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I've long been interested in writing a fantasy novel. Over the countless iterations I've gone through, one thing has remained clear: a quest for originality.

I know some people like the fantasy cliches, but a good chunk don't. These people want imagination, creativity, and originality. They don't want to meet an 'elf' and instantly know that it's a super-strong super-fast super-agile magic-wielding likely-vegetarian nature-lover with pointed ears. And I'm with them.

I have ever since been making my fantasy novel more and more 'original' by going against what might be expected. At first I had elves. But they often tripped and face-planted with everyone else. Then I made them super weak. Recently, I've decided that the very idea of elves is in fact a genre convention, and I have eliminated them entirely. The novel is now centered on humans. I went further. Humans are the only sentient race. There are no elves, dwarves, goblins, or any of the other expected races.

In fact, the only thing keeping the novel as fantasy at all is that it is set on a different planet, a lack of modern technology, and the humans use magic.

All of that is just an example. My question is, if I intentionally go against the genre conventions - for any genre, not just fantasy - where do I draw the line?

There has to be a middle ground somewhere. On one side of the spectrum you have knights, elves, magic, dragons, different species, and so on. Go completely original and you get something really weird, like telepathic super-platypuses swimming in the molten oceans of a lava world.

How do you know when you need more originality, or when you need more convention?

Edit for future viewers: I've marked the answer by Chris, because it explain the theory behind my question and its solution. I would however like to direct future viewers to Sara Costa's answer as well, because it creates - at least to me - a very clear line, and an easy way to tell how much is too much in terms of originality vs genre conventions.

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    "telepathic super-platypuses swimming in the molten oceans of a lava world" I'd read that if you did the world-building properly. – JAB Mar 16 '18 at 16:00
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    I would not have suggested that you abandon the concept of elves. Speaking as someone who doesn't particularly like elves, I assure you that they can be an important and interesting aspect of a story. (Tolkien absolutely nailed this, and I think R. Scott Bakker's elf-analogues are an excellent example from a modern author.) Just make sure that their presence serves a purpose to your story, instead of feeling like an obligation to the genre. – WolfeFan Mar 16 '18 at 20:39
  • As soon as you "explain" magic by setting it on another world or giving it to alien species, you no longer write fantasy but SF (there's lots of telepathic aliens in SF stories) or Science Fantasy. – user29032 Mar 17 '18 at 14:11

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Being original is more than just avoiding what everyone else is doing. In a sense, doing exactly what everyone else is doing, and doing the opposite of what everyone else is doing are equally derivative --both are just reactions to what you've read before. What readers are actually looking for is a unique sense of you as an author. That's something which could be invested in almost any part of your book, from voice, to sensibility, to perspective.

What makes the cookie-cutter elf tiresome is that he's just been copied and pasted from someone else's book. No creative work has been put into making him live for himself. On the other hand, however, even a super-strong super-fast super-agile magic-wielding likely-vegetarian nature-lover with pointed ears could be a new and different elf we've never met before --for the same reason as every real person is unique.

In summary, worry less about whether or not you're being original or derivative, and more on whether you're making this book and its characters and setting live for itself. If you can do that, your book will stand out from the crowd, even if it touches on every trope ever identified. Sometimes it's the familiar elements of a work that really make the unique elements stand out and pop.

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    I hope this answer gets more attention; it's the best one here in my opinion but currently at the bottom. (I see that it's the newest one.) – Wildcard Mar 16 '18 at 19:44
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You know when you are going against the conventions too much when you are feeling forced to go against the conventions just for the sake of going against the conventions.

The work then starts to feel like hard work to not be like everyone else instead of putting the effort into meaningful progression of the plot and working on the character traits of your main characters. It starts to feel important to come up with new names, just for the sake of not using known names.

There is a nice chart from XKCD - Fiction Rule of Thumb that shows how the amount of invented words makes the book likely worse.

It becomes hard to read because you needed original names in a language noone has ever heard of and with a lot of apostrophes as if they were Eldritch Horrors in a game of D&D instead of being easy to read because you spent your time making the dialogue flow in a way that feels natural.

It's good to try to go against a few genre rules, but in general the general audience expects the general rules of a fantasy book.

There are different degrees of fantasy of course - you have the knight in shining armor fighting together with the rogue and the wizard against the dragon. Or you have the modern day police force that has help from a single rare individual when it comes to tracking the bunch of assassins that can get somewhere without opening a door or window because magic. But when you want to write about a knight in shining armor and you are forcing him to be a detective you will get a bad book - it's not the story you have in your head because you always have to twist what is in your head just because you don't want to say the word elf.

Most people don't have a problem with unusual characteristics like elves being normal-speed and without magic. Maybe a bit longer living and a bit more peaceful, but more than willing to fight for something they want. Just define your version of elves by showing the reader what is different about these elves. They will expect a few similarities, but it doesn't have to be the complete clichè.

If you feel that you need to make sure that your readers know that these elves are different you could for example change their name slightly - calling them elffes would go a long way in showing how they are very similar, but not quite normal elves. Or you could call magic magik or magick. This has been done before, but it's basically a symbol for "this is a different kind of magic with its own rules, not the D&D-style Sword-and-Sorcery kind". As long as you don't do this with every single race or magic spell or whatever you want to paint differently it wouldn't be considered bad writing, just your personal style.

If you are trying too hard to get something original you will never finish anything - someone has used that word you just wanted to write down before after all...

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    Mostly good, though I normally don't like spellings like "magick". It's rarely done well - you're telegraphing "look at me, I'm different!" every time you use it. -- By analogy, if you mention "chair" most people envision something like a Windsor chair. But a chair can also be a recliner, or a beach lounge chair, or a bean bag chair, or a Panton chair. You don't have to have to spell it "cheire" to reinforce that it's not a stereotypical chair. As long as it fills the role of a chair, just call it a "chair", and make sure any differences are mentioned when they become relevant. – R.M. Mar 16 '18 at 20:16
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    @R.M., point of interest: many of the words in A Song of Ice and Fire that casual readers assume are made up, are in fact archaic words that you do find in standard (but very large) English dictionaries. – Wildcard Mar 17 '18 at 6:36
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Stories are inhabited by archetypes. That does not seem to be a choice. It seems to be what the human psyche craves.

One has to ask, after all, why we like stories at all. We can suggest some practical purposes that stories serve, but for the most part they are simply entertainments, and it is very clear that certain sorts of stories work consistently. People don't tire of the same story over and over again. So there is something in us that is quite specific which craves a very particular kind of narrative which we call a story. There is no scope for originality here. The architecture of story is written on the human heart.

When we seek to describe the architecture of story, the successful explanations all seem to come back to archetypes. So, a knight is not just a guy on a horse with a tin suit. A knight is an archetypal hero. The Lone Ranger is a knight. James Bond is a knight. If you write a quest story, your hero is a knight. He may start out a bank manager, but he will have to pretty quickly find his inner knight or the story is going nowhere.

So, the standard Tolkienesque cast of beasties are simply one way of embodying the archetypes. There seems to be an endless appetite for this embodiment of the archetypes, but if you are tired of writing it, then you can certainly embody them differently, but you still need the same archetypes, because stories are populated by archetypes.

There are, of course, different embodiments of the same archetypes in different genres. The cowboy is a knight. The hard boiled detective is a knight. The bold sea captain is a knight. Captain America and Iron Man are knights. If you can figure out a new way to embody the knight, and the wizard, and the maiden, and the crone, and the trickster, you could be onto something good.

But there is a problem with creating a different embodiment of the archetypes. People will not be able to instantly recognize the archetypes when they see them. This means you have to spend time demonstrating that they are the archetypes so that people will recognize them in your story. There is nothing wrong with this. Authors of mainstream fiction do this all the time. But there is a reason that genre fiction embodies their archetypes the same way each time. It is so that the reader can instantly recognize the archetypes the moment they show up, allowing you to get straight to the action. For the impatient reader of popcorn fiction, this is important.

If your attempt at originality takes you away from the archetypes altogether, you are going to lose most of your audience, if not all of it. If your attempt at originality takes the form of embodying the archetypes in a new way, you may lose some of your audience, and you might be appealing to an audience outside the traditional audience of the genre you are writing in. (Note that a lot of mainstream and literary fiction takes the form of mystery, sic fi, fantasy, romance, or even western, but is not shelved with them because it does not fit with the conventions of those genres.)

Does this leave room for originality? I believe it does, but it is originality in other parts of the craft. Originality in diction, or in characterization, or in pacing and form are all possible, though originality should not be understood as doing something just because no one else is doing it. True originality means coming up with something that actually works, and that is no mean feat.

In the end, originality is not a virtue in itself in a novelist. The core virtue of a novelist is the acuity of their vision and the vividness with which they transmit that vision. If they are original it is because they needed to find a new way to express what they have seen. Innovation in the arts is the daughter of vision. Focus on refining your vision and on capturing and transmitting your vision and if innovation is required to accomplish that, it will take care of itself.

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What I want in a story is a character I care about facing an issue I face and struggling with that issue.

You say you have humans on another planet using magic. And it's fantasy. It sounds like fantasy to me.

I have humans on another planet. And they are genetically modified to have remarkable abilities (and have access to remarkable pharmaceuticals). I call it fantasy. Or sci-fi depending on the day.

We should beta swap sometime.

If I care about your characters then I won't care if there are elves or not. In fact I generally dislike elves and dragons. But I love a wise teacher. Give me a wise teacher. Knights are nice and all, but a Han Solo is much more compelling than a Lancelot. Han Solo is flawed, and has no delusions of grandeur.

I think if you are on another planet with magic you are safely in Fantasy. You don't need more convention or more originality. You need to write a good story, synopsis, and query.

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if I intentionally go against the genre conventions - for any genre, not just fantasy - where do I draw the line?

I believe there are two types of conventions for any genre. Some are essential - without them, you don't have the specific genre you're after. Some are traditional - tropes, clichés or smart twists on those.

Feel free to drop the traditional ones and keep only the essential ones. That, IMO, is the line you're talking about.

While lack of originality means you're far from the line, originality doesn't necessarily mean you're about to cross it. You may choose to keep some traditional conventions, revamp some and even create new ones (though that is getting harder and harder). Mix the old and the new, if need be.

As for which conventions are essential and which are traditional... well, you'll have to study the genre and figure that out yourself (unless someone has done it and is willing to give you a summary). However, do keep in mind that some conventions are universal to all genres (eg. archetypes), but each genre will dress those conventions in different robes (ie, conventions within conventions).


I would now like to mention the elves you present as an example. When I was a teen, I started writing a fantasy tale involving elves and dwarves. A few years later I read Tolkien and was completely dismayed because my elves and my dwarves were so similar to his, but I didn't want to cross out the whole tale. What to do?

First, I listed the characteristics of elves and dwarves in Tolkien and other popular fantasy tales and compared them to mine. Then I brought in science and checked which characteristics were truly essential to my two peoples. I changed their names.

My Cave People are now stocky, dark-skinned, cave-dwelling, expert masons and jewlers, but they are a spiritual people and have delicate customs to balance the brutality of their environment. They'll fight valiantly, but would rather avoid bloodshed. They prize music, meditation and fine intelects.

My Prairy People are tall and slim, and they prize themselves for being in balance with nature... but they will also savagely destroy anything (or anyone) they deem evil. They take pride in their civilisation, but are burdened by strict rules. They favour music, fine intelects and all sorts of art.

Neither people have super-powers, and lots of individuals find themselves lacking in characteristics deemed the essence of their culture (which means you can find, eg., short Prairy People and slim Cave People).

  • I'm not convinced by the idea you can draw a bright line between "essential" and merely "traditional" genre elements, or that it's useful to do so. – Chris Sunami Mar 16 '18 at 17:01
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    @ChrisSunami I find Sara's advice to be the clearest I've seen so far. – Thomas Myron Mar 16 '18 at 17:08
  • @ChrisSunami: You're quite right, one cannot draw a 'bright line'. One can, however, draw a vague one. As for the usefulness of it... that can be a bit in the eye of the beholder. If one wants to 'intentionally go against genre conventions' (as the OP wishes to do), it's useful; if one does not, it's very much useless. – Sara Costa Mar 17 '18 at 8:51
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    I wanted to note that I found this answer very useful. To me, drawing a clear line is easy: if your book didn't have X or X turned into Y, would you honestly still call it fantasy as a reader? If the answer's no, that's one of your essential conventions. You clearly need that convention if you want to write a fantasy book. If you can still call it fantasy - or whatever your genre happens to be - then you have a traditional convention. – Thomas Myron Mar 17 '18 at 16:46
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Originality isn't contained merely in what populates your fantasy world. In fact, I'd say that's one of the least important elements to an original story. You can have a new, fresh, original story in a setting with the old tired elves, dwarves and orcs (look at JourneyQuest, for example), and you can have an old, predictable story in a world populated by nothing out of the old bestiary.

Originality can and should come in the plot itself: what happens, why, how, the way your characters think, the way they interact, the way they respond to situations.

Take, for instance M.R. Carey's "The Girl with all the Gifts". In terms of what populates his world, you've got the standard zombie apocalypse, with the experienced soldier, and the inexperienced rookie, and some civilians, and zombies. What makes this book stand out is the main character: a bright, intelligent, kind girl,

who is a zombie.

So you can have elves, they can be pointy-eared, they can even be vegetarian if you like. The question is how you use them. What's new about the story you're telling - that's the important part.

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    Good point: you have to give the reader expectations to play with their expectations. – Davislor Mar 18 '18 at 2:02
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Your Story Doesn’t Have to Use any Themes of the Genre

It just won’t be part of that genre. There are a lot of good books that are set on another world or feature some kind of magic, but that don’t resemble the books of J.R.R. Tolkien. It sounds as if you like that kind of setting, but don’t want to write fanfic. So the happy middle you’re looking for, in that sense, is to identify what aspects of it you like and which are trappings you can remove.

If you’re not writing for money, I would try not to worry too much about whether other people will feel it's original enough, either. Write what you’re inspired to write! Slice ideas fine enough and everything’s been done before, somewhere.

Familiarity Can Save You Exposition

If everybody knows that Elves are super-agile, super-strong pointy-eared forest hippies, the readers will get an Elf joke without an explanation. If your countries are absolut-ish monarchies with male-preference primogeniture, you won’t need to spend as much time as George R. R. Martin telling them how it works instead.

Even your deliberately silly terminus a quo of something alien, telepathic super-platypuses swimming in lava, is really not all that unfamiliar an idea. Telepathic superheroes are common in SF, talking animals in children’s books, and platypuses and lava exist on Earth. But, choosing familiar elements like telepathic, super, platypuses and lava lets us clearly picture what you’re talking about. If you had to explain the joke, it wouldn’t be funny.

This is especially helpful for a short story, where you can’t spend most of the words explaining where the story is set.

Remember, Your Audience is Human

Holly Lisle once wrote a little retrospective (We’d call it a blog post today.) about her first book about a vampire. She was hinting at a romance between him and the heroine, but the ending was going to be—Ha! He was just tricking her! He doesn’t feel human emotions like love at all and was nothing but a sociopathic, irredeemable monster. All he really wanted was to use the one person who felt anything for him, then seal himself off in a nice cave forever, alone.

Then, she realized: vampires would’ve loved that ending where he rejected humanity and reveled in his vampire nature. But she wasn’t writing for vampires. She was writing for humans, who wouldn’t be able to relate to that character or take any satisfaction in that ending.

Humans can identify with some very basic motivations. We can even relate, to some degree, to selfishness, lashing out, getting back at someone or just to really really wanting something. If Lisle had been making some kind of stronger statement about what would never work, we might even retort that everyone who reads her book can relate to wanting to be alone with a book sometimes.

But it’s a good illustration of a good point: the reader has to be able to relate to the characters and what’s happening. They won’t have any emotional connection to Elven history or traditions. You might spend a lot of time selling us on why those are fascinating and worth fighting for, and you’d have a good story if you pulled it off, but short of that those won’t make good motivations for the protagonist.

Instead of Repeating, You Can Rhyme

You can make a theme just recognizable enough to put an original twist on it. Galaxy Quest works if you know what it’s parodying, and USS Callister has a much more serious bone to pick with the source material. Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream has a point to make about Tolkien’s love of prehistoric Germanic myth and culture and his invention of superior and inferior races. Writers have been stealing from other stories since the Stone Age, and literary critics love it because it gives them something to talk about.

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The most successful fantasy series of our time is completely traditional. If you delete the violence, dying-off protagonists, and irregular viewpoint switches from George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, you essentially have classic fantasy in the vein of Tolkien or Robert Jordan – or even Walter Scott's Ivanhoe from 1820.

"Fantasy" is a genre that is based on medieval European literature and European folklore. While there are crossover experiments into folklores of other cultures or into other genres (such as Science Fantasy), and some of these crossovers have been highly successful at certain times and for certain demographics (such as Urban Fantasy for young adult females), the "core" genre has remained successful for the past two centuries (since its invention by romantic writers in the eighteenth century).

Stories with knights and damsels set in medieval worlds always sell (in countries with a population of mostly European descent). They may not always make the bestseller lists, but they remain consistently popular, like stories with spaceships and aliens or stories with murderers or stories about love.

The kind of originality that readers want lies not in breaking out of the genre, but in a reading experience that reflects their life-experience.

What was the vogue until recently is "grimdark" or "gritty" fantasy. You could interpret it as writers putting into fantasy what they see on the news: war in the Middle East, highschool shootings, terrorism, a rising insecurity in the population. This is the violence in GRRM that differentiates him from Robert Jordan, who wrote during the economical upswing of post-war 20th century.

What appears to become more popular is what agents call "own voices" fiction, that is fantasy about marginalized characters, minority groups, and intimate portrayals of characters such as in Naomi Novik's Uprooted. The genre in all these is quite traditionally employed, but the protagonists experience themselves and their surroundings in a contemporary 21st century self-reflexive way. You could say, this is fantasy about how its readers feel about themselves projected into a fantasy world. But this is nothing new either, Ursula Le Guin did this in her fantasy works in the 1960s.

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Riff on Convention Use elven aspects as a jumping off point, and then go wild with it. Really think about what makes an elf recognizable as an elf. Then use that to surprise your reader.

  • Generally close to nature. What does that actually MEAN? In many stories it means that they are peaceful and won't kill and eat animals. But in others it can mean something completely different. In the comic Guilded Age the elves are so into trees and plant life that they would never, ever kill one and certainly wouldn't eat plants. They are devoted carnivores. But they are still recognizable as elves because they have the close to nature characteristic. The convention isn't purely "they are vegetarians" it stems from the "close to nature" idea--in tune with the natural world. It could mean that they are feral, wild, uncivilized in human terms.
  • Long Lived Their long life gives them a different perspective. They could be supremely arrogant, they could instead of valuing sentient life, toss it away. If reproduction is higher than they have resources, perhaps they ENCOURAGE war because they believe in survival of the fittest as part of their philosophy and connection with nature.
  • Magical Magic's not all unicorns and roses you know. It takes on many different forms. It might not always be controlled and it can be really very dangerous. Maybe, because they are so long-lived, they fear death and are very interested in that aspect of magic. Boom. Elf necromancer society. In the case of that link, it's a pretty benign version of necromancy but, yeah...You can really do ANYTHING with this. Magic systems and schools have a TON of variation. Chose an aspect--emotion, death, love, life, and then run with that.

The three above are the characteristics you see most often in conventional fantasy. But as I have outlined, there's a whole WORLD of variation you can employ WITHIN those conventions and still have them recognizable as elves. I think the pointed ears are kind of a must...

Humans aren't all the same, so elves shouldn't be either. You're approaching elves as a group rather than as specific characters. Each elf comes from somewhere specific. Maybe they grew up on a ship, maybe in a city, maybe in a forest. Their own experiences color what they are, and being an elf is just an overlay, just like being human is. So each elf can sense magic maybe as a racial characteristic--but that doesn't mean that the specific elf learned to wield it. Maybe they use that sense to AVOID it...Even in Tolkien while elves were SEEN as magical, most of his elven characters never even wield magic.

Conventions vary. In some folklore, elves are tall. In D&D they are slighter than humans. You've got the vegetarian thing in your head, but it's far more general than that.

Elves Vary Too There's a range in humanity for intelligence, dexterity, perception and wisdom. The elven range for something like dexterity might be higher, but there's always folk who fall outside normal. A normal elf might be at the top percentile of what a human can do--but there are going to be elves that aren't as dexterous and fall more into the normal human range (or who are even lower than that), as there will be elves that are far above what a human could ever accomplish. So with a "normal" elf, while a human might be impressed with their dexterity, guess what? Nobody back home ever was...

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Using elves as our case point in originality, there are several approaches:

  • Elves are elves: so you read Tolkien, or are an avid D&D player, or basically, love the hell of 99% of literature that's marketed as fantasy, and you know elves as these pointy-eared, stoic, uptight Mary Sues who are better than you at everything (specially magic), who follow very strict social rules and hug trees, so you include them in your story. There is nothing wrong with this approach other than not being very original, but on the upside, you can be sure there are people who like this, and you have a very real market waiting for more elves.
  • No, really, ALL elves are elves: one of the most common pitfalls in fantasy writing is assuming all people of a specific non-human species always acts the same way. So while elves usually are pointy-eared, stoic, uptight Mary Sues who are better than you at everything (specially magic), who follow very strict social rules and hug trees, not all of them have to, for example. hug trees. In fact, there may be other tribes of elves where it is normal not to hug trees, or where it is more normal to disregard pointless social conventions to achieve a chiller atmosphere. The only way all elves, all around the world, all act the same, is if they are a hivemind, but writers don't tend to imply that.
  • All elves are elves, except this guy: then, in order to show some variance, you consider making a guy that's the exact opposite of the archetype of that race/species you have established. He is one of his kind, because everyone else seems to be very markedly elvish. While it can be done well, it is usually lazy, and unless you play it for laughs, you may end up writing an angsty Mary Sue, and nobody likes Mary Sues.
  • Elves are mostly elves: you like elves, but let's get real, they are kitsch, mainstream and overdone, maybe even outright boring. You want to get original with your elves, so you decide you have had enough of clichés, and decide to put a twist on them. So now your elves are pointy eapointy-eared, stoic, uptight Mary Sues who are better than you at everything (specially magic), who follow very strict social rules and hug trees BUT they are cannibalistic. At this point, this is pretty much the expected elf behaviour, so it applies the same as above, just very slightly more original.
  • Elves are humans: what's the difference between an elf and a human? They have funny shaped ears, and that's it. This is not a bad idea, but it is kinda pointless; why not make those characters humans if being elves isn't going to make a difference?
  • Fal'kehs'tdzth are elves: so you have these these guys who are pointy-eared, stoic, uptight Mary Sues who are better than you at everything (specially magic), who follow very strict social rules and hug trees, but they are called Fal'kehs'tdzth, and they definitely aren't elves. This is usually a lazy attempt at originality, so unless you are trying to play it for laughs, try avoiding this.
  • Elves are not elves: so you have elves. "Oh, nice, tree hugging people!", your reader says. Except they do not hug trees because they live in underground caves. And they have two tongues, no eyes, no hair, gray skin, and they make hissing noises when they are angry. Okay cool, they are original, but why call them elves at that point?
  • No elves, only humans: your approach, and also the same approach most fantasy writers who don't want to follow Tolkien or D&D's conventions on the genre follow. It's a breath of fresh air, but sadly not very original regarding species/races, so you will have to compensate if you want your story to be classified as fantasy.
  • No humans, only elves and friends: usually unheard of, since most fantasy worlds place humans in order to have a reality anchor that lets us know in which ways do these fantasy races differ on. Can get very snowflakey very easily, so while it can be fun if done correctly, you might sound like a tryhard at originality if you don't execute it well.
  • No elves, no humans: would be peak snowflakism, but still a valid approach if well executed. What about trying some other unconventional races/species in your writing? I'm not sure about you, but I would read that.

If all you care about is commercial success, you will probably have a better chance at success if you follow the already proven formula, but there is an growing audience that's tired of the same worldbuilding and same plotlines over and over, so if you are willing to risk it, you are still guaranteed to sell some copies, or even become a commercial success if your formula really stands up on its own. Of course, if this isn't your primary concern, you should just do as you think it will be best for your book.

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