Not men, not elves

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Usurper, Oct 9, 2018.

  1. Usurper

    Usurper Apprentice

    22
    6
    3
    I have a story started set in a world where I've decided not to use any classical or otherwise pre-existing fantasy races (dwarves, elves, orcs, etc.), but only use original concepts or at least variations of them. There is however a problem with one if these.

    One race that I have made are very similar to humans, but have a few defining characteristics. Namely, they have very dark skin, snow-white hair, and sharp fangs. But what is important for this discussion is that they also have long, pointed ears. I gave them this simply because I think it's neat. The problem is that everyone I talked to about them called them elves or "basically elves", even though the ears are the only trait they share with Tolkien's tree huggers. This made me pull back on their fantasy stuff until I realized I had made them almost indistinguishable from humans, which isn't exactly what I wanted.

    I want all the races in my world to be special and unique, but I don't want to make them elf re-skins. Any tips to help them stand on their own legs as their own race, rather tham as a reskin or variation of an existing race? I don't want to un-point their ears, because I am stubborn.
     
  2. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Valar Lord

    3,722
    1,089
    163
    Apart from how they look, what other differences are there between them and other races?
     
  3. Usurper

    Usurper Apprentice

    22
    6
    3
    Just about none, that's the very problem I am adressing. They are slightly shorter than humans (only by a few inches on average) and live for about as long. They are believed to originate from an area in the continent that is nowadays just an ihospitable ashland, but whatever turned it into ashlands also destroyed all records of their ancient history. Now they live in a continent-wide diaspora, seen as barbarians and thieves wherever they go, and are generally treated like shit.

    Think Jews and Romani throughout European history.
     
  4. ScaryMJDiamcreep

    ScaryMJDiamcreep Lore Master

    112
    14
    18
    The easiest thing to do would be to make a list of all the typical features of humans and elves in fantasy, and try and design this race to not meet as many of those features as you're comfortable. The dark skin already puts them apart from both, as do the fangs. The shortness and the human-length lifespan put them apart from the elves, and the ears and hair put them apart from the humans. Elves are typically associated with nature magic and healing, and humans don't have any signature magic types in the settings where humans can use magic, so that gives plenty of room to give this race magic without clashing with either. I'm sure you can expand on this until you've found a niche where you're happy.
     
  5. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    7,201
    2,763
    313
    I think you should probably just cut the pointed ears. It's the cliche elf trait and it's creating a kind of pointless confusion even though they're nothing like elves. It's not just about including what's cool or what you like. Some traits are commonly used to signal things to your reader, and the ears are signalling the wrong thing.
     
  6. ScaryMJDiamcreep

    ScaryMJDiamcreep Lore Master

    112
    14
    18
    That being said, there's a lot of things that I've seen where goblins, imps, pixies and other "mischevious" races have pointed ears, not to mention that elves with pointed ears had been a thing before Tolkien made elves human sized rather than pixie sized. Pointed ears are not unique to the modern image of an elf, so making the other features of this race scream "not an elf" will help prevent confusion.
     
  7. Orc Knight

    Orc Knight Grandmaster

    525
    310
    63
    And here's the requisite of what they sound like, drow. The dark elves. But pointed ears do not an elf make, sure does help though. The thing with fantasy is that no matter how we change it, there's kind of that well worn groove. Not saying not to try to change it, definitely worth the try, it's just the standard races tend to make people hit assumptions.
     
  8. Malik

    Malik Shadow Lord

    820
    845
    93
    This is your problem. You're building a race of living sentient beings, not a Halloween costume. You need to develop their values, beliefs, customs, mannerisms, everything. If you just make them humans with cosmetic differences, it doesn't matter what you call them.

    I went extreme with differentiating my elves/Faerie from my humans by creating a language (a conlang, or constructed language) for them and building a Romanized accent and dialect from it that incorporates some of their native syntax and cadence. It changes the way they speak, which changes the way they appear to think, which makes them feel exotic and alien and sometimes wildly out of touch. My editor even went so far as to help me take a scene written in an elf's POV and rewrite it in the resulting dialect from the conlang, which was really fun and led to what I think is one of the strongest scenes in the book, because you as the reader see a human problem set from the Faerie perspective and learn that, as smart as she is, she can't even put some aspects of the problem into words. She has to talk around the problem at first because she can't get to it syntactically, and has to circle around it with metaphors and historical references until the human puts it into terms.

    You don't necessarily have to do it this way--I'd suggest you don't, as it took me years--but the point is that you need to make all of your races something other than humans in makeup. How you do that is up to you. I'd suggest starting with researching cultural norms and beliefs, especially as they pertain to neighboring tribes/races/nations that have had or are undergoing generational conflicts, and then creating some examples on your own, or even borrowing from history.
     
    Ruru, skip.knox and elemtilas like this.
  9. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Dark Lord

    1,908
    893
    113
    And Tolkien never even said that his Elves had pointed ears. But so strong is the cliche that now all depictions of Tolkien's Elves have to have pointed ears. It's the very thing he was trying to avoid, but since he also never said that they didn't have pointed ears... people can't help imagining them that way.
     
  10. elemtilas

    elemtilas Mystagogue

    330
    142
    43
    Well.

    Um, if your people are "very similar to humans", apart from a couple truly cosmetic features, then I'd say they're about as wanelvish as you can be! The first thing I thought when I read the description was, "oh, they're a kindred of Men". In my own work, there are in the Eastlands a people that came from "beyond the sea", who are blaowmên and their skins are are a rich, bluish-black hue; their hair is yellow white and their eyes may be light blue, hazel or even green. I can't say as their ears are any more or less pointier than those of other kindreds of Men. As of first reading, I don't see you folk as any more distinct than the folk I just described.

    My question to you would be: look deeper than skin colour and ear pointedness! What, if anything, distinguishes this race from ordinary humans? Do their minds & souls work the same? Are they naturally morally labile like humans or are they much more likely to tend towards evil or good by nature? What are the basic mechanics of their culture like? Are they obligate herbivores? Do they view monogamy as weird? -- I mean, the natural order is for sisterwomen to take brothermen as spouses, bound four ways around, after all! Do they subscribe to a radically different inherent moral law?

    Attention to details of that sort will I think put you on the right track more than worrying about external characteristics!
     
    Malik likes this.
  11. Usurper

    Usurper Apprentice

    22
    6
    3
    Hmm, well I do have some experienced with making conlangs just for fun. With some work, I believe I could lay the foundations for a Yiddisch-esque mixture of languages, using words from the local language but barely intelligible when spoken.
     
  12. Usurper

    Usurper Apprentice

    22
    6
    3
    I suppose you're right. I must have been too focused on the aesthetics to focus on the actual more important parts. And now that I think about it, those aspects of them are woefully underdeveloped.
     
  13. elemtilas

    elemtilas Mystagogue

    330
    142
    43
    Well, as I recall, he said the ears were more "leaflike". Whatever the heck that means! I mean, oak leaf or kokerboom leaf? Or maybe holly? Now, that's some pointed ears!
     
  14. elemtilas

    elemtilas Mystagogue

    330
    142
    43
    It's not like you can't address those aspects henceforth!

    And Malik is righter than he is wrong: approaching a novel race of people through the medium of their language is a very helpful way to go. I do that regularly. Perilous, because of badger holes, but you really do get to know a people through their cultures and their mindsets. And you really discover those aspects via their language and their stories. Even if you never publish or hint at their language, you will at least have discovered a far more realistic race of people than you will by just rolling the dice and allowing Chance to determine some ephemeral characteristics.
     
    Malik likes this.
  15. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Dark Lord

    1,908
    893
    113
    Language has a significant effect on how people think too.
     
    Malik likes this.
  16. elemtilas

    elemtilas Mystagogue

    330
    142
    43
    Hmmm. Yiddish isn't a "mixture of languages". Like English, Yiddish is a Germanic language (specifically, a High German language). Like English, Yiddish borrows words from elsewhere. In English's case, French; in Yiddish's case, Hebrew. Yiddish is also written in an alphabet derived from the Hebrew abjad. </pedantry>

    If you've already worked with invented languages, I'd say there's no harm in sorting out some kind of language for this race, even if it's a language sketch or a naming language. Both I think would prove helpful.
     
  17. elemtilas

    elemtilas Mystagogue

    330
    142
    43
    A strong Whorfian are you!
     
  18. Malik

    Malik Shadow Lord

    820
    845
    93
    That could certainly help. It's not the words so much as the syntax, I think, that really plays into facilitating an alien mindset.

    For instance, my Faerie language doesn't use the verb "to be." This means that when an elf is speaking to a human in the human's language, she wouldn't ask, "How many are there?" but rather, "How many did you bring?" or, "How many did you see?" and so forth. (This is a variant of English called E Prime, which, if you build conlangs, you may be familiar with; I learned it in college and still break it out at parties or bars sometimes when I want someone to go away. Speaking E Prime makes strangers really uneasy and they can't put their finger on why.)

    So, moving on, a Faerie would never ask, "What's this?" but rather, she might say, "Explain this to me." It's a completely different way of approaching a problem.

    Anyway, E Prime as a base made sense to me because with their long lives (I kept that trope), they see everything in the world as transitory or somehow provisional. Nothing ever "is," because to them, it's always in flux. Further, nothing ever "was," because perception is dependent on point of view. And so on. The point is, their lifespan has an effect on their speech, which has an effect on their thinking, which has an effect on their values and beliefs and society and on and on. I was able to build their entire culture backwards once I knew how their language worked, and by removing "to be," I also didn't have to dork around with tense markers as much. You get the idea.
     
  19. Malik

    Malik Shadow Lord

    820
    845
    93
    Indeed, the Whorf is strong with this one.
     
    elemtilas likes this.
  20. elemtilas

    elemtilas Mystagogue

    330
    142
    43
    You lost me until "Anyway..." Lacking to be as either a copula or substantive verb doesn't make one an Elf or any kind of non-human. Many human languages do this kind of thing: Nahuatl lacks the copula, so they just conjugate their nouns & adjectives. In English, that would be like saying "The car reds" rather than "the car is red". We call that ANADEW (a natural-language already done it except weirder), and is a good thing to keep in mind lest we become too proud of our linguistic confabulations!

    After the anyway, I'm with you totally. It makes perfect sense for a terribly long lived race to view everything else as transient, almost trivial in substance if not in nature. Unlike Whorf, it's your Elves' nature that affects their language. Their perception of & perspective on the physical world in which they live is informed not by their language but by their immortal nature.

    Re tense markers: don't they have verbs apart from be? Or have they dispensed with verbs entirely? For what it worths, the Daine (a long lived race of The World, but probably not as long lived as your Faeries, conjugate the subject or agent of the verb. Possibly it's because they do have such a long view of the things in the physical world. Realistically, probably not, but it's something they could believe about themselves!
     
Loading...

Share This Page