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Race in different cultures

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Memorhi, Aug 13, 2019.

  1. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

    Personally, I think fantasy authors really need to stop using the word "race" for what are actually "species".
    Aldarion likes this.
  2. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Inkling

    If we could even come to a consensus on the definitions of 'species,' 'sub-species,' and 'race.' Some classify Neanderthals as a species separate from us, others as a sub-species of sapiens. I tend to see most of my fantasy hominids as human sub-species (and able to mate with 'normal' humans and produce viable offspring).
  3. Aldarion

    Aldarion Inkling

    It is quite easy, actually. Species = species. Race = subspecies. Individuals are of the same species if they can mate and produce viable offspring (e.g. two humans, two wolves, wolf and a dog). They are of same subspecies / race if they share major biological characteristics ("major" being usually defined as "externally obvious" - DNA testing is new development).

    To use Tolkien for example, Elves and Men are two races of the same species, since they can mate and produce offspring (e.g. half-elves). Orcs are also members of that same species, since they can breed with elves and humans both - they are noted to "reproduce in the manner of children of Illuvatar", and there are multiple mensions of half-orcs, including Saruman's Uruk-hai which are crossbreeds of Uruks and men ("rape-hai!"). Possible problem here are half-trolls, since trolls are a "mockery of Ents", but I do not think that Sauron actually bred trolls from Ents; for all we know, they too could be mutated humans.

    Star Trek is another weird thing, since it appears that most humanoids actually can mate and produce viable offspring. This violates evolutionary biology on oh so many levels - funny when you realize that Star Trek is a fundamentally Creationist setting, since that is the only way to end with such a setup - but it indicates that usage of "races" is actually terminologically correct there. Essentially, (almost) all humanoids in Star Trek are, in fact, different races of same species. Then we get to Star Wars, where fandom often refers to different "races" despite said "races" having nothing in common beyond (vaguely) humanoid shape. And while I am unsure whether such a label is used in official Star Wars materials, or just fan-published works, much of modern SF (such as Mass Effect) treats "race" and "species" essentially interchangeably; so do many fantasy titles, as well - I believe Elder Scrolls make the same mistake.
  4. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    It strikes me as a little odd to be using the careful definitions of science from our world in order to make distinctions or to inform the vocabulary of an invented world. Difficulties crop up everywhere.

    On the one hand, there will be people who don't have a scientific understanding of the words and who will react in ways not intended by the author. Race is the obvious example, but in another post I mentioned nation as another example. I figure I could accept that as the natural consequence of having a readership--your reader will never have the exact cultural context as the author.

    On the other hand, there will be those who do have a scientific understanding but will object to whatever twist the author puts on the terms, or who play around with the terms of the definition in order to build their world.

    So, I don't try for the narrow or strict definitions. Instead, I try for the words that feel right to me, then I try to make those meanings both clear and consistent within the stories themselves. That's all the reader is ever going to see--not definitions in the abstract, but the way words are used in a story.
    TheKillerBs and Penpilot like this.
  5. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    I don't really like the word race for use between elves and humans and dwarves and all that, but it is the standard nomenclature. I use it in my notes but not in the narrative.

    For all my different types of fairies I have a different word that I use: Vaki. All the hobs are unique, but there are also vaki groups like sprites and asrai, all of which are 8-inch fairies and can breed interchangeably. In Finnish folklore Vaki refers to the different groups of Haltija, element-based micro-spirits behind anything that's gone wrong. It seemed appropriate for my use.
  6. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

    Yeah, not that I disagree, but the cat is already out of the bag on that. Words only mean what there is some common agreement as to what they mean, and they are always changing. If I had a magic wand and could use to it fix things in the world, somewhere on the list would be the exact definition of words, but I don't think that is going to happen. That race means the 'race of men' and 'the race of elves' seems already baked in. Plus, while technically correct, I have trouble seeing species of elves appear in a non-scientific conversation. I do think the words would take on different meaning if there were a planet populated with different intelligent 'species', but I also have to write an a way that would allow readers to relate. Competing ends returns to whatever I can live with as the best words I could use.
  7. Yora

    Yora Maester

    Star Trek actually has an episode that specifically states that life on at least a good number of inhabited was engineered by an ancient alien species. And that life was modified so that it would produce multiple, basically identical humanoid species.

    It's always best to keep science out of Star Trek. Despite all the technobabble, it's really one of the softest science-fiction worlds there is.
    Gray-Hand and Aldarion like this.
  8. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Inkling

    I don't think I have ever used 'race' or 'species' in describing human-like fantasy beings. My default is 'people' much of the time. The 'dwarf people' etc.
    Demesnedenoir likes this.
  9. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Yeah, I don’t think I use the words race or species in the story, I tend to refer to cultural names and other names, along with the generic “peoples”.
  10. J.W. Golan

    J.W. Golan Scribe

    If you have an area or region with a broad mix of races and cultures, you’ll need to have an explanation for why that occurred. Trading centers such as port cities, for example, will tend to have more cultural and racial variety.

    Also, some areas will likely be more culturally open and diverse than others, depending on their history.

    In the fantasy world in which I am currently writing, for example, gnomes are accepted as valuable craftsmen in one kingdom, but are enslaved by another (because it’s easier to maintain control over a gnome slave population than it is a human slave population). Similarly, elves are everywhere respected for their magical abilities, but are also viewed with jealousy and suspicion. However you treat races and cultures in your fantasy world, you need a back-story or history that explains how it became that way.

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