LESSON Creating a Sentient Species

Discussion in 'DEVELOPING CHARACTERS & CULTURES' started by Revision, Sep 26, 2012.

  1. One of the facts of world building is that most worlds we make will have sentient life on them. This allows us to make stories and RPs that are more appealing to us as humans. The characters may be far from human in appearance, but the fact that they can think and are self aware ties us to them. While it is possible to build worlds with no sentient life, or even with no life at all, these aren’t going to be the worlds our characters originate on, for the most part. Thus, it is important to have at least one world in your setting with sentient life.

    When most people think of sentient beings, they default to bipedal humanoids. These are the most recognizable to our human minds as sentient. They are likely to be tool users, smart, nearsighted compared to wilder creatures, and have societies that are familiar to our own. The closer to humanity a race is, the more we can identify with it and feel that their motives mirror our own, an important thing. However, it limits diversity. (There could be, and is, an entire workshop just on that topic. For now, we won’t go into it in depth.) We also must remember that there are other sentient beings on the Earth. It is not limited to humanity. Squids, for instance, are very interesting to scientists because they are intelligent, sentient, and have interesting communication abilities.

    But what if you don’t want to make a bipedal humanoid? Well, there are a couple options. First, you can base the species on something that already exists, an animal from earth, at least for a start. It is hard to picture what we don’t already know, so this is often the safest alternative if you don’t want a headache. Secondly, you can work part by part of the creature’s biology and make something completely new. This is a more time consuming option, as well as brain breaking. A third option is to make a Strange Species, something like a sentient mineral race or mobile plant or an unspeakable horror. Let’s look at these options a bit more closely.

    There are many species to base sentient beings upon. Some favorites are arthropods, birds, lizards, cats, monkeys, and wolves. One might also look at extinct species, such as dinosaurs, trilobites, and primitive mammals for inspiration. As I mentioned before, this is often a safe route to take. You can modify species as you wish, create something similar or vastly different, and still have that thread connecting your brand new race to something the human mind finds recognizable.

    If you want to do something more unique, do a bit of research into anatomies of various creatures. Decide a basic body layout and then go about building parts, creating form, and working from the ground up. Literally. The feet are going to determine more about your creature than almost any other part except perhaps teeth. A good foot design will show how your character moves, where they can go, what they can withstand. Are they plantigrade? Digitigrade? Flat footed and scaled? Do they have fleshy pads surrounded by fur? Do they even have feet at all? All of this is going to tell you a lot about your sentient. I’ll go into this more in the upcoming Creature Creation workshop.

    The third option is a Strange Sentient. Here, the imagination is the limit. This might be a mineral with a mind of it’s own, living electricity, a brain in a jar with a robotic body, a race of androids, an unspeakable abomination, or something entirely new. Often, these species are depicted as the villains, the unknowable manipulators, or the deities of other species. It is their very lack of humanity that causes us to disconnect with them, to feel that they are the Others. Take care with these. They may make readers uncomfortable.

    Another thing to consider is what environments your sentients evolved in, from, and to. How did they affect them? This is more than just water, land, desert, jungle, and radiation. This includes magic, predators, family structures, and toxicity. Did your creature evolve in stagnant pools? They might be able to hold their breaths for long periods of time and absorb and pass most poisons. Were they transformed to sentience by a magical gift? If so, they might feel either a strange kinship or a harsh disconnect with their past form. Were their predecessors protective of their young or was it a strictly survival of the lucky system where many were produced and only the best/luckiest survived?

    Looking into the past of a species, while not necessary at the outset, can nonetheless provide ample story opportunities as well as insight into why that species is like it is now. Looking toward what they could become in a future may also give you plot hooks, motivation, and religion for your species.

    By now, you should have an idea how to go about making a rough species anatomy design, as well as a general idea of what sort of setting they exist in. But there is much more to sentient species than this. In fact, most of what you’ve learned here can be applied to any creature, sentient or non. So take a break, get a cup of coffee, and let’s move along!

    One thing I mentioned earlier was tool usage. Most sentient species have some concept of manipulating their environment (many non sentients do as well, but not to the point of those who can fully separate themselves from what they are doing This can be seen with some birds opening food covers attached to strings to get at the tasty treats inside. They don’t really know much more than that doing this gets them food.). For those with grasping appendages or very mobile mouths, this manipulation can be considered tool use. To be actual tool use, it must be demonstrated that the creature actually knows what it is doing when it is using the tool. This is shown by repeated response to the result of the usage and thus repeated usage. However, just using tools is not a definite marker for sentience. A dog can use a dog flap or an auto feeder, after all. It is when the species finds new ways to solve problems or new uses for old tools that we start realizing sentience.

    Perhaps a defining mark of sentience is that the creature itself knows when it has been altered. The ability to recognize self awareness means that the creature not only knows it is a separate part of its environment but also means that it knows that said environment can affect it. Thus, it starts to realize when and how this happens and learns to either embrace or avoid these effects.

    In short, sentient races know what and who they are for the most part, though the finer details might spark many arguments. If you are making a sentient race, they should know they are, should know they are alive, and should know what their environment and culture are like, at least to an extent. Are they a hive society? How about a feudal one? Maybe they travel the stars in city ships.

    From here, you can start creating a culture for your sentient. This culture should be heavily based in past and present environments, and hopeful future ones for those races with ambition. Consider not only the scenery, but the form and function of everything encountered. Consider the architecture, the religion or lack thereof, any magic, any technology. It should fit with your sentients. There are a few exceptions for this rule. All of these cultural bits may have been borrowed or come from ancient or conquered lands. In contrast, your species might be slaves to another and have all but lost their heritage. In that case, it is still good to know something about their time before servitude. This opens the way for discoveries made, revisionist history, and those subtle effects culture can leave in the psyche of magical races.

    Another important aspect of your creation is what they eat. You have probably defined what sort of eating your sentient does, what sort of teeth they have, etc. Now that you’ve gotten to culture and surroundings, this plays a major role. Predatory carnivorous races may have a heavy urge to hunt that can lead to them scouring the stars for prey or can transform into hunting for the perfect prize in a garbage scow or becoming financial geniuses always looking for that prize stock or deal. Herbivorous races may be gentler, though there is no guarantee of this. Perhaps they are focused on agricultural sciences. Maybe your sentients are omnivores and raise their food rather than hunt it. This can lead to great patience and a willingness to do things to better the world for their children, as such things like breeding better food cannot be done over just one generation. Detritivores are likely to be paired with other societies, not just exist on their own. Energy consumers may find themselves paired with others as well, though possibly considered great parasites.

    We’ve discussed anatomy, surroundings, and culture. One thing we have yet to touch on is reproduction. This is an important aspect of most species you are going to create. One way or another, they have to make more of themselves. Reproduction and specifically mating are heavily influenced by anatomy, culture, and habitat. In turn, mating also influences culture and psychology, so when you get to this point, be prepared to revise what ideas you have so far. Your previous ideas might change somewhat depending on just how your species is going to make babies/clones/etc. This can influence your whole world: everything from environment to religion to social ritual to combat to war to standards to deviations from said standards. Your species may bud, may use an artificial cloning tech, may mate with a partner or more than one partner, or may reproduce through even stranger methods, such as magically or virally. Are the partnerships lasting if there are partnerships? Or is it love ‘em and leave ‘em? Consider this and all the impacts this reproduction will have.

    Reproduction, of course, leads to new life and a host more questions. Does the mother, father, or neither carry the developing young? Are they left to grow and hatch on their own? Do the parents care for their offspring? Do the children look like tiny adults or are they a completely different form? What are the stages of development? How long are the offspring considered young before reaching adulthood? Is adulthood based upon physical maturity, mental maturity, or some societal taboo or mark of age? Are there rights of passage?

    By now, you should have enough questions, suggestions, and direction to start making a sentient species. There are numerous aspects that haven’t even been touched, details that will need to be brought out over time as you work, and many more workshops to come that will go into much more about culture, war, history, biology, etc. For now, you should have a good start that will guide you in making a rough outline of your sentient beings, so good luck and happy world building!