Fantasy Faction

Fantasy Faction Writers => Writers' Corner => Topic started by: Dashgar on February 29, 2012, 03:14:19 AM

Title: Elves, dwarves and orcs: where do they fit in these days?
Post by: Dashgar on February 29, 2012, 03:14:19 AM
I'd like to say something on the use of some 'fantasy staples'. I was gonna post this on another topic but realised as I was writing it was a whole different issue I'd got to.

I guess I've always had a fanscination with Elves and Dwarves (and even more so Orcs), tracking back less to Tolkien (which don't get me wrong I read from a young age) but more from Warhammer and the Warcraft games. I found the more I read of fantasy that writers were trying to steer away from these creatures but in many ways they never really did. In the same way that the creators of DnD and Warhammer embraced Tolkiens ideas and made them something completely their own, some authors are trapped beneath his shadow, trying to do something new.

Take any 'evil race' from a fantasy story, I think trollocs from wheel of time are a great example. For me they've never quite worked. Even though they are described very similarly to beastmen in Warhammer (a race that have a hugely entertaining history). Why can I picture what a beastman camp would be like and not a trolloc camp. Why can I imagine what beastmen would talk about and not trollocs. They are essentially the same thing but in emphasising they are different Jordan's Trollocs have lost the beastmen's appeal.

I think by borrowing the 'high fantasy' terms you inherit a certain amount of backstory that can be valuable to your narrative. Then as you build on those 'principles' you make the races your own. Orcs in Tolkien are very different to orcs in Warhammer, Warcraft and even Warhammer 40k. Any other world with Orcs will hopefully have very different orcs too (or they will be breaking the aforementioned rule). I know mine are so different they could be given a whole different term. But I don't for the reasons I've described, the inherited backstory.

Its the same with humans. We can use humans in our stories because it just makes sense. But theres no reason you have to use humans. In LOTR for example there are only 2 characters in the fellowship who are human and neither are the ring bearing main character. If anyone's fantasy world can use humans then they can also use elves, dwarfs etc.

I ramble, I know, but my point is that I find just using humans takes a lot of fun from fantasy. Creating races from scratch can either take way too long to describe or be cheap rip offs of elves, dwarfs, orcs etc. Sometimes of course its well done, (I hope I will be able to achieve that with a few unique races of my own). So I think that using established terms such as elves and dwarves can quickly give your world some colour, some history and a general feel to it, and by the time you leave your own personal mark on all these races you won't have anything samey about your world at all.
Title: Re: Elves, dwarves and orcs: where do they fit in these days?
Post by: Louise on February 29, 2012, 10:35:38 AM
I largely tend to agree, although I can't say I know any different. Humans are easy to use as a race because, well most of us are human :P but, of course, that doesn't mean to say fantasy has to have them.

I think naming is so so important though. It's amazing how one simple character will change a person's entire outlook on a race/object/idea/thing. To one of my own examples: in one of my stories, I use the undead. But instead of using the word zombie or undead, which I didn't think fitted at all, I named them "husks" in reference to the empty, soulless vessels that they are. And it fits that much better. As long as you're clear that the concept is still the same (i.e they're undead) then readers shouldn't have a problem in imagining the beings you are trying to describe. (and failing that I can always go into comic books :D).
Title: Re: Elves, dwarves and orcs: where do they fit in these days?
Post by: Nighteyes on February 29, 2012, 11:18:58 AM
Have you read Orcs by Stan Nichols?not the greatest book ever but an enjoyable action packed romp usings orcs as the pratogonists. But I do hear what you are saying, neither ogiers or trollocs work that well in Jordan. They felt like badly disguised elves or orcs.  Probably the writer who has created the most interesting fantasy creatures of their own recently is Mark Newton and they are just there as decoration but also as protagonists.
Title: Re: Elves, dwarves and orcs: where do they fit in these days?
Post by: Jon Sprunk on February 29, 2012, 02:52:23 PM
There are several forces at work in the "fantasy races" topic. One of the biggest for modern readers (and editors) is the cliche factor. Anything that features dwarves with long beards and an affinity for axes and gold, or elves that live in the forest and quote poetry while they shoot bows, is deemed derivative. Writers can rise above this with a superior storyline (sometimes), but it's not easy.

For writers who want to include stock fantasy races, I suggest giving them a strong reason for existing--a reason tied to the main plot. If they exist just for flavor, you're only making it tougher on yourself if you want to publish.
Title: Re: Elves, dwarves and orcs: where do they fit in these days?
Post by: Nyki Blatchley on February 29, 2012, 03:32:48 PM
Have you read Orcs by Stan Nichols?not the greatest book ever but an enjoyable action packed romp usings orcs as the pratogonists. But I do hear what you are saying, neither ogiers or trollocs work that well in Jordan. They felt like badly disguised elves or orcs.  Probably the writer who has created the most interesting fantasy creatures of their own recently is Mark Newton and they are just there as decoration but also as protagonists.

I haven't read that one, but Mary Gentle's Grunts is a similar idea, and that's brilliant.

Having said that, I haven't read much using stock races that interests me greatly.  That's not saying it can't work, but I'd rather see either something totally new or else humans, rather than thinly-disguised humans, as these races often are.  Personally, I prefer writing about humans, with a few stranger beings for added colour.
Title: Re: Elves, dwarves and orcs: where do they fit in these days?
Post by: AshKB on February 29, 2012, 11:13:38 PM
I think by borrowing the 'high fantasy' terms you inherit a certain amount of backstory that can be valuable to your narrative. Then as you build on those 'principles' you make the races your own. Orcs in Tolkien are very different to orcs in Warhammer, Warcraft and even Warhammer 40k. Any other world with Orcs will hopefully have very different orcs too (or they will be breaking the aforementioned rule). I know mine are so different they could be given a whole different term. But I don't for the reasons I've described, the inherited backstory.

You can also toss out a lot of the backstory, and start over. That by itself makes those species your own. Particularly if make them "not human" with different instincts and so on.

I admit, that I find this easiest with my take on elves (thank you, wikipedia, for all the mentions of 'elf king and a court of elf-maidens' inspiring a gender-number imbalance in my take on the species, place a radically different cultural base), and I'm having too much fun to stop and poke at dwarves and giants and so forth (at least, right now).

But that backstory...it can grow too heavy, and sometimes to make things interesting, you either subvert that history, or throw it out entirely. And then you have room to explore a world with many different kinds of humanoids, and how that affects things.
Title: Re: Elves, dwarves and orcs: where do they fit in these days?
Post by: Elfy on February 29, 2012, 11:24:59 PM
Have you read Orcs by Stan Nichols?not the greatest book ever but an enjoyable action packed romp usings orcs as the pratogonists. But I do hear what you are saying, neither ogiers or trollocs work that well in Jordan. They felt like badly disguised elves or orcs.  Probably the writer who has created the most interesting fantasy creatures of their own recently is Mark Newton and they are just there as decoration but also as protagonists.

I haven't read that one, but Mary Gentle's Grunts is a similar idea, and that's brilliant.

Having said that, I haven't read much using stock races that interests me greatly.  That's not saying it can't work, but I'd rather see either something totally new or else humans, rather than thinly-disguised humans, as these races often are.  Personally, I prefer writing about humans, with a few stranger beings for added colour.
A. Lee Martinez has a similar take on this with In The Company of Ogres
Title: Re: Elves, dwarves and orcs: where do they fit in these days?
Post by: Dashgar on March 01, 2012, 05:02:12 AM
For writers who want to include stock fantasy races, I suggest giving them a strong reason for existing--a reason tied to the main plot. If they exist just for flavor, you're only making it tougher on yourself if you want to publish.

I think this idea is key. The races need a reason to exist. I think this is the case with humans as much as any other race if you are using multiple races in fantasy. In your fantasy world humans are a fantasy race, although they may resemble earth humans in absolutely every way the fact that they are not from earth makes them a different race.

I base my fantasy world around 5 races that are each tied to one of the 5 types of magic. Those races are humans, elves, dwarves, orcs and krull (my only made up race). They all stem from the same race before magic entered the world and changed things. I won't give a huge history lesson on my own work but I've made sure each of the races histories are the same length as they all diverged from the earlier mortals at the same time. This is a big step away from the elves always being the elder race and humans being the youngest.

I think its a mistake to 'take humans as a given' because they're not. If the elves arrived on the continent on big white ships and the dwarves emerged from tunnels underground (bad cliches on purpose) then where did the humans come from?
Title: Re: Elves, dwarves and orcs: where do they fit in these days?
Post by: Nyki Blatchley on March 01, 2012, 07:05:18 PM
I wouldn't say that creating your own fantasy race has to involve long explanations and back-story.  I created a winged humanoid species simply for a short story, although it fitted into my main world.  Since it was a short story, I didn't explain where they came from or give a detailed account of their culture - I just described them, gave them some avian-like gestures and body movements, and used flying as terms of reference in their dialogue.  I think that worked fine.
Title: Re: Elves, dwarves and orcs: where do they fit in these days?
Post by: Nighteyes on March 01, 2012, 07:50:11 PM
I wouldn't say that creating your own fantasy race has to involve long explanations and back-story.  I created a winged humanoid species simply for a short story, although it fitted into my main world.  Since it was a short story, I didn't explain where they came from or give a detailed account of their culture - I just described them, gave them some avian-like gestures and body movements, and used flying as terms of reference in their dialogue.  I think that worked fine.


Flying Bird Man are a long running staple - based on garudas from Hindu mythology I believe/ or harpies from Ancient greek mythology -  I think most people just recall those if you use them - so no need to do to much explaining.
Title: Re: Elves, dwarves and orcs: where do they fit in these days?
Post by: Elfy on March 01, 2012, 10:41:57 PM
I wouldn't say that creating your own fantasy race has to involve long explanations and back-story.  I created a winged humanoid species simply for a short story, although it fitted into my main world.  Since it was a short story, I didn't explain where they came from or give a detailed account of their culture - I just described them, gave them some avian-like gestures and body movements, and used flying as terms of reference in their dialogue.  I think that worked fine.


Flying Bird Man are a long running staple - based on garudas from Hindu mythology I believe/ or harpies from Ancient greek mythology -  I think most people just recall those if you use them - so no need to do to much explaining.
Mark Charan Newton has used garudas and banshees in his Legends of the New Sun series. Daniel Abraham created a bunch of new races for The Dragon's Path (first book of The Dagger and the Coin) and they were based on existing fantastical creatures to an extent. There's still room for both traditional and new fantasy races.
Title: Re: Elves, dwarves and orcs: where do they fit in these days?
Post by: eclipse on July 30, 2020, 08:19:43 AM
For writers who want to include stock fantasy races, I suggest giving them a strong reason for existing--a reason tied to the main plot. If they exist just for flavor, you're only making it tougher on yourself if you want to publish.

I think this idea is key. The races need a reason to exist.




Like vampires who sparkle  :D
Title: Re: Elves, dwarves and orcs: where do they fit in these days?
Post by: Skip on August 02, 2020, 04:47:32 PM
It's interesting that people feel fantasy races need a reason to be there, but no one talks about coming up with a reason for humans.

Why can't there simply be a world in which humans, elves, dwarves, etc. exist? Each would have their own history, of course, but there doesn't need to be a justification. There *can* be, of course. That's fine.

My chief objection to how most non-human races get treated is that they're one-dimensional. Think of the variety of behaviors and appearances that exist in humans. Not only is there variation between individuals, there are also common traits across cultures. This makes for fascinatiing story-telling opportunities. One American can be very different from another American, but plop us down somewhere in Europe and we'll both be spotted in an instant as "two Americans." And that leaves aside regional differences. Ask an Italian some time about how similar a Milanese is to a Neapolitan. To an American, they're all "Italian". And to someone in Malaysia or Nairobi, we're all just Westerners.

That's the kind of not only variation but also similarity I would expect to find among dwarves or elves. I realize that takes an enormous amount of work and is hard to cram into a single novel. It's when the author doesn't even try that I get irked.
Title: Re: Elves, dwarves and orcs: where do they fit in these days?
Post by: Caith on August 03, 2020, 02:35:51 PM
For writers who want to include stock fantasy races, I suggest giving them a strong reason for existing--a reason tied to the main plot. If they exist just for flavor, you're only making it tougher on yourself if you want to publish.

I think this idea is key. The races need a reason to exist.

Lots of good points in this thread! Going back to the the reason for races other than human, its maybe similar to alien races in SF, in that the alien serves some purpose a human character cannot and the alien is there to let the author tells us something about the human characters. So elves can serve as the angels of our better nature or orcs as the embodiment of our own darkness (to give a couple of rough examples). On the other hand, we are writing in a genre and a genre needs a flavour, so why not have characters who serve that purpose, provided you go easy on it? I'd imagine most genre fiction has its roll call of stock characters. The trick is maybe to write them as believeable archetypes, rather than stereotypes.
Title: Re: Elves, dwarves and orcs: where do they fit in these days?
Post by: cupiscent on August 04, 2020, 04:09:33 AM
I heartily recommend to everyone AK Larkwood's The Unspoken Name which contains, I believe, actually ZERO human characters. Characters we do have include orcs, elves, gnomes (possibly?) and a giant talking magic snake. Every character - even the snake - is very "human".

Both Skip and Caith have made great points here, and just to build a little on top: I don't know that thinking carefully about "purpose" wrt race just applies to races, but also to ethnicity - if your "horse-people" are just a one-dimensional trope-manifestation, that's also kinda ugly and boring. Depth and nuance and complexity belongs to all peoples.

And it's fractal - even once you zoom in, there are differences. To build on Skip's example, to people from Milan, there's probably a difference depending on where you live or other factors, and within those drilled-down separations, there are yet further separations. Because, when you get down to it, all individuals are just that: individual.
Title: Re: Elves, dwarves and orcs: where do they fit in these days?
Post by: abatch on September 10, 2020, 01:18:40 AM
I don't enjoy novels with elves, dwarves and orcs in them (outside of the classics). It feels like lazy world-building to me -- just using the Tolkien or D & D templates. That said, there are always exceptions. I love the way Tad Williams has written elves over the years, for example. But I would say some of my favorite reads over the past decade or so have avoided them completely, by authors like Erikson, Cook, GRRM, Galley, Abercrombie, Bancroft et al. Personal preference, but I've got too many books on my TBR list to waste time on LOTR-type remakes.
Title: Re: Elves, dwarves and orcs: where do they fit in these days?
Post by: Peat on September 16, 2020, 12:26:53 AM
How many fantasy stories don't have lazy worldbuilding though? Real world analogues and stock stereotypes drawn from classic D&D worlds/early 80s fantasy are the foundation block of 9/10 fantasies that don't contain elves, dwarves et al, and I don't see how that's any less lazy. Each to their own on taste, but I see no reason to single out common demihuman races as lazy in this genre because if I were to restrict my reading solely to secondary world fantasies that weren't leaning on what came before, I'd pretty much read no fantasy.

I get they're unpopular. I get people feel they're played out. But I like them, and wish they were in more books.

Incidentally, isn't it humanocentric to assume all sentient races would have the same level of cultural diversity as us? :P That in itself could be an interesting point- looking at how different humanity is when you're from a culture that really is hardwired in so deep it's the same everywhere. I know people dislike it, because of real world implications as much as anything, but it is a potentially interesting route to go.
Title: Re: Elves, dwarves and orcs: where do they fit in these days?
Post by: cupiscent on September 16, 2020, 12:37:35 AM
Incidentally, isn't it humanocentric to assume all sentient races would have the same level of cultural diversity as us? :P That in itself could be an interesting point- looking at how different humanity is when you're from a culture that really is hardwired in so deep it's the same everywhere. I know people dislike it, because of real world implications as much as anything, but it is a potentially interesting route to go.

I mean... the problem comes when the non-human sentient race is clearly just a stand-in for a human ethnic group, and therefore having them all as one homogeneous stereotype is a bit gross. But a story that explored the idea that, say, dwarves didn't have that same "in-group/out-group" mental habit as humans did could be fascinating, because it helps examine that habit in humans, the ways in which it's harmful, but also the purposes it serves, and it considers alternative ways of serving those purposes or living without them.

One of the things I loved about Becky Chambers' Long Way to a Small Angry Planet was that humans were nothing special in the universal array of races.
Title: Re: Elves, dwarves and orcs: where do they fit in these days?
Post by: Peat on September 16, 2020, 01:33:26 AM
Incidentally, isn't it humanocentric to assume all sentient races would have the same level of cultural diversity as us? :P That in itself could be an interesting point- looking at how different humanity is when you're from a culture that really is hardwired in so deep it's the same everywhere. I know people dislike it, because of real world implications as much as anything, but it is a potentially interesting route to go.

I mean... the problem comes when the non-human sentient race is clearly just a stand-in for a human ethnic group, and therefore having them all as one homogeneous stereotype is a bit gross. But a story that explored the idea that, say, dwarves didn't have that same "in-group/out-group" mental habit as humans did could be fascinating, because it helps examine that habit in humans, the ways in which it's harmful, but also the purposes it serves, and it considers alternative ways of serving those purposes or living without them.

One of the things I loved about Becky Chambers' Long Way to a Small Angry Planet was that humans were nothing special in the universal array of races.

Maybe I'm being willfully blind but I honestly can't think of a single book where dwarves and elves are clearly one particular human ethnic group; I certainly wouldn't consider the classic Tolkienesque versions of them to be so. If they were being used that way then yes, tricky to say the (very) least.
Title: Re: Elves, dwarves and orcs: where do they fit in these days?
Post by: Skip on September 16, 2020, 04:46:56 PM
I can't think of an ethnic example either, but there are many cases--Tolkien included--where each race is a set of characteristics and nothing more nor less. All elves are X. All dwarves are Y. There might be individual stories within that, but there's no real variation. How many elves drink too much and think farting is funny? How many elegant dwarves have you met in the literature?

Honestly, I don't mind the stereotypes in themselves. The laziness criticism holds water when an author just picks those up and uses them in place of putting any real work into the characters. That's not the fault of the elf or the dwarf, it's the fault of the human. The author.

And it's a shame because there's real opportunity in having non-humans. Let dwarves be as varied in culture and personality as are humans. At the same time, give them a cohesion that lets anyone recognize them instantly as dwarves. It's a real challenge.

Think about just our human race. A north Italian will recognize a south Italian instantly. A Swede might not distinguish, but he won't mistake either for a Frenchman. I'm consistently amused and bemused that I'm recognized immediately as American when I travel in Europe. I don't even have to speak. To someone on the other side of the planet, though, we're all just Westerners.

This fascinates me. What distinguishes us one from another, while at the same time what makes us indistinguishable?

What I hope to do in my own work, and what I look for in other fantasy writers, is that sort of cultural nuance. Physical differences help, of course, but there can be more to it than beards and ears.
Title: Re: Elves, dwarves and orcs: where do they fit in these days?
Post by: Peat on September 16, 2020, 06:00:07 PM
I can't think of an ethnic example either, but there are many cases--Tolkien included--where each race is a set of characteristics and nothing more nor less. All elves are X. All dwarves are Y. There might be individual stories within that, but there's no real variation. How many elves drink too much and think farting is funny? How many elegant dwarves have you met in the literature?

Honestly, I don't mind the stereotypes in themselves. The laziness criticism holds water when an author just picks those up and uses them in place of putting any real work into the characters. That's not the fault of the elf or the dwarf, it's the fault of the human. The author.

And it's a shame because there's real opportunity in having non-humans. Let dwarves be as varied in culture and personality as are humans. At the same time, give them a cohesion that lets anyone recognize them instantly as dwarves. It's a real challenge.

Think about just our human race. A north Italian will recognize a south Italian instantly. A Swede might not distinguish, but he won't mistake either for a Frenchman. I'm consistently amused and bemused that I'm recognized immediately as American when I travel in Europe. I don't even have to speak. To someone on the other side of the planet, though, we're all just Westerners.

This fascinates me. What distinguishes us one from another, while at the same time what makes us indistinguishable?

What I hope to do in my own work, and what I look for in other fantasy writers, is that sort of cultural nuance. Physical differences help, of course, but there can be more to it than beards and ears.

Tolkien's elves, at least, are different from each other. The Noldor have a different culture to the Teleri have a different culture to the Vanyar; the Eldar are different to the Sindar who are different to Avari. In fact, Tolkien's elves probably show more cultural distinctions than his humans (a not uncommon state of affairs) which brings me back to my point about singling out non-humans for laziness - how many gems of refinement are there among the many not-Celto-Viking northmen? I'm reading Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Dart again at the moment - where are the Angelines for whom beauty isn't all?

Lazy worldbuilding is a fantasy standard. I don't see why we should be holding the demihumans to a higher standard - and I think we see less differences than exist too.
Title: Re: Elves, dwarves and orcs: where do they fit in these days?
Post by: Nighteyes on September 16, 2020, 07:22:36 PM
I think there is a demand for dwarf/ orc erotica.