So you want to make a fictional species. Maybe you want something unique to spice up your fantasy world. Maybe you don’t want to play by the books in Dungeons and Dragons. Or maybe, you just thought it would be fun to create a species to draw or share with your friends. Whatever your reasons for wanting to create a fictional species, the process is the same.
When creating a species, it’s important to keep a couple of things in mind. The first thing is that it’s okay that you won’t get the species completely figured out in one day. Living things are complicated, and if you try to rush through the process, you might not be happy with the result. The next thing to keep in mind is that you should start with an idea. You should have some shred of a concept to build off of to get you started. Your idea can be something as small as just knowing what the color scheme will be, or the area they will live in. But start with something, and it’ll be easier to actually start.
You can use the table of contents below as a checklist to keep track of what you’ve done so far. Take a second to jot the headings down, so you can have the satisfaction of crossing them off the list when you complete one.
How to Design a Fictional Species
The first place you need to start is with the design of the species. You don’t need to figure everything out now, but if you know you want to make a humanoid, or a canine sort of creature, then that’s a great place to start! Make notes of all the features you want to include, and all the ideas you have had thus far. Even if all you have is a vague idea right now, you can develop them more later on.
If you can draw, that’s awesome! Sketch out some design ideas and try to find one you like the best. Once you’ve settled on a design, draw a diagram and make notes about features that might not be as visually obvious. If you aren’t comfortable drawing, then make a list of all the traits you want your species to have. Try to envision them in your mind, and describe them in as much detail as you can. Regardless of which option you pick, make sure you save all your notes! You might need to reference them later.
A word of advice: avoid starting with a template species. If you set out to make a character “kind of like a…” then you are going to end up limiting yourself. Don’t base a creature on something else that already exists in another story if you truly want to make something entirely yours. If you start completely from scratch, you’ll end up with a much more unique species that fits the story you are writing, and doesn’t have any odd quirks or leftovers from being “sort of like” any other existing species. If your species ends up being similar to something that already exists, then that’s fine—if that’s exactly how you want them to be. All that really matters is that you like the species you’ve created.
Be mindful when you are deciding what features to include in your species. Real creatures do not evolve randomly, and each feature they have evolved to serve a purpose. Every feature you add should fall into one of three categories: an evolutionary benefit, a vestigial remnant from the species’ ancestors, or—depending on the story—the result of a curse.
So let’s break that down.
- An evolutionary benefit is something that is important for a creature’s survival. It can be a large feature like the wings that allow birds to fly, or it can be a smaller feature like the shape of a dog’s ears. Tails on monkeys allow them to climb more easily and keep their balance while in a tree. The long tongue of an anteater allows it to get to a food that doesn’t have much competition. The horns on a ram allow it to… ram into things, to compete for a mate and defend itself from predators. These are the traits that allow an animal to survive within a niche.
- A vestigial remnant is an evolutionary leftover that is no longer useful. For example, humans have vestigial teeth as a result of our diet changing over time. Depending on how your species has evolved, they could have many features that used to serve a purpose, but now no longer do. That’s a great way of justifying features that you like visually without worrying as much about how they impact the species.
- Although less applicable in some settings, a species or set of features could have come about as a result of some magical or demonic influence, like a curse that is carried down for generations. Take a look at the Tiefling race in Dungeons and Dragons for an example. In this case, you can usually go wild since biological factors and evolution play little to no part in the design. Of course, it won’t work for every story, but it is something to consider.
Some examples of features that you could add to your species are:
- Hooved feet
- Extra limbs
- Strange eyes
- Extra eyes
- Large ears
- Additional or backwards joints
- Long tongues
There are endless possibilities for ways to differentiate your species, so don’t feel as though that is an exhaustive list. If you ever need ideas for what you can add to your species, you can find a huge resource for inspiration in nature. Heck, you could probably find some good ideas just googling “cool animals.”
Coloration and Patterns
Coloration and patterns are related to the heading above, but it deserved to be its own section. That’s because color and pattern can play a huge part in the identity of your species, especially if they are humanoid or resemble another species.
Colors and patterns don’t always have as clear of a purpose as other features. Sure, a creature that camouflages well with their environment uses their color and pattern to their advantage. That can make it easier for them to hunt for food, and makes them less likely to become food themselves. But not all designs make that much sense.
For example, many birds have evolved to be brightly colored as a result of natural selection—the brightest males were able to mate and pass on their genes, while the dull-colored birds were unable to. This does not give birds a distinct advantage, and in fact, can make them more visible to things that would want to eat them. However, creatures like sea slugs use bright colors to communicate that they are poisonous and therefore inedible. A creature may also get a different color depending on its diet. Flamingos are not naturally pink, and get their color as a result of the pink shrimp that they eat.
As long as you can justify it in some way, you can pretty much make your species whatever color you want. The same goes for patterns on their skin, fur, scales, horns, and whatever else they might have. Just try to keep all your decisions deliberate.
Height and Weight
Other important factors to consider are the proportions and overall size of your species. How tall are they? How wide are they? How is their weight distributed throughout their bodies? What would they look like beside a human? If they do not exist in the same world as humans, how does their size compare to the other creatures around them?
What is the reasonable margin of size variation for the species? Not all humans are the same height or weight after all, so what is considered the normal range for your species? How often do individuals fall outside the range of what is considered average? If they were to put on excess weight, where would this weight be stored? What would they look like overly muscular or thin? Try to think about the different body types and how that would affect the overall shape and proportions of your species.
A note about size: if you are going to make a gigantic species, such as a dragon, then you need to consider how they are able to get the sustenance that they need to survive. Remember that every feature must be justiable from an evolutionary standpoint. If a creature is extremely large, it must have something equally large to eat so that it does not deplete the environment around it. Herbivores would require enormous plants to eat, while the presence of huge omnivores or carnivores would suggest the presence of gigantic prey to feed the large predators. You can, however, get around this if there is a huge abundance of a smaller creature, like how whales eat plankton.
How to Create Natural Variations for Your Species
Once you have a distinct species, you should decide on if there will be regional variations for that species, and what those variations will look like. Would it result in different sizes, colors, or features? Would they look mostly similar, but consume a different diet? Or do they look entirely different, like different kinds of mantises?
In general, there are two primary ways that you can justify these variations, depending on how distinct you want the variations to be. Those two options are subspecies and race.
Subspecies is a way of classifying versions of the same species that are biologically different enough to be distinct. As an example, think of how many different subspecies of tigers there are: Bengal Tigers, Siberian Tigers, Indo-Chinese Tigers, Sumatran Tigers, Malayan Tigers, and all the subspecies that have since gone extinct. They are all still tigers, but they are not the same.
Despite what popular fantasy would have us believe, different subspecies are not capable of breeding with each other without a significant biological compromise. Cross-breeds can definitely exist (though not in nature), but they are incapable of reproducing and tend to suffer a host of health problems that contribute to an early death. Different subspecies may even look quite similar to one another, but they are biologically distinct enough to be incompatible.
Race, on the other hand, is more of a sociological concept based on geographic location, culture, and appearance. Those of different races are not biologically distinct enough to be considered different subspecies and can interbreed without consequence. Occasionally, visual differences can occur as a result of adapting to different environments, but that does not change their subspecies.
Humans are the best example of the race phenomenon. People that are condensed around the equator tend to have darker skin than those that live near the poles. The reason for this is the different climates in which the populations reside, and the varied amount of UV radiation from the sun that the regions receive. Near the equator there is much more exposure to the sun, so native people survived better with darker skin to block some of that UV radiation. Farther away from the equator, the sun’s rays are not as direct, so people needed to adapt to absorb more of its radiation. That resulted in populations having lighter skin closer to the poles, and darker skin closer to the equator.
Despite the difference in melanin in the different populations’ skin, they can still mingle and reproduce. Offspring are still healthy and are not significantly different from either parent. However, if distinct populations were completely isolated from one another for long enough, they would eventually evolve into different subspecies.
Dungeons and Dragons has created misinformation about the difference between race and species. They refer to different species as “races,” and to different races as “subraces.” Subraces do not exist in real life; it is a fantasy concept. I am not going to try to dictate what you choose to call the variations in your species. If you are making a species for D&D then you will probably use their terminology, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But you should at least be aware of the scientific terms.
How the Species’s Environment Influences their Design
A creature’s design can tell you a lot about where they live, and the type of environment that they will thrive in. In fact, because the features of their design exist to serve a purpose, at this point you probably already have a pretty decent idea of what you want their environment to look like. From a basic standpoint, you know whether they are fit to live in the mountains, the desert, the snow, or whatever you had in mind to begin with. All you have to do now is to find the places on a map, whether real or fictional, that meet the necessary criteria and pick a place for them to live.
However, it is important to keep in mind that just because a species is suited for a particular environment doesn’t mean that they will live in that environment. There are a couple of things that can influence where a species actually resides. Aside from natural migration, there are a lot of ways that a species can be displaced from their natural habitat. They could be driven out by a species that competes for the same resources, or they could have been forced to abandon their home in order to escape a threat. If the species is naturally part of a fantasy world, they could get displaced by a dragon moving into their mountain, or a conquering army. In most realistic settings, humans are usually the cause of species being displaced from their homes.
If your species resides in a modern world, then it’s important to consider their proximity to human cities and the impact that will have on their way of life. Are humans aware of their existence? What is their relationship with those humans? Are they civil, hunters, or hunted? Are they legends, that some humans have seen but never proven the existence of? If they exist in a fantasy or alien world, then you need to consider their relationship with other creatures around them.
How to Explain the Species’s Biology
The next step in creating a fictional species is to work out the aspects of their biology that go beyond their visual design. This includes things like what they eat, how they reproduce, and more. You can, of course, use magic or fantasy elements to help you out here if that works for your story, but you should put some real thought into this part regardless. If your species is supposed to be in a realistic story, then justifying how their biology works (at least briefly) can make the species seem more believable, and therefore more lovable, frightening, or whatever else you want them to achieve.
Diet is an important part of a species’ life and culture. At a basic level, you should at least decide if the species is herbivorous, omnivorous, or carnivorous. Once you’ve determined that they only eat plants, meat, or both, then you need to decide on the specifics.
Humans have been known to consume just about any edible thing on the planet, and that could be true for your species as well. However, some creatures have much more particular diets. Koalas, for example, are herbivores, but they eat mostly eucalyptus leaves. Your species could be a carnivore, but only eat frogs and fish, or some other specific fictional creature that exists in their world.
When trying to decide what your species should eat, look at their design for ideas. If they have sharp incisors or large fangs, then they probably eat a diet of mostly meat. Flatter teeth with more molars would indicate a diet of fibrous plants. If your species eats meat but isn’t a particularly good hunter, then they probably would have adapted to eat something easier to catch or with less competition. They might also be scavengers or even parasites.
What you decide depends on the role they play in your fantasy world, their design, and their environment.
Although not the most glamorous topic, you need to think of how your species reproduces. I’ll keep it brief, but you should take the time to consider each of these questions:
- Do they mate for life, or have different partners each time?
- Do they give live birth, or do they lay eggs?
- How long does it take the embryo to develop?
- How many babies or eggs would they have at one time?
- Do they care for their young like humans, or simply send them off into the world like fish?
- What role does each parent play in child-rearing?
- How long does it take for babies to reach maturity?
- How many children is one parent likely to have in a lifetime?
With that said, some fantasy creatures do not reproduce in any normal biological way. Mythological creatures across cultures have been known to sprout from trees, emerge from the mud, or be manifestations of light. If you want to apply that to your species, then you should try to explain the conditions that result in this type of birth. Does a tree spirit emerge after a tree dies? Does another type of creature erupt from the dirt months after a special seed is planted there? Do creatures made of light get created by a higher power? Justify your choice, and create some sort of process to explain when and how it happens.
If your species is well-established, then that means that they beat out the competition in their particular niche. Your species survived, while others like them died off throughout history. What makes your species different? What gave them the competitive edge over other creatures vying for the same resources? How did your species specialize in something that allowed them to survive?
Every species that persists is able to do so for a reason. For some creatures, that means evolving to have a bigger brain and more complex reasoning skills. For other creatures, that means having the ability to hold their breath for a much longer period of time than other creatures. Other creatures are able to run fast, swim, or fly.
There should be some advantage that your species has, whether that’s a skill, a feature, a habit, or something else that could possibly give them an edge. And if all else fails, and a species is small, helpless, and at the absolute bottom of the food chain, they’ll likely stick around by reproducing in huge numbers or staying in large packs.
In addition to considering your species’ evolutionary advantages, you should also consider the things that your species cannot do. This adds an interesting complexity to the species, but it also makes them more realistic. Penguins cannot fly, despite being birds. Fish cannot leave the water. These creatures are restricted to specific environments and ways of life because of their biological design. Although that might seem obvious, it is still important to consider so you can avoid making a species that’s too powerful or “perfect.”
This is even true for fictional creatures. Vampires are hard to kill, sure, but they are sensitive to the sun. In some stories, that can even kill them. Other creatures are weak to certain plants, minerals, or elements. Keep this in mind when creating your own fictional species, and try to give them weaknesses that make sense for them.
How does Your Fictional Species Communicate?
Depending on your story, your creatures could speak English, or whatever language is considered “common” for the region in which they live. D&D makes this easy by giving each different species its own language, usually named after the species itself. However, in some cases, like with aliens, your species is going to have its own language unlike anything else.
If you’re thinking about the language your creatures will speak, you don’t need to get intimidated. You don’t have to create an entire language (though you can if you want to). You should, however, consider some things about how easy it is to translate, learn, speak, and write. If it has a special script, then sketch out some ideas about what that script would look like.
Alternatively, you could have your species communicate in a nonverbal way. Maybe they communicate telepathically by projecting thoughts into others’ heads. Maybe they use a series of clicks and other noises. Or they could communicate with body language or a type of sign language. You don’t have to hold yourself back by forcing them to speak a verbal language if you don’t think it fits.
How to Create a Culture for Your Species
If your species is intelligent, then they are going to have a unique culture based on their history, beliefs, and customs. This is going to include things like their society, government, prejudices, religion, and traditions, and it might not always make sense for survival. Maybe they make sacrifices to their god or have self-harming practices in the name of faith or tradition. Maybe they fast or feast on different holidays, and avoid arbitrary numbers, ideas, foods, and other things as a result of their traditions.
This is going to become representative of who they are as a society, and not just as an individual species. If they are a society focused on conquering land or fighting for sport, then that is going to be represented in every aspect of their lives. Alternatively, if they are known for rich cultural traditions and bright festivals, then they will likely be perceived more favorably by outsiders. Other creatures are going to make assumptions about your species based on their reputation.
If your species exists in multiple places in the world, their culture may differ significantly depending on the location. Think about how cultures are different for humans across the world, and keep that in mind as you are creating societies in different colonies, cities, and continents.
For more guidance on creating a fully unique culture for your new species, check out my articles:
How to Name a Fictional Species
Finally, it’s time for the moment of truth: giving the species a name. This part doesn’t really have to come last, but in my experience, it tends to come about naturally midway or most of the way through the process. Naming your species is a big deal after all, so you’ll want to make sure you take your time coming up with it.
Unfortunately, there is no perfect formula for coming up with species names. Some people use other languages to come up with something, while other people stick to basic descriptions (ie: Giant Bugs or Flying Mermaids). I personally like to mash the keyboard at random, then pick out or add letters as I see fit. Sometimes I have to do this several times before I find a suitable name. Once you have a nonsense word that you like, that really rolls off the tongue and communicates the feeling you want the species to convey, I recommend looking it up on google just to make sure it isn’t already in use for a company or another species.
In addition to a proper name, you could think about if the species has any nicknames. Just because your species has a real name isn’t going to stop people from referring to it as “bog monsters” or something. The nickname could be offensive (like “bloodsucker” for vampires), the result of ignorance or fear (“killer whales” for orcas), or a regional variant (“quill pig” for porcupines). It’s not required, but it can be a fun exercise at the very least.