How to Invent a Fantasy/Sci-Fi Race: with guest author Randy Ellefson

Today I’d like to welcome Randy Ellefson, author world-building reference guide Creating Life, to speak to us on the art of creating new species for our Fantasy or Sci-Fi works. Take it away, Randy!

Creating a fantasy or SF species/race is one of the more rewarding, but challenging, aspects of world building. The competition from established races like elves is fierce, especially if we use those alongside our creation; comparisons are inevitable. In SF, we may have no choice but to invent races or make the humans go it alone, because there aren’t any standard ones we can use, except for little green aliens. So how do we go about inventing something competitive?

Let’s look at a few often overlooked points to challenge ourselves and our audience’s expectations.

Species vs. Races

There are different ways to go about creating races, including deciding if we’ll call them a race or species. A hierarchy using both terms is recommended for clarity. Using standard fantasy races as an example, consider this structure:

  • Elves
    • Wood elves
    • Dark elves (drow)
  • Dwarves
    • Mountain dwarves
    • Hill Dwarves
  • Humans
    • White
    • Black

Doing this, we can call elves, dwarves and humans species, the implication being that their DNA is different and therefore causes predictable results, such as dwarves only giving birth to dwarves. You may have noticed that we have dwarves (little people) on Earth, but they are still human, which means a “dwarf” can give birth to a “human” and vice versa. But is that what we expect in fantasy? No. So on Earth, dwarves and humans might be considered races (shared DNA), while on a fantasy world they’d be considered species (different DNA).

Looking at the example above, if elves are a different species from others, we’d then say that wood elves and drow are races of elves, etc. This makes more sense than calling both wood elves and drow “races” and also saying elves and humans are races. Elves and humans are more substantially different from each other than wood elves are from drow. Such a hierarchy provides better clarity than just calling everything races.

Another advantage is that we can have an evil race (drow) and a good race (wood elves) of a species. We may decide they look similar and can impersonate each other, with some degree of success. This adds intrigue to stories and less certainty for our world’s inhabitants; with whom are they really dealing?


The previous point raises another idea. Sometimes we have an “evil” race out in the woods. They aren’t allowed in society with the “good” races due to the traits that make them evil: violence, unlawfulness, and general creepiness. This has advantages in making them like a monster and just a threat for travelers, but this is limiting. Might it not be better to have them in cities, too?

Having a race of a species is one way to achieve this. Imagine we have a troll species. Then we create mountain trolls and hill trolls as races. Perhaps the former are the evil ones because they seldom see other species and are paranoid. The hill trolls can be less obnoxious and possibly even reasonable. Maybe they’re allowed in town and even become part of a military, whereas the mountain trolls are more uniformly evil and shunned. If the two species look largely the same, they can impersonate each other, causing havoc. That hill troll in the army might be a mountain troll spy.

This sort of thing lets us have our cake and eat it, too: a shunned “evil” species with a “good” race of them. Or we can do the opposite: a good species like elves with a corrupted race of them like drow. We can do this with public domain ones or those we invent.


Human authors write for a human audience. Maybe that explains why, in fantasy, it often seems like settlements are largely built by humans for humans, with only a small percentage of other races. Similarly, the other races are often depicted as being holed up in mountains, forests, or hills, and mostly shunning humanity. This has never struck me as realistic. Authors often justify this by giving every species a bad attitude about humans, and while this is fine, it’s an unnecessary cliché. Why are humans the only ones who will live just about anywhere? Shouldn’t there be more competition and integration, at least on some of the worlds we create?

When inventing a species, consider having them be much like us in their willingness to live in many places. Rather than this diluting prejudices, it can strengthen them and cause even more conflict. There can still be neighborhoods where a race typically lives. Depending on that race’s values, the area might be crime ridden or relatively free of such concerns. This helps us create dynamic settlements. Imagine government ruled by opposing mindsets and concerns. One settlement might have fairly integrated species while another is dominated by one that oppresses minorities (which could be the humans).

A village that humans built near an elven forest might have only a few elves there, but as it grows to a town and later city, isn’t it likely that elves would be a significant if minority population? Wouldn’t their ideas become incorporated into the settlement’s design as it grows?


If you’d like to learn more about inventing species/races, you can join my free newsletter at and receive world building tips and free templates for creating gods, species, animals, plants, monsters, undead, and more. Additional templates will be emailed to subscribers each time a new book in The Art of World Building series is released, whether you’ve bought the books or not.

Vol 1 - BiggerCREATING LIFE (THE ART OF WORLD BUILDING, #1) is a detailed how-to guide on inventing the heart of every imaginary world – life. With chapters on creating gods, species/races, plants, animals, monsters, heroes, villains, and even undead, it draws on the author’s quarter century of world building experience. Pointed questions, and an examination of answers and their repercussions, will help readers decide on goals, how to reach them, and whether they are even worth pursuing. Always practical, Creating Life will quickly improve the skills of beginners and experts alike, making a time consuming project more fun, easier, faster, and skillfully done.

Unlike other world building guides, the series discusses how to use your inventions in stories while balancing narrative flow with the need for explaining your world. Tailored examples illustrate this. Extensive, culled research on life forms is provided to classify and understand options without overwhelming world builders with extraneous details.

Storytellers, game designers, gamers, and hobbyists will benefit from seven free templates that can be downloaded and reused. CREATING LIFE will help your setting stand out from the multitude of fantasy and science fiction worlds audiences see. THE ART OF WORLD BUILDING is the only multi-volume series of its kind and is three times the length, depth, and breadth of other guides.



Creating Life is available now at all major retailers. Creating Places, and Cultures and Beyond, are forthcoming.

About John Robin

John Robin is an epic fantasy writer, professional editor, and lover of imaginary worlds. He write stories about magic and myth, human suffering and the power to rise above it. He loves world building, coffee shops, mathematics, chess, and is an avid author community builder.
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1 Response to How to Invent a Fantasy/Sci-Fi Race: with guest author Randy Ellefson

  1. landofoyr says:

    well i may believe you spy on me or something because i have in my draft posts one about race building and the different species and cultures in Land of Oyr.
    i am trying to finish it among dozens of different things i am working but i will put in top priority in order for you to see what i am doing and meaning.

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