“The Twa Corbies”, Illustration by Arthur Rackham to Some British Ballads – Wikipedia
In Part 1, I suggested that magical animals in fantasy, magical realism and folktales should start out on your imaginary drawing board as factually accurate as possible. Real-world facts make your animal believable.
Whether your animal can perform overt acts of magic, such as my flying horse Sikimi in The Sun Singer and Sarabande, or mysteriously appears on the scene when important things happen to the characters, such as the crows in Verlyn Flieger’s The Inn at Corbies’ Caw, you can add great depth by linking it to traditional myths and superstitions, American Indian creation myths and real or imaginary local stories and beliefs. When you do this, you are building either on what the reader already believes (ravens hang out in grave yards and bring bad luck) or you are layering the story with information that, while probably new to the reader, helps make your magical animal three dimensional.
In a recent short story about the rare Florida panther, I noted that according to Seminole myth, the creator placed all the animals into a birthing shell from which they emerged when the time was right. The first animal to come into the world was the panther, and she had certain qualities that made her special. Since my story is set in a long-ago time period before humans arrived, the animals view the birthing shell as real. They mention it in an off hand way because my short story is not retelling the myth; the mythic backstory gives my panther a larger than life ambiance.
Many writers turn to Nature-Speak and/or to Animal-Speak: The Spiritual and Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small by Ted Andrews for a comprehensive introduction to a large number of animals as they are seen in myth and folklore. The books are especially valid for stories set in the United States since they have an American Indian flavor. I prefer to find out about my prospective magical animals before I start writing so I can build their characterizations and actions around the myths and superstitions rather than pasting a “surface-level” set of qualities on top of an otherwise realistic creature.
The Internet is an amazing resource as long as one double checks everything from multiple sources to: (a) insure the myth or legend is widely known rather than being one writer’s imaginary story or religious belief, (b) locate enough detail to keep your account (including the adjectives and phrases you use) from sounding too much like the one source you located. When setting a story in a real location, a you can start with such online searches as creation myths of the Seminoles (insert appropriate tribe for the region) , panther (insert appropriate animal) myths and legends, and Florida (insert state, city, park, forest or resort) animal legends.
How Magic Do You Want Your Animal to Be?
Magic has to be used carefully, for if you make your main character (human or animal) all powerful, then you won’t have a way to build an exciting story. When your animal is all powerful, then you can build in understood “rules” that keep it from solving all the challenges in the story the minute it arrives. My flying horse, for example, is on the scene to transport my human characters from place to place. But he allows them to decide where they’re going and what they’re going to do when they get there. While he occasionally takes strong action, he generally doesn’t interfere in the fate, destiny or logical plan of the humans.
You can, of course, make all of the magic indirect. That is, if an character’s totem animal is the raven, the raven need not have Superman-like powers to play a role. He can appear in dreams and visions with cryptic messages, can be seen flying in a certain direction as a hint to the characters to go that way, and can be placed in trees or in flight overhead when things are beginning to get frightening. This approach works well in contemporary fantasy and magical realism where your magical animals generally don’t have the capabilities of science fiction and fantasy animals in other worlds where the rules are different.
In “real life,” an overtly magical animal would attract attention. Of course, if that attention and how the human and animal deal with it, is important to your story, then hiding the animal’s abilities wouldn’t be an issue. Otherwise, magical animals tend to be more overt when they appear in parallel worlds, spooky uncertain regions, and deserted places. You can also blur the level of reality by opening up the possibility that the magical things a character saw and/or took part in, might have been the stuff of his imagination and dreams. You will see when you do your research into animal superstitions and tales, that magic tends to happen in places where the whole world cannot see it. This not only makes the magic potentially more frightening (it happens at midnight where two roads cross, for example), but keeps it from getting out of control in your story.
If your protagonist is a human, the rules of storytelling (depending on the genre) generally call for him or her to have more control over the direction of the plot than the animal. When placed within a dangerous situation, you character—knowing or not knowing the magic that’s “available”— will make choices to run, to hide, to fight, to be heroic, to find hidden strengths, or perhaps to fail. The magical animal cannot run in out of nowhere and “fix” all of the character’s problems. If so, the story become very anticlimactic.
In most fantasy, there are various “rules in place” in the parallel universe and in adjoining or overlay worlds that contain or restrict all the magic. This also makes stories more suspenseful and mysterious and keeps them from ending on the first page. Even Superman can’t do everything and be everywhere at once: the fact that he can’t, is what makes the story a story. The same is true for your magical animals.