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Here's the set up. You're reading a traditional fantasy. Something is attacking the land of the elves. At long last the invaders are discovered, and they are... intelligent rabbits.

My idea isn't quite that far out, but it is similar in nature. Assuming you aren't writing a comedy, how could you pull something like that off while still maintaining the serious, epic, LotR feel you're going for? More importantly, how can you introduce something potentially laughable, and have the reader accept it as part of the story?

My ideas:

At first I thought you should do it bit by bit. Find signs, tracks, rumors, that sort of thing. That would lessen the shock. The problem I see here is that doing so would increase the suspense, which could then result in a big let-down for the reader when the invaders aren't what he expected.

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    @Numi I'd imagine so, yes. I mean theoretically they could react as the readers would, and then quickly take things more seriously, but... what if the invaders' appearance is just really strange? Would it still be hard to get over? – Thomas Myron Sep 2 '16 at 4:20
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    Maybe you should look more at Lewis than Tolkien. Tolkien was very keen on creating a consistent mythos and really drew everything he used from a single source: norse/germanic mythology. Lewis, on the other hand, threw all the world's mythologies into a blender (which apparently infuriated Tolkien). Lewis's stories are much more intimate, of course. He cared more about the fate of souls than the fate of races. But he could also put Father Christmas and a faun in the same scene and not have anyone bat an eye, so there is your exemplar. – Mark Baker Sep 2 '16 at 12:35
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    If the core problem is that you're writing a LOTR ripoff, then I'm not sure just changing up the appearance of the bad guys is going to freshen things up all that much. Unless that's just the entry point for exploring some radically different territory. Otherwise, the problem isn't so much that you've introduced killer bunnies, it's that you've introduced killer bunnies into Tolkien's world (see: The Magicians). – Chris Sunami Sep 2 '16 at 16:20
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    @ChrisSunami I am NOT writing a LotR rip-off. I was simply using LotR to indicate the kind of feel that I hoped to maintain. Rest assured that the novel will be nothing remotely like LotR (save the fact that it contains elves and dwarves, and even those are radically different from Tolkein's). – Thomas Myron Sep 2 '16 at 16:57
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    @ThomasMyron - "Rip-off" was probably too accusatory a term. But keep in mind, all I know of your book is what you've told us. In my view, fantasy is open-ended by default. If you're working in a setting that's already so well-defined that the readers will consistently be able to tell you, the author, what is native and what is foreign, then you're writing in another writer's world. It's not as if you were writing a story set in Manhattan, and the bunnies invaded. This is a setting that you're putatively forging yourself. – Chris Sunami Sep 2 '16 at 17:47
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Sure, if you say 'killer bunnies' it sounds funny, but everything can be creepy and be taken seriously, you just have to describe it right. I don't think it makes any difference whether you introduce them slowly or quickly, it just matters how you describe them and how you create the atmosphere.

Interestingly, creepy rabbit type creatures already have a precedent, so a little research into existing myths and legends might give you ideas on how to make them more threatening.

There is a very unsettling rabbit type figure in Donnie Darko, and the Yoruba people in Nigeria have a Hare god (we have a very creepy artwork of it on our wall which isn't cute in the slightest). I would also recommend looking up Nanabozho (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanabozho)

Personally I would avoid using the word rabbit, and don't even think about using the word bunny. Hare is better if you must use anything, but if it's a fantasy you could misspell it slightly so people know what you're on about but it feels kooky and wrong.

In summary I would introduce it the way you would introduce anything else scary, and focus on atmosphere.

4

If you're not telling a humorous story, and your protagonists come across something which looks like it should be funny but ends up being deadly, then you have a Killer Rabbit situation.

Bear with me: In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the knights come across the Killer Rabbit in the cave. They protest: "It's just a harmless little bunny!" But the rabbit flies out of the cave and attacks them savagely. Being Monty Python, of course, it's taken for laughs ("Run away! Run away!"), but three armored, armed knights are killed in the charge.

So play it as if it were real: your protagonists see the intelligent rabbits and snicker amongst themselves about Oh look, the widdle bunnies, let's go talk to Mister Cottontail Fluffypants, and then the six-foot jackrabbit pulls out a pair of swords and lops the arms off the two guards sent to talk to her, and nobody's giggling any more.

Take your readers and your protagonists on the same journey. The MCs may or may not be tracking footprints, finding clues, whatever you'd normally do to set up an opponent. They come to the warren/camp/city and see huge angry-looking soldiers walking around wearing armor and looking irritated. Maybe you do the reveal from behind, so first we only see warriors, and weapons, and then one of the soldiers turns around... and it's a bunny.

The readers will be laughing at the enormous bunnies, right up until they moment everyone realizes they aren't funny because they're genuinely dangerous. Your killer rabbit characters are accustomed to being underestimated, and they use that to their advantage.

4

The classic, critically acclaimed novel Watership Down is all about intelligent rabbits, and I don't recall it being a laugh riot.

The point being, it isn't the premise, it's how you approach it. What you haven't told us is why you, the author, are making a choice that you're personally having trouble taking seriously. To continue with the rabbits example, is it because you want to explore rabbit social structure as extrapolated to intelligent entities? Or because you want to evoke rabbit-like traits? Or because you want them to be underestimated, or their enemies (or the reader) to be astounded? If you have a valid reason for your approach, and you explore it in the story, initial resistance on the part of the reader should diminish --for most people.

You have to remember that any time you do speculative fiction, you're inevitably taking on concepts that a great many people find laughable. There are people out there you would lose the moment you said "land of the elves." I, myself, have never been able to get past the fact that nearly everyone in the superhero genre is some overpowered lunk traipsing around in his underwear. That hasn't, however, stopped people from writing any number of successful and (and often deadly serious) books, comics and movies based around that same core conceit. (Nor do they seem to have missed me from their audiences.)

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    The difference with Watership Down is that intelligent rabbits is the story. That's the setting, so there's nothing wrong with it. What I'm talking about is introducing something foreign to the setting. Readers aren't expecting killer rabbits, green men from mars, fifty foot lemons, or anything else like that in a novel that up to that point has been a traditional fantasy. – Thomas Myron Sep 2 '16 at 17:02
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    Incidentally, I would recommend you watch Unbreakable. Best and most plausible superhero movie I've ever seen, and no underwear to be found. – Thomas Myron Sep 2 '16 at 17:02
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    Putting your different comments together, it sounds like you're deliberately adding something foreign to the setting, just for the sake of it being different. That's inevitably going to be jarring. If your setting was more original, or if you had a more organic reason for the reason your invaders are the way they are, that would be a different situation. I did like Unbreakable, BTW. – Chris Sunami Sep 2 '16 at 17:41
  • @ThomasMyron Now I want to read a fantasy novel with attacking fifty-foot lemons. Just imagine the lemonade that's going to produce. – Lauren Ipsum Sep 2 '16 at 19:53
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Describe don't name

To summarise your problem, you have a very serious, very deadly in world threat that bears an unfortunate resemblance to something out of world that the reader's will identify with humorous connotations.

You have identified that the protagonists of your story will find the invaders foreign but does that mean they find them humorous as well? The answer to that question informs how you should handle it.

If your protagonist finds them funny

Do nothing. If they are funny, let them be funny. Your characters aren't taking them seriously neither should your readers. Introduce them as you would any other character, race or creature. Their true nature will show through once the novelty wears off.

If your protagonist doesn't find them funny

If the reason the invaders are humorous is nothing to do with the beings themselves but entirely to do with the real world connotations of the creature then you have do it differently. You want to introduce the beings through the actions and temperament rather than their appearance (assuming their appearance is the thing that is funny). There are dozens of books that do this well and I will highlight a couple of them.

Magician by Raymond Fiest deals with an invading army that initial seemed weak. They come from a world with no metal and the protagonists initially dismiss their wooden weapons and armor as not a threat until Fiest shows us that they are. He uses rumours, ambushes and misinformation to grow the threat of the invading race. You can use similar techniques to make your invaders feel both alien and serious.

In the Tiger and the Wolf series by Adrian Tchaikovsky we are first introduced to the invaders through the fearful campfire stories of the protagonists. We only ever see the enemy though the eyes of the characters, with all their prejudices and fears. As skeptical readers it is easy to determine who the invaders are but within the suspension of disbelief they are a terrifying unknown. Using the wrong words for things that the readers will recognise but the characters would not (i.e. death stick instead of gun) is a good way to communicate the fear of the unknown.

Use a serious tone and refrain from referring to the enemy as something the readers will find humorous, create in world terms for the same creatures but with different connotations. Tomorrow When the War Began by John Marsden does this well, never quite referring to the enemy by name but giving us a clear description of what they are.

Finally, stick to your guns. If you are writing a good story readers will gloss of the humor get to the good bits. The spells in Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling are rediculous, but we ignore that for the sake of a ripping yarn. Be confident and don't just to apologise for the funny aliens within the text, if done properly you won't need to.

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Make it believable.

If the fairies are small, they might well be threatened by animals harmless to humans. For example, mice do not find cats adorable, and thumbsized fairies probably wouldn't either.

But then cats are predators and would indeed eat small fairies, while rabbits (as far as I know) nibble on grass, so how could they threaten the life or stuff of fairies? Maybe they eat the grass-made houses?

To make the threat by rabbits (or whatever you have in your story) believable, take in the perspective of those threatened by it. If you write about rabbits from your human perspective, the rabbits munching the fairy huts will be laughable. But if you get yourself into the fairies and write how they experience this threat, the humor will be gone.

Think of pigeons. Many people love pigeons on the cities. They find them adorable and feed them. Now think about them from the perspective of city officials, who have to battle the effect of pigeon droppings on buildings and monuments, and the public health office, trying to contain the potential of human infection from pigeon droppings. You can tell that story in two ways: either you start with the parents-and-kids view and slowly shift to the view of the officials, taking your readers, who presumably start on the pigeons-are-adorable side, with you to the pigeons-as-problem side; or you start with the problem-battling mindset, focussed on the problem and leaving no room for the naive adoration.

In a more adult, action, mystery and suspense focussed rabbit-battling fairy story I would probably choose the latter; in a children's tale focussed on the wonder and strangeness, the shift from our world and views to the fantastic is common and I would probably employ that.


As to your musings in the comments:

If you conceive of fairies as human-like beings living basically human-like lives, then it is very plausible that they do not only have to deal with supernatural enemies. In fact they are no longer supernatural at all, but just a different species, and they will of course have to deal with all the everyday problems that all other species have to deal with as well, including their small grass huts getting eaten by rabbits.

But if you coneive of fairies as supernatural beings, then humanizing them in that way is indeed breaking believability. Supernatural beings are not part of any biome. Trolls do not get bitten by insects, even though they live in the gnat infested forests of Scandinavia; selkies do not get eaten by orcas; and faries do not have bad hair days. These beings exist only in relation to human thoughts and emotions, not to the physical world, and any problems they might have are derived from this relationship. They may have to deal with sin or feel bothered by humans sleeping on their fairy hills, but there is (to my knowledge) not one single traditional tale where a mole digs up such a hill.

So be careful what you want your faries to be. Do you want to humanize them, as has been the fashion in recent fantasy? Or do you want to tell of them as the powerful mystery that they were once believed to be? You cannot have both.

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Well, at least one character in Buffy the Vampire Slayer thought rabbits were terrifying!

There are also fascist space rabbits in the comic Albedo which are not remotely funny.

I don't think it would necessarily be comical. Rabbits do fight each other and they can when cornered fight off predators.

Given the relative smallness of your protagonists, a rabbit or hare could be physically intimidating or at the very least not automatically laughable. I think as you say dropping hints is a good start, but if you build them up properly as a real threat, by the time the species is revealed the readers ought to be carried enough along by the narrative that it'd not seem silly.

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    Considering a rabbit is an example, and not the specific enemy the OP is writing about, how would you generalise your answer for different potentially laughable situations? – Galastel Jan 7 at 4:50
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First of all, let's define laughable. Summarising from several dictionaries, one can say it refers to something that makes you laugh because:

a) it's amusing (which seems to imply something pleasant, comical, entertaining)

b) it's absurd

Now let me pick up the given example: intelligent rabbits are invading.

This example plays the absurd line: everyone knows rabbits are small animals with a high level of cuteness but low intelligence that reproduce quickly in order to survive a world where everyone eats them (a pity that cuteness doesn't deter predators). They're physically harmless to bigger, hardier creatures.

The absurdity stems from the wide gap separating the well-known reality - cute harmless creature - from the uncommon fictional reality - a capable invader (which implies intelligence, big muscles, and... well, big bodies). After all, films have given us intelligent sharks (and other animals I fail to remember) and the absurdity stemmed mostly from the plot and the humans' actions, because the threat the sharks presented was relatively legit.

The Gremlins come to mind too. For as long as they're cute little furballs, they're harmless. Once they lose their fur and become scaly, toothy monstruous looking critters, then their level of threat can be taken seriously (and this was a comedy).

Bottom line: an appearance describable as small, cute and harmless cannot be taken seriously and becomes laughable when presented as a threat.

What one must keep in mind, however, is that small, cute and harmless only come together within the reader's notions! It's basically a prejudice: if a creature is small and cute, surely it can do no harm. Just look at koalas! They're like big, sweet teddy bears, right? Except one should avoid getting too close as they have a vicious bite. And bunnies themselves! Through the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, bunnies were not seen as cute and harmless in Australia. They were a pest that cyclically made the headlines as plagues swept the country.

Perhaps the reader is 'prejudiced' and thinks of cute harmlessness at the sound of the word 'bunny'. What about the fantasy world inhabitants? I'm pretty sure 'bunny' for them would be, in the very least, the equivalent of 'rat' for the reader.

How to set it up?

Let's say one wants to go all the way and use the word 'bunny' coupled with the actual visual of our real life rabbits.

First of all, why are they a threat? Surely it isn't because they're super-strong axe-wielding warriors. Because we're keeping their biology intact, they can't even create tools since their paws don't allow it.

Let's see:

1) They have developped intelligence and their aim is to create large areas that are predator free.

2) As their numbers grow, they will spread out. Despite their intelligence, they haven't yet realised that the world is finite and they will one day have nowhere else to move to (big surprise: how many milennia did humans take to realise it?).

3) They do have a culture, that varies across the different communities. They have different languages and art (they carve trees using their teeth). It looks like random chewed stuff to humanoid races, but the bunnies are aware of how delicate and deep such works are.

4) They have two classes of enemies: irrational predators (like foxes and eagles) and rational predators (humans, elves, etc).

4a) The irrational predators are dealt with through traps, guerrilla techniques and a sort of 'pavlov reflex' (if the predators can learn that bunnies does not equal certain lunch, they'll prefer easier prey).

4b) Rational predators are a two fold danger: they do not only hunt and kill bunnies, but their towns and fields also encroach in what the bunnies consider to be their ideal environment.

They have developed specific fighting techniques to face them: to undermine their food source (only the best warriors - fast and experts at hiding), they destroy their crops and kill their cattle. They have learnt to use specific poisonous plants which they chew just before biting the animals, with the poison spreading through their blood system. Only a specific warrior class goes through the training to become immune to these poisons. If the humanoids use water pipes, they will be gnawed and poison will be added to it.

To use the same poisoning technique in the humanoids is tricky, but it's still widely used with solitary individuals. Their biggest advantage was that the humanoids had no idea where the danger lay, but, unfortunately, the elves have figured it out. Fortunately, orcs and humans still underestimate their abilities.

In the meantime, their most intelligent members are working on ways to transmit the humanoids a disease which will prove deadly to them, while inconsequential to the bunnies.

In the story

Now the world building is done, let's focus on the writing. The trick is to make sure the reader only sees the word bunny in association with how negative they are. Soon, even the reader will shudder at the thought of bunnies.

"Weirian, we must rally everyone: I've come across bunny markings."

"Are you certain?"

"Yes. Right next to the well, and you know what that means: poisoned water. I've already sent my wife and children to my sister's. They live further from the fields."

Weirian closed his fists tight. A single bunny had once burrowed into his house, three years ago, then bitten his young child with their poison. They were small and discrete, and had been known to kill whole sleeping families. Weirian lived to eradicate those monsters.


Conclusion

What turns something laughable into credible is... making the threat credible. Think up the least threatening creature (or individual) at first sight, then focus on the world-building part and give them something that makes them truly dangerous. Going with a (mildly) realistic threat is probably better. One already has to suspend disbelief to see the bunnies (or whatever) as threatening, so make sure the rest isn't too far-fetched.

0

I'm reminded of Animorphs series and some of the humerous situations introduced by the aliens on the series. Now, the series as a whole is about a group of teenagers who were thrust into a guerilla war with a silent invasion of body puppeting alien slugs known as the Yeerks. At one point, resident class clown Marco starts to wonder if Yeerks actually do have a sense of humor when he sets off one of their hidden bases' self destruct sequence and gets the computer counting down in a manner of "Self-Destruct Sequence activated. T-15 minutes until Self-Destruct. Have a nice day!"

The sheer audacity of the Self-Destruct sequence can only be good natured humor on their parts and is way to customer service focused for the secret base for an alien invasion of earth (Certainly true given that Yeerk's customer service is not being killed for your failures) and that it follows a self-destruct notice.

A later book has him just out and confirm his theory when he learns that the secret password to another base hidden under the city is going to a McDonald's and asking for a "Happy Meal with Extra Happy".

In Fantasy settings, you can acknowledge the humor of the situtuation. Maybe the more experienced character has a bizzare reaction to the situtuation... if he thinks things are going well, it's because he knows that if the rabbits wanted you dead, they would have used flaming arrows before charging your position... or perhaps it's gone south for that very reason... no flaming arrows... they really want to make sure we die.

You could have your proud warrior race character take the threat for what it is: A worthy challenge by a foe! And of he goes to slaughter the rabbits, boasting that it will be worthy of great songs and glory when his people find out. Any attempt to claim it's just a wittle bunny-wunny will earn you a scornful look at him at best... and him claiming that "The Bunny-wunny is a true honorable foe."

You could use the humorous nature to offset that from an objective standpoint, these are the worst people in the entire story. They are Nazi Killer Rabbits who see the short ears as inferior and not deserving of life... at least the dark lord main antagonist has some redeeming factors... and probably doesn't work with these guys out of principal. This allows you to get away with some dark villain moments because the rabbits are too cute to truly see this as the most evil race in your world.

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