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Alternative fantasy races

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Mythic Scribes, Feb 6, 2011.

  1. Mythic Scribes

    Mythic Scribes Acolyte

    I reckon some races have been used too much. Dwarves, elves and orcs aren't fascinating any more. They are too common.

    What are some other fantasy races that readers will be less familiar with?
  2. kjjcarpenter

    kjjcarpenter Minstrel

    I don't believe that dwarves, elves and orcs are too common as you say, rather, I always have, and always will, consider them Tolkien's territory. I would never write with one of these races, and to be honest I don't believe anyone can pull it off as well as Tolkien did. I think they are best left alone.
    What I tend to do is create my own humanoid races. They feel more authentic and they are mine, not just borrowed carbon copies of another author's mythology or imagination.
    As for lesser known races you could use, try looking at medieval myths or researching ancient cultures. You're sure so come up with a variety of monsters and creatures that could be borrowed and morphed into something new.
  3. Dwarven Gold

    Dwarven Gold Minstrel

    Those are fighting words, Tommy. Dwarves invented fascinating. ;)
    Geo likes this.
  4. kjjcarpenter

    kjjcarpenter Minstrel

    I guess this falls under the altered quote: 'Nobody insults a dwarf!'
  5. Ravana

    Ravana Istar

    The problem isn't so much that dwarves and elves are overused, but rather that Tolkien (and subsequently D&D) have so heavily influenced most people's perceptions of them that you're often stuck with using the existing stereotypes or else creating dissonance with the reader's expectations.

    Which is okay. Keep in mind that, before Tolkien, elves were not "friendly"–and even in Tolkien, they can occasionally be sinister (or at least intimidating) figures. We get dazzled by the hobbits' adoration of them, but: consider the reputation Lorien has, both among humans and the ents (who you might expect to know better). Reread the scene where Frodo offers Galadriel the Ring. (You could also check out what crumbs they were in The Silmarillion, but that's pretty pointless: there, they're indistinguishable from humans… and if you aren't going to make them palpably different, just write about humans.) Or just remember why folk tales started calling them "fair folk" in the first place.

    The same applies to pretty much any other race, regardless of source or familiarity. The same caution applies, too: if the differences between the races aren't meaningful to the story, using them is gratuitous at best, more often puzzling, not to mention irritating (as your reader tries to figure out why you did use them). Which also means that, unless such races are pivotal to the story, they should be used sparingly, both in frequency of appearance and with regard to how many different ones there are. Give your aspirations a liberal shave with Occam's Razor: "Entities should not be multiplied without reason." Keep ecology in mind, too: all these different races have to exist alongside one another–how do they manage it? Are they niche-specific, and if not, what's kept one from overrunning or driving out all the others? Which also suggests evolutionary forces, if your world hasn't been fashioned in its present state by divine beings… and that's "present state": if the world was set in motion ten thousand years ago, competition has had plenty of time to adjust population equilibriums.

    There's one exception to the "use sparingly" guideline, and that's when the story is told from the point of view of a member of that race. Which is what I'd suggest doing whenever you get the urge to include one: write yourself a couple of short pieces from just such points of view. You'll learn a lot more about the race you're creating/using if you have to work your way through their concerns, outlooks, etc. It also lets you go back and ask yourself "Can I tell this isn't a human being–without looking at its name or physical description?" If the answer is "No," then you're probably better off not using it at all, or in any case need to do some more work delineating the differences.
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 11, 2017
  6. Donny Bruso

    Donny Bruso Sage

    Personally I don't like writing using elves, dwarves, orcs, etc. either. My approach is to create different countries or continents or kingdoms, and essentially apply the theory of micro-evolution. You can make a case for almost anything evolve among separated peoples given cause and enough time. Skin tone, color and amount of hair, stature, sensitivity of the senses, all of these are incredibly variable in the human gene pool. There is no reason other more 'fantasy-esqe' things can't be thrown in as well. Pointed ears, for example.

    And of course you can lade each sect of humanity with different cultural and religious values that add depth and realism, just as you could different races.
  7. I tend to agree. But I also agree with some of the other posters, it's not that they're common, but that have become so known that you run the risk of using a stereotype.

    Oddly enough I went back to the basics. Witches, Vampires, Demons, and Lycanthropes. These can be used and changed without using a stereotype. I mean look at all the different types of Vampires there are now. You have Dracula, Blade, Buffy-verse, Twilight, and now Being Human. You can make the races anything you want. So even though you have a preconceived notion of what it means to be a Dwarf or an Elf - you have the power to change it. Even though they look like your typical character race, you can change how they came into being and really make them your own.
    Last edited: Feb 14, 2011
  8. I've always avoided using stock fantasy races in my writing. This is partly due to an aversion built up and strengthened after reading numerous sub-par fantasies, but primarily due to the nature of what I write. I draw much of my inspiration from ancient religions and the Hermetica, so there's no actual need to populate my imaginary world with elves and goblins. On the rare occasions when I have felt the need to introduce a race, it's been from my own imagination rather than by drawing from a well long since poisoned by slack-jawed idiots masquerading as authors; in that regard my never-to-be-published novel probably has more in common with Barker's Imajica than Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. That's not to say I'd never read a novel which contained such staples – as long as it's well-written I'll pretty much read anything. I'm just supremely wary after many years of wading through books written by people who have as much imagination as a brick in a blender.
  9. Ophiucha

    Ophiucha Auror

    I am more than content just working off obscure myths of elves and dwarves, or simply changing them at whim as long as they are basically what they should be. Nobody really cares if your elves are mechanically inclined. You can work off obscure myths, too. Wikipedia has a whole page of every noteworthy creature in existence, and I doubt there is anything we could come up with that wouldn't be somewhere in the world's mythology. That latter point, though, is generally why I discourage creating your own creatures. Odds are very good that whatever fascinating new idea you have is just "vampires, except they sparkle" or "werewolves, except cats". To be sure, there are some great original creatures, but they still often follow simple molds. X+Y, and occasionally +Z. It is hard to come up with something magnificently original enough that somebody doesn't just say "so they're blue cat-elves, then?"
  10. Behelit

    Behelit Troubadour

    I catch your point there. I suppose in the long run though, someone with an inkling more intelligence might just recognize said person as a dunce. Even if a character is a blue cat-elf I'd still prefer the author describe it than tell me that they are a blue cat-elf.

    To be honest, I get sick of humans. That's probably one of the main reasons I seek refuge in Fantasy/Sci-Fi. If I wanted to read about humans and their typical interactions I'd go back to the Fiction section.
    Last edited: Feb 28, 2011
  11. Kittenmay

    Kittenmay Acolyte

    Naga is a good race. Also, google is your best friend when it comes to this sort of thing.
    However, I have to fundamentally disagree with you on this one. Elves are my favorite. Half the fun is finding a way that people haven't used yet.
  12. JCFarnham

    JCFarnham Auror

    Speaking of Alternative Fantasy Races I believe I'm obliged to point you in the direction of this little rant by a person who goes by the handle, Limyaael [if you know of her I don't have to mention the addictive nature of her writing rants, but otherwise, you have been warned, I spend far too much time reading these haha].


    Its entitled "Other Species Equal-Time day".


    Personally I'm taking Limyaael's advice and have a tweaked version of the firebird of slavic folklore as a character. Good times.
    KorbentMarksman likes this.
  13. Amanita

    Amanita Maester

    I don't mind Elves but I don't really understand why so many people think they have to be in a fantasy story. Even in Urban Fantasy stories Elves or Fairies seem to be default for some reason. Are they really that important in Britisch mythology or is it rather because of Tolkien?

    At least in my part of Germany there are no tales about fairy-like creatures or at least I don't know about any. Many folk tales are about "Father Rhine" and various male and female water spirits who are often very beautiful and seduce people of the opposite gender. Maybe you've heard of Loreley combing her hair on a rock and leading sailors to their deaths. I'm much more familiar with them than with elves and therefore I'm using them for my own story.
    Ghosts are a very common motif too, often people who've been punished for some sin such as greed, or treating their subordinates badly are forced to walk till someone frees them. Many stories are about people managing to free them by doing the right thing or failing and condemning the ghost to keep on walking.
    Demonic beings guarding treasures or making it dangerous to pass some way turn up often as well, sometimes they and the spirits of water/nature in general mix.
    Witches are a common theme as well, but they've made it into popular fantasy literature in many forms. ;)
    I really think the others could make very interesting stories.
    I'd like to write an Urban Fantasy-story featuring some of them one day, but at the moment I'm too busy with my other project.
  14. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

    I think a lot of fantasy relies on what Tolkien and Dungeons and Dragons established as the archetypes of what elves, dragons, dwarves, and like are supposed to be like. I think it's fine to have them resemble what people most think of when you mention these races. But I love alternative races as well. Perdido Street Station by China Mieville has some of the weirdest fantasy creatures I've ever seen, but they work in his world.

    I used to want to reinvent elves and dwarves every time I wrote about them. Now I don't really care. I use humans a lot in my fiction primarily, but they're often so strange that they don't resemble humans anyway.
  15. Dragonsooth

    Dragonsooth Acolyte

    Thank you Behelit! While it's true that "stock fantasy races" have become fairly regular at the register, it doesn't mean that someone willing to take the time to know that race couldn't bring something new to it. D&D is the greatest instigator in continuously defining these characters to a large mass of general public. Come on, that's how my DAD knows what a dwarf is after all...still, if one allows these assumed restrictions to deny them a great story, then we have truly lost the battle as authors.

    There is no new story, nothing exists that hasn't been hashed out before(and still makes sense). However, there are several cases where an old story becomes new again. The Red-Riding Hood movie(yes I know...hssss)took an old story and tried to make it new(er); just for a recent happenstance. Our myths and legends have been watered down and reinvigorated contantly over many years. Like the teacher who tells her first student "The apple is red" and that student tells another, the final student probably hears "The ape laid to rest." This is the nature of stories.

    I uses elves and dwarves in my first novel, and intend to extend their presense in following novels of the series. Obviously I'm biased here, but their worlds are different than Tolkiens. And maybe I did steal ideas from D&D; but as I said, there is no new story out there...it's our job to superbly retell them. The ape laid to rest indeed!
  16. Telcontar

    Telcontar Staff Moderator

    I still enjoy the 'stock' fantasy races, with the usual (and in another sense, unusual) caveat that they have to be well done. I find myself often trying to apply a twist to them in my own writing, to give them the familiar-yet-different spin.

    Thing is, I'm not sure I've run across anything that I'd call 'alternative' because the variations are usually something you'd get from D&D anyway. An endless parade of 'animal people.' Cat people, rat people, parrot people... etc. Sci-Fi tends to have more interesting fictional sapient species, in my opinion.
  17. The crap I've created is rare... I think at least ONE race has been used before somewhere, but it's really rare and definately not named what I've named them. I DO have some everyday fantasy in it... there's elves somewhere but they're not good guys even if they're surface elves LOL and I have demons and whatnot, who play minor roles. But there are Vampires too.. and Garou, and Dragons.. but my hybrids are rare and their my main chars >^.^<
  18. Worldbuilder

    Worldbuilder Dreamer

    I agree with this. There's a book at my local library (now out of print, I think) called something like A Field Guide to the Little People that I check out sometimes for worldbuilding inspiration. It has dozens, possibly hundreds, of different species of fae, from friendly to malevolent and everything in between. Makes for pretty fascinating reading and is a good reminder of how much ground there is to explore beyond the popular sidhe, pixies, dwarves, etc.

    I like to browse through non-European mythologies, too - there's such an incredible diversity of weird and wonderful legends in the world, like the Malaysian vampiric witch that appears as a disembodied floating head trailing its entrails behind it. Talk about creepy!
  19. John Whitman

    John Whitman New Member

    Another thing to keep in mind: How far can you go with your own "twist" on a "stock race"? How far can you really go with your dwarves that live the forests and care nothing of wealth before they are really just short, stocky elves? :p
  20. Fiain

    Fiain Dreamer

    Just out of curiosity, has anyone here seen the new MMORPG Guild Wars 2? It isn't out yet, but the races in the game are fairly unique, in the sense that they take bits and pieces of older races and create new ones (like the Sylvari, an elven-fae race but also with a plant biology. Not platlike, they are literally made of plants lol)

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