[GUEST POST] Rejecting Creationism: Building Better Monsters Through Evolution by James L. Sutter

James L. Sutter is the author of the novel Death’s Heretic, which Barnes & Noble ranked #3 on its list of the Best Fantasy Releases of 2011, as well as the co-creator of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game campaign setting. His short stories have appeared in such publications as Escape Pod, Starship Sofa, Apex Magazine, and the #1 Amazon bestseller Machine of Death, and his anthology Before They Were Giants pairs the first published stories of SF luminaries with new interviews and writing advice from the authors themselves. In addition, James has written numerous roleplaying game supplements and is the Fiction Editor for Paizo Publishing. For more information, check out jameslsutter.com or follow him on twitter at @jameslsutter.

Rejecting Creationism: Building Better Monsters Through Evolution

Creationism is a hot topic these days. There are constantly fights over whether it should be taught in schools, debates within religions about whether or not creationism can incorporate the idea of evolution, and so on. Yet whether you believe in creationism as literal truth or not, there’s one angle you may not have considered.

Creationism is a crappy way to design monsters.

I don’t just mean for science fiction, either–since science fiction has science right in the name, it’s hardly surprising that readers of that genre are going to expect any aliens and monsters they run across to conform to the principles of evolution. Yet even in fantasy–perhaps especially in fantasy–a little evolutionary theory can go a long way toward making your monsters and setting more interesting and engaging for the reader or player.

Think about how many times you’ve come across a bizarre monster in a fantasy game or story that captured your imagination. Perhaps it’s got giant crab claws, and a lamprey mouth, and glowing green eyes all around its head. Maybe it’s got a weird carapace that splits open like a beetle shell–whatever. The point is, you get excited about it. You want to know more–to understand how it fits into the world around it, how it got this way, how it works. So you ask the creator why the fabulous beast is the way it is.

“Oh,” he says. “It just is. I made it–I mean, God made it that way.”

Hear that noise? That’s the sound of a door closing. Of an imagination shutting down.

If this sounds out of place, consider replacing the word “God” with “a mad wizard.” Seem more familiar? In my work as a designer and developer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, I’d bet that I’ve seen several hundred monsters over the years with the backstory of “This bizarre beast was created by the experiments of a mad wizard…” It’s gotten to the point where, whenever I see a monster like that come across my desk, I immediately cross out its backstory and begin rewriting it from scratch.

Obviously, this doesn’t always work–sometimes your plot hinges on a mad wizard creating monsters, or an insane god doing the same. That’s fine. But most of the time, taking the “it was created” route with monsters is lazy and boring. It’s an imaginary dead-end, an origin story far too short to be satisfying.

(On a side note, I’m similarly intolerant of “indescribable horrors”–new writers often forget that Lovecraft actually described a lot of his creations–and obvious mash-ups. Making a bearcow or snakebird is fine, but unless you’re writing for Avatar: The Last Airbender, please fuzz the lines a little bit and make sure your chimera works together in a logical manner, rather than looking obviously stitched-together.)

Imagine, though, that we decide to give our random monster an evolutionary history. Sure, we may have picked traits at random–it’s got crab claws because we like crab claws, and a shell because we want the hero’s sword to bounce off it in the third chapter, and so on. But that’s not what we tell the reader. Instead, when someone asks why it’s got crab claws, we can use evolutionary theory to cook up any number of plausible-sounding explanations. Maybe they’re for fighting. Maybe they’re for mating displays. Maybe they’re to crack through the tough shells of the sentient mollusks which were its natural food source before that mean ol’ evil wizard dragged it onto dry land.

And what about that weird carapace? Sure, maybe it’s just a shell–lots of things have shells. But wouldn’t it be cool if it could actually fan open, like the carapace covering a beetle’s wings? And hey–maybe they are wings! Or were, once upon a time. Maybe the monster started out on dry land, and was driven into the sea when competition in that environment got too stiff. After all, in our own world, whales were essentially pig-deer things that abandoned the land in favor of getting really fat in the oceans. And if the monster was driven off the land by competition, then there’s probably some other creature that it really hates, some horrible racial enemy even more powerful…

This is the primary strength of evolutionary theory in monster creation. When used properly, it lets you spin a literally endless amount of fascinating backstory and information about your monster, simply by starting from your end point and working your way backward. Taking the time to explain how your monster developed to be the way it is, how its strange traits actually make perfect sense as adaptations to its environment, makes your monster feel real and interesting even if, in a vacuum, it might seem absurd or poorly conceived.

At this point, I should probably stop and acknowledge that I’m using the term “creationism” in a narrow and perhaps deliberately misleading way, as the opposite of evolutionary theory. It’s entirely possible that the creator god (or mad wizard) in your setting thinks about evolutionary niches and how best to adapt each creature to its environment. That’s great, but for my money, a god that creates creatures in accordance with the principles of adaptation and evolution is indistinguishable from evolution itself, and thus not a part of my argument. The only time creationism really stands out and sticks in my craw in terms of monster design is when it deliberately ignores evolutionary or environmental considerations–when something seems out of place, and the only answer is that some power-mad gene-splicer works in mysterious ways. When I see a monster that clearly can’t feed itself, in an environment that can’t support it, with no reason to be there other than to fight heroes–that bugs me. So if the term “creationist” seems deliberately provocative here, please replace it with whatever word you feel would work better.

Thinking about evolution doesn’t simply help you work backward to rationalize a monster, either. It also helps you come up with ideas and design monsters from scratch, as tailoring monsters to their environments inevitably makes them more interesting. Let’s say you’re trying to design a swamp monster for a fight with your heroes. You don’t want just another crocodile or giant snake–Conan fought enough of those for everyone, thank you very much. So instead, you take a look at some of the other creatures that live in swamps and ponds, and consider the multitude of weird traits they’ve adopted to thrive in that environment. Maybe your monster has barbels like a catfish, allowing it to smell/taste food even while blinded by murky water–or maybe it’s more like a platypus, sensing prey’s electric fields. Maybe it’s covered in hallucinogenic slime like a toad. Maybe it starts life in a tadpole phase, and adults carry those tadpoles around with them in big bulging throat sacks, ready to be sprayed over the heroes, at which point the tadpoles (much like some of the bugs that live in the swamp) burrow into the heroes’ skin and gestate, devouring them from the inside out…

See how weird this thing got in just one paragraph? And evolutionary adaptations are also vital when designing alien cultures. China Mieville’s Embassytown is a great example of how physiology influences language, but you don’t have to get that philosophical to let evolution create radically different cultures. Why would an insectile hive creature have a sense of the individual? Why would an undersea race invent stairs when they can just swim up access shafts in their floating aquatic castles? Would that monster we mentioned earlier with eyes all around its head reckon time the way most of our cultures do, in “forward” and “backward”?

With evolutionary theory, every weirdness in your monster is a potential story hook. With the creationist “mad wizard” approach, there’s only one story–that of the creator. As the true creator behind everything in your world, do you really want to constantly show your hand and remind the audience that the world was constructed? Or do you want to create a world that, like our own, seems to stand alone, so interconnected and bizarrely logical that the audience can’t help but feel that it’s real?

Remember: the interesting story about your monster isn’t that it has tentacles–it’s why it has tentacles.

13 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Rejecting Creationism: Building Better Monsters Through Evolution by James L. Sutter”

  1. Great post, thank you! I’ve gone about it both ways: monsters/villainous thingies that stem from the creation myths of a fantasy world; and aliens/weird thingies with a solid foundation in the ecology of their planet.

    This reminds me of a final exam in embryology a few years before I took the course. Depicted were a Venusian, a Martian, and a Jovian. Each had bilateral symmetry with 5 appendages on each side, appropriate to the environment (although those were stereotyped according to the guidelines established by pulp fiction of the 30s). The task was to describe their ontogeny and the key concept was that they had a common ancestor and had evolved in swamp, desert, gas clouds.

    1. Good lord, yes! Those were always my favorite–part of the reason I worked on our “revisited” line for Pathfinder (Classic Monsters Revisited, Dungeon Denizens Revisited, Misfit Monsters Revisited, etc.).

  2. I think you are confusing ecology with evolution. It doesn’t matter how the animal or creature appeared, what matters is what it is doing now.

    1. No, he’s definitely talking about the evolutionary pressures that cause an organism to develop in one way or another. That is why the whales and dolphins still breathe air, even though their ecology would suggest using gills would be a much better idea.

  3. Yes! I like my monsters to have a bit of biological plausibility.

    And if the environment changes (unexpected drought, 100 years of winter), monsters will need to deal with that along with the story’s hero.

  4. Great post.
    A friend and me had similar experiences when we designed a D&D world inspiered by legendary Greece. It was a weird experiecne. Whenever we asked ourselves, why would this and that monster be here, i.e. how does it fit into the ecosystem, we came up with some weird (or not so weird) explanations which impacted the way the world worked in the end and even how certain adventure locations were laid out.
    Complexity from simple patterns, I guess.

    1. Yes, exactly! When you start following things to their logical conclusions, you end up with a world that’s far weirder, and at the same time more realistic. It’s why I enjoy monster design so much–once you pick a few starting factors, the monster pretty much writes itself!

  5. Good points! I took this to heart with my recent Ecology of the Vegepygmy article for 4E. There was a fair amount of work done across the editions, but little that really showed how the monsters really worked ecologically. I worked in those aspects into their powers to show how they propagate and their relationship with thornies and russet mold, then wove that into their culture. Similarly, that past with a certain spaceship was woven into their limited religion and even into a companion character so that a campaign could explore these issues further.

    All of this was based on really enjoying how other designers have worked to explain ecologies in the past.

    Oh, and the Owlbear is a study in how badly the Flumph has been wronged!

  6. That makes so much sense! I knew there was a reason I was proud of the oozes in my world.

    Seriously. A dragon of immense size had died on the peak, and petrified, and the adventurers were burrowing through the body. Now the contents of the stomach of this dragon had been sitting there for centuries, so of course they’d become something black and nasty and sentient and eager for new nutrients…

    In a similar vein, the wizard’s tower had been abandonned for several centuries, and he’d left the washing up soaking in the sink. When the adventurers approached, this grey ooze reared up from between the dishes and went for them…

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