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Part one: Races and creatures

In order to create a multuidimensional, full and believable world, you need to approach it very systematically in my opinion.

There are numerous aspects to a world, and they all need to be defined in your work if you want your readers to feel like it’s a solid, physical world. Some of the most important aspects are:

  • Characters, species, races: who will inhabit your world?
  • Geography, topography, layout: think about terrain; will it there be deserts, swamps, forests?
  • Languages: different races will need to speak different languages
  • Religion: all races should have some form of religion or belief system
  • History: what is the history of your world? What major events lead to the world as it is now?
  • Flora and fauna: what animals and plants can the inhabitants of your world find there?

In this post, I will address the first of these points; races.

I know many of you like to start with the second point, the geography and layout of the land, and understandibly so; this is what is going to give your world it’s own identity!

But the reason I start with the inhabitants is that you need a world that is adapted to your characters. If you write about mermaids, you can’t really have a world set in a desert (obviously). To me, characters and races are the most important, so I like to mold the world around them, not vice-versa.

Of course, if to you the layout of the land is the most important to you, then by all means, start with that! This only means that you will have to adapt your races to the geography so they can live and thrive in the world they live in.

What to take into account when creating races

If you are writing fantasy, then you have the disctinct advantage that you get to create the creatures that are going to inhabit your world. Sure, mammoth works such as The Lord Of The Rings have set a very deep footprint of what certain races are like. Someone say “elf”, and you see a tall and slender, graceful being, don’t you?

But this doesn’t mean that you can’t make some tweaks to make them your own.

I personally wouldn’t go full opposite, as that could just give the impression that “being different” is your end goal. For example, the movie “Bright” made for Netflix featured elves that were haughty and superficial. It went so much against the image that I had of them in my mind, of what an elf should be, that it ruined the movie for me (not that I particularly liked it anyway, but the depiction didn’t help).

What I mean is that if you go too much against the grain of what people have come to expect from certain races, then you are probably going to rub a lot of people the wrong way. And yes, I know, you may want to provoke your readers on purpose.

But remember; you should be writing with your readers in mind if you want them to buy your books. If you are only writing for yourself, good for you; but you might end up being the only one who ever reads your book cover to cover.

Now, back to characters. If you feel that it’s too tough to tweak well-known races such as elves because they are too well established, then either use them as-is, or don’t use them at all!

There are many mythological creatures that I find under-used in fantasy writing. I would love to read more about Valkyrie, Succubus, Pixies, Satyres, Faeries or Banshees, among many other. And these are only a few humanoid creatures; there are many others, such as animal creatures, corporeal ones, the undead, and many, many other categories.

The advantage with using these races or creatures is that, though they are represented in legends and myths, there is still plenty of room to give them your own, unique characteristics. For instance, a Banshee has many different descriptions; a young woman, an old woman, dressed in green, dressed in gray, unnaturally tall or shorter than average. The vague descriptions and underuse in fantasy mean that you can create your own, strong race, with your own take on them. But here as well, I would suggest keeping true to the myths; no matter the description, a Banshee wails or shrieks to announce death. This I would not stray from; if your Banshee is a funny, light-hearted little creature who announces spring, your readers might feel cheated and like you don’t know what you are writing about, and haven’t taken the time to research it. This might hurt your credibility as an author.

Creating your races

Once you hae chosen which creatures you want to inhabit your world, research them. Read lots of articles and posts about them; get a feel for what is universally recognized as belonging to the race, and what is optional. Once again, this is only personal, but I would not change what is expected of a race. Other aspects, those that are only mentioned in passing a couple of times, feel free to tweak or change as much as you like!

Let’s take the example of the Banshee again:

The things you shouldn’t change are:

  • It’s wails and screeches
  • The fact that it annouces death or doom

What you can change, or invent all-together:

  • It’s appearance; physical (body, face), clothing, any particular, distinctive features?
  • The way it moves; does it fly, glide, walk?
  • Where it lives; underground? With others, or solitary?

When creating a race, in order for it to feel as real as possible to the reader, you need to be clear on many things, even if those elements don’t make it into your story. The fact that you know where you are going with your creature, that you know it’s habits and how it would act in a given situation will ensure that there are no discrepencies in your story, and allow the reader to be fully immersed in the tale instead of fighting it because he keeps stumbling on details that don’t make sense.

Elements that you should think of

As already said, there are many elements that need to be considered so that your race feels real to the reader. Some to consider are:

  • What is their appearance? Try to be as detailed as possible. Describe their physical body, face, hands, but also clothing, deformities, typical distinctive features or markings.
  • How do they move? You should be able to see it move in your mind’s eye. Is it graceful? Does it limp, or move with difficulty? Does it walk, crawl, fly? Does it make any sound, or is it perfectly silent? Describe the movements as precisely as you can.
  • Do they have any specific powers or abilities? Are they able to manipulate objects? To read minds by touching people? strike fear in someone’s heart just by looking into their eyes? In fantasy, races usually have distinctive abilities, even if it is only to move quietly.
  • Are any objects or equipment associated with them? Do they have magical objects they need, such as a staff for a wizard? Do they carry a talisman? Is there a specific clothing item that characterizes them? Banshees, for example, are most often described as wearing a hooded cloak.
  • What does their voice sound like? Is it piercing, or quiet and eerie? Is it musical and light? What effect, if any, does it provoke in others?
  • Where do they live, what is their dwelling like? Do they live in homes, caves or underground? Are they nomadic, and move around all the time? Is their dwelling important to them? Do they spend a lot of time in it, and have it decorated and agreeable, or is it just someplace they go to sleep?
  • What are their social habits? Do they live alone, or do they live in groups? Do they have families? Do they enjoy the company of other races, or are they elitist?
  • What do they eat, how do they feed? Are they vegetarian, or do they kill to eat? Do they eat other races or animals? How often do they need to feed? How long does it take them to start feeling the effects of hunger, to be less efficient?
  • Are they peaceful, or warriors? Do they fight each other? Other races? Or are they peaceful creatures who mind their own business?
  • What are their habits, how do they pass the time? What do they do with their time? Do they spend most of it inside, or out? Do they hunt, garden or train to fight?

Think about what sets your race appart from other races in your world. They should all have distinctive and established features, and those features should work together. For instance, if your race is a violent one that wages war and kills others, they could have the following characteristics:
-If they are big and noisy, they should be fast and powerful killers
-If they are small, they should be stealthy and quiet, graceful killers

A loud, slow race would result in one that would not be very successful as warriors.

Inventing your own race

Alternatively to the above, you can create your own, home-made creatures. In this case, let your imagination roam free! But you will still have to determine the same elements as above for your race; it will not have a real feel to it if you yourself do not know where you are headed with it!

Take some time to fugure out the different characteristics for your race, it will make a huge difference in the way your readers experience your world.

There you have it!

I hope this first post about worldbuilding was helpfull! Let me know what you think in the comments; whether I forgot anything vital, or if I got anything wrong! Always happy to hear from readers 🙂

And let me know how you approach worldbuilding, I would love to hear!

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