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Creating a Fantasy Race

The fantasy genre is filled with an astonishing array of wildly different races that populate our stories. Some are drawn from older myths and legends like elves and dwarfs while others are brand new creations from the author’s imagination. Would-be worldbuilders might think it’s just a matter of slapping some limbs together and thinking up a suitably odd name, but to create a great fantasy race and to make the reader believe in it requires a lot of thought and work.

Physical Characteristics

Crafting by CarmenSinekFirst the basics, you’ll need to establish what your race looks like. Is it humanoid or not, the total number of limbs, does it have skin or scales? These questions are vital, not only because you want your race to look interesting when you describe it to the reader, but also because of how these decisions will affect its nature and interaction with the world of the story. Know that if you give your race wings it’s going to be more difficult to have them stranded if the plot requires it. Or that if you want to evoke tension and a character’s got gills, they’re unlikely to be afraid of their ship getting sunk, and why are they on a ship in the first place?

Any characteristics the author creates should have a meaning or noticeable effect rather than being purely cosmetic. Those bony crests on the characters forehead might be a sign of demonic heritage, those extra arms are great for a race of climbers that lives in the mountains, even the classic elfin ears suggest a good sense of hearing that might prove useful. Whether for reasons of story, environmental adaptation, or even magical mutations, the features the author adds should be justified. All this effort works to make a race more believable so that they fit into the world of the story, appearing a natural part, rather than some abstract idea the author spliced in.

Point of View

Jellyfish mermaid by Castaguer93Another aspect to consider, if you’re going to write from the perspective of a member of your new race then think about how these physical characteristics will affect your narrative. Talking about how you use your extra arms to climb is one thing, but when the author introduces tentacles for limbs or entirely new senses like echo location, you’re going to have to work out how that would come across in the narrative. How does a creature like that move, how would it describe the world, would it even have the same idea of colours that we do? Experimenting with these ideas in the narrative can be great fun, but remember it also needs to read clearly, so it’s often a bit of a balancing act.

There’s the psychological aspect as well, both in how this affects the narrative as well as the greater culture of your race. If you’ve given your race the ability to see emotions or tell if someone is lying then it will result in a completely different outlook of relationships, interaction, and social norms than exists in human society. If each member of your race is born with an insatiable bloodlust and drive to dominate others, then every scene or meeting will become a battle, every object will be a potential weapon, they might view everything in terms of how it can be used to their advantage. This can be one of the hardest aspects to master in creating a race, rather than simply having a human POV with some tweaks, the author should try to give the sense of a different species through the narration, bringing it across in every line. Some great examples are the K’ Chain Che’ Malle by Steven Erikson or R. A. Salvatore’s Drow, which by biology or psychology both manage to give the impression of a different type of creature.

Civilisation

Is your race one of nomads or empire builders, do they have kings or a council, do they believe in gods, spirits, or nothing at all? There’s no reason your created race shouldn’t have as much depth and complexity as any human civilisation. Not all of it need be included in the story unless it’s relevant, but the author shouldn’t skimp on the detail just because they’re an invented race.

The City by Yongsub Noh (YONG)

In fact it may be even more important to go into such depth into order to give a greater sense of character to the race. When you know that the reason a Drenarian hates monarchies is because his people were almost wiped out by a selfish king in the past, then the author can speak with more authority and the writing will reflect that.

This section can cover a whole host of ideas, so for more detail check out How To Create A Civilisation.

Interaction

In the scheme of worldbuilding for your book and for the nature of the story, another important factor is whether your race is alone. Are they the only sentient life in the story or just one of many races? How is your race viewed by the others, how do humans view them if they’re present in the story as well? Is your race a mighty empire that stretches far across the land or are they barely believed in, the subject of scepticism and folktales? What sort of interaction is there between your race and others in the story, how are they perceived? Is there mutual tolerance, prejudice, racism, fear, disbelief?

Argument in the Council by Concept-Art-House

All these questions deserve thought. The more completely they can be answered the more cemented your race will be in the world and the more depth they will have. You might have a set of different races living in four corners of the land, but it’s not until the reader sees them interacting, bickering, haggling, looking down their noses at the other that these creatures will seem truly real. When your heroes tell campfire stories of mysterious beings that live in the woods, you’re laying the foundations for your new race. When characters listen to a snippet of conversation about how the fish people are being exploited, you’re creating back-story, establishing a sense of culture and place. When readers see common human prejudices applied to fantasy creatures, the whole world and your race take on a new level of reality, meshing together in a way that enhances both the writing and level of belief in your creations.

Purpose

Sylvan Caryatid by Lars Grant WestNot all invented fantasy races serve a greater purpose, some are simply there because that’s the way of the secondary world, but with every race is the option for deeper meaning. Some authors choose to model their race on an idea or concept, epitomising particular traits to show the folly of greed, the balance of good and evil, the potential for corruption. Fantasy fiction has often been used as a method to express deeper themes through stories, and by tailor making their own race the author has greater freedom to indulge this than by using humans. So if your novel is meant to express a particular message, think about how your race can be used to underline the point you’re trying to make and shape them accordingly. With every facet of their existence to play with, you can design a religion, a class hierarchy or even make their own biology into the message.

Creating a race and doing it well enough for the reader to believe in them is a hugely complex process, but hopefully this article will provide some pointers about what the author can do to make them a success. Even the strangest tribe of two headed frog-men or collective of sentient energy beings can be made to seem realistic if there’s enough work behind them. So move over elves, step aside dwarfs and other fantasy staples, there’s a new race making its way across the pages, and it’s whatever you want it to be.

Title image by Lars Grant-West.

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