How Many Races Should You Have?
I seem to be getting inspiration from people’s questions a lot lately. 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?
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.
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.
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?