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Monday, September 24, 2018

Creating Fictional Species and Societies

Anonymous asked: hi, this might not be the best place to ask this, but do you happen to have any tips for creating fictional species/races?

I do have some tips, but a lot of the ideas aren't mine and come from other writers, which is why I have hesitated to answer this question. My best understanding of this comes from best-selling author David Farland, whom I also work for. You can buy his worldbuilding lecture online here for about $30 and it includes this sort of thing. Please support him by visiting his writing site and looking around.

So instead of repeating and "stealing" others' intellectual property, I'm going to summarize briefly in my own words and give my take and opinions, which is largely influenced by other writers.

Cultural, Societal, and Species Influences


As Dave has said multiple times in his free writing tips, characters grow out of their setting. We are influenced and shaped by the world around us. Who I am, how I live, the choices I make, and the conflicts I worry about out in the Southern Utah desert in 2018 is probably different than an Inuit in the Arctic 300 years ago. Likewise, your made up species will be influenced by their setting. This might be more biological, if you want to get into evolution. There's a reason animals I see around my house are different than those an Inuit might see. Wildlife here is equipped to be able to survive 105 degrees. But setting can also influence a culture and society. The culture here in Southern Utah is different than that of Las Vegas which is maybe two hours away.


History affects a culture and society (and therefore species) also.

The U.S. is basically literally founded on ideas of the individual ("all men are created equal" etc.), and the individual being able to pursue his or her own desires ("life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"). As a result, you can see Americans putting individualism and self-interest ahead of collective ideals. Other cultures and societies emphasize the collective over the individual, with the perspective that what an individual wants isn't as important as what's good for a whole. It's about thinking about the needs of your community, society, or nation before yourself.

You can see this play out sometimes in art. Often in the American entertainment industry we have stories about individuals working their way up to their own personal greatness and where they want to be. Other cultures of the world may find that idea to be comedic, selfish, or even just wrong. If you delve into foreign stories (foreign for me, since I'm in the U.S.) of a particular country, you may find something different. Stories may end successfully and satisfyingly when the love interests choose to part ways in order to better contribute to their societies--the collective. In another part of the world, stories may end successfully when a character accepts their role in a caste system.

What narrative is told is influenced by historical outcomes. The U.S. succeeded in finding independence. Individualism worked for us. The cultural narrative would be different if we had failed multiple times trying to accomplish and promote these ideals.

For a great example of how history affects a people, I recommend watching this video, which discusses why Americans smile so much (something that other cultures perceive as dimwitted or stupid). So even something as small as smiling can be influenced by a nation's background.

Technology and Inventions

I'm sure most of us reading this are aware of the generation gaps when it comes to technology. My brother and I laugh when we hear the elderly call just about anything with a cord or battery a "machine." And Baby Boomers laugh when they give Centennials an old rotary phone. But technology and inventions influence whole societies as well. Whether it's guns verses slingshots, the first steel bridge, or the cotton gin--these things influence people differently.

Here in the U.S., prior to taming the South, some historians say that slavery was on its way out. But throw in all that land, and cotton, and especially the cotton gin, and the value of slavery soared. We all know how that turned out for the "races." Being a black person in the South was extremely different than being one of the wealthiest, white plantation owners. To this day the nation still has two very different narratives present of the black experience and the white experience.

Think of how having access to a computer in your pocket that allows you to look up and learn anything changes a people differently than someone who doesn't have that, and may have something else. Look at how social media has changed the way people think and live and feel about themselves versus those who have no access to it. Consider what other kinds of "technologies" and "inventions" a society may have.

Power Systems

Societies may have different kinds of power systems, and Dave explains this well in his lecture and it's something that seems original to him, so I don't want to go too much into it. But you can look through the world and history and see different kinds of power systems: money, education, privilege, physical strength (and in fantasy, you might have magic).


This is one I'm adding. Zeitgeist is "the spirit of the time; general trend of thought or feeling characteristic of a particular period of time." It's one of those things that is harder to nail down because it's so abstract. The zeitgeist can be influenced by huge societal changes, successes, or catastrophes. It can be influenced by prevailing or new schools of thought. It can be influenced by celebrities or pop culture. The world is different post-Harry Potter. People's thoughts, fears, concerns, and mannerisms are different in the U.S. because of the mass shootings we are having and the rise of suicides. A terrorist attack or devastating hurricane can change the spirit and priorities of a people. What Donald Trump tweeted over the weekend influenced our nation's feelings toward the presidential role.

Spirituality and Religion

You don't have to look far in the world today or throughout history to see how prevailing concepts of spirituality and religion (or the lack thereof) can shape a people. A nation where the population has access to one religion is different than one that includes many. Public figures have used and enforced religion, even altered it, in order to control a people. Others may be more genuine in their leadership. Jesus Christ's teachings introduced revolutionary concepts into societies--which still prevail today. Many have been slaughtered in the name of religion. A people who largely and strongly believes in reincarnation is going to think and behave differently than a people who believes in no life after death. How someone perceives the nature of a deity influences their feelings and behaviors.


Our language influences how we think. Let's look at "zeitgeist" as an example. That's actually a German word. The English language doesn't have that word, so we took it from the Germans, so we now have that concept in our language. Prior to that, we probably didn't have a word for it, and therefore couldn't encapsulate that concept. In reality, the color pink is just light red. But in the English language, they are perceived as two different concepts. Not only do we think of light red as pink, but we don't even naturally perceive them as the same color, despite the reality.

If you look into synesthesia, you might learn that some forms (not all) of synesthesia may be influenced by language itself.

These are simple examples, but they illustrate the point. What we speak influences how and what we think, which then influences a behavior.

Biology and Chemistry

By now I think all of us are aware how some people may be more prone to clinical depression than others. Our genes, chemicals, hormones, and whatever else affect us. Same is true of different species. Dogs and cats have different behaviors. Period. Some behaviors overlap, but at the end of the day, they are biologically different and that influences their behaviors and world experience. I have long felt that the reason I hear so many people say they hate cats is because they actually expect them to be dogs--which will never happen (at the same time, I never hear people complain about how much they hate birds, fish, or hamsters. It's always cats!) A woman's life experience is different than a man's, so she's going to make some different decisions, to some degree.

This is something you can take into account with species. A dwarf may be more stubborn and an elf painfully patient. Some of that may be from the other things listed above. But it may be something more biological or innate. Is one people more prone to get depressed? How does that affect their behavior?

Or you can relate it even more to body shape, structure, and abilities. A werewolf with a powerful sense of smell is going to perceive, act, and function differently than an ordinary human. When sirens need to have a human man in order to continue their species, it makes sense why they would steal and sink sailors into the sea.

Relations with Other Peoples

Unfortunately and fortunately our relationship with other peoples influence us and our societies as well. If one group is trying to exterminate or enslave another group of people, that can have a huge impact on a culture and society. On the one hand, those being attacked may become more reclusive, cautious, or develop new ideas and attitudes about how to live life and what's important. Suddenly how to survive becomes a key component of their culture. For the other side, they may begin to see those they are dominating or colonizing or enslaving as inferior or savage. If they succeed in enslaving and ruling over the group, they now have control over how much power that group has. They may create and perpetuate a dominating narrative about the enslaved to keep them inferior--and may share that narrative with other nations. They may get rid of or restrict things they are afraid of. Historically, aggressive groups will burn books or even capture writers in order to control how a society thinks--an attempt to control the zeitgeist.

Other times, these relationships are a positive thing. One group may learn something valuable from another, be able to trade with them, develop new philosophies and whatnot. Parts of culture or language or religion or technology may cross over or be shared (but for some, even this is a danger, if they are worried about losing their original culture). Like I said, zeitgeist is a German word and concept.

Closing Thoughts

How intense you want to go into the stuff in this post is up to you and depends on the story you are telling. Think of these as tools. And of course, it's possible to work backwards--brainstorm how your species looks and behaves, then go back and brainstorm from that to see what sorts of things have influenced and shaped them and how it relates to other aspects. It doesn't have to be linear by any means.

Worth noting is that not all people of one species are the same, typically, (there may be exceptions, like if you are working with an extreme hive mind), so you still should give them some individuality.

If you need an editor, check out my services at

Monday, September 17, 2018

Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Don't Use Passive Voice"

You may have heard the advice that you shouldn't write in passive voice. You may have even been reprimanded for doing so. But passive voice isn't always a bad thing. So let's talk about what the rule is, why it's a rule, and when to break it.

What's the Rule?

Passive voice has to do with sentence structure, not word choice. Some people get confused and think any sentence with a to-be verb in it is passive. This is not the case. Every passive sentence will naturally have a to-be verb in it, but not every sentence with one is passive.

In passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon. For example:

Tony was bitten by the cat.

The wagons were pulled by oxen.

The carpet was ruined.

My bike was stolen.

Cannibalism is frowned upon by most societies.

Notice that in each of these, something is happening to the subject, the subject isn't doing the action. Also notice how every sentence requires a to-be verb in it.

Tony(subject) was bitten(action done) by the cat(what did the action).

The wagons(subject) were pulled(action done) by oxen(what did the action).

The carpet(subject) was ruined(action done).

 My bike(subject) was stolen(action done).

Cannibalism(subject) is frowned(action done) upon by most societies.

 Active voice is what we typically write in, where the subject is doing the action.

The cat bit Tony.

The oxen pulled the wagons.

Jared stole my bike.

Most societies frown upon cannibalism.

 Generally writers are discouraged from using passive voice.

Why it's a Rule

Active voice leads to stronger sentences. Reading about being acted upon, along with all those to-be verbs can make writing feel weak and wordy. Just imagine what it would be like if you sustained it for very long.

Tony was bitten by the cat. A band-aid was found by his mother and put on by his father. Cats are considered a common pet. Tony's hand had been marred by teeth punctures. The cat was no longer wanted.

Annoying, isn't it?

Passive voice can also reverse the way people naturally think. When reading "Tony was bitten by the cat," they have to imagine the cat biting Tony.

Active voice naturally carries more power. "The cat bit Tony" is more interesting. Generally speaking, we want to read stories that feel alive and active, not stories about people and things simply being acted upon.

Finally, passive voice can feel more indirect and non-specific. "The carpet was ruined." Great. But who or what ruined it?

When to Break it

1. We don't know who performed the action.

Maybe no one knows that Jared is the person who stole the bike. In that case it might be best to write "My bike was stolen."

However, an alternative to that is to say, "Someone stole my bike."

Some people oppose words like "someone" or "something" because they are non-specific. Personally, I don't think they are any worse than passive voice.

2. Who performed the action is irrelevant or unimportant.

Maybe we know who performed the action, but it's no one important to the story or the situation at hand, a character or thing so minor that to mention them specifically would be to draw too much attention to them.

"The vending machine had been restocked."

3. You want to emphasize what's being acted upon or what's being acted upon is more important than the actor.

Passive voice changes the emphasis in a sentence. So maybe a cat bit Tony. Great. That's active. But what if Tony has Hemophilia so his blood doesn't clot? (This is a BIG cat apprently.) Suddenly the fact he was acted upon and bitten is a lot more important.

"Tony was bitten by the cat" puts the emphasis on Tony and his state.

4. To avoid revealing responsibility.

The most common example of this is, "Mistakes were made." Great. Who made the mistakes? We don't know. That's the point.

HOWEVER, this shouldn't be your approach for concealing contextual information from the reader. If you are regularly doing this to try to conceal who is doing what in a scene or story, you are probably writing false tension by being vague. That's not good.

But you can use it effectively to imply or communicate indirectly. 

5. Stylistic flow

Imagine writing a paragraph about a ball. Sometimes you want to use passive voice to keep the flow of the passage or to help transition into a new passage more smoothly. We just spent several sentences talking about a ball, so writing "The ball was kicked" flows better than pulling in an actor we haven't been focusing on.

Passive voice has now been explained to you. ;)

Is it really such a bad thing? Not if you use it sparingly and for the right situations.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Creating Your Own Fantastic Beasts and Other Panels

Hi everyone! This last week I went to the FanX Salt Lake Comic Convention and was on five panels, four of which I have put up online. I got permission to record them from the FanX founder. So I'd love to invite you to listen in for this week's post--whether that's a few minutes or you have four hours to spare.

My first panel might be helpful for writers, as it's about creating your own fantastic beasts, with tips and examples on how to do that. Then I have one on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, one on Hamilton, and one on Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindelwald.

I've also uploaded a video of me painting with "Bob Ross," in case you missed it. It was so fun.

This convention is my favorite thing I do every year (and also the biggest one I do.)

I got to meet Rain Wilson who plays Dwight in The Office--one of my all-time favorite shows (a picture is coming), and listen to Gaten Matarazzo who plays Dustin in Stranger Things, also a favorite show. Evangeline Lilly who plays Tauriel in The Hobbit came to the kid section and read one of her children's books to the kiddos, who were positively adorable interacting with her.

The vendor floor was so fun (and as always, huge and crowded) and I loved seeing all the artists' work in Artist Alley. I also went to a game show called "Um, actually . . . " which was kind of hilarious and very entertaining. (Contestants had to correct a false pop culture statement by starting with "Um, actually . . . ")

I loved going to panels and listening to other creatives talk about their work and process and give advice. And of course, the costumes made people-watching a favorite pastime. Finally, I got to say hi to old friends and meet some of you in person for the first time. So many fun things!

Oh, and how could I forget? Sushi burritos--my favorite thing to eat there. Sushi is perhaps my favorite food. And a sushi burrito is essentially a big sushi roll that you eat like a burrito. I was so glad I found the stand this year, as I missed it the two previous years.

If you are wondering why I only recorded 4/5 panels, it's because one of them was a panel for kids--I decided not to record that one.

So here you go!

Creating Your Own Fantastic Beasts

Friday September 7, 2018 11:00 am to 12:00 pm

From Nifflers and Swooping Evils to Thunderbirds and Occamies, we'll discuss do's and do-not's of creating your own fantastic beasts. Not only will we refer to Fantastic Beasts (of course), but we'll consider other intellectual properties, like Pokemon and Star Wars, as well as creatures from video games and mythological beasts that have withstood time. What makes a creature’s design better than another? Why do some appeal to mass audiences while others are forgettable the moment the story ends? We’ll consider these questions and more.

September C. Fawkes (Moderator)
Brian Hailes
E.E. King
James A. Owen
Jaclyn Weist

Listen here.

20 Years of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Friday September 7, 2018 2:00 pm to 3:00 pm

Praised for its strong themes of personal identity and its handling of racism through the introduction of pure blood politics, the Chamber of Secrets also received criticism for its portrayal of incompetent institutionalized authority. (Fudge, am I right?) Twenty years later, how did this book fail, succeed and exceed expectations as a sequel?

September C. Fawkes (Moderator)
Lehua Parker
Cindy Phippen
Sequoia Thomas
Jaclyn Weist
Lynette White

Listen here.

Hamilton: The Room Where It Happens

Saturday September 8, 2018 10:00 am to 11:00 am

All about Hamilton

Shelly Brown
Joseph Darowski
September C. Fawkes
Nicole Giles
Debra Jenson (Moderator)
Callie Stoker

Listen here.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Saturday September 8, 2018 7:00 pm to 8:00 pm

The next installment of the Wizarding World is almost here and we will be thoroughly tearing apart every scrap of information given to us thus far. Locations! Characters, old and new! Possible plot points will be completely and ridiculously analyzed, including the severe lack of nifflers.

September C. Fawkes
Susan Phelan
Cindy Phippen (Moderator)
Lynette White

Listen here.

If you like any of them, I'd love it if you shared.

I realize that none of the audio is that amazing. I went by myself and so had to simultaneously record, speak at, and organize panels, etc. so it wasn't my top priority. I simply recorded off my phone near me, so you'll notice my voice is loudest. There also might be some paper-shuffling, mics moving, thumps against the table--but the important part is that you can hear all the panelists.

I'll be back next week with a regular tip!