Everybody loves Hobbits and Thestrals and Wookies.
What do these creatures all have in common? They are unique to their particular stories or worlds (as in Middle-Earth, the Harry Potter series, and Star Wars, respectively). It’s fun to read about (or watch) new creatures in fantasy stories, and it’s just as fun to create them. Inventing the name for your new creature, what the adults look like versus what the babies look like, culture and language, what they eat, where they live. All of these are important world-building tasks, especially if you’re inventing a new species from scratch. We all want to be original and have our fantastical races stand out in the fantasy-creatures crowd.
But I’d like to make the argument that it’s okay to be unoriginal – at least to start with. Thousands of years of human culture has given us hundreds of amazing and creative creatures in mythology and folktales from around the world.
Don’t be afraid to populate your fantasy world with unicorns, dragons, fairies, goblins, and other “common” fantasy creatures. There are as many ways to be unique with these already-established tropes as there are people to write them.
For example, both Middle-Earth and the Wizarding World (of Harry Potter) have dragons. But the dragon Smaug from The Hobbit is a very different creature from the Hungarian Horntail from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Yes, they are both large, dangerous animals that breathe fire and are covered in scales – and are therefore both recognizable as a “dragon” in the generic sense. But because Tolkien and Rowling set up the rules of their worlds differently, that’s about where the similarity ends. The Horntail is simply a dangerous beast, whereas Smaug is an intelligent being possessing magic powers and ancient knowledge.
For all their originality, both J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling had no problem using already-established fantasy creatures to help populate their worlds. Along with Hobbits and Ents, Middle-Earth is also full of elves, dragons, dwarves, and goblins. Similarly, Rowling uses unicorns, dragons, and goblins, plus a host of other mythological creatures like a phoenix, a hippogriff, and a basilisk.
If you’re looking for something more unique and uncommon, delve deep into less well-known mythologies and you can find some pretty fantastical beings, like the Inuit Qiqirn or the Slavic Vodyanoy. Just like with the more common fantasy creatures, you can add your own elements to their appearance or behavior or culture, or you can use these as a jumping-off point for your own creations.
If you’re stuck for ideas on creating fantasy creatures for your stories, then don’t hesitate to use some of these “ordinary” creatures. Start with a dragon or a unicorn or a hippogriff, and then let your imagination run wild and make the creature your own. Change its looks, behavior, or typical intelligence to fit the rules of the world you’ve created, and soon you’ll have a fully original fantasy creature, made especially for your world.