Long time, no see.
And because trying to work on the “good points about urban fantasy” rant was blocking me like hell.
1) Remember that the wings will be part of your character’s body.
This is patently obvious, unless your character is someone who just recently acquired wings, say as part of a genetic experiment or a magical transformation, or can take them on and off at will. But it does get forgotten. People in fantasy stories who have had wings since babyhood will act as if they don’t know how to handle them.
Why? It’s the same anthropocentrism that I’ve talked about in other rants on nonhumans. The author sometimes can’t comprehend that just because wings are unusual for her and everyone else she knows, that doesn’t mean they’re also unusual for her characters. So she writes them as if they were humans+wings, instead of winged humanoids.
Once again, body-centered writing is useful here. Think about the weight of wings, the difference they’d make in balance and locomotion, the accommodations that one would need to make in walking, leaning, sitting, lying down (see also point 2). If a movement or gesture would be too awkward for someone to make with wings, such as lying down perfectly flat, then don’t have them do it. They’ll have their own substitutes, particularly if they’re adults.
Think, also, of what wings can add. What do they contribute to gestures, especially in the way of emphasis and communication? How do they make their owners’ lives easier and more convenient? Someone who’s lived for thirty years, winged, in a society where it’s the norm might not be as afraid of falling, might be used to plenty of room, might value the warmth that comes when she stands embracing someone not only with her arms but with her wings.
Now, though, we’re straying into territory that properly belongs to point 2.
2) Consider how wings fit into your characters’ culture.
Think they won’t alter it much? Think again. Human cultures are shaped silently but massively around the facts that we walk upright, that we have hands, and that we have little hair and no tails. Wings might not play as heavy a part in the creation of culture as hands, but I bet they’re no less important than an upright posture.
Among the things that, will at a minimum, need to be considered:
- Casual communicative gestures (wings, especially if they’re colorful, would attract attention at a far greater distance than the wave of a hand).
- Conceptions of space (birds and pilots, like fish, live in a three-dimensional world).
- Metaphors, insults, and names.
- Architecture in general.
- Games and play (something that, in many fantasy novels, no one seems to do).
- Stories, especially those that explain the creation of the world and the sentient kinship to animals; winged humanoids might feel especially close to birds, bats, dragons, or insects.
- Protections from weather.
- Expectations of average physical endurance and prowess.
- Arrangement of cities and towns.
- Territory, borders, and nationalism.
- Weapons and armor.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that everything needs to be created completely differently from most common human objects. Perches would be of little use to someone who could fly to them but did not have the kind of bird-foot necessary to grip them. Clothing would have to fit around the wings, but couldn’t be too loose and flowing or it would get in the way of flight (and it might need to fit differently around the torso in any case, if your invented species has large flight muscles there). Decide what needs to be adapted, but decide also on the depth of acknowledgment that you want to give any one particular thing in your story.
3) How fragile are the wings?
This will determine a lot about how your invented species participates in war and conducts medicine, if nothing else. If your characters’ bones are hollow and fragile, they might be skilled in setting and healing them, and a broken bone is nothing to worry about. On the other hand, if a wing, once broken, can never be truly mended, or if a hole torn in the leather of a bat-pinion is always open, they would probably have evolved sophisticated protection. (Skilled smiths at an appropriate technological level might be able to make lightweight metal sheaths for wings that could be worn into battle).
The society can, of course, make accommodations for those who tear wings, have to have them amputated, or are born wingless, the same way that human societies have always made accommodations for those with chronic diseases or who are disabled. But to have no protection at all is nonsensical.
4) Decide on the feelings towards air/the skies/the wind.
Here, after all, is a new natural realm not traditionally open to most human societies. In the technologically-oriented, capitalist societies where it is, airplanes fail to give many people that feeling of soaring freedom that wings would. How do your characters treat the chance to hunt in open air? To soar, to circle, to share the dreams of birds? How do they use and exploit the winds? How do they react when bad weather confines them to the ground? How and when can they fly after dark?
Depending on technology level and local conditions, the winged humanoids might or might not have a lot of time to sit around contemplating the sheer aesthetics of the air, but humanity has always reacted to its natural environment. The idea that you don’t need to is a distinctly modern one, only a few generations old; weighing against that is about two million years of evolution that attunes us to the conditions of other life. So how is that environment braided into their lives? Do they give equal time to air and ground? Do they go back and forth between them depending on the season? Do some skilled hunters and gatherers make their living exclusively on the wing, while others stay lower? What external threats or cultural holds might prevent them from doing everything they can to exploit it?
How does the sky get into the art? What about rain, snow, clouds, the sun, the moon(s), the stars? They might well have a better understanding of weather than many human societies on the ground do, since they might be able to get above the clouds and see the sun shining on while a storm pummels the ground below. Do they follow migrating birds and butterflies? How far do they travel? How much do they try to model their lives after other species, and what do they learn from them?
Once again, don’t overdo this. Not every piece of art and activity in a farming society will concern farming, so there’s no need for everything in a flying society to concern flying, either. But it should be omnipresent, rather like the wings themselves.
5) What other adaptations do they have that make flight easier?
It’s much more than just wings that drive a bird’s flight, after all. There are also air sacs, hollow bones, flight muscles, streamlining of the body, tails to steer, various kinds of feathers, and a general shedding of weight; get too heavy and you can’t get off the ground. Which, if any of those, do your characters have? Or do they look like normal humans except for the wings and rely on magic to give them lift?
Perhaps they’re not modeled after birds, but after bats. Bats, however, are still fairly light and small, and their flight pattern is far different from that of a bird. How does having leathery wings instead of feathered ones affect your humanoid species? Do they also need echolocation and a nocturnal existence?
Or perhaps they have wings that resemble a dragonfly’s or a butterfly’s, as the majority of fairies in fantasy artwork do. How do they keep the dust on their wings from rubbing off, as happens to butterflies and moths, and becoming less flight-worthy? How do they keep them from crumpling? These wings are generally so light that, if your humanoid species is not small, then they are almost certainly going to need magic to fly. However, I’d be interested in seeing other adaptations made, such as short, spiraling flights that conserve energy and don’t risk the wings. Not every winged species needs to be capable of lengthy migration the way monarch butterflies and Canadian geese are. They might keep close to the ground and use their wings mostly for leaps and gliding.
Or perhaps the wings are of a different sort altogether—like a flying squirrel’s flaps of skin, say. I don’t think I’ve ever read a fantasy story like that, which increases my desire to see one. That would require further adaptations to the body, and the people might wind up looking rather less humanoid.