14.6: Fantasy and Science Fiction Races

Your Hosts: Brandon, Dan, Howard, and Mahtab

Let’s talk about race, sort-of. Let’s talk about creating races—species of people, really—which is a critically important activity in much of our worldbuilding. In this episode we discuss a few of the pitfalls, some of our own techniques, and a few of our favorite alien¹ races.

¹Can of Worms: It’s likely you’ll subconsciously code your creations after people who are “other” to you. This is both fraught and inescapable, but we don’t want to discourage you from trying. On May 26th we’ll go into detail telling you “yes, you can,” in a Writing The Other episode entitled “Yes You Can.”


Take one major historical event, and set it in space with non-human races.

Dragon’s Blood, by Jane Yolen, narrated by Marc Thompson

7 thoughts on “14.6: Fantasy and Science Fiction Races”

  1. My favorite alien race is the Affront from Iain M. Banks Excession. The Affront are large, brutal squid-like carnivores that somehow achieved sentience and then space travel.
    They sublimate their aggression into vicious games of aquatic squash.

  2. Yup, I have a riding beast that is a reptile (like a taun-taun with scales instead of fur). But it’s not a horse: the care of it is different, it’s behaviour is different, and they really hate being forced to go out at night.

    There are also horses.

  3. One big thing:

    People are different than THE people.

    People are individual, and they separate themselves from the norm. As a group, race or country, they tend to have collective traits. When you go down to the individual people, they’ll generally be different in some way. It’s a great way to avoid putting the people in boxes while at the same time doing exactly what people do—which is put other people in boxes.

  4. Sounds like a reference in there to the “iceberg theory of worldbuilding” — even if the reader never sees the majority of your worldbuilding, it’s all that stuff below the waterline that holds up what they do see.

    The problem with most fictional cultures is that they end up being “hats” for species or planet or race “of hats”. The can range from the pseudo-academic assertion that culture or race is “destiny” and “identity”, to the ridiculous way in which the first member of a species we see in a work of fiction comes to define that species and their culture… Greedo is a bounty hunter, and a Rhodian, so of course Rhodian culture reveres The Hunt and they all aspire to be bounty hunters!

    1. You’re right. I think it would have been much more interesting if Greedo came from a largely pacifist culture, and his family was ashamed of him. People might even use him as an example of what not to do. “Don’t learn to fight. You don’t want to end up like Greedo, do you?”

  5. This week, the fantastic foursome of Brandon, Dan, Howard, and Mahtab took a swing at the topic of worldbuilding fantasy and science fiction races. How can you make your aliens alien, and still have readers love them? What do aliens see or do differently, and how does that tie into your story. What do you call the scaly beasts that your aliens ride across the prairies of Mars? Plenty of examples, and good discussion, that you can read in the transcript available in the archives and over here:


  6. On the topic of calling a horse a horse – I am hesitant to include Earth creatures in my fantasy worlds, because those worlds are not Earth. If I have a horse, I have to deal with how that horse got there. Instead, I create a new creature that fill that function. If it looks and acts like a horse, I was too lazy when I created it.

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