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.
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
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Episode 5.2 Transcript
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.
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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.”
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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.
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.
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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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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?
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.
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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.
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