Creating Species in Fantasy and SF

Chapter 3—Creating a Species

Creating a species is one of the most rewarding but challenging aspects of world building. This chapter focuses on ensuring your species is close to the competition (such as elves and dwarves) in quality and depth. We can feel daunted by all that we could invent, but remember that we can always ditch things that aren’t working. Having fun with it and taking it one subject at a time go a long way toward keeping it fun.

Appendix 2 is a template for creating a species. It includes more comments and advice, and an editable Microsoft Word file can be downloaded for free by signing up for the newsletter

Species or Race?

Terminology affects perception and our ability to organize our creations. Fantasy readers are familiar with “race” denoting the difference between an elf and dwarf, for example. These races are very different in physical features, temperament, and society. They seem totally unrelated except for being humanoid. By contrast, on Earth, we only have humans, a species, and use the word race to distinguish between different biological variations of us. This section explores the difference between “race” and “species” and when we should use each term in our setting, though there’s no right or wrong answer.

The Terms

What’s a race? The answer can be complicated, but on Earth, race has been described as nothing more than a social construct to describe different versions of Homo sapiens (i.e., humans), who are 99.9% the same, having no genetic differences to warrant classification (into races or anything else). In other words, genetics has nothing to do with the term race and more to do with the word species. This means that if two humanoids are genetically different, they’ll be considered separate species.

Separate DNA = different species.

Shared DNA = races of a species.

In SF, humanoids originating on different planets will have different genes, so calling them species makes more sense. In fantasy, humanoids are most often from the same world; it’s possible for them to share genes and therefore be races of one species. Since elves, dwarves, and others are invented, no genetic material exists to determine if they are, in fact, genetically different. One could assume that the pointed ears of elves must mean there’s a genetic difference, but this is superficial. On Earth, human races have different eye shapes, noses, and more while still being genetically the same. Fantasy humanoids could indeed be races, sharing DNA.

Small people, also known as dwarves, exist on Earth, but their distinctive height and other characteristics are caused by a medical or genetic disorder, which is only sometimes passed down from parents (due to genes). It is not a definite outcome, but in fantasy worlds, a dwarf is a different race with a guaranteed passing down of their different genes to children, which suggest they are really a species. We wouldn’t expect a fantasy dwarf to give birth to a human, but Earth dwarves have done exactly that.

In some books, authors will say that elves, dwarves, and humans all derive from the same ancestry (same DNA) and they are therefore races, which seems a good term. On the other hand, if we say that the gods created elves, dwarves, and humans separately and that these beings didn’t divide themselves during evolution, they probably aren’t races. They are different species. Our audience may be indifferent to this and exposition to explain it will bog down our story. They will expect “race” and might balk at “species,” so consider this, too.

If our gods are capable of creating one species, why haven’t they created two or more? Did some event stop them and they never got around to it? They just did one and let it separate into races on its own? Or did the gods cause those races to develop? Are the gods taking a hands-off approach to the world and not interfering beyond inventing this one species? If they’re involved in everyday life, why not create more species?

If races don’t exist on a biological level, species is the other obvious term to use, but even biologists struggle with what is known as the “species problem.” There are over two dozen definitions of the word “species.” If scientists can’t define it, how can we? The word is just used to group similar organisms and is what the average person thinks of when considering a cat vs. a dog, for example. Both races and species can interbreed, producing offspring, rendering the distinction between them a moot point, so this shouldn’t figure in our thinking.