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.
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 . . .
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:
But maybe your setting goes beyond typical humans or has more than that. That’s when you bring in . . .
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:
Work aside, human-likes are useful for many reasons in our settings, these being the specific advantages:
The disadvantages of creating human-likes into your world are:
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 . . .
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:
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:
The risks you face:
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