And its time to talk about sex and worldbuilding. Which, if you think is going to be exciting and arousing, indicates you are either sadly deluded, or really into worldbuilding to a level few are. You make the call, I won’t judge.
Sex in many ways is like air, and not in that it’s part of life and sometimes involves wearing a mask. It’s more the fact that it’s so omnipresent that we can miss out how important it is. We think we know how important it is because we just assume we do – until we really think about it.
Sex is part of being human (it’s why you’re here to be human), so we can get used to it like we do seeing and smelling and touching. That of course means we can miss its complexities, and that means we miss it when creating our worlds. When you miss something so important in your worldbuilding, you’re far worse at it.
So even if you never delve much into sexuality in your settings and stories, it’s probably there in the background, and it might be in the foreground and you don’t know it.
So first of all, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of sex and worldbuilding – biology.
And let’s take a look at three basic things you may face – sexual biology that is familiar, sexual biology that is similar to our world, and completely different species.
But first, let’s remember what sex is for.
The Purpose Of Sex
Sex is about information – progenitors are able to transmit information about themselves in a way that allows it to be used to create new life. In the case of humans, the DNA of the parents provides the blueprint for a new person to develop in the body of one of the partners. No matter what kind of creatures you build, sex comes down to information being used to create new life – even if in the case of simple creatures its the information being copied in simple cellular division.
Sex in many ways is like a conversation, though in the case of the aforementioned simple animals, it’s rhetorical.
So when you start thinking about the biology of sex in your setting, always remember it comes down to information. However it gets more complicated . . .
. . . really, when you think of it all life is about information. It’s locating food or holding a rally that leads a country to victory in a war. It’s about smelling out a predator or about listening for the right tone to tell you your significant other is cheesed off. Life is input and output and retention and processing of information.
In turn, we can also see how living creatures don’t really have distinct boundaries among their organs and instincts and thought processes. Someone seeking out a mate or a good meal will rally every resource they have to find it. Our desire for an adrenaline rush can make us seek out thrills skydiving – and in turn someone had to actually rally their mental abilities to invent skydiving.
Now when you add in sex, the core “conversation” of life, you can realize how complicated writing it can be. That’s the original part of life – the ability to pass itself on. It’s affected every part of our lives as humans, and ties into our familial instincts, our habits, or ability to form social relations, and even our boundaries. Sex is everywhere in its own way.
Thus, even from biological points of view, writing about sex becomes complicated because it’s at the core of a living being and because its likely to touch on far more than simple reproduction.
In the end, I find that when writing about sex and designing its point in your world it keeps coming back to these lessons:
- Living creatures propagate themselves. At the core a species is about transmission of information.
- Living creatures lack boundaries among their component biologies – which is understandable because why should they be there?
- Because of this it is likely that sex for any species you may write will go beyond the boundaries of reproduction and into all aspects of life.
- This in many ways makes sense as, again, sex is a form of communication/transmission and that is what life is about.
Now with that being said, let’s move on to the three basic kinds of sexuality you may end up designing in your worlds.
First of all if you’re writing about people that are for all extents and purposes human, i may seem pretty easy to write about sex and ignore it all together. It’s just standard. It’s normal. It’s background noise, though perhaps with an uninspired soundtrack.
This is where things tend to go wrong because we don’t pay attention.
The biology of sex for humans introduces any numbers of complicators that may play into your story. Just a few examples:
- Issues of contraception.
- Issues of social diseases.
- The duration of pregnancy.
- Complications of pregnancy.
- Biological issues due to sex organs, from ovarian cysts to enlarged prostates.
- Biological transformations such as puberty and menopause.
If you’re going to do any kind of setting with regular people, the biology of sex is likely to come up, even if it’s just figuring someone hauls off and kicks another character in the junk. They may be minor, but they may be there.
In most cases, writing “humans like us” and sex really focuses not on the biology (with which we have passing familiarity) but psychology and culture. That may lull you into a false sense of security.
So when worldbuilging “normal” humans, take a moment to inventory any issues of sex that may come up. A quick list is:
- What diseases exist that are sexually transmitted or involved? This will also affect culture.
- What areas of sexual transformation are affected by the setting. In an era of malnutrition puberty and pregnancy will be aversely affected, for instance.
- What other environmental or setting factors may affect sexuality biologically. This can radically affect your setting – if a virus is causing sterility in your setting, you need to design it to explain why there is a population left in your setting.
- How do cultural and psychological and even metaphysical elements affect sexuality – attitude, access to contraception, etc. Biology is a powerful thing, but these other factors will affect it.
Even in writing a real-world setting, don’t always assume you know enough about sexual biology to write. A little research is in order if it’s remotely part of your story. Because of many issues (psychological and cultural) you may know less than you think.
Sex And The Possibly Single Almost-Human
Then you get into settings or setting elements where you have almost-humans. Your standard fantasy races, the thing-on-the-forehead-but-human-otherwise aliens, and so on. You know, the beings in the setting that are are for most intent human but a bit different.
It’s often tempting in dealing with almost-humans to do two things:
- To make their sexuality just like humans.
- To throw in a twist or something extra, but treat them just like humans.
Both approaches are a mistake. The first is to ignore all other factors that make your species different – unless you’re quite sure there aren’t any (then you may be OK). The second is to forget that small changes can have vast repercussions, especially when you deal with reproduction.
Imagine a human-like race where the gestation period was half the time, completely changing the effect it’d have on the role of women. Lower the sex drive of a species and it might limit their spread (as often seems to be a trope of fantasy dwarves thanks to Tolkein). A few minor changes to your “almost human” races and you have major repercussions to deal with.
In handling the biology of near-human species I find a good way to deal with it is to stop thinking of them as near-human and focus on them as species that has familiar elements. These familiar elements provide you a lot of useful reference points, and from there you can extrapolate on what the differences mean.
Think of it as having a known path, and that makes it easy to figure out where you deviate from it and what happens when you do. This isn’t my favorite method (see below), but is useful.
A few examples:
- Maybe you have increased fertility due to a hostile environment. In turn as a species tames its world population may be a problem quicker. There’s something to deal with in your story.
- Perhaps you do limited gestation periods. That would affect the role of women in society as they’re less limited. It also would probably increase fertility for obvious reasons.
- What if species have no case of menopause or reproductive limits in their lifespan. If couples can easily have children until death it’ll change ideal ages for marrying and conceiving.
However, remember you are creating a different species. Past a few minor changes here and there, you may really be inventing a new species. When things get different from regular humans to any degree, you’re really just designing a completely new species . . . and you might just want to start here to begin with.
Loving The Alien: The Sexual Biology of Non-Humans
And this is where it gets complicated. More complicated – creating a totally new species in your setting and dealing with their sexuality.
In designing a species from scratch, in not having a “human with funny ears” you’re going to enter into a very crazy world. Designing your own species can be tough as is, and when you get to sexuality it’s going to be a challenge because, as noted, sex is so complex and connected to other things in the case of living beings.
Just think how complex sex is for humans, biologically. Now inventory all the non-human species you know about and think about their sexual biology. Now realize you’ve got to create something like that. It’s enough to make you loose interest in sex.
Welcome to the cold shower of world building original species.
So I won’t lie, if you’re going to populate your world with definite non-humans it’s going to require some thought. There is some advice I can provide:
- Remember sex is about transmission and propagation, but it is likely to tie into other elements of any species, as noted above.
- Read up on the sexual biology of other creatures and note how they work. It’ll give you ideas, and in some cases probably horrify you beyond words.
- Determine how far you have to go. Building realistic species (or building species realistically) can be very addictive and you can go pretty far down any rabbit hole of biology, be it sex or something else.
The key to designing good sexual biology is, like many things, to know how much you have to do then take it a little farther to make sure you know enough.
I’ll just have to leave that up to you.
Sex Is Important
Hope I haven’t scared you off, but sex is a complicated issue, as we all know, however it’s incredibly important to do in your worldbuilding.
It’s why there is a population to experience it.
It’s a part of our own lives so readers will notice its absence.
It’s part of life itself.
It might just be one of your biggest challenge as a worldbuilder. But if you’re able to tackle it, you’ll be rewarded with a very believable world.
Of course once we talk biology, we have to talk about psychology, and that’s next . . .
Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach. He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at https://www.stevensavage.com/.