Things To Think About & Consider When Writing Merpeople & Mer Fiction

Got mermaids on the brain? In a mood to write about characters with fins? In that case, here's some stuff to help you out - whether you plan to write about an entire mer civilization or even just a single mer character.

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First, know that the Greek sirens were not mermaids.

Many works of fiction treat mermaids and the Greek sirens as if they're one and the same, even going to far as to have characters research alleged Greek myths and find out that mermaids go back to Greek mythology, where they were known as sirens. This is usually used to justify mermaids luring sailors to their deaths with their magical singing voices.

Except the sirens weren't mermaids. Yes, they lived near the sea, and yes, they lured sailors to their deaths... but they weren't part fish. They were part bird. Depending on who was doing the illustration they might be bird from the neck down or the waist down, but there was definitely no fishiness going on among them. You can read more about them here.

Does this mean that you can't write mermaids who sing sailors to their doom? Of course not; you can write your merpeople however you want. Just bear in mind that if you're aiming to draw your inspiration from original myths, you'll want to avoid conflating the two.

Put some thought into their physical appearances and why they look this way.

Merpeople being fantasy creatures, and very often magical ones at that, you do have a lot of leeway in how you design them. But depending on how much realism you want to go for, you might want to put some careful consideration into what you're doing and ask yourself why you're designing them that way and whether it makes sense per what they're supposed to be.

One example of questionable design is mermaids with scale-covered breasts. Breasts contain milk glands for nursing one's young, and scales covering the "naughty" parts are going to be exactly the opposite of helpful there. If the scales don't get in the way because they don't nurse their young, then why do they have breasts in the first place?

Of course, you might have perfectly good reasons for covering your mers up, and maybe you don't want to resort to something that they wouldn't logically have or wouldn't actually work that well. (How do you get seashell bras to stick on?) In this case, there are alternatives! Cloth could be woven from the byssal threads of various mollusks, or even from the mers' own hair, if they have it. And if your mers have magical powers, maybe they could somehow use them to create clothing.

Something else to think about is gills. If your merpeople have gills, you're definitely going to have go at least a little bit off the standard vertebrate setup, since several parts of the human body are analogous to piscine gills - EG, some of the bones that form gills in a fish have their human counterparts in your ears and voicebox. (So in this regard, neck gills are no more "realistic" than chest gills or back gills.) If you want to go for a look that's more plausible as an actual living creature, you'll want to go for gills that are quite a bit larger than a few tiny slits on the neck. (Take a look at how large the gills of large sharks are compared to the rest of their bodies!)

And then there's fins. Some people design their mermaids with extremely large and extravagant fins, much as you see on some types of ornamental goldfish. But realistically, this could present a health hazard - unnecessarily long fins are more likely to get snagged and torn (which would be the reason you only find them on domesticated fish, not on wild ones).

Many people give merpeople fangs to use as weapons, but as discussed over here, the human mouth is a suboptimal primary weapon. It's also unnecessary to give them pointy teeth on the grounds that they eat raw fish, too - humans have eaten raw meat just fine for millennia with the relatively flat teeth they have. This isn't to say you can't give your merpeople pointy teeth, but rather that they might not be as useful or necessary as you might think.

And of course, there's the tail. If your merpeople's tails are in fact truly tails, then they should be depicted as extensions of the spine. In other words, they should be flexible at every point, not just able to bend at a single joint in the middle as if they have a single knee there. If anything, the body parts that would be analogous to the legs would be a set of pelvic fins, which are frequently absent in mer character designs but are depicted in this 3D printed mermaid skeleton art and this cetacean mermaid anatomical art.

Ultimately, though, remember that trying too hard to be realistic will give you something that isn't really recognizable as a merperson at all. What you'd end up with is more likely to resemble Dougall Dixon's aquamorph, or be shaped more like a pinniped or cetacean. So, you are definitely allowed some creative freedom here.

Put some thought into how they live and how their culture or civilization works.

Are your merpeople perhaps nomadic, wandering from place to place? Or have they formed permanent settlements? How well do they understand the world around them? How advanced are they? Do they wear jewelry or use weapons or tools? If so, what do they make them out of, and how do they make them? How do they create art? And how do they preserve and propagate their knowledge and traditions? How do they get their food? Do they farm it, or do they hunt or gather it? What tools do they use for producing or collecting food? All of these are worthy questions to ask yourself and explore - all the while bearing in mind that people who live underwater will have different materials from us and have different challenges and limitations to work with.

Don't be afraid to step out of the usual boxes here, either, because there are a lot of possibilities that many people have overlooked. For example, do they ever hunt seabirds? Do they keep their feathers and use them for anything? Do they make spears from volcanic glass and hunt down large aquatic or semi-aquatic animals? They might not have gunpowder, but what can they do with pneumatics? Is there any way they could harness the energy of a hydrothermal vent?

Remember - even if you only plan to write about a single merperson, it's important to think about this stuff and come up with some answers because you still need to know what your character came from and is accustomed to!

(Also, you might also take a look at Points To Remember When Worldbuilding for some things to keep in mind while you're developing your merpeople and their culture.)

Consider stepping out of the royal box.

With stories involving merpeople, there's a huge glut of royalty. Characters are frequently princes and princesses, even when there's no especially good reason for them to be. Why not write stories about mers who aren't royalty? Why not explore what life is like as a mer from another walk (swim?) of life?

If your mermaids have powers, put some thought into the logic behind them.

It's frequently accepted that because mers are magical creatures, they can have magical powers. Fair enough. Plenty of them are logical enough, particularly the ones that relate to manipulating water in one way or another. But then there are the "mermaid" powers that seem completely random, such as fireballs and flight. What's the use of making fireballs in an environment that will immediately extinguish them? Why does a creature of water need the power to fly in the air?

On the other hand, there are actually a lot of options that fit an oceanic environment just fine. A merperson might be able to control fish, make sea plants grow, create earthquakes, or create bursts of pressure. Fireballs might be silly, but temperature manipulation still works. Or they might have the ability to magically create light - sure, it's not necessarily ocean-themed per se, but it could still be very useful underwater. So stop and think - what powers can you think of that would connect to things that you find in the ocean, or would be useful in marine environment?

You might think twice about putting your mer characters into just any body of water and calling it good.

Most fish can only survive in salt water or fresh water (more on why that is here and here). This means that if merpeople work anything like real fish, putting one into, say, a bathtub would likely have catastrophic, even lethal effects.

The same goes for a chlorinated swimming pool - even if mers can survive fresh water, the chlorine in the water is probably going to cause chemical burns to their delicate gills, just as inhaling chlorine would damage your lungs (and possibly kill you).

Another consideration is that any closed body of water is going to need a good filter to keep the water fresh. Otherwise, bacterial buildup and buildup of the mer's own waste matter is going to become a big problem pretty fast.

Think about how they relate to humans.

The more humans are interacting with the oceans and seas, the higher the likelihood is that merpeople know about them. A good question to ask is just how much they know. Without direct communication, they really wouldn't be able to know much more than they could observe from watching them from a distance or by studying their items. Also worth noting is that merpeople wouldn't particularly hate humans if humans couldn't really do anything substantial to harm them.

In any setting based in the world today as we know it, there's a lot that humans are doing that would almost certainly have a major impact on merpeople. Large amounts of trash get into the ocean and often end up in trash vortexes (such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and one in the South Pacific Gyre) or coastal areas. Increased ocean acidification (which is caused largely by the increased amount of carbon dioxide humans have been putting into the atmosphere) has been contributing to coral bleaching, which has decimated many reefs. And then there's overfishing, which has severely damaged the population of fish commonly consumed as food. Add to this pollution from spills and runoffs and, well, the ocean's a mess. All of this means that merpeople in affected areas would be at substantially higher risk of starvation, disease, and birth defects.

Another thing to consider is that the world has reached a point where keeping hidden from humans indefinitely is getting less and less likely. With more of the ocean being explored every day (and remember that the oceans are being explored with satellites as well as submarines and probes) and with people commonly carrying around cameras in the form of cellphones, it's really just a matter of time if things keep on going the way they are. If you're trying to write merpeople who are trying to keep themselves hidden, Tips & Ideas To Write More Believable Masquerades, Tips To Write Better & More Believable Cover-Ups, and Things Writers Need To Know About Security & Concealment has more information on where and how secrets can be plausibly kept.

And while we're here, something else that needs examined is the trope of merpeople eating humans. Realistically, it doesn't work out to have them eating humans all the time for a few reasons. One of them is that out in the open ocean, they would be very unreliable as prey - the odds of running into a ship would be very low. Another is that if they made a habit of eating humans in coastal areas, they'd either decimate the local population (since humans do not replenish themselves quickly), or the humans would find a way to defend themselves or would simply leave. Even if we assume that mermaids have the power to make sailors jump from their ships, then we can assume that sailors are smart enough to start carrying earplugs and harpoons once they start figuring out what's going on. If merpeople ate humans, it would most likely be a matter of opportunity (IE, just happening to luck upon a ship) or of desperation (IE, being so hungry for food that you leave your usual hunting grounds to prey on humans instead). (And yes, this means that your non-lactating mermaids are not likely to have evolved pseudo-breasts to lure in sailors.)

However you're doing your story, whether it's set in the past, in the present, or in a fantasy world, do put some thought into how your humans and merpeople interact (if they in fact do), and what they think and know about each other.

Be aware that some names are really, really cliche for mer characters.

Many creators immediately assume that the perfect name for their mermaid characters is something water or moon-themed. Because of this, there's a surfeit of mer characters with names like Marina, Aqua, Selene, Triton, and Poseidon.

There are a few things you can do to avoid this problem.

If you're considering a name with an obvious thematic connection, you might search popular fiction sites for something like "mermaid/merman [name]" to see if you come up with a lot of results.

You can also start off with a more realistic mindset. Let's think about how things work in the real world for a second. Do people who live in cold areas define themselves with names like Icy, Snow, and Blizzard? Do people who live in hot, desert climates only name their children things like Sandy, Scorch, or Sunshine? Of course not. While none of these names are impossible, most people chose names for their children on different bases. Names of THE FUTURE!!! explores some of the reasons how people choose names for their children in real life. (These of course are not the only way people select names, but it's a place to start.)

To recap!

And these pages might be relevant to you:

Tips to Create Better & More Believable Fantasy & Science Fiction Species
Fantasy & Science Fiction Creature Development Questions
Tips For Writing Better Immortal & Long-Lived Characters
Tips To Write Better Royalty, Nobility, & Other Upper-Class & Important Characters

Tips To Create Richer & More Realistic Fantasy & Science Fiction Cultures & Civilizations
Country & Culture-Development Questions

Things Your Fantasy Or Science Fiction Story Needs
Things You Need To Do In Your Science Fiction Or Fantasy Story

Mer Tail Generator
Merperson Generator
"How You Got Your Item" Generator
Quiz - What Color Is Your Mer Tail?

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