Why Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes and Other Fantasy Elf-like Races Have No Place In Your Fantasy Novel

Are You Allergic to Elves? You Should Be.

Gordon Van Gelder, Editor of the venerable Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction once famously quipped, "I'm allergic to elves." What is it about fantasy races, be they dwarves or halflings or gnomes or even elves, that makes them so off-putting to the modern fantasy reader? Something about them just feels... wrong. It can't be explained, exactly, but the clear sense that something odd is in place often strikes the modern reader when encountering fantasy races like Elves and Dwarves, in particular.

Don't Blame Dungeons and Dragons.

Tolkien started it. It's not really his fault. Remember, when he was dreaming up his Middle Earth, the world was engaged in a throwdown war between nations that viewed things in a eugenic fashion. Whole books of science and social theory poured ink across the notion that the character of an Italian was in part dictated by how the Italian looked. The evil in a criminal could also be seen in the shape of his head and the spacing of his eyes. It's silly, right? It's utterly absurd and has been completely decimated by the rigors of scientific theory. But, it's something that used to be commonly believed. Remember, when Tolkien was writing, British colonialism was its final, full swing.

At that time period, it was considered perfectly acceptable to write a "non-human race" that was bipedal, human in appearance, and contained all the sort of traits that people carried, including language and intelligence, culture, and similar methods of eating and producing off-spring. Yet, these otherwise very human "races" were treated as different from human. But, they weren't that different. In fact, the only discernible difference between these races that seemed to merit the creation of some new category was that elves could live, youthfully and in health, for a very long time. Even Tolkein's halflings with their long lifespans seemed to be simply a metaphor for the healthy-living country peasant that would outlive his urban neighbors by decades.

When Dungeons and Dragons came along, they were pulling upon the fantastical lore and styles that had been popularized by Tolkien and the fantasy that was full of this soft racism between races, promoting differences in culture as if they were differences in species. Yet, if the different races could produce viable offspring as most could, then there was no different species present. This is merely a holdover of racism.

Even the classic enemies of the fantasy tomes, goblins and orcs, smell like racism. Some dark-skinned, ugly race of bipedal individuals sweep through like barbarians and destroy the civilized things? That's a subconscious metaphor for the colonial-era fears that European cultures carried for African and Native American communities. Even elves, with their beauty and grace and otherworldly natures, seem to suggest an idealized Aryan race, of perfect Whiteness being corrupted by the ruddy world of dwarves and men.

The racist past of fantasy races may be a vehicle for a savvy writer to explore the racial overtones with depth and intelligence. Still, isn't there another way to handle these issues that doesn't just rely on these old, tired stereotypes?

When you are constructing, you need to consider...

How to Make Fantasy Races Better

At the core of every fantasy story, there tends to a central theme or idea to explore. For instance, the classic and simplistic story of two great armies pounding into each other for the personal glory of a small band of leaders distributed among the troops is a story of greatness through valor. Applying fantasy races to this scenario diminishes the horror of war, and should be avoided. Still, if one must apply fantasy races, think of how to symbolize the major dilemma of the book through the metaphoric language of fantasy races.

In this case, of valorous battle, a fantasy race could come from the undead. Perhaps the ultimate price of valor on the battlefield is that these heroic individuals must sacrifice their humanity to lead their men, becoming some form of vampire or zombie.

Perhaps exposure to battle magic has created wild mutations among the troops, forever alienating them from humanity and permanently driving them and their children to battle with feathers and horns and scales and all sorts of strange mutations. Thus, the warriors pursue their valor not only because they seek to conquer their enemy, but because they must pursue battle to continue as a species.

Perhaps the armies face something truly alien, with motives that defy human rationale. Imagine facing an enemy that has no interest in winning the battlefield or conquering, but only desires to claim the left arm and liver of every living thing in their path. In this case, the fantasy race that is created could be insect-like, or look almost perfectly human. Regardless, the alienness of their motives becomes the driving force of the narrative.

In each of these cases, again, avoiding any sort of elf, dwarf, gnome, orc, goblin, or anything of the kind, is the key to creating a setting and scenario that needs no other explanation. Something like Dungeons and Dragons builds its depth through a series of complex rules and bits of knowledge to master, and has spent countless hours and years training players to accept these rules and orders. In the case of your fantasy novel, writing a lot of these same races only invites comparison to the decades of Dungeons & Dragons books, in all their mediocrity. Embracing these cliches only serves to prove your laziness as an author, and your un-inventive talent.

When you take the time to connect the way your world is constructed to the themes of your book, you will find a depth in your material that can feed your prose deeply-felt scenes and situations that retain relevance to your larger narrative. Just inventing something different for the sake of being different is just as trite as following old cliches. What you create should connect to the larger narrative themes.

Who Does This Really Well?

No modern fantasy author can match the New Crobuzon novels of China Meiville for inventive, well-thought-out alternative races. The characters include all sorts of chimerical re-appropriations of humanity in a setting that provides plenty of reasons and explanations for the strangeness of things. In this world, anyone can be "re-made" through magic to include non-human parts, and places in the world include a thin boundary between reality and magic, where creatures from other realms can enter into our own.

It is still possible to make lots of interesting and engaging races in your fantasy fiction, but just doing it with elves, dwarves, and the like is planting a big red flag on your prose, screaming of your lack of invention and your embrace of tiresome, racially-charged cliches.

Think more and deeply about your fantasy races, and be sure that just doing something because it is "cool" is never, ever allowed. Cool is never enough. It must also be part of the machinery of narrative and symbols that drive your narrative to its crucial and deeply-felt themes.

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Comments 9 comments

ThePelton profile image

ThePelton 5 years ago from Martinsburg, WV USA

Something I was told about writing is that it is better to overcreate your personal world or universe than it is to undercreate it, or start cold. Make maps, charts, Genealogy, and a lot more than you think you may need. Better to have done too much than to have not done enough. That will show.


zebulum profile image

zebulum 5 years ago from USA Author

It's better to have exactly what you need and not too much more.

Leave a few unexplored corners in your world, when possible, because if you ever get around to writing about it, you'll get the thrill of invention all over again.


Zhan Ryushin 3 years ago

zebulum, you have problems. If you hate Nordic Mythology so much which is where Elves, Nords, and shit come from when you should concentrate your mythos upon a different culture. Say Egyptian Culture. I am sure Bird headed and Jackal headed people would fit your forte. Or maybe you would like Centaurs and Harpies from the Greek Mythos or triclops monsters from the Chinese Mythos or Elephant people from the Indian mythos. Either way... what you fail to realize is what when people think of Fantasy, they think of medieval and immersion. And it is easy to convey elves and dwarves with the knights of King Arthur, because the mythos is tied so very well in our historical mindset. King Author is a legendary figure who is depicted back in the day where Christianity was barely thought about in Britain and people were very much thinking about them mischievous elves. A modern return to this mindset is a means of reversing the course of history that we took (English mind you) into the world of Christianity. So that is what dwarfs and elves actually are to us today. I don't know why you are upset. Just go watch some Thundercats if it is so bothersome to you. I am sure some anthropomorphic fantasy would do you some good.


zebulum profile image

zebulum 3 years ago from USA Author

Thanks for your comment. I wonder if you would feel differently if you were non-white and reading about those evil, dark races with funny noses or something. I wonder if you were Scottish and reading about dwarves and sort of wondering how come they all have an accent like a Scot, but they're not treated like their human, because they're something "Other" and non-human, how you would feel. Chaucer was an amazing scholar. He translated so many ancient epics. He also was a product of his time, and so were those epics. Racism is written into them. Frankly, it's not that you're trying to be racist by following these traditions, but you'd better bloody well have a good reason to do it other than how awesome it makes everything, because it only makes it awesome for people who are white and don't have an accent.


Lvxferre 3 years ago

I guess the problem isn't elves or dwarves or Norse mythology at all, but trying to "tie" it with real world analogies.


asoiaf 3 years ago

Eh, as an anthropologist, I lost you at the rant about Tolkien and eugenics. We still today find relationships between physical traits and behavior. That's never really started any problems or violence, it was just used to rev people up who would have been killing each other anyway in wars started by economics.

Alas, I agree in the sense that I think the elf/dwarf thing is so dry that it's killed fantasy literature for me. The reason George Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire was so great was in a large part due to the absence of cheesy Tolkien-esque mythology, replaced by something new that unwound itself over thousands of pages. Had he just gone with some generic "wise eastern elf" and "hardy ale-chuggin' dwarves", I doubt the book would be on anyone's radar much less become an entire media franchise.


asoiaf 3 years ago

I should add that being of mixed ethnicity and reading tons of fantasy... I've never once seen myself as a dark elf or perceived the subliminal racism.

Perhaps you as a politically correct liberal white person without much exposure to other races really underestimate their intelligence and maturity. Have you put that into consideration? You speak of "non-whites" as though we are children who can't handle advanced adult themes such as... Elves of all things. Elves. No, I'm not an elf and have never thought of being one.


ACSutliff profile image

ACSutliff 5 months ago

Hi Zebulum,

I can totally appreciate where you're coming from with this hub. I also agree with StephanFrei that it is hard to find a balance between creating something new/trying too hard to be original, and using a tired cliche for no real reason. I do however feel like cliches still have their place in writing. They are cliche because they are comfortable, and because of that, they can be an easy way to help your reader feel connected when they are trying to grasp the complicating fantasy world you have created. Finding a balance is important, and I agree with you that we should be very aware of the ramifications of our choices.

Writers should always carefully consider the WHYS behind all the WHATS in their novels.

I especially like how you think of races in a fantasy as a way to push the development of your story's theme. If your story's theme is that all people, no matter how big or small, can accomplish something important and save people, then making your main character a Hobbit and sending him off on a journey in a world filled with people who are all bigger and stronger than him, well that makes a lot of sense.

But if your theme doesn't deal with racism, acceptance, adversity, cooperation, identity, or tolerance . . . well then maybe you should stick to regular old humans.

How do you feel about a variety of races in a world, all with slightly different physical features because of the different innate magical abilities those races develop due to the innate magic flowing throughout the places where they live? My overarching theme is cooperation, and my message is that people need to learn to work together to save the world, even if they are very different and historically used to fight and kill each other all the time because of their differences. To me, that seems like the exact perfect time to invent some new fantasy races and explore how the peoples' differences can create opportunities to help each other, and that we all have more in common than first meets the eye.

Thanks for this hub; it has really given me something worth thinking about!

~A.C.


Telstar1948 4 months ago

I've always found that reading Fantasy involving Elves, Dwarves or whatever fantasy race is comfortable, as ACSutliff mentioned above, and enjoyable IF the writing is good to begin with. Just because something's been done before, doesn't rule it out as good reading material. Again, using races you can read about in Tolkien's work (and many since) is fine with me, as long as the work is written well. I also don't mind new races being introduced as long as the writing is good -- that, to me, is the crux of any book.

I find the author's comments regarding racism in these older race selections to be pointless. Zebulum, have you ever in your life looked down your nose at someone of your race? Have you ever disliked someone of your race for any reason? You see, bigotry (far broader then mere racism) is easily found within one's race as well as between races. But to hold that it is racist to use a dark race as the enemy in a Fantasy novel unless we have some highbrow reason to "justify" it, is pretentious and in error. A story that allows "good" to triumph over evil (yes, I am of that school that is not interested in antiheroes) is what I want to read. If you believe that using a dark race as a force of evil represents racism, then I find your conclusion in error and objectionable. I'm not reading Fantasy to project social mores into it. I'm not writing Fantasy for that reason either. I require villains and heroes; their color is immaterial.

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