The Utility of Humanoids: What’s the Purpose of Sci-Fi & Fantasy Races?

One of my earliest memories of crafting alien species was when I helped design a homebrew tabletop roleplay game with a group of friends. The five of us were co-collaborating our own galaxy “long ago” with sentient races, each possessing unique feats. I was particularly enamored with the saurian race we came up with for their reptillian appearances, their rigid cultural code of honor, and ability to shoot out unarmed spikes at opponents. They were just one among the handful of playable races amid a universe of warring sentients.

I made my own homebrew universes and systems after this with creative zeal. I’d craft my own sci-fi universe filled with my own sentient species or reimagine fantasy races of my own design. In both scenarios, each race had their own unique ability and strengths. The more I reflect on this, the careful design I employed in terms of anatomical advantages always came down to gamers playing in my imagined universe, adopting one of these races, and falling in love with the uniqueness of each sentient being.

There’s a handful of story ideas sitting on the “shelves” of my computer archive that still benches these old ideas of games intended to become novels.

I mention all this because I recently began looking at other writers’ designs of humanoids, of investigating what makes authors design as they do and become curious if such designs can/will hold the attention of their audience.

As mentioned, my own designs of sentient humanoids in both the sci-fi and fantasy genre came from a function point of view, of carving something aesthetically unique that bared a nuance to how a player interacted with the world or played a theoretical game. Admittedly, culture and thematic elements usually came later. This isn’t wholly unuseful. Halo is a series that has seemingly borrowed from this design–think of the function of the alien and an aesthetic that can match it, and develop a backstory later–and seems to have been relatively successful with a compelling narrative (barring anything Halo 4 and on).

That being said, I think its useful for us authors to do some deep digging of our intention of writing these humanoid aberrations. I mention this because two different series that have a “cat race” can bear different fruit in terms of how compelling the narrative is: for example, if one writes up said cat race because the author simply likes cats and thinks it would be a neat hybrid, versus another author who sees specific utility and ramifications to the narrative and world for having a feline sentient humanoid.

Therefore, I’d like to explore some examples of usage of races solely in terms of the Sci-Fi genre (though I believe each example has a fantasy counterpart). To this end, I hope we can do some deep exploration of why we write the species we do instead of default to a reason that may not be so compelling: “well I thought it was cool.”

Star Trek: Your Utopian Telos

Though I’m far from being a Trekkie, I’ve had a history growing up around them.

What I’ve been educated about Star Trek is that the races of the show all are meant to represent some historic or proposed culture, and to contrast said races against the human spirit.

The Vulcans, from what I can see, are meant to contrast a passionate and human side of humanity from a proposed passionless, and dogmatically thought-based species. The Vulcans show us positive traits of this kind of emotional neutrality while also showing set-backs of being so cold and detached. The Borg bear warning to dangers of assimilation for the sake of continuity and peace, while the Ferengi propose the warped pursuit of imperial greed.

Though I was never particularly invested in learning deeply about the overall plot of the series or become emotionally invested to the story and characters, I recognize the following that Star Trek has and its success in terms of utilizing sci-fi races to illustrate the dark sides of humanity in their extreme. Each of these races are abberations of humanity and show grossly disproportionate maxims or principles in a cautionary manner. While it’s hard to keep track of the running list of planets and races that the mostly human pioneers encounter, the usage of this model of designing sci-fi races lends itself to a powerful utility of storytelling: speak about the human condition, and warn about the tragedies that are close to our nature, behavior, and machinations.

Star Wars: Paint Me A Feeling

It’s only natural now to go to Star Wars, the favorite rival of Star Trek. Star Wars I see doing much less of Star Trek’s moralizing of human nature. When I think of races in Star Wars, I think of some really sensory-filled and impresionistic races that through their design convey a raw feeling to the audience.

Ewoks are perhaps the low-hanging fruit in this variety. Ewoks were admittedly a race created in order to undermine the hubris of the Empire and all their tyrannical force of technology and governance. These child like teddy bears humiliate the Empire through their incredibly ramshackle inventions, traps, and weaponry, and their dwarfed size and cute appearance is starkly opposed to the very stoic and angry-faced empire uniform. The audience is more often than not endeared with these true underdogs and might even rally a little harder seeing the machinations of the Empire put to shame through Ewok creativity.

That being said, they are by far my least favorite species. I’m tempted to take a shot at the Ewoks as being more of merchandise than true creativity, but I know my own fondness for Baby Yoda makes such an accusation rather limp (I really do commend Mandalorian for giving us such an endearing character).

While I attempt to convey my true frustrations for the existence of Ewoks, I do have to give Lucas credit for what he was attempting to do in creating this race. Ewoks are these forest dwelling dwarfs that represent the good-hearted altruism of simplicity and autonomy against a threat of “progress” and enforced unity. The Ewoks are easy to root for due to their humble nature and might even be a statement illustrating adults need to return to child like innocense.

Again, Ewoks are but the lowest hanging fruit in this very illustrious universe. The Hutts, by contrast, are easily vilified, disgusting for their wild tongues and wet bodies, easy to dehumanize and loath for their invertebrate like bodies. The Wookies, like the Ewoks, are affable for their furry and bear-like bodies, resembling something of a hugable teddy bear, the only difference being that the height and roar of their voice convey the danger and double-sidedness of their bear like qualities (in short, bears are regarded as loveable but also dangerous, just as Wookies are). Perhaps the last and most impressionistic race are the Twi’leks, the females always depicted in revealing clothing, the tentacles on their head suspiciously looking like a naked pair of legs; this race has been labeled as categorically sexualized, making them both pitied for being targetted as sex slaves and coveted for their overly sexualized features.

Save for the Twi’leks, it should be noted that just about every Star Wars race has a key character that sets the tone for the entire race. The Wookie race is second in importance to Chewbacca, such as the Hutt race is second to Jabba. The same goes for Zabraks and Darth Maul, or Kaleesh and General Grievous. All these races develop backstories as an after thought, and only so many of them get recycled in mainstream continuiations of the series.

Star Wars isn’t looking to convince you so much of human nature or socio-political slippery slopes through their races. Instead, they are looking to portray to you a very raw and earthy picture. The races either exist to paint the atmosphere (Twi’leks to paint a harem, Ewoks to paint innocence and humility) or exist typically in the form of a sole character to illicit a feeling in the audience using imagery instead of a lengthy backstory (Jabba obviously vile without knowing his origins, Chewbacca formidable but still likeable without even being ble to understand him).

Star Wars is a fantastic example of a sci-fi world that requires little backstory or “telling” (though it certainly has plenty of non-canonical extended universe materials) because it gets so right the showing. That is smart characterization that saves the author time so they don’t have to dive into long prologues, but can cut to the action with the impressions we are immediately given through the races and characters.

Avatar: The Ideal Man & World

While I personally feel some of the themes of Avatar are heavy-handed and even trite, I truly do appreciate what was accomplished in the design of the Na’vi race and world of Pandora.

My own dissection of the story of Avatar is the telling of mankind’s feelings of discontent for the raw pursuit of exploration and progress, for the shallow satisfaction that can come from technological advancement and materialism.

Pandora illicited a very raw feeling of what the Germans call “Sehnsucht,” a kind of longing for a place that seemingly can’t exist or can’t be visited. We ached because the 3-dimensional and beautiful world of Pandora isn’t able to be visited. People literally felt depressed walking out of this film.

Pandora is mirror to how we also feel about the Na’vi. We see a pure sentient species that enjoys the beauty of this magical land. While the Na’vi “tail” is on its face an interesting world building concept, it also illicits a real desire in us to have communion and peace with nature, to possess this role of pure-hearted stewardship over such a magical land. The priorities of Pandora are not for expanse or development, but to see one conquering death through their “uplink” to the neurel network of trees and nature.

I argue that Avatar gets at a real angst in us all for the materialism we have been fed for the last few centuries, that the scientific method and pursuit of discovery and innovation are the end all be all of human perfection. Avatar flips that on its head, conceiving of a world that requires little innovation, a world that has relative harmony and is saturated with beauty.

Pandora is an allegorical type of paradise or heaven, and the story of Avatar gives the audience hope that one not only can step outside of the grungy and base world of materialism, but become eternal and part of a reality based on communion.

Whereas Star Trek warns of human falleness, Avatar gives hope of transcendence and magic returning to our lives and world.

Alien & Predator: Face Your Fear

Predator, I admit, is only slightly harder to justify into this category. That being said, the Predator series has been treated as a kind of thriller/horror that I think affords it this category (besides, the two races seem hard to divorce from one another).

The creators of alien were pretty explicit in their intentions of creating this alien race. Here we have an alien designed to be the most perturbing machination that human thought could conceive. Alien is sleak and fast, easily missed and hard to squash, much like our innate disgust for roaches, snakes, and mice. It’s also been mentioned that the design of the creature (phallic head) in tandem with its means of reproduction (suffocation, chest bursting, in short he involuntary carrying of another being’s spawn) were meant to illicit a vile response from the audience. This was a race meant to scare men and women alike, to illicit a feeling of powerlessness and penetrability.

Predator didn’t tap into as much of a raw human disgust, but rather seems to be designed as a kind of horrific reaper, an alien icon of the angel of death. Predator is pseudo-invisible, it has perfect awareness of its prey, and its patient and adaptable in its form of harvesting trophies/taking life.

Predator speaks to the human fear of death, while Alien perturbs us with an image of violation and being forced upon. A case could be made that the two represent the monstrous capacity of mankind to be predatorial in terms of violence and sex, but I think what’s more true in their inceptions is looking to frighten the audience using basic and common fears in an illustrative manner.

It should be noted that using sci-fi races to explore the emotion of fear and sense of human powerlessness is a fairly common trope in the larger sci-fi and “weird fiction” genres. Lovecraft markets on both as he explores cosmic creatures either too unworldly to fathom or too collasal to fight, and even the rehashed “greys” of so many books and movies continue to haunt us with their expressionless faces and typically cold, morbid, and scientific curiosity of humanity.

Possible Pitfalls of Race Creation

We’ve mentioned some of the highlights of the sci-fi genre and what they do well, but it’s prudent I believe to also explore not bad examples persay, but what I find to be typical pitfalls in writing up new fantasy and sci-fi races. The following list is also not exhaustive and is also not meant to label any of the following tactics as inherently “bad” or poor, but rather to call to attention temptations in writing that can lead to a flat or unremarkable universe.

The first pitfall I’ve already made mention of is the “oh this would be cool” philosophy. The problem with this route is not that the creator isn’t inherently creative and able to innovate something remarkable, but to caution the author against their own bias and possibility for subjectivity as they craft their humanoids and the universe that they inhabit. We’ve mentioned quite a few “oh that’s cool / neat looking” examples above of skilled killers (Alien/Predator) and beautiful aliens dwelling in a remarkable world (Avatar). That being said, each of those examples had some substance behind their creations, had a purpose behind the innovative idea. It’s hard to find a sci-fi race that is just merely “recycled,” implying that all new ideas possess some novelty to them, but what the successful series’ seem to do is to go deeper than just the aesthetics and special effects and get at a deeper “why” behind the races. It’s fair to then ask if some of these series developed their cool idea BEFORE OR AFTER the thematic/narrative consideration, though I think this chicken and egg debate is less important than how the themes relate to the ideas.

It pains me to also say this, but leaning too greatly on allegory can also provide challenges in your writing. I’m a fan of world building with allegory when it can point out some much needed warnings to society and human behavior, but like the above mentioned issue of a homogenous race, this too can make your humanoids feel flat. Even worse, feeling compelled to find the most perfect appearance or pattern of thinking/feeling for your new race can limit your own exercising of creativity–though I caution against going the “oh that’s cool route” keep in mind that the above mentioned examples still use awe while crafting well-written aliens.

Related to all of that is a temptation to merely write a species that suits a clear stereotype or role for the purpose of your world so your reader knows “oh they’re the_____.” The exception to this is that there is more leniency here given to the video game market which lends itself to already dehumanizing the enemy and therefore can profit off of a stereotype. That being said, the Mass Effect series has taken flak for constructing an overly sexualized fantasy race (worse than the Twi’leks in my opinion) that seem more of a marketing ploy to appeal to male appetite rather than provide any substance in world building or plot.

So Why Make Up a Race/Humanoid?

The above mentioned is by no means an exhaustive list of compelling reasons to write a fantasy or sci-fi race, but they do happen to be so popular because these humanoid races do one of the following:

  • Serve as a cautionary example of human nature or misplaced ideology
  • Illustrate a character or univrese without via showing versus telling
  • Propose an ideal or longed for existance for mankind (a world or human that may be hard or impossible to acheive)
  • Evoke a raw human emotion (ie fear) or capture the demonization of humanity

No doubt other examples exist of well done and purposeful world-building via race concepting. The utility of pointinging out these successful instances is for us to see the intentionality of their craft and creativity, to see the inventions of these races not as merely cool designs but purposeful machinations. We need not fit into one of the aforementioned categories, but I think borrowing something there or doing some deep exploration as to what purpose writing up a new species has will help us craft stories that compete with an already very large and continually growing market of fantasy and sci-fi books and universes.

This isn’t to put down some of the less substantiated sci fi narratives out there. Don’t get me wrong, I loved how immersive Mass Effect 1 and 2 were as games, but the series itself oscillates between their races being helpfully characterizing like Star Wars and flat/easy to digest tropes.

Again, if you’re like me, it’s easy to see your fantasy and sci-fi races with more curiosity of the aesthetics and utility than what the species itself contributes to the narrative. If it’s a cat species that has unarmed bleeding damage for your homebrew tabletop, go for it. If it’s merely your own badass take on a new saurian race because you’re like me and you like dinosaurs, you might want to consider why writing it at all and how it’ll stand above the rest of the already existing literature.

I invite you all to at least do some wrestling as to what your audience will find compelling about your sentient addition to your already sprawling and ever-growing universe. Your pet alien or beloved mythic elf can still be a fresh and incredible addition to the world of sci-fi and fantasy. It’s only to your gain if you can critically think why others should care about them.

Happy writing! Live long and prosper, and may the force be with Toruk Maktow.

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