Episode 5, Part 1: Learn How to Create Species and Races
Listen as host Randy Ellefson explores how to create species and races, when to use which term, and how to structure your species and races intelligently. We also look at whether world builders need to invent them at all; the answer may be different for science fiction vs. fantasy. Finally, we look at the minimum and maximum that can be done when inventing one and how to balance the work.
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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
- How to organize your gods
- How to use symbols, nicknames, and more to characterize the deities
- How to decide how much interaction the gods have with the world and how rules can be broken, and the price to pay for this
- How to invent items or places the gods have created and make them relevant to the god
- Where to start
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Episode 5.1 Transcript
Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number five, part one. Today’s topic is how to create races and species and even when to use each term. As this is a big subject, the podcast will be split into several episodes, each as number five, part one, two or three, for example. This material and more is discussed in Chapter 3 of Creating Life, volume 1 in The Art of World Building book series.
Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.
Why Create Species and Races?
Creating a species or race is one of the best things we can do as a world builder. It can make our work stand out from the competition more than anything else. It is also the most reusable aspect of world building because we can use that race or species over and over again.Any series of stories we create, regardless of the medium, can end up being known for the species and races that inhabit the world we create.
What first comes to mind when you think of the movie Avatar? The Na’vi people. Elves, dwarves, and hobbits immediately come to mind with The Lord of the Rings. Even a film series like Star Wars has its Woookies and Jabba the Hutt and a multitude of other characters that we see in the background but which are never explained to us or given names or societies, but we still think of that series as having all of these creatures anyway, don’t we?
So then the obvious question becomes, “How do we go about creating one of these?”
What Term To Use
I think the first thing we need to decide on is what we are going to call this creation: a species or a race? Let’s take a look at this subject.
Especially in fantasy, audiences are used to the word “race” being used to describe the difference between a human, an elf, and a dwarf, even those these beings are very different from each other physically, not to mention culturally and in other ways.
But on Earth, none of these exist except for humans, of course. And we use the word “race” to describe the differences in facial features and skin color. In other words, here on Earth, the differences are relatively minor compared to those on a fantasy setting, where the bodies are so drastically different.
This raises a certain problem with the word “race.” If we’re using that word to describe the difference between humans, elves, and dwarves, then how can we use that word to describe differences between different types of elves. It doesn’t really make sense, does it? It’s kind of confusing.
This suggests that we might want to use the word “species” to describe the difference between humans, elves, and dwarves and reserve the word “race” for the differences between versions of humans, dwarves, elves, or any other being that we create.
So let’s take a look at these terms and figure out whether we’re being correct or wrong or just what the story is with this.
The Terms Explained
The word “race” has been described as nothing more than a social construct. In other words, an artificial way of trying to group different versions of something, in this case, humans. Most humans are 99.9% the same. There are no genetic differences to warrant any classification into races or anything else, for that matter.
What this means on a practical level is that if two humanoids are genetically different, they would be considered different species. In other words, separate DNA means different species. Shared DNA means a races of a species.
What this means for science fiction in particular is if we have different beings originating from different planets, they are almost certainly going to have different DNA, which means that they would be different species. By contrast, in fantasy, usually the different beings are from the same planet, so it is possible for them to have shared DNA.
So how do we know if humans, elves, and dwarves have the same DNA? Well, it’s impossible. Why? Because except for the humans, the rest of those are invented. There’s no actual DNA for us to take samples of and send to a lab and get back some sort of report on, right?
Now we could assume that if elves have pointed ears that this means they are genetically different, but this is a superficial difference the same way that different eye shapes or noses or other things are cosmetic. They’re trivial. They’re not something’s genetically important.
Now some of you are probably thinking, “Hey wait a minute. Dwarves do actually exist on Earth, so then we could do some testing.” But that’s just the thing about this. That sort of testing has already been done and the differences with dwarves on Earth, for the distinctive height and other characteristics are actually caused by a medical or genetic disorder, which is why those genes are sometimes passed down from parents.
However, they are not always passed down. What this means is that a dwarf mother could give birth to a dwarf child or not. By contrast, a human who’s not a dwarf could give birth to a dwarf child. This is not what you’d expect in a fantasy story, though, right? We always assume that the dwarves give birth to more dwarves and that humans do not.
In fact, on that note, that would be an interesting change. Why is it that on Earth, humans give birth to both full-size and dwarves, but then on a fantasy setting, humans never give birth to dwarven-sized humans? Wouldn’t we end up with, for lack of a better word, actual dwarves that are always dwarves and dwarf humans? How would they be accepted?
This is something I don’t think anyone has ever done and I never thought of that until just this moment while describing this, but this is something that we could certainly do in our work. On the same note, why can’t an elf give birth to a dwarven elf?
The reverse is also true sometimes, while we’re on the subject of height, because there are, of course, gigantic humans and these are not necessarily born from gigantic humans, even though height sometimes does run in families. It’s just a situation where something has happened genetically and the result is that we have someone who is much smaller or bigger than normal.
The point here is that these differences are exceptions. They are not the rule. And this is something we need to be aware of.
Now in some fantasy settings, the author will say that all of the elves, dwarves, and humans, for example, have all derived from the same ancestry. What that would mean is that they have the same shared DNA. This in turn means that they are therefore races, which would seem to be an appropriate term in this case.
On the other hand, if the gods created elves, and then they also went off and created humans, and then they later created dwarves, each one of them is being created at a different point in time, which would seem to suggest they have different DNA and are therefore different species. This doesn’t have to be the case, of course. We could decide that the gods made them all have basically the same DNA, or pretty close. As the ultimate god of our world, we can do whatever we like.
The Species Problem
The last point I want to make on this is that even among biologists on Earth, there is something known as “the species problem.” Part of what this means is that there are over two dozen definitions of “species,” so basically even the scientists are having trouble defining what one is. So if you’re feeling confused yourself, apparently you’re not alone. And if this isn’t your field of study, to some extent, the pressure is off to get this right because even the scientist can’t make up their mind. Hopefully I’m not going to offend any scientists in the audience by saying that.
So then why does the word “species” exists? Well, it’s just like the word “races.” We’re using this to group organisms into what someone considers a logical grouping, such as cats being different from dogs.
By the way, both races and species and interbreed, producing offspring, so I’ve seen some people say that if you can’t breed, then you’re not this or you’re not that. Well, that’s not actually true, so don’t worry about that when you’re trying to whether to call your being species or races. The whole breeding thing is a non-issue.
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Biodiversity and Hierarchy
Something we should consider when trying to decide between the words “races” and “species” is the biodiversity of our creations. For example, elves, dwarves, hobbits, orcs, and humans all have two arms and legs, one head, and no tail, for example. But if one of them has gills or maybe wings, or two heads, that’s a greater degree of difference, and if it’s always the case that they are this way as a result of mating, then we may want to consider that a different species.
We might also want to consider whether to use a hierarchy to denote the differences between races and species. What do I mean by a hierarchy? Well, under humans we might have Caucasian, Asians, and blacks, and Latinos, for example, but under elves we might have high elves and then we might have drow, also known as basically evil elves. Among the dwarven family, we often have hill dwarves and mountain dwarves.
In these cases, the drow and high elves are races of the elf species. The Caucasian, Asians, Latinos, and blacks are races of human species. With the dwarves, the hill and mountain dwarves are races of the dwarf species. This sort of hierarchical structure makes more sense to me personally, but you’ll have to decide for yourself if this something you want to do.
On the other hand, if we call humans, Caucasians, elves, mountain dwarves, hill dwarves, drow…if we call all of them races, there’s no hierarchy or structure to that at all and it’s just a little bit confusing, isn’t it? Maybe we can improve upon this by using both the word “species” and “races” in the appropriate context. And generally, races are a subset of species.
There’s an added bonus to using the word “species” at all, especially in fantasy: people are used to the word “races” and you can pull them out of their comfort zone a little bit and make them perk up and pay more attention and just not be so comfortable with the “same old, same old” that they see in so many books and stories.
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Should We Create a Species or Race?
By the way, on a stylistic point, I’m just gonna go ahead with the word “species” for the rest of this podcast episode and not keep saying “species” or “races.” But everything I’m saying applies equally to both.
The next thing we should consider is whether we should create a species. Now if you’re listening to this episode, you probably already have some idea of whether you want to or not. But let’s take a good look at this and decide if it’s something we actually need to do or something that we just want to do. Or maybe after learning everything that we need to do in order to create a believable one, we might decide after all that maybe we don’t want to do that anymore. Don’t worry though: the whole point of this podcast and the book series and templates is to make all of this easier for you.
In Science Fiction
In science fiction, we may have no choice but to invent our own species. Why is that? Well, because aside from the little green aliens, we don’t have any public domain species that we can use. Somebody owns the Vulcans from Star Trek, for example. We can use that for fan fiction, but unless we’re hired by the Star Trek universe, to go ahead and write something for them, we can’t get away with publishing anything using them.
That leaves us with two options, as far as I can tell. The first of those is that we have a setting where there are only humans and there are no species of any kind besides us. Or we go ahead and create some. Given that humanity is plenty dramatic all by itself, we don’t really need to invent species if we don’t feel like doing so. There are plenty of series out there that don’t have any, especially if the characters are originating from Earth and only operating in our solar system, for example.
However, if we have science fiction where the characters are very far from Earth, outside our solar system, but still within our galaxy, then we’re probably going to have them encountering other life forms somewhere else. Otherwise we’re going to end up in a situation where we have to put that story so far into the future that the only people we’re encountering on distant planets and in other solar systems are other humans, who made it there hundreds if not thousands of years ago. Unless we intend on having that kind of history, which is still in our future, then we’re probably going to want to invent species that our characters can run into. Either that, or keep everyone local to our solar system.
Now there is one way around that, and this can work in fantasy as well, and that is to have magic portals or something like the Stargate from the TV show, where we can get from Earth to some distant location, in either this solar system or another one, or even in a faraway galaxy, in a blink of an eye. What this eliminates is the need for extensive years, thousands of years or light years for characters to have traveled to that other planet and have set up a colony, or a civilization, and all of that to flourish for however many more hundreds or thousands of years. All of that’s very time consuming in story terms. It involves creating a lot of future history. We can avoid that by having people get there much more quickly.
Now in a series like Star Trek, there are species who are ever present, like the Vulcans, who are in probably every episode of that show. But then there are species who only show up for a single episode, and our characters meet them. The point I’m trying to make here is that we don’t always have to create a species in incredible depth. That’s something we want to save for creature or species that we’re going to use throughout a series. But the nature of episodic television sets us up for a situation where characters are going to be onscreen for just one episode, and we can take more chances or have more leeway with how we present them or even how much we do when we’re inventing that species. So we don’t always have to go overboard and create everything.
If we are working on a TV show, we probably have a lot of help in the form of costume designers and others who are going to improve on our work, even “meddle” in it or do things that we might consider destroying it, but for authors we’re going to have all of that work being done by us, so we can have more freedom but we also have more work.
The scenario of having a character who’s only around for one story is a situation ripe for only creating what you need. Something to be aware of though is that if we do intend to create something for just one story, we may change our minds later and decide to expand on that. And we should just be aware of what we’ve originally created and whether we’ve boxed ourselves into a corner.
For example, we may not want to make an unnecessary comments such as, “They never leave their planet.” Well, if we decide to use them in context later and we to have them have left the planet, now we’re contradicting ourselves. Unless we need to make such a comment in our story, it’s probably better to just not make any universal statement like that.
Of course, another around that is that we could decide at a later time that something happened to that planet and now they are travelers, whether that planet was destroyed or something less extreme happened where the planet just became less hospitable. With some creativity, we can usually work our way out of a box if we’ve put ourselves into one.
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Things are a little bit different in fantasy because we have a number of public domain species or races that we can use. This includes elves, dwarves, and dragons. No one owns these. This means that no one can tell us to stop using them. We don’t need anyone’s permission and we don’t need to pay anybody. It’s great!
The big problem is that since this is true for everyone, that probably every fantasy author in all of recorded history is using the same species. This means they are arguably overused. Now some people probably don’t mind them and have never gotten sick of them and don’t mind seeing the same thing over and over again, but other people might really be desiring something new. And that’s where you come in.
As a world builder, you have the ability to invent a new species and blow the socks off of your audience, and have them coming back to your work more and more because you’re one of the people doing something new, something different, and it’s just a little more exciting than seeing the same old thing they’ve always seen before.
On that note, the ability to do something new means we are not beholden to anyone else for ideas. With elves, we can only present them with so many variations because if you remove something that everyone assuming is going to be there, like the pointed ears, then people are cry foul. We can get away with making minor variations, and in fact I touched on this previously in chapter 1 in a section called, “What’s In a Name?”
The trick is not to shock somebody with a name that is very jarring because it’s so far off from expectations. I think the previous example I used was the word “goblin” being used for something and by the time the actual goblin appeared onscreen, as it turns out, it was actually an ape. This basically caused blowback for me because I kind of rejected what they were doing and saying and it also took me right out of the scene and story. I sat there mentally criticizing the movie I was watching. That is not the reaction we want our audience to have. So when we make minor changes, that’s okay, but if make a bigger change, and we remove something that’s expected, then we shouldn’t call it what it is based on. The obvious example is a dwarf that is ten feet tall. That doesn’t make any sense, so just go there.
Another issue with using the same species that everyone else is using is that sometimes it seems like we can read ten different books by ten different authors, and get ten different versions of what an elf is. Now when I was younger that sort of inconsistency bothered me a little bit, but since then I’ve gotten a life and gotten over that, but some people might not like that so much. This is something that caused me personally to strike out more and start inventing my own species.
What I’m getting here is, let’s say there’s ten different versions of what an elf is, well I couldn’t figure out what version of them I wanted for the planet I was creating. I had no criteria. I had no reason to choose one over another and the indecision was one of the things that kind of bothered me about this. That, in turn, led to the thought, “Well, why do I have to use them at all?” And so one thing led to another and that was part of how I became more of a world builder and more of a species creator.
There’s another point I want to make here. In The Lord of the Rings, we have Ents and hobbits, which are both owned by the Tolkien estate, so this means we cannot use them. However, for some of you, you’ve played Dungeons and Dragons and you may have seen treants and halflings. Well what are they? They’re basically Ents and hobbits by another name. Personally I’m a little surprised that anyone could get away with basically ripping off idea wholesale and just putting another name on them, so there might be a little more to this, and if you decide to do something like this, you might want to run this by your legal team, for example, but it is an option. To give yourself some plausible deniability, you might also want to make some changes to it.
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How Much to Create
We should also consider how often we’re going to use our setting. Something that we’re only going to use for a single story may not benefit from the time and effort that it takes to create a species. On the other hand, if we’re intending to use that world indefinitely, then maybe it’s worth spending that time. We might want to take hybrid approach where we create a main world and put more effort into creating species, and then for standalone short stories or a novel that we’re not going to follow up on, then we can just use something standard like the elves and dwarves from fantasy, for example.
So let’s talk a little bit about the scope of what we invent. As mentioned, in some cases we’ll want to do a lot of world building on that species, and in other cases we might want to do the bare minimum. So let’s talk about what the bare minimum is. At the very least, we should decide on the physical appearance and the overall disposition that is shared across all members of the species. A specific character might go against that disposition but that’s fine. Knowing what the main disposition of all of them is helps us characterize that one person who is different.
There are also types of species such as ogres and orcs and other henchmen that usually don’t get a significant amount of development. We just go ahead and do that appearance and their overall attitude, and leave it at that. We often don’t see them as having a language that’s well developed or a culture, and we tend to look at them as someone who is kind of mooching on the rest of the world. For example, they may not have the ability and the technological skill or intelligence to create buildings, so perhaps they are living in ruins. Species like this require a little bit less development time.
But it isn’t only the so-called evil species that can get this limited time. We sometimes see another character who is basically benevolent who is also the same way. The one that comes to mind for me is Chewbacca from Star Wars. Technically, he is a Wookie, but in the original trilogy of films, we never saw another Wookie. This basically means that he had become synonymous with his species so that whatever he was, they all were, as far as we knew.
Adding to that is that he never says something we can understand. In fact, most of his characterization comes from Harrison Ford’s acting ability as he reacts to Chewbacca. That’s where all of his personality seemingly comes from. Han Solo is what makes Chewbacca work, and in that sense, Harrison Ford did double duty in those films. In books in could be harder to make such a character work and we’re probably going to forget that the character even exists and tend to look at them as a positive henchman.
As a side note, Wookie is capitalized for some reason but your species or races should not be. That’s not a title or a proper name. We only see the word “human” capitalized if it’s the start of a sentence. We can also capitalize something if it is synonymous with a region that is also capitalized. For example, Germans is capitalized because of Germany. Normally, we’re not going to be doing this, however.
Continuing with the Star Wars example, on film we see many other species that are just in the background. They have almost no development time to them and they will never even get a name. This would represent the extreme of doing very little work on a species.
So now let’s look at maximum that we could do. This means creating a fully developed species. That means their habitat, climate, settlement preferences, appearance of the head, body, and clothing, their gods, society, language, customs, history, relationships with other species, their supernatural talents and attitudes, and the same thing for technology, and then even what their combat skills are. All of these subjects are included in the template that you can download by joining The Art of World Building newsletter. This will help speed up doing this and make sure you don’t overlook something.
The biggest issue with doing the maximum is the sheer amount of hours and months, even years of refinement and development that you’re going to do. And during this process, you’re going to weed out ideas you don’t like as much. You’re also going to be adding things. You sometimes might add something that contradicts an earlier idea and how you have to choose how to resolve this or just get rid of one. This can be a lot of fun, but the fact of the matter is, it’s extremely time consuming. It also doesn’t typically produce something that you can actually sell to the public in the form of a book or something, whereas working on a story does. And in fact every minute that you spend working on world building is another minute you don’t spend on your writing craft or promoting a book, or even writing that book. So what does that mean? Well, it means you should choose wisely when to do this maximum.
So how do we make a wise decision? Only do the maximum when you really need to or when you are really passionate about the idea that you are working on, or if you are intending to use that idea on a setting or in a series that you are going to write for many episodes or stories or series of books. Don’t do it for just a one-off. You’re basically wasting your time in that scenario.
In between the minimum and the maximum is a more moderated approach. You’ve probably heard that expression, “All things in moderation.” Well, this applies to world building, too. What does that really mean? Well, I recommend deciding on the species’ habitat because that’s going to determine a lot about how their bodies developed, and even where they’re going to be found on your world.
We should also decide whether they’re willing to live in joint settlements or only ones by their species. Now what I mean by a joint settlement is that they don’t simply go out and find themselves temporarily, or even permanently, living in a settlement that is mostly human, for example, but that they actually create a settlement with humans and elves or whoever else. The idea of joint settlements will be discussed more detail in Creating Places, which is the second book in The Art of World Building book series, but the basic idea is that it’s a little bit unrealistic for most worlds to have settlements that are exclusively created by and for one of the species if there are a lot of species around.
The moderation approach also includes deciding on their overall disposition, their appearance, their relationships with each other and other species. Now the areas that we can skimp on for now include their clothing, their gods, characteristics like agility, intelligence, and morale, their languages, customs, history, combat, and even the details of their ability to manipulate supernatural or technological forces. Only you can really decide on what you want to create and what you need to create for your story, but this should get you some idea.
All of this show’s music is actually courtesy of yours truly, as I’m also a musician. The theme song is the title track from my Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid album, but now we’re going to close out today’s show with a song from my album The Firebard, called “Chimes of Passion.” You can hear more at RandyEllefson.com. Check out artofworldbuilding.com for free templates to help with your world building. And please rate and review the show in iTunes. Thanks for listening!