Monday, September 8, 2008

Creating humanoid races in fantasy

One of the most consistent themes in my work is that of people of different races or species having to live, work or travel together. As a result, I like finding interesting ways to differentiate these races, especially if these ways provide one more source of conflict in the story. Here are a few of the things I’d take into consideration.

Physical characteristics

What kind of physical alterations could be made to the basic human pattern? Pretty much anything, though I like ones which have actual uses, so it doesn’t look as though they evolved for the sole purpose of readers being able to tell different races apart. Zoology is a good source of distinctive but necessary features – the tear-tracks on cheetahs’ faces, the nictitating membranes of a lot of species, even antennae and whiskers.

There are only two caveats. First, don’t make it something too reminiscent of Star Trek. Pointed ears just might make the character come off as an elf, but forehead ridges will probably make this the Alien of the Week (and green skin only belongs on Orion Slave Girls). And secondly, physical alterations are best when used in conjunction with other traits and qualities. Just as it takes more than a handful of feathers to make a bird, a single lonely prosthesis on a human won’t carry all the weight of alien-ness and fantasy.

Populations and genetics

Another way to set humanoid races apart from humans is to play with them as a population. For instance, most alien or fantastic races have a 50:50 gender split, but then there are the people in Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, who are genderless for most of the year except for a fertile period. David Brin’s Glory Season features a race which reproduces by parthenogenesis. You can skew genders – have far more females born than males – or have more than two genders. Don’t let science fiction have all the fun with this.

More Tricks with Population Genetics would be linking certain traits with odd syndromes or consequences. Maybe all blue-eyed people of a certain race are deaf (like Persian cats) or all people with white forelocks have a certain rare condition (it’s called Waardenburg syndrome in real life, but it can be anything in fantasy).

In the land of Fairfell, in my work-in-progress Empire of Glass, twins are always born mentally and emotionally disabled, but they just as frequently share a psychic link, so the rest of their society uses them as communication devices. Send one twin with your army as it invades another land, and keep the other at your side; they function like the two halves of a tin-can telephone.

Social customs

In rural Sri Lanka, it’s considered disrespectful for a woman to address her husband by his first name (like Scarlett’s parents calling each other Mr and Mrs O’Hara after 17 years of marriage). I once asked a woman how she would attract her husband’s attention from a distance, and she said she would yell the Singhalese equivalent of “Hey!”

Similarly, other humanoid races in fantasy can and should have different customs. Anthropology books are a great source of ideas in this regard. As long as no authorial opinion or valuation is attached to the custom (as in “Such a culture is evidently backward if the women are treated as servants”), this is a great way to make readers feel that they’re in a world very different from our own.

Clothing styles, family structure, art and architecture, religion, languages (which could be a post all its own), names, special traits and abilities – all or any of these can be used to create memorable and distinctive fantasy races. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations, as the Vulcans would say. Enjoy it.


Angela Ackerman said...

Disrespectful to call a husband by his first name? Wow! You imagine being in a shopping mall or grocery store packed with people and you need to get hubby's attention?

Marian Perera said...

Well, this is *rural* Sri Lanka. No shopping malls or grocery stores. :)

Singhalese also has words that mean "older brother", "older sister" and so on - more respectful than addressing a sibling by their name.