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Many wainscot settings are loosely based on a bunch of inspirations, in part or in full, while also having a lot of stuff added on. However, some 'splats' (types of entities living behind the wainscot) in such settings share barely anything other than a name with their inspirations, and have all of their lore and unique traits written from scratch. Examples to illustrate the spectrum:

  • World of Darkness Vampires are significantly based on pre-90s memes of vampires such as those produced by Anne Rice and Bram Stoker, and some of their clans and disciplines are codifications of those tropes, but with major additions;
  • WoD Werewolves and Mages are inspired by classics too, but then often go into uncharted territories, such as Werewolf tribes or Technocrat conventions.
  • Chronicles of Darkness Demons share a name with their inspiration, but the rest of the Demon mythos is pretty much unconnected to conventional conceptions of demons - they're like the Technocrats are to classical mages, only more so.

Now, it seems to be the case that changing and developing an already-existing meme, like vampires or werewolves or ghosts is a 'safer' way to do things. But I'm interested in originality over safety. If I want to make a wainscot in such a way that all creatures living behind it to are all original and not intentionally based on prior art, where do I begin?

By where do I begin, I mean what basic principles should I keep in mind, principles that are broadly applicable for trying to make a new set of creatures conspiring in the hidden world? Whether it's a set of questions to be answered or of bullet point tasks to complete, or some other techniques, what should I do to ensure a good 'basement' to build such a setting upon?

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    $\begingroup$ To make it clear to people answering: a wainscot is a secondary society living "behind the walls" so to speak. The trope name actually comes from wainscoting, as in the wood paneling. The most obvious example of this is muggle society in Harry Potter. My personal favorite is the greek mythological world behind the scenes in the Percy Jackson series. $\endgroup$ – James Sep 10 '19 at 18:42
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    $\begingroup$ Ironically the wainscot concept has absolutely nothing to do with your question. Your question boils down to: I don't want to use pre-existing imaginary creatures, how do I create a creature from scratch? Or perhaps more precisely: are there existing processes/checklists for creating fantasy creatures from scratch with the intent to avoid making them too much like extant creatures? $\endgroup$ – James Sep 10 '19 at 18:47
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    $\begingroup$ @James I'm aiming for advice towards building a rather specific type of world, one where supernatural creatures conspire behind the backs, hidden from muggles, and have the typical Wainscot split into groups by creature type and faction. I'm not looking for just generic creature advice. Thus the talk about wainscot settings and the examples from White Wolf. $\endgroup$ – vicky_molokh Sep 10 '19 at 18:50
  • $\begingroup$ related and possible dupe of worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/42696/… $\endgroup$ – DJ Spicy Deluxe Sep 10 '19 at 19:23
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For creatures and concepts that lie just below the surface of the real world, they may be in hiding, but they still have to interact with the real world. Always keep that in mind.

Since you you want to be original here, your first step is going to be setting the rules for Race X. This is absolutely vital. If you have not noticed, the best Vampire and Werewolf in the modern day stories are always based on some rules that are set out, explained, and not deviated from. What is the race's strengths? What are the weaknesses? Why do they hide from Humanity? Think about that crap first and get it settled.

Next, you have figure out what Race X is motivated by. Are they Master Manipulators, or are they just trying to survive. Are they like fairy cobblers who are obsessed with shoes? Fix their motivations in your mind next.

Somewhere in this process, you need to figure out a body plan that matches up with desired strengths and weaknesses. Did you want hyper-intelligent slugs? 6 Legged spider-bodied gnomes? it matters because form will shape function in many ways.

Once you have your rules for the world and your critters, you can start creating your story. I would say if the direction of your story starts to run against the rules you have set, you can change the rules BUT make sure you change them through the whole story for consistency.

The other big thing you really should do is start digging into folklore and fairy tales. What you have in mind might have been done 1000 years ago, but no one remembers. I mean, there are legends of Vampire like women who have a head that flies around on wings of hair, or Cats who will live with you and steal butter from your neighbors, so you have some pretty open options.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is generally good advice for custom races, in any setting. One thing I think you should add though is motivational variance. Some creatures like werewolves may run off of pure instinct and will as such have pretty much the same motivations all the time. Other creatures like elves may have different general motivations than people, but have a wide range from one elf to the next. Just because most elves act one way does not mean there are not exceptions, and including grey areas and exceptions helps keep the races from becoming too archetypal. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki - Reinstate Monica Sep 11 '19 at 14:44
  • $\begingroup$ I always slot werewolves in the "form and function" bucket, mentally, But that comes from there being so much about them in folklore. Instinct being built in to the shape of a wolf. Exceptions will of course exist. The key thing is to know your rules so you can at least make some sense when you break them. A character just doing something that is out of character makes for a poor story. If you can explain why they would behave that way is infinitely more interesting. $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI -Monica come Home Sep 11 '19 at 14:47
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This is one of those wonderful opportunities where the cart actually does get to lead the horse...

Start by imagining the reveal! Anticipate writing that spine chilling scene when your character first becomes aware of what is behind the wainscot. What is the clue which starts to unravel the masquerade? It will have to be subtle enough that most people overlook it, but incontrovertible enough that the only possible explanations reveal your hidden world.

From that starting point, you as the author get to ride along with your character as they uncover the layers of subterfuge which conceal your secret society. As the character comes to question the "how"s or "why"s, you as the author get to create answers. ...and the fact that your supernatural elements are undefined leaves you plenty of latitude in the answers you create.

It can be a joyful process of discovery for you as the author, allowing your character to lead you ever deeper into the two-sided nature of your world. At some point, the creation process will probably outpace your character, as you venture off into creation stories and secret histories that the character never needs to know. That is not a bad thing. Your character has gotten you started but you get to flesh out your creation from an author's vantage point; adjusting and filling in your creation till it meets your story's needs.

This one of the funnest aspects of fantasy writing. Revel in the opportunity to explore!

Keep Writing!

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You've basically taken the first step by defining this as a wainscot setting. In reality adapting existing fantasy tropes for wainscot settings is actually really hard. Hiding a clan of trolls or vampires in the middle of a major city is a lot more difficult to make believable than making a custom race of beings that you can design from the ground up to blend into the urban setting.

By dictating that the supernatural will not live in plain sight, it immediately raises 3 very important questions: Why does the super-natural stay hidden? Where does it stay hidden? and How does it stay hidden?

Your answers to these 3 questions will tell you a LOT about the nature of the beings you need to create.

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I think your best choice would be to sift in the folklore tales of the different cultures, in search of some hidden gems that you could use as a starting point.

Consider that usually folkloristic creatures always share some points in common (small beings, shapeshifters, undeads...), but you can find also some interesting ideas to start.

Even if you want to create your creatures, you can draw a lot of inspiration from those myths, because they all revolve about creatures that live among humans, but that humans can't see, or can see only in some particular situations

A creature from folklore (or anyway, inspired from folklore) can soon give some ideas to work on:
- some ordinary people have clues about their existence (hence the existing myths)
- you already have an idea on why they want to stay hidden (they are very shy, they parasitize humans, they like to do tricks, they fear humans could steal their pot of gold, they are angry against humans because centuries before a human refused to dance with the daughter of their king...)
- you could have fun thinking how they would adapt to the modern world, or to a different culture (think Dracula, a Balcanic folklore creature in the Victorian England) - many of these creatures have very strange powers or shapes, which could allow for some original story-telling (think of Japanese yokais... or the tooth fairies as reinterpreted in Hellboy)

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  • $\begingroup$ This answer seems to be giving advice on doing exactly the things the question is explicitly trying to avoid. $\endgroup$ – vicky_molokh Sep 11 '19 at 6:23

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