Way With Worlds: Race – Adaptable Is It

Evolve Out

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

Sentient races (which I’m adapting in the “species” sense) are almost certainly going to be very adaptable. They are going to learn, change, grow, alter, and evolve – even as individuals. The child of today is nothing like the adult of tomorrow, just as the engineer of today is not the engineer of 200 years ago.

Adaption is, in many ways, the very definition of intelligence: taking in, processing, and using information. The ability to be aware, to think, is what sentience is. Without it, one’s really a machine, even if a biological one.

So if you’re writing sentient races (or species, ugh, I keep hating to differentiate-yet-not here), they’reprobably  going to be adaptable.

When writing your sentient race you’re going to want to make sure they’re adaptable (unless of course they are like machines, which in that case you’ve got another set of issues). Even if they play a role for the gods themselves, the gods probably need a certain level of learning in their creation, if only so they don’t need to constantly keep them from wandering off a cliff.

Really, if you’re a god, do you want most of your divine life to be like a bad version of “The Sims?”

So let’s take a look at the one really adaptable sentient species we know – us humans. We’re a good example for world builders, and the only example we have right now.

The Human Touch

Human adaptability has made it so we, as a species, can change so much, sometimes it’s like we can become different species.

We exist in every environment there is, from grasslands to the cold of space.

We can be hunters and lawyers, doctors and sculptors, martial artists and writers.

We can change who we are. The writer of today bay be a cook in a few years or a programmer after a decade.

And yet we’re all human.

Though I’m aware we humans only have one sentient race (us) as an example, I’d say we make a pretty good argument that sentient races are going to be adaptable. We’ve survived quite a bit, adapting and changing, to the point where the biggest threat to us is . . . well, us.

It’s sort of a triumph.

As we’ve evolved, we’ve developed the ability to evolve. We make institutions and training and education and more.  Our adaptability in turn has allowed us to create tools of adaption.

So I’d say that when designing races, keep adaptability in mind. Every sentient race is going to have some adaptability in order to even e sentient. The ability to be aware and adapt is, I repeat, part of sentience.

I’d also note that it probably just seems more believable. We humans only have us as an example, so we’re going to assume for now that a sentient species will be a bit like us – adaptability included.

Thinking Adaptable

So think what adaption is going to mean for your species – both in general and in specific.

In general this “sentient adaptability means:”

  • The ability to be aware of environment and self, and their interaction.
  • To process that information in order to make decisions.
  • The ability to implement new behaviors.
  • The ability to retain information for reference.
  • The ability to pass on and communicate to others – and to learn from others.
  • The ability to implement technical systems to reach goals and adapt better.
  • The ability to modify the systems above.

Pretty simple, right? But there’s more. Because though I expect races to be adaptable, they’re going to adapt in their own way. The setting they were born from, the way they changed, affects just how they adapt.

We humans are visual and auditory creatures. But how would we adapt and learn if we, say, we’re consciously aware of the electromagnetic spectrum? If we had a better sense of smell? If we could relay information telepathically?

There may also be racial traits that affect what they have to adapt to. A race with a super-powerful immune system wont develop medicine the same way. A race naturally inclined to violence may have trouble with negotiations to prevent a war.

Your races will adapt – but they will adapt in their own unique way. It may even be ways that seem incredibly strange and weird (which could also be really interesting to create).

So don’t just assume your sentient races adapt, ask how they adapt. There may be advantages and there may be limits.

But that’s part of the fun.

Keep Adaption In Mind

When designing sentient races, remember that they’ll almost certainly be adaptable. Maybe not as we humans are, but they’ll be adaptable nonetheless. That’s what sentience is.

I think there’s also a peculiar human-centrism to this. We humans (who are your readers and players) relate to sentients – and thus adaptable – races. If your races aren’t adaptable, and if it’s not clear why, something will seem “wrong” to people. It’s what your readers need and expect.


– Steven Savage

Way With Worlds: Let’s Talk About Race – Kind Of


And now, let’s talk about building races in your world. Or actually not talk about races. Well kind of.

It gets complicated.

Building “races” is a big thing in worldbuilding, especially in the areas of Science Fiction and Fantasy. People craft epicly different alien races. Games have different stats for the “player races.” Everyone seems happy when some fantasy world has Not Just Another Elf since so many races seem the same.

So if you’re worldbuilding, there’s a chance you need to create races. That’s the problem – when we talk about worldbuilding races, we’re not always talking races. If I’m going to talk race-creation I need to clarify what we’re talking about

We’re probably not talking about what you think we are

A Matter Of Terminology

The term race, if you want to get technical (and I do) refers to a group within a species that has certain identifiable characteristics. This definition occasionally shades into ethnicity when speaking of humans, but it’s “here’s an identifiable group of individuals that are distinct but part of X species.” Race is part of species.

Let’s talk about the word “race” where it most comes up in worldbuilding – constructing aliens and non-humans in science fiction and fantasy settings. We talk about the elven race, or the Klingon race or the Grashuka Race of The Gas Giants. We toss the word “race” around so much when building these settings, one issue gets missed.

We’re often using it wrong.

Note the above definition of race, it’s a way to identify categories within a species. The problem is when we think we’re building races we’re building species.

Those giant cephalopod philosophers from Aldebaran that you created are not race, they’re a species. They don’t come from the same origins as humans, and logically they couldn’t even crossbreed with us. They are not just distinct, they are literally an entire alien species.

But we’re likely to call them a race. Even I, typing this, find myself slipping into using “race” when I mean species.

Oh, and it gets more confusing, because . . .

Everyone On The Xenophilia Train

There’s a strong element of SF and fantasy fiction that involves the interbreeding of different species. Demons have children with humans, elves with humans, and . . . well we humans apparently are pretty promiscuous in literature. But you have different species, of different origins, interbreeding with others.

That makes everything a bit more complicated, because though humans may be made by one god and the Elves are crystalized starlight, though they are species, they are able to reproduce as if they were races.

Sure, this may not be “realistic” from a scientific point of view, but that doesn’t stop people. Hell, Science Fiction has been having human/alien crossbreeding long before Spock’s dad got round-ear fever. In literature the boundary between species and race is a bit fuzzy.

Plenty of species, who just act like races.

So What Do We Do Here?

I called this out because its important and because it’s a pet peeve, but what we do here is surrender.

My default stance is to refer to building any sentient species (or race) as a race, with occasional asides when we are truly talking species.

I suspect we can’t avoid this for two reasons:

  1. It seems to be the default.
  2. When we talk sentients there’s a tendency to see them as human. We see them as “like” us so we think of them as a variant of us – race, not species.

There I give in. But before we close out, a bit of advice for navigating this terminological divide.

What You Have To Look Out For

So, as a worldbuilder, here’s what you need to look out for when building races/species.

  1. Does your setting have species or races in the classic sense- are the various creatures and sentients in your setting of common origins or different ones? That will help you design them better (and realize when there are radical differences)
  2. Does your setting allow for the species/race boundary to be fuzzy? If your fantasy races can all interbreed because magic then you’l need to keep that in mind. There may be species whose interbreeding is more like races.
  3. What are the impacts of #1 and #2? If you have exotically different alien species who can all interbreed, what does that mean for their societies, for genetic health, for children. For that matter it brings in a whole new definition of “First Contact.”
  4. What terminology do people use to refer to their race/species depending on how distinct the identity is? Right here we just discussed race versus species – others in your world are going to have that debate.

In the end you need to know when you have species, when you have races, and when you have species that act like races.

Yes, it’s confusing. But it’s less confusing than not pausing to ask the race/species question.

So with his out of the way, next, up, let’s get into the nitty gritty of race creation. And my race, I sometimes mean species.



– Steven Savage