World Building Post #2 – Races and Species

I had thought long and hard about the order I was going to present these in. At first I was leaning towards maps and geography – you’re building a world, you need a map, right? But then I started thinking about the actual process I go through and I realized that maps were maybe the third thing I started working on so I decided to start here, with races and species.

When I start a new world it’s usually because I’ve had some interesting character jump into my head, or a scene, or a race, or a plot. For example, I had a scene once where a monkey (one of those little Gibbons) was chasing a rather fat striped tabby through a crowded tavern. From there I built up a few countries that were locked in a war and a band of travellers that wanted to cross the ‘war zone’. Another time it was a luscious queen in a stone palace surrounded by statues of snakes and a hot jungle outside. With those little snippets I start building, and I start with the race they belong to.

Often magic, culture, politics, and technology are tied in with this step but I’ll cover those in the next two posts. For now I want to focus solely on the following questions:

What information do I need to make my sentient race sound real? How much detail do I need? How many sentient races work and how many are too many? What other species do I need and how different/similar to Earth counterparts should they be? What about naming them?

What information do I need to make my race believable? You need to know what they look like – how many hands, feet, eyes, heads? Possible hair colours and eye colours? Are they hairier than humans here? Skin colour? Stature? Gender differences? This is more than just “the main character has green eyes and brown hair”, this is all the possible eye colours genetically available to your race, and all the hair colours, and all the skin tones. You need to know what stage their civilization is in. You need to know if they have magic or not. You need to know their attitudes towards women, the age of majority, the available careers, and the social castes. You need to know how they dress, what they eat, and their religious practices.  You need to know about their language and how they select their names.

How much detail do I need? The more the better in my opinion. But at the same time don’t fret about how you’re going to jam into all into the book. You need to understand every aspect of the race so you can write a compelling narrative and make the reader believe. A lot of history, back story, and “fact” won’t ever show up in print, or if it does it will be a subtle detail, a casual remark, a passing note, just to embellish the story and make it feel more real.

When world building resign yourself to a lot of writing or typing. Make lists and webs and charts and maps. Change and tweak as the pieces fall into place and affect older pieces.

How many sentient races work and how many is too many? – I believe in the KISS rule. Keep It Simple, Stupid. Look at George RR Martin, I think he has 2 races (humans and giants), and then he has 5 separate human cultures within the world. They’re all human but they’re different nationalities with different believes and customs and appearances. David Eddings is another example of this.

Most science fiction features 2 races – humans and some alien species.

On Zoedar I have 7 sentient races but I only focus on one most of the time, and never on more than two (very rarely 3) in a scene). Of those sentient races, one is human with some magic, one is elven and very similar to the standard elven mythology, one is a human cult that was cursed and has become a separate race with a different skin tone and religion, one is a winged human species that is very reclusive, one is a standard fairy race, one is a cat-people race, and one is a Dryad/Nymph race. Because I went with so many I relied heavily on commonly used themes and ideas to build the background races so they’d feel familiar without too much work on my part.

There are lots of examples like this: Tolkien (humans, dwarves, elves, giant eagles, ents, dragons), Patricia Briggs (humans, vampires, werewolves, fae, demons), etc.

Now, vampire/werewolf fiction is a little different. It’s more of a modern or urban fantasy for the most part and while vampires and werewolves are distinct from humans, they are still human too. Fae are a little different, definitely a separate race from humans, but heavily bound by long traditions and narratives (which you can follow or abandon as you please as long as you are consistent within your own world). Sorry – side note.

Keep in mind that long list of details you need. You need it for EVERY race you create within a world. You also need to chart interactions between races.

What other species do I need? – Unless your races are all vegetarians, you need animals. Generally one or two domesticated farm animals, or more, plus horses or some other work/riding beast. You should have a few game animals (deer and such), and a few natural predators for the game animals (wolves or large cats or something more fantastical). If you are going with lots of sentient races, or sentient races that are very different from humans and will require a lot of explanation then my advice is to keep references to the common animals to a minimum and keep them as close to human standard as possible. Call the deer-like creature a deer and simply note that it has 3 eyes, or 2 tails or something. Maybe a cat is a normal cat, except that it can hover. By making only one simple change to the background animals, or none at all, you can spend less time describing them. (Saying, “he shot a deer for dinner” is easier than “he shot a kuthing, a slender, four legged, herbivore that populated these woods. The creature was …” you get the idea) If you are using a fairly humanoid species with fewer changes then you can get creative with some of your animals. It’s really about balance – not overloading yourself or the reader.

Naming – what do you name the races? Or the species? We’ll start with the latter because it’s simpler. Unless absolutely necessary call the background creatures by earth names. Call your three-eyed deer and three-eyed deer. Your reader will get the point quickly.

Races are harder. You can call them humans or elves or any of the standard terms. You can make up new names – my cat people are called Haider. Make it pronounceable and easy on the eyes – two syllables is best, with a few three syllable names in there for variation. The same goes for naming countries and cities, and characters. Also consider language. Is this a Celtic type culture? Victorian England? North America before Europeans? What is your language structure based on. Pick one per race. Give your elves Native sounding names and your humans British/Welsh sounding names. It’s not that you have to use Earth names for all your characters but look at how the names within certain cultures are constructed – endings that denote gender, commonly used letters and sounds, rarely used letters and sounds, etc. This means a character is more easily identified within its race.

Phew, a lot of information. I’ll go more into Religion, Politics, and Magic over the next few days. For now, this is enough, even for me.

Signing off …


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