18

In my fantasy world there are other other sentient races besides humans. Some of them are "original", or at least not as common in mainstream stories. On the other hand, I have also included more traditional races like elves. I'm going to continue using elves for my example. Obviously, I have tried to put a personal spin on the elves and not just copy-paste them from Tolkien or anywhere else.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that I could change them to be any other race I like while maintaining a lot of their current characteristics. Most importantly, I could maintain their part in the story of the world without these changes affecting them.

My problem is this: should I keep using more common traditional fantasy races (in addition to my "new" ones) or change all of them to "new" ones?

On one hand, whenever I come across a fantasy world with the usual races, I am often intrigued to see what this show, book, etc. does with them. I already feel involved in them, and it gives me a familiar piece of the world to connect easily to. If there is a complete lack of familiar races, I feel less involved with the world from the start. By the end of the story, I may be completely in love with the new world, but the start was still a bit rough.

Is the use of traditional fantasy races wrong and something to be avoided because it limits and hinders the quality of my story, or something that readers will appreciate and that makes the story more appealing?

(I feel it is important to include that from a narrative stand point, the themes of the story will also be changed because some of the protagonists belong to those races. Whether the changes will be better or more original I can't say, but they will certainly be a bit different.

  • 2
    Wh40k uses elves (in SPESSHH), the Eldar, but they don't feel contrived. Also, there is nothing new under the sun, and anyone who claims otherwise should be thrown into an active volcano. – Mephistopheles Sep 30 '17 at 18:55
  • @LameZeldaPun has a good point. There is nothing wrong with using the more traditional or popular ideals of fantasy races. My issue is when an author tries to Twilight it, in an attempt to say "But mine are different, they sparkle, see!" – Thomo Jan 17 '18 at 22:29
19

I think it is important to remember where these creatures came from. They are all religious in origin, and as such represent fundamental religious themes that have a corresponding resonance in the human heart (whether we actually believe the religious ideas or not, those ideas still resonate because they still address issues that have emotional and practical consequences for us, even if we accept other explanations for them).

While the modern high fantasy creatures come from Germanic and Norse mythology, similar figures with similar roles exist in many other cultures. They give form to our various fears and frailties, frailties which would have been much more immediate and in-your-face to preindustrial peoples with both fewer means to understand what was happening when things went wrong, and fewer means to resist the vagaries of chance or redress them.

Everyone who aspires to write fantasy, I believe, should know WB Yeats poem, The Stolen Child (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/stolen-child) which was used as the basis for a Loreena McKennitt song and a Doctor Who episode. It illustrates very clearly how the idea of faery folk expresses every parent's anxiety that they will lose a child.

Dragons represent our fear of the irresistibly destructive powers of nature: hurricane, forest fire, volcano. (They are also, in the Christian tradition, associated with Satan, the prince of lies.)

Elves represent the sense we get from the beauty of nature of an order in the universe more serene, more orderly, more beautiful, than our squalid lives. This can be associated both with great virtue and with great indifference, both of which are feelings we can get from a particularly beautiful scene. I remember standing at the top of a small rise in the middle of the Anza Borrego desert (a couple of hundred yards from the road; no wilderness trekker I) and feeling both how incredibly beautiful the scene before me was, and how implacably indifferent that environment was to my life or health. This enormously pure and exalted landscape would kill me with complete composure unshaded by regret or doubt.

Dwarves and orcs represent the powers and potentialities of the earth, the richness of its resources and the dangers it poses to anyone who explores it.

Witches represent our fears of disease and ill luck, misfortunes without any apparent cause or moral justification.

In short, all these creatures represent something elemental with an immense emotional punch for us, even in our relative comfort and safety today. (One could argue that our relative comfort and safety has actually made us more anxious than our ancestors, leading us to seek comfort in their old tales.)

You could, of course, invent new creatures to represent these elemental forces and fears, or borrow those of a different culture, but then you would have to work to do over of establishing their associations with our elementary hopes and fears. Using the standard pantheon gives you access to a set of built-in emotional responses which you can exploit to imbue your story with emotional resonance that would be hard to manufacture out of whole cloth.

Stories are made out of stories, they rely on the emotional potential of the base stories that people already know as a shorthand to evoking the basic emotional responses that you need to make your new story compelling. Making up your own mythology out of whole cloth may be an entertaining exercise for you, but it will come with none of the emotional charge of that the ancient myths come with.

There is nothing either boring or unoriginal about exploiting the emotionally charged images and stories that already populate your reader's imaginations. It is how the craft works, and the reason that every work of art lives and works within a broader artistic and cultural tradition.

  • I take issue with some of this. While the emotional resonance with the reader is important, treating the protagonists like this runs the risk of reducing them to caricatures. For background characters, this approach (in isolation) might work. – TriskalJM Jan 17 '18 at 21:32
  • Of course, not ALL of them are of religious origin. Some were modern inventions. – Weckar E. Mar 24 at 11:25
10

Personally, I would always counsel erring on the side of originality. There are plenty of other books people can read about elves in.

I would give two exceptions to this advice, however. 1) If your characters are so obviously and so exactly the standard conception of elves, that every reader will just wonder why you didn't go ahead and call them "elves." 2) If you want people to start from the standard conception of elves just so that you can subvert or alter their expectations in some way.

It's worth noting here that there are two main conceptions of elves. The older conception comes out of folklore and is more or less everyone's intellectual property. The other conception was invented by Tolkien as a composite of the idea of elves and fairies, as combined with his own innovations. Especially if you are writing Tolkien elves, I would go ahead and make something new instead. There is relatively little that has been written about Tolkien elves that hasn't been hopelessly derivative.

8

I'm going to talk about stereotypes and their use in fiction because I feel that this is what this question is about.

Writers use stereotypes to convey lots of meaning in very little words. Let's say you introduce a new character in your book and you describe her as a cheerleader with long, blond hair. Most readers are already going to have tons of ideas about what kind of person she might be: Maybe she's superficial and popular. She always has a boyfriend. She's more into fashion and beauty than into science. And so on.

Reasons for using stereotypes in your story

  • Maybe you don't have the time or energy to describe your character (or race, in your case) with all the traits that are important for the story. Maybe it would take up too much space in your book. Doing this with major characters is usually considered lazy and bad writing, but it's a great way to introduce unimportant characters (like the flower lady that has exactly one line) and have them have a personality without having to describe it. You can mention two or three things about them and already have them be a real person without having to spend much time on explaining who they are.
  • Maybe you want to introduce a stereotype and then make the story interesting by breaking it. This is often done with more important characters. First you show the cynical, hardboiled detective, but then he comes home to his wife, reads funny stories to his two daughters and feeds the newly adopted stray kittens. This gives characters depth and makes them more real, more true-to-life.
  • Stereotypes are unavoidable. People are always going to think of things whatever you say about a person. Mentioning something as mundane as their hair color already can make us assume things about their character. This can be incredibly helpful, as mentioned above, because we can express lots of meaning in just very little words - by making use of all the things that one assumes about a given stereotype. Use this to your advantage.

All of these things apply to other things than characters, of course.

How to decide which stereotypes to use

Back to your question. In your case, try to figure out what you are gaining from using stereotype races. Examples are, as you have pointed out, the reader already being familiar with them. You have to describe less about them. Whatever you describe about them that brakes the stereotype makes them interesting. You can set up reader's expectations.

Then figure out if what you are gaining is actually serving the story - or undermining it. Does it help that the reader has tons of expectations about what your elves are going to be like?

Do the same for the opposite scenario: What are you gaining from making your own races? Does this serve the story more or less? Does your story need these new races or could you just do a spin on existing one for the sake of simplicity?

My personal take on this is that it's always better to start with stereotypes and then break reader's expectation. The stereotypes can be very well hidden, almost invisble, but they make the reader feel safe and like they understand the story. If you decide to not base your races on the ones that have been overused for centuries, look for other clichés to build upon.

Also, I'd go with the distinction of minor/major character, in this case with races: Make minor/less important races mostly follow a stereotype to make them easy to describe, but really flesh out the ones that you're going to be using a lot. Delve deep into their society, history etc. and make them a very distinct species.

Further reading

Here's a nice read on how to successfully use stereotype characters in your story.

This is an article on how to mix up the stereotype races and make them your own. It also tells you a bit about why you might want that.

3

I think you can use the traditional ones if you do not stray far from what readers would expect. Don't call them "elves" if they are ogres, or have extra arms.

As you note for yourself, when you encounter "elves" in a new book you want to see what the author has done with them: you have a basic mental model of what an "elf" is, and expect the author to accessorize it with skills, personality traits, etc. But some changes that violate your basic mental model make them NOT elves! Wings, perhaps, or covered in scales like a reptile, or laying eggs to reproduce.

If your species require new skills or physical assets or whatever that do not fit in the canon of 'regular' fantasy, create them for your book. Do not make them ogres or giants or dragons unless you can stick to the reader expectations of ogres, giants or dragons, with minor original "decorations" that do not jerk the reader out of their basic model of the canon.

For example, your ogre can love chocolate and still be an ogre. Your giant can recite poetry. Your dragon may enjoy swimming, and dry herself afterward by breathing fire upon herself.

2

The answer as to what readers will appreciate will entirely depend on your audience.

Judging by fantasy book sales, plenty of people love reading about familiar elves, goblins, orcs and all that. Let's not even get started on dragons.

However, there will be other readers who will appreciate something a bit fresher and will find great enjoyment if you can create brand new races - the success of China Mieville is perhaps an example of that.

The answer to what YOU should write about can only be found inside yourself. What do YOU want to write about? What do YOU enjoy reading?

If you're not sure, I would recommend giving each of them a go and see how excited you get about them. Stick with the one that inspires you the most - chances are that will result in you inspiring your audiences.

You can write traditional, completely original or even a combination of the two (if you're very skilled) - as long as the characters are compelling, the plot is interesting and the writing is competent, any of these can work - and they will certainly not be the feature that makes or breaks your novel.

  • I'd suggest known fantasy creatures work for younger audiences too, IMO. – DPT Sep 29 '17 at 21:35
1

In my opinion it depends very much on what your story is trying to achieve.

The established fantasy races exist in hundreds, even thousands of other books. Are readers bored of that and itching for something new? Maybe, but on the other hand there's obviously still a market for it. If you come up with something new (in itself quite difficult), will readers be more interested because it's different? Maybe, but on the other hand, familiarity can be useful - everyone knows what an elf is, so there's no need for page after page of explanation: you just say a character is an elf and can then get on with the story.

If your story is about a group of adventurers, including some humans plus an elf ranger and a dwarf miner (who are always arguing), fighting against unruly orcs and goblins to defeat an evil wizard... that does sound like it risks being lazy and boring, but it's not just the use of established races that makes it so!

On the other hand, if your story is about a human befriending a Xxaargle while struggling against the Yzgerath and Sqyrtlings, it may not be lazy to invent those new races, but there's a risk of the explanations of what they all are being boring.

In either case, while I love a good fantasy story myself, and Lord of the Rings is still one of my favourites - I think there are very important questions to ask about what the roles, stereotypes, and preconceptions that "races" in stories represent. All Orcs are savage, brutish, violent, and inherently evil; all Elves are arrogant, aloof, but inherently good; but why shouldn't an Orc be able to do good in the world, if he wants to? What is it about an Elf that justifies her actions as good, just because she is an Elf? Why should all Xxaargles be the same, when humans are so diverse? Importantly: what are the real-world equivalents of those stereotypes, and is that something we as authors want to perpetuate? Lazy use of fantasy races (established or otherwise) carries a risk of providing deeply unsatisfactory answers to those questions. Sensible use of fantasy races adheres to established convention and provides readers with information that would otherwise require lengthy and boring exposition to convey.

My advice (for whatever that is worth) would be to take a step back and decide what your story is really about. If it's about the uniqueness of the world and its inhabitants, it could be a candidate for making up your own races if you can find something genuinely interesting about them. If it's about the characters and what they do, using established races may be a satisfactory way to ground the reader in a setting they immediately understand. In either case, be aware of the risks involved with lumping entire groups of sentient beings into stereotyped buckets restricting their behaviour. Laziness in considering any of those factors risks negative consequences... so whatever you do don't be lazy; but adhering to convention is not necessarily lazy, as long as it's a deliberate choice.

1

My favorite series use novel creatures - but describe them with the traits that make them ... Elf like, ... Ewok like, ... Witch like,... Without using those labels.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"The Hajarla had a wisdom in their eyes, and while not human, their intelligence at least matched that of man. But their abilities went further, as they could speak to one another in ways unknown to man. Just through physical contact of their ohmic organs, they could convey electrical impulses and communicate without any audible sound."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I vote for creating new creatures (I am older, FWIW). But when they are introduced highlight the features that we already know. Wisdom, earthiness, simplicity, whatever it is.

I am now going to up vote Mark because his answer is more thorough, more satisfying, and similar in concept to this. I just wanted to explicitly communicate the idea of new creatures, with recognizable hallmarks. This gives you freedom to add new character traits to them.

0

Also keep in mind that just because you call something an "X" doesn't mean it has to fit in with a person's traditional views of what an "X" is, and that you can also have a mix of traditional and unique interpretations of these races.

For instance, in the Warcraft universe, elves, orcs, dragons, and dwarves fit into the stereotypes, more or less, of what I think people normally picture when they think of these races. However, the trolls are more or less just skinny orcs with Jamaican accents in Warcraft.

On the other hand, in Terry Pratchett's Discworld universe, the dwarves and trolls are a little more stereotypical, but the elves represent "pretty evil", for lack of a better term, sort of how vampires are sometimes portrayed, and the dragons are little more than lap dogs that occasionally explode.

Bottom line: do what you want!

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