Creating Something Different
Inventing unique species can help our work stand out (hopefully in a good way) and even invigorate love of the genre for both us and our audience. With so many people using public domain species, there’s probably little we can say about them that hasn’t been said before. How many authors have used the long lives of elves to comment on how impatient humans can be? There are constraints on us from these species, possibly making us long for our freedom. But there’s also safety there, in the comfort of familiarity, and an assurance that if our audience doesn’t like our work, the species won’t be their reason. There’s risk to invention, but reward, too.
If our species will be alongside public domain ones in our work, comparisons are inevitable. Doing a good job is even more important. The standard species are high quality and set a high bar for us. This chapter is designed to help us get over it.
How Often the Setting Will Be Used
It doesn’t make sense to spend many hours developing a species for a short story. We’ll never have a chance to reveal much of our work. If we’d like to develop a detailed species anyway, then we should invent for a setting we’ll use repeatedly across multiple works. Creating a thinly developed species for shorter works on a single-use world is another good approach, which can work especially well if the species is bizarre and might face resistance from an audience.
We might invent a species to tell a specific story, which allows us to tailor our invention to our use. This keeps down unwanted or unneeded invention but might also restrict us, when freedom is one reason we’re creating species. Conversely, we might invent a species first and begin to think of story ideas or ways we can use it. This latter approach might yield more material than intended, but having ideas is never a bad thing. We can end up with multiple stories while retaining the freedom to invent. Regardless of our approach, we shouldn’t feel that building a species is a waste of time because it can take our work to unexpected and great places. Everyone benefits.
How much effort to expend on creating a species will depend on intentions, but there’s a range of possibility from extreme world building to hardly any.
At the least, we must decide on physical appearance and an overall disposition that’s shared across members of a species. Such life forms are often used as little more than a beast for characters to overcome in their quests. Ogres, orcs, and other henchmen types from fantasy are good examples. They seldom talk or do much more than get killed by the heroes. A more benevolent species can also have limited use, like Chewbacca from Star Wars.
He’s a Wookiee, but in the original three films, we never see another Wookiee (George Lucas may have added more in the background when he altered the films later). That we only saw one Wookiee made Chewbacca synonymous with his species. We had no Wookiees to compare him to and his personality traits might as well have been the traits of all of them. That he never spoke a word we could understand eliminated cultural, societal, and other issues that minimized the effort needed to create him. He is useful primarily as a constant physical companion who can fight and do things while Han Solo has conversations without the distraction of doing Chewbacca’s tasks.
It is Harrison Ford’s acting talents that make Chewy work as a character; his funny responses to Chewy’s nonsensical growls are what really characterize the Wookiee. The same can be said of C-3PO’s responses to the unintelligible R2-D2. Despite all of this, Chewbacca works, but this approach arguably succeeds onscreen better than on paper, due to the inflections, body language, and tone used by actors. In books, a character or species with such limited use is hard to make memorable; our readers may forget the character is there or wonder what they’re for. The character is little more than a henchman, albeit a positive one.
As a side note, Wookiee is capitalized for some reason but your species or races should not be; that’s not a title or proper name. You never see “human” capitalized unless it’s the start of a sentence. One justification for capitalizing it is when the name is synonymous with a region. For example, Germans are from Germany so we capitalize it. Wookiees are from Kashyyyk so this rule doesn’t appear to apply, which just shows you we can get away with things like this.
Continuing with Star Wars as an example, there are countless other species shown but never named. They are extras on the set, many with compelling appearances, and that is all we experience of them. This works better onscreen than on paper; a picture really is worth a thousand words, which we don’t want to waste on a multitude of characters who have minimal impact on our story.
At the other extreme is a fully-developed species, including their habitat, climate, settlement preferences, appearance of head, body, and clothing, their gods, society, languages, customs, history, relationships with other species, supernatural and technology talents and attitudes, and combat skills. It can be easy to go overboard inventing things we might never use, but it can also make a great impression of depth and believability.
A major issue with this is not only hours but months, even years of refinement, weeding out the lesser aspects that don’t stand the test of time while rounding out and improving the good ideas. As with most things, world building skill grows with practice, making this culling part of the process; this book is designed to give you a head start. As we go on to invent sovereign powers, monsters, animals and plants, we’ll continuously update our species, integrating everything and improving realism.
If done right, splitting the difference can be a sensible choice. The next section and species template (in the appendix) can help you can make an informed decision about which areas to work on. I recommend deciding on habitat, whether the species lives in joint settlements, overall disposition, appearance, and their relationships with each other and your other creations. Areas to skimp for now can be clothing, gods, characteristics (like agility, intelligence, and morale), language, customs, history, combat, and details on their supernatural and technological level.
“Skimping” ranges from overlooking a subject altogether to jotting down a few words about it. You’ll have to decide what is skimped based on your needs, but it’s worth it to think about every subject to see if you have any concepts. Sometimes ideas beget ideas, meaning that the act of writing down one subject causes you to think of other details. This happens more often as you develop other aspects of a world, resulting in an integrated setting that could stand out in the crowded marketplace.