Creatures and cultures
This post is a follow-up to last week’s World Building post.
Last week, I explained how you could build a world from scratch for your fantasy and science-fiction story. This week, we’re going to tackle the people who live in this world, as well as their day to day life.
One staple of science-fiction and fantasy is magical creatures and aliens. Magical creatures are, of course, magical; their creation should be done using the same kind of internal logic as your world-building. That is to say, the existence of the creatures themselves should be based on that same logic. This doesn’t mean that what is discussed below flies out the window when you write fantasy; rather, it should just be thought about with your world’s inner logic in mind rather than, say, science, in the case of science fiction.
With that being said, when creating a new species, there are many factors to take into account:
Environment, evolution and ecosystems
– The very first thing to consider is the physical environment. Creatures cannot evolve, or exist, independently from their environment. Especially when creating aliens, you have to wonder how they are affected by atmosphere, gravity, liquids, etc, and even more so if you plan on having them be on Earth. The combination of factors we have on this planet is a relatively rare one, and it is possible they will need technology to help their survival.
– Also, consider their relationships with the other species of their environment. Are they dependent on one or several of them for their survival, as a food source or otherwise? Do they have a symbiotic relationship with any other one? Are they the only sentient species of their world, and if so, what is their relationship with the other specie(s)? From what did they evolve? Did both (or more) races evolve from the same species, or different ones? What is the food chain like? Remember, everything eats, and the food chain has to start somewhere; if there are no vegetation on your world, then there are no herbivores, and so, no predators; your species couldn’t have evolved there, unless it hasn’t always been this way!
The survival of any species depends on two factors, which are usually very important to the way they live: food and sex. It is one of the first things to consider when building the culture of any species, because our everyday lives are usually structured around these two preoccupations, and the more hostile the environment that your creatures live in, the less survival is certain, the more important they become. What they eat and how they eat should be your first concern, because the vast majority of living beings need to eat extremely frequently, several times every day, and if they are herbivores, eating will consume a significant proportion of their day. Eating is something that we ritualize a lot without necessarily realizing that we do so, and most of our significant rites and rituals revolve around food. We have elaborate dinners on every special occasion, we have very specific foods reserved for specific events, and food and drink are even part of several religious rituals. Depending on how difficult food is to obtain on your world, these rituals can be even more pronounced, to the point where a particular type of sustenance itself might become revered, like water is in Frank Herbert’s Dune.
Second to that is reproduction, and the search for a mate to do it with; this biological imperative is present in every species, and must be, or else the species would simply cease to exist. It is sometimes so strong that for several insects on Earth, the male will die during mating; yet they are still around, and are still driven to mate, no matter what. It is extremely important in humans, as well: the search for a mate is one of those character motivations that never need to be explained, as is parental instinct, and, as a sentient species, we have intellectualized the reproductive process to an extent that very few other species have done. So when creating your species, ask yourself this:
– What is their method of reproduction? The Earth’s biodiversity is simply astonishing when it comes to mating, the reproductive methods and the rituals associated with them. It’s not simply about choosing whether or not they are born from eggs or wombs; there are so many different ways of mating and gestating right here on Earth, that if you want to come up with something truly different, or bizarre, all you have to do is do a little bit of research. Insects are especially different, but amphibians can also be spectacular. Think of the tadpole, which looks like an entirely different animal from the frog for a big part of its life, until it grows limbs and sheds its tail! Or the butterfly, which is a caterpillar, then makes a cocoon and then transforms into something entirely different. And this is just a few example among many; there are insects which, when born, devour their mother who has cared for them all the time they were in their egg, as is the case for the black-lace weaver spider.
– How frequently do they reproduce, and how many children do they usually have? How does that affect their concept of family? Bonds are usually stronger between parent and child if the process is long and painful, and if the infant is very dependent for a long time. Species that produce hundreds of offspring, who, when they are born, are already able to walk and feed themselves, seldom even have a relationship with their parents. More often than not, the eggs are left some place where they will be safe, to fend for themselves when the children come out of their shell.
– How many genders to they have? Are they able to switch from one to the other? How does that affect their society’s structure? Some amphibians and fish are known to be able to change their genders when the population has too many of one or the other. A race that would have three genders, or just one, or be able to switch at will, would have very different ideas about gender roles as our patriarchal society does. In The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin explored the question wonderfully, by having a human race which had no gender save for a certain time in the month where one would gain the attributes of either gender, depending on who they were with at the time, so that one could be mother to some of their children, and father to the others. This makes for a very different society!
Another thing to take into consideration when building your species is how they communicate with each other. As humans, we have developed language, and words, but there are many more types of communications out there. Think of how many animals communicate with scents! The British television show Red Dwarf might have been comedy, but they had an interesting take on a species evolved from cats, who put down scents in books to write stories with. What about body language? The body language of animals is very different from our own; we are one of the only species of mammals for whom the baring of teeth is a friendly gesture; most of the time, it is a warning. What is different about the body language of your species? Could it lead to misinterpretation and conflicts? What about physical contact? Or symbols? You could also decide that your species does not communicate verbally, but telepathically; how would that affect their society? Thoughts are very seldom words; they can be words, or images, but most of the time they are an abstract gathering of sensory input, mixed with emotions. How would that affect art in a society? Or writing? Or education? What about privacy? Would that be a concept that would even exist?
Do they have a unique way to perceive the world? Do they have the same five senses that we have? Do they have less? More? How does this affect the way they relate to each other?
Magic, myth and religion
I want to address these three topics at once because they are all related. In a fantasy world, especially, belief is extremely important. Religion will almost always be part of the world, because people need it to explain things that they do not understand, death being chief among them. Often, in fantasy, magic replaces religion, but it is no less a form of faith, as the root of magic is often the belief that it will work. After all, fantasy originates from a mixture of fairy tales and mythology, and everything that is now mythology was once a religion that was very real to its practitioners, and as religion has a certain impact on our world, so will it in your fantasy or science-fiction world.
When thinking of your religion, there are many things to take in consideration. For example, in fantasy, gods are often tangible beings that appear and interfere in the business of mortals, sometimes on a regular basis. If your gods are such entities, then you must ask yourself what do these beings have to gain from interfering in the affairs of such vastly inferior beings? Why do they care? Does it matter that their followers are faithful, and if so, why? How do they interact with their followers? Are they limited in these interactions? Do they have supernatural beings that do their bidding? If so, how are these supernatural beings bound to them? Did they actually create the world, or is it just a belief that they take advantage of? What are they, really? What are the myths associated with them? If their way of communicating with their followers is limited, then is the religion associated with them the same all over the world, or do they have different forms of the faith that interpret things differently? What is the commonly held creation myth? What happens to you when you die, according to these gods? This last one is a very important question: death is terrifying, and completely incomprehensible, and it is the cornerstone of most belief systems.
When creating a religion, I usually recommend researching mythology thoroughly. And don’t just stick to the Norse, Greco-Roman and Celtic mythologies; dig deeper! Every part of the world has their own stories and myths, and they can give you splendid ideas for very varied myths and religious tales.
Also, ask yourself this: how fervent are the followers? What makes someone dedicate their life to this god? Do they respect other beliefs, or do they believe only their faith is real? In a world where the gods manifest themselves physically, it may be hard to argue that other faiths do not have a right to be. What is the relationship between different faiths? Were there other religions before those religions came about? And if so, what were they, and why did they fall out of practice? What about their belief systems still affects the world?
It is also possible, if your world has no gods, that magic can be the main belief system. After all, magic practitioners are usually much more powerful and mysterious than the average person. When creating your magic system, you must ask yourself a few questions as well. For example, is it something someone is born with, or do they learn? Or are they born with it and then they must learn how to use it? Could someone born with it learn by themselves? Could just anyone learn it? Is it learned in schools, or do you have to find a master? Is there a test to see if you could do it or not, or could you live your entire life without knowing you had this potential inside you? Do people have a natural predisposition for a certain field, or a certain ability, or do they specialize according to taste and temperament? Are people better than others because of their intelligence, or because of their raw talent?
What are the relationships between magic users and non-magic users? Are there laws that regulate the use of magic? If so, who enforces them? What is the relationship between magic and politics? Do kings or queens have mages to help them, or are magic-users themselves kings or queens because of their powers? Is there an official organization of magic users? How do magic-users earn their living?
Last, but, I think most important of all, is that your magic should have a cost, whether personal, physical or practical. Again, credibility is key, and ultimate power that has no consequence to its user is very hard to believe. Even when this cost is mysterious, you don’t see many wizards in books just using magic for any purpose, all the time; magic is reserved for the situations which demand it. Do they need certain materials to make their spells? How rare are these materials? Is it energy? Does the magician get tired after using magic? Is there a limited number of spells per day that he or she can do? Or is the cost more insidious, like sanity, or the slow loss of their humanity?
Culture is an amalgam of art in all its forms, as well as customs and folklore. All of these are vastly dependent on the environment in which your people live. For example, a hot, seaside country will have a vastly different culture than a mountainous country where it is winter eight months out of the year. When you are putting together your culture, think of who these people are, and what makes them different, and what is particular about the place where they live. For example, on an island where the economy mostly depends on fishing, people have tons of stories about the ocean, and boats, and there are specific customs and superstitions related to going out at sea. Research folklore and customs from all over the world; there are a lot of different superstitions and rites out there, and you may get wonderful ideas. Also, look at animal behavior, and try to consider how you might convert it to human behavior. In my most recent fantasy world, all my races are based on different animals, and their culture is based on the social interactions of the species they are based on. It makes for very different behaviors!
Creatures of mythology
One last note. You may, if you want, use creatures that are already present in myth or folklore, for example, ogres, elves, vampires, etc. If these creatures have their origin in myth (and therefore are not copyrighted) there is absolutely nothing wrong with using them. However, you should keep one thing in mind. If you are planning to keep most of the established conventions, try to stick to it. There is nothing wrong with having your own take, or putting a twist on it, or going beyond what the myth says; but before you do, don’t just use other works of fiction as your basis. Instead, ignore those and go to the root of the myth, so that you will be able to discard the personal twists other people have put on the original myth. Not only will this give you more freedom to play, but it will also give you a greater understanding of what it is that you are playing with. If you plan on reinventing it, of changing the original myth so that the only thing that is recognizable from it is the name, then you should change the name, make it your own creature, and have fun with it. Think about it this way: if I told you I was writing a story about a cat, but that I wanted this cat to speak, it would be a good idea. If I wanted this cat to speak and be green, it would probably still work. If I wanted this cat to speak, and be green, and have scales instead of hair, then you’d probably tell me, “Well, that’s not really a cat.” So why limit yourself with using the term “cat” if you are making something that isn’t a cat anymore? Why not just invent your creature, give it the shape and abilities you want, and call it whatever you want? You will have much more freedom!