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Author Topic: Nonhuman peoples  (Read 11582 times)

Offline Yora

Nonhuman peoples
« on: October 08, 2014, 09:42:17 PM »
For some reasons, nonhuman peoples seem to have really gotten out of favor. They never were really popular with Sword & Sorcery and in Epic Fantasy they only get very little roles, if they even exist at all. Maybe it's because of the stuff I've been reading recently, but it appears that nonhuman peoples really only show up in fiction based on roleplaying games or strongly inspired by Tolkien. Both segments of the market that are not particularly high in regard.
I am working on a story idea, and I almost feel like struggling to find away to have elves but trying to cover up that fact that they are elves.

How are you approaching this?
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Offline AshKB

Re: Nonhuman peoples
« Reply #1 on: October 08, 2014, 10:06:39 PM »
In my world where I have elves and dwarves, I....just have elves and dwarves, and people can take it or leave it. Then again, my elves have three genders, are matriarchal, use rifles and construct empires, so, tropes are something I twist. Admittedly this world is shelved for now, but that was more due to a large amount of world-building I'd have to do and I wanted something else that'd be easier to get things finished with.

(Then again, the 'easier' world has vampires and werewolves, and I might toss in a few other sub-species. Depends.)

Mostly, I ignore the market and I use genre-attitudes more as inspiration to twist tropes and have fun. This is fantasy, after all. We're allowed to play around with things. But I'm curious...Why are you hiding that they are elves? I'd say almost having your own take on them would be a selling point, rather than something to hide.
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Offline Yora

Re: Nonhuman peoples
« Reply #2 on: October 08, 2014, 10:37:05 PM »
Elves are a particularly difficult case. Personally, I love them. But lots of people hate them and when they give reasons for that, I entirely agree with them. Those characterizations they describe annoy me to hell and back as well, as they are just awful and should be called out. Elves are great if you don't turn them into melancholic, immortal tree-huggers who are superior and everything, and the writer describes them in a way that makes it very clear the reader should be totally loving them.
I certainly won't turn them into such carricatures, but I am under the impression that lots of people wouldn't even give the story a single glance if they know there are elves that play a big role. It they had green skin and a different name, those same people would probably be perfectly happy with them.
Same thing applies to gnomes, but they so rarely get the treatment of writer gushing that even the passionate gnome haters (who really just hate kenders, and for good reasons) won't be turned away by their presence.
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Offline AshKB

Re: Nonhuman peoples
« Reply #3 on: October 08, 2014, 10:57:08 PM »
Elves are a particularly difficult case. Personally, I love them. But lots of people hate them and when they give reasons for that, I entirely agree with them. Those characterizations they describe annoy me to hell and back as well, as they are just awful and should be called out. Elves are great if you don't turn them into melancholic, immortal tree-huggers who are superior and everything, and the writer describes them in a way that makes it very clear the reader should be totally loving them.
I certainly won't turn them into such carricatures, but I am under the impression that lots of people wouldn't even give the story a single glance if they know there are elves that play a big role. It they had green skin and a different name, those same people would probably be perfectly happy with them.
Same thing applies to gnomes, but they so rarely get the treatment of writer gushing that even the passionate gnome haters (who really just hate kenders, and for good reasons) won't be turned away by their presence.

What gave you that impression? I mean, if you want to change the name and give them green skin, nothing's stopping you, but if you really want them to be called 'elves', I honestly say go for it. Lots of people are probably going to be put off by something else, and others would go 'oh, interesting elves! I want to see what this author is doing with them'.

- people hate gnomes? And, uh, what are kenders?

(I ask both as a point of 'not everyone in this genre is part of the same circle/attitude', and also genuinely. Never heard of kenders.)
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Offline Elfy

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Re: Nonhuman peoples
« Reply #4 on: October 08, 2014, 11:22:04 PM »
There's a really good and amusing essay about elves (The Preservation and Evolution of Elves) by James Barclay in the Fantasy-Faction Anthology, which speaks about their role in the genre and how it's altered over the years from Tolkien until now. It depends on what you mean by non-human. Is it a race with minor biological differences like the elves and the dwarves or even the hobbits or is it something totally alien in shape and form? Kameron Hurley's The Mirror Empire features a shift from standard binary gender characters and it also has living plants, although whether or not they're sentient has not become apparent in the first book of the series. Do creatures like vampires and werewolves, even ghosts feature in the non-human stakes? All three were at one point human. The TV show (British version) Being Human actually examined that featuring a ghost, a vampire and a werewolf all trying to 'be human'. The monster du jour is the zombie, is that looked at as non-human? A number of UF's these days feature various fairy races, many of them look human, but they think totally differently. It's very definitely still there, but it depends on what you regard as non-human.
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Offline cupiscent

Re: Nonhuman peoples
« Reply #5 on: October 09, 2014, 01:33:13 AM »
I think I'd be more interested in "nonhuman" races if fantasy fiction did better at representing the actual diversity of human races. As it is, it's hard not to view the inclusion of (say) elves as some sort of "I wanted ~*different people*~ without having to engage with the actual differences present within the existing human spectrum." And I find that lazy, insulting and boring. (And/or the author wants to include justified othering, and that's even worse frankly.)

I'm sure there are heaps of great examples of the inclusion of elves, dwarves, whatever that are subtle and nuanced and the author has great intentions etc etc. But that's how I feel about it as a reader. I feel disappointed every time elves or dwarves show up in a novel, and if they're in the blurb, I need a lot of other potential awesome to balance that out.

As a writer, I've never felt the need to include nonhuman races. There's still too much interesting stuff I haven't explored in humans. (Wait! I tell a lie: the first novel I ever wrote, co-written with my best friend at age 14, had elves. But looking back now, all we really wanted was a completely separated kingdom of people; there's no reason they couldn't have been human and just really, really insular.)

Offline Nyki Blatchley

Re: Nonhuman peoples
« Reply #6 on: October 09, 2014, 12:20:20 PM »
I think I'd be more interested in "nonhuman" races if fantasy fiction did better at representing the actual diversity of human races. As it is, it's hard not to view the inclusion of (say) elves as some sort of "I wanted ~*different people*~ without having to engage with the actual differences present within the existing human spectrum." And I find that lazy, insulting and boring. (And/or the author wants to include justified othering, and that's even worse frankly.)

I completely agree with this.  In my main world, I have all the varieties of human known in the RW, plus a few extra (I have a green-skinned race in a couple of stories, who are simply humans with different pigmentation).

I rarely use the traditional fantasy races, other than in comedy. On the rare occasions I want non-humans (besides occasional demons and monsters) I invent them from scratch, although in some cases they aren't a radical departure, like the Eahui, who are simply winged humans with some bird-like qualities.

I've no objection to reading books with elves, dwarves etc in them, provided there's a good reason for them to be there, as opposed to them being humans in fancy dress.

Offline Yora

Re: Nonhuman peoples
« Reply #7 on: October 09, 2014, 02:34:08 PM »
While I have a quite different personal taste in this matter ("disagree" doesn't seem to be the right word here), thank you two both a lot for contributing to this discussion. I was kind of afraid that nobody here would see that there could even be a problem regarding this issue.
There seem to be many people around who think the addition of nonhuman cultures (that's what I am primarily thinking about) needs to be justified. And I partly agree with that. Having a culture that is in every way like humans but has pointy ears and is called elves does indeed raise the question "why not just have them be humans?" And part of what I am struggling with is how much different is required to make a nonhuman people actually nonhuman and not just humans with pointy ears? I understand the complaint and I believe I can significantly improve my world by adding more differentiating traits to each of the cultures. Right now, I can say that I want to have elves, but I can not explain why I do so. And if I don't know what purpose they have, I can not realize the potential that there is to make my work unique. And I can't expect people to accept that the existance of elves is an essential part of the identity of the world if I can't even explain it to myself.

So the real question might be, how do you use the inclusion of nonhuman cultures effectively? If you could give some examples of what you would consider good reasons, that would be super-helpful to me. (Though a bit of an unfair question, as it's difficult to explain why "normal" should be changed.)
- people hate gnomes? And, uh, what are kenders?
Kenders are a race of hobbit-sized people from the Dragonlance series. They are habbitual kleptomanics who always deny everything even when caught red handed, fiddle with everything even though it's very dangerous, and regularly stirr up trouble because of boredom. And despite being extremely obnoxious, we are told that they are incredibly adorable and everyone should love them. While Dragonlance has become most popular for the novels, it's also a roleplaying game setting, and there are always people around who enjoy annoying other players and goofing around. When these get an opportunity to play kender characters, the outcome is often disastrous. Probably the most hated race that ever appeared in RPGs.
Gnomes are not as strong an archetype as dwarves or halflings, so quite often they are shoved into worlds with no real idea what their place is, and end up being over-carricaturized as pranksters and wacky inventors. The reason I like gnomes is because they are not as fenced in into a single super-specific stereotype as dwarves, and I feel I can do a lot more with them while not causing an outrage of "those are not real dwarves!"
« Last Edit: October 09, 2014, 02:36:49 PM by Yora »
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Offline Jonny_Anonymous

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Re: Nonhuman peoples
« Reply #8 on: October 09, 2014, 09:33:54 PM »
The best Elves are Melniboneans.

But yeah I would like to see more books that actually have non-humans as the point of focus.
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Offline Elfy

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Re: Nonhuman peoples
« Reply #9 on: October 09, 2014, 10:54:00 PM »
I have to admit I really liked the kender. Partly because they were put in the books for comedy relief and in the early books, I gave up after a while, they performed that role admirably. My favourite was the original Tasslehoff Burrfoot, and his tales of his legendary Uncle Trapspringer. I didn't take to Earwig Lockpicker quite as much. I did love the names, though. One of the things about kender was that they were new.  The other Dragonlance races were pretty standard fare: humans, elves, dwarves, the occasional gnome, with goblins and orcs as the bad guys. The idea of kender probably came from hobbits, especially the thief thing (Bilbo was hired by the dwarves in The Hobbit, because Gandalf said he was a thief and he turned out to be a pretty good one), but they were roughly the same size as gnomes, possibly long lived, although their lifestyles didn't loan itself to long life (they were rather childlike both in appearance and outlook, and as their curiosity overrode everything else tended to have no fear of anything), one unusual physical characteristic were their facial wrinkles, once they attained adulthood they tended to develop extensive facial wrinkles, and they saw this as a sign of physical attractiveness. I can see Yora's point that it could become annoying with a bunch of people playing kender in an rpg, but for one or two in book they broke up things and made for some amusing situations and conversation. I didn't play games like D&D, but from what I knew of them in the early days people always seemed to want to play thieves, and they always seemed cool characters. The Thieves World, shared world anthologies were also quite popular at that time. Joel Rosenberg did a series called Keepers of the Flame, which featured a group of college kids (interestingly enough one was severely handicapped, which at time was ground breaking) who were transported from this world into one like the one they gamed in, and the thief character (a smooth jock on campus) was always the most amusing. It was he who in fact suggested that they make their code word on the fantasy world: twoallbeefpattiespecialsaucelettucecheesepicklesonionsonasesameseedbun. I burst out laughing the first time I read that. However I digress, but I see kender as an example of doing something different and creating an entirely new race. Another great example is the hobbits, before Tolkien I don't believe anyone had added to the lexicon of fantasy races for centuries.
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Offline Yora

Re: Nonhuman peoples
« Reply #10 on: October 10, 2014, 09:47:12 AM »
One thing that occured to me is that it might really help things to refer to nonhuman peoples by culture or nationality. After all, you would describe human characters as Hyrkanians, Rohirim, or Calishites, only very rarely as "humans".
In many works the nonhuman peoples already do have more than one ethnicity, but they are still almost always called elves or dwarves. The one example I can think of that doesn't do it are the Dunmer from the Elder Scrolls games. I don't think they are ever called Dark Elves (not sure with the other elves, though).
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Online CameronJohnston

Re: Nonhuman peoples
« Reply #11 on: October 10, 2014, 11:49:20 AM »
The thing I find about nonhuman peoples in many novels is that they are just a bit boring, re-skinned humans basically, with similar cultural structures. I mean really, they are NONhuman so should clearly be portrayed very different in some respects.

Stereotypical elves and dwarves have been done to death, but they can still be great if you have a really strong character to play with, or if you really delve into and expand their culture and beliefs (in your own unique way).

I thought that Adrian Tchaikovsky in Shadows of the Apt did well in differentiating his different nonhuman(ish) cultures and races. Each of them inherited mind-set attributes and physical abilities from their racial makeup and while human(ish) were still all different. Steven Erickson in the Malazan books had some very good depictions of this as well, specifically Karsa Orlong.
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Offline Yora

Re: Nonhuman peoples
« Reply #12 on: October 10, 2014, 11:52:56 AM »
What exactly makes characters feel nonhuman? It's something that sounds very obvious, but I am always having a hard time getting a real idea how that might look like.
It's an entirely justified demand, but do people who claim that have a somewhat clear concept how that could be done? (Not that they would need to justify that view, as they usually propose to not have nonhumans at all because of this.)
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Offline Jonny_Anonymous

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Re: Nonhuman peoples
« Reply #13 on: October 10, 2014, 02:33:56 PM »
What exactly makes characters feel nonhuman? It's something that sounds very obvious, but I am always having a hard time getting a real idea how that might look like.
It's an entirely justified demand, but do people who claim that have a somewhat clear concept how that could be done? (Not that they would need to justify that view, as they usually propose to not have nonhumans at all because of this.)

A completely alien characters like you would see in sci fi except on a fantasy earth. Basically I want more Lovecraftian raceses in fantasy.
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Offline Yora

Re: Nonhuman peoples
« Reply #14 on: October 10, 2014, 02:58:10 PM »
I wonder if anyone ever actually did that, except as monsters. .The one case I can think of would be Lovecraft himself with the Elder Things.
And the moral of that story happened to be that while they look totally alien, they still think very much like us. Kind of the inverse of that idea, actually.  :D
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