Jan 152018
 

I was recently asked to be guest on another podcast and the episode is now live. I talk more about my experiences with world building, so if you’re following my own podcast or The Art of World Building, check it out!

Jan 122018
 

Episode 5, Part 2: Learn How to Create Species and Races

Continue learning how to create species and races, including overall attitude and disposition, what some call “alignment.” Is good vs. evil a viable approach or too restrictive? How else can get this across? With their appearance, do we want them able to masquerade as each other or not? What do their physical features say about them? Learn the pros and cons of multiple races of a species and how this can improve depth and our options.

Listen, Subscribe, and Review this episode of The Art of World Building Podcast on iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher, or Google Play Music!

In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • When using “good” and “evil” are good ideas
  • Alternatives to these words
  • When it comes to disposition, why uniformity in a race or species isn’t great
  • Various ways to create more variety in outlook
  • How appearance can help or hinder two races of a species from masquerading as each other
  • The advantages of humanoids over non-humanoids
  • Issues impacting facial features and bodies
Coda

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Episode 5.2 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number five, part one. Today we continue our discussion of creating species and races. We talk about their overall attitude, deciding what they look like, and more. 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.

Habitat

If you are following along with Creating Life, you will notice that there’s a section on habitat. One of the subjects discussed therein is this issue that comes up in fantasy especially, where we might have elves almost explicitly holed up inside their forests and only have a few of them out and about in the world. And even then, only temporarily. When the story is done, they’re going to go back home and maybe never venture out again. The same idea is often done with dwarves, who seldom leave their mountain home.

This trope comes up in fantasy quite a bit but can also be done in science fiction. This is not to say that this is necessarily a good thing or what we want to pursue, but there is this idea that the humans are the ones who are everywhere in equal numbers, and the other species are holed up in one location, and there are only a few of them out and about.

Personally, I think more variety can be done and I talk about this a lot in the book under the section on habitat. This includes the idea of joint settlements, and by that I mean a place that is built by multiple species together, as opposed to mostly being built by humans and there’s just a smattering of other species there. Or an elven city where it’s built by and for elves and the only others that are allowed in there are on a temporary basis. We may want to challenge this idea. And the reason that I mention this is that I’m not going to discuss this in more detail in this episode of the podcast or the blog at artofworldbuilding.com, but if you want to find out more about what I have said about this, just pick up a copy of Creating Life.

Disposition and Outlook

So what are we going to talk about? The first subject up is disposition, or the overall attitude of our species. Another word for this is alignment. Those of you who are used to playing Dungeons & Dragons or other role-playing games might be familiar with this. We usually say that someone is either evil or good, or neutral, whatever that means. And I think that this is something we should talk about.

I personally don’t like using the words “good” and “evil” in my stories because life is more complicated than that, and our characters will hopefully be richer, too. Now to some extent that depends on our audience. If we’re writing for younger people and teenagers we might want to go ahead with that kind of thing because there are people who like a simple breakdown into good and evil. As someone who is no longer a teenager, that sort of simplification tends to make me roll my eyes. Some of you hearing me say that are going to have the same reaction. Some of you are probably going to think, “Well, just get over it. It’s not a big deal.” But you have to decide for yourself whether that’s the sort of characterization you want to do. If it is, well then you’re set. If it’s not, then what other words can be used besides “good” and “evil?”

These other words get across the same point without making our audience feel like we’re talking down to them. Two of the words that I resort to a lot are “benevolent” for good and “nefarious” for evil. But we can get across the same idea without even going that far.

For example, I could just say that something is violent, uncivilized, uneducated, and just is generally not welcomed in society and that gets the point across. By contrast, a benevolent species would be part of a society and law-abiding and just generally thought upon fondly. This is not to say that no one will dislike them, but if they are living among the population and a character’s making minor complaints about them, that gets across that they are not really that bad. They’re not murderous. They’re not thieving all the time. Even saying that they feel uncomfortable around that species because they don’t understand the customs or something like that, or like the food, gets the point across that they are around in the society but there’s something about them that people don’t like, or at least this character doesn’t like.

That sort of characterization can be a lot more helpful than just calling them benevolent or nefarious. It paints a more vivid picture. It also gives you the opportunity as the writer to have two characters argue about that species, with one of them saying negative things and maybe the other saying positive things, like, “Hey, they’re not that bad. They did help us with this, that, or the other thing.” One of them can say, “Well, if you don’t like them, then why do you wear a piece of clothing that is inspired by them?” This could in turn allow us to observe that many people do that sort of thing and that this character didn’t think it’s a big deal. It is not some sort of endorsement of that species.

We can also say that the particular species doesn’t mingle with everyone else. They’ve got their own special quarter like the French Quarter in New Orleans. But maybe it’s the Elven Quarter or Dwarven Quarter, and that this is one of the reasons that some people resent them. If we feel like someone is not mingling with the rest of us, we tend to assassinate their character. It’s not great but it’s something that humans do.

So we could decide that if the elves are living apart from everyone inside the settlement, that does say that they are welcome here but that maybe the elves are the ones doing a little bit of shunning, and that people will say that, “Well, they think they’re too good to eat our food, or to live among us.” It’s a way of getting across that they are part of the settlement and the life there and maybe the culture, but there are still people who don’t like them, even though they’re basically a good or benevolent species.

By contrast, for an evil species, people can say that they are not allowed here or that they haven’t been inside since the last attack however many years ago. Or that maybe some knights are riding out of the city gates at some point, and are on the way to deal with some sort of uprising from the species. This still gets the point across that this is not a pleasant species. It’s more vivid. And this comes across better than just saying, “they’re evil.”

We can also make this point by describing the city layout, the walls, the guard towers, and the types of defenses that exist because some of those will be designed to repel that particular species. There might also be special weapons that individuals have. For example, someone could have a knife and say, “I use this to twist out the hearts of those little bastards.”

These are some alternatives to ever using the words “good” and “evil.”

More Resources

Let’s take a quick break here and talk about where you can get more useful world building resources. Artofworldbuilding.com has most of what you need. This includes links to more podcasts like this one. You can also find more information on all three volumes of The Art of World Building series. Much of the content of those books is available on the website for free.

And the thing that you might find most useful is that by signing up for the newsletter, you can download the free templates that are included with each volume of The Art of World Building series, whether you have bought the books or not. All you need to do is join the newsletter. You can do this by going to artofworldbuilding.com/newsletter. Sign up today and you will get your free templates, and you will never miss an update about what is happening in the great world of world building.

Good vs. Evil

This discussion on good and evil brings up another point that I alluded to earlier, and that is that humans, at least, are a lot more complicated than that. Now we do have some people that we have traditionally decided are wholly evil, such as Hitler and maybe Saddam Hussein, and by contrast, there are people that we’ve decided are basically good. Mother Theresa would be an example of that. Without getting into the specifics of any of those people or anyone else, most of us are not wholly good or evil. We are a mix.

However, people tend to oversimplify things and this is where that good vs. evil idea comes into play. I don’t want to get too philosophical about this because that’s a whole other subject, but there are people who believe and will say that mankind is basically good and that something has to happen to make someone go evil, or something happened to them when they were born, something was just off, or wrong. We usually want an explanation of some kind for why that person has done despicable acts.

And the types of acts we’re talking about here are obvious crimes like murder or rape. These are atrocious enough that it makes it very easy to say that this person is evil. But what about much more minor things like a traffic infraction or, well, I don’t want to say that driving drunk is minor because people are often killed from that, but there isn’t the intent to kill. Then there is smaller stuff like cheating or telling white lies. The point is that evil comes in different degrees of how awful it is. So even if we decide that a species is evil, we should have some idea just how evil they really are.

Is their big crime that when they drive cars, they never use their turn signals? Or do they go around murdering people? In the latter case, yes, we would just call them evil. In the former case, we might curse about them but they’re still going to be a member of society and they might get some tickets, for example, but we’re probably not going to consider them evil.

Uniformity

More to the point, we can have one person who does go around killing people and another who never does. Or at least, they only do it in self-defense or as part of law enforcement or the army, for example. The point is that we can have two members of the same species where one is basically good and the other is basically evil, so that there isn’t a uniform way of looking at all of them, just like with humans. This is arguably the single biggest reason not to go with that sort of characterization.

Is it realistic for most of them to have the same disposition? Unless we can think of a good reason, my answer to that would be no. After all, why would they all be the same? Did some magical event create all of them and then somehow infect all of them so that they have a certain nasty attitude? Because that would explain it. They could be a species that developed society far later than humans and as a result of this, they are considered kind of barbaric and are treated like third class citizens. This could, in turn, give them a healthy attitude that makes them be uncooperative and essentially evil. That’s another justification for them being this way.

Especially in fantasy, we could decide that gods who are basically evil are the ones who created that species and as a result, that species has inherited the disposition of those gods. This could explain them being evil. For example, I’ve been creating the world of Llurien for about 30 years now. There are seven species, each one created by a different group of gods. The gods of greed, deception, jealousy, and fear created one of the species, called daekais. This species inherited the combined attributes of the four gods who created them. These attributes heavily influence their outlook so you can imagine that they are basically one of my evil species. I don’t need to say that all the time. I can get it across in other ways, but that’s how I set that up.

And one point I would make there is that I decided that those species are heavily influenced by those attributes but they are not incapable of other ones because that would be too limiting. This arrangement has a side effect of making most of the daekais have a relatively uniform disposition. This means the other people on Llurien, like the humans, know what to expect from one of these, and as a result, they have a predictable reaction. This causes daekais to be largely shunned and not welcomed in society. They are also feared if encountered in the wild.

What this is good for is that my characters have something for them to be afraid of and try to avoid when they are traveling. However, it also caused a problem. I can never have this species of daekais living in a civilized society because no one would ever accept them, and this makes them very limiting. I don’t know about you, but I don’t really like having limits on my work and my opportunities when I’m writing, so what did I do about this?

The idea of a curse or something magical (or even technological in science fiction) creating an alternate version of a race of species is a basic idea that has been around for a while. So basically I have another version of them and they go by another name: morkais. Now if you notice my naming convention, one of them is called daekais and the other is morkais. So the species is kais, and then the two races are morkais and daekais. This allows me to make universal statements about all of kais and then universal statements about daekais and more such statements about morkais, where those statements are differing.

Now you could say that I’ve just duplicated my problem. Instead of one race with a uniform disposition I have two of them that are in opposition to each other. This is a fair criticism. However, it does get me out of the problem of having kais that are never part of a civilization because the morkais are allowed to be there and the daekais are not, so I at least solved one of my problems.

Now there’s still another problem in that people know what to expect and have a certain reaction to each one of them. The easy way around that issue is to have both races look physically identical. Therefore people don’t know which one they’re actually dealing with. This allows one to masquerade as another for infiltrating somewhere they’re not allowed to be. It also causes some people who are short on faith to not trust either member of that species. This can cause everything from minor interaction problems, where there’s just some distrust being exhibited or even said out loud, to outright accusations of crimes that a morkais, for example, would never do as a good species, but a daekais would, and someone is trying to say, “Well, that guy’s a daekais pretending to be a morkais. He’s actually this evil kind of person who would do this horrible thing that I’m accusing them of.”

Each race of this species could be aware of this problem and either try to minimize it or use it to their advantage. For example, the benevolent morkais might try to never give the impression that they have the character traits of the daekais race, so that no one accuses them falsely. This could make them feel that they have to tiptoe around suspicious humans, for example. This in turn might make morkais a little bit annoyed with humans because they’re the ones who do this sort of thing. Maybe humans are the only ones, but maybe not. As you can imagine, if you were a benevolent morkais, and you had to deal with people assuming you’re a daekais and up to no good, this might make you have a problem with the daekais as well, so that you want to participate in eradicating them or doing something to minimize the distrust with which your race ends up being viewed.

So now we’re ending up with a much more varied situation when it comes to the disposition of this species, rather than just saying they’re all the same.

Other Means to Variety

Another option we have is deciding that some of them are corrupt. For example, we could take a benevolent species and then have a certain group of them run across some sort of evil magic item or technology that somehow corrupts them and they are permanently turned into a more nefarious version of that species. This also gives us an entry in our history log of things that have happened in the past because this would presumably be a famous incident. It can also help us create an artifact, whether it’s magic or technology.

We can also decide that this was an accident or that someone evil did it on purpose. Or if it was a previously evil species and now there’s a good race of them, we might say that someone was trying to save them and they were a do-gooder who wanted to make the world a better place. And it worked, but it only worked once. Then we just have to decide how many of that group are there. Are there a couple dozen or an entire society? Has it been ten thousand years and that group has spread across the world and there are different colonies of them everywhere?

All of this gives us more options for deciding on the disposition of any species we invent. And more options is good.

Patreon Support

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Appearance

Let’s continue talking about the appearance of our species or race. The ability of two races of one species to masquerade as each other is a great thing. But it’s certainly not the only thing we should consider. However, we probably do want to make a decision about whether we would like that ability before deciding on creating two races (of a species) that look so different from each other that there’s no way this could happen.

One reason to go ahead and make them look the same as that it’s a lot easier to create just one appearance than two. Whether we like it or not, people do judge everything based upon appearance. While this is certainly a human behavior, we find it believable that others do the same thing. Now we can take a physical feature and assign any sort of traits that everyone. One culture might decide that something is a negative while another might decide it’s a positive. We should probably think of a reason for this.

For example, there’s an idea that you don’t wear white after Labor Day, at least here in the United States. Therefore, someone wearing white after Labor Day is considered socially and fashionably clueless. This might make some people mock them while other people might have no idea that a fashion faux pas has occurred. While this is a clothing example, the same idea can apply to parts of the body. For example, someone could decide that having large hands means you are generous, or they could decide it means you like to steal things. This can be spun in either way.

If we have a species with wings, and someone’s wings are shorter than most people, we can decide that they are deficient in some other way. If the species prides itself on its sense of smell and some of them have really large noses, then this could be a positive. There were times in human history where larger women were considered more desirable because they were seen as better child bears, but today we’re all about the slender woman being more desirable.

Something all of this is alluding to is that culture can have an impact on how we view a feature. A great thing for us as world builders is that we can largely make these up. We can decide that a species typically has a certain feature such as a large nose and that certain members of that species do not, and now we have a comparison for characterization. So part of what we’re trying to decide here is what is typical of the species or race? We need to know this in order to decide that a certain character from the race is somewhat different from the norm and has been judged this way or that.

We should also decide how clean the species tends to be. For example, if they are generally kind of messy but our character is neat, maybe that person gets more respect from other species. And what does that say about him? Do his own kind find him arrogant? Does he care what they think? And why is he like this? Maybe he aspires to be better than them or he just feels the need to keep others from suspecting that this character is bad, because we sometimes do that to people. Maybe his appearance gets him some opportunity.

The reverse can also happen if a species is typically neat but he’s a sloppy person. Maybe his own kind think he’s a slob and they don’t want anything to do with him. Maybe another species thinks he’s more down to earth. We can decide he is too busy to care about his appearance, although this is a cliché, or we can just decide that he’s either clueless or indifferent. Either way, knowing how people in the species typically look allows us to characterize him. And this is always better than having no reason to decide a character is one way or another. If we just can’t make up our minds, this gives us a decision point. And quickly making decisions is good.

 

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For iPhone, iPad, and iPod listeners, grab your phone or device and go to the iTunes Store and search for The Art of World Building. This will help you to download the free podcast app, which is produced by Apple, and then subscribe to the show from within that app. Every time I produce a new episode, you’ll get it downloaded right onto your device.

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This only needs to be done once and at that point, you will never miss an episode.

Are They Humanoids?

One question we should tackle is whether our species is going to be humanoid or not. If so, then it’s pretty easy to decide that they have one head, two arms, two legs, and the usual other parts. But if they’re not going to be humanoid, then this raises other problems, one of those being that they can’t exactly masquerade as humanoid. The ability to shape shift could solve that for us, however. If that ability is not innate, we can give them a magic item or a technological one to do so. However, that still makes this ability somewhat rare.

Another issue here is that accommodations and eating utensils will be different. Maybe they cannot sleep in a normal bad. Maybe there are no places for them to stay when the characters are traveling, such as an inn or a tavern. They may have to sleep outside. They also may not be welcome inside.

One point here is that you will have to make additional considerations when writing for this non-humanoid species. You might have to do more planning in order to include one of them on a trip. If you have something like a giant spider, it’s not going to be able to get on the back of a bird or flying unicorn, for example. If your dragons are big enough, then it might work. Even a regular sized spider might be an issue, but at least they have an easier time getting around. This is a subject we’re going to have to put more thought into it if it’s a non-humanoid.

In a non-visual medium, it might also be challenging to quickly and successfully describe what this race will look like. We might think that we’ve got something good because we’re picturing it, but we don’t do a good job of describing it and the audience struggles. In other words, there can be more risk to this. Decide whether it is worth it and whether you really want this to be that way. What purpose are you hoping to achieve? And do you care about the limitations that this is imposing on your stories?

Facial Features

When it comes to describing facial features, we want to once again decide what most of the species or race looks like. However, just as humans can look different from each other, we might want to create variety. The only problem with doing this is that it takes time. We will want to consider everything about the face.

For example, the overall face can be round, oval, square, or heart-shaped. We also want to consider the brow, eyebrows, eyes, the iris, cheekbones, noses, mouth, teeth, and chin. In Creating Life, I’ve got a handy chart that you can read that shows you all of the options for these. However, one of the issues that it does bring up is that we sometimes cannot use the Earth name for something. For example, we have the Roman nose and the Cupid’s Bow. These are both referencing something on Earth. If our story is taking place on a world that has no knowledge of Earth, we can’t call them that. Our choices are either to omit it altogether or come up with another name, or just describe the feature.

One problem with inventing the face is that we could come up with features that sound like they work together but when someone actually draws them, they don’t work. But there is a way around this. I have found some online programs that I have used to create an avatar. What they can allow you to do is create a whole face. There are examples of this on artofworldbuilding.com but you can also go to pimptheface.com and try it there. And you can use another one called faceyourmanga.com. With these free programs, you can just experiment and have fun and not worry about it too much, but it can also spark ideas. And it’s pretty easy to swap out the facial features.

Review

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The Body

Our body design work is largely done for us if we are creating humanoids. The first decision we’re going to want to make is how big they are compared to humans. If we are creating multiple species, we will probably want to create some that are smaller than us and some that are bigger. The differences can be large or small. Maybe we have a 9 foot species and a 3 foot one. Or maybe they’re only 7 feet tall and 5 feet tall, so pretty close to humans.

One of the things that this will affect is how formidable a species is in combat. Something big tends to be stronger. It might also have a harder time sneaking up on people as opposed to a much smaller species. Now when I say formidable, there’s no reason that a smaller species can’t be deadly. For example, I have one that tends to swarm like bees. They are certainly intimidating to anyone who runs across them. In fact, there are actually more intimidating than some of the larger species. Even so, you will note how I use the swarming technique to make them ferocious whereas the larger species don’t need that kind of help.

Another issue here is the clothing. A smaller species might not find clothing suitable for them if they are trying to steal from a larger species or vice versa. They might have to steal from children. On the other hand, a 9-foot-tall species will not have any options for this, or at least, not unless there’s some other tall species. If they’re incapable of the sort of industry that makes clothing, then maybe they are typically seen without it. Or maybe the clothing is very rudimentary, such as a cloth potato sack, for example.

If a smaller species does go around stealing clothes because they are not capable of making it, then most of what they have is probably going to be mismatched. This is a quick way to imply their lack of sophistication. We don’t actually have to tell the audience that they can’t make clothing. We can just show this. And if they can’t make that, there are probably also other things they can’t make, including weapons for their size. They can once again steal something if it’s appropriate, such as using a human short sword as the longsword, or if they are a truly large species, they may have no weapons that they can use except for the two-handed sword. Maybe this results in a fighting style that is largely brute force, using something like a club that is essentially a tree branch.

There is another option here as well. There could be people who design weapons for these larger creatures, even if maybe they shouldn’t have them. Who would do this? Well how about your evil overlords? And with that, we bring ourselves full-circle back to the subject that we started this episode with: good vs. evil.

I hope this is giving you some ideas. Our next episode will conclude our discussion on species and races.

Closing

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 Now Weaponized, called “Moshkill.” 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!

Jan 022018
 

5 World Building Tips (Vol 2, #4): Sovereign Powers

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is sovereign powers. You can read more in Chapter 5, “Creating Sovereign Powers”, from Creating Places, (The Art of World Building, #2).

Tip #1: “Is the Sovereign Recognized?”

Just because your sovereign power declares itself to be one, that doesn’t mean other countries acknowledge this sovereignty. Even within a power, some might not recognize it. This sort of dispute gives rise to stories like Game of Thrones. When Napoleon dubbed himself emperor of France, the rest of Europe disagreed. We can leverage such scenarios.

Tip #2: “You’re Head of What?”

There’s a difference between the head of state and head of government, though the same person can be in both roles. Certain government types separate them while others don’t. Conflict can be easily achieved by pitting two people against each other, but you’ll need to know when this makes sense.

Tip #3: “Invent for Today”

You should have a present state in mind for your sovereign power because the form of government may have changed repeatedly in the past – and again in the future. This happens for quite a few reasons, including war, a weak ruler, and economics. A past colors the present both in monuments, buildings, and other architectural items, but in population attitude, which is something to add to character backstories.

Tip #4: “Decide Who Lives There”

We should have an idea what percentage of the overall population each of our species/races is. This helps determine how common other languages are and if the culture of other species is an influence or not. A reason for the inclusion or exclusion can add tension, such as racism or one species preferring a landscape feature (like a forest) and being there despite attempts at eradicating them.

Tip #5: “What’s the World View?”

There are many ideas we can give our sovereign power, including the freedom (or lack thereof) to perform magic, own property, use vessels and space craft (or technology), or how welcoming they are of other species and cultures. Creating Places has a list of things to consider.

Summary of Chapter 5—Creating a Sovereign Power

Kingdoms, empires, dictatorships and more are types of sovereign powers that world builders can create. Before we do, a high-level understanding of the differences between them is crucial. Many variations to government types exist, which gives us freedom to tweak details for our needs, but we should know the rules before we break them. The role of sovereignty, including how it is gained and lost, is examined in this chapter along with the “divine right of kings.” We also look at the head of state and head of government roles, the differences between them, and the conflicts that can arise. The nature of each branch of government is examined along with parliamentary systems. Democracies, federations, theocracies, monarchies, autocracies and more are examined for their key differences.

Inventing a sovereign power should include friends and enemies who shape policy, lifestyle, and culture. The form of government has significant impact on inhabitants and results from world view. History affects this as well, and while creating a history is optional, it enriches the dynamics of relationships and can create heroes, villains, and attitudes in the population. We should consider which species are present and in how great a percentage, and what languages are spoken or forbidden. Our power’s location and climate will impact lifestyles and vegetation, which also influences what natural resources it has or lacks, and what the power does as a result. These can all lead to tensions both with other powers or the residents. Symbols, colors, flags, and slogans will be a source of pride and even fear for both foreigners and the population.

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Dec 302017
 

For those of you following along with audiobooks, the recording of Creating Places has been completed and should be live within two weeks. Thanks for your patience about this! I recorded this pretty quickly but the editing took a little longer than planned. I’ll post an update with links to it, but you’ll soon find it at the vendor where you purchased the last one.

Dec 202017
 

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.

Listen, Subscribe, and Review this episode of The Art of World Building Podcast on iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher, or Google Play Music!

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
Coda

Thanks so much for listening this week. Want to subscribe to The Art of World Building Podcast? Have some feedback you’d like to share? A review would be greatly appreciated!

Episode 5.1 Transcript
Intro

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.

Dwarves

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.

Common Ancestry

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.

More Resources

Let’s take a quick break here and talk about where you can get more useful world building resources. Artofworldbuilding.com has most of what you need. This includes links to more podcasts like this one. You can also find more information on all three volumes of The Art of World Building series. Much of the content of those books is available on the website for free.

And the thing that you might find most useful is that by signing up for the newsletter, you can download the free templates that are included with each volume of The Art of World Building series, whether you have bought the books or not. All you need to do is join the newsletter. You can do this by going to artofworldbuilding.com/newsletter. Sign up today and you will get your free templates, and you will never miss an update about what is happening in the great world of world building.

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.

Patreon Support

For those of you who support crowdfunding, I am on the patreon site and would appreciate any support you can lend. Think about whether you’re benefiting from this podcast or the art of world building blog and website, and consider supporting the effort to spread the word far and wide. Your support could help a budding world builders create an awesome world that you become a huge fan of. This podcast and related items are my way of giving back to the fantasy, scifi, movie, and gaming industries that I love so much. You can give back too by helping to fund this effort. When the next Tolkien or George R.R. Martin shows up, you can tell yourself, “I helped him do that!”

Your support can be just $1 a month to the cause. Higher levels of support get you increasingly cool things, such as PDF transcripts of this podcast, free mp3s (including unreleased music), free eBooks and short stories, book marks, and even signed copies of books and CDs of my music. Many of these are unavailable to the public.

Just go to art of world building dot com slash patreon. You can also just go to the home page and click the big icon for it . Please note that patreon is spelled a little weird. It’s p-a-t-r-e-o-n. Support great world building today!

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.

Subscribe

So let’s talk about how to subscribe to this podcast. A podcast is a free, downloadable audio show that enables you to learn while you’re on the go. To subscribe to my podcast for free, you’ll need an app to listen to the show from.

For iPhone, iPad, and iPod listeners, grab your phone or device and go to the iTunes Store and search for The Art of World Building. This will help you to download the free podcast app, which is produced by Apple, and then subscribe to the show from within that app. Every time I produce a new episode, you’ll get it downloaded right onto your device.

For Android listeners, you can download the Stitcher radio app, which is free, and search for The Art of World Building.

This only needs to be done once and at that point, you will never miss an episode.

In Fantasy

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.

 

Review

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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.

Closing

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!

Dec 202017
 

The Ultimate World Builder’s Giveaway contest is over now and the winner is Brandon Taylor. He got some free eBooks, a training course from David Farland, and the three most popular programs from ProFantasy. Congratulations Brandon!

Dec 192017
 

5 World Building Tips (Vol 2, #3): Land Features

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is land features. You can read more in Chapter 4, “Creating Land Features”, from Creating Places, (The Art of World Building, #2).

Tip #1: “Know Where Volcanic Mountains Aren’t”

When an oceanic and a continental tectonic plate meet, the former descends under the latter and causes volcanoes, but when two continental plates meet, they fold on top of each other, creating the highest mountains on Earth. They also aren’t volcanic. Your interior mountains will be the tallest.

Tip #2: “Olympus Mons on Mars is Huge…And Boring”

With Mount Everest being 29,035 feet, Olympus Monson Mars might sound far more impressive at 69,459, but it’s not. It’s so wide, the size of France, that you wouldn’t even realize you’re standing on one. It won’t cut a majestic figure against the sky. Bigger isn’t always better.

Tip #3: “A Volcano Can Be Anywhere”

Due to random faults that appear in tectonic plate, we get put a volcano anywhere we want.

Tip #4: “Mountains ‘Humanize’ Dragons”

Dragons often appear to be invincible, but if we want to be more realistic, make it harder for them to fly at high altitudes. This happens with real Earth birds, who struggle to get over very tall mountains. Making your dragons struggle, too, gives them a vulnerability and makes them seem more plausible.

Tip #5: “Decide How Old a River Is”

Younger rivers tend toward being fast, rapid, and somewhat straight. By contrast, ancient rivers are slow, wide, and meander in a zig-zig pattern. Using these wisely lets us avoid all rivers being shown as the same.

Summary of Chapter 4—Creating Land Features

A continent will have mountains, volcanoes, lakes, rivers, forests, woodlands, savannahs, jungles, prairies, wetlands, and deserts, but world builders should understand each to place them in believable locations. While some aspects are obvious, minor details can change our decisions and augment our resulting stories. Why say characters have entered a run-of-the-mill forest when we can say it’s a savannah instead, describing how it looks and what life is like for inhabitants and those traversing it? This chapter aids world builders in making a more varied landscape—one that is accurately depicted.

Buy Now!
Dec 072017
 

Episode 4, Part 2: Learn How to Create Gods and Pantheons

Listen as host Randy Ellefson explores how to create gods, including whether they are good, evil, or neutral, and different ways to identify them, from symbols to nicknames and patronage. Do your gods interact with the world and under what restrictions? What have they created and has anything unexpected happened with? Finally, we discuss how to get started inventing deities.

Listen, Subscribe, and Review this episode of The Art of World Building Podcast on iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher, or Google Play Music!

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
Coda

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Episode 4.2 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number four, part two. Today’s we continue our discussion of creating gods. We talk about whether they are good, evil, or neutral, and what this really means. We also discuss titles, symbols, patronage, reputation, and what items a god might have created and which could fall into the wrong hands. This material and more is discussed in Chapter 2 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.

Gods and Alignment

Let’s continue our discussion of how to create gods. If you’ve ever played role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, you’re probably very familiar with the concept of alignment, such as good, evil, or neutral. Well that’s an oversimplified way of looking at people, this is one way to organize our deities. Unless we’re trying to create an imbalanced pantheon, where we have a bunch of evil gods and almost no good gods, we might want to strive for more balance.

While good and evil are fairly easy to understand, the concept of neutral might need a little more examination. Does this simply mean that a god is not good or evil, or does it mean that this god has chosen a pacifist position? Does it mean that they never interfere in the lives of those who live on the planet? A god who never does anything is arguably not particularly interesting. This might be the primary reason that some on Earth have lost interest in God.

Wouldn’t it be more interesting if He was still putting in an obvious appearance that none of us could deny? Certainly, more people would believe in God if we had proof that He exists. Obviously, some people will assume that various things are proof of God, but some of us don’t except that, so this leaves a lot of room for interpretation, and of course, this causes various problems.

Using this as an example, it is apparent that a pacifist god might have trouble attracting more followers. Some people might even lose their faith because there is not an answer to their prayers. If we decide that a god is neutral and a pacifist, we might also decide that they have fewer followers and priests.

Something we should also consider is that gods who are evil might not enjoy being called that. They may have a worldview that essentially rationalizes their outlook. For example, a god of domination may generally believe that people need to be ruled. However, their followers might justify abuses of tyranny based on this. As a result, others might consider the god evil whether god himself my chafe at this characterization. In fact, it might not be wise to tell a god to their face, if you happen to be one of them, that they are evil.

Personally, I avoid the words “good” and “evil” in my stories because I feel like it’s an oversimplification of the way people and gods are. You have to consider the mindset of your intended audience. There’s an idea for younger people enjoy this simplification of good versus evil, but that more sophisticated people might roll their eyes at that characterization. No one can tell you which approach is right. Personally, I try to avoid this by using words such as benevolent, kinder, or helpful instead of good, and for evil I tend to use words like nefarious, sinister, or feared. These get the point across without talking down to the audience.

More Resources

Let’s take a quick break here and talk about where you can get more useful world building resources. Artofworldbuilding.com has most of what you need. This includes links to more podcasts like this one. You can also find more information on all three volumes of The Art of World Building series. Much of the content of those books is available on the website for free.

And the thing that you might find most useful is that by signing up for the newsletter, you can download the free templates that are included with each volume of The Art of World Building series, whether you have bought the books or not. All you need to do is join the newsletter. You can do this by going to artofworldbuilding.com/newsletter. Sign up today and you will get your free templates, and you will never miss an update about what is happening in the great world of world building.

Identifying Gods

While just about every god will have a name, there are other ways of identifying them. This includes their title, their patronage, and the symbol. Example titles would be “God of Despair,” “The Weeping Gods,” or maybe even “The Lord of Despair.” These are basically nicknames or informal titles that one might use to give an impression of what the god really cares about.

It can be tempting to give a single god multiple nicknames, but when we are writing about them in a story, we might want to use only a single one per story. I have found that using multiple names is problematic because people get a little bit confused. In general, it’s a good idea to keep things simple. If you invent multiple nicknames, I suggest using the one that most appropriately applies to the situation you are describing in that story.

Gods are often the patron of some activity that people undertake. This can be a profession such as hunters or blacksmiths, or it can be something a little more general like children or even lovers. The way to choose who that god patronizes is to first look at their attributes. A god of war will choose to support warriors or maybe even knights. This is how you can use the characteristics of the gods and further develop the idea of who they are and who worships them. A god of war might patronage all warriors or be a little more specific and only focus on the knights.

Inventing symbols for our gods often very useful. These can be put onto armor, buildings, ships, space stations, uniforms, or even worn as talismans, or in rare cases, even branded into someone’s flesh. The people of our world will encounter the symbols, and this is an easy way to characterize a location or person. Someone wearing the symbol of the god of war will make it clear that they’re not exactly very peaceful. However, that god could also be the god of courage.

This is one way that the symbol may be misleading. One person might decide that this person is more like and not be peaceful, while another person might see the symbol and decide the individual is very courageous or at least interested in bravery. This is one way that we can use something as simple as a symbol as a way to create misunderstanding among characters. There is a tendency for people to jump to conclusions instead of asking what something really means.

This is why it’s also important for each god to have a reputation. We’ll talk more about that after this short period.

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Interaction

Let’s resume talking about reputation and the gods and how they interact with each other in the world.

The gods may have rules about this. Maybe they’ve reached an agreement that they are not to interfere with the lives of people. Why would they do this? Well, from our standpoint, if the gods can keep intervening, well then it’s Susie them to just fix the problem that our characters are having. This is considered to be too convenient and generally is bad storytelling form. The people should be able to solve a problem by themselves, maybe with a little bit of help from the gods, such as in healing, but not with a god simply swoop in and solve everything for everybody. Such a scenario is considered very unsatisfying for the audience. It’s also a little too convenient for an author or storyteller to get themselves out of a jam because they didn’t plan a story.

While the gods may have a rule about not interviewing with everyone, not all the gods are going to be okay with this, or they might agree and they might decide not to follow through. There will be times when they make exceptions. In general, we may decide that it is the evil gods who decide to intervene when they are not supposed to. After all, evil gods are not considered to be particularly law-abiding, even when the other gods of the ones who invented the law.

Some of these gods might find it entertaining that they are doing things behind the backs of the other gods. Or they might be doing something for a more specific purpose, such as helping their followers to beat someone who is an enemy of another god. These gods may engage in a kind of proxy war. This means that they may help some of their followers overthrow the followers of another god whom they do not get along with. This might be done for no other reason than to simply entertain themselves.

On the other hand, if a god draws power based on the number of worshipers that have, then it might be in their best interests to make a show of strength so that they can gain more worshipers and therefore more power. And by extension, they may defeat and lower the power of another god.

A related question is whether the gods punish anyone who breaks the law. If there is no punishment, then these laws really have no binding effect on anyone. The result might be that the gods are interfering much more than they have agreed. This certainly implies that there should be some sort of punishment. The question then becomes how do the gods punish one of their own?

 

An obvious solution is that the god loses the ability to influence their followers. What if a god is punished and none of the priests who call upon the god to heal people can reach the god? That means that anyone they are trying heal cannot be healed. Furthermore, the influence of that god might be severely restricted. This might result in lost followers. For example, if priests are calling on someone to heal an individual on the god does not answer because they can’t, because they are being punished, then this may cause a loss of faith. Presumably, a god would want to avoid such an outcome. This is a pretty good punishment to enact upon them for disobeying the rules that the gods set for themselves.

Do the gods end up on trial? Do they get physically imprisoned somewhere? If so, where might that be? This is an interesting option because their followers might try to free the god. Maybe the god is put to sleep. If so, the question arises, how does one wake that god? Is there a special magic item or technology that will do so? This seems like a ripe story idea.

We can have some characters who are upset that their god was punished for doing something that they may have caused, such as calling on the god to do something and the god answers, and now their god has been punished. Do they feel a responsibility to undo this and rescue the god? What if the god is very happy with them for having done so? Maybe they dream of a reward of some kind. Or maybe they just want their god back and life to return to normal. This sounds like a story idea waiting to happen.

This is one way we can invent deities and rules that produce stories. Isn’t it better than simply announcing something in exposition? It’s always better to tell a story that reveals aspects of our world than to simply tell the audience.

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When the Gods Punish

While we’re on the subject of punishment, what do the gods do to their species when those species have misbehaved? Death is the obvious answer, albeit not a particularly interesting one. After all, once the character is dead, that’s the end. Keeping them alive offers opportunities for additional suffering and the possibility that they can be rescued by others.

A nasty afterlife is another way to go. Volume 3, Cultures and Beyond, will discuss creating an afterlife in more detail. But an afterlife is a great place to put this person so that they can be rescued. Or they can just suffer there for eternity. We can also think of more interesting ways of punishing someone, such as removing magical talent, wizard. We might also decide that someone in a technological setting is no longer able to manipulate that technology. This makes little more sense if that technology is biologically based, such as using a fingerprint scanner or an eye scanner, or any sort of biological mechanism that allows them to operate machinery.

Then there’s the question of how long this punishment lasts. Something permanent is obviously worse but if the person is allowed to wander the world or the universe with this restriction, then this is going to put them into situations that might be uncomfortable for them. They might have always relied on this supernatural power or a technological skill and no longer have this. Imagine the sorts of problems that will result when they go to use this ability and belatedly realize they don’t have it anymore. They will already know this, but in the heat of the moment, they might just forget that they can’t do it anymore.

Then there’s the question of why someone ends up being punished by the gods in the first place. What sorts of crimes must one commit to get the attention of a god? Destroying one of the temples seems like an obvious choice. This is a better choice than someone taking the name of the god in vain because so many people are going to do that but the gods would be awfully busy punching everyone who did this. The more serious the crime, the more likely this will attract divine punishment.

Review

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What Have the Gods Created?

Another good subject when inventing gods is to decide on what they have created. The first choice is, of course, that they have created the world and all of its inhabitants. This is a good choice and we can decide the different groups of gods created different species or races. This makes it easier for us to distinguish between the species. After all, not all of them will be worshiping the same gods.

We can also decide that each god has created various items that they typically have in their position. The great thing about these items is that they can fall into the wrong hands. If an item has a supernatural power and then the species get a hold of it, then they might be able to do things that no mortal should be able to do.

There worst case example would be an item that has the ability to create life. Now we have a species, or a member of that species, who has control of this and is doing this without approval or authorization. And the next thing you know, they might have created a monster, for example. There are less significant things that we can do that also provide opportunities for fun.

Maybe the god of greed has a goblet that allows him to drink without ever getting drunk, and the next thing you know, someone on the planet has this. The goddess of love might have an item that allows people to fall in love with her, and once someone has this, that person is able to have one sexual conquest after another. This sound like something that could cause a lot of problems and also be a fairly entertaining story. This is especially true when that object is suddenly returned to the god and the next thing you know that person has seduced people who are now very upset with him.

With some imagination and some humor, we can create some very interesting scenarios. I recommend looking at each of the gods you have created, and once you have decided on their personal characteristics, making up a list of magic items that they have in their possession. These items should have something to do with the attributes of this god and the matters that concern them. Typically, each of these items will be associated with that god. They can also be the symbol for the god.

This brings up another point that when we are inventing our deities, we sometimes need to work on different aspects of them before we come up with something else for another area of the god. We might not be able to think of a symbol and to reinvent some of the items that this god has invented first. This underscores another point, that it can take a lot of time to develop a deity that is well-rounded, so don’t worry too much about it if you don’t have something to decide on.

If you join The Art of World Building newsletter, you can download a template for how to create a god. This is basically a fill in the blanks form. In looking at something like this, we may not be able to decide what we want to do, but that’s okay. You can always come back later and add more detail or fill out something that we haven’t had an idea on.

Where to Start? Attributes

We’re going to conclude our discussion of how to create gods by talking about where to start. One approach is to start with a list of attributes for which we might want gods. Examples would include love or war. Once this is decided, you can also start grouping attributes. For example, the goddess of love might also be the goddess of birth or passion. They got of war might also be the god of cunning. The reason to have these additional attributes is that we can start fleshing out what this God is really concerned about. A single attribute like four is not really indicative.

For example, some people think that war is evil but other people think that it is a necessary means to an end. As a result, some might think it’s bad will while others think it’s okay. If you were to tell a soldier that war is evil, they probably wouldn’t appreciate that very much. After all, many of them think they are doing a noble job protecting the country that they love. And this is certainly true.

The point here is that a single attribute like war can be considered evil or good. As a result, we might want to consider flushing out the idea of what this god concerns himself with by adding additional attributes that are an extension of this prime trait.

A similar example is that of birth. The god of innocence might be the god of birth because children are born innocent, but on the other hand, the goddess of passion might be considered the goddess of birth because in theory, passionate love is what leads to childbirth. What we’re talking about here is that any particular attribute can be seen as either good or evil. Okay well, maybe not all of them, but many of them can be assigned to one or more gods. What we might want to do is to create this list of primary attributes and invent the gods for these, and then as we think of related attributes, we start assigning them to the gods as we choose.

If I were to create a god of passion, I might think of a set of related attributes that is very different from the set of related attributes that you think of. This is perfectly okay. By doing this, we end up getting a better sense of what this god’s personality really is. And the better we sense this, the better we can portray this. This will also give us a better understanding of the mindset of the characters who worship this god or who are opposed to the god.

This also set up some interesting scenarios. For example, someone might be opposed to war but appreciate bravery. If the god of courage is also the god of war, then this might cause a bit of conflict for them. They may respect aspects of the god but not other aspects. Therefore, they might not actually worship that god. Or if they do, they only do so when it seems appropriate to them. This sorted detail can add richness to the world that we are creating and make it seem like a real place with more diverse characters and deities.

Where to Start? Analogues

Another way to begin creating gods is to start with analogues from Earth. In episode two of this podcast, I talked at length about how to create an analogue. In this case, we might want to choose a god from Earth that we enjoy and invent another god of our own invention on that deity.

However, we must be careful with this. If we choose to use Zeus, what am I probably don’t want to create a similar god who also lives on a mountain and throws lightning bolts. Everyone’s going to immediately recognize this analogue. I talked about this “rule of three” in episode two, the idea being that we should make at least three major differences between our version of something and the Earth analogue that we based it on.

It can be difficult to create even one god not to mention a pantheon, so using analogues is a good way to start. We can find gods that we like and enjoy the idea of, and use them as a source of inspiration. By mixing and matching ideas from different gods, we can create something new. This convenient shortcut can speed up the process of inventing gods and get us going.

Closing

That’s all for today’s show. Please remember to rate and review in iTunes. We’re going to close out with another song of mine from the album Now Weaponized! This one is “Crunch Time.” Thanks for listening!

Dec 052017
 

5 World Building Tips (Vol 2, #2): Continents

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is continents. You can read more in Chapter 3, “Creating a Continent”, from Creating Places, (The Art of World Building, #2).

Tip #1: “Decide How Many Continents to Create”

Even if our story only takes places on one land mass, we should at least roughly create other continents and give them names. Knowing their direction from our main one and how hard they are to reach tells us and readers how likely visitors from far off lands are. Each continent might be known for a few things, however fairly, such as slavery, rare gems or other items, strange lands, or interesting creatures. Some of these things might find their way to our main continent, which is why we ought to have some idea on this. It makes our continent seem less like an island.

Tip #2: “Decide on the Hemisphere”

If we’ve lived our life in one hemisphere, we might need to remind ourselves that the season are reversed in the other one. The visible constellations are, too, and the moon appears upside down. Most importantly, an expression like “going south for the winter” makes no sense in the southern hemisphere.

Tip #3: “Understand Plate Tectonics and Mountain Ranges”

We don’t need to be experts in plate tectonics. Just know that explosive, volcanic mountain ranges along coastlines are common due to two plates converging there. If this happens at sea, we can a chain of islands. But when it happens between two continental plates, we get the tallest mountains, none volcanic. But technically a volcano can happen anywhere if there’s a flaw in the plate below.

Tip #4: “Waterways”

Did you know a sea and ocean are the same thing? Sea is just used to denote a smaller area of an ocean. Bays, gulfs, coves, and fjord are all bays but of different sizes and configurations. They can be connected by a strait, channels, pass, or passage, which are also all the same thing!

Tip #5: “What’s an Island?”

Some islands are so big that we might be tempted to call them a continent (Australia, anyone?). The distinction is largely one of size. Use your judgement. However, actual islands are either oceanic or continental. The former are far out to see and volcanic.

Summary of Chapter 3—Creating a Continent

Which hemisphere our continent lies in affects the seasons and might impact where we place constellations. Understanding plate tectonics can help us build believable mountain ranges and place volcanoes where they might occur. This can also determine where deep areas of the sea are, giving our sea monsters somewhere to call home. We have some liberty to name bodies of water what we want, but this chapter includes details on when to use which name, including seas, bays, inlets, and more.

 

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