With A Bit Of Clay

There are numerous different examples of races within fiction. There are the ever popular elves and dwarves, the traditionally villainous orcs and goblins, and the potentially badass dragons and griffins. With a hundred other possible examples that I could give, it’s easy to find pre-defined fantasy races to populate your fictional world. But is that what you want to do?

I’m not asking because I want to dissuade you. It can be huge help to use a pre-established race within your world. Rather than having to explain and justify why this particular set of people are long-lived, live in trees, are in-tune with nature, and elegantly sophisticated, you can just say “elves” and everybody gets it. You can even use less common variants of elves (small, mischievous, and magical) and people are still going to approach your story ready and willing to accept that this race of people look, act, and think a certain way. HUUUUGE time-saver.

Yet, maybe you don’t want people’s pre-conceived notions to impact who and what these characters are. Maybe you have an “elf” type race (pointy ears, blah blah blah), but they behave and think completely differently than what people would expect. Or maybe there is a race that you envision that is a collection of features that you’ve never heard/seen before. Obviously, in these scenarios you’re going to need to do a bit of fantasy race building.

So what exactly goes into building a race? If you’re approaching this with a character of this new race in mind, then you’re already half-way there. But (!!!) just because you’re picturing character X as one specific way doesn’t mean that you should only stick with that. As you work you might find that one or more of the features you were picturing don’t work when you apply it to a race as a whole. Or perhaps you realize that three sets of wings, as cool as it might sound, aren’t actually that practical. Or half a dozen other reasons for why you might want to change your original idea. Don’t be afraid of this!

Just like working on second (and third, and fourth) drafts, you’re going to find things that need to be changed. These will, more often than not, strengthen the overall story!

Now there are half a dozen different guides, tutorials, and templates for creating a race out there. And I’m not going to say my method is ground-breaking or anything like that, but I think I approach it in a slightly different way.

(Like many of the ones I linked to up there) I’m going to start with the physical aspects of your race. What do they look like, how do they walk, and what physiological and/or anatomical advantages (or disadvantages) do they have?

You can approach this is a fairly straightforward manner, starting top to bottom, or bottom to top. For my purposes, I’m going to go top to bottom.

  • Head
    • How many heads do these creatures have? While a naturally occurring polycephalic species wouldn’t happen in the real world (the occurrences we see are formed the same way that Siamese twins are), they are super common in myth and legend. If there are multiple heads you need to figure out where the brain(s) is/are. “Multi”-brained creatures are a little more common (octupi have an equal distribution of neural cells through all their arms, and in some cases severed arms are able to act independently for a time).
      • If the creature has multiple heads and multiple brains, there could be a risk of the heads not agreeing or getting along all the time. I know that sounds very Monty Python, but even the best of friends get on each others nerves sometimes. (I’d highly recommend researching Siamese twins if you want to go this route -I’ve never done so, so I can’t give you any advice there)
  • Eyes
    • How many eyes does the species have? Where are the eyes located? Front facing eyes are for predators, and eyes on the side of the head are for prey (generally).
    • Are there different types of eyes? What spectrum are they able to see? Is there anything else that they can see (ghosts, the flow of magic, emotions, etc.)?
  • Nose
    • Generally there is only going to be a single nose, but you could be a rebel. Gills could (technically) fall under this category, as they can help bring in extra air.
    • What kind of scent ability do these creatures have? Humans don’t have the greatest ability to smell things, but that doesn’t mean your species can’t have better (or worse).
  • Mouth
    • Multiple mouths have a similar problem as multiple heads do, in that you need to figure out how that’s going to work. Do all mouths connect to the stomach? What about the lungs? Is one connected to the stomach and a different one connected to the lungs? (That would cut down on accidentally breathing in food)
    • What are their teeth like? Sharp, pointed teeth are used for tearing and cutting, while wide, flat teeth are used for grinding. Humans are omnivores as we have both types. If you look at carnivores their back teeth look sort of flat, but you can still see the serrated edges that would help them chew up their food. Similarly, some herbivores have wide but thin teeth for cutting plants (like our very front teeth), but they aren’t really sharp.
    • Within this section you should figure out how the creatures speak. A small mouth, or one with multiple rows of teeth, or a strange tongue, may have problems making a wide variety of sounds. This doesn’t mean they can’t speak (as many animals with are able to make some sort of verbal noise), just that their vocal range may be limited (and thus they couldn’t learn to speak “human” languages -though if they’re sentient they should be able to understand them, regardless of their ability to vocalize)
      • If the creatures cannot speak for whatever reason, you need to come up with an alternative method of communication. This could be some form of telepathy, sign language, interpretive dance, or even a complicated system of blinking.
  • Ears
    • Once more, how many? Where are they positioned? Can they move (e.g., swivel)?
    • What do they look like? Are they long and tapered, wide and pointed, rounded, etc.?
    • How well can the species hear things? Are they able to hear things that are not what you’d expect? (Things like electricity, magic, time, fate, etc.)
  • Arms
    • How many, and where are they positioned? Do the arms have hands and fingers? Claws? Suction cups? Bones or no bones?
      • Think about what kind of actions you want the species to be able to complete. Octopi can pick something up and manipulate it, just like we can, but it would look different, and it would probably need multiple arms to do it, whereas a human might just need one hand.
  • Legs
    • Once more, how many and where are they positioned? You might also want to think about where the joints are, which way the bend, and how many. Birds may look like they only have a backwards bending knee, but that’s actually their ankle! Their knees are usually hidden under feathers!
      • Think about how the species stands and walks. Do they use their legs for anything else (like various animals that use them to attack prey)?
      • Two legged creatures are called bipeds, and generally utilize an upright kind of mobility. Four legged creatures are quadrupeds and are generally quicker and more agile than bipeds -and most animals fall under the quadruped heading. More than four legs start getting tricky, and may end up being reminiscent of various types of bugs (centipedes, spiders, etc.).
  • Wings
    • Wings are technically a type of arm (see this reference), but most people think of them as a separate type of appendage. Give some thought to whether you want your species to have arms and wings (making them “angelic” or “draconic” like vs. “harpy” or “wyvern” like).
      • There are lots of discussions about the biological feasibility of non-traditional winged creatures. Generally it boils down to, our bodies are too big, without enough muscle mass in the correct place to support flight. (And generally the same argument for adding wings to horses, lions, etc.) This can be “overcome” by shrinking the creature down (so fairy sized, or flying dogs and cats), but, as pointed out in one of the links I have up there, even a smaller creature would need a lot more chest muscles, thereby making it not look like the “base” or original beast any more, and more like birds.
        • But this is fantasy. You can use all sorts of pseudo-science and magical explanations for why these creatures are actually able to fly. Terry Pratchett’s dragons used a sort of flame to super heat the air beneath their wings, which allowed for them to become buoyant (sort of a hot air balloon principle I guess). What crazy way can you think to sidestep traditional gravity?
  • Tails
    • Does your race/species have tails? Is it in addition to, or instead of legs? How mobile is the tail (can it wrap around things, or is it only able to make a sort of back-and-forth motion)?
      • While tails can look cool, you should try to think of why that species might have evolved that way. Creatures, sentient or not, don’t gain extra appendages or features unless there is some evolutionary advantage.
        • An exception being mutations, but if they aren’t advantageous for some reason, they tend to not last across multiple generations.
  • Horns/Tusks
    • While these maybe should be included up above when discussing things like teeth and ears and what-not, I’m keeping them separate. If the need for horns and/or tusks wasn’t apparent when you were thinking about the functionality of the creature’s head, then… do you really need them?
      • Both might be useful for combat and/or defence, they could be used in mating displays/rituals, and… I can’t think of a third reason why a creature might have horns or tusks…
  • Other appendages
    • This would be things like antennae, mandibles, and exterior sexual organs.
      • You’re going to need to think about what benefits the creature might gain by having extra appendages. There are so many possibilities here, and this post is already getting pretty long -and I’m not done yet.

So now that you’ve gone through the above list and figured out what the basic physical characteristics of your race are you should give a bit of thought to variation within the species. After all, even if we might have problems spotting differences, they would be able to tell each other apart with relative ease.

This means, think about colouring, overall size (e.g., height and weight), muscle mass, feathers/fur, and what changes the species goes through as they mature from a baby up to an adult (are there extra changes as they mature into old age?). Perhaps you’ve come up with a creature that in its maturity resembles an octopus with wings sprouting from its head. It’s larval form resembles a jellyfish, and as it grows old it sort of becomes a chambered nautilus like being. As adults, there is a differentiation in length of tentacles (and as they grow older, the tentacles become thinner, but they gain more of them), skin texture, resting skin colour (with the ability for them to change colour/they’re chromatophores), and pheromone production. They communicate by a complicated sign language/interpretive dance method (meaning that the very young and very old have difficulties communicating because they either lack full tentacles, or have much limited mobility).

You can see in that description, as simplistic as it is, that I cover a lot about the creatures. I’ve given an overview of their physical characteristics, and even how they change with age, and I’ve shown how each creature can be slightly different (just like you might have brown hair and your friend blonde), and given their form of communication. Of course, this then prompts all sorts of other information, like:

They are sentient and self-aware, and make/use tools to build “primitive” homes in cliff faces overlooking water. Their homes have multiple rooms, each with a dedicated purpose. Larva are born into pools of water gathered and placed in shallow basins within the home. The flying octopi are hermaphrodites, and mate in groups of 3-6 for life (with each member taking a turn producing the group’s single offspring every 4-6 years). They take 10 years to fully mature from larva to octopi, and around the age of 3 or 4 they are able to fly for short distances. Once mature they begin looking for mates, and generally are mated with at least one other by the age of 15. They are unable to bear any more children after the age of 45, and tend to live to be 70+. They primarily eat seaweed, but will also eat small berries and flowers that grow near the sea.

I could go on, but I think that’s probably enough of an example.

On April 2nd I’m going to talk a bit more about creating races -specifically focusing on more detailed physical attributes (some of which you saw in the above example I just gave).

On April 14th I’m going to finish this series with a discussion about the intangibles of a race (like language, social constructions, and thought patterns).

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