In Defense of Fantasy: Multiple Sentient Species

Let’s look at Earth. We have exactly one sentient species: us. Humans. (Although, it can be argued that other advanced species – elephants, gorillas, dolphins, whales – are sentient, depending on what particular factors one’s looking at. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say sentient in this case means regular tool use, complex language, some control over the elements, and self-awareness and consciousness.)

Your average fantasy world, on the other hand, can have several: humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, occasionally dragons, goblins, kobolds, halflings, gnomes, trolls, etc.

These species tend to be on a more or less even footing.

So, how is it that you can have several sentient species on a fantasy planet when science says that competition will limit species of a similar niche?

I know I said the fantasy doesn’t have to follow the laws of science, but on one hand, this is something that bothers me. It may be because a lot of fantasy closely mirrors the real world with the exception of its many species and possible use of magic, so ignoring how evolution works seems a bit odd to me.

The being said, there are ways to have multiple species on the same planet and not break science.

1) You can have them all be related, like emus and ostrichs are related. Common ancestor in the past, isolated populations, etc. This isn’t that hard. Dwarves, for example, typically live underground or in the mountains. In general, most fantasy species come in similar builds and colors, so it’s generally believable.

2) For worlds where you want two widely different sentient species (such as dragons and elves, for example), if you have something that keeps them from competing earlier in the evolutionary phase, such as them being on different continents, or low-birth rates where there’s not a lot of spread, then you’re more likely to have two advanced species come into being.

You can, of course, always make the argument because it doesn’t matter because it’s fantasy. It depends on the reader whether or not they’ll be bothered by it. I don’t tend to worry about it unless there’s a truly ridiculous amount of species or something else stands out as being very strange. I’m more bothered by species that are supposed to be natural but seemingly have no natural reason for existing.

2 responses to this post.

  1. The argument that “it doesn’t matter because it’s fantasy” is ultimately self-defeating. One might as well argue that “logic doesn’t matter because I don’t want to tell a logical story.”

    But this line of thought ignores the fact that texts need internal consistence. A text without it simply drives away the reader.

    Logic in fantasy matters. Creation is not synonymous with disorder and nonsense; quite the opposite. It makes sense for world-builders to imagine believable causes for the coexistence of species that might compete for the same resources.

    Several solutions offer themselves — among those, being on different continents, as you suggest. For instance, in the world of The Witcher stories and games, the planet belonged to the elves; a sizable human population was scooped up by a mysterious all-powerful intelligence and dumped there.

    In the World of Warcraft game, which is covert science fiction as much as it is fantasy, there are several worlds; sentient species evolved on their own planets. The basic assumption is that interplanetary travel is possible (through “magic” portals, I think) and thus several species find themselves at odds in the world of Azeroth.

    These means of travel aren’t elaborated upon, but at least they provide an internally consistent reason for the coexistence of species that would otherwise have killed each other off during co-evolution.

    You might also want to follow the (less interesting) Tolkienian path, which is proposing that certain species were created by a god as they are now, evolution not playing a part in the process. That depends on how cloudy you like your fantasy genesis as a reader or writer. So long as you don’t contradict yourself, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of magic.


  2. Posted by DS on 2014/01/05 at 1:57 AM

    This has been a thorn in my side for some time too. In fact, I am currently re-vamping the D&D world for my own campaign set in a less two-dimensional world.

    I am currently toying with the idea that the world in question is something of a chessboard for advanced extraterrestrials (the various Gods and Primordials) who like to pass their idle time by engaging in a giant contest-by-proxy between races of creatures that they have engineered and planted on the planet.


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