says that our origins are probably from Southern Africa. Jared Diamond still states it’s from Ethiopia. So stuff like that. Besides, researching always breeds plot bunnies. (I love the plot bunny from early migration of humans to agriculture.)

    Though I should note that there was a good study that said that spicy and well-spiced foods tend to be around the equator because some spices (oregano being the best) contribute to killing bacteria. Keeping and finding stuff like that is enough to keep an Other World builder in business for a while.

    I was also chanting “Smeerp! Smeerp!” the entire time. I guess they will come next time. (Only place that worked well is Monty Python’s Caerbannog. ^_^ Rabbit with fangs. Classic.) But you didn’t get to that yet.

  8. One thing not yet mentioned about the fantasy duality between mundane horses and, say, hydra, existing on the same planet, is literal deus ex machina. If I recall my Greek mythology correctly, the Hydra, and most of the other weird and fantastic creatures either have no known origins or are traced to the whimsy of some god.

    For this to work, of course, you need deities taking an active role in your story, which is far from every fantasy story.

  9. Thank you Mary, Dan, Howard and Brandon for doing this podcast. I just realized today–well, rerealized– how much I look forward to these episodes. They take away some of the insecurities I inevitably feel when working on my manuscripts. The info is great and you guys are fun to listen to. Today’s episode was no exception, it was very timely for my project. It gave me a lot to consider.

  10. Thank you. This was very informative and helpful.

    This may be a little off topic, but I had a questions for the podcasters. How do you stay organized while writing an epic story with this type of worldbuilding? I know how to keep a bestiary and such, but my problem tends to be with the keeping the plot orderly enough to manage. I have this massive plot I have been building for the last fifteen years and every time I change something in it my whole organization system falls apart.

    Do you have any tips or tricks for maintaining organization over the course of an epic story on the scope of Wheel of Time? Maybe I can can-of-worms Brandon talking about how he learned to organize after taking over Robert Jordan’s work.

  11. I’d seen Guns, Germs and Steel awhile back in the bookstore and thought it interesting. Will have to add it to my next round of book purchases (Have way too many sitting around needing to be read first).

  12. I don’t know if this fits here, but I’ll mention it anyway.

    When the Vikings came to what’s now Manhattan (New York) they encountered the native population (native americans) and in a show of peace gave them some of their food and drink. The next day the native americans attacked, probably because they thought they had been poisoned.

    They had lived in a land where there was no domesticatred cattle and therefore hadn’t drunk milk. They had lactose intolerance or had maybe even fullblown milk allergy.

    This is at least what I’ve heard.

  13. @Howard Tayler: Thanks so much Howard. I forgot about that episode. It was just what I needed. You guys are awesome.

  14. I always feel guilty using the ‘whimsy of gods (or godlike beings)’ excuse when populating my world with fantasy and mundane creatures. Fortunately most of my stories are centered around cities, so I can cheat and just not talk about it much.

  15. I’m going to plug another science fiction book that created a great, interesting ecology. In Mary Doria Russell’s “The Sparrow” and it’s sequel, “Children of God,” humans find a world with two sentient species, one of which basically farms the other. I’d highly recommend reading both since the second shows what happens when the predatory species gets overthrown.

    On Guns, Germs, and Steel: no, it’s not perfect–there are certainly things I’d quibble over (I’m a geologist), but it’s very thought-provoking, and in a different direction than I think most of us naturally take with regard to societal evolution. I’d recommend also reading Diamond’s “Collapse,” especially for those thinking about post-apocalyptic fiction writing.

    Thanks for a great show!

  16. Hey, completely off topic, but is there any chance we can get a ‘cast on image management? Especially the darker side (self-censorship both on the page and off).

    It’s something I’m particularly interested in/worried about, since I come up with a lot of my character arc/romantic subplots by wondering ‘How can I present something innately squicky in a sympathetic/positive way?’ and argue a lot of unpopular positions on the Penny Arcade forums with zero anonymity.

  17. Here’s my struggle with this, and maybe someone can help: just how “alien” do I go? Here’s what I mean:

    If my setting is an alien planet, with its own ecology with completely different animals, I can set that all up, but then I have to spend a lot of extra time naming and describing these creatures, and to a point, their role in the world. In a visual medium, i.e. movies like Avatar, it’s much easier and quicker to present. I don’t want to have to stop every time I mention a spelbog or higworm to put into words the imagine in my head, but if I don’t, the reader will have no idea what I’m talking about. I feel like I’d just get bogged down in the details.

    On the other hand, if I just go with the standard (horses, oxen, bears, etc.) I don’t have to explain what they look like and what they are. But, if I’ve spent so much time setting up this alien world, blue sun, red foliage, more moons, different seasons and cycles, etc., then expect the reader to believe all the wildlife just happens to be the same as here on earth, that seems like a stretch.

    I’m sure this is why many fantasy books have a very earth-like setting, with only a few changes needed by the plot introduced. Maybe I’m biting off more than I can chew, but I’d like to find a happy medium. Any thoughts?

  18. @Jeff
    Well, who is naming the creatures? If the answer is people from Earth, you can have weird creatures be named after the real ones that they sort of resemble. Or you can take the route of the other Avatar and mash two animals together with the occasional real animal.

  19. So, I just managed to get around to listening to the pod cast this week and I gasped at the writing prompt. Did none of you remember the movie “Willow” – where they were using pigs to plow fields? Tsk tsk ;)

    TO an earlier comment about nothing being really being poisonous along the shore lines – What if the water itself was poisonous? People would fear travelling to new lands, storms at sea bring up far more danger and once safely there to a new land, you wouldn’t hug the coast, but spread inland. Just an idea.

  20. One way I have thought of doing the fauna is to have animals we recognise named after their appearance. For instance a Tiger can be the called a Razor cat or something.

    I think there should be some animals we recognise like a horse and dog. Some animals we have comes with preconceptions or are very iconic, an example would be a wolf and that can be good to keep if you want to use that well of preconceptions that people have.

    Another way to make it interesting would be to push an animal group to be a more dominating group. Maybe insects are bigger and more numerous.

    Depending on the landscape it might be an advantage to be able to fly. Then you can shift some animals we know and make them airborn, it’s a cliché but flying monkeys could work.

  21. This episode reminds me of my biggest world building hang up, which is time. How do you create time systems and how different should a time system be from our own when writing fantasy? I would love to hear an episode on this.

  22. @Lita: Willow may be an example of using pigs to plow, but it’s not actually an example of what we were talking about. It was used as humor in the movie (“Hey, look, compared to these little people a pig is the size of an ox!”) but the implications of using hard-to-train animals as draft animals weren’t covered.

    The pig won’t keep pulling, not unless there’s motivation. Maybe a society that requires pig-power resorts to pig treadmills, or maybe in order to get the field plowed you have to go through a whole bushel of apples.

  23. You guys mentioned horses and elephants as pack animals in Europe, and the writing prompt about pigs as work animals. Fun fact: Moose have also been used to pull plows, sleighs and carts.


    This week’s book pick was “Fire Upon the Deep” by Vernor Vinge, but that book costs 2 credits on Audible.com, so you can’t actually download it with your free trial. Not unless they’re running the 2 free credits special again (correct me if I’m wrong).

    I wanted to buy it for a long time but the cost prevented me (that’s $30 if you use your monthly credits!). And every other Vinge book also costs 2 credits. Makes no sense to me, plenty of 40+ hour books on Audible only cost 1 credit each.

    1. Good catch, Josh. Usually we select a book one or more of us like, and we make sure it’s available on Audible. We’ll be more careful to check the credit-count in the future.

  25. Just came across these podcasts recently (via Dan Wells’ fabulous 7 Points videos on YouTube), and I’ve been listening to archived podcasts while I brainstorm setting and character for the story I’m working on. I want you to know how much I appreciate what you’re doing here. It’s useful, and encouraging, and a hoot to listen to. I may be in a hurry, and you may not be that smart, but I sure feel lucky to have found your site.

    P.S. Missed you yesterday. Thank you for that!

  26. Great cast, a subject I am always looking to learn about. Which is why I have Guns, Germs, and Steel sitting in the next to be read pile. After Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, have waited a long time to get my hands on it. Building a world out logically is always rough.

  27. One of the things I find helpful is to keep aware of the various biomes and ecological niches that are represented in an analogous place on earth…then imagine creatures who fill the same niche in my created world. Say I have an environment that work for an ambush hunter, then I look at modern ambush hunters from trap door spiders to crocodiles to deep sea angler fish to get a sense of the means and methods put to use in nature…then I start playing…what if I want an ambush hunter similar in attack to a croc, but I want it to be warm blooded, possibly mammalian. Then as suggested it can be helpful to peruse extinct life forms to see if any hunted this way. In this case there was…the ancestors of whales and dolphins began as packing ambush hunters who waited for prey in the shallow waters of the now extinct Tethys sea.

    Another tool to use is to recall the effects climate zones have on related animal groups. Take deer, at one end you have small dog sized, tusked barking deer which live in the tropical brush, and at the other end you have mooses, elk, and caribou. Or look at the range of possible sizes in modern dogs…from teacup chihuahuas to Irish deerhounds. Notice also that the colder the climate the greater the need to conserve body heat, so representative species as a rule will be larger. The arctic fox and arctic hare are much larger than their temperate cousins. Grisly bears and polar bears tower over the temperate black bear and the even smaller more tropical sun bear. That doesn’t mean warm climates don’t have creatures of size, they do, just look at elephants, hippos, gorillas, jaguars, etc. But given these factors and size varieties you can postulate how one basic creaturely form could propagate and vary in different climates and available ecological niches. In one place it may be the apex predator, in another an innocuous nocturnal insectivore.

    Geographic isolation can produce interesting creatures too. The giant mammoths that got stuck on Wrangel island needed to conserve food resources and dwindled to dwarfs…hardly the size of a descent bison. In the caribbean after water levels rose following the end of the last ice age, a species of giant rodent (more like giant guinea pigs) the size of bears, some 9 feet at the shoulder were stranded on some of the larger islands.

    Finally look at extremophiles and near extremophiles to get a sense of just how far a basic form can be shaped to new ends. Consider the naked mole rat…it already looks alien. It’s a mammal, a rodent, but it has adapted to live in many respects like insects. It lives in colonies with queens which are monsters of fertility and sterile worker and soldier drones…and when it’s breeding time, the queen pumps out an oversized super male to go speed its genetic joy with some nubile young naked mole rat queen just setting up house…or taking over elsewhere if his services are not needed at home.

    So pick a niche, look at the generalized creatures that thrive there…model your own creature, then go all play doh on it’s niches and figure out how it will have to adapt or die. Soon enough you will have quite a menagerie to play with. For example; what would you end up with if mole rats developed a giant form like the ones that used to live in the Caribbean? And what would happen if humans were able to insert themselves into these creatures social structure so as to at least semi domesticate them over the centuries. What kind of society could grow up with the help of such creatures….sound’s like an industrious hobbit’s dream creature…or a goblin’s.

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