When you’re creating a race of people for your new world, you need a culture to give those people and their way of life some context. The culture helps determine how the characters act, dress, eat, solve problems, among so many other things. You can (and sometimes, should) have multiple cultures in your world, depending on how large your focus area is. Cultures affect each other, but also serve in a narrative sense to draw contrast in-world and to draw parallels to the reader’s world.
So here are some thoughts, big and small, that are meant to help inspire you as you create amazing cultures. (And remember that you’re thinking about the following questions in the context of the general population, not your main character(s).) You can simply answer these questions in short-answer form, or you can write a short story to flesh out one or two or three questions at once. If you do that, submit them to me! I’d love to feature them on the blog.
How old do people believe their race is? How old are they really?
How prevalent are religions to the common person?
What is/are the origin stories of the main religion(s)?
What do most people think should be the highest priority:
How do culturally shared priorities shape interactions?
What is the common greeting? Does it vary by age, class, rank, or sect?
How is gender viewed by the majority? Why?
What are common myths/legends of your people and how heavily do they influence the modern day?
How trustful are people of outsiders?
How welcoming are people, in general, of strangers into their homes?
How well do people of various factions (class, race, religion, etc.) get along in society?
How far has technology advanced, and how has it been implemented into their daily lives?
If magic exists, what do they believe is its origin? Its source?
If there is division between magic/non-magic, how do the two treat each other and why? How long has it been that way?
What sort of relationship do they have with their ruler?
How content is the average person?
How do people make their living and how big a part of their life is their career (if applicable)?
Do they have “weekends” and if so, what sets them apart from “weekdays”?
How do they treat their close friends?
How do they treat their enemies?
How do they handle small conflict, between individuals or small groups?
How do they handle larger conflicts?
How are they prepared for any potential war? Do they have some sort of military or militia in place?
How many wars have they, as a society, fought over the course of their lives/history? How much of an impact does that have on their cultural identity? (i.e. WW2′s impact on patriotism in America, and how it’s yet to go away.)
What virtues do they value in individuals? What virtues do they say they value? If those are different, why?
How do they dress? Does it vary greatly by gender, or not? Is their focus on clothing very practical, religious, sentimental, or simply driven by the latest arbitrary fashion? How do the above answers reflect on the culture on a deeper level?
How do they treat their elderly?
How do they treat their children?
At what age does a baby become a child, a child a young adult, a young adult an adult, an adult an elder?
How much regulation does the day-to-day life of the average citizen entail? Or, how involved is the government in micro affairs?
How are these people seen throughout their known world? How do other cultures view this culture?
Questions for developing the biology of a new species or race
Something to remember when developing your new species or races: always remember that your unique race/alien race should not distract from the narrative. It is always fun to experience new and different peoples that can be so similar to humanity while being so different. But you don’t want to create a main species that is so utterly alien that it distracts from your narrative. The details of your race should enhance your story, not needlessly complicate it.
So! With that in mind…
Starting from scratch:
What about them says “other”?
How are their environmental conditions reflected in their biology?
What texture/color is their skin or outer layer? Why?
Do they have hair? If so, where and what color(s)? What texture(s)?
How many biological sexes are there? How many genders?
How many cones do their eyes have?
How many limbs do they have? How are they used?
How many fingers/toes do they have? How has this altered their number system?
Were they the only race on their home planet that evolved to “intelligent?”
For further development:
How would it describe its setting?
Do they have physical traits specific to their class or caste?
What traits do others of their species find attractive? Why?
Do they use special tools to enhance or repair damaged/failing physical traits or senses (glasses/contacts, prosthetics, wheelchairs)?
What unifying characteristics set them apart from humans? What do they have in common?
What dietary needs do they have?
Do they use special ornamentation (clothing, jewelry, tattoos) to show rank, occupation, heritage, etc.?
How do they relate to temperature or climate?
Do they have joints or tendons that move in a way that would seem unnatural to humans?
What is their sexual biology like? Is it analogous to ours, or something entirely different?
What recreational activities are healthy/positive for their biology?
How does their body respond to various types of excitement or emotion?
Creative exercises for species/racial development:
If someone were write a wanted poster for a criminal of this race, what features would the notice highlight? Why?
What are (or hypothetically would be) the most popular plastic surgeries among people of this species?
What is their average morning routine? How do their care for themselves, physically, on a daily basis?
Write a short story in which someone of your new species/race attempts to put on a set of human clothes or visa versa.
What is the most popular sport and how is it played? How do the species’ unique traits play into the game, if at all?
When writing speculative fiction, one of the writer’s most important jobs is to establish the new rules for their world. In many branches of speculative fiction, especially fantasy and even horror, this is magic, though it can also be technology and alternate scientific rules for science fiction. Whatever alternate fact(s) or reality you utilize to make your fictional world possible, that qualifies as a “magic system.” Your magic system is most often defined by what it can’t dorather than by what it can.
Why do I need a magic system?
When writing speculative fiction, it’s usually assumed that something about your world is different than ours. That can be a small tweak or it can be a complete dismantle-and-reassembly of physics as we understand it. Whatever system you choose to implement, it needs to have internally consistent rules. If, throughout the course of your book, magics begin to contradict each other, then it will disturb your readers suspension of disbelief. You don’t want your awesome magic to yank your readers from the believability of the story. But…most important of all…you have to establish some sort of rules and limits in order to prevent yourself from pulling a deus ex machina. No one likes a poorly executed deus ex machina. Few people like a well executed one (is there such a thing?). If you have rules, limits, cost, built into the magic or technology of your world, then you establish something that is not only nuanced and interesting, but believable.
Why write speculative fiction if I have to create and follow all of these tedious rules?! The real world has rules enough.
It’s true. But following your own rules and following real worlds aren’t the same thing. Lots of you have probably heard the little saying, “Give your world a Flux Capacitor.” If you think about it, Back to the Future’s Flux Capacitor doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s not explained. But we accept it because it’s magic. And when Doc says, “Here’s this thing. It makes time travel possible.” We accept it because it’s a simple alteration. He doesn’t try to use it to do more than what is initially established. It never breaks that rule. It’s not used to get Marty out of an impossible situation, defying any previous understanding of the technology. That’s why it works.
So where you do start?
First, you need to probably choose what type of magic you will use. Will be elements based? Or energy based? Spirit? Physical? Time and Space? What things is your magic summoning/manipulating/drawing from?
Now you’ll want to focus on the parts that make your magic yours. Sure, elemental magic has been used half a zillion times, but it can still be interesting if you do something new with it. The best way to do something new is to alter its limits, change the cost, give it a new spin that makes your regular ol’ fire magic something intriguing.
You can do a little bit of research into ancient forms of magic, into other literary uses of magic. See what those before you have done and use it as an inspiration.
If you’re having trouble knowing where to start, I’m here to provide you some thoughts concerning the skeletal-assembly of your magic system! Use these prompts as you see fit!
What does magic use/alter/manipulate?
laws of physics
water, only, in all of its forms
fabric of space
items of specific color or texture
Who possesses magic?
random lucky people
anyone who’s ever petted a dog
How is it acquired?
intense study and training
through random action
through a ritual
as one ages
From where is power drawn?
alignment of the stars
physical contact with _____ (the earth, another life force, a drawing or rune)