Welcome back to another Worldbuilding Wednesday! Today I thought I’d talk about pets and domestic animals because it really can have a huge impact on how your world feels to the reader. Be aware that there will be spoilers for various worlds, though not in any great detail.
When you look around your life you probably see domesticated animals. There might be a cat who shares your home or a dog. Maybe a parrot or a lizard or even a snake. Humans have a thing for having animals in their personal lives, in their space. It seems to be a very natural thing for us to do to domesticate animals and become attached to them.
Beyond that, if you eat meat then you’re very likely dealing with more domesticated animals. Chicken, pork and beef all come from animals that humanity has domesticated, bred and utilized over thousands of years. They’re an integral part of our lives and have been since very early in humanity’s evolution.
So that has to be considered when you’re building a new world, especially if it’s not an alternate of our world. If you are dealing with an alternate Earth then you can just assume that cats and dogs, chicken and cows, are part of your characters’ lives. That’s justified and logical, always depending on what part of the world you’re working with. If your story’s set in the alternate version of Peru you better have llama instead of cows and horses.
But if you’re creating a world that’s completely unlike Earth then you need to sit down and think about what domesticated animals they would have around them. Humans domesticated each sort of animal for different reasons. Your characters ancestors would likely try to find animals to fill the same needs for them.
Dogs were an early domestication. They’ve been a part of human life since well before we began to settle down into an agricultural lifestyle. Hunting animals who protect, defend and comfort your characters is likely going to be something that they need and want.
Cats were fairly early on, too. I’ve read that it was about the time we started cultivating grain that cats became important. Why? They hunted the rodents that ate our grain. So a small pest eradicator species is a very good thing that humans would likely want.
How about food animals? They’re very important given that humans are omnivores. If your world has food sources that allow humans to easily get all their protein and fat requirements from plants, sure, you can avoid having domesticated food animals. If you do that, though, their barns are going to look completely different from anything we have on Earth. They might just have grain silos or root cellars dug into convenient hillsides.
That could become an important plot point if your character needs a place to hide out overnight while on the run. Barns are very convenient that way though there’s always the risk of domesticated animals giving one away by making noise.
When I set about creating Muirin I was very aware that it was a colony world. They certainly had to have brought along embryos for ‘helpful’ or ‘necessary’ domesticated animals. The problem for Muirin is that they lost a great deal when their first attempt at a colony failed. So I had to consider what animals they might have been able to bring along and what ones they might have records / stories about when they finally got to Muirin.
What made the cut during the worldbuilding phase?
Dogs and cats were a yes. They’re generally small enough and close enough to people that they could be grabbed when it was time to run for the rescue ship. Horses and cows, no. Those are far too big and they take up too much both in terms of food and space. Chickens were a yes but only because several groups of people grabbed baskets full of eggs as they ran for safety. The actual chickens that lived on Morrigan were left behind to live or die. (And in my mind the chickens took over the world–chickens are dumb but they’re tough.)
Beyond that, they had animals from the previous colony world, the one that the three ships had been dispatched from. Most of those were draft or food animals that wouldn’t have been brought along when the colonists escaped. I didn’t spend much time thinking about them because of that. I did decide that they had ‘mice’ from that world.
The ‘mice’ aren’t what we think of as mice, though. They’re little domesticated animals native to that first colony world (they went from Earth to the first colony world then to Morrigan to Muirin). ‘Mouse’ in this context is a small animal that looks rather like a palm-sized rabbit with compound eyes and a mouth rather like a crab’s. They eat pest insects so they’re quite nice to have around.
The computers on the ship Muirin had records of a great many other animals, such as sharks and antelope and lions and the like. Those animals stayed in the colonists’ collective imagination as things that they would have to deal with when they finally found a viable world.
Once they arrived on Muirin they found even more animals that they could domesticate. There’s a draft animal that people on Muirin call ‘horses’. It’s actually an armored lizard that’s built similar to a draft horse that’s highly social like a dog. They were easy to domesticate. They also domesticated a native mammal species that ended up being their version of pigs. And all over Muirin they found wool-growing species that became ‘sheep’ or ‘goats’, despite having nothing at all to do with Earth sheep and goats.
Which is hard to work into the story in a clear way. I’m hopeful that I’ll get to sometime in the next few books.
Terminology for your domesticated animals is something you should consider. Obviously, on Muirin I decided to go with words that we, on Earth, would recognize. That the species isn’t the same as what humanity knows now isn’t important at all. Given that I write tight third-person point of view, it’s hard to work in descriptions of animals that the character wouldn’t actually notice. It’s something to balance as you write and something I continue to work on.
If you’re writing a fantasy world instead of a SF one like Muirin, then you have a different set of questions. If you assume that you have all the same animals then you have to go on and consider whether or not those animals have been altered either deliberately or accidentally by magic.
On Tindiere I set the world up so that there’s places where there are pockets of wild magic, uncontrolled magic left over from the magical war a thousand years ago that destroyed their world. That magic will spontaneously alter plants, animals and people that come into contact with it. This can result in instant death but it can also result in new species being created. Usually the new species are considerably more deadly than what they were before. Rabbits become flesh-eating carnivores. Mice change to be carnivorous, forming swarms that will eat a living creature down to the skeleton in seconds. And simple moss can become a semi-sentient slow-moving creature that eats everything it encounters by exuding acid that dissolves their prey.
If you have a fantasy world you need to consider not only creatures liked dragons and unicorns and the like but also what mages might have created with their power. The urge to ‘improve’ things doesn’t only get directed at inanimate objects. We have domesticated animals because early humans said ‘hey, that’s actually really useful. I want more of that!’
Consider having altered pets, altered farm animals, whole new species created by magical means. Consider also how magic might have been used to alter humans. If your world includes slavery then it’s perfectly reasonable to consider that some mage somewhere decided to futz around with slave genetics to produce ‘the perfect slave’.
Well, I went over my targeted word count again but hopefully this was interesting. Thank you for reading!
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