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What's the point/purpose of fantasy races? Should I bother having them?

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Peregrine, Jul 20, 2017.

  1. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    Not sure if that counts. :eek:

    I was thinking about this thread yesterday and I remembered the Warcraft movie and how ridiculous the sight of humans going mano a mano with those orcs. The Warcraft orcs are basically what might be created if Tolkien's orcs mated with the Incredible Hulk, heh.

    So I started wondering how to equalize things. Maybe not with those particular orcs, but a different race of orcs. I thought that maybe giving them great burst energy but poor endurance/stamina might work. I thought about making elves agile but physically somewhat weak, perhaps with less dense/strong bone structure. And so forth. It was an idle brainstorming; I don't plan on doing something like this, at least not for the foreseeable future.
  2. Holman

    Holman Minstrel

    Slightly into the Sci-Fi genre, Edgar Rice-Burroughs wrote the John Carter of Mars series in which the hero is a human that is stronger than the aliens.
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  3. Annoyingkid

    Annoyingkid Banned

    Overpowered non humans can be more realistic than humans as their powers are not their personality. Fundamentals of drama are still adhered to with bigger power stakes.

    You admit this as you give it, that the morale boost is a double edged sword. Seeing the king killed can cause an army to be routed, and given the chaotic brutality of close combat it's highly likely that would happen. The human king doesn't add
    much in the way of combat itself not unless he has alot of magical equipment, which he could let someone else use. One has to balance that against the benefit of a strategic overview of the battle which is by far the most common and standard way wars were fought by rulers.
  4. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    I think that's only one possible answer among many. It's not the definitive answer. However, I do think that might be one of the prevailing reasons of many approaches that have already come before.

    This issue of scale affects many genres. One does not simply design an action hero without giving him a whole cartel to fight, heh.
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  5. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    Historical examples are all human v human. The advantages of having a leader fight up front would take this into account. But that doesn't mean that ignoring all of history simply to make a point about fantasy worlds—largely products of imagination—is an incredibly persuasive argument.

    You say, "as their powers are not their personality," and imply that there is a fundamental physical superiority in the non-human races. But this is all by design and might not be designed in such a way. There is no "fundamental" reality there, because it's all fantasy.

    On the topic of realism, we could also add a consideration of the most realistic development of civilizations on a world populated by multiple intelligent races in close proximity with one another. Realistically, if the physical and mental advantages of one race far outstripped those of another race, chances are good that the stronger races would have already come to dominate the world. Realistically for such a world, if you are going to have a human civilization, then some balancing factors would need to be created.

    One might use magic for those balancing factors, or technology. But I don't think those need to be the only two possibilities.
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  6. glutton

    glutton Inkling

    Well, it's an example of a peak human of that world being physically superior to members of a fantasy race, but a closer example might be the story I'm planning where the elves explicitly have hollow bones and are thus much lighter (and easier to knock/toss around) than a human of equivalent height. Of course the elf MC will also be paired with a stocky 5'10 180+ lb female human companion nicknamed "Mare" (more similar to my usual heroines) for contrast and for the latter to poke fun at the elf's puniness and have her ride around on her shoulder etc.
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  7. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    There are plenty of fantasy books/movies/shows with OP humans. It's something you can choose to do instead of using fantasy races to fill in those gaps.
    glutton likes this.
  8. Annoyingkid

    Annoyingkid Banned

    I don't see why its relevant that historical examples were all human v human. The same principle applies. Through all of history generals and kings almost always stayed back in order to strategically direct the battle. In order for it to be justifiable for a king to join melee, that king need to bring something to combat that outweighs his strategic utility or any morale that can be gained simply from his presence on the field. In real world close combat he's almost as easily killed as any other soldier. If you give him things like magic armour and weapons than maybe, but then again you're just making him a superhero then. So that he's human becomes a moot point.

    That's not my position. There is no fundamental physical superiority in non human races. There's no fundamental ANYTHING in non human races. That's the point. You don't have to write around known limits.

    Usually numbers is the balancing factor. Humans outnumber fantasy races. I said that from the beginning, that humans are strong as a society and a collective. Not individually really.

    One could use magic yes but again, I would question the line between human and fantasy race if you do so. It blurs the line.
  9. glutton

    glutton Inkling

    But that's blatantly wrong since there are many examples of rulers going into battle without being superhuman. Cultural norms or personal pride can easily factor into this as well.

    Why are you so singleminded in insisting there is only one "right" way to do things even when there are real life examples of the opposite, do you realize that is really offputting? It's like if I insisted everyone else should write their female MCs as superhuman warrior badasses who can shrug off impalement, high caliber gunfire (or the fantasy equivalent), falling hundreds of feet, divine/dark lord level magic, etc.
    Last edited: Jul 22, 2017
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  10. Tom

    Tom Istar

    If by specialization you mean what I think you mean, you're not entirely correct. The human body can be trained in multiple skills without losing ability. I'm a weightlifter and a fencer who fights in two disciplines--epee and foil. For weightlifting, I need to be strong. For fencing foil, I need to be fast and agile. For epee, I need exceptional endurance. A friend of mine is a soccer player, a rower, and a saber fencer--three different sports that require very different skill sets. He and I can do these things because we've trained our bodies to have a combination of traits. Specialization doesn't always mean sacrificing versatility.

    This is not necessarily true. A human with better-than-average physical abilities is still human. A human with magic is still human. In fantasy, you can do a lot to alter the baseline of what is considered "human" without having to call them by a different name. Without the real-world constraints of other genres, we have more freedom to play fast and loose with our species. What I'm trying to say is that assuming fantasy races are necessary by dismissing humans outright is just plain unimaginative.

    You seem to have a very misanthropic outlook, friend. And some very overpowered enemies. Of course humans aren't going to do well in a situation like that--what you've set up is a world in which fantasy races are needed because the sheer scale of the conflict is so stacked against humans. Not all fantasy worlds are like this. Humans still have their place in fantasy.

    In my own WIP, humans are the only race. They face mass extinction by ancient, corrupted magic that is starting to tear the world apart at the seams. Up against suddenly hostile forests that are starting to awaken, as well as giant magical monsters and sorcerers who have become more than human, they may seem weak and easily defeated. But that's the point of my story. Human tenacity is enough to keep them fighting; they don't confront the danger directly but rather find and exploit its weaknesses, strategize in unorthodox ways, and do all they can to keep out of its way until they have a method to neutralize it.

    Mm. This still falls into the assumption that kings would do this regularly. As some other people have pointed out, real-world leaders in bygone eras did fight alongside their men. However, in a fantasy world where the enemies are so much more powerful than humans, it's not realistic to assume this. Aragorn is not a great example because his role in the final battle was to rally the armies of the free world against the enemy. This was a last-ditch effort to distract Sauron from the Ring. No one was expecting to come out of it alive.
  11. Malik

    Malik Auror

    First off, it's not your place to tell people what the purpose of anything in literature is. That's not how writing works. You can use any character or plot device for whatever the hell you want; this is imagery, symbolism, and allegory, which are three of the basic building blocks of all human stories. Things in stories often represent other things. Cain and Abel as the introduction of violence to society. The apple symbolizing sin in the whole Adam and Eve thing. The shark in Jaws as representative of primordial conflict. That's how stories work. Words mean stuff, but stuff often means other stuff. Stories can tell their own stories.

    Secondly, I'm fairly sure that the sole purpose of fantasy races is not "power scaling." Maybe it is to you, and that's great.

    Getting back to words meaning other stuff, one common literary purpose behind fantasy races is to give viewpoints on the story from others in the story who may not see things the way that humans do. This means that the only "wrong" way to use fantasy races is to represent them as physically different from humans (or maybe more "power scaled"), while representing them as emotionally and psychologically indistinct. And even that's not wrong, I guess. It is, however, wasteful.

    Fantasy races are ideal tools to create a sharper shift in character voice than you could get from another human. They don't have to be used this way, of course, and I'm not going to tell you that it's their "purpose." But they sure work good for this.

    More on fantasy races here.

    To see this in action, I have a piece on fantasy languages, conlanging, and characterization here. I spent a couple of years building a functional language for the Faerie in my series that reflects how they experience the world, because the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is a thing.

    And if you don't understand character vs. narrative voice vs. POV, I have a piece explaining it all here.

    These three posts together should give you some ideas of what other purposes for fantasy races can be.
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  12. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    This thread is veering off into ad hominem attacks, so I remind everyone of the rules of civil discourse. Try leaving the second-person singular pronouns out of it, okay?

    As a medieval historian I have to insist that it is not correct to say this: "Through all of history generals and kings almost always stayed back in order to strategically direct the battle."

    As someone else pointed out, prior to the French Revolution or thereabouts, exactly the reverse of this was true, at least for Europe, which is the only historical timeline I can speak about with any authority. The specific examples are so numerous it would be tedious to recite them all, but I can also demonstrate from the reverse case. For example, Philip II of France was often criticized because he in fact did lead from the rear. Doing so violated the cultural norms of the warrior aristocracy of his day.
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  13. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

    Suddenly so many posts in this thread since I last looked at it! = 0

    In my pet setting humans regularly reach over 200 years old before they need to start worrying about old age and can reach Olympic levels with just basic training. This is before you add in magic, supernatural martial arts and numerous gods that can lead to them reaching truly superhuman levels.

    This is the result of genetic engineering way back when before the heavens burned.

    Due to all the magic, supernatural martial arts, etc and that you generally don't wind up in a position of authority in that setting if you're not strong winds up with those closest to what could be called kings serving as WMDs. Generally they have to work cats paws and loyal subordinates instead of fighting on the front themselves because when they move it causes others on their level to move as well, but when they DO show up on the battlefield, massive destruction ensures.
  14. Simpson17866

    Simpson17866 Minstrel

    The point/purpose of fantasy races is to see how a scenario with fantasy races involved would be different from a scenario with only humans.

    The don't need a point, they are the point :cool:
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  15. D. Gray Warrior

    D. Gray Warrior Troubadour

    I had one world that was Mesoamerican/South American themed, and I took the standard fantasy races and tweaked them to fit the setting. For example, the dwarves of my world were loosely based on the Incans and Andean cultures, and had similar ethnic features. I also decided that they should have an Athenian styled democracy as their form of government, as I just tend to make my dwarven societies into republics or democracies for some reason. Unlike the standard dwarves, they were adept with magic, particularly shamanism.

    The stand-ins for the elves were a rainforest tribe, since elves are forest dwellers, and I decided their home resembles that of the Amazon. They were a warlike tribe that war plumed masks to instill fear into their prey and they practiced cannibalism. However, I started seeing them less like savage elves, and more like humans who, for the most part, remain untouched by civilization, so that ended up being one of the unsolved mysteries, whether they were actually human or not since outsiders never see without their masks. They ended up being an rainforest version of Tusken Raiders.

    What bothers me about races are those that are human/animal hybrids like centaurs and mermaids. One of the biggest mysteries of the universe for me is how in the world a centaur sleeps. Does his human half lop forward or something? Also, we see them as half man, half horse, but how would they see humans?

    Do mermaids have lungs, gills, or both?

    I toyed with the idea of making races figurative. For example, maybe Centaurs are a human culture known for riding horses into battle, and maybe the people who are often attacked by Centaurs do not have horses for some reason, and think they are hybrids.
    Last edited: Jul 27, 2017
  16. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

    This all sounds really interesting! Do you still write in that world?

    I think races like that generally work best in fantasy worlds that are full of mystery left to the reader's imagination.
  17. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

    There have been a good many discussions on these forums regarding the benefits and detriments of doing a lot of world building before writing the story. I think some of those discussions could help in this discussion.

    I've always been in the group that loves doing world building, sometimes without even having a story in mind to go with the world being built. Others have said how they find extensive world building to be largely a waste of time without a story to go with it. For anyone whose primary interest is in story telling, I can agree with the other camp, especially in a case like this.

    So, in alignment what those others have said in other forums/threads (without having read every post in this lengthy and seemingly controversial thread), I'd recommend making a decision about the story you want to tell, and then determining what races will best help you tell that tale. The point/purpose of having fantasy races is because there is a purpose for them to serve in the story. Purposes vary widely, depending on the story being told.

    In my WIP, I have fantasy races because I want something I can contrast against humans. So for me, the purpose to have the fantasy races is because I want something distinctly not human, to compare against something distinctly human, to spotlight their differences, and thus shine a brighter light on that aspect of humanity. I wanted to take certain aspects of humanity to an extreme for contrasting, so I use a fantasy race for this.

    Even if you aren't contrasting human vs fantasy, a fantasy race can add color to a story. I have no elf characters that actually show up in my WIP, but they are mentioned relatively often. I say little about them in this story, but I've decided they do exist in the world, so they get mentioned when it makes sense, and I might include some elven characters in later stories based in the same world. For now, in this WIP, just mentioning them gives depth to the world. (Note: I might change the name of the race to something other than elf before I'm done, but for now, I'm calling them elves because it's convenient.)
  18. X Equestris

    X Equestris Maester

    That may make sense from a cold hard logic perspective, but many pre-modern cultures had leaders who personally entered the melee. Sure there were people who criticized the concept, but leading from the rear took a long time to become the norm. Alexander the Great lead from the front and had a fair number of brushes with death; he's also amount the few who can claim to have never lost a battle (though that depends whether you count the Persian Gates as one battle or two). On a lesser known note, his half-sister Cynane behaved similarly. According to Polyaenaus:

    "Cynane, the daughter of Philip was famous for her military knowledge: she conducted armies, and in the field charged at the head of them. In an engagement with the Illyrians, she with her own hand slew Caeria their queen; and with great slaughter defeated the Illyrian army."

    To address the title of the thread, I'd say that they have a number of purposes. Allegory, pure speculation (humanity never had to deal with another intelligent species on its home world, unless you count the Neanderthals as one), the list goes on. The only thing I'd caution against is only including them "because it's fantasy". Whether you should have them or not is entirely dependent on what you're going for with a specific fantasy work.
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  19. Peat

    Peat Sage

    Honestly, I'm increasingly of the opinion of "Why not" and "Because they're cool".

    Which isn't to say there's a lot of cool thematic stuff you can do with them - using elves to represent the struggles of perfectionism, or as an allegory for the elite, or using inter-species bigotry to talk about real world bigotry with a bit of distance to allow people to view the subject easier, or really honourable dwarves to show a society that never lies and so on. If we are talking literary worth, then the great virtue of fantasy is it can invent things that never existed to use as tools to examine the human condition. Other races are one of those tools.

    But I'm beginning to tire of the idea that all fiction must be worthy and realistic all the time. That we can't blend the fantastic with the realism, escapism with examination of our world, and so on. Or just write pieces that are simply interesting stories full of wonder and whimsy. I'd be all down for some books with some well written elves in the woods and dwarves in the mountains.
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  20. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    You can certainly write stories of whimsy, wonder, and escapism. People do this. A story doesn't have to be realistic. Threads like this are useful for people wanting to achieve a specific outcome and not of use as broad prescriptions for how to write. It's just a matter of keeping the thread in context.
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