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Way With Worlds: Intelligent Life

This was originally posted by Steven Savage on his blog, but has allowed me to republish it here as I think it’s useful for roleplayers! This is part of Steven’s Way With Worlds series of articles. -David

Portrait against starting a sandstorm Fantasy Author: mvn78

I’m going to start by assuming the setting of your story has intelligent life in it. If not, well that sounds like a challenging write, and feel free to skip this part until you need it.  Or don’t because hey, you never know.

Now first, allow me to define intelligent life, so we’re on the same sheet of virtual paper here. Intelligent life is that form of life that can process information, adapt and retain this information, pass this information on to others, and possesses a level of self-consciousness or self-awareness. Intelligent life is essentially a kind of conscious computing, even if I personally dislike that simplistic terminology.

I would especially argue that intelligence contains a level of self-awareness as intelligence life as we think of itis self-modifying and self-directing. You can’t separate intelligence from consciousness, because someone has to “be in there” to be intelligent. “I think therefore I am” is also “I know I am as I think.”

With that all-to brief (and doubtlessly incomplete) journey into the philosophy of intelligence, let’s continue a to why it’s important. I’ll also try not to overdo the words “intelligent life,” but no promises here.

Intelligent Life: The Focal Point

As noted, you can probably tell a story without intelligent life, but that’s going to be a bit challenging. To go over why it’s usually the way we go (beyond instinct), let’s examine why having actual sentient life is important to your setting and your stories.

First of all, writing about sentient life is something most of us do anyway because we are intelligent life, despite that incident back in college we hope no one remembers. Most of us are just going to do it anyway, so we should do it with awareness of this fact so we can bring the proper level of craftsmanship to our world and the stories, games, and so on that take place in them.  You can’t take intelligence for granted in worldbuilding or real life.

Secondly, the reason we write intelligent life is that we relate to it – and in turn, that is a powerful part of good storytelling. Your audience needs people to relate to, and it is rather easier to relate to someone you have something in common with; sentience is a good common ground to have wether your cast is human or triple-headed hive-mind ant-people. As noted earlier, your characters are “Lenses” upon your world that people see it through, and the lens has to be clear enough for your audience to enter into the setting.

Third, frankly, it’s bloody difficult to write a story without intelligent life in it for the first two reasons. Again you may do it, but not everyone is up for the challenge.

Foruth, your audience may just loose interest if theres no one to relate to or no perspective to relate to. This will depend on your skill as an author of course, but let us be honest about the limit.

Fifth, some mediums require intelligent life to “play” – such as gaming and certain sims. You can’t avoid putting it in your setting in many cases, though again that may depend on how you rise to the occasion.

In short, intelligent life in your world gives people something to relate to, understand, and/or live the world you built.

This raises the question of what kind of intelligent life you’re creating. There’s three kinds in most settings, and depending on your setting you may be writing all three . . .

Humans

A lot of settings are going to have humans or the pretty much-equivalents. If you’re writing modern-day fiction and so forth you can pretty much just read this section and go on, though you never know as there may be other almost-sentient life in said setting, like computers and golems . . .

Humans are thus the defaults for a lot of settings and in a few cases the races you create in your world might as well be humans. Let’s face it, they’re easier to write.

If you have human in your setting have the advantage of:

  • A relatable viewpoint. Your human “lenses” in your world will be easy to relate to.
  • People get them, what they do, and how they work.
  • You can draw on personal experience and other people’s experiences to understand your setting and characters.
  • You can draw on human history to understand characters and get ideas – in a few cases that may be unavoidable if you’re doing historical or semi-historical settings.
  • In if your world is a real setting you have a lot of research to draw on.
  • Sometimes it’s just easier as a worldbuilder and a writer.

The challenges

  • If you’re going to have humans in your world, you had better get how people work. Otherwise things will obviously be flawed in your setting and writing/coding/etc.  That may seem an unnecessary warning, but think of the moments you or someone else didn’t “get” people and imagine that on a world or story scale.
  • In your setting is of a given real time and place you’ll want to know it well – or know it well enough for when you make it weird/unusual/etc.
  • You may get too casual and think you get your characters when you actually don’t.  It can lead to less character building.
  • If your setting is your own creation, you may stick humans in it without thinking of why they’d be there or how they’d exist in it. In short,you transplant humans into a setting that doesn’t quite fit them or fit how you designed them.  Your readers/players/etc. will pick up on this.

But maybe your setting goes beyond typical humans or has more than that. That’s when you bring in . . .

Human-Likes

We all know the human-likes. They’re the races and peoples in novels, stories, games, and settings that are like humans but with some differences. Elves, dwarves, all-too-human aliens, and so on are the Human-Likes that we’re used to.

Human-likes are staples of . . . well many settings. We’re familiar with them with pointy-eared elves, and pointy-eared logical aliens.

In making good human-likes you have to make sure they’re human enough to relate to but also different enough to be, well, not too human, otherwise you’re just giving a species funny clothes and calling them “non-humans.” This is going to require you to think about origins, evolution, biology, backgrounds, etc. quite a bit.  The species you’re creating may be human-like but they are not human and you have to put the effort into designing them.

This is where it starts getting complex because you’ve got to explain why your blue-skinned human-likes are, well, blue-skinned. Or why the species you created has every human emotion except laughter (and maybe why they have emotions humans don’t have). It’s a bit of work to have the not-quite-human species in your setting, and you may not notice this.

In making human-likes you have to ask the questions:

  • Their evolutionary/created origins and backgrounds.  Why they are like the are (and why they’re like us)
  • Where do these species differ from humans, why, and what is the effect of these differences on them?
  • How do they interact with their environment and others in ways that are and are not like the humans we know?

Work aside, human-likes are useful for many reasons in our settings, these being the specific advantages:

  • They’re still as relatable or almost as relatable as humans – they make good lenses.
  • Their differences from humans can be interesting to explore in your world building and writing. Exploring immortality or long-life, unusual abilities, etc. that deviate from the human experience can be fascinating – if you do it right.
  • You can still draw on personal experience, historical research, and the like to create and write them, you just need to be aware of the differences.
  • If you’re writing legendary or mythical characters, you have those sources to draw on – though I recommend doing your research to ensure you don’t embarrass yourself by making assumptions. Those legends can be tricky and aren’t always like we assume.

The disadvantages of creating human-likes into your world are:

  • You can end up making them too human and you might as well have written people. This also breaks believability in your setting as it looks contrived.
  • You can make them seem human enough but take such left turn into “elsewhere” that you give readers, players, etc. whiplash. Grafting on radical differences – as opposed to understanding how they work in your setting – can cause this.  Know why something is.
  • You can make them too generic. You end up with the infamous “guy with some makeup on his face” aliens or a planet where people just wear a different hat. Unless there’s a reason for everyone to be too a like, make sure your human-likes are unique and interesting as real people are.
  • As noted you may not put enough effort into making them their own unique people, not just humans-with-something-else. A human-like can be tempting to laziness, especially when based on myths or tropes.

You may of course want to play some serious setting hardball and not create humans or human-likes – or create more than them.  That’s when you get to . . .

The Unique Intelligent Species

Now you’re talking. Your setting is going to have one or more unique intelligent species that aren’t like us at all. This is when you pull out all the stops . . . and have a lot of design work to do.

To create a unique intelligent life form in your setting, try these questions:

  • What a was the role of the species in their ecosystem before they were sentient (if they were non-sentient). What is their role and impact now?
  • How did the intelligent species evolve – if they did evolve. What traits are retained from their evolutionary past physically, intellectually, and emotionally?
  • How did the species become intelligent – evolution? Creation?
  • If the species was created, by whom (and what is their background). For what purpose, and how do they fit that purpose, and how is that reflected in their life.  They’re not machines (metaphorically), they are sentient, but someone made them for a reason and that will affect them.
  • How does the species survive in its environment or environments, and what role does intelligence play?
  • What role does their intelligence play in their lives overall, from what they enjoy to how they interact? This adds many juicy possibilities – they could be created, the intelligence may be a side effect of magic or mutation, they may have had to adapt quickly to environmental changes, etc.

A unique intelligent species takes a lot of work to design. This is where doing your research on science, biology, myth, or whatever foundations of your world exist in order to understand them.  This is where you’ve got a lot of thinking to do.  It’s also why I emphasized so much work on understand the origin and ecologies of your world – because this is where you’re going to really use it.

One side effect of this is that when you do it, you really think about your setting.  When you’re up for creating a new species in your world, you’re going to get truly intimate with the universe you’ve created.  That’s a nice little side effect for all that work.

The reasons to design unique intelligent species in your world:

  • It makes sure the species truly fits your setting.
  • It’s more interesting as everyone isn’t a human wearing a funny bit of makeup.
  • It makes a setting richer, and thus believable.
  • It avoids the issue of shoehorning in humans and human-likes into an inappropriate setting.

The risks you face:

  • It takes work and thought. Messing this up or doing it half-way makes an inconsistent world.
  • It takes skill to do right. You may need to build up for it.
  • You can make a detailed, understandable species that no one can relate to in your tales or game or whatever and that you can’t write.

Closing

Creating intelligent life is a challenge – even when you’re just pretty much copying and pasting humans. However it’s a vital part of your setting because the intelligent characters are the ones people experience the story through. It may take research and developing skills to truly push your abilities to make believable intelligent species, but the rewards are a relatable and intriguing world.

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers and community at www.musehack.com, publishes books on career and culture at www.informotron.com, and does a site of creative tools at www.seventhsanctum.com. He can be reached at www.stevensavage.com.

Cover art by mvn78.

  • Daenelia

    This has just become relevant for a little side project we have in mind. I will be going over this a couple of times, to explain it to a young and inexperienced writer with the drive to create a world of her own. So: Thanks for posting this.

  • Louie

    There is a vast trove to be found in human-only settings. Isaac Asimov did exceptionally well with a human’s only concept. Although some of his works did deal with sentient life (his short stories); the large scope of his material focused primarily on a human-centric setting. The Foundation Trilogy, and it’s following novels, all dealt with the ramifications of human society set against an intergalactic background.