Small Critters, big Impact


If you’re writing a paranormal story and are determined to use animals to set the scene, you may want to hold back on the gnashing teeth of wolves, gnawing fangs of killer rats and toothy grins of giant snakes until you’ve read this.

While it’s easy to write something atmospheric and eerie with animals such as bears, wild boar or wolves, because they occur naturally in a rural landscape, writing urban fantasies is often limited to creatures that have been “turned”, either by magic or by man-made means, into something that they are not normally, such as being way beyond their normal size and unusually bloodthirsty.

Here in the United Kingdom we’re not blessed with inquisitive city-dwelling wolves or nosy bears having a go at our dustbins. Vampire, horror or ghost stories include a staple diet of certain creatures of the night that lend a paw to the overall feel of a location. If your story’s set in the city centre of Nottingham, Chicago or Berlin, you might struggle to find a critter worthy of a mention.

It’s the fantasy genre, I hear you groan, just make it up as you go along…but the rule is that within our fantasy world logic still has to apply to really draw our readers in.

The more familiar some things are to our readers – and the more logical – the more shocking the fantastical will be, when it gate-crashes into our worlds. However, this artistic device has to be applied within reason.

Inserting a silky web and hideously fat, red-eyed, tarantula-sized spider will lend great atmosphere to a dark and twisted tale; perhaps a vampire’s kidnap victim is locked in a crypt or basement with little hope to escape and is wordlessly watching the spider munch one of its victims, foreshadowing his or her own fate? Your readers will feel a pleasurable, spooky tingle creep up and down their spine, urging them to turn the page and find out what happens next to the human in peril.

Take the same silky web and insert a cuddly but fanged hamster feasting on a marshmallow and your reader is putting down the book with a “what the f*** was that?” If your heroine is chased by a giant gerbil with insatiable bloodlust you’re not likely to get a second book sale either, so what do you do?

Tiny critters can have a big impact, but choosing the right ones can be difficult. Spiders, flies, hornets and bats, urban foxes, homeless cats and starving abandoned dogs all work in a creepy urban setting, as do crows, mice and rats. Koala bears, wombats and puppies not so much.

Cover of "The Birds (Collector's Edition)...

Cover of The Birds (Collector’s Edition)

The same applies to supernatural beings. Vampires are cool and can be quite sophisticated beings – they work well in any setting and can adapt easily. Let them wear coat tails and sip cocktails with the upper classes in Cheltenham or dress them in a creased linen suit and put their feet up in an office in downtown New York. When they pounce, the impact on your reader will be the same.

Ghosts also advertise their services as being versatile and flexible. They might secretly prefer to haunt a mansion in Belgravia but are just as capable of scaring the living daylights out of someone reading about a rundown brownstone in the Bronx.

Pixies, fairies and nymphs in Manhattan, Paris or London on the other hand are distinctly out of place. While a fairy queen with an attitude will have a big impact in Sherwood Forest, the Forest of Dean or even the Black Forest (especially when bursting out of a cuckoo-clock), a winged, miniscule madam zipping along Sunset Boulevard, LA will only succeed in getting squashed without ever fulfilling the promise of magically drawing your reader into your story.

In other words, the location you have chosen for your story should determine the type of creatures you insert into the plot and that they should be used in a logical way.

English: Studio publicity photo of Alfred Hitc...

English: Studio publicity photo of Alfred Hitchcock. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Choosing the right tiny critter for the occasion can be hard for writers. If like me, you detest anything that buzzes, the very mention of anything with six legs and fifteen eyes can put you off delving into research. But think back to the Indiana Jones films, how Indie hates snakes and bugs – it made us love him all the more for this chink in his armour…for one glorious moment he was just like the rest of us, no longer a super hero.

Français : Borsalino identique à celui d'India...

If the tiny creature of the night is to signify a flaw in your protagonist or is to be a signpost for heartache still to come, great care should be taken to choose the right creature, namely one that will stick in our mind, not just be a gimmick.

If your creature is to be a metaphor for darkness and your villain’s evil schemes – the rats leaving the ship in Nosferatu for example precede his arrival and widespread, plague-like death – than choose an animal or supernatural being that represents all you want to say about your villain.

Why not surprise us with something common place that suddenly turns nasty, when you want to describe a loner-turned-serial killer? The impact is so much greater and such a critter will stay with us long after we’ve closed the book. If I’m not mistaken Patricia Highsmith wrote a short story once about common garden snails killing somebody which has been haunting me ever since…forcing me to circumvent the slimy assassins with big steps whenever I see them, just in case they decide my time’s up.

Indiana Jones

Indiana Jones (Photo credit: creative location)

I can envisage a beautiful moth fluttering in through an open balcony window where it attacks the half-awake sleeper in his bed, gorging out his eyes. How about a toad in a city park that inserts toxic slime into its bench-dwelling, homeless victims before feasting on their flesh?

Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” worked so well because we largely ignore the birds in our city surroundings…unless they bombard us with their droppings, that is. Ordinary sparrows and starlings, gulls and crows with a murderous attitude are far more terrifying than a ten-foot parrot with a death wish chasing us down our street.

The point is that such creatures exist in real urban landscapes and we take them for granted without really noticing them…which makes their sudden appearance far more frightening. Turn a squirrel into a twenty foot Godzilla and its laughable but not scary. Making the same squirrel stand out with unusual behaviour rather than unusual size will turn them into something truly terrifying and memorable.

Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This may seem very obvious when laid out in a blog, but all too often we find novels with werewolves trapped on subway trains in New York, when they’d rather be in Sherwood Forest and Godzilla-pretenders languishing in cramped conditions in England’s historic towns, when they’d rather be chasing Japanese maidens along comfortably wide highways in Osaka.

#3407 Mongolian gerbil (スナネズミ)

#3407 Mongolian gerbil (スナネズミ) (Photo credit: Nemo’s great uncle)

So before you sit down to write your urban fantasy novel, get to know your critter and its habitat!

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