How Many Races Should You Have?

I seem to be getting inspiration from people’s questions a lot lately.Β  A little over a week ago, Thrawn asked a question on the Holy Worlds Sci-Fi forums:

How many groups of aliens do you think is appropriate and easy to handle?
~Thrawn

While I responded on the thread, I wanted to elaborate. Like many answers, the short version is “It depends.” As with all answers, the long version is more interesting. While I am speaking in science fiction terms, this is all very relevant to fantasy as well.

From what I have found, there are three main development/involvement levels for races (or, “groups of aliens,” if you prefer). The number of groups you may handle depends on the level of development and involvement, since these affect how much time and effort is needed.

Fully Developed Races
Main characters and sub-main characters are part of fully developed races (with a few plot exceptions – such as the main character is the only surviving member of the race). These are races where everything is developed: history, culture, clothing, food, mindset, factions, schooling, religion, technology, architecture, etc. etc. etc.

Semi-Developed Races
Usually secondary characters belong to somewhat developed races. Just as secondary characters play a minor role, the development is less. Things like appearance, clothing, and mindset are given, but all other aspects of development are created only as it is needed: if the character is part of a faction, then that faction and how it is different from the norm is developed. You would only develop food if they ate a meal. If the main characters were passing through the race’s territory, architecture would need to be developed.

Fully developed and somewhat developed races may have a political role in the story. Also, one or more planets may be fully developed.

Existing Races
Some secondary characters and background characters belong to existing races. Nothing more is developed than the race’s home planet or territory’s location, any quirks the race has, the race’s appearance, the race’s means of communications, and possibly clothing. Usually not even all of that is developed.

Fine. How many of each, exactly?
No exactly. How many people groups you can handle involves the story line, your comfort level, and the level of the races. If you need more races for the galaxy to feel less empty, add a half-dozen existing races. Throw them around interplanetary stations. Mention passing their territory or planet. Most of us could develop a dozen existing races without a problem.

For fully developed races I can usually only handle about three at most. But then, my novels are short for the sci-fi genre. If I had room, perhaps I could develop more if my story line called for it.

Key phrase: if the story line calls for it. Don’t over develop a race just because it’s there. You can become stressed thinking you have to make every race fully or even semi developed. On the other hand, don’t worry about overdeveloping: you could always use the development unmentioned in the story for another race in another story. Also, for a semi-developed race, over development might help you “get a feel” for the race, as a friend pointed out.

Take your pick as to which half of the above paragraph you are going to listen to.

An Interesting Note
There have been studies showing that the human brain can only completely manage four other people at a time at top capacity. The article I heard was referencing how many generals leaders have historically handled effectively. About a year ago, I noticed an interesting thing: while I could make smooth and even conversations between four characters, conversations fell apart when I used five. Someone got left in the sidelines. What’s more, I never was able to learn how to make my five characters have a smooth conversation, even with time and plenty of practice. My theory is that I’m managing four “people,” and as the study showed, I can’t handle five at 100% effectiveness. It’s just a theory – and I’d love to hear if this is true for you as well as me – but it appears sound as I’ve applied it to other things.

And races are “other things.” I would recommend no more than four fully developed races.

How do you tell what level a race should be?
You can look at the level of the characters in that race and judge from there. But my personal route is to write in a race at a lower level, and wait to see if I need more development. If I’m writing and realize I really, really, need to have some standard wardrobes for different classes in a race, I’ll pause, pull out pretty colored pencils, and create apparel. I am very obviously a panster.

How many groups of aliens or races do you handle in one story? From what I have said, which development and involvement levels do these races have?

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About Kathrine Roid

I'm an science fiction and fantasy author living in Texas with an undead parakeet and teleporting cat. Think about that for a moment.

Posted on March 1, 2011, in On Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Sounds cool. I think mine highest is 1 person to talk to πŸ™‚ I’m just like that πŸ™‚
    And I can handle about 3 or 4 races in 1 story so far πŸ™‚ Thereabouts πŸ™‚

  2. The StoryWeaver

    Do dragons count as a race? Because including them, I have *counts on fingers* four plus humans.

    • Well, it depends. If they’re sentient beings with their own culture and what not, then yes. If they’re just animals, even important ones (ala How to Train Your Dragon), not really.

      So, are those races all fully developed? How is that going?

  3. Interesting ideas, Katir. I have about four races, plus dragons.

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