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Are little people worth having in a setting

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Peregrine, Sep 8, 2017.

  1. Corwynn

    Corwynn Troubadour

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    Personally, I would be hesitant to include a race purely as background fluff. You don't necessarily have to write a story from the viewpoint of one of them, but they should have some impact on the story, if only a small impact. If your race is only ever tucked away in the background and only mentioned in passing, one may well wonder why you bothered to include them. I myself get bitten by a desire to include a new race in my setting now and then, but I always go back to my five core races because they are the ones I am interested in examining in depth in my stories.

    There is one race in my setting that bears a passing resemblance to dwarves, being short and stocky, but the resemblance ends there. I didn't set out to create a race of "little people", and I've never really thought of them that way. I combined traits that I was interested in, without worrying too much if they fit a particular archetype.
     
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  2. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Why have them, then? For one, to give the sense of a full and complete world that exists outside of the confines of your story. To make the setting seem more like an authentic place.
     
  3. elemtilas

    elemtilas Inkling

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    I'd only mention one point: it's true that a reader might wonder why you only mention a race in brief passing. But I look at that as an opportunity to explore them in a later story! So don't throw them out or ignore them entirely just because they don't have a starring role in thìs story. It may well be two or three stories down the line they will come to the fore or at least be more fully explored.

    It's kind of a teaser. Let your reader wonder why you mentioned the halflings in passing! Someday, maybe, that curiosity will be satisfied.
     
  4. FifthView

    FifthView Vala

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    I think this question is packed with assumptions.

    Our world history is replete with examples of peoples developing in isolation for long periods before encountering "others." If we break that down into a consideration of "non-people"...well, our history is also full of examples of species developing away from our view. When these come into contact with more developed societies, bad things can happen—but not always to the point of extinction. Assimilation can happen, also.

    Additionally, a fantasy world with fantasy customs can make a huge difference. Imagine a human population that has a myth about their own beginnings—

    "We were much smaller in the Beginning, going about our business, not troubling anyone. When the orcs showed up, we were almost utterly destroyed as a people. Many of us were. We went into hiding, found this new land. We grew stronger. When the orcs returned, we were ready for them."

    —and these people meeting the little people for the first time and viewing them as something of a kindred people. Of course, within a human population, you have many options for variation. Some might think these little people are shameful, a reminder of past weakness, undeveloped. Others might think the little people are nearer the purity and innocence humans once possessed and will protect them. How these forces and other forces act upon the relationship over a hundred or two hundred years after this "first contact" could lead in many directions.

    I understand and agree somewhat with Heliotrope's view, also Psychotick's. I think it comes down to focus, how much time you spend on a given element of your world. The more time you spend on it, the greater the focus, the more you need to consider how that element adds to the story. If it has little to do with the story, you should probably leave it as background information, maybe even something mentioned once in casual conversation or read in a book while searching for the things that really have something to do with the story.

    That said, I don't think "because people say you are supposed to include this" is very important as a motivator. I suppose I could theoretically give a tiny bit of weight to that motivator if you are writing something that very clearly belongs in a very tight, small genre, for instance if you are writing a story set on Middle Earth, heh. Otherwise, I think you still need to consider whether the existence of little people fits your world, regardless of whether you give a lot of focus to them or only mention them in passing. If not, don't include them.
     
    Last edited: Sep 9, 2017
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  5. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Not with little people, but I've had this happen within a single short story. The more you have to work with the more your imagination opens up.
     
  6. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Not only that, the world is replete with physically inferior species co-existing with physically superior ones.
     
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  7. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    I wrote a story a while back (as well as a novel even longer ago) that didn't feature any humans at all, but only the anfylk people. That's the name for "little people" in my setting.

    The size of them weren't really an issue then, more that they had different habits, like not wanting to stay in a room above ground floor and such.
     
  8. elemtilas

    elemtilas Inkling

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    Exactly! (Yet another piece in the anti-too-much-worldbuilding campaign!)

    Big well developed world = more creative space to tell stories from!
     
  9. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    Consider how prevalent "little people" are in the mythology and folklore of many countries. Human beings have been fascinated by the idea of little people for millennia. Then consider how popular they have been in modern fantasy literature. People are STILL fascinated by this idea. So yes, if you enjoy writing about them, I think they are definitely worth it. However, only if you enjoy it yourself. As a general guideline, I don't think you should ever include anything in your world just because you think you should due to ideas of tradition or popularity.
     
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  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Every time I read the subject line I react the same, so I'm going to add this:

    are little people worth having in a setting?
    are people worth having in a setting?
    are dwarves worth having in a setting?
    are elves worth having in a setting?
    are vampires worth having in a setting?
    are gelatinous cubes worth having in a setting?
    is anything worth having in a setting?
     
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  11. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    There's also a different definition of "little people" which is what first came to mind when I read this, and which also is relevant to storytelling and setting. That definition is the one of little people as common people, regular people, the people who make up the background crowd. Those who do the everyday, non-glorious, plain old regular work.

    People like Joe Average.

    Are they worth having in a setting?

    I know this wasn't what was meant in the original post, but it's still an interesting question.
     
  12. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I think ordinary people are especially useful in story telling, for they can provide a contrast with the larger-than-life folks of the main story line. Think of the gents at the pub in Hobbiton at the beginning of the LoTR. They provide some world information, plus set the skeptical, stay-at-home mentality against which Tolkien casts the protagonists.

    To take a completely different example, in Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep there are two good uses of ordinary folk. The first happens when Marlowe goes into a small bookstore that is across from the one he's investigating. He talks with the woman who works there. She gives us another good glimpse at the sideways conversation Chandler is so fond of, but she also gives Marlowe a description of the man he's after. She also helps confirm that the bookstore across the street is some kind of front.

    The second case is more memorable. It's Harry Jones. Here is Chandler's description of him.
    "He was a very small man, not more than five feet three and would hardly weigh as much as a butcher's thumb. He had tight brilliant eyes that wanted to look hard, and looked as hard as oysters on the half shell. He wore a double-breasted dark gray suit that was too wide in the shoulders and had too much lapel. Over this, open, an Irish tweed coat with some badly worn spots. A lot of foulard tie bulged out and was rainspotted above his crossed lapels."

    Harry moves the plot along, but he also winds up as an incidental casualty, which helps cement for the reader just how vicious are the bad guys in this story.

    Now, in both cases, Chandler could have dispensed with these "little" people. But they serve to keep Marlowe from getting too close to the truth too quickly, they both provide a bit of color and atmosphere, and they both let us see the hero in action in a way different from encountering Big Bads.

    So yeah, there is definitely a place for such.
     
  13. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    I'm very much in favor of paying attention to ordinary people, both when world building and in stories.

    My thinking is that at the very least regular people help setting the bar for what is considered normal within the setting you're creating. Even if your story isn't about regular people you can use them as a contrast to measure your heroes by.
     
  14. Solusandra

    Solusandra Minstrel

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    According to Tolkien's notes on the subject, they were supposed to represent the English, not children.
     
  15. Almyrigan Hero

    Almyrigan Hero Minstrel

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    I mean, they aren't not worth having? There're plenty of roles and tropes that fit 'little people' well (stealth, agility, low-resource subsistence) but there are also other ways to portray those things. Sure they might suffer a bit in physical strength as a tradeoff, but it's not as though physical strength is everything when it comes to humans and humanoids, and you could always give them slightly higher proportional strength to close the gap a bit more.

    If you want 'em, add 'em. Even if the plot doesn't hinge on their existence, having one village the heroes visit be populated with dwarves is harmless flavor at worst.
     
  16. Solusandra

    Solusandra Minstrel

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    Until you get past blacksmithing and into machines doing most of your work, it kind of is though. I mean, settings with little people tend to have magic, so the issue gets sidelined in fantasy, but how much and how hard you can work means AN AWFUL FREAKING LOT to whether you survive harsh environments, lean times, the farming era and predators more than a quarter your size.
     
  17. Almyrigan Hero

    Almyrigan Hero Minstrel

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    I don't know, if normal-sized humans could survive as hunter-gatherers in Africa, where lions, crocodiles and elephants exist, without walls (much less machinery,) where you can't even rely on enough rain to keep the grass green, is there really anything stopping medieval halflings from settling down as shepherds in pastoral hill country where wolves might be more or less the top of the food chain? I'm not saying things like size and strength literally don't matter, but I definitely feel there are at least environments of... shall we say, "proportional" threat to what we already know full humans are capable of surviving.

    Granted they'd probably still never achieve large-scale civilization, at least not without extensive trade, but the OP's question is 'could and should they feasibly exist.' I believe the answer is "yes," at least by fantasy logic, and especially with the proviso that they might've started as normal humans and gradually shrunk over time due to settling territory where getting mileage from resources is more important than fending off large-to-midsize predators. Or, if you want to have more fun with it, maybe they actually care for very large livestock, that both protects them from predation and is inconvenient to raise in the walls of more developed settlements. Maybe that's where trade comes from, maybe they get grain and tools in exchange for wool and ivory (and/or scales and/or whatever else.)
     
  18. Saigonnus

    Saigonnus Auror

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    Actually, there were a couple of strains of ancient Humans that were literally of a height with halflings; mainly due to what was available for food in the region; so they were somewhat localized to parts of Asia? I believe.

    As for your other point, I think that if they have the same intellect and resourcefulness as Humans, then they would be able to overcome any natural obstacle that nature throws their way, and thus, there would be no reason they couldn't found a civilization; even a largely agrarian-based one as you imply. Also, who's to say that they are agrarian like your prototypical Hobbits. Maybe like Humans, they are adaptable and can wear many hats so to speak, so would have all of the necessary skills of building great cities. That is assuming of course that the ability to build and maintain large cities is the "benchmark" for a civilization.

    I imagined them for one of my worlds as a mixed-agrarian society that are more like druids in temperment; working with nature; instead of against it. Do they build traditional cities? Not really. Do they have large communities of citizens living and working in close proximity? Yes.

    Much like Hobbits, mine reside below the arcing roots of the massive trees, and they build downward into the earth instead of upward into the sky; leaving nature relatively untouched (aside from footpaths, animal pens, fields for crops and a few above ground farming constructions). The average community is somewhere around 4000 people; organized by family clan-holds, but is spread out over a sizable area so it doesn't resemble the cities of the western valley; with its stone walls and castles.
     
  19. Solusandra

    Solusandra Minstrel

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    Pygmy's in africa and Negrito in South america and Taron in Myanmar are all 3-4 feet tall, breed true and have their own societies. Like those affected by dwarfism, they're not any less intelligent than the local population of normal sized people, but they have an absolute hell of a time maintaining civilization above tribal subsistence due to their low strength and stamina. Presumably European dwarfs could have the same, but unlike the other three they prefer living in the societies of big people typically being entertainers, because any physical job is hell, according to Peter Dinklige.

    Fantasy makes so many things so much easier.
     
  20. Saigonnus

    Saigonnus Auror

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    If they are just as smart, then there is no reason they can't make up for their lack of strength some other way. All three of those peoples have severe geographic limitations; (the Taron live in the mountains; the African pygmys in the desert, and the Negritos are island dwellers; i.e. rocky, volcanic soil) so subsistence farming just doesn't work well enough to support a large population base, or much livestock; and obviously, without both, a western style civilization is; for all intents and purposes, impossible. Imagine if they had the most fertile land in the world (or at least something better), in a better geographical location, and with it, the capability of raising livestock; allowing them to consume more protein. They might still be 3-4 feet tall, but be much stronger; or they might even become taller, more like a Dwarf.

    Besides, you can make your little people sized like a Halfling, and still be nearly a strong as their larger counterparts. In AD&D, halflings only take a -2 penalty to strength, which means they can have up to 16 (you use a score between 1 and 18 for most things) without magical augmentation; that would be enough for any job they'd have to do in regards of physical labor, combat, construction, mining etc. Even if they were strictly average (9-12); they'd still be strong enough for most things.
     
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