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When do fantasy humans cease to be human?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Tom, Jun 30, 2015.

  1. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

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    If you consider a pure-hearted person "inhuman", I'm not sure what to say except that you must be incredibly cynical.
     
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  2. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    So, I was going to answer that they're human until you change something that changes the human experience, like elves living super long. But then there are plenty of stories where some humans live a long time. So I thought, they're human until you change their psyche, like how elves are normally aloof. But lots of stories have elves that behave pretty human. So I figure, they're human until you change their appearance, like how elves have pointy ears, but obviously, the humans in the OP have pasty white skin. I thought about Russ's comment, where the two can interbreed, but there are a good many half elves as well.

    I can only conclude one thing. Elves are human.

    I'm not sure how serious that statement is supposed to be.

    More seriously, I think it's about your story's themes and messages. Making them human has a different kind of feel and makes a different kind of point about society and human nature than making them a different fantasy race. I think that's all it's about.
     
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  3. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    Most Elves written in the past century are essentially human, with a few superficial differences. Tolkien's Elves, however, are different in nature from his humans. He explains how in some of his writings that you can read in the History of Middle-earth series. He explains that both humans and Elves are composed of a fea and a hroa, a spirit and a body. What differs between them is the relationship between the fea and the hroa. In a human, both are essentially equal. But in an Elf, the fea is much, much stronger than the hroa. Thus Elves are more spiritual than humans and the strength of their fea is the source of their "magic", their fea can manipulate physical things in a way that the fea of humans can't. It is also the source of their long life, the strength of the fea keeps the hroa from weakening over time and makes the hroa much more resistant to natural physical ills.

    This is the kind of thought that Tolkien put into his races that makes his worldbuilding so superior to most worldbuilding done since. He defined both the nature of the humans and the Elves and thus he was able to make them feel like truly distinct races.
     
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  4. Tom

    Tom Istar

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    As always, Tolkien leaves everyone else in the dust. The man was amazing--I wish I could have met him.
     
  5. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Huh.

    That makes me wonder how the other races fit into this scheme. Would that make dwarves the opposite? Weaker fea, stronger hroa​? Because that would . . . . huh.
     
  6. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

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    Probably. Remember that Dwarves weren't originally part of the plan for Arda. They were made by Aule when he got impatient and decided to make friends for himself since Eru was taking so long. Consequently the Dwarves didn't even have fea until Eru "adopted" them.
     
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  7. Sheilawisz

    Sheilawisz Queen of Titania Moderator

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    The answer to this question is pretty simple, at least to me:

    First, you have to imagine a scenario in which one of your Fantasy characters is taken to visit our world by means of a magical portal or something like that. Once they are here, the question is... Would they be able to breed with us, and produce a biologically functional creature as a result?

    If the answer is Yes, then yeah: They are human, at least up to certain point.

    You see, this is similar to what happens when tigers and lions breed to produce Ligers. Some creepy scientists tried to do the same between humans and various species of great apes, but it never worked because we are truly different species despite all being primates.

    In the other hand, it's believed that breeding between the Neanderthal and modern humans was successful, because they were human too, though not exactly like us.

    Then, if the answer to my question is No then definitely they are a different species and that's all. Trying to define being human as a condition related to behavior, functionality and emotions is irrelevant.
     
    Last edited: Jul 1, 2015
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  8. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

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    Modern humans mostly all have Neanderthal DNA. Some populations (not sure about in Africa, since Neanderthals must have originated there as early hominids all came out of Africa at some point in the migration period)) as little as 2% (in Asia, where Neanderthals didn't really roam), and up to 8% in Central and Eastern Europe, where Neanderthals lived the longest, side by side with Homo Sapiens. 8% that's a HUGE number when you consider the thousands of years that Neanderthals haven't been around. It also shows that Neanderthals may have died out, but their traits were important enough to pass on, because they mingled with the other humans for an extended period of time.

    I mean, in a fantasy world, is it conceivable that humans are 8% elvish? If you showed a Homo Sapien and a Neanderthal side by side, there'd be obvious differences, not unlike the differences between elves and humans, but the fact that there aren't varying degrees of elven ancestry is perhaps then the most unrealistic element in fantasy worlds.

    I'd imagine that pockets of Neanderthals lived for longer as their own clans, but because their world changed (climate, prey, competition), most didn't survive for thousands of years as their own separate species, but that natural selection allowed those with the strongest traits to survive alongside their competitors and because Homo Sapiens were probably different looking back then too, the evolution of the combined species took many turns over the last 20k years.
     
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  9. X Equestris

    X Equestris Maester

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    Africans who have no non-African ancestors in their family tree don't have any Neanderthal DNA, or at least not enough to be really measurable.

    As far as humans and elves being like humans and Neanderthals, I suppose it's certainly possible, though it's really a question of world building. Some settings have them different on a spiritual/metaphysical level, and others may be incompatible biologically.

    Still, I think that would be something interesting to experiment with. Interbreeding would definitely happen if it were at all possible. Having both be alive at the same time might be a problem though. I mean, humans have fought vicious wars over relatively minor differences, such as race, ethnicity, religion, political ideology, etc. I doubt encounters with a group that had much larger differences with us would go very well. I could easily see genocidal wars between humans and elves happening.
     
  10. Ophiucha

    Ophiucha Auror

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    Humans cease to be humans when you tell the reader that they are something else. At least, that's the whishy-washy answer. The real answer is probably 'when your readers cease to see them as humans', and there really is no definite answer to that. It's subjective.

    Do your readers views mortality as a fundamental trait of humanity? Then elves or vampires can't be human. Do they view a soul as the defining feature? Then if your world gives dragons and sphinxes souls, are they not human in some way? For some people, it's 'two eyes, two feet, two arms, etc..' and that includes elves and dwarves but maybe not mermaids. If in real life you would define a Neanderthal or a Homo erectus as a human, perhaps you'd also more readily call dwarves and elves the same. And perhaps the sort of racists who see people of other cultures as something less than 'human' could never accept faeries or mermaids or dwarves as 'human' either. It really just depends on the reader's point of view.
     
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  11. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I sort of dodge the question. In Altearth I talk (more correctly, the characters talk) about "people". Elves, dwarves, pixies, gnomes, humans, all are people. I would like to call them different nations, using the original sense of the word, but the word has become synonymous with nation-state, alas. I resist calling them races. I pretty much dance around the distinction, though I suppose different races would be the best modern term.

    This is distinguished from the Wild, which includes what would be called monsters in the D&D world. All peoples regard bears, goblins, trolls, wolves, and the like as creatures, not as people.

    Then there are borderline cases, most notably orcs. These have a civilization but are deeply hostile to all Free Folk. Some say they are creatures, some say they are people (just very bad people), and some say they are their own thing, sui generis. Merfolk, who are generally benign to indifferent, are likewise a borderline case.

    I find it more interesting not to draw clear lines. In any case, what counts is what my characters think, not some external definition. It's entirely possible, therefore, to have one people regard some other nation (race--see the problem?) as not being people, even as others do. Example, gnomes might say pixies are not people, although humans say they are.

    The consequences of this might be that gnomes think it's okay to hunt pixies. Or that pixies have no legal rights. No contract is binding, no treaty is valid. That sort of thing.

    I mostly do not have the various peoples interbreed. Too danged complicated. But I leave room for some fuzziness here and there, in case I want to use it in a story.
     
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  12. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

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    Our definitions of "pure heart" may vary. A pure heart has every (human) desire in check. He won't act outside the established ethical moral code (and this is even a gray area) he adheres to, ever. He will act selflessly for the greater good (as defined by his moral code), will accept death to oppose oppression, will speak out against a wrong, will speak truth at all times, will defend the weak, will give to the less fortunate consistently, will judge rigidly along his moral code, even against his loved ones, and so on.

    I have yet to see a human act in such a fashion. There are some who you would say do fit this criteria, but they would be religious figures of long ago. Even current, or near current religious figures wouldn't live up to this.

    Humans are never a stark white or black. They are many shades of gray (damn it!), some so dark to appear black, and some so bright to appear white. Even in our daily lives we make such minor choices as to separate us from the purity I find inhuman in so many high fantasy novels. How many times have I driven past the guy asking for change. I didn't even consider if he's honest or a liar. I didn't even ask him of his situation. Maybe offer him some work I'm unwilling to do to build his dignity and shrink my To-Do list.

    What of the thousands of children we see stream past us. They ingest a deluge of murky morals daily. I don't say hello to them, ask them what they think of this or that, try to steer them to a higher moral understanding.

    What of the hundreds of thousands of refugees that are plastered all over the news. They are indirectly in their current predicament because of our apathy. I don't speak out for them. I don't condemn the people in charge for the actions that so belittle the lives of people who are no different from us, but for a different preference of clothing and inclined to produce different sounds from their throats when they communicate.

    Yeah, I guess I am cynical.

    Bringing this back in line. We are humans. We are the ambiguous mold by which all characters are created. We may be vocal against the oppressed, but we break moral codes all the time. We consume different chemicals to produce altered states of mind, we seek physical pleasures outside our established moral method of courtship, etc. The pure-heart who acts to defend the weak, is he not flawed somewhere else?
     
    Last edited: Jul 2, 2015
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  13. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    @Ankari: Geez, what books are you reading?

    As for the topic, I feel like proposing an example. One of my settings has a race called Brutes whose ancestors tried to achieve ultimate magical power and failed. As a result, all of them have the ability to make themselves feel any emotion at will, and the inability to directly tell which emotions they're naturally feeling. A Brute may not realize she's sad until she notices that she's crying, but if she chooses to act sad, she will instantly feel and recognize sadness. In addition, Brutes are immune to all magic related to the soul, including any spell that could determine whether they even have souls, and they have no resistance whatsoever to polymorph magic, which beings with souls can usually resist to some degree.

    From an in-universe perspective, the dominant society thinks Brutes are soulless monsters. From an out-of-universe perspective, I consider them human, and one of the major characters is a Brute who's supposed to be sympathetic. But how about you guys? Would you say that Brutes are human?
     
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  14. Tom

    Tom Istar

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    I'm not sure. One of the defining traits of humanity, to me, is self-awareness. An integral part of humanity is our sense of self, and our exploration and understanding of our thoughts and feelings. If you're not aware that you're experiencing emotion until you notice its physiological effects, are you truly feeling emotion at all?
     
  15. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    That one I can definitely answer in the affirmative. (I did some basic research on alexithymia to help me write my Brutes, although they have their own issues to contend with.)
     
    Last edited: Jul 2, 2015
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  16. Sheilawisz

    Sheilawisz Queen of Titania Moderator

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    Why is it that almost everybody considers emotions as an integral part of being human?

    That would mean that any alien species in some other planet would qualify as human just by having deep emotions and self-awareness, even in case they happen to be 12-feet tall Wolf people or something like that. I disagree, because then they could say that we are Wolfine because we feel stuff similar to theirs.

    @Feo: If your Brutes could breed successfully with us in a visit to our world, I would call them human. If not, they are a different species.

    My own example would be this:

    The people seen in my story Violet Riding Hood and its sequel Whispers of the Witch look very similar to us Earth people, with a little difference in eye colors, eye appearance and other things. They have similar emotions and self-awareness, but if you brought them here things would not turn out well.

    Any attempt at breeding between us and them would result in total failure, not to mention the spread of infections that would affect both species and probably cause a dangerous pandemic in the world.

    They may look like us and feel like us, but they are a separate species after all.
     
  17. Spider

    Spider Sage

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    I think what it boils down to is evaluating whether the species in question is human in the context of the world that they are a part of. Of course, as previously mentioned, there are so many ways to answer the question of what it means to be human. In our world, I would say that what makes humans distinct from animals is their ability to think abstractly and assess their place in the world. Animals require basic needs in order to survive (food, water, etc.), whereas humans require basic needs in addition to a means of confirming existence. On our planet, I don't believe there is any other species with our level of self-awareness.

    In a fantasy world, however, we might not be able to use these same conditions to differentiate humans from other species. Abstract thinking and self-awareness might be more prevalent in the species of a fantasy world (Ex. elves, dwarves). As a result, what it means to be human can take a different spin (granted, they will likely share many of the same characteristics as the humans of our world, but what sets them apart from other species might be different). An example would be that we see humans as biologically distinct from other species if they cannot interbreed with these other species, but what if that isn't necessarily an important defining characteristic of humans in another world? Tolkien's Elves and Humans were different because of the strength of their spirits (fea). Perhaps we should contain the question of "what makes a character human" within the boundaries of the science, culture, and history of the character's world, not only our own.
     
    Last edited: Jul 3, 2015
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