Way With Worlds: Race – Getting The Setting

people identity

(Way With Worlds is a weekly column on the art of worldbuilding published at Seventh Sanctum, Muse Hack, and Ongoing Worlds)

And now, with the issue of race and species cleared up by largely just giving up (and using race for everything, including species), let’s talk designing races. Please note that in this case I will discuss race as an inclusively interbreeding, defined group – essentially species, as noted earlier.

Now I’ve covered some of this under previous columns on writing intelligent life – which I assume is largely what we’re covering here. In this case, we’re going to get into the nitty gritty about race creation.

Races start with the setting. Before you “run the race” you need to know the landscape.

OK, not the best joke, stick with me here.

Getting And Vetting The Setting

Races are the products of their setting. They are born of it, defined within it, interact with in it, change within it – and perhaps end with it. Much as I note (too much, perhaps) your world is your main character, you need to know it to know it to understand why races are the way they are. Races don’t spring to being out of the void, they come from somewhere – just as art is expression of an artist, races are an expression of the setting.

They’re the children of your setting as it were.

Where It Begins

Races, these defined, identifiable, unique set of creatures have to come from somewhere. To have this you have to look at your setting and ask how the world works and what forces bring the races into being. Where does the spark of life begin – or get kindled – and what kind of light does it emit?

(Man I need to watch these metaphors.)

Are you writing a real world science setting? Then you’ll need to do research on the evolutionary science of your setting – and figure how to explain it to people without sounding like a textbook. You’ll also have to ask about evolutionary pressures in detail. Such a work well may seem a bit like writing a science paper – but that’s what you elected to do.

Are you doing a setting where the gods made everything? Then you’ll need to figure how they agreed (and disagreed on what to make). Intelligent Design is a lot more complicated to write as you have to write the Intelligent Designers, but there you go.

Are you doing soft science, where you can nod to evolution but still get a bit crazy with inbreeding aliens and the like? Then you’ll need to figure how far to go science-wise versus using space opera tropes – and what this means for your races. As noted, when your supposedly different species behave like races when it comes to inbreeding, things get complicated.

(Let’s face it, if inbreeding among aliens was/is easy, you know humans would take First Contact into Second Contact, Third Contact, and Make You Breakfast In The Morning Contact).

Thinking this over is important because otherwise your races aren’t “part” of the setting, they’re just a pile of traits with no grounding. They’re inserted into a world without rhyme or reason. Much as shoving characters into a setting with no connection feels “wrong” it’s the same with races.

An example I like to invoke is JRR Tolkein’s dwarves. Created by a god of craft and metal who wanted his own race to love, they reflected his obsessions, and were a bit imperfect as a species. They had an origin in setting that, in turn, reflected traits that made sense.

(And yes, if you think of races as being a character in a way, you’ve just realized an excellent way to understand your setting – be it science or magic.)

Races usually aren’t stagnant though. They have stories and backstories.

The Development Of Races

Unless your story starts off at the moment of creation (and maybe it does), your races have history and changes that affect them. They came to be – and they are shaped by what happens to them. They become different over time, perhaps radically soon.

Wars, good years, plagues, discoveries, ice ages, magical accidents, wars of gods and demons, all shape them. They can triumph or suffer, breed prodigiously or be nearly wiped out. They are changed by mutation, population decreases, variant gene pools, and more.

Just like people, as noted.

So once you determine your race’s origin you need to think how the were shaped:

  • How much time passed since they came to be and your tales? A lot can happen in even a short time – so what did happen?
  • What events occur in the world that can shape them. Are there constants that will always affect them, or are there major changes that will suddenly alter the rules.
  • How did these events shape them?
  • Are these events preserved/remembered in their culture?

This is where understanding your setting is vitally important because it shapes the races in it (and in turn, this shapes the characters of those races). A setting is a living thing in it’s way, races are alive in their way, and the former shapes the latter into new forms as┬átime passes.

In our world, you can see many ways human history shaped who we are. There was the past offshoot, the Neanderthals. We survived ice ages and climate changes and plagues. There’s always some discussion of how “gene pool X” came to be based on some famous events.

What shapes the races in your setting?

Fit Is It

When you’re asking about how your setting spawns and changes your race, there’s also the question of fit. How does the race fit into the setting?

Maybe the race was created to fit perfectly into the setting, so there’s few changes that affect them (meaning any big changes might be near-unsurvivable). Of course this may not matter if the gods are running everything, but still.

Maybe the race was exposed to many mild, but effective evolutionary pressures in a hard-science setting, so is extremely adaptable. Over time the changes inflicted upon them make them good at surviving changes.

Maybe the race is a vital part of the setting ecosystem, a race of caretakers or important to predators. How does this fit affect them as they grow – and as thy change? When a race that’s a prey animal evolves enough to take on the predators, interesting things may be afoot for the setting.

Maybe they’re just hanging on, battling against the odds. Perhaps they’ll fade – or triumph and then promptly try and change their setting radically to survive further.

How do they affect the world? Look at how we humans have altered our own – possibly to our own detriment.

What races do, how they it – and how they make themselves fit into a setting – is important to understanding them. Race and setting is a kind of dialogue, each changing the other, so you need to know where the race fits into the big picture.

Even if it’s a poor fit.

A Quick Note

Races will change in many cases. Who they were aeons, centuries – or even decades – ago may not be who they are now. The gene pool changes, ethnic distribution alters, technology changes things.

It may be worth keeping a timeline of how races changed if you’ve got a hyper-detailed setting. It makes you think and is a good reminder.

It Starts Where It Starts

All your races start with your setting and what it contains. They derive from it, grow within it, fit in it, and pre haps die in it. Much lie a character

However, most races (and again, we’re talking sentients) that you’ll create are adaptable. I’d like to address that as it’s often a complicator . . .


– Steven Savage