Worldbuilding: Fiddling With Folklore

One common tack in urban fantasy is to assume All Myths Are True; or at least that all folkloric critters are real and may attack the locals, show up in your occult investigator’s office, or prank-order pizzas to bury his driveway. This has its ups and downs… and no, I’m not talking about flying monsters.

The upside is, just like people in a city might come from anywhere, so might the monsters. If you can meet a Japanese businessman on a random street corner, why not an oni? Or a kitsune? Or a sleeve-haunting sparrow?

(No, really. In some areas of Japan they’re supposed to warn you when their equivalent to a Black Dog is stalking you. In other places… not so much, you’re on your own.)

Urban fantasy often goes for a worldwide, cosmopolitan feel. If that’s what you’re after, sure, throw in creatures from anywhere. The world is your oyster!

But what if you don’t want to evoke a generic Metropolis in your setting? What if – urban fantasy or not – you want to portray a very specific setting? A place that’s a character in its own right, with moods and weather from that front off the Great Plains, or this storm blown in off the Atlantic. What should your monsters be like then?

If that’s your aim, I’d advise you to pick up two things. 1) Folklore of the closest place to your setting possible, and 2) any Monster Manual-type book that has environment or habitat as one of the creature stats on its listings. Then pick monsters that fit your setting.

There are reasons the Gargoyles cartoon worked so well. One of them is that New York City is already a city of gargoyles (and grotesques). They crouch atop buildings. They cast ominous shadows in the lightning. They spit water in places you’d never expect. It’s not that much of a leap to imagine them gliding on the winds whipping between the skyscrapers, clawing their way up stone and brick, and watching over the city like Batman with fangs and wings.

You wouldn’t put a cactus cat in a New Orleans swamp; the poor thing would drown. You wouldn’t have a kelpie galloping through the streets of Vegas – not unless it’s learned a knack for knocking open fire hydrants to keep from dehydrating. (Now there’s an interesting insurance headache.) Give your monsters reasons to be where they are. Even if that reason is some nitwit shipped a crate to sunny Miami that was supposed to freeze in Antarctica instead.

Local folklore gives local flavor. Consider how much mileage you can get out of the monsters already in your neck of the woods. Then consider if you really want a foreign monster, or if you can tweak a local to fit your City of Adventure even better. If your city has a lot of Irish inhabitants, what’s more likely to be haunting the docks – same-bito or cranky, soul-stealing merrows?

Of course, maybe you want a supernatural turf war. In which case they’re both there, and the sailors are terrified….

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28 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Fiddling With Folklore

  1. Or perhaps El Silbon working with the local Vice squad. Though that’d probably entail the squad having to put a metaphorical leash on him with “No, you can’t kill these guys, jerks as they are, we have a justice system for a reason. And will you please leave that bag of bones at the station, or better yet, give them a funeral already? And knock it off with the whistling! We’re suppose to be sneaking up on them, not letting them know we’re within arm’s reach!”

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  2. Supernatural turf war… That would be an interesting backdrop. Especially if you have it as not the focus, just something in the background. The world building if you will.

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    1. Yes, exactly! A world where the undersea turf war is something that just shows up in the weekly crime reports, until your heroes have a reason to take an unexpected dip. That’s the kind of world I want to see more of. 🙂

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  3. You wouldn’t have a kelpie galloping through the streets of Vegas – not unless it’s learned a knack for knocking open fire hydrants to keep from dehydrating. (Now there’s an interesting insurance headache.)

    Ooh…. except that sometimes they like tempting water, and drunks + water displays… there is a lot of display-type water, and they could FEAST during the rare floods. (Yes, [much of] Vegas was built smart, even smarter than Reno honestly– they can deal with the rare but impressive desert floods quite well.)

    You’d almost have to make it more of a they-go-dormant-when-it’s-not-flooding option, and otherwise you may get one in a really big fountain, and it’s half asleep.

    But water going still and silent would almost be better, and if you make it so that your LoreBeasts can go dormant when situations aren’t right– then you could even have the various cannibal monsters showing up in a century blizzard.

    On a personal note, though, I really dislike the Coast to Coast AM “the cryptids phase in and out of reality” thing. It feels like cheating; it’s simply not satisfying. Even the weather has more rhyme and reason than that! GHOSTS have more reason than that– they at least show up where they were, evne if the trigger isn’t solid!

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    1. Chain of thought because I was stationed in China Lake, and loved to visit Vegas– there are a couple of water-ways near the more standard display type water that gave me the creeps, the only one I remember was near the 9/11 memorial at New York, New York!‘s Statue of Liberty. Standard drainage type ditch in the city.

      But it felt wrong.

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    2. The idea of Vegas kelpies going dormant in the dry times is a super fun one – and it’s similar to what a lot of real-world aquatic critters do in response to dry conditions. Imagine a construction project disturbing a buried and dormant kelpie – would it make a mucous sack like many lungfish do, or maybe desiccate like a tardigrade, or some invertebrates? Both options are pretty great – a pale horse-sized lump in the dirt, a dark shape within just beginning to stir… or a near skeletal, curled up water-horse, with a mane and tail like dried-out kelp.

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  4. Folklore can take over normal lore, too.

    I just found out that one of the old versions of the Jacobite song “Charlie Is My Darling” had a bunch of stuff about him romancing Flora McDonald (or generic Highland girl), with a final verse:

    Its up yon heathery mountain,
    ⁠And down yon scroggy glen,
    We daur nae gang a milking,
    ⁠For Charlie and his men.

    Now, this is from a song collection that came out between 1815-1825, and William Allingham of “Up the airy mountain” fame wasn’t even born until 1825. So either he or his sources glommed onto a song about a totally earthly prince and the totally worldly threat to milkmaids, and turned it into part of a poem about the wee folk.

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  5. I often find the “came with immigrants” a little off-putting.
    Mainly because they usually don’t go any deeper.

    Sure, you have a town full of people descended from Irish immigrants, why did the Irish supernatural monster appear there?
    In the *one* place where everyone is familiar with their particular brand of predation?

    Is there something about Irish blood they need?
    Were they pretending to be human and came along with the others for the same reasons?
    Were they created by the humans after arriving?

    While it’s common to lump entire groups together and assign the same general motivations to all of them, it’s important to remember that every single individual had a specific set of reasons they got on the boat.

    What exactly was the monster thinking?

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    1. What I would love to see is that the people were actually following the monster. Either because ‘if the local monster is making tracks, maybe we should too’ or ‘that beastie ain’t getting away from me!’ Or maybe a combination, if it’s one that could reasonably develop a connection to a group of people, “come on, come on, let’s go lay low somewhere Not Here for a few generations.”

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    2. Heck, are they *relatives* and that’s why they’re hanging around the Irish?

      That would at least make sense! Especially since so many of the modern group things are so very much broader than the historical– or worse, they’re leaky around the edges. The Attack of the Dead Men was, famously, Russian vs German– at the time both of those included areas we wouldn’t, now, and the fortress is, like, fifty miles inside Poland.

      You can even avoid the cringe-worthy calculus a lot of stuff does and just say “they’re related to humans, and [Target] just happens to be one of those cousins that got screwy luck to be boggle-bait.

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    3. Ooo, that suggests another option – that your local immigrants tell stories from the homeland, and all signs seem to point to the Monster Of The Day being something that somehow followed their ancestors, as is held up by how what’s going on seems to match the stories, and it seems to respond right to the story’s answers to How To Handle This, but… they’re WRONG. It’s something else that the immigrant crowd MISTOOK for their Familiar Scary Thing.

      Simply put, the stories they grew up hearing from their grandparents trained them to look for zebras, when they ought to be looking for plain old horses instead, so now they’re SURE they’ve seen a zebra.

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      1. Many American vampires, boggle-type things, witches, and werewolves, can be deterred by hot peppers. One way to handle shapeshifters that leave their human skins behind in the South (especially those that turn into witchlights) is to fill them with hot chilis – powdered probably works best. Then the shifter yanks its skin back on after the night hunting and… burns up.

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      2. Huh. I never knew that. And these are American monsters? As in, the colonists adopted/adapted them from Native folklore when they arrived? Or are they monster stories from the Old World that were adapted to the new country/mixed with Native folklore?

        Well, *that’s* something I had never heard of before: shapeshifters in the South. Hmm. Lots of story material there. And that is a good way to get rid of them – though of course, filling their skins with chilis requires finding the skin without getting caught and eaten by the monster first….

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      3. Bit of both. Look up Bob Curran’s folklore books – vampires were especially a thing in New England, and no one seemed to care how they got there. Then again, if vampires can be created by suicide or disease, they don’t need to “get here”.

        Whoa, you never heard of the loup-garou werewolf/witch critters of the Gulf Coast? Oh my, poke around a bit. *EG*

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      4. Bob Curran’s books – got it. And yeah, if vampires could be created by suicides, then they wouldn’t need to come. I see your point there.

        Uh, loup-garou in the Gulf Coast? Admittedly, I should have thought of that, since the name is originally French. As for witch critters, the most I read about them was a passing note in a novel by the same guy who wrote Island of the Blue Dolphins. That related to Native folklore and wolves; some wolves weren’t natural wolves, they were witch monsters in disguise. So beyond that tidbit, I need to do research, you’re right. Eeeep…..

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