Inventive people groups are a staple of speculative fiction, but writers of all stripes should pay attention to the way fantasy and science fiction authors create unique cultures. After all, most characters belong to a subset of the greater culture.
Ebenezer Scrooge (A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens), a rich merchant during London’s Industrial Revolution, once belonged to a more modest segment of society. His economic success isolated him from the community he’d known as a child and as a young man.
Huck Finn (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain) was a poor boy growing up in the South prior to the Civil War. As he traveled the Mississippi River with the run-away slave Jim, he encountered a number of different people groups which Twain rendered masterfully—so much so that the novel has earned recognition for its depiction of the regional local color.
Elizabeth Bennet and her family (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen) were part of Britain’s landed gentry during the nineteenth century and as such navigated the strictures of that elitist society.
John Steinbeck set his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Grapes of Wrath during the Great Depression. The Joad family, of necessity, joined the migrant workers relocating to California in order to find work.
Each of these literary works places the main characters within a particular people group. Clearly speculative writers aren’t the only ones who need to know how to render particular communities in fiction, but they might have the most experience.
J. R. R. Tolkien’s hobbits are perhaps the best group of fantasy people ever created. They are cute and cuddly, with their short stature and tough, leathery feet covered in hair. They’re also suspicious of the outside world and real homebodies. They love to eat and to celebrate and they love the Shire.
In addition, they have some unique abilities—they can be extremely quiet when walking about (which made Bilbo the perfect choice to be Gandalf’s burglar). They also have excellent hearing and sharp eyesight. Beyond these physical attributes, hobbits are courageous and steadfast, intent on doing their work well and seeing it to completion.
I suppose because Bilbo and then Frodo were such admirable characters that all of Hobbation has become well-loved. But there are any number of other speculative people groups who have won over readers.
In Donita K. Paul’s DragonKeeper Chronicles, there are a number of races with intriguing qualities. Reminiscent of hobbits are the doneel:
One of the seven high races. These people are furry with bulging eyes, thin black lips, and ears at the top and front of their skulls. They are small in stature, rarely over three feet tall. Generally are musical and given to wearing flamboyant clothing. (Glossary, DragonSpell, Donita Paul)
As I recall, they also loved to cook and had a definite sense of propriety. The most prominent donnel in the Chronicles is Dar. Here’s how Kale, the main character, views him when she first meets him:
The whistling first sounded like a double-crested mountain finch, but then a few too many high notes warbled at the end of the call. Kale’s eyes sprang open, and she sat up. A doneel sat on a log by the stream. From his finger, a string dangled over the edge of a rock into the water. His clothes were tattered but bright in hue between the smudges of dirt and blood [which he’d acquired in a recent battle]. His whistle changed to the song of a speckled thrush.
Kale compared the look of this real-life doneel to the painted figure in the mural at the River Away Tavern. This whistling doneel sat, but she was sure if he stood, his little frame would not reach four feet. His tan and white furry head sat on a well-proportioned body. His large eyes hid under shaggy eyebrows that drooped down his temples and mingled with a long mustache. His broad nose stuck out like the muzzle of a dog, and his black lips met with hardly a chin at all underneath. Dressed in rich fabric of glorious colors, he was far more interesting than the blurry image on the dark tavern wall. (DragonSpell, pp 20-21)
In The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader C. S. Lewis invented a number of people groups as well, the best being the Dufflepuds. The passage in which Lucy discoves who they really are is filled with Lewis’s humor.
“Are they awfully conceited?” [asked Lucy.]
“They are. Or at least the Chief Duffer is, and he’s taught all the rest to be. They always believe every word he says,” [said the Magician].
“We’d noticed that,” said Lucy.
“Yes—we’d get on better without him, in a way. Of course I could turn him into something else, or even put a spell on him which would make them not believe a word he said. But I don’t like to do that. It’s better for them to admire him than to admire nobody.”
“Don’t they admire you?” asked Lucy.
“Oh, not me,” said the Magician. “They wouldn’t admire me.”
“What was it you uglified them for—I mean, what they call uglified?”
“Well, they wouldn’t do what they were told. Their work is to mind the garden and raise food—not for me as they imagine, but for themselves. They wouldn’t do it at all if I didn’t make them. And of course for a garden you want water. There is a beautiful spring about half a mile away up the hill. And from that spring there flows a stream which comes right past the garden. All I asked them to do was to take their water from the stream instead of trudging up to the spring with their buckets two or three times a day and tiring themselves out besides spilling half of it on the way back. But they wouldn’t see it. In the end they refused point blank.”
“Are they as stupid as all that?” asked Lucy.
The Magician sighed. “You wouldn’t believe the troubles I’ve had with them. A few months ago they were all for washing up the plates and knives before dinner: they said it saved time afterwards. I’ve caught them planting boiled potatoes to save cooking them when they were dug up. One day the cat got into the dairy and twenty of them were at work moving all the mile out; no one thought of moving the cat. But I see you’ve finished. Let’s go and look at the Duffers now they can be looked at.”
Before the doneel, Dufflepuds, and hobbits were the people created from the imagination of Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels. Perhaps most famous were the Lilliputians, a race of people no bigger than six inches tall.
Upon leaving Lilliput, Gulliver encounters a group of people on Brobdingnag who are giants. Next his ship is attacked by pirates and he’s marooned on a rocky island only to be rescued by the flying island of Laputa, “a kingdom devoted to the arts of music and mathematics but unable to use them for practical ends” (Wikipedia).
His travels take him to other strange lands such as Luggnagg where he encounters the struldbrugs, immortals who do not enjoy the fountain of youth but continue to age and suffer infirmity as a result. Gulliver’s final voyage results in mutiny. He’s set in a boat and encounters a land where he finds
a race of hideous, deformed and savage humanoid creatures to which he conceives a violent antipathy. Shortly afterwards he meets a race of horses who call themselves Houyhnhnms (which in their language means “the perfection of nature”); they are the rulers, while the deformed creatures called Yahoos are human beings in their base form (Ibid.)
While physical descriptions factor into the creation of these various people groups, as the description of the doneel demonstrates, the authors have brought them to life in other ways.
First, each has a shared trait such as the suspicion with which hobbits viewed strangers, the flamboyance of the doneel, the conceit of the Dufflepuds, and the savagery of the yahoos.
Each group also has a distinctive speech pattern, if not their own language. The Dufflepuds, for example, constantly repeat what the Chief Duffer says, adding that he is right, even when he says things that are clearly wrong.
Stories that are not set in fantasy worlds can still utilize language in the same way. For example, in the Safe Lands trilogy, a young adult dystopian series, author Jill Williamson created an impressive array of slang terms for her invented high tech society (vape, shell, femme, glossy, and more). Jill Stengl peppered Until That Distant Day, her historical novel set during the French Revolution, with appropriate French terms. Julie Carobini, author of a number of beachy books set somewhere along the California coast (Chocolate Beach, Truffles by the Sea, Sweet Waters, and more), tailors her characters’ speech to the particular community in which they find themselves.
A third technique authors use to create a people group is to give them a shared history. Hobbits had wars, celebrations, and famous people. The Lilliputians have their own dispute with their neighbors, and the Dufflepuds are under the enchantment of the Magician.
Finally, the different groups have a hierarchical structure. The Brobdingnaggians have a king and queen who rule their land. The Dufflepud have their Chief Duffer and over him, the Magician. The Lilliputians have a king, court, and legal system.
Smaller groups, such as families or work places, can also reflect a pecking order or chain of command.
By using these techniques—physical appearance, a shared trait, distinct language or speech patterns, a shared history, and a hierarchical structure—the author creates a believable group that can serve as the context into which the main character fits.