Discovering Your World: Developing Fantasy Races

When you think “fantasy races,” chances are you think elves and dwarves, but they’ve been done so much. (Says the author who has elves in almost every one of her fantasy worlds… *cough*) How do we break away from these generic races? How do we come up with something unique and original? That’s what we’re going to explore today.

Twist the Cliches

I have nothing against elves and dwarves, it’s just that they’re so often cut and pasted from Tolkien and there’s nothing to set them apart from any other elves or dwarves. The easiest way to create a new fantasy race would be to simply adapt one of the mainstream fantasy races (elves, dwarves, orcs, goblins, etc.) and put your own unique spin on them. This could be through their physique, their culture, or both. Maybe dwarves average 9 feet tall and their mines and caverns are vast to accommodate this, or maybe the elves have a society of far-seers for those with the rare ability to predict calamity. Maybe goblins are actually quite fond of baking and home decorating and take great offense at the assumptions of their malevolent nature that have carried over from long-past generations.

Start with a Central Idea

Of course, you may want to start with something totally different from the mainstream. Maybe you want a race of swamp-dwellers, or the forest-side townsfolk need a basis for their myths of tree spirits. These are a couple examples of central ideas you can build off of. Once you have a central idea, or a purpose for your race to serve, you can use that as a basis for their development. If you have a swamp-dwelling race, do they dwell in the swamp or on the swamp? Can they breathe underwater? Can they survive in saltwater, too, or only in freshwater? Do they give birth to live young like humans or lay eggs like most water-dwelling creatures? Do they have natural camouflage, like moss-colored skin? Do they camouflage themselves consciously? Do they really not care?

Once you have a central idea, just start asking questions and you’ll be well on your way.

Start with a Purpose

Similar to the central idea, you could start by knowing the race’s purpose, whether to your story or to the world as a whole. Let’s take the example of tree spirits from before. I knew I wanted the people of one of my villages to believe the forest was inhabited by dangerous tree spirits, based on mysterious disappearances, and sightings of glowing green eyes in the woods. But I also knew these weren’t really spirits, so I started thinking about what would lead the humans to believe they were. What I came up with was a race of forest-dwellers who live in underground tunnels and have super-speed, so they can disappear quickly into the ground. What causes their eyes to glow? How do they lure people into the forest? Why do they dislike humans? I haven’t answered all of these questions yet, but this sort of question-asking is how my development process tends to work.

Develop Their Culture

Does your race have their own culture, or do they share culture with the other races they dwell around? How was their culture developed? How do their differences from other races affect their culture? That’s just the beginning of everything there is to explore with culture. I’ll be tackling a few specifics of culture in future weeks.

Develop Their Relationships

What are the race’s relationships with other races? Does one race or the other view the other as lesser? What’s led to the relationships being what they are?

Need somewhere to store your race’s information, or want some concrete categories to fill in? If you want something you can print out, or you use a doc to keep track of your worldbuilding, you can check out the race development worksheet in the resource library.

Otherwise, World Anvil has an awesome race template. Personally, I used my template first (for my swamp race, at least) and then transferred the info to World Anvil, adding some headings to tweak the template to my purposes. You can check out my races and see the World Anvil pages in action below.

Mocvara (swamp species)

Lenorae (tree “spirits”)

11 thoughts on “Discovering Your World: Developing Fantasy Races

  1. I’ve tried to twist the elf cliche a bit in my book as well. (Though I’ve mostly failed. XD) While they are great riders, live in the forest, and are archers, they also are afraid of water because they can’t swim at all. And while in LotRs, it seems like elves are a bit higher then men (I haven’t finished the series, so correct me if I’m wrong. :D), in my WIP, humans think they are the most important race and lord it over the elves.
    I’m considering adding dwarves too. I’ll have to find a way to twist that cliche too! Though they won’t be 9 feet tall. XD
    I did make up my own race (based of Jaye L. Knight’s ryriks) called Valgrans. They’re mostly nocturnal and like to attack homes, burn them down, and sell their captives as slaves. Nice guys.
    Thank you for this post! It was very helpful!

    1. That sounds really interesting!
      I really need to read Jaye L. Knight’s books, lol. I see them on Goodreads constantly, but they have yet to make it to the top of my (enormous) TBR list. XD
      I’m glad I was able to help. ^-^

  2. I actually haven’t used any elves/dwarves/etc in any of my fantasy series yet. My first ever fantasy series had complete made-up races. And basically, I’ve never looked back. I do love elves though. So cool. And dwarves are great. I love normal people though. The best thing ever is just a normal human hanging out with super powered people or otherwise different (and “cooler”) races. *glances at Clint and Nat*

    1. That’s awesome! My writing started out totally ripping off other stories, so I kind of fell into a habit of not twisting cliches as much as I could have, but as I’ve learned and grown more I’ve done more of that and realized how fun it is! As I rebuild my primary fantasy world I’m trying to make it diverge some more from the generic fantasy world it started as, lol.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *