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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

Setting

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

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).

Zeitgeist

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.

Language

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.


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2 comments:

  1. I LOVE worldbuilding. I usually have to set a deadline for this part of the process, otherwise I end up going on for way too long :). One of the things most people don't think about in this process is the PEOPLE building that has to go on; if you're going to create a brand new world, the people and creatures in it should make sense and fit into that place. That's one reason we added People and Creature/Alien surveys to our One Stop for Writers Worldbuilding tool—to give writers the chance to figure out the particulars of the people and animals that will inhabit their new worlds. Thanks so much for this excellent breakdown, September!

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    Replies
    1. It really can be so fun! But yes, it's important to make sure you know when to stop and actually write the book!

      What a great idea to have those surveys. Thanks for reading and commenting :)

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