Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Building a Fantasy world- Races by Matthew Presley

There comes a time in every fantasy writer or artist’s life where they realise a simple truth; humans are boring. We’re so boring that our inclusion in a fantasy story feels like pandering to the human community with obvious human tokenism. I mean, sure, some humans might be individually interesting, but we’re not all super-strong, intelligent or fast. We lack wings, fins, spikes, tusks, retractable claws or prehensile tails.

Adding fantastic races into a fantasy story seems inevitable, unless it’s a human-based story to cater to human viewers’ desire for realism, or even worse, implied human superiority. There are things to take into creating a fantastic race, however;

Call an elf an elf: Myths and legends give us a shorthand for some strange creatures. It’s a temptation to try and make your elves different by calling them something else; they’re not elves, they’re Quoth! Yeah they still have pointy ears, live in the forest, wield longbows... But they’re nothing like an elf!

If you want to make your elves different from the modern fantasy stereotype, it’ll take more than a name change. You could have the Quothian elves, who live in the Quothi forest or something, and they might refer to themselves as the Quoth, but an audience will understand them as elves. If you want them sufficiently different from elves, look at what you can change.

Write a story, not a game system: World of Warcraft has, at a rough guess, 20-30 separate races (not including tribal differences). The Elder Scrolls has ten main ones, with an additional 10-20 minor ones (goblins, trolls, minotaurs) that serve as monsters. Dungeons and Dragons has somewhere in the region of 100 sentient races, with the possibility of thousands more if you allow more monstrous possibilities like outsiders or fey, or easily into the millions if you count templates.

There’s a good reason for this; they’re games. Game systems like to give players options, like what kind of elf/goblin/rat-lizard you play as. In terms of stories, however consider this; every new race added to a story requires time given to their background and culture. So you’ve got eight types of elves; Light elves, dark elves, fire elves, water elves... How are they different? How are they similar? Why is there eight types; do they have a common ancestor? If they don’t get any story time, they become monster of the week. If they do get that time, you could be spending more time explaining than getting on with the story. If the story needs there to be a new culture that’s different from the protagonists, come up with a good reason why the protagonists will interact with them for the time needed to show that culture.

Monster-human balance: The further from human a race becomes, the less relatable they’ll be as a character. Let’s say you want a new creature in the forest; not elves, but Triffids! Intelligent Triffids with a detailed and sophisticated culture... It doesn’t matter for two reasons. One; Triffids aren’t public domain as I thought at first. Two; it doesn’t matter what Triffid culture is like. They could write exquisite poetry and dream of travelling the stars, but they don’t have a face to convey their emotions, or a voice to speak with. Giving them that still isn’t enough; Triffids in the forest? Yeah it makes sense for about ten minutes, but then you remember Triffids walk with their roots, which is fine on a flat surface, but how do they get past a fallen tree? Or climb out of a foot-deep hole? Or get up if they fall over? Bipedalism is successful for a reason!

This isn’t to say Triffids can’t appear in your story (assuming you get the necessary permissions), but a Triffid protagonist or character raises too many questions; they’re too monstrous. With less extreme examples, things like reptiles or insects don’t have very expressive faces; if you have a lizard character, how would you convey more subtle emotions? How do you stop dwarves from being one-dimensional bearded diggers? Is there some common ground a human could connect with to dwarven society? Do they have pets? Do they take their kids to the park on the off-days? Giving a race a sympathetic trait with humans can stop them being one-dimensional; giving a character some differences from their races stereotype helps to flesh them out.

Be aware of what’s been written: No matter what race you write, there’s going to be a similar concept in someone else’s myth or fiction. That doesn’t mean ‘don’t write a certain race because someone else has already done it’, but familiarising yourself with other work let’s you know some of the clichés or characteristics of that race. Being aware of clichés lets you either use it or go against it. Dwarves in the Warcraft franchise have always been stereotypical miners, blacksmiths and engineers, however in later expansions the Dwarves are less focused on monetary or military gain, instead using their skill sets to become archaeologists, attempting to solve riddles of their races creation. Discworld Dwarves, however, fully embrace their mining heritage, though the stereotype of an axe-wielding, chainmail wearing dwarf only occurs away from Dwarven lands (parodying how some real world cultures become more patriotic the further from home they are).

Example races

So far our example kingdom has been humans only, with some vague spirits supplying magic. The first question is ‘does the story need a new race?’ What would adding a new race provide to our story, other than complication? We’ve been keeping human for one very good reason; human audiences don’t need to have a human explained to them. While a fantasy audience knows what an elf is, how about someone who doesn’t read a lot of fantasy? How do you explain that without stopping the story dead in its tracks?

We can say the example kingdom encounters our new races during its expansion; beyond the superstitious tales of borderland locals, however, there’s been little interaction. Although dwarves, elves, orcs or goblins would be perfectly acceptable for this role, we’ll try to stay away from them for now.

Description: What does the new race look like? How different are they from humans? Can some be mistaken for humans, or are they fundamentally different? Can their description be done succinctly, or is a detailed description required?

Culture: While having a direct analogy to a human culture can be potentially insulting or stereotypical, having a rough approximation of where our race is on the civilisation ladder can give us an idea of how to depict them. Remember that culture changes over time; what happens to the Dwarves when the mine runs out? Also consider basic needs; a desert people who wander the endless sands might be a romantic notion, but unless they’re completely divorced from biology, they need to eat and drink something. Look at how human cultures adapt to their surroundings, and consider how your new race might be similar or different.

Pros/Cons: In most worlds, humans are the dominant species. This is because humans are the major audience for fantasy writers, who are usually human as well. However, if there’s a race that’s bigger, strong, more intelligent or with better technology, there should be a reason why that race isn’t dominant instead. The following are common reasons;

Adaptable humans: humans are far more versatile than other races. We can change to suit hostile environments, we more readily accept new developments and we can alter our society quickly. This isn’t much of a stretch of what humans are capable of; it’s how cultures have progressed and gained advantages over others in history, after all.

Fecund humans: while longer-lived races might have an advantage against short-lived ones, this advantage goes out the window when birth rates are considered. A human mother can have multiple children with a gestation of nine months and that child physically matures in 15-20 years. How long till an elf or dwarf is considered mature? How often can they get pregnant? Is there something that slows that rate down? Is there some cultural aspect to their numbers; do chiefs of the Lion-men kill all the children of their enemies when taking over a pride? Conversely, what limits the Ant-people that hatches 10000 eggs per season, from overwhelming humanity?

Alliance humans: while other races bicker and squabble, humanity’s strength is in diplomacy and negotiation. Humans form empires of peace and prosperity, or tyrannies with them at the top. Humanity’s willingness to learn and accept other races’ and cultures might lead them to better developments than either culture could reach separately. The dwarves might invent steel, the goblins might have gunpowder, but it’d be humans that invent the cannon.

With these variables in mind, let’s build some new races!

Ratfolk: Rather than a typical dwarf as the underground species, we could have something more ratlike in appearance. There’s been a bit written about rat-men in history and fiction, both villainous and heroic. Rats in Asian cultures are more noble than in Europe, where they’re considered infectious vermin. If we set our ratfolk somewhere in between; at worst, they’re filthy and wasteful, but at best they can be capable of spiritual and intellectual endeavours.

‘Intellectual’ might be a bit misleading; ‘cunning’ might be better. Between a normal human and a normal ratfolk, the human might be cleverer and have learnt more, but a ratfolk will have better instincts and sense of opportunity. Anyone whose owned a pet rat will know they’re smart, mischievous and opportunistic; that personality could serve as a basis for ratfolk society, even if not all of them have the same outlook on life.

Description: The average ratfolk should be smaller than a human and weigh less; a full grown ratfolk would be as tall as an eight year old human. Giving them rat heads, feet and tails isn’t stretching the design too far; they’re not so different from humans that they become monstrous, and their faces can convey emotions, which stops ratfolk characters being flat or stilted.

Culture: We’ve already mentioned they live underground; rather than mines, however, its more likely to be oversized warrens in ratfolk lands. If our kingdom advances to the point of city size, ratfolk might skulk around the undercity. At this point, however, they could be good builders and diggers; they’re not always vermin in human settlements, but willing to work as labourers or architects, depending on their intelligence.

Rather than growing or farming their food, ratfolk are still hunter-gatherers; if a predator attacks, everything important must be able to be picked up and carried underground. Because they’re foragers, they’ll scavenge from larger villages; they’re opportunists, after all, so there might be friction when human concepts of ownership meet ratfolk concepts of ‘you weren’t there when I took it’. I’m imagining a disgruntled farmer chasing ratfolk off his field as they drag away piglets and sacks of grain. In larger settlements, where the locals have guards and swords, ratfolk will at first begrudgingly follow the law, then after a few generations accept human standards.

Clothing for ratfolk follows one rule; you own what you can carry, and vice versa. If they leave something behind, they don’t expect it to be there when they come back; its entirely likely another ratfolk would think its useful too. So the clothing would be flexible enough to be worn in all weathers, and have several pouches and waterskins attached.

Technologically and magically, ratfolk are less skilled than humans, and they certainly can’t ride horses. Their culture hasn’t progressed to the point where they can have specialists; each ratfolk might be a part of a tribe, but each individual would have to be self-sufficient.

Pros/Cons: Ratfolk have some major disadvantages against humans, especially horsemen, archers and mages as we’ve described in our kingdom. However, these are military disadvantages; on a personal scale, they might have some unexpected benefits.

Economy of scale: A smaller creature requires less food and water to survive than a larger one. A full-grown ratfolk could eat half of what a human would; a roast chicken would be like a roast turkey in comparison. This is a big advantage in cities if they have to buy food, or in sustenance farming if they sell their surplus. When ratfolk live in human settlements, they can live in greater density as well; a two-room hovel would be big enough for a family, maybe two.

Birth/growth rate: Rats have multiple kits in a litter, and a rat mother can have multiple litters. Though the mortality rate keeps rat populations in check, ratfolk would have a much better chance of surviving to old age. If we say a litter of three or four is the norm, and they reach maturity in ten years, they’re much more fecund than humans. They don’t live as long, however; by thirty they start balding and getting flabby, at which point they leave behind all belongings and take a long walk into unexplored lands.

Opportunists: Whenever I think of rats, I think of my friend’s pets who’d scamper off as soon as you looked at them, but if you back was turned they’d root through your bag and run off with a chocolate bar. Ratfolk should have that trait; maybe not actively thieving, but taking an opportunity when one presents itself. While that incorporates thieving (The shopkeeper went into the backroom! What did he expect to happen?), it also makes them more able to take risks and use their skills to an advantage. They could work for human hunters to flush rabbits out of their warrens, or run market stalls and identify easy sales. Conversely, setting a ratfolk in the town guard will thwart the local pickpockets; when you can spot a mark, you can notice other people spotting it as well.

 So we have ratfolk; relatively primitive and certainly no match for our kingdom’s army, but numerous and adaptable enough to fit into human society (whether they want them or not) once they’ve had enough acclimatisation time.

But no fantasy story settles for one race of Others [citation needed]. What can replace the forest-loving elves, if ratfolk (sort of) replace dwarves? Squirrelfolk would have a certain charm, but they’d be too similar to ratfolk. What if we replace one well established race with another?

Vampires: Urrrrrgh. It’s really hard to write about vampires. Okay, I’ll rephrase that; it’s really easy to write about vampires, it’s really hard to write original vampires. Let’s go through the ISO Vampire checklist, shall we?

1)      Dangerous

2)      Sexy

3)      Immortality

a)      Leading to Angst

b)      Suggesting connection to historical event/figure

c)       Leading to outdated clothing

4)      Significant Other

a)      Protagonist Human (See Addendum SOPH)

b)      Vampire/Vampiress (Supporting Articles 1&2)

c)       Long dead (Supporting Article 3a)

You get the idea. This doesn’t mean all vampires are angst-riddled pretty boys, however; a lot of the best vamp-fic involves those that embrace their powers and enjoy immortality. Eternal life is one of humanity’s unobtainable dreams; don’t rain on our parade by making it look rubbish! (Although the film ‘Shadow of the Vampire’ has a brilliant monologue on immortality; immortality isn’t angsty or cool, but really boring.)

Anyway, angsty vampires wouldn’t fit our world. Our example kingdoms hasn’t been civilised for very long; vampires aren’t going to be much better. Rather than aristocrats, they’ll be tribal vampires living in the forest.

What makes Vampires different from Elves? While the vampire myth is pretty malleable, one thing is constant; thirst for blood. Vampires that don’t drink blood aren’t vampires. Ones that find ways to weasel out of this flaw aren’t much better. Feeding on animals, hanging round butcheries... Are these vampires or not? Our vampires are guardians of the forest; they’ll feed off an animal if they must, but the blood of intruders is better for them. Ratfolk learnt this long ago; humans are slower on the uptake, especially if our vampires are mysterious and a bit sexy. After all, a minute of neck action from a forever-young goth is better than forty years of dumpy ball-and-chain, right?

Description: As I’ve been writing this idea for vampires, I’ve had several images in mind, all by one artist; Steve Argyle’s work in Magic: The Gathering, especially the Zendikar set. Instead of aristocratic vampires (For those and other tropes, see the Innistrad set), Zendikar vamps were swamp dwelling tribes, driven by bloodlust and hunger and decidedly more feral than other depictions. I think that art’s a good start for our example world; barely civilised tribes of vampires whose thirst for blood is a constant, uncontrollable craving rather than an easily sidestepped habit.

So why would a bunch of blood-crazed demihumans care about the forest?

Well one part of the vampire myth I’ve always liked is weakness to sunlight. Although this part of vampirism isn’t constant, I think it should be a part of our vampires. Forests provide plenty of cover during the day, even if the sun breaks through the canopy; hollow trunks could be stand-ins for coffins for the truly feral, while the more structured tribes could have caverns instead of crypts. They’re not really interested in maintaining the forest from an ecological point of view; instead they protect it for their own selfish needs. More trees means more canopy cover, more edible plants and fruits means more fools willing to venture too far into the woods, and besides, vampires don’t need the dried husks of their victims; that’s good fertiliser!

This makes vampires very much a monster race; there’s not much chance of peaceful contact when one side eats the other. In a few more generation, their society might be forced to adapt or die; munching on the local peasants is one thing, but munching on the Kingdom’s citizens is likely to end with tar and torches.

Physical description: I got very sidetracked there. Physically vampires are pale-skinned, dark-haired meeeeeeh. No. Steve Argyle might like his vamps that way, but we’re trying to break clichés here. Why don’t we go for a different aesthetic? Instead of ‘moonlit waif’, let’s go ‘earthy commune’ types. They still don’t have a tan, but their skin shows they’re not afraid of a hard nights work. And how difficult would running round the forest in a tailored suit or leather corset anyway? Some tribes might totally feral and hunt in loincloths; the ones that do wear some clothes are going to be pretty grungy, what with the brambles and soil and blood spurts. Salvaged clothes from their victims could be one source of clothes, while some might be skinners and tanners; fitted clothes or armour might be too specialist right now. And as cool as long cloaks billowing behind them might be, these are forest creatures; it’s hard to look cool when your cloak gets snagged and yanks you backwards.


Pro/Cons: Vampire’s big cons are sunlight and thirst for blood. Pros are eternal youth, superhuman strength and agility, and enhanced senses. We’ve gone over how the thirst for blood really is a drawback; how about we go further? Vampires in our world must drink blood to stay young, and only the blood of humans can reverse their ageing. If they go a night without finding food, they’ll start to age rapidly; they’re only a few meals from dust, so they’re ravenous hunters. This keeps their numbers down; too many apex predators and the ecosystems going to collapse. Vampires are highly aware of this; they’ve probably had to survive a few population bottlenecks, and the ones who made it through found ways to keep the supply safe. Protecting the forest and the various juicy herbivores inside it would cause conflict between other races, while humans would be a delicacy for the strongest. Turning a human into a vampire would be a taboo; the vampires know they can’t outnumber their food supply, and anyway, why waste the Elixir of Youth when you catch it?

Okay, so we’ve got rats underground, vampires in the forest; for the last race, I’m going away from mammals. I’ve had a fondness for reptiles and lizards for a long time, so why not lizardfolk?
Lizardfolk: Reptilians have appeared in several franchises, in both fantasy and sci-fi. One common aspect is the idea that lizard-people are cold blooded. I’m not a fan of this idea; I think if a species had evolved to sentience, it shouldn’t have to rely on hot weather to keep moving. If we’re chucking out cold-bloodedness, we can chuck out the cold-blooded characteristics; lizardfolk aren’t all patient, slow to anger, and outpaced by their human counterparts.

Description: Standing six feet tall with a reptilian head, tail, feet and skin. Their coloration varies wildly depending on habitat, and some have horns or small frills in place of hair. They don’t share human nudity taboos, but ones that have contact with humans will wear clothes adapted to their size and shape.

Culture: Lizardfolk live in marshes, jungles or deserts, depending on which type of lizardfolk or which fantasy setting you’re looking at. If we’re moving away from the cold-blooded stereotype, though, why not move them out of their comfort zone? Our lizardfolk live in the mountains; think warm mountain ranges like the Pyrenees rather than the Himalayas. These lizardfolk evolved from mountain geckos, no crocodiles or iguanas. Adventurous lizardfolk put on thick coats and scale new heights rather than skulk about in swamps. Settlements are built into cliff faces or on outcrops; many are unreachable without the mountaineering skill of our lizardfolk. This means some tribes don’t deal with other races often; villages tend to be self-sufficient, and because they’re difficult to invade, most human tribes don’t bother.

I like the idea that these lizardfolk are skilled at archery as well. Food on the mountain is scarce, but goat-horn bows and flint arrows can reach high-flying birds like condors and vultures. Lowlanders need ranged weapons to defend their homes from foolhardy invaders.

Families of lizardfolk are fairly disparate; because one family might have its home covering an entire outcrop, new families would be expected to venture out and find their own space. In lowland village, the society could expand its borders conventionally, though no society had reached the size of our human kingdom.

Pro/Cons: While a lizardfolk might seem stronger or dumber than a human, in our world it’s pretty close to call. Lizardfolk lack organisation at the moment, but humans are only just getting their heads round monarchy and armies; when lizardfolk see how well these advances work, what’s stopping them?

Lack of diversity- when a society specialises too much, it suffers. So if archery works really well for the lizardfolk, why bother with close range fighting? Clubs and claws are enough to settle most close-up problems, but wouldn’t be so good against armoured enemies. The culture is also adapted to mountainous terrain; this could be reflected by their understanding of the Wild Way. They don’t venerate the spirits of the Forest or Plains, and have no connection to the Shadow Way. If it comes down to a fight, humanity might have more ways to win, making them more adaptable.

 That’s three retooled races for our example kingdom; in the next article I’ll look at fantastic creatures.

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