3 Steps for Creating Realistic Fantasy Races and Creatures

3 Steps for Creating Realistic Fantasy Races and Creatures | Learn how to #write realistic #fantasy races and cultures, plus a FREE worksheet!God bless Fantasy writers. I mean, seriously. We’re a crazy bunch, aren’t we?

As if it wasn’t already hard enough to write a novel and create realistic characters, we insist on quadrupling the difficulty level by creating places and races that don’t exist. Because real life is too boring for us! That stuff is for amateurs! We want a real challenge! *twitchy eyes*

Sure, Fantasy a lot of fun, but it’s also loads of work. And the expectations are high in the Fantasy genre. If you can’t create realistic races and creatures then your story is going to fall flat. No pressure, right?

I’m going to try to help out my fellow Fantasy writers here. I know this world-building stuff isn’t easy. So we’re going to break down creating a fantastical race or creature into three steps. Yep, three. Ready for this? Brace yourselves.

Psst, before you get started, click here to download the free PDF worksheets I created to go along with this post!

STEP 1: Appearance

One of the first things you’ll need to decide is what your race or creature will look like.

Now, pay attention to that word–like. Did you know it’s actually impossible for humans to create something completely new? We can only use what already exists, what we see around us. That’s why fantasy beings always look like something (usually a combination of somethings) whether it’s a human, animal, plant, or something else from nature. Observe:

Horse + Horn = Unicorn

Horse + Wings = Pegasus

Human + Pointy Ears + Immortality = Elf

Human + Fish = Mermaid

Human + Horse = Centaur

Eagle + Lion = Gryffin

See where I’m going with this? So don’t stress so much over creating something no one has ever seen before. Rather, use what’s already around you in a creative way.

If you don’t want to create a creature from scratch, another option is to use an animal that already exists, but give it a twist. For example, animals that are larger than usual, can speak, or have magical abilities.

This also applies to human-like races. You don’t have to make a fantasy race look completely foreign. They don’t have to have blue skin like they’ve just stepped out of Avatar. A lot of fantasy beings (elves, dwarves, faeries, witches/wizards) look similar to humans but with slight physical differences and/or added magical abilities.

Another option is to put a new spin on classical mythological creatures that already exist. Laini Taylor does this brilliantly with chimeras in Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Another great example is Rampant by Diana Peterfreund, which is about killer unicorns. (Yes, you read that right. Killer unicorns).

Lastly, you could populate your fantasy world with races that are (gasp!) just human. In Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin’s seven kingdoms are filled with plain old human beings. Sure there are some characters with special powers, and you have the White Walkers running around, but most of the races are ordinary. Instead, he focuses on developing their cultures to make them stand out.

So let’s review your options for fantasy races/creatures:

  1.  A creative combination of elements
  2. A physical or magical twist on an animal or human
  3. Classic mythological creatures with a twist
  4. Plain human beings with distinct cultures.

STEP 2: Environment

One important element for developing a realistic Fantasy race is the environment in which that race lives. Our environment affects various aspects of our lives such as clothing, building materials, food, resources, jobs, and trade. These are all important elements of a society.

For example, Native Americans used natural resources like deer and buffalo hide to make clothing and tepees. The English had a lot of sheep, and used the wool to make cloth for clothes.

Our environment also affects what sort of food you can grow, what animals are available to hunt, and therefore what sorts of dishes can be made. In Mexico they grow chili peppers, avocados, and limes, while in Greece they grow figs, dates, and olives. Both countries have very different dishes! Also, note that when you have two countries that each have something the other does not, this can lead to either trade or war.

Another thing to consider is what sort of jobs your environment creates. If you have an area rich with coal, you’ll have a lot of coal mining jobs like in The Hunger Games. If you have a lot of land, more people might be farmers. If you’re on the coast, you’ll have a lot of fishermen.

For Fantasy creatures, think about what sort of habitat it lives in. Does it like mountains or forests? What does it eat? Is it prey to any other animals? Do people hunt it as a resource?

Put a lot of thought into the environment in which your race or creature lives and how it influences their way of life and you will add layers of realism to your story!

STEP 3: Culture

Developing a culture is probably the most daunting aspect of creating a fantasy race, which is understandable. Cultures are extremely complex. There’s a lot to think about and it can get overwhelming quick. Making up a culture for a race that doesn’t exist is no small task!

While trying to find a way to simplify what makes up a culture, I came across this article that suggests there are seven basic elements of a culture. I would argue there are more, but since some of the things that are missing like food, clothing, etc. we touched on in the last step, I feel this list fits perfectly for the purposes of our discussion.

So what are these 7 basic elements of a culture?

  1. Social Organization (family units and social classes)
  2. Customs and Traditions
  3. Religion
  4. Language
  5. Arts and Literature
  6. Governing Systems
  7. Economic Systems

I think if you spend time exploring these seven points you’re going to have a nice, fleshed out culture! Now, just because language is on here don’t think you need to create a whole new language (or several!). I would actually advise against it unless you can do it with the same finesse as Tolkien. It’s good to consider if you have races that speak different languages and how this could be important to your story, but you can imply a language barrier without actually creating the languages.

Additionally, I would suggest borrowing from cultures in real life. Tolkien did this in Lord of the Rings–for example, the people of Rohan are based off of Celtic culture. Drawing from real-life sources will help to add realism to your story.

I would also highly recommend studying sociology and history, either by taking a course or getting some books on your own. Studying these subjects will help you to understand how intricate cultures are, how they work, and how different cultures have interacted with each other over time. This will help you to write more complex and realistic cultures in your own stories.

Need More Help?

I know we covered a lot of information in this post, and when you’re trying to create a new race or creature this is all a lot to keep track of. So I whipped up some worksheets to help you out! Click here to download + print!

What are your thoughts on creating fantasy races? Share them below!

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10 thoughts on “3 Steps for Creating Realistic Fantasy Races and Creatures

  1. Whoooo, worldbuilding! I’m stea–erm, being inspired by Japanese culture right now while trying not to make my culture too obviously similar.

    I went to a panel at GenCon on race building and one of the authors made a really interesting point about humanoid races which I wanted to share. When we develop human-like races we often find ourselves (or see other authors) limiting the range of human emotions/values/personal attributes they exhibit. E.g. elves are often graceful, wise, refined, etc. Dwarves are greedy, stoic, and loyal. Which might be fine if you have one dwarf in your story, but what happens if the whole novel is set in dwarf-land? Surely they’re not *all* greedy, stoic, and loyal. So the goal is to define things like wisdom, self-control, and loyalty as cultural values while leaving room for the characters themselves to have their own personalities.

    Also, from a classics PhD, please please please for the love of everything, don’t use Latin and Greek as your foreign languages unless you actually know Latin and Greek. Drives me bonkers.

    1. Haha Japanese culture is so interesting, I’m sure you’re getting loads of inspiration 😉

      Ooooo yes that’s a very good point! Thank you so much for sharing! I’ve noticed that as well, especially with elves and dwarves. It’s basically like stereotyping them. You definitely want to avoid putting the entirety of one race under one label (ie. all elves are graceful, all dwarves are greedy). And there are more ways to write elves and dwarves than as Tolkien represents them.

      Dwarf-land. That made me giggle for some reason. I would totally read that story! ^.^ Snow White’s Adventures in Dwarf-land. Oh my gosh someone please write that haha xD

    2. You make some really great points! Especially the Latin and Greek ones. As one who has briefly studied both languages (three years of Latin and just poking around with Greek), it really gets on my nerves when people don’t use them correctly.

      1. I studied Latin for a while as well. While reading I can sometimes recognize and understand a Latin phrase or word if an author uses one, but I don’t think I would notice errors. It’s always a good idea to have an expert in the language (whether it’s dead, ancient, or currently in use) check it over if you’re going to use it!

  2. Have I ever told you how much I love your posts, Kaitlin? This is such an epic resource for fantasy writers! I did a lot of the work you mentioned for The Dark Between, and -though it took forever – it was SO worth it. I really feel connected to the cultures I created when I write.

    I didn’t include any fantasy species in TDB, but there is a race of humans with some magical abilities. When it comes to writing fantasy, I definitely lean more toward GRRM’s style, despite the fact that Lord of the Rings is my favorite series ever!

    But anywho, thanks for another fantastic post! Keep ’em coming 🙂

    1. You’re so sweet Kristen, thank you so much ^.^ World-building is a lot of work, but I find it fun as well and it’s so rewarding when it starts to feel real! The Dark Between sounds so interesting, and I’m so in love with the title. I can’t wait to explore your fantasy world some day 😉

  3. I’ve been working on sci-fi/fantasy world for over a year now and I was beginning to feel the holes in my made up race, its environment and its culture.

    So a few weeks ago I decided that I had to go in search for some help.

    I immediately found a character sheet that I could modify to use for my characters. Now though I’ve actually started on the race itself.

    I’ve cobbled together a Racial Bluebook worksheet and if it wasn’t so long I’d include a copy here.

    I’m really anxious to see yours, but for some reason your ‘Yes, Please’ button is not working.

    Your help on this would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks, Kaitlin

    1. Hi Chrys! Thanks so much for letting me know it wasn’t working! I’ve noticed now that several aren’t working, and I’m going to have to figure out how to get that fixed.

      Since you’re already subscribed to the newsletter, you don’t have to re-enter your email to get the worksheets. Go to “Post Library” on the Menu and click the Secret Archives on the drop down and log in. The worksheets are in there 🙂

      Good luck with your world-building, and thanks again for pointing out this issue!

  4. Thanks for these steps on world building! I’ve been developing a fantasy world (the races a combination of points 2 and 4) for a series of short stories when I stumbled across your post. I had only vaguely considered environment and how it would affect different countries, so this point is particularly helpful.

    I also like your point on writing fantasy because real life is “too boring.” One reason I enjoy developing fantasy cultures is because I can think outside the box and create my own structure instead of using an existent one.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Azelyn! I’m glad you found the post helpful 🙂 Yes, I’m the same way! I find stories set in real life restricting as a writer. My imagination is too wild haha. Though strangely, I’ve discovered that I enjoy writing historical fiction. It’s definitely more of a challenge for me, but I think it’s good to explore outside of our comfort zones every now and then 😉

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