How to Create Fantasy Creatures that Feel Real

April 29, 2024 | 5 min read
In the exciting landscape of modern fantasy fiction, the role of fantasy creatures stands as a cornerstone of imagination and storytelling.

From the majestic dragons of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire to the decades of adoration for J.R.R. Tolkien's hobbits, these creatures serve as more than mere embellishments to the worlds they inhabit. They function as essential conduits for exploring complex themes, reflecting societal values, and igniting the imagination of readers.

The Freewrite team is full of fantasy readers (and writers!) so we wanted to unravel the trick to creating dynamic fantasy creatures that leave an impact on both the narratives they inhabit — and the audiences they enchant.

To delve into it, we spoke with E.K. Wiggins, a fantasy author, webtoon creator, and Freewriter writing about dragons in sunny Southern California...

 

Why do you think people are drawn to fantasy and, in particular, fantastical creatures?

I think it's simple: People want to escape reality and delve into worlds and stories that allow their imagination to run wild. The fact that fantasy (whether written, filmed, or drawn) is such a large part of today's culture means that anyone can find something that attracts them. Everyone can find something that transports them to wonderful worlds and takes their eyes — and minds — off life for a moment.

The same goes for fantasy creatures — the rules are boundless, new monsters are created all the time, and the old familiar ones remain classic.

People love believing in fantasy creatures because they’re not ordinary — they’re unique and unforgettable. And new fantasy keeps the genre fresh and thriving.

That's how I feel. For years, I could only write nonfiction for school. Why write nonfiction when we live in reality?

 

What's the most influential fantasy creature, in your opinion?

Dragons, hands down.

They’re so prominent in fantasy culture of decades past, yet they’re never boring because they’re constantly being recreated in original ways. With popular productions like House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, for example, these reptiles aren’t going away anytime soon (if ever!).

I think I’m mainly drawn to them because of how much you, as an artist or writer, can reinvent them while they still remain familiar.

And I love how many real-world legends describe and depict encounters with these beasts! There are even passages of Biblical scripture that describe dragons or dragon-like creatures. All of that adds a history and realism to dragons that other creatures can’t quite claim.

 


How has the dragon been depicted throughout history?

Dragons were common in written tales and verbal legends during the Renaissance period. In Europe (and the West) dragons were considered ruthless murderers and savage guardians of their possessions, taking exuberant control over their innocent prey and dealing harshly with the rebellious!

Many of these tales were of mighty warriors facing off against these brute monsters (e.g. the Beowulf manuscripts).

Conversely, in some Asian cultures, including China, dragons were seen as signs of luck and blessing. They often wielded powers used to benefit the human race and sometimes communicated with people. They were far more benevolent and kind than their Western counterparts!

The Beowulf manuscripts and the Bible depict and speak of dragons directly. Beowulf’s scaly opponent and Satan (depicted in the book of Revelation as a fiery red dragon with seven heads and ten horns!) are both historical examples of dragons written in text. Many more exist, as well as writings about wyrms and other dragon-like creatures.


Some fantasy creatures have cultural roots. How do you navigate those roots while creating something completely new?

Generally, if I create an original character that has a historical or cultural background, I immediately ask myself if anything about my character contradicts the creature’s roots. If it does, I ask myself if I supplied or created a solid backstory for the character that can "override" that history or is strong enough to be a worthy, sensical alternative.

It also depends on the culture and if I wanted to showcase it. In my opinion, this is sort of a "gray area" that could be endlessly debated…

I don’t think its the author’s duty to always pay homage to a character’s roots, unless it’s essential to understanding the story, is required for the plot, or if the author wants to honor the culture it came from.

There have been many times that creatures have been used in literature without any sort of acknowledgement to their origins, simply because there wasn’t enough time to incorporate it, or it wasn't relevant to the current story. It really depends on what the writer is writing and how the character is being used.

How do you create creatures that are believable when they are, by definition, completely unreal?

I begin by deciding what the creature is, in the most barebones way possible. Is it going to be a wyrm? Is it maybe an elf? Is it a dragon? Figure out what your foundation is and then build off of it.

Next, visualize what the creature looks like, how its body is shaped, what unique features it has, and what its face would look like if you stared right into its eyes. Once I’ve visualized it, I’ll usually draw a sketch to solidify the creature’s design.

But don't just write or draw your fantasy creatures (or any sort of characters!) — envision them.

Anyone can take a mental picture of a fantasy creature and write a description of it (like an overweight bridge troll or a talking tabby cat). As writers, our job is not to simply write out a character study for the reader. A writer’s job is to make the creature real.

In order to do that, you have to know how the creature feels, thinks, and interacts. It has to have a personality. I start by imagining this creature’s demeanor, attitude, and character traits.

Ask yourself how they would react to you, your emotions, and your personality — and how their personality would complement or crash with yours. Imagine spending a day to get to know them! Or pretend to interview them.

In other words: it’s not always about what the creature is and how it looks, but who they are!

I guess the true trick to creating awesome, seemingly real creatures is pretty easy: pretend they’re real.

 


What are you working on right now?

I’m currently working on several different projects, including my first young adult dystopian sci-fi The Exodus Chronicles. This is the first novel I wrote entirely on my Traveler!

Traveler is my go-to. From the car to the folding tray on an airplane, Traveler has literally traveled with me everywhere! I’ve written one and a half manuscripts (almost 140,000 words) on it!

My second project is writing and overseeing the production of my webtoon, “Neko-Neko is a Cat Doll!” Writing a webtoon is very interesting because you have to visualize all the characters, emotions, scenes, and dialogue in every panel concisely (almost like the director of a movie).

My final project is writing the second book in my YA fantasy series Dragod Origins, which I published in December 2023. My world-building for the book took over five years alone, and writing the book took three.

Writing is my diehard hobby, and I aspire to be a hybrid novelist (both traditionally and self-publishing my books) and a serialized webtoon/manga writer.

--



E.K. Wiggins is a fantasy and webtoon author living and working in sunny San Juan Capistrano, California. His love of fantasy creatures — especially dragons — inspired him to create the original storyline and drawings for a series called Dragon Quest, which eventually lead to the inception of the first Dragod Origins book, released in 2023.

When not writing, he loves biking, listening to music, and playing the piano, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, banjo, ukulele, melodica, and concertina accordion.

Learn more about E.K.'s fantasy universe at his website or follow his indie imprint, Shadow Beast Publishing, on Instagram or Facebook. You can also sign up for his monthly email newsletter here.

Recommended articles

More recommended articles for you

May 24, 2024 8 min read

There’s an age-old debate about the superior version of a story: Is it the book or the movie? Most readers and far too many writers will default to the idea that “the book was better.”

But was it? Was it really?

May 20, 2024 9 min read


Talking to Alex Kazemi doesn’t feel like talking to the guy who wrote 2023’s “most dangerous book of the year,” a book Ellen Hopkins calls “raucous, raunchy, and sure to offend.” And it certainly doesn’t feel like talking to Bret Easton Ellis’s “favorite millennial provocateur.”

It feels like talking to a friend I haven’t caught up with in a while. And my friends just aren’t that cool.


We’re chatting because Kazemi lives a ruthlessly offline lifestyle, a philosophy at the core of Freewrite and which Kazemi sees as necessary to being the best artist he can be. Having garnered a book deal at the tender age of 18, he knows a thing or two about life as an artist.

Kazemi released his first book, Pop Magick, an occult book about how to manifest, in 2020. “Madonna helped me launch that,” he says, casually mentioning one of the biggest pop stars of the twentieth century. “So, yeah, that was insane.”

But it wasn’t until the release of his first novel, New Millennium Boyz, nearly a decade in the making, that things got truly wild.

Kazemi’s unflinching look at Y2K culture and teenage boyhood reads like a horrifying screenplay — or the transcript of a violent AIM conversation between bored, lonely teenagers. Even before publication, the book faced criticism calling it dangerous, prompting the publisher to splash a content warning across the front matter, to Kazemi's extreme annoyance. Conservative American moms later flagged it for book bans, leaving the Canadian author baffled.

Was an honest look at the 90s and early ’aughts really worth all that uproar?

We sat down with Kazemi to discuss the driving force behind his portrayal of this often-glamorized time period, why he felt compelled to present this reality to modern audiences, and how in the world he lives an offline lifestyle in the year 2024.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

 Mirror selfies without a smartphone

ANNIE COSBY: First things first. Are you a millennial?

ALEX KAZEMI: Yes. I was born in 1994, which means I’m on the cusp. I do not identify with any Zoomer qualities or tendencies at all.

COSBY: In general cultural discourse, millennials tend to get a bad rap – very infantilizing, even though some of us are 40. What's your take?

KAZEMI: I think it's pretty insane because we were dealt a really bad card, with the recession, jobs being lost, the digital age booming… Many of us still have memories of going to Blockbuster and, you know, AOL chat rooms and the early web. But then we watched everything go chronically online and digital through the 2010s. We watched technology and the information age replace a lot of skillsets. So we became a weird bunch, for sure.


COSBY: I do find it interesting that people glamorize that period specifically because it was the beginning of everything being online — so everybody's mistakes and drunken pictures are out there.

KAZEMI: Right? And we did it willingly.

COSBY: Oh God, the things I said to strange men in chat rooms.

KAZEMI: Me as well. And it’s so, so dark, because the internet has always been and will always be, even as we're adults and growing older, a mirror of our subconscious vomit. The frequencies we vibrated to when we were coming of age were more about exploration, and that's why there was so much stranger danger. There were so many scary scenarios that kids could get themselves into with the early web because of how unregulated it was, as well.

COSBY: Would you say New Millennium Boyz is a defense of the way we Millennials are? Or is it a commentary on how misremembered that era is?

KAZEMI: It's definitely a commentary. And it's supposed to be historical fiction, educating younger folks and also older generations about how, you know, this beautiful picture that you see of Rachael Leigh Cook from She's All That on TikTok? There was actually a lot of darkness and chaos going around, especially when it comes to very normalized racism, misogyny, and homophobia.

 

 

I find it very ironic that this new generation that is so fixated on social justice and evolution and freedom would fetishize the aesthetics of an era of true debauchery and chaos and cruelty — like really — which was mirrored in the art in that period. Look at 2000s teen movies! I just wanted to write a satire of that extreme teen genre, like Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen, Larry Clark's Bully, Spring Breakers...

My second motivation was to really look at boy culture in the post-Columbine era and how this was very much a prescient, predictive time of where we would end up with the alt-right and 4chan and “incels,” and how it's all connected.

And then of course exploring the romanticized aspect of Y2K — going to the mall, people wearing Marilyn Manson shirts, and the aesthetic obsession with it. I wanted to create the book I wanted to see in the world that I didn't feel existed yet.

COSBY: I’ve heard you talk about the misogyny of the “teen girls are bitches” trope. It's like, have you met boys? Have you been a teen boy talking to other teen boys?

KAZEMI: Oh, they're the biggest bitches. They're so cruel. You see the “mean girls” trope in tons of movies, like Jawbreaker, but it’s so strange how we don't ever look at the cruelty teenage boys face. And not just the cruelty but also the misguidedness and the culture that feeds that.

Especially in the 90s and 2000s, boys were so encouraged to be testosterone-driven and hyper-masculine. Woodstock 99 was such a great example of the chaos of too much of something – and it’s being talked about now because of the documentary.

COSBY: New Millennium Boyz really explores this violence inherent to 90s culture for boys, and because of that, it got a content warning, right?

KAZEMI: Yes. During the final cuts of the book, when we were in edits and copy edits, I got the call from my publisher that “So-and-So is not going to stock it without a content warning because they're really worried about how teenagers are going to react to the work and if they're going to reenact the behavior.”

And I was like, this is a cultural critique. It's not anything to be glamorized. I think anyone who reads it would understand that.

COSBY: Do you think we as humans always look back on past time periods with rose-colored glasses, or is there something special about Y2K?

KAZEMI: There's something really freaky about what we're doing with the 90s and 2000s. I don't think we've ever before been in a place, as humans, where corporations like Meta and TikTok can just algorithmically feed into us all the time.

A teenager in the 90s could fetishize the 70s or the 60s, but they could close the book when it was done or finish the movie and turn off the TV. But with Gen Z, and every generation now, we're just inundated every day with memes, photos, videos, and other people’s thoughts.

And I guess this 90s nostalgia is partly because it represents familiarity for people of a certain age, but even for the people who didn't live during that time, it seems to represent a kind of order, a sense of quietness — “Oh, 90210 is on at 9 p.m. and that's all there is.” No choices to make. There weren’t one billion options like kids today have.

COSBY: So you think people are viewing that period as a time of simplicity and unplugging, which we’re all kind of yearning for now?

KAZEMI: Yeah, and you certainly could unplug then, but you can unplug today, too — we're just brainwashed into thinking that we have no choice, that we have no free will. But it's totally not true. You could simulate Y2K if you wanted to! You just have to set a lot of boundaries.

COSBY: Like writing on a Freewrite.

KAZEMI: Yes! That’s why I write offline. Over the years, I’ve had different cool ways to do that. For a lot of my teenage years, I wrote in Apple Notes. Then, I ordered a BlackBerry off eBay and used it as a word processor for a while. I have a dead AlphaSmart here — rest in peace.

I feel like what's so crazy about Freewrite is a lot of people don't know that these products exist, which is a problem.

COSBY: It's also super polarizing. Without even trying it, some people are like, “What is this hipster thing?” Meanwhile, we get so many messages from new users saying, “What is this magic? I'm actually writing for the first time in years!” It's really interesting to see people's reactions. Tech is such a weirdly touchy subject.

KAZEMI: And a Freewrite is way better than a typewriter. I'm not fucking doing the ribbon, there's no time for that.

COSBY: Some people do though, right? Aren’t you friends with Matty Healy?

KAZEMI: Yes, yes. I told him about Freewrite. I love his songwriting. I love the 1975's lyrics. I love him as a literary mind.

COSBY: Alex. [heavy pause] Is he the one being referenced in the song?

KAZEMI: [rolls eyes] Honestly, I'm not really interested in all the gossip. I don't think great artists should be reduced to that.

COSBY: OK, that's fair. I think they're both great storytellers, too. And it would be so hard to live a creative life under that kind of microscope. On that note, your offline approach to life goes beyond writing, right? How does that work?

KAZEMI: Well, it definitely includes a lot of conscious boundaries that annoy a lot of people.

I’ve had a flip phone for a few years now, and I have a landline. When it comes to the internet and iMessage and emails, I try to do regulated “office hours” of screen time.

It's a very privileged position to be in, because a lot of people have to be on call all the time for work. But being disconnected definitely gives me more time for my mind to be free and creative and to write more.

COSBY: And this annoys people?

KAZEMI: Yeah, it drives everyone insane. It's a huge boundary I put in my life. People have to go through loopholes to contact me. But it's the only way that I can have a life as an artist and as a writer.

All of this technology can be a tool. There's nothing inherently bad with the tools that exist on the Internet. It's just the compulsivity and the addictive mentality we have with it that creates this chaos for us as writers and artists.

COSBY: You've mentioned being on Tumblr before, back in the day — are you on social media now?

KAZEMI: No, I'm not. Sometimes I have to look at it on friends' phones to get a person's email or something like that, but no, I don't have social media. It's so scary, the pressure of having to perform or turn my most personally valuable things into currency — to monetize it. It just feels weird. I'm not into it. I'm not into it.

And when you're online so much, you're like, “I don't have to be doing this. Why am I doing this?” That's where that punishing feeling of addiction comes in. A lot of us, when we are in those spirals, we don't even really even want to be there. There isn't a sense of agency or control.

It's a loss of control.

And I think that submission of when you are looking at other people's work, what they’re doing, and you're scrolling, scrolling, it just creates a huge sense of inadequacy and darkness.

COSBY: It's interesting to me because time goes so much faster when I’m scrolling — and I feel the same way when I get really into something I'm writing.

KAZEMI: Like a flow state.

COSBY: Exactly! It’s complete absorption. But scrolling doesn’t make me feel good after, the way creating does.

KAZEMI: It’s like a black market, counterfeit flow state. A heroin flow state.


So I guess the question is: How can we induce positive, offline flow states?

COSBY: Isn't that the question. How do you do it?

KAZEMI: I find that just setting boundaries is so important. You have free will over your boundaries. This idea that we have no sense of agency and have to give all of our energy and life force to these corporations zapping us is just so crazy and unfair.

But when you bring up these things to certain people, they can't even fathom living without their online habits.

COSBY: Yeah, it has to be a conscious choice.

KAZEMI: You have to ask yourself:

"OK, am I going to just sublimate myself to be a consumer of everyone else's content? Or am I going to be a creator and produce?”

COSBY: Most of us know which one we want to be.

KAZEMI: You have to know which one you want to be.

COSBY: Any last words for the creators out there?

KAZEMI: For creators and artists and writers who are overwhelmed by information overload and the prospect of putting your work out there, just know there is an audience for your work. Just stay focused and don't be discouraged. You’ll find your place in the weird world.

--

Annie Cosby is the Marketing Manager at Freewrite, a former fiction editor, and the author of seven books — and counting. Her work deals with Celtic mythology and has twice won the YA Indie Author Project in Missouri. See what she's writing on Freewrite.

May 17, 2024 6 min read
It’s no secret that Taylor Swift is one of the biggest players in music right now. (Maybe one of the biggest ever.) As a lyricist, she’s enthralled audiences worldwide, but did you know she’s also woven a subtle tapestry of literary references throughout her discography?

Whether you love her or hate her (we’re talking to you, dads, Brads, and Chads) you’ll be impressed with these hidden literary references in Swift’s songs…