16 December, 2011

Elves have left the building

The novel I'm writing doesn't feature any sentient races besides humans. Nonetheless, I have future plans for a series that would involve demi-human races like elves and dwarves.

So on Mythic Scribes lately, there's been discussion of elves in particular and how to make them "unique" or "different." Reading through that thread, it occurred to me: Do we have to make elves unique and different?

It's all too common to see an author accused of using "generic" races that have the same characteristics as the ones Tolkien laid out half a century ago. Dwarves are short, broad, and hairy; they love gold, live underground, etc. Elves are tall, fair, slim, graceful, reclusive, live a very long time, etc. But so what? They're good tropes, and I don't think there's a problem with using them more or less as-is. Obviously other authors' elves need to have a different history, and different realms/names. But if the characters you create are interesting and have personality, then why is it a problem for them to be "stock" elves?

Creating a fictional human culture based on e.g. medieval England would never receive the same kind of disdain that using Tolkien-standard elves does. Why is it a problem to use Tolkien-standard elves, but not use Tolkien-standard humans? Is it critical that a fantasy world be a completely original setting? Are there any major permutations of the possible attributes elves can have that haven't been written in the decades since Lord of the Rings was published? You could give them all sorts of attributes that would make them into something that nobody would call an "elf," I suppose -- give them scaly skin, make them short-lived, ugly, etc.

Is it better to avoid using the word "elf" altogether and just come up with another, more "original" race? There's really only so many variations on sentient races that you can do, and I'm sure they've all pretty much been done by now. Humanoid races based on animals (wolf-men! cat-people!), vegetables (sentient trees! fungus men!), or minerals (rock golems! crystalline... things!). Humanoid races with various exaggerated characteristics (very short, very tall, very thin, very fat). Undead races, etc. Good luck thinking of a characteristic that's never been used before.

And even if you do, so what? It still has to fit into a good story, with good characters. Perhaps too much time is spent on worrying about the details of fantasy worlds, and not enough on the details of character and story. Maybe because it's easier to do so. I'm starting to think that when I get to the point of writing the novels that have elves and dwarves, I'm deliberately going to use Tolkien-standard races.


  1. Well said, Benjamin Borne of Clay! There have indeed been many interesting points raised here and on MythicScribes. Personally, I like elves in fantasy worlds, no matter how they're portrayed. I especially like what Wendy and Richard Pini did with them in ELFQUEST. What's your take on their spin?

  2. I've never really gotten into ElfQuest, although I did read through one of the books a long time ago (like, back in high school). Just skimming over the summary on Wikipedia, though, it looks like they took more of a tribal, wood-elf theme with their elves, instead of the more "high elf" style that characterizes most of Tolkien's elves.

    I think that, frankly, an author can come with whatever variation on elves they want; as long as they make it interesting, with interesting characters (all the elves shouldn't have the same personality any more than all humans would), I've got no problem with it.