Worldbuilding notes: species biology

I’m worldbuilding a new fantasy story, something I haven’t done in years and which is doing wonders for my overall mood and sense of satisfaction with life. At the moment, I’m primarily working out the details of four different non-human sentient species that will populate my world (I think there will be humans too.) The always-brilliant limyaael has a number of thoughts about writing non-human characters, and I’ve read them all (I think.) (And seriously, if you’re a fantasy writer and you haven’t browsed through her rants, you really should.) Her beefs with non-human characterizations in fantasy (and sci-fi) pretty much line up with mine: other races are too simplistic, too monolithic, too universally inferior or superior to humans, too superficial in their differences from humans. I’ve been trying to avoid those problems, and I thought I’d share my process. For those of you who write speculative fiction, this might be useful: for those who read it, it might be interesting to see one writer’s process?

I start out with a lot of brainstorming and a few linchpin characteristics I want the species to have. For two of them, I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from animal species they’re closely related to, and done tons of Wikipedia reading about the various characteristics of those species. I pick and choose, buffet-style, characteristics I find interesting or useful (and broadly consistent with the level of realism I’m going for) in that species. It’s given me several ideas I wouldn’t have come up with on my own. The other two species are common types in fantasy stories, so I’ve taken the feature or two I consider most essential, introduced an unusual constraint or characteristic, and then followed the path of logical necessity to come up with other qualities of the species. All this gives me the broad idea of what the species is like.

Then comes the nitty-gritty, detail-fleshing-out part, which is probably incredibly tedious or crazy fun and satisfying depending on your temperament. (Guess which it is for me.) For this, I’ve come up with basic encyclopedic headings, and the need to fill in details under each one has greatly deepened and complicated my ideas about each species. This is the part I think might be useful for other writers: if you’re creating a new species of any kind, the biological section should be helpful in making your species distinct and fully-realized, and if you’re creating a sentient species the cultural section should be helpful as well.

Ginny’s Encyclopedia Headings for New Species

Biology
Appearance: Pretty obvious: this is what your species looks like. Include appearance of different genders and different stages of life, if relevant.

Other sensory inputs and outputs: This one’s more complicated. I went down each of the five senses and described how sensitive the species is to each one, and in what areas (for example, one of my species is reptilian, and under “touch” I wrote that they’re less sensitive to contact sensations than humans, but much more sensitive to heat and cold). For those that have an additional sense, I described that too. I also describe what noises they make, how they smell, generally how they’re perceived in purely sensory terms by other creatures.

Movement: Do they run, fly, climb? How many limbs do they use? Do they typically move fast or slow? What is their overall energy level like?

Eating and drinking: What do they eat and drink, and how do they get it? How much do they eat relative to their body weight? (If you care at all about realism, consider this in light of their movement/energy level. Higher-energy creatures require more food.) Do they consume any psychoactive substances like drugs and alcohol?

Habitat and shelter: Where do they live? Where do they sleep? What climate do they require? Are there different races or subspecies adapted to different environments? Do they build shelters or nests for themselves, or live in naturally-occurring spaces?

Reproduction: Do they reproduce sexually or asexually? How does mating occur? Where and how do they birth/spawn/whatever their young? What impact does reproduction have on their bodies? What is the birthrate among a given population? No one should be surprised that this is my favorite part: there are just so many possibilities for reproduction, and so many interesting ways this can affect the culture. Humans are weird, reproductively speaking: most animals don’t have a menstrual cycle, most animals don’t have the drive or desire to mate if they’re not fertile, most animals don’t face suffering and death in the process of birthing young. In a species where reproduction has a much smaller impact on female bodies, how will that change gender dynamics? (I don’t answer this question under this heading, nor do I answer whether mating behavior is engaged in for other purposes than reproduction: those both go under cultural headings for me, but do what you want! It’s your encyclopedia.) If you want to make your species detailed and distinct, I strongly recommend looking up various reproductive patterns in the animal kingdom, consider some alternatives to human norms, and ponder the widespread impact that will have on your species.

Self-defense: How does your species defend itself, or attack others? Does it have any particular predators?

Lifespan: What is the average natural lifespan? What proportion of your species live to old age? How vulnerable are they to disease, accidents, predation, or murder? This is another one you want to consider carefully if you’re aiming for some level of realism: make sure your birth rate and life expectancy are balanced, or consider the impact of population growth.

Those are the basic biological factors I could think of: if anyone can think of others, I’d be happy to hear them! This is still a work in progress. I like to work out the biological factors first, because they can have really interesting effects on the cultural factors, and create cultural norms I wouldn’t have thought of independently.

Cultural section coming soon! Probably, if my “promise it and don’t deliver” post pattern breaks.

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