What’s the difference between “race” and “species” and when should you use what in your fantasy settings? I’ve taken a look into this myself and made the right choice for me. Read on for ideas on making the right choice for you.
What’s a race? The answer can be complicated (but interesting reading), but race has been described as nothing more than a social construct to describe different versions of homo sapiens (i.e., humans), who are 99.9% the same, having no genetic differences to warrant classification (into “races”).
Since elves, dwarves, and other races in fantasy are invented, no genetic material exists to determine if they are, in fact, genetically different from humans. One could assume that the pointed ears of elves must mean something, but on Earth, some races have stereotypical eyes, noses, etc, and are still the same species. So this suggests such minor differences are not genetic and races in fantasy are just that: still homo sapiens that people have divided into “races” as an artificial construct to classify people.
Of course, “small people”, aka, dwarves, do exist on Earth, but their distinctive height and other characteristics are caused by a medical or genetic disorder, which is only sometimes passed down from parents, meaning it is not a definite outcome, as one would expect if they were indeed a different species or even a race of one. They are still humans. You wouldn’t expect a dwarf in a fantasy setting to give birth to a human, right?
If races don’t really exist on a biological level, “species” is the other obvious term to use, but that has problems, too. Even biologists struggle with the definition of species, known as the “species problem”. If they can’t define it, far be it for us to do so. The word is just used to group similar organisms and is what the average person thinks of when considering a cat vs. a dog, for example.
How are we mere creative writers to make a decision?
Species can interbred and produce offspring (in fact, that’s a part of the problematic definition), so this shouldn’t figure in your thinking between “race” and “species” because both can do it, rendering this moot.
The Status Quo
I’m generalizing, but most fantasy books use “race”, probably because J. R. R. Tolkien’s influential Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit popularized these, along with the later Dungeons and Dragons fantasy role-playing games. It became expected and lots of people followed along, either not caring about a distinction or finding it too problematic and of no consequence to most people, all valid reasons, really.
One explanation for “races” that’s given in some fantasy books is that beings like elves were created from humans, or vice versa, and therefore elves and humans are races of the same humanoid species. If this is the case in your world, then “race” makes sense.
Degree of Difference in Your Fantasy Races
One way to make a decision is to consider how different your creations are from each other and humans. Elves, dwarves, hobbits, orcs, humans, and other fantasy tropes and conventions are pretty similar, making “race” a fine choice (they are the same species).
On the other hand, if one creation has wings, another has gills and other adaptations for the water, and another has four legs, these are more suggestive of being different species. Dragons are clearly another species from homo sapiens, for example.
Also consider that on Earth, we call Caucasians, Asians, and other versions of humans “races”, so if these exist in your world, you pretty much have to do that, too. If you also have elves and dwarves, or similar humanoids, are you going to call those races, too, when you and your readers think of them as more different than Asian/Caucasian races of humans? This is an inconsistent and confusing use of the word “race”.
I’ve been creating one setting for most of my fantasy books for over 25 years, on and off, and invented seven species, which I used to call races. I changed my mind for several reasons, in no particular order:
I can’t call Caucasian, Asian, and other versions of humans “race” and also call my other humanoids, who are not human, race, because that doesn’t make sense. (Asian is an Earth term, but you get the idea).
To be different and pull readers out of their comfort zone of expectations.
Some of my creations have multiple versions that are quite different from each other. It makes sense to call each a species with multiple races of that species.
For example, let’s say I have three humanoids called dokai, lokai, both with wings and similar bodies, and a third with horns and a tail, called soman. And I decide to call all three races. This doesn’t really work because dokai and lokai are basically the same (one is good, maybe the other corrupted to be evil) and soman are different. How can I say dokai and lokai are two races and so are soman? If I do, then what word do I use to describe the difference between dokai and lokai? I can’t use race because I’m already using that at a higher level.
It makes more sense to say dokai and lokai are races of a parent species, kai (a syllable found in both names, giving readers a clue), and soman is a separate species. For example:
i. Dokai (race of kai)
ii. Lokai (race of kai)
i. Asian (race of humans)
ii. Caucasian (race of humans)
In the end, only you can make this choice and there’s really no right or wrong one. Some who feel strongly one way or another will tell you otherwise, but it’s your world and you are its ultimate god.
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