I have found that, every time I try to make another humanoid species, they end up as basically just humans with extra abilities. For example, I tried making a race of dark-elves once, and they ended up basically as humans plus night vision and camouflage abilities. How can I make it that humans are better at some things and other species are better at other things? I can't take away the traits that are distinctively human (e.g. color vision, opposable thumbs, abstract thought and language, bipedalism) or else the characters will be hard to relate to and not easily able to interact with humans. So, in essence, what are some human abilities that I could remove to compensate for the addition of new traits in other humanoid species?
You can start by looking at how humans could differ physically from other races:
Humans are good at running long distances without getting tired, especially in the heat, where it has been argued that there is no creature on earth better at running long distances than humans. Early hunters used this ability to get food by chasing animals until they were too tired to run anymore. (This is called persistence hunting)
Humans are pretty big, when you compare them to most other animals on earth. What if the other races in your setting are mostly the size of badgers or chimpanzees?
While there are examples of animals that are better at sensing than humans in pretty much every way, human senses are still quite accurate. Other species may not share this trait. For example, humans have trichromatic vision and can see accurately both nearby and far away. This gives humans a big advantage in noticing camouflaged creatures and in noticing fine detail.
Most other animals don't even come close to humans in this regard. Other races may have paws or talons that are evolved more as weapons than humans, but can't pick up and use a spear, or they may have somewhat human-like hands, but no opposable thumbs.
The biggest difference between humans and most other animals is our brains. Other races of humanoids, even ones that have evolved to use tools like humans do, may not have the same mental abilities that humans do.
Humans are really good at learning. Way better than anything else we've encountered on earth. Other humanoids may take significantly longer to figure things out than humans do.
Humans have developed and can comprehend some incredibly complex languages. Most other animals don't do this. A different humanoid race may have to learn everything by example, as many other animals do.
Lastly, consider that humans have evolved first and foremost to be excellent tool users. We create, improve and use tools on a regular basis. We manipulate our environments through terraforming. We build roads and tame animals to serve as beasts of burden. A race of stealthy night hunters may have never had the need to even think about domesticating a horse or farming wheat, which are cornerstones upon which human society has been built upon. We may not be able to see in the dark or match our surroundings, but that's because those traits aren't needed when you have walls lit by torches and manned by archers. Our manual dexterity, learning, and language abilities have all risen around boosting our ability to manipulate our environments and make up for any shortcomings through use of tools. Bear people, while bigger, faster, and stronger than humans, may have none of those things. They may use primitive spears and make clothes, but tools are our specialty. This is probably the most unique thing that divides humans from other animals, and could well divide humans from the other humanoids in your world.
If you consider writing the hard and unpleasant details, Homo Sapiens triumphed over the other ape species by four (although not exclusively those) characteristics:
- Being able to lift his arm over his shoulder, enabling to hurl things wider and with more smack, thus outperforming those apes who could only hold stones or antilope leg bones to smash craniums in.
- Being able to eat anything Homo Sapiens ate and does eat anything that isnt poisonous or runs away fast enough from him. Early forms of Homo Sapiens also practised Cannibalism, although that fact is hardly popular when encountered in a story. Nevertheless, that unlocked sources of protein for him that might otherwise have been untapped, allowing for his immense growth of brain matter, which requires lots of energy to run immense parallel computing processes, a growth that was only hemmed in by the size of the birth canal in the females, as bigger head circumference due to bigger brains increased the difficulty and mortality when giving birth exponentially.
- Being able to walk long distances this enabled Homo Sapiens to not having to rely on his motoric skills to get protein, he would simply walk to the next carcass that another predator had slain and eaten from, leaving a lot for the all-eating Homo Sapiens to feast on. Due to his other skill he was fairly able to hold off other scavengers until he had eaten his fill.
- Ability to withstand hunger Homo Sapiens is incredibly adapted to withstand long periods of hunger without detrimental effects. There is even a backup system built into Homo Sapiens, which switches from sugars when not available to burn as fuel for the brain to ketones from fat. As a last resort when those are used up the body of Homo Sapiens will start using up the protein of the muscle tissue to maintain brain function. During all that time he might be getting progressively weaker, but the whole process several weeks to be coming to its terminal end, during which time finding even minute amounts of food can switch the body back onto a more normal functioning.
From this base onwards, all characteristics of modern humans, such as the ability to speak, learn, remember or conduct creative thinking processes might be removed. His motoric skills might be reduced to the level that he is unable to even produce pottery.
As for the higher planes of existence and intelligence, Mathematics provides the ultimate Lingua Franca between the different species, as the Laws of Nature in the Universe can be notated (and one would assume all intelligent species start notating them sooner or later) in it.
Here Homo Sapiens will have his own unique approach, which distinguishes him from other species.
His approach to Physics might also take a completely different route.
Modern Humans for example have developed Nuclear Technology and experiment with Nanoparticles and Solar panels.
But another species is perfectly conceivable that diverges from this trunk and after the basic technologies like lighting fires switches to produce engines powered by phase impedance instead of rotating magnetic fields, and employs micro-miniaturized semi-intelligent swarms of particles which combine to produce gigantic magnetic fields to neutralize enemies, instead of going the conventional weaponry way of Homo Sapiens with all his guns, explosives and armour.
Branching the tree of technology might be the key calling feature in distinguishing the species as you intended.
If that is not the way, the acts of taking in nutrients to keep life processes functioning and the removal of waste products from the body, its physical movement around in space and its interaction with the same of its kin are universal to intelligent beings similar enough to humans to be recognized as such.
They might have advantages in performing those tasks in certain worlds under certain conditions (like Homo Sapiens in the Grasslands of Africa had in his) but would also experience and encounter tradeoffs due to their specifications (as Homo Sapiens encounters with his brain size impeding his ability to give birth fast to a large number of offspring).
I dislike the general perception that other races are exactly human plus a few traits. Humans developed in a very social environment and we have several traits that reflect this.
We do have a few physical advantages.
Human endurance is unparalleled in the wild...our skin, muscle, and digestive 'fuel use' is all optimized to keep us going extended periods of time. Admittadely in most foot races, we are the tortoise to the horses 'hare', but over a drawn out period of time we will out perform them in a foot race and easily chase them down. We are also well adaptable to nearly any climate this earth has to offer.
Size. We are decently big creatures and are trending to bigger as our diets and lifestyles change. There is a good possibility a distant generation of humans will average 8-9 feet tall.
manipulation. The degree of accuracy we can achieve is quite impressive when you compare it to the generally twitchy movements of many other creatures.
If you are making a 'monster' or 'loner' race, this will truly set us a part. We evolved socially, with social dependence being a driver of the evolution of our intelligence (EI, my ability to survive is as dependent on your intelligence as it is my own). When developing another race, this social trait is lost on an individual...on the society level you will see how this helps us thrive.
Communication and expression. The number of distinct concepts we can communicate via speech or body language is extreme and only seems to be growing with time. Not only are we good at expressing ourselves, but we're pretty adept at picking out very subtle signs in others denoting what they are thinking and what motivates them.
Deceit. Goes hand in hand with above, but we can become incredibly good at misdirection and hiding our true intent.
Specialization. This really requires the social aspect to develop...if I can fully rely and trust my existence on others to provide things such as food, shelter, and basic necessities, I have no need to know how to make and create this myself and can dedicate myself to other specialized roles. A member of a 'loner' species will be forced to provide all these things for themselves (jack of all trade)...and although the 'loner' race can become adept at a metal working task, they will never reach the skill a master blacksmith dedicating 8 hours a day every day to the perfection of their craft will. The urge for people to pass on their experience to the next generation seems just as ingrained in us as our desire to have children
Compassion & Empathy - Humans can detect the feelings of one another. We know when another is feeling secure as readily as we know when they are feeling anxious. We can feel what others are feeling and sympathize on a level that very few other species seem capable of (I'm not going to say it's unique to us as I swear my dog does this too). This adds a unique tie between us, although not all of us, most will step in when they see another human in trouble or suffering injustices. And to go along with it, there is a rewarding feeling provided to us by our brain for doing so. Once again, a heavily evolved social trait of humanity that strengthens our society.
Spirit of one. Despite our individual nature, we still crave to be a part of that greater social whole. As the Spartans would say, "it's the noblest and safest thing for a great army to be visibly animated by one spirit". It's also the most unnerving to be on the other end seeing the united one approaching.
These social trait, although perhaps not so helpful on an individual scale, allow to create the huge dominating cities and collectives we have here on Earth. To me, it's quite questionable that a species lacking in thee social evolutions can create cities and cooperation between them to the extent we have.
We are strong creatures on a mental level as well, and part of this is very heavily dependent on our social nature
Learning. At a young age we are a complete and utter sponge. There is absolutely no need for us at a young age to be anything less than fully dependent on others, so the mind has no need to focus on anything beyond growth. I've heard speculation of the brain containing an 'early language acquisition device' as one of the few ways to explain how readily we can catch onto language, just from exposure (and then loose access to this ability as we age). And this device is impressive...you can learn grammar concepts without ever being aware you've learned them, and learn them from people who are unaware they are using them simply by listening to them. Given the right environment, there seems to be little we cannot understand
Willpower. Average people are decently solid here. In a trained human, it's amazing the extents we can push ourselves and what we can endure, and emerge stronger from the experience, not weaker. Poor odds of succeeding is not a reason to give up, it's a reason to go further.
Creativity. There's always more than one solution to any given problem and although just one of us might be capable of finding only one solution, 20 of us will create a wide variety of solutions to the problem.
Individuality. All humans are unique and the various combinations of uniqueness further spread our ability to specialize. This individuality just goes to enforce how well this 'specialization through socialization' trait is ingrained into our species
It's hard to differentiate some of these items by category. For example, our ability to by inspired through others inspirational stories shows how ingrained our mental capabilities are defined by our social nature
If you want the humans to be better than another humanoid race you have to take something away from the others.
Say elves, often they are very fast and agile, to be more agile, they would be lighter and have lighter bones and muscles. So that would be why the might be fencers and archers. Humans are slower but stronger and can take a hit better. A human could do real damage to an elf in an 'even' fist fight.
Dwarves tend to be very solid, strong and short. Humans have the height advantage, and where the elves are faster than the humans, the humans are just as agile compared to dwarves.
Have a lizard race the loves the desert, can handle long periods without water, hot sun isn't a problem, can eat once a week if needed, but has no tolerance for cold, and can't function well in the middle of a cold desert night without help from a fire or special cloths to contain their body heat.
The trick is for each ability, you need to give a 'handi-cap' or you just make humans fodder for the 'better' races.
If a race can see great distances clearly (like a bird of prey) then they might be basically blind at night, Great night vision? Colorblind.
I think your choice should mainly depend on the medium you use.
If it's storytelling (in person or or by written word) I think it's best to concentrate on mental abilities, culture and behaviour. In case of pictures (comic books, artworks, movies) focus on physical traits or looks.
Why is that?
When you write or tell, you usually describe how somebody (or some species in general) looks like once. You may use some of physical traits later (using phrases like "he moved his scaled hand", "her blonde hair were in a state of grate disarray"), but if you overuse them you'll slow down the action, and if you don't, your audience will forget about them and concentrate on important stuff. On the other hand, you describe someone's thoughts, motivations and actions very often, because they change as the story progresses.
In case of graphic medium, the situation is quite opposite: your audience will see your characters all the time, watch their actions, but never hear their thoughts. There also rarely good moments to go in details about cultural differences.
Unless you'll state otherwise, I'm assuming you are writing or telling, so I concentrate on this angle.
Possible differences in mental abilities:
- Humans perform very poorly in being rational (but we are great at rationalizing!), we often depend on intuition, instincts and emotions. In a lot of fantasy and sf stories you will notice races who are rational and emotionless, so it's easy to tell them apart from humans. You can also take an opposite approach, push it to extreme and invent a race which is unable to remember anything (making rational thinking impossible), but balance it out but superb instincts (or even precognition)
- Some humans are loners, some like crowds, but most feel best in small groups (tribes), but we are all individuals, with different backgrounds and personalities. You can push it to an absurd in both directions: create a hive, where everyone are the same, think the same and act the same, or a society of loners, where they meet only once a year for procreation and try to kill each other for the rest of the time. Depending on your story any of it can be an advantage, a disadvantage, or neither (just a difference)
- We are creative. We have fire, Internet and nukes. For the most part of our history, great discoveries were the result of one bright idea which came to one bright individual. Only now you need huge lab, huge r&d budget and hundreds of people in white coats to invent anything. But you can make a society, which worked like this from the beginning - instead of relaying on geniuses it utilizes cooperation of hundreds of highly skilled individuals to advance (skills may or may not be connected to biological differences between members of society). Once again, it can be an advantage, a disadvantage, or merely a difference.
Possible cultural difference (I'm assuming, that you took none of the ideas above):
- Whether we like it or not, the moment you put two complete strangers in a room, the starting forming a hierarchy. A simple one, but a hierarchy nonetheless. How about some anarchic society, where everyone are truly equal, because nobody WANTS to rule?
- Most human cultures have similar set of basic rules: don't steal, don't kill without a good explanation, etc. Make up some bizzare rules, and then come up with biological reasons why they work (like no reason for "don't lie" rule, because everyone can see their brain activity via transparent scull and can see when you do that)
If you really want to use physical attributes, I may suggest some of those:
- Diet. Most answers here are explaining why is it important. I'd like to add, that a lot of our customs, traditions and even laws are related to diet, so please take it under consideration while making decisions. Example: in our world pigs carry a lot of dangerous parasites, so some religions are forbidding eating it (even though we've made it safe by now). Similar outdated laws are pretty much an instant subplot.
- Regeneration abilities and immunology system. This played a major part in human history, just ask Aztecs if you don't believe me. On the other hand, we have only two sets of teeth, and they are quite fragile when you think about it (for something so hard that you need a diamond to drill through). How about a species, which can regenerate lost limbs, but cannot fight common cold? That's of course a very simple idea, you can play with those two endlessly.
- Armour. We have a nice ribcage, strong skull, and that's about it. Very little protects us from physical harm. Have you thought about armadillo-people or hedgehog-people? Depending on how far you go, the difference may be only visual (because they evolved to softer versions of their invulnerable ancestors) or practical.
I hope that it'll help.Good like and have a lot of fun.
If we're talking about new races with different specialities, but are still fundamentally humanoid, probably with a common ancestor somewhere in prehistory, then the most important thing to consider is compromise between traits.
If, for example, we have a night-active race, what would it have to gain to be successful in that role and what would it lose? Most likely it would have excellent night vision, and probably better hearing, but as a consequence, it would probably not see as well during the day, it would be more sensitive to loud noises, and it would probably be easily burned in the sun. This race may even have colour vision at night, but as a consequence, have poorer or even no colour vision during the day (one or more of the cone cells in the eyes become rod cells, but retain the particular pigment). They may gain a tapetum (a shiny layer behind the eyes that doubles the effectiveness of night-vision), but as a consequence, their eyes will reflect light, making it easier for light-source bearing daylight dwellers to see the night-dwellers looking at them in the darkness.
Another example is physical strength. This can be achieved in two ways - the first by increasing muscle mass, which as a consequence leads to an increased need for food. The other way is by adjusting the lever ratios of the muscle attachments - moving them further from the joint makes the limb stronger, but reduces the speed with which the limb can flex. Taken in the opposite direction, a limb can be made to flex faster by moving the muscle attachment point closer to the joint, but with the consequence that it does so with less strength.
Whatever you add to your hypothetical new race, just keep in mind that it will come at some sort of a cost. It is your job to see that this cost is not so extreme that it would cause the race's extinction, yet significant enough to keep things interesting and realistic.
Another, related factor is psychology. The psychology of a species is fairly intimately tied up with its physiology, so if you change something physical, you will get a corresponding change in psychology.
For example, our hypothetical night-dwelling people with colour night-vision and an eyeshine would probably go about at night quite boldly, and though they may still be afraid in pitch darkness (if they don't have IR vision), they would be more likely to be afraid in daylight.
A stronger race would most likely think in terms of strength, while a faster race would be more likely to think in terms of speed.
Human psychology is very strongly bound to the specifics of our reproductive system. As a species that is almost unique in being able to engage in sex at any time, this places an incredibly strong influence on our psychology - as adults, we think about sex a lot compared with other species.
If we were to alter the exact nature of the reproductive system, very different societies would arise. What if the new race went into heat for only a few days each month - or each year - and was disinterested in sex at other times? What if the new race was more like bonobos, and sex was as ubiquitous (and had much the same purpose) as a handshake or a "hello" has in our society? What if males could also breastfeed infants? What if males - or females - were significantly more common than the other gender?
There are several standard "human" traits I have seen in media that portrays multiple humanoid species, and they tend to balance humans on an appropriate scale for the writer's needs; some delve into their inferiority to other races, while others push them to superiority over humanity. I'll touch on both, because some people look for one over the other.
Humans are diverse.
Look around you, you will see races of humanity specifically evolved for the climates in which their ancestors developed. Life all over the world went through evolution like this, but it's possible that humans are (in your world) the most widespread of any humanoid species, or perhaps the least! Often we are portrayed as the "adaptable" sort, capable of surviving against all odds, regardless of the environment, because we have a willingness and a physical form built to adapt to our surroundings. That could be an advantage, if other species lacked that ability.
People come in all shapes and sizes; what if humans were larger than other humanoid species, or other species were smaller? That may give them advantages in strength and speed. Then you can go into population; humans may have a larger/smaller population size relative to other humanoids, based on your needs.
A culture/species can be steeped in traditions of many kinds, and these can be a hindrance; an unwillingness to grow and adapt to a changing world can leave a culture behind while others rise to untold heights, eventually sweeping those that lag out of the way of progress. Humans tend to, overall, change with time. Ancient cultures eventually fall apart, and others rise up in their place. Even today, we see the remains of old empires still alive, but it is clear that (some) changes have occurred to keep them alive in our modern world.
Humans have a sense of community.
This is (sometimes) very obvious, though not always the case in larger centres. People readily join together to accomplish a larger goal, resulting in some impressive feats in the past. Small communities construct buildings together, look after one another in times of hardships, help defend one another; numerous empires have been brought down when the people decide they've had enough and all act as one, showing the effects of a larger community. If other humanoids lack this sense of "oneness" it could hinder their growth as a society, increasing the enmity between other members of their species.
Humans can resist disease.
Diseases can bring down any population, it's a fact that comes with being alive. (A virus can bring down a robot1 just as easily as another virus can bring down an organism.) At the same time, our immune systems are very effective. Other species of humanoids could be more easily affected by disease, resulting in a fear of becoming ill, a social stigma against any form of sickness.
Humans can be barbarically aggressive
If another humanoid is not as war-minded as humans are, they may not be at all capable of defending themselves if a would-be conqueror decides he likes their land. Whereas humans would often fight to retain what is theirs, other species of humanoids may in general just run away from conflict, losing everything quite easily. What if a species is even more aggressive than humans? Other humanoids may be more likely to rise up against them; that aggression has become a weakness. They may even be so aggressive that the species is too busy tearing itself apart to worry about any form of social growth.
1Let's not argue about robots being alive.
I can think of a few:
- Abstract Thinking/Reasoning, Emotions (think Vulcans)
- Extra long/short limbs which would come with their own strengths and weaknesses (short: can easily maneuver through tiny places; long: Good for keeping watch)
- Have a magnetic field around them which affects all objects around them and thus the way they perceive/interact with the world.
- They do not have mouths and instead feed on bacterium that enter through their nose, and communicate telepathically.
- They are exactly like humans except that they have a bee-hive mentality and communicate solely as groups.
- They are exactly like human except they don't know or understand the meaning of community. (Wolf, Jackal, Fox Scenario)
- They are so affected by sudden sounds that it causes them to lose their balance for a few seconds thus putting them off their guard.
You've mentioned that you want them to have 'distinct, yet equally useful' abilities. I think that with any ability there are drawbacks. For example:
- sharpened hearing would be very useful in some scenarios, but extremely annoying in loud environments.
- If you're giving them night vision, you could take away a bit of their regular vision (cat-like). This article is an interesting piece on how our vision affects our perception of sound.
- Our ability to adjust to our surrounding is incredible.Consider the Moken sea gypsies who can see underwater.
So if you're giving them extra abilities, what caused them to have to develop those abilities? This might also indicate which traits they were less likely to fully develop, once you consider their environment.
Your premise is faulty. Truly alien races can still be understood by your audience if done well. Look at Vernor Vinge's "Fire upon the deep" book where there is a race of canines which telepathically join as packs to form one intelligent organism. Or the sequel which has intelligent spider like entities.
We are familiar with bipedal, largely human-like beings because it is easy for writers and because it is easy for the effects department of movies and TV. This is finally starting to change with modern computer generated characters.
Here on Earth the whales and dolphins were once land dwellers. There is all kinds of variation in sea life. We also have fantastic bugs on land. There is always the question of what if the being was not carbon based.
As for balance, why would there be? If the beings are all from the same world which they share with humans you need to explain their origins. Did another mammal species also form intelligence? Or perhaps a lizard did? The they are from multiple planets and never had to compete there is no reason for balance. The people of Jupiter II may just all look like the most amazing size 2 models while being able to bench press cars and live 300 years.