What Does Your Species Look Like? - The Art of World Building
Sep 142017

When creating a species, start with physical characteristics; bodies influence the minds that develop. Like it or not, appearance plays a crucial role in life, even if no one’s likely to draw our species or otherwise see it. The overall impression and details combine to add characterization opportunities that shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s okay to start with envisioning a specific character, but try to get a sense of how the species generally looks, too. This allows us to not only define them all, but then comment on how our character matches or defies expectations, without which, our audience has a limited understanding of how this person fits in (or not) with their own kind or others.

For example, if your species is generally slovenly but this character is neat, maybe he gets more respect from other species. And what does it say about him? Do his kind find him arrogant? Does he care? Why is he like this? Does he aspire to be better? Or does he dress neatly to keep people from suspecting his character is bad? Does this provide him better opportunities?

A neat species but a sloppy character can have the opposite effect. Maybe his own kind think he’s a slob in personal and work habits, but other species find him more down to earth. Maybe he’s a gambler and wants to fit in with lowlife friends. Or he’s disguising himself like an undercover cop. Is he so consumed by his work that he doesn’t pay attention to his appearance (a cliché)? He’s just clueless or indifferent to the consequences?

Are They Humanoid?

There’s a tendency to create humanoid species like elves and dwarves instead of spider-like ones, for example. This is preferred for most species because otherwise things might get too weird for our audience, or too much like a cartoon. While there’s always room for these, non-humanoids have their challenges.

With humanoids, we don’t have to decide what they eat, how often they sleep, and other biological basics. They mingle well with humans, being able to live in similar buildings, use horses, and need fewer unusual physical things. By contrast, would a giant spider sleep in a bed, or eat with utensils, or consume the same food? How would one travel if not on foot? Such considerations might be needed if we go this route. It could make things more interesting for both us and the audience.

With a non-humanoid, our ability to quickly and skillfully describe them matters because readers have to imagine them, unless we’re in a visual medium. While it’s great to have explanations for anatomical features, audiences are used to bizarre things without getting one iota of explanation. Be forewarned that such creations have a tendency to be monsters, or viewed as one, a subject discussed more in Chapter 5, “Creating Monsters.”


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