#WBW – Insects and Animals

Welcome back my world building buds!

I thought seeing as in our last post we talked about plants and all the fantastic things they can contribute to our stories and worlds, it was only fair to follow up with a post about some of the other inspiration nature can provide.

Animals and insects have been used to great effect in fiction from all genres. Even moving away from our classic mash-up mythology of beasts like centaurs, mermaids, unicorns or chimera, we can find plenty of interesting and original narratives that use animals or insects as tools to help tell their story.

Actual animals and insects

Nature is full of fascinating creations already, and the animal kingdom is no different from the plant in this regard.

When it comes to story telling and world building, animals and insects are an excellent resource to draw on for just about everything from setting to characterisation.

One of my favourite examples in literature comes from Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. For those who haven’t read it (or seen Ang Lee’s film adaptation), Life of Pi is a fantastic tale about Pi, a 16-year-old boy, travelling to Canada on a ship transporting animals from a Zoo. When the ship runs into trouble, Pi manages to survive the eventual shipwreck. He ends up cast adrift in the Pacific Ocean, on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, among other beasts.

Cover of Life of Pi
Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Alone on the ocean with only his menagerie to talk to, it’s only natural that Pi anthropomorphises his travelling companions. However, Martel uses this in such a clever way to develop both his protagonist and plot it results in a truly creative and innovative piece of fiction.

We tend to see a lot of negativity surrounding insects in literature. Kafka’s Metamorphosis, William S Burroughs and The Naked Lunch. But, historically, insects have often been used in folktales to denote positive qualities. The Ant and the Grasshopper from Aesop’s Fable’s, The Butterfly Lovers of Chinese legend. (As a bug-lover with a tattoo of a moth, I enjoy these more insect-friendly stories a lot.)

Butterflies, illustration by Elam Bonebright
Butterflies by Elam Bonebright

If you think maybe bringing back bugs as the good guys might be the world building angle your story is looking for, I recommend this great article from Dan Koboldt and Robinne Weiss. Which delves into creepy crawlies a lot more deeply than this post.

Talking beasts

Of course, there are more ways to build a world and a narrative using animals.

This blog has mentioned Brian Jaques and the Redwall series as an excellent example of world building before, but Jaques is not the only author to use talking animals with human-like characteristics and societies to great effect when weaving a narrative.

Watership Down by Richard Adam’s is considered a classic within children’s literature and with good reason. Watership Down is about rabbit’s, fleeing the destruction of their warren to try and build a new home for themselves. But Adam’s story is also a reflection of the real issues faced by refugees of war, natural disaster and famine all over the world. It’s a marvellous piece of writing for young readers, that much like the work of Jaques in Redwall, introduces them to complex real-world situations.

Speaking of books for younger readers, we mentioned Alice in Wonderland last time when we were talking about plants. Carroll’s iconic depiction of The Caterpillar (and later Disney’s animation of it) is perhaps one of the most well-known examples of a talking bug. But it isn’t the only one out there.

Laline Paull’s The Bees is an imaginative and captivating story about what the world might be like if you were a Bee. Unlike many other stories with ‘talking’ insects, Paull’s world is made up entirely of Bee’s, speaking in their own language , the knowledge of which we as the reader are privy to. Although it’s doubtful that real bee society is anywhere near as human-like as the world that Paull conjures, The Bees is incredibly well-researched, and is an awesome example of a relatable world built without any human protagonists.

Animal or insectoid races

Sometimes we don’t want real animals or talking animals. We want something more.

Characters and races with animal or insectoid features can be seen across fictional mediums, from the Tauren in World of Warcraft to the Prawns in District 9. Combining the features of humans with other creatures is a widely used tool.

Just this past year I discovered the work of Australian artist Melvin Chan, whose Tales of the Pantheon projects takes different animals and imbues them with the traits and characteristics usually found amongst humanoid characters and races in tabletop roleplaying games.

Olithus and Elynn The Immortal Bond, illustration by Melvin Chan
Olithus and Elynn The Immortal Bond by Melvin Chan

Melvin’s creating an entire fantasy world for his anthropomorphic animals to inhabit and developing rich backstories for each of them which you can read about on his site and social media channels. I love not only his art, but also his interpretations and the unique and dazzling world he continues to build with each new piece he creates. (He updates his creations regularly on his facebook page if you’re keen to see more!)

Kizha the Kindling Flame, illustration by Melvin Chan
Kizha the Kindling Flame by Melvin Chan

 

As you can see there is plenty of inspiration out there, however, you want to draw on animals and insects to develop your world and narrative.

That’s all from me this time round guys! Until next fortnight, happy world building!