Concept Art
Jul 2023
Gregory Markov

Crafting Believable Creatures: A Design Guide

Whether you're designing for a game or a movie, bringing an environment to life involves more than crafting an immersive landscape. It's also about populating this world with inhabitants that blend naturally into their surroundings.

In this article, you'll learn how to consider the environment and ecological roles to create believable creatures.

What Makes Creatures Believable?

So, you have decided to create a non-existent animal. Simply copying won't make your creature convincing. It is essential to study animals from different angles. Here are key factors you should consider:

The Laws of Physics

No matter how bizarre, any world operates under a set of laws. Gravitational force, air composition, and numerous other factors dictate the characteristics of the species. For instance, on a high-gravity planet, inhabitants are likely to be short and sturdy. They may have thicker limbs and denser bone structures. Conversely, creatures on a planet with low gravity may evolve to be tall and skinny, with extended limbs and lighter skeletons.

Beyond Surface Details

It's essential to dive deeper than the obvious attributes. The sharp teeth of an alligator or the long tail of a dragonfly might be apparent. Still, less visible details, such as fat distribution on a crocodile, are equally vital.

The aim, however, isn't just to replicate existing animals but to combine specific traits from various creatures to create a credible, distinct, and unique entity.


Creature design is where art meets biology. Knowledge of anatomy helps you design the skeletal structure, muscular system, and outer appearance. It also allows you to accurately depict the creature's movements.

For instance, animals designed for speed will typically have slender bodies, long limbs, and strong muscles. Those adapted for aquatic life may possess a streamlined body to minimize drag, fins for navigation, and a tail for propulsion. Every aspect of the creature's anatomy should reflect its lifestyle and habits.

It burrows into white sand, where it can hide and wait for prey. This creature uses its red tendrils as bait. Mahealani Rodrigues

Highlighting Good Design: Subnautica

Subnautica is an excellent example of successful fauna design. Set on a water-covered planet, the game masterfully portrays each creature's appeal by showcasing its ecological role, behavioral patterns, and the environment it occupies.

The character initially finds themselves amidst small, brightly colored, and rounded fish in shallow waters. These design choices indicate that these creatures are harmless and serve as food sources.

In deeper waters, the player encounters more diverse species. The red hue of the Crashfish signals danger, as does the fish's alarming howl before it explodes.

Gasopod, another intriguing creature, resembles a slow, harmless sea cow, with a face that appears like a gas mask. When threatened, it releases a poisonous substance from the glands on its tail.

Eventually, the player crosses paths with the planet's apex predator — the Leviathan. Its sharp teeth, horns, and pointed fins instigate fear, as does its menacing facial expression.

How to Create a Convincing Creature

The design process is iterative. Rarely does anyone achieve something remarkable on their first attempt. It takes time, effort, and a willingness to constantly improve each draft. At first, your creations might resemble earthly beings, such as the mythical jackalope. But as you continue to experiment and refine, your design skills will begin to grow.

1. Draft a Silhouette

Start by defining your creature's silhouette. This form can offer insights into the creature's capabilities. Does it have large horns for charging? Can its wings allow it to soar above its habitat? Does it have additional limbs for enhanced mobility or powerful attacks?

A friendly creature is unlikely to be portrayed with jagged, aggressive shapes. As you begin, consider the key characteristics you want your animal to portray. Create two to three adjectives that encapsulate its essence. The more precise these descriptions are, the more convincing your creature will appear.

2. Define Constraints

Remember that believable designs often arise from restrictions. Nature prefers function and practicality over excessiveness. As you grow more confident and broaden your visual repertoire, you'll adhere to this naturally. But for now…

Set Limits:

  1. Determine the creature's habitat
  2. Specify the creature's behavior
  3. Study real-life animals with analogous traits
  4. Ensure the creature's appearance is balanced and plausible
  5. Verify that the creature aligns with the setting

3. Choose a Color Scheme

Your creature's color scheme can provide insights into its nature and habitat. Bright colors typically indicate tropical or venomous species. Brown suggests an earthy creature, while a pearl color evokes a sense of the supernatural. Black implies mystery, pink often signifies innocence, and flesh tones suggest a creature closer to us than it may seem. A shiny skin texture can imply deviousness or cunning.

Simplicity is often key when deciding on coloration. Take the Xenomorph from the Alien movie  as an example — it's completely black with a slight silver sheen, simple yet utterly unforgettable. This color is so iconic that it couldn't be applied to another creature without invoking its prototype.

4. Personify Your Creature

Often, artists are tasked with creating fantastical beings that possess their own ambitions and desires. To connect these beings with the audience, their characteristics should be visible in their facial features, as people usually perceive facial expressions first.

Consider the wild ghouls from the Fallout series — terrifying and grotesque with hollow eyes and distorted bodies. Despite this, they evoke sympathy because they were once human. The artists at Bethesda have done an excellent job giving their creatures unique features based on their roles.

5. Add Story-related Features

The creature should not only fit within the narrative but also expand it with new elements. Imagine the creature in its natural surroundings. What times of the day is it active, and how does it adapt to different seasons?

A somber atmosphere could indicate that the creature dwells in a swamp or cave, adding a sense of neverending danger. Conversely, a bright, sunny environment could accentuate the design of an adorable animal.

The atmosphere accompanying the creature can strengthen your message to the audience. Show its habits with specific postures. Examine real animals' poses and choose the best fits your creature.

For anthropomorphic creatures, facial expressions are crucial. Study human and primate facial expressions. Don't overlook the emotional expressions of the animals you've based your design on — they also have a broad range of facial expressions.

How the Professional Do It

Former Disney animator, Aaron Blaze, showed how to design unreal creatures based on his own garden life. He decided to inhabit his yard with fantasy fairies and elves. To understand how they would look, you need to figure out how they would evolve evolutionarily. The artist examined local insects that live under similar conditions and took numerous photos for reference.

One of Blaze's creations is a fairy, rendered atop a photograph of his flower bed. The fairy, inspired by stick insects, has leaf-mimicking wings and a skin tone that offers perfect camouflage among garden plants. Simultaneously, the fairy has numerous human-like features, creating an emotional resonance with the viewer.

Another example is a little elf, covered with something between hair and feathers, looking similar to grass and leaves. Like a frog, his skin is perfectly adapted to his surroundings. The creature's pose was inspired by a photograph of a person from an African tribe, individuals who live in harmony with nature.

Tips to Succeed

Steer Clear of Chimeras

Chimera is an animal created from different parts, like a broken puzzle. An ancient creature with a lion's head, a goat's body, and a snake's tail is a chimera. This type of "gluing" rarely results in a believable creature. Instead, reimagine characteristics and consider how your creature would utilize its specific abilities.

Be Careful With the Symmetry

Repeating shapes can benefit your design, but symmetry can make it monotonous. You can circumvent this by presenting your creature from a 3/4 angle. Utilizing perspective also significantly aids in this regard.

Rob Thornely

And remember, while parallel lines are suitable for man-made objects such as rails or furniture, avoid straight formations when crafting natural elements — they tend to appear abnormal.

The Secrets of Canonicial Creatures


Upon first glance, the alien Predator creature appears standard — reptilian skin, advanced tech, and glowing blood. However, two features transfer it to the category of canonical.

The first unique aspect is its hair. Hidden behind an expansive, head-shaped plate that implies substantial intelligence, these dreadlock-like strands are adorned with steel rings. This feature distinguishes the Predator and indicates a sense of civilization and traditional practices.

The Predator's second, arguably the most powerful feature, is its mouth structure. Throughout most of the film, the alien sports a mask. Once removed, the aura changes dramatically.

Its mouth opens laterally, morphing its palette and overall shape significantly. Until this moment, the viewer might have harbored hope for potential communication, but removing the mask makes it clear that this is impossible.


In contrast to the Predator, the Fly is far from an ideal killing machine — it's a biological glitch. The ultimate transformation of scientist Seth Brundle is meant to be repulsive. His skin is slimy and his movement is labored. The most striking feature of this creature, however, is its eyes. They are large and dark, expressing a sorrowful recognition of their own ugliness. The poignant expression in these eyes is the lone reminder to the viewers of the unfortunate human it once was.

Bonus Activity

Fancy creating your own fantastical creatures? Why not take a swing at it with a creature generator? With hundreds of thousands of potential combinations, you'll be supplied with an environment, traits, and reference animals to stimulate your imagination.

➡️Generate a prompt!⬅️

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