On Designing a Race

Fantasy, or for that matter, Science Fiction, wouldn’t feel natural without the various non-human races that swarm about their landscapes. However, designing a race for your own world, whether a cookie-cutter elf or the Zaf’quaga from your own imagination, is a rather difficult task. I have set up three guidelines for how to design a race below. This is far from a detailed description of the process, but rather some general thoughts to keep in mind with the process.

  1. START with the idea: This should be painfully obvious when pointed out, but I’ve noticed a strong tendency for other world-builders to try to make a race ‘inorganically.’ For an example of what I mean by inorganic, I once came across a person who was so intent on avoiding cliché depictions of common fantasy race (dwarves, elves, gnomes, etc.) that his thought process boiled down to ‘how can I NOT have x do y?’ Needless to say, none of the races that he went on to describe were at all recognizable, and were so left field and strange that he had to write a  six paragraph essay just to get the basic idea of each one across. He spent all of his energy on avoiding an overdone idea, when what he should have been doing was starting with a fun and creative idea, and working from there.
  2. Ask how your race fits into the world: It doesn’t matter how cool your race is if it feels like a random piece of scenery to the audience. The best way to avoid this pitfall is to consider just how they interact with the world. Do they live just outside of settlements, doing whatever it is that they do? How do humans feel about them (keep in mind that I, being a human, personally LIKE human-centric settings)? If the race avoids people, how do they feel? Is there ceremonial, diplomatic, or commonplace communication between them and humans if any at all? Things like this. Remember that no idea exists in a vacuum, so let the chaos of your mind weave together.
  3. Do they represent anything: This is by far the most optional of the guidelines here. Again, I personally like to make the races (or spirits as I prefer to think of them) of my world symbolize something in the common mindset, because actual human cultures come up with other races as a way to explain or describe certain natural/abstract concepts. Whether this is literal (elves are seen as guardians of nature because they ARE guardians of nature) or just perceived (gnomes are symbols of passionate creativity when they are actually your average engineer) is up to you.

And there you have, that’s the basic thought process that I go through. Now go for and let the bizarre being spawn from your brain fluids!

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