Creating races is something that we in fantasy and sci-fi tend to do moreso than other genres.
But how do we get past the Tolkien-esque elves and dwarves and hobbits? Or the green/blue skinned aliens that look basically like humans with tentacles on their heads?
How do we come up with something fresh and new, that nonetheless resonates with readers? Or at least doesn’t freak them out so bad that they put down your book and walk away.
We walk a fine line. The line between the familiar and the new. The fantastic and the cliche.
However, before even thinking about creating a new race, you need to ask yourself a few questions first.
Do you NEED a new race?
Can one of the previous mentioned, elves, dwarves, etc work instead? If you’re just recreating elves under a new name, why not just call them elves and get it over with? Sometimes the classics work. If you’re just creating a new race to be “new” and it’s only elves painted green or some-such, then there’s no reason for them.
Now that that decision is out of the way, if you’re still with me, then you’ve decided your race IS unique and you DO need a new one.
What’s different about them?
How are they different from the popular elves, dwarves and hobbits? (Yes, I’m using this example because I write fantasy.)
I will use a race I just created for this example. I started rewriting/working an OLD beginning to a story that I dug out of my closet. (I’m talking old, like from 2005.) Originally, I had the character as an elf. But I tire of elves and use them too much in my stories. So I started talking to a friend of mine. And I described them as “They’d be more reclusive than you see elves nowadays. They’d be more martial, less philosophical.” And then I realized, that they didn’t sound like elves at all.
This is what I came up with.
A race even less known than the reclusive Fae, the Mashin resemble a mix of man and ape. Long arms can sometimes drag upon the ground and are well-suited to life among the tall trees of the Elvarde forest.
Standing straight, even the shorter Mashin stands at or above seven feet tall. Their fur covered hide ranges in color from deep browns and blacks to the color of the evergreens. Eye color is generally dark on the verge of black, and the few Mashin with light (generally golden) colored eyes are either cast out as ‘cursed’ or praised and protected as ‘blessed.’
Rumored to have been created originally by magic, there is no proof that any as found to their exact means of creation. The Mashin have a small number of their species that can use magic, and martial prowess is viewed of more import as a direct result. To excel with the sword is to succeed.
Separated into clans, border disputes are common among the powerful, while the smaller are constantly shifting. Combining, splintering, and recombining endlessly. Considered ‘savages’ by the few humans that have encountered them, the Mashin keep to themselves, allowing only few outside merchants and traders into the forest where they thrive.
Mashin names tend to be long, complicated things, oft containing syllables and sounds the human mouth is incapable of reproducing.
As you can see, when I finished, they resembled nothing of the Elves from whence I began.
What is their society like?
What do they praise above all else? Using the Mashin as an example, they focus more on martial prowess. Not art or philosophy. Not magic.
How are they ruled? I touched on it with the Mashin. They have a clan structure. I haven’t flushed it out other then that yet, but it’s a start.
What is their relationship with other species? Very important. Also as important is how the other species view them. The Mashin are very reclusive. Some humans don’t even believe they exist.
Religion. Especially if you’re writing fantasy, knowing the belief systems of your races can be important. Are they polytheistic? Monotheistic? Do they worship the ancestors? Do they have living paragons/god-kings?
I am sure there’s much more I am forgetting, but that should give you a solid foundation. But I must caution you once more, be ABSOLUTELY certain that you need a new race before you go about creating one.