Designing Species

(I’m probably posting this in the wrong place, but I have no idea where this belongs. Not sure it belongs in worldbuilding since it isn’t really related to writing.)

Those of you whose works feature fictional species, how do you go about designing how they look?

I’m not much of an artist, but I’d love to have artwork of my characters. Problem is, I write about aliens. I have a basic idea of what they look like, but not in enough detail to know how to draw them (or describe them in detail to someone else). And, obviously, I can’t consult reference images until I’ve drawn them, which sorta leaves me in a catch-22.

Faces and facial features are particularly a challenge for me. It’s so much detail to invent on one part of the body.

So, for the more artistically-inclined SFF writers here, how do you go about visually designing your species, intelligent or otherwise?

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Well, looking on Pinterest helps a lot with visuals and if I can’t draw something myself I’ll ask a friend who can draw better than I can. If I want to draw them myself I figure out what makes them different from normal life and begin picture of how to draw them mentally before I actually get down to drawing them. If you’re good at copy drawing (drawing things you can see already) I recommend searching for references on Pinterest or even any random pictures if they help you get what you’re looking for. Patients, lots of paper to crumble up if you don’t like the first ones, and some cake… Hope it goes well!

(Not sure if that actually helped at all, lol.)

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What sort of images do you look for? Concept art? Nature photography? (Great suggestion, I’m just curious.)

It’s worldbuilding even if it’s for art!

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Depends, sometimes it can be looking at other people’s art on Pinterest or literally just looking a picture similar to what I’m working on. Pinterest has a lot of cool creature art if you look for it. I’m better at copying so I sometimes I use tidbits from multiple drawings from others and add my own twist to them. So all kinds of pictures really.

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Sorry, this is probably gonna be a long rambly reply ^^;;;

I’m just in the middle of designing one tbh and I LOVE doing this sort of stuff, but I can’t vouch if my method will be useful to you, since I, well, draw a lot and mostly think about these things straight up visually and draw them hah. I also do less humanoid creatures most of the time so uh… this might not be fit for you? Sorry if that’ll be the case.

But! I think it’s a good idea to start with the biggest things and continue onto details. Silhouette is a good starting point imho, because it can give a LOT of info on your new species in a short amount of time. Are they big and muscley? How humanoid are they? Or small and lanky? Just really tall with looong arms? Top heavy? Bottom heavy? All of these are good starting points. I pick one that fits them best and then go for details. I also like adding a big, defining feature that is easy to spot in this stage (like a mane, horns, bodypart that is in a proportion that is very different from ours, etc.)

And then I start going to detail, and well, this is the first time I start thinking about function. It’s best to have at least some idea about their native planet/habitat at this point. Why would they have their defining trait? (for example, I got mane for my current alien, and they’re a desert dweller, so that shapes what this mane is for. Maybe a water storage? That would have to make the mane be out of fleshy, thick-skinned bits! Ooh, a new unique detail acquired.) I think about how their senses would have to adapt to the habitat, which sense is their primary one, and look for animals that live in something similar, and then nitpick their details, smush them together and then try to tie it all together with something (like skin texture or markings).

As for visual inspiration, I very much recommend looking up concept art for movies/shows/videogames that have a similar feel like your alien has! I also personally keep a folder of bookmarks where I stick wikipedia articles about wacky animals, deepsea invertebrates and exctinct evolved-in-very-odd-ways animals.

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Thank you for the tips! I’d never thought about doing silhouettes, but that actually sounds like a really helpful idea now that you’ve explained it.

I’ve put quite a bit of thought into their environment and how it’s shaped their biology and behavior, as well as done quite a bit of reading on the bizarre things that exist on nature, but, yeah, I need to think about those things without letting appearance be more of an afterthought.

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When I’m trying to design a creature I generally go through a basic list of things like “what does it eat?” “where does it live?” and things of that nature. “How does it see?” and “how does it eat?” are big questions too. I keep a running list and add to it when I think of new things. At this point in the process I’m not thinking about how it looks, just where it would fit in in its native environment.

Once I’ve got those down I look up stuff on Earth that live in the same environment or have a similar kind of defense system. I try not to limit myself by saying “this is a mammal so I’ll only look at mammals” or “this doesn’t live in the ocean, so I’m only looking at things on land”, because part of the fun is adapting something to work in a new environment.

I might go looking for inspiration from speculative fiction/sci-fi artists if I’m stuck, but a lot of my creatures just have a mishmash of features that fulfill what I’m trying to go for.

For example: One of the creatures in my current story is called a void crawler. It’s an apex predator that hunts like a jaguar. It has a thick, coarse coat of fur on most of its body but there are armored plates like a rhinoceros along its spine and the top of its head. Because it originated on a world with low light it relies more on its sense of smell and vibrations and has a tentacled nose sort of like a star-nosed mole, only with tentacles that are used to grab and manipulate food. They’re generally bland colors like brown, grey, and black, which helps them blend in with their environment.

So I guess I’d break my process down like this:

  1. Figure out the basics. What does it eat, where does it live, how does it see, etc.
  2. Look up solutions for those questions as they appear on Earth. Does it have poor eyesight? Maybe it evolved a pit organ, like some snakes, so it ‘sees’ heat. Is it an omnivore? It’s going to have teeth more like a human’s.
  3. Look up examples by other artists, to see how they do creature design.
  4. I have a sketchbook dedicated just to sketching creatures and monsters, so I’ll generally doodle a few different options and then mix and match the results until I’m happy.
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Ooh, I get to test out pictures! (apologies if I do this wrong/they’re too big. Please remove if so)
So, I make fantasy art dolls, and that thought process kinda rolls over into my writing. Basically, I pick a feature that’s important to me and figure out how to justify that feature as I go. For example:


I had amphibian eyeballs that I wanted to use, so that was what I started with. Then the bulbousness of the eyestalks kind of got away from me. The spikes came about as I decided to make this creature really chill, but nobody eats him because he’s probably poisonous and at the very least painful to bite. Then I just kind of go back and forth figuring out his sort of enviroment and playing with the design until I’m happy. And finally then I can write about it. Basically, I tend to be very intuitive and see where the design goes. (I wish I could draw better though. It would take up so much less space…)

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Hey, that’s awesome! And a good insight into your creative process, too :smiley:

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For the most part, I design creatures based on nature. I’ll see species or a feature I want to utilize, and mash 'em around until I get something usable. It has been a while since I designed any major species, so I’ll try to break them down by parts.

Ragi:

  • Spiderlike features. Mandibles, four eyes, four arms, oviparous. Predatory, obligate carnivores that don’t handle non-meat products well.
  • Shark teeth to go with the predator-ness at a large scale, since ragi average 8-9ft tall. Classic predator dentition. Claws, too.
  • Since they’re so tall, and part of their respiratory system is the spider’s ‘spiracles and book lung’ system, they struggle with the Square-Cube law, and they have some seriously high caloric needs.
  • Ambush predators to contrast humans’ endurance predator-ness. Don’t like long periods of overexertion.

Kreyin:

  • Dinosaurs and gorillas.
  • Knuckle-walking like a gorilla would, along with a prominent feature on their back (though in this instance it is a spinal ridge).
  • Dinosaur-like neck and head. Skin reminiscent of a rhinoceros but without plating, thick and grey.
  • Basically no sexual dimorphism.

Thyoph:

  • Ocean creatures reminiscent of horseshoe crabs, giant isopods, and other buggy friends.
  • Very small, since they are based on bugs.
  • Photosynthetic with a side of filter-feeding, they eat algae and have chloroplasts. To keep with the plant theme, they also reproduce via spores.
  • Undergo a major transformation from nymph to adult forms, including leaving the open ocean environment they are born in, and going from a crab-like shape to a bipedal one.

Lots of different fun features to pull from. The thyoph came to being during a meeting about oceanography, which explains them. I find picking a few major features, and working outwards from there, helps a lot.

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mine are pretty much humanoids with some tweaks and unique abilities. They are group of humanoid alien natives that live on floating rainforest isles in the sky