The Races of Fantasy: Re-use, Recycle, or Rubbish

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I see many complaints about the stereotypical races found in fantasy. Elves who sing to the birds and can shoot a wing off a fly from three hundred yards away without looking. Beardy dwarves who heft axes bigger than their bodies and defy sadistic dragons for a bit of gold.

So today I thought we’d look at the three most common races—elves, orcs, and dwarves—explore their classic tropes, and debate whether what we as writers ought to do: re-use, recycle, or rubbish them.

 

Elves

  • About the same height and appearance as humans, though sometimes smaller or taller. They have ears like Spock’s with varying pointiness. And are usually beautiful to the point of perfection.
  • Often found in woods, forests, or tree cities.
  • Usually about 10,000,000 years old.
  • Can come in various sub-races, such as high elves, dark elves, wood elves. High elves tend to be more competent at things such as magic and fighting, an all-round ‘superior’ being. It’s not some kind of stoned elf who’s always ‘sniffing flowers’. There’s a gap in the market there. Wood elves are a little more grounded than their ‘high’ cousins. They’re sometimes portrayed as jovial, open-minded folk, and other times as secretive and fiercely protective over their land and kin. Dark elves are the goths of their kin, rejecting the trees and plants and anything happy. They want to corrupt the world with the depressing virus that riddles them.
  • Always carries some kind of bow which they can shoot anything from any distance with. Why not shoot three arrows at once while you’re at it.
  • Can possess some kind of magical ability, such as superior vision, or a greater handling of magic.
  • Very spiritual beings, but with a tradition of fighting. Their warriors seem to have a reluctant air to them like they wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for some arsehole killing everyone.
  • Usually ruled by some semi-divine individual, such as an elder or queen. Elf kings can be quite hard to come by.
  • Perhaps a tad racist? They don’t care much for dwarves.

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Orcs

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  • The word orc comes from an old English word—orcus—which referred to a type of monster or demon, though the Roman God of Death was named Orcus which could also have an influence. They first featured in the epic poem Beowulf, one of Tolkien’s greatest influences. Check out Tolkien’s lecture essay, Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics. Tolkien’s version of the orc has had the most lasting effect on the fantasy genre, so it’s this type of orc we’ll focus on.
  • The perennial bad guy. Humanoid, grotesque and dirty, they usually make up the ranks of whatever evil force is at work. There is an element of fear behind why they serve.
  • They tend to have sickly coloured skin, from greens and greys and even reds. Their appearance is boar-like, with tusks and snouts.
  • They have a ferocious attitude, somewhat mindless. Portrayed as stupid, but that’s misleading. They can craft weapons and treat injuries.
  • The strongest orc tends to be the leader, though the position is often subject to challenges.
  • They love ‘man flesh’ and don’t appear to put much effort into cooking it. They’re known to eat each other too.
  • They loathe humanity with a burning passion.
  • Hang around with other brutish creatures, like wargs or toothy dogs.
  • Tend to live in caves or hovels in tribe-like communes.

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Dwarves

  • The modern fantasy idea likely stems from the dvergar of Norse mythology. They were said to have been as old as the gods themselves.
  • In high fantasy, the modern dwarf was first introduced in The Hobbit. Brave and fierce, they were artisans and warriors, small and stout, rooted in tradition. And above all, they love a bit of coin and anything shiny or precious.
  • They stand at a comfortable height to knee in the face.
  • They can’t get enough of mining and making weapons and armour.
  • Usually ruled by a warrior-king.
  • Female dwarves don’t feature much. In Lord of the Rings, it was said dwarf women look like their men.
  • Usually carry either an axe, swords, mattock (a weaponised version of a pickaxe), or a hammer.
  • Tend to live in caves or cities built alongside or within mountains, or Viking-like communes with huts and longhouses.

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Re-use: why deviate from the tried and tested?

I enjoy reading stories featuring elves and dwarves and orcs. I don’t read many of them, though. I can imagine for those that do it can grow a bit tiresome, almost as if you’re reading the same book over and over.

In the original version of my short story The General, I had elves. It felt like I was cheating, that I wasn’t really pushing myself to create. It’s my story after all, why use someone else’s idea? But I like elves. They’re mysterious and good-natured and awesome with bows.

And that’s the point. Despite the odd complaint, we still love these classic races. They’re part of the reason we fell in love with fantasy. We enjoy the tropes that continue to enchant us. Dear old Gimli will forever hold a place in my heart.

 

Recycle: finding originality in a sea of lookalikes

A lot of ideas have been taken. If you can, unshackle your mind, go wild with that plasticine trope in your mind. Morph it into all manner of shapes. Create the appearance then think about the classic traits and how you can alter them. Start at the opposite end and work back from there until you find a level you like. Whatever you create is going to be different and unique because you created it.

This is what I decided to do for The General. I took the elf template and came up with the Vysi. They’re smaller than humans, with eyes three times the size and giant ears the shape of a mouse’s. I kept that elvish connection with nature I love so much, but even with those slight changes I found that readers appreciated the effort and difference. It gave them a new experience, which is what we seek in stories.

 

Rubbish: starting from scratch

It’s no easy feat coming up with an entirely new race of people. Especially when so many have been done. We’ve seen lizards and the Tsuranuanni in Feist’s works. Adrian Tchaikovsky has a whole world full of unique races with affinities to different insects, such as beetles, wasps, mantids and spiders in his Shadows of the Apt series.

It’s certainly possible to come up with your own. Unfortunately, I can’t offer much help on that front, it’s down to you, but I can suggest how to start. Pick a template—appearance and traits—alter bits and pieces, and just keep on doing that until you’re happy you’ve made something different.

12 thoughts on “The Races of Fantasy: Re-use, Recycle, or Rubbish”

  1. Good overview! I’m partial to recycling and rubbishing myself, reusing feels kind of lazy unless you’re doing it to serve some sort of thematic point. There’s a race prominently featured in my current wip who are essentially elves, but I think I’ve been able to put a pretty interesting/novel spin on them.

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      1. I could email you some documents I’m working on about them, if you’d like. It’d be cool hearing someone else’s thoughts on them.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. You make a fair point about reusing! 🙂 The sort of “learned reaction” among writers is probably to either recycle or invent something new, but there’s compelling magic in using the old trope. A lot of fiction relies on giving the same old experience, in a thousand different guises. Particularly in entertainment-heavy works. Readers know all about elves, and that’s two-edged: you can cut yourself, but you can also write some very sharp text!

    What about the Vysi, though? Do you have any plans on going on a second date with them?

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    1. Thanks for your comment. Great points made! It is very much a double edged sword. Who’d be brave enough to try it! The Vysi sadly were mostly obliterated in The General (though that bits not revealed!). However in Magpie, my novel, the ancestry lives on. What about you? Have you conjured any new beings?

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      1. But if you like elves and their type, we’ll maybe see something like the Vysi in the future? I’m more with JM Williams on this, and usually stick to humans. But I like using fairy tale tropes, too, and that entails writing about the occasional vampire, talking raven, or leprechaun. 🙂

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  3. Something I have observed about many readers of certain kinds of fantasy fiction: They REALLY don’t like it when an author deviates from the “official race templates,” even though they complain bitterly about any story that fails to be “more unique” while still adhering to The Way Elves Are or whatever. An elf who’s not inhumanly beautiful? Not Allowed! An elf whose culture/ethnicity doesn’t fit neatly into “high elf” or “wood elf” or whatever? Not Allowed! And they’d better fit perfectly into the stereotypes of personality and skills for their sub-group, too, unless they need to be More Unique Than Everyone Else as their motivation for becoming an adventurer. The very concept of an elf who doesn’t use a bow — perhaps armed with nothing but a small knife kept tucked into his boot — would severely wobble the brains of some readers… and yet, even as these readers demand that authors follow the templates exactly, they want characters who aren’t just like every other character of this species — excuse me, I mean “race” — they’ve ever seen. I think Roddenberry’s space elves (that’s a compliment, not an insult) would have something to say about the lack of logic in those mutually exclusive requirements.

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  4. Great points. This is exactly why I don’t use fantasy races in my high fantasy, only humans. In the end, these races offer little that distinct human groups can’t. “Of Metal and Magic,” Fiction Vortex’s high fantasy StoryVerse I am writing a series for will have other races. It is a part of the core lore. But I am working hard to make sure the other writers understand the need to make these races something new. No elves or dwarves. I think we have a decent idea of how to do it, though. We’ll see if it works in the end.

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