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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.