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In a novel I plan on writing soon, the main protagonist (and indeed nearly everyone else in the story as well) is an elf. Humans are present, but they are far in the mountains, living in disorganized tribes, and barely ever mentioned.

Will my reader have trouble identifying with an elf at first, as opposed to a human?

It seems that in a lot of fantasy fiction containing humans and elves, the hero is always a human. As I see it, the reason is to help the reader identify with the hero. Even Frodo, who is technically a Hobbit, is not portrayed too differently from a human. He is short, but that is rarely mentioned as I recall.

My elf, on the other hand, can wield magic, looks different than a human, is skilled with the sword and bow, and is a lot more agile than a normal human.

Will having an elf-hero distance the reader? Or is how the reader sees my hero entirely up to my writing?

Note: I believe who the hero is doesn't determine how the reader sees him. I believe the writing decides that. I want to be sure though.

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    the differences from a human you listed, aside from magic, are pretty superficial. does your elf have human-like thoughts and motives? human-like challenges and insecurities? human-like relationships? if so, i don't think you'll have a problem. – dbliss Jun 12 '15 at 16:55
  • consider the metamorphosis, in which the main character is a giant insect. kafka seems to have done all right for himself, in spite of that choice. – dbliss Jun 12 '15 at 16:56
  • @dbliss: Well, the character of Gregor Samsa is a human who has been transformed. Not quite the same thing. – Robusto Jun 12 '15 at 18:42
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    I think a discussion of books like Watership Down or Animal Farm would be germane here. – Robusto Jun 12 '15 at 18:44
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    @Tommy Myron, one sterotype you should try to avoid is having elves that your readers identify with all too well - because they are just humans but prettier, stronger, longer-lived, more agile, more wise, more in tune with the environment, etc., etc., etc. See; tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CantArgueWithElves – Lostinfrance Jun 13 '15 at 13:32
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Up to the writing. If you create characters with whom your audience can identify in some fashion, someone to root for, then their species doesn't matter.

Diane Duane has many non-human protagonists and hero characters in her various books: sentient fish and trees in her Young Wizards series, Romulans and Vulcans in her Star Trek books, a series about sentient magic-wielding cats — it's all possible.

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Elric of Melniboné by Michael Moorcock involved an elvish emperor who sacrificed his own people, and was frequently in conflict with human warriors. Elric's motivations and observations were described well by the author, such that the reader could relate.

Heaven's Reach by David Brin involved two non-human protagonists, one being a chimpanzee, the other being a member of the Jophur species. With both protagonists, the author used internal monologue to help the reader understand their unique impressions and motivations, and both were quite relatable.

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Originally, in folk belief, elves where dangerous and mysterious beings, whose motifs where unfathomable to man and like forces of nature beyond the categories of good or evil: if you put your hand in the fire it will burn you, without any evil intent on the fire's part; if you dealt with elves they were just as likely to help as to hurt you as the wind or the rain, and equally free of morality. Elves, in folklore, are completely alien to humans, and therefore both frightening and fascinating.

In twentieth century fantasy fiction, the elves have been styled as a variant of Native Amerucans, as woodland rangers, as angels, the dead, or simply as a different "race" of quasi-humans. In most fantasy fiction they are just lije humans except for their pointed ears. This makes them both boring and interchangeable. Consequently, in fantasy fiction based computer games, the player can choose to play a human, an elf, a dwarf, or any other "race", and beyond some specific abilities it makes no difference at all. This is illustrated in the mixed groups of heroes that normally go on quests much like groups of mixed ethnicities have to get along and work together in real life (without one ethnicity being evil and the other good, but all human and all capable of both good and evil behavior).

In fantasy fiction today, elves -- or unicorns or extraterrestrials -- are nothing more than weird looking foreigners. An elf protagonist is much like a gay protagonist: a bit of an outsider, but a normal human being nonetheless. Like LGBT protagonists elf protagonists are not as frequent as straight human protagonists, and they can be a turn off for straight human readers (because it destroys the last remnant of the romance of the folk tale alienness and makes the elves completely banal and unexciting), but they are by no means rare and a significant number of readers will have no trouble identifying with them.

Personally I dislike this portrayal of elves, but I don't think my qualms are very representative. The "other" is maybe even one typical protagonist today, from superheroes to bad guys and teen wolf.

  • Well said, this may be linked to science trying to explain everything, sometimes using straws, and therefore commonize mysterious events; so mystical became mundane. – Reed Jun 13 '15 at 19:15
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    @what I think you don't like stereotypical elves. Those are boring and uninteresting, because they've been made before, and the reader knows all about them. That is why I intend mine to be different. – Thomas Myron Jun 14 '15 at 6:12
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    No, it is not the stereotypicality that I dislike. Elves in folklore are stereotypical and I like them. I dislike making them a variant of humans, and projecting ourselves into them. – user5645 Jun 14 '15 at 6:54

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