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

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.

Book review: Anna Karenina

If I were given the task of teaching an alien race about what it’s like to be human, I might start by giving them Anna Karenina to read. Tolstoy follows his characters deep into their heads and lays out, in detail, how each one thinks and feels, what motivates them to act, and even how they think about their own thoughts. He does this with an uncompromising realism and absence of judgement: there are no heroes and villains, only people acting in ways that make sense to them at the time. I’m guessing that which characters are more likeable and sympathetic will depend very much on the reader’s own perspective. I certainly have my favorites, but for nearly every character there came a moment where I thought, “Yes, I have felt like that, exactly.”

Coupled with the depth of individual characters, the breadth of scope is impressive. While the slice of life Tolstoy presents is mostly confined to one class — we would probably call it upper middle class — the experiences cover a wide range of the human spectrum. There is marriage, both loving and loveless. There is birth and death. There is politics and social change, religion and skepticism, work and play. There is charity that looks like selfishness and selfishness that looks like charity. Most of the things that I worry and wonder about in the course of my life are explored somewhere in the book, and often in different lights and from different perspectives.

Although it’s best known as the story of Anna Karenina’s tragic love affair, less than half of the book is dedicated to Anna, her husband Karenin, and her lover Vronsky. Friends and relatives of these people have their own lives, and their own stories play out in counterpoint to Anna’s. The story begins with Anna’s brother Oblonsky and his family, and through the course of the book a third family is formed, and the three families by themselves could make up an entire course exploring the nature of marriage, family, parenthood, and love. Most impressive to me was the way social and external forces shape, and are shaped by, the feelings and relationships of the characters. Often we have a habit of viewing a love story as something set apart from the rest of life, with its own beginning, middle, and happy or unhappy ending determined only by the qualities of the people involved and the strength of their love. Reality is more complicated: human beings need social support and material provision as well as love, and just as love changes our view of friends, family, and material needs, these things change the way our love affair plays out.

Anna Karenina is not a book you read to find out what happens: even if you’ve missed hearing the major plot events, nothing that happens in it is much of a surprise. It’s not a book you read to ease the complexities of life with a simpler, clearer narrative. It’s a book you read to meditate on your own life, to come out with a deeper, broader understanding of how different life feels to different people, even people who are going through outwardly very similar events. For me, reading it left me with a swell of compassion, both for myself and for others, walking this road of life that is difficult and confusing and sometimes very rewarding.

This is my first review for Cannonball Read 5, a group blog where people pledge to read and review 52 books a year (or 26, or 13.) Mindful of my grad school requirements, I’m only doing 26 this year, but I hope to do the full 52 in the future!