Episode 5, Part 3: Learn How to Create Species and Races
Continue learning how to create species and races, including how gods can influence them, how characteristics like morale, charisma, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, agility, and more can create more depth, and their relationship with other species and world view. Conclude with where to start!
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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
- How to choose which gods your species worships, regardless of which you invented first
- How to create a vivid understanding of characteristics by first assigning numbers of a scale and then expanding on what this means
- How world view can inform what our species does or how it’s restricted
- What sort of government forms our species might take based on its traits
- Why it’s wise to use species for human commentary and how to achieve this
- Where to start
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Episode 5.3 Transcript
Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number five, part three. Today we conclude our discussion of creating species and races. We talk about their gods, characteristics, relationships and more. 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.
As usual, I’m going to use the word species rather than continuously saying species or races throughout this episode. All of the advice applies equally well to either. If you’ve been following along with this podcast, we’ve already discussed gods in the previous episode. What we want to look at now is the species and how their gods can impact their lives. We don’t need to have already invented our gods, although that is certainly an option.
In my experience, it doesn’t really matter which one you do first because there’s going to be a lot of crossing back and forth between species, gods, and the world, and altering things continuously as we build up what we’re doing. Refining our vision is an inherent part of world building. Few people ever get a correct right out of the gate because there’s so much work to do and it will take weeks, months, or even years of work. Some ideas stand the test of time better than others.
We also almost certainly want to expand upon an idea as we go along. So some of the advice in this section may flip-flop between assuming you already have gods and are now trying to decide which ones your species worships, or that you’re creating a species first and are going to add the gods after the fact. It doesn’t really matter as long as you make a good decision.
Saying that reminds me of the expression, “it seemed like a good idea at the time,” but it’s just part of the process that we sometimes change something that wasn’t working out after all. Or if we have a better idea and replace something. The only time you’re really stuck with an idea is if we have already published it. However, this depends upon your ethics, for lack of a better word. There are certainly authors who have released a product that has contradicted a previous release. You can do this, too, but be aware that people tend to have a pretty good memory and will catch you on this. It really depends on whether you want to be known for being consistent or not. Rabid fans won’t care and will just love everything you do, but more casual fans will unfortunately feel some disrespect for your world building if you contradict yourself a lot, so just be careful.
One of the ways to avoid contradicting yourself is to keep everything written down in a file and have a system of files or even spreadsheets where it’s easy for you to refer to everything and make sure that you don’t contradict yourself later. This is infinitely more effective than just relying on memory.
So let’s get into talking about gods and species.
Your Species’ Gods
Whether we have the gods or the species first, one of the things we need to do once we have both of them is to align their characters. In episode 5.2, we talked about the concept of good versus evil, and I’m just going to use that terminology here for the sake of simplicity. There is a tendency to decide that evil species worship evil gods and good species worship good gods.
And this makes sense. A species that tends to go around murdering people is probably going to worship a god of murder if one exists. This is a little bit simplistic but it makes so much sense that it’s kind of hard to ignore. And I feel like this is one of those areas where we can be a little bit predictable and no one’s going to cry foul.
But what gets a little bit more interesting is if we have a god of good fortune and we have these murderous species also worship that god. Now why would that happen? Well, if I was going to go murder someone, I would certainly hope that my attempt to do so would go well, so maybe I would also worship the goddess of good fortune. Now that god or goddess of good fortune might not answer my prayers, but then again, who knows, we can make things more complicated than they appear at first.
The question that this scenario raises is whether this god of good fortune actually cares what sort of act is going to take place before deciding whether to bless that act. At first glance, it seems obvious that a god would care. After all, they don’t go around blessing every last action, right? At the same time, I’m not going to ask that god to bless everything that I do. You know, if I’m at dinner and reaching for the salt, I’m not going to ask the god of good fortune to make sure I don’t knock over a drink while I’m doing so.
Of course, I could do that, but if I was the god being asked for trivial things all the time, I would probably tune it out, wouldn’t I? So it’s reasonable to assume that the gods do pay attention to what’s being asked of them. Is a god of good fortune going to bless someone who is going to murder someone so that the murder takes place? Well, you’re going to have to answer the question for yourself because it’s going to depend on what you’re doing, but for a normal scenario, we would probably say no.
At the same time, if the god of murder is watching and trying to decide whether to let something happen, maybe that god doesn’t want a certain person murdered and therefore thwarts the murderer. Now we don’t need to discuss every last scenario because there are so many things that we would be sitting here for the rest of our lives, but the point I’m making is that gods are going to be paying attention to what is being carried out and decide whether it happens or not. And by the same token, the species are going to choose gods to worship based on the way that species is in general and of course the way that individual member of that species is.
Obviously, to determine this we have to have this worked out. For the rest of this discussion about this, I’m going to assume that you already know the dispositions of the gods and your species. That said, if you don’t, this is an opportunity to invent either the gods based on what your species are actually like, or the opposite of this. Now if you already have your species but you don’t have your gods, it can be relatively easy to invent gods that you imagine your species worship. Especially if you are new to world building, this might be the way to go. And even if you’ve been doing well building for a long time, you’ve probably created a lot of gods, and at this point you might feel like you’re just out of ideas.
On one hand, we don’t want to be redundant, but on the other hand, it makes sense that every world is probably going to have a god of war or god of death, or some of these basics. So when it comes to the gods, we don’t need to go crazy looking for a variety. It’s more when we’re inventing a new species that we want to do a species on one world that is very different from a species on another world that we’ve invented, because otherwise that will stand out as us stealing our own idea.
In that sense, you might want to put your priority and your focus on your species and their character, and its behavior, and make that unique, and then invent your gods to the species. So let’s assume you already know what your species is like. Well, it becomes relatively easy to invent deities that have something to do with the species. Not only do characteristics play a role in this, but so does their culture. If our species tends to live somewhere very humid, then maybe they focus on a deity that has something to do with the weather.
This is also true if they are heavily into agriculture because the weather is such an important part of that. This might also be true if they spend a lot of time outdoors because they are not sophisticated enough to build settlements and they therefore have no other choice but to either live outside or to take over abandoned settlements, and those are only going to be so well-kept obviously. Exposure to the elements is going to make the species care about the god who deals with those elements.
A warlike species is going to care a lot about gods who are involved in war. This can be everything from the god of war to a god of skill or accuracy or virtues like knighthood. Well, that’s not a virtue, but the virtues that go into knighthood. On the other hand, if the species tends to be very peaceful, then they’re probably going to be paying more attention to a god of peace, for example. Some of this is fairly obvious, but I’m just trying to give you basic ideas you can start off with and then refine as you go along.
What can really bring our species and our gods more to life for us and make it more vivid is when we find contrast like the one earlier about a species that tends to murder people but also worship the goddess of good fortune. This kind of contrast makes them more interesting. This sort of contradiction is a little bit easier to do if we already have our gods created first because one of the things we’ll end up doing is looking at our gods and, we’ll have a list of them and see all the things that they care about, and we’ll have our species, and we’ll keep thinking, “Well, which one does this species pay attention to?” And obviously they could worship more than one.
But let’s say we decided on a couple obvious ones and are looking at the list of other gods and we’re thinking, “Well, is the species really going to ignore all of these gods?” Well, that can get us into thinking about more interesting ways that we can find to associate them with a god. And the best advice I can give you for that is to have s list of deities and compare them. Think outside the box. Find another way to associate them with someone.
As mentioned in the previous episode, one of the ways that I did this was that I took a group of four gods and I merged them together into one sphere, as I called them, and this was done for reasons that had nothing to do with the species. It was done for the gods, but then I decided that these seven different spheres of gods had created my seven species on my world of Llurien. I also decided that, because a group of four gods had created a species, that the species was heavily influenced by those four gods. And this really helped me determine what the species are like. And of course it made it obvious which ones among the gods they paid more attention to. This is one of the benefits to having organized your deities. They can essentially do some of your work for you.
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Since we’re talking about characteristics, let’s continue with that. Anyone who’s ever played role-playing games has probably seen a list of characteristics like intelligence, wisdom, charisma, strength, constitution, agility, dexterity, and morale. This list provides an easy way to start thinking about what our species is capable of. This is one of those things that we might determine for our private files but we never mention to the reader. What it gets us is thinking about what they’re like and making a quick decision.
What I typically do is use a scale rating from 1 to 10 with 1 as the worst and 10 as the best. And I just quickly make a decision. I don’t spend five minutes thinking about whether the agility is a seven, eight, or nine. I just pick a number and I go with it. Obviously, I’m never going to tell the audience this, and even for my own purposes, it’s not enough.
What you really want to do when you choose a number like that is just quickly do that at first to get some sense of what this species is good at and what it is not good at. What we want to do next is write a sentence or two describing that ability. If we’ve decided that the intelligence is a nine, we don’t want to just write that they’re very smart because that’s kind of obvious. What we want to do is describe that intelligence.
For example, we could decide that they’re very good with book smarts so that they’re very good with architecture and sciences, and technologies in a science fiction setting. As a result, they’re one of the species who invent things. They will most likely be respected for this intelligence and their abilities. Now we’re starting to get into their relationships. Obviously, what we’re doing is starting to flesh out what they’re like based on this attribute.
For intelligence, we could also decide that this means that they are formally educated. They are not only the kind who attend universities but also teach at them, and author scholarly books and treatises, and anything we associate with higher learning. This in turn might mean that this species in general is relatively well-off. Since they are well-educated, then they are probably the sort who are in charge of governments. After all, there is often a “pay for play” kind of thing going on where the wealthy are the ones who end up in charge. We certainly see this here in the United States where I live, where there is almost an oligarchy of people who are wealthy running the country.
The reverse can also be true if we’ve decided that they’ve only got a three for intelligence. This implies that they are not educated and that they didn’t have industry and that they are probably relatively poor as a result of not being able to hold down high-paying jobs. This might also lead to things like more crime from them, if they’re trying to improve their lives in ways that are not legal.
This might also affect their morality, which is another one of the characteristics that I listed at the beginning. They may have questionable morality, which is not to say that those who are very intelligent have great morality because they might also be correct. Actually, you know what? I misspoke. I mentioned morale before, not morality. Even so, the advice still holds.
But while we’re on the subject of morale, this is something that will come up in combat, and arguably those of us writing science fiction and fantasy are going to have characters who end up in fights. Morale is basically an indication of whether somebody runs away or stays and fights, even if the odds are not great. Once again, we’re talking about the characteristics of the species as a whole, and that allows us to determine if a specific character is someone who upholds that or who defies it.
Wisdom is another one of our characteristics. The wiser people may be someone who is an advisor to the court, and the species could be known for this. They may either be the person who is in power or someone who advises them. An entire species can be known for this. They may also have decided to live a peaceful, humbler life where they eschew that kind of thing. Maybe they just tend to be farmers who are out in the country. Such a characteristic combination is something we’re going to make up as we go along.
Of course, it’s possible that these wise characters are the ones who are philosophers who are writing important and influential papers and are therefore sought out and they might also be teaching at universities. They may or may not be religious. It really depends on how you want to spin that.
Charisma is another one of our attributes and can affect everything about this person or the species. They could be someone who’s very charming and is therefore good at being an effective politician who rises to power. Or they could be someone who has more street smarts and has more luck charming people on the streets. This is its own kind of wisdom. It’s what we might call emotional intelligence.
The charisma also takes into account the physical features of a species. A species we find physically unpleasant would not be very charismatic to most of us, and vice versa. Do you see how it’s not enough to simply say that they have charisma? We really need to qualify that. This is where a sentence or two comes into play. We’re not just giving a number for charisma like eight. What we want to do is explain the number that we assigned.
Let’s move on to some physical attributes, like strength. This is something that’s pretty easy once we’ve decided what the body is like. It doesn’t take that much thought. However, we can decide that while the species is kind of slight of build, that they have some sort of unusual strength. Maybe they frequently fool people into not expecting that. We have a certain amount of leeway here because no one from this world is going to show up and say that the species can’t really lift something that’s a certain number of pounds.
Then there is constitution. This is an indication of how hardy they are and how much endurance they have. We may decide to take the physical appearance into account when deciding this. For example, if we have a species that’s only 3 feet tall, then when they walk from one place to another, it’s gonna take far more steps for them to get there than someone who is twice their height. We may decide that they have more endurance so that they can travel the same distance, maybe not in the same amount of time, but they might reach a place in 10 hours instead of 6 or 7hours, but they still get there in the same day. What I’m getting at here is that we can use constitution to compensate for this.
Then there’s agility and dexterity. Both of them are and a measure of how effective they’re going to be in combat. Dexterity is going to affect the ability to manipulate anything with their hands. A musician would have a higher dexterity. In our world, we may decide that magic requires drawing elaborate symbols in the air or manipulating things in complicated ways with the fingers, and that this therefore requires dexterity. Assigning our species and low dexterity might mean they cannot do these things. They might also lack refinement affecting their ability to use something like a sword so that they end up using a more brute force weapon like a club.
That brings us to agility. If they have a high agility, then these might be our martial artists. If they have a low agility, then probably not. Having decided this will impact our decision on how they perform combat.
When it comes to getting started with making up some characteristics, we probably already have some basic impression of what they’re like. Next we just want to list these characteristics, assign a number, and then begin thinking about how to flesh out those with a few sentences that help us determine what they’re like. The number is just a starting point and something that we’re never going to tell anyone.
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Let’s talk a little bit about the world view of our species. One of the problems we can face as world builders is that we might have only lived in one place for most of our lives. The result is that we have a certain worldview and we may assume that the rest of the world has a similar worldview even if we know better. The end result is that we might assign that worldview to our species. There’s nothing wrong with this, but if our audience is from the same place, then we’re basically presenting a fictional species just like humans. This is a mistake we should try to avoid.
Now if we had the chance to live in different parts of the same culture, or different cultures for an extended period of time, we may have a better understanding of the world view of different places. If our own assumptions about worldview have been questioned, this makes a little bit easier to detect the kinds of things that we might want to change. But without that, what do we do?
We can force ourselves to question everything. This can be difficult and there is no shortage of fictional species who are basically humans by another name and with a different face or appendages, or something similar. Personally, I tend to think of this as a failure of imagination. That’s not the kind of reaction we want, right? We’ll look at this a lot more in Cultures and Beyond, which is The Art of World Building volume 3 and some of the episodes there, but I wanted to touch upon this now.
One of the things we should want the most is for someone to react differently to things that we do. There are a lot of clichés that we can run afoul of even when we are writing for human characters on Earth. We certainly don’t want fictional species to react the same way as us.
For example, there is the innocent rant, as I think of it. This is when someone says something like, “You gonna kill all of these innocent people!” And the evil character says, “Innocent? They’re not innocent!” And the bad guy starts going off about how no one is innocent. This makes me roll my eyes when a human is doing this, so imagine a fictional species is doing that. We really need to avoid that.
Originality in the world view is going to be a lot more important than originality in what they look like, especially if you’re working in the TV industry because there’s probably someone else who is going to go ahead and design that species on screen, as far as their appearance goes. As a world builder, I think the most important thing we can focus on is the worldview of our species. One way to do this is to think of cultures on Earth that are different from the one we lie in and borrow ideas from them.
For example, we had the Vikings. They were known for being a seafaring power back when oar powered ships were the rage and we hadn’t really gotten that good at wind powered ships. They also did a lot of conquering. They were thought to be very fierce and strong. And they had a love for mead. None of this is their worldview, but these actions result from the worldview, which was that the world was a place for them to go out and conquer.
Why did they have that worldview? Well I don’t know. I haven’t researched the Vikings, but you certainly can and take that and apply that attitude to one of your species. This is what’s known as an analogue, which was touched upon earlier in this podcast. An analogue is when we take something from Earth and mold it to our fictional world.
The Europeans had a certain worldview when they were exploring the world and conquering places like what is now the United States. The Native Americans had a different world view. If we can’t think of a group like this, then we can take a famous leader like Genghis Khan and research who he was and the people that he led and what their attitude was.
Government and World View
The world view will also impact what sort of government the species typically has in their own settlements. Many of us don’t find discussions of government interesting, but I promise you that if you read Creating Places, which is volume 2 in The Art of World Building book series, I will change this for you because I go into quite a bit of detail about the difference between one government type and another, at least at the high level, so that you can make a good decision about what to do in your world.
Monarchies, dictatorships, and republics are all vastly different in the outlook of the species who has created that form of government. This is not to say that one species will only have one of these. For example, humans have all of them. If you create elves, for example, or something similar, they might have a monarchy in one place and a dictatorship in another. Now we don’t associate elves with having dictatorships, but anything is possible if you really want to be that way.
One of the things we want to avoid is having a monoculture where a species is their culture because they’re all the same. This might seem like a contradiction I’m bringing up because I am talking about creating generalizations, but we can create more than one generalization.
When it comes to both worldview and society, we should decide whether they respect human rights, as we call them here on Earth. Do they believe in personal liberty? This is again going to inform the type of government that they invent. Do they believe in marriage? Do they accept divorce? What is their view on homosexuality? How do they feel about the accumulation of wealth? Is this something they look to or do they try to have the wealthy spread that money to the poor?
Do they believe that personal liberty is so prized that they don’t have that many laws and therefore there might be more crime? That could in turn lead to certain people finding their sentiments desirable because they’re the kind of people who are up to something. By contrast, there might be goodhearted people who don’t want to live in such a place because they don’t want to feel like they don’t have that kind of protection. This could also result in weapons being allowed to be carried openly or a policy could be there to prevent that sort of thing, where people have to lock up their guns or their swords before entering town.
Sometimes to get at the worldview, we have to think of some practical limitations and how those apply. This is arguably what we’re really after because we don’t want to be writing passages about the worldview. We want the worldview to inform the behavior that our characters can get away with. Restrictions that they would run afoul of are also important.
We should also consider how they raise their young. Do we have a nuclear family where there is usually a father and a mother, or is it more of an open-ended kind of thing where it’s almost like animals where the child is born into society and for a few years it’s attached to the mother, but then it’s set free? This can have a huge impact on the society.
All of this affects the customs, such as birth, death, and burial rituals and things like weddings and divorce. This can affect simple things like whether we shake hands, or hold doors for people, or salute people. Do people trade gifts upon meeting? While this is a custom, it may come out of the worldview of wishing happiness on people, for example. There are so many things that we could do with worldview that it can be overwhelming, and that’s why there’s a whole volume on culture in this world building series. We will touch on this much more later but I wanted to get you thinking about the general worldview of your species.
And one of the biggest questions to ask yourself is whether they are a force for good or evil? Are they part of the problem or part of the solution?
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The last thing I want to talk about here in this episode is human commentary. What do I mean? Well, one of the best uses for species is to offer a contrast to us. For example, if you think that humans are greedy in general, or that this is a failing of ours, then you can create a species who is very generous and craft a story where this conflict comes up.
I’ve read many stories where elves are either immortal or they live 1000 years or more, which of course is far in excess of humans. This has often been used to depict humans as being impatient. This is practically a cliché at this point, but you get the idea. This sort of comparison can make the audience relate to our work a little better. That really depends on our audience, but I think that even people in their teens enjoy reading something that makes them think a little bit while they’re being entertained.
Part of what we’re getting at here is the relationship of our species to everyone else. It’s a good idea to decide how our species not only interacts with humans, but with each other, if we are creating more than one of them. It’s a little too easy to just figure out how the humans interact with them and not think about the relationships with each other. But this is something to work on later after you’ve already got a pretty good idea of what the species is like. And what your second species is like.
In the free templates that you can download by joining the newsletter, I do have a section for working these out. As with everything, it’s designed to get you thinking and is not mandatory. Nothing in world building is mandatory.
We should decide if the species are enemies or friends and why. And do they have any legendary battles or animosities? Maybe they have some treaties. They might’ve been allies in the past but are enemies now. There should also be classic understandings or stereotypes that each has about the other. Humans may share some of these or not. Crafting all of this requires having a good understanding of worldview.
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There are several other issues that we can discuss when it comes to inventing a species or race. One of those is what languages are spoken and whether they have their own written language. The ability to read or write is going to have a huge impact on how sophisticated the society can be. The subject is covered in more detail in Creating Life, but I’m not going to cover it here.
I’m also not going to cover creating a history for our species and how this can make it more diverse. An even bigger subject I’m not going to cover in this podcast is the supernatural, which is not only phenomena and magic, but their use of godly powers, such as the ability to channel a god’s power through their own body. For those who read both fantasy and science fiction, we’re also not going to cover the use of technology or combat. Both of these can be found in Creating Life.
Where to Start
My final words on how to create a species or race is to talk about where to start. The top-down approach means inventing a species at the high level and working our way into details. For example, we could decide on a sea dwelling species and then start working into details such as whether they have gills, or whether they can survive out of water, or even if they can walk on land.
The bottom-up approach means working on the details and then slowly integrating them into a unified whole. Maybe we first decide that the species has sharp claws, a barbed tail, and it carries people off at night but is seldom seen doing so, and it leaves no trace of where it went. From these details and more, maybe we decide that it’s a sea dwelling creature and that the reason it’s got claws is that these are for catching fish, and the reason people disappear is that they are taken underwater to a cave or maybe even just drowned. This big picture is suggested by the details that we thought of first.
Regardless of your approach, there’s really no right or wrong way to do it and as mentioned before, we will crisscross back and forth on our species and other inventions, changing and updating things as we go along.
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 closing out today’s show with a song from my album Serenade of Strings, called “Duo.” 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!