Worldbuilding: Races & Species

This post is now a podcast episode! I’ll embed a link as soon as it’s live, but in the meantime you can learn more about the podcast in this post or find available episodes on the Podcast page in the navigation menu.

Worldbuilding is one of my favorite aspects of storytelling, and I have a great example! I went to see Avatar: The Way of Water, and I was blown away by their worldbuilding. For those of you who haven’t seen the first Avatar movie, it introduced us to an alien race that had adapted to live in the forests of Pandora, a planet that the main characters traveled to from Earth. The forest-dwelling race had thin, long limbs perfect for climbing trees, nimble tails for balance, large eyes good for seeing in low lighting, and dark stripes on their blue bodies perfect for blending in with the forest foliage. The race was designed for their environment, and when I watched it for the first time I was geeking out.

Now the sequel, The Way of Water introduced a cousin race that had adapted for a different climate and I was floored by the design. There were similarities of course, but this new culture had physically adapted for swimming and otherwise navigating through water, including wider forearms and webbed feet and hands that were perfect for swimming, eyes that were more of an almond-shape with a second lid for seeing underwater, and a thicker, rudder-like tail that could be used for stabilization and direction changes to make water travel easier. They were even a different shade, a light blue-green compared to the forest’s deep blue, for better camouflage in the tropical water. It was a fantastic design decision because it was rooted in their environment, which made it believable.

Believable is always the goal when creating a new race or species for your story, so here are some questions that can help you kickstart designing your own fantasy or supernatural creatures. I broke them into five major categories:

  1. Where does your race/species live?
    • Climate? (temperature, weather, lighting, terrain)
    • Nearby flora and fauna? (food, shelter, companions, animal husbandry, defense, medicine)
  2. How does your race/species interact with their environment?
    • Balance? (consuming vs. replenishing resources)
    • Housing/shelter? (natural vs. created, safety, ties in with where they live and why)
  3. How does your race/species interact amongst themselves?
    • Community vs. solitude? (there can be both, but which is “preferred” by who and why?)
    • Hierarchy/leadership? (who makes the decisions and by what right, are there any societal niches that receive different treatment i.e. children, the elderly, etc.)
    • Conflict and resolution? (how are disagreements handled, if it’s a community how does it stay together despite disagreements, is there more than one community and why would they clash/get along)
  4. How does your race/species age over time?
    • Children? (if there’s an element of helplessness at a young age, who takes care of them, how do they grow out of it)
    • Adults? (is there an official coming of age to transition from child to adult, what is expected of able adults, how are they treated compared to other ages)
    • Elderly? (does your race/species get the opportunity to age and if so, what happens to them, is aging treated positively or negatively, is death something that is feared)
  5. What gives your race/species meaning?
    • Motivation? (community, achievement, food/resources)
    • Relationships? (child-bearing/-rearing, friendships, partnerships, leaders vs. followers)
    • Religion/spirituality? (good vs. evil, a sense of belonging, perspective of an afterlife or lack thereof)*

* Note: I also have a post about designing fictional religions and belief systems, you can find it here.

These are only some basic prompts to get you started, but if you have a story already in mind, then ask story-specific questions. If your story hinges on the main character needing to go off on their own and complete a physical task, then what about this race/species would lead them to make that decision? If you’re creating something completely from scratch, then play with it! Worldbuilding is so much fun because it’s a pure act of creation from nothing. Enjoy it, and don’t worry if you need to tweak your story to fit your new race/species, or the other way around. No one gets it right on the first try, so let yourself play!

So what do you think? Have you ever created a race/species from scratch? Are these questions helpful? If you’ve seen them, what do you think of the worldbuilding for the two Avatar movies? Let me know in the comments! And if you don’t want to miss out on any Author Rescue content, join the monthly newsletter!


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