An Elf is an Elf. Of Course. Of Course. Or is it?

I wrote previously about the advantages of single species settings. This week, I’ll take the opposing point and look at having many species. Obviously, once a writer has determined how many sentient races will exist in a setting, there are a variety of pros and cons. I’ll hit what I think are the highlights.

The first consideration is: what races?

By this, I mean, will traditional Earth species be used (drawn from folklore, legend, and myth)? Or will traditional fantasy races (dwarves, elves, orcs, etc.) be used? Or will they be entirely original races?

With the first two, there are some definite pros in that they’ll be immediately obvious to readers and won’t need major exposition about appearances, for instance. On the other hand, making them stand out can be more difficult. But, there are ways to do this. Consider Pratchett’s Elves, Rowling’s Goblins, Ilona Andrews’ vampires, Steven Brust’s “Elves” (Dragaerans), or Naomi Novik’s dragons.

In sci-fi at least, virtually all aliens are original to one degree or another. Sure there are bugs, cyborgs, robots, and catfolk in really broad terms, but nothing to the same degree as elves, dwarves, and halflings in fantasy. This obviously requires more time describing the species’ appearance initially.

Easily the most daunting thing about presenting a lot of races is developing cultures. We want developed cultures to know where characters in this new race are coming from. On the other hand, this need not be too daunting. After all, we do not need to create every race’s culture from the beginning. We can develop them as they appear in the story, at least beyond the window dressing role. Consider Star Wars and Star Trek. Based on the SW movies, what do we know about Wookiees, Ithorians (Hammerheads), Rodians, or Shistavanen wolfmen? These are four “core” SW races and we really don’t know anything about them until up to a decade or more after they appeared (many as window dressing or minor roles in the cantina scene). Likewise, from the show and movies, what do we know about Andorians, Gorn, or Rigellians until ST:TNG or Enterprise? Not much. Even Vulcans and Klingons are relatively undeveloped until later in the series. Additionally, I’m pretty certain Pratchett did not think, thirty years ago, about how he’d include orcs and igors in the Disc, but he did eventually.

There’s also another approach, one I’m exploring with my aspidochelone setting. Basically, this approach says there are potentially hundreds, thousands of races from a potentially infinite number of worlds. Therefore, there may several varieties of dwarves, elves, vampires, catfolk, ogres, etc. present, such that national culture overshadows any “racial” culture, particularly if said family of elves has been living in the area for many generations. Sure, some little traditions may remain, but if the community of immigrants (willing or accidental) was small then not much of the home culture may survive (look at strains of immigration to the U.S., particularly fourth generation or beyond). This also opens opportunities for multiple members of a race to display significantly different abilities and disabilities.

How Many Sapient/Sentient Species? (Part 1)

Choosing to limit a setting to only one species (say, Humans) has some advantages.  The biggest is that the writer doesn’t have to develop multiple species but can still explore different cultures.  On the other hand, the choice can limit variety somewhat and reduce the effect of cultural exploration.  With multiple species, certain cultural traits can be exaggerated in a way that would be comical or grating if the species was Human—imagine the Vulcans, Klingons, or Hutts as Humans.

That said, even in a Humans Only setting, it is possible to have variants.  If the technology is advanced enough or the magic is capable, genetic modification can occur (SJGames’ Transhuman Space).  Or there’s parallel evolution (Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think).  Biomodification (after birth; biological version of cybernetics) or cybernetics could effectively create different (mostly) Human sub-species.  Mages and/or psis could even be genetically different enough to be considered a variant species.  Or super powered mutants (Marvel, I’m looking at you).

Our folklore and legends are filled with Human variant species—such as Elves, Dwarves, Giants, Brownies, Blemmyae, and Cyclopses—as well as human-based hybrids—including Centaurs, Cynocephali, and Satyrs.

This sort of expansion of species, while technically being limited to one, has the benefit of providing multiple species to work with but keeping them all humanoid.  There are similar drawbacks to multi-species settings in terms of culture (if the variants create their own cultures).  The question of cross-breeding also arises and can be a thorny area.  A final drawback, that could also be a benefit for some, is that many of the traditional Human variants have been used by more than a few writers in the last century or two.  This has made them familiar (a potential benefit) but also stereotyped and cliché (drawback, perhaps).