Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Writing: On Star Wars and Race Building

NOTE: for the purpose of this post, “race” will be defined in sci-fi and fantasy terms: as different, intelligent, non-human species—for examples, elves, dwarves, etc.—instead of anything to do with nationality or skin color unless otherwise noted.

Part of the world I’ve been developing for “Warrior, Wizard” has required me to work on building non-human races. Since I specifically wanted to avoid elves, dwarves, dragons, totally-not-orcs, and the like, I’ve had to start a bit more (though not completely from) scratch.

As a result, I’ve been thinking pretty heavily on race building, and that’s led to me thinking about Star Wars.

Star Wars is famous for many things, but as time has passed and the internet has led to the formation of larger fandoms, most people have decided that “being good” maybe isn’t one of those things. The general consensus is that the plots of the original trilogy were kind of simple and cliché, and the plots of the prequel trilogy were a train wreck. The science puts the “fiction” into science fiction, any “true” Star Wars fan will recognize the words “Endor Holocaust” to the point that it’s the second Google suggestion for “Endor,” and the whole single biome planet thing? Come on.

But there’s one thing that I’ve noticed Star Wars does incredibly well, and that’s the creation of races.

In a lot of science fiction and fantasy, different races are either “Rubber Forehead Aliens,” i.e., basically humans with some slight cosmetic differences—the short and stocky build of the dwarf, the willowy and pointy-eared elf, the forehead ridges of Klingons. Star Wars has some very humanoid aliens, but they generally require a bit more than a little latex to costume.  It keeps the races on this side of recognizable, but gives them a more unique flavor.

But Star Wars also avoids just making all the aliens look the same.  One thing I like about Star Wars is that (for the most part) all the aliens of any given race have different builds or facial features. Since Star Wars has a name for nearly every character who appears, this means that hardcore fans are probably able to name any given character from any race just by their appearance. It’s easy to make the members of a race distinguishable from each other when they’re wearing the faces of humans, but when we can’t find the features we look for to tell each other apart, it becomes more difficult—not just in terms of alien races, but humans themselves. This is why we often have trouble distinguishing between members of a different race, no matter how much we insist to ourselves that we’re not racist.

For example, look at this image of three Wookiees. They look similar, yes, but all distinctly different. And it’s easy to tell at a glance that none of these three is Chewbacca, or Tarfful (the other Wookiee who Yoda spoke to on Kashyyyk in Revenge of the Sith).  Likewise, if you were to look at Aayla Secura and Bib Fortuna, it’d probably be difficult to tell they’re both Twi’leks.  And look at all the minute variations on these Gungans.  So many races in the Star Wars universe are like this, and I love it because it reflects how the human race is. If we’re varied in structure, appearance, and the like, why aren’t other races?

This is what I strive for when it comes to crafting my races. I want to be able to describe a member of a race as more than just “he looked like a member of the race he was part of.”  Difference in skin tone, weight, height, facial features—I want for my fantasy races to have what we humans think of as races: reptilian beings with tan scales, dark brown scales, light red scales, etc.  It’d be easy to go with more simplistic races, but I want more variety than that.  Star Wars has set the standard for me, and I’m going to try to live up to it.


  1. Star Wars is a terrible standard to be reaching for. However good they are at giving physical variations, Star Wars engages in wanton race essentialism. With few exception, all species in Star Wars have a monoculture and nothing resembling the cultural diversity of humans. The standard you should be reaching towards is reality.

    1. Well yes, we could look at it like that, but it's still better than "elves live in forests, dwarves live underground" or "everybody on this planet always wears a hat" and that's all you need to know about them. It's flawed, sure, but compared to its competition, I'd hardly call it "terrible." If you have a higher fictional standard, I'd love to hear it.

      But don't worry: I'm definitely working on cultural differences within the race, though it's diminished slightly because the world is relatively small and (more honestly) because if I were to spend the time making the societies as complex as I wanted, I'd never actually get anything written.

      And just as a final little justification, this post was about building races, not cultures. If I were talking about that, I maybe would have actually gone into the cultures a bit ;)