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Why do so many people use elves and dwarves?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Aegrus, Dec 18, 2011.

  1. Aegrus

    Aegrus Scribe

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    I don't mean to offend anyone, this being my first post and all. (I'll save that for at least my fifth.) But I'm curious about why, when given the ability to create all manner of new fantasy races, so many people re-imagine Tolkein's creations. (Of course, Tolkein didn't invent elves and dwarves, but the versions of those in most modern fantasy seem to mirror Tolkein's versions of them far more closely than the mythical versions.)
     
  2. Alex

    Alex Troubadour

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    Perhaps because it is easiest to imagine and write. Also, it is mostly accepted by society very well. I love elves but I like throwing my own creatures into the frey as well. I hope this helps! :) Also, welcome to Mythic Scribes, I joined just today
     
  3. Ghost

    Ghost Inkling

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    Nostalgia and familiarity? I think people have fond memories of when they first read those stories, so they try to be a part of it themselves. Since there's this elf template writers can rely on, it's easier for readers to imagine elf and dwarf characters. If I make up a new race, people might not understand it as easily, so perhaps laziness comes into play for some folks. It's easier to rely on what's been done.

    I'll admit I've got some elves and dwarves in my main project, but I've relegated them to being fairies. They spread illnesses, steal babies, make people dance to death, make cursed items, and all that jazz. They have little impact on the world aside from being bogeymen, but they're a threat to vulnerable people like babies and travelers.
     
  4. zizban

    zizban Troubadour

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    Making totally new races you have to describe in detail can be more work than it's worth. Sometimes just calling this race "elfs" and "dwarfs" gives an image in the reader's mind. You don't have to, of course.
     
  5. Leuco

    Leuco Troubadour

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    I like the idea of making new races, but it's difficult to make anything "new". For example, didn't those blue people in Avatar seem to have a lot in common with the traditional image of wood elves? And sure, we think about bearded, industrious dwarven miners, but really, they're just little people. Are they really so different from Oompa Loompas? I guess, one could make them blue to make them different, but isn't that really just beating around the bush? I think in most Fantasy stories, you're going to have little people, you're going to have superhuman, angelic people, and of course, the dark minions. You can call them whatever you want, but at their base, they're really just dwarves, elves, and goblins.

    Anyway, I happen to like elves, and so I like writing about them. I think they're mysterious and interesting and I think they make for great fiction. My elves may be different from the traditional elves, but I know where the source of inspiration comes from and so I don't mind simply calling them elves.

    Someone told me a long time ago that everything written in this world is always based on something else. I believe it, but I certainly applaud originality. I just think starting something new can be a lot more difficult than it seems.
     
  6. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I don't see that many new fantasy books that include them, to be honest. At least, not outside of gaming fiction where the races are established in the world. A lot of readers like to read about them.
     
  7. Terra Arkay

    Terra Arkay Minstrel

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    I think it's laziness, yeah they may be overused but if you can add a few tweaks here and there, they might just work. I personally avoid using your generic fantasy races and I've decided to come up with my own :)
     
  8. Reaver

    Reaver Kwisatz Haderach Moderator

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    I have to respectfully disagree the thought that using "established" races is laziness. In my world their are six different types of Elfin races; their societies and cultures are based on the geographic influences of their domain and each uniquely distinct: Forest, Jungle, Mountain, Desert, Water (rivers and oceans), and Subterranean. I do, however, agree that some writers can fall into the ordinary and cliche' but oftentimes, familiarity can be comforting.
     
  9. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    This.

    However, I could never write about a fantasy race and completely play their traditional tropes straight; I always have to subvert them in some way. In my last story that featured elves, orcs, and humans, the elves were the bad guys, the orcs were more sympathetic, and the humans were black people rather than the usual pseudo-medieval Europeans.
     
  10. zizban

    zizban Troubadour

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    There is nothing wrong with turning tropes on their heads. Actually, I usually don't describe skin color unless someone is of a color my character isn't used to seeing.
     
  11. Amanita

    Amanita Maester

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    I've been asking myself this question as well.
    As a reader, I don't really care for elves and even less for dwarves and orcs or any other "standard evil races". Elves can be fascinting, if the author is using some mythological background where they're alien and mysterious, but that's rather rare. Dwarves in my opinion are extremely difficult to make interesting and with orcs etc. it's (almost?) impossible. For me, they're all too close to humans to be interesting in themselves. Therefore I much prefer fantastical being which are much less human, even the most "cliche" ones like dragons or unicorns.

    But why do other people like to write and read about them? I can only guess. It might be because many grew up with Tolkien and today maybe games with this races as well and just like fantasy that way or even believe that it has to be that way. I don't want claim that anyone is lacking creativity but in some cases, this might be an issue as well. Hope for good sales could be another one.
    There's something else I've been speculating about and I really hope that I'm not offending anyone.
    Fantasy is derived from archetypes and subjects that have been bothering people for a long time. The belief that there is a wise, noble and moral superior race (to which the person in question usually belongs) which has to defend itself against attacking "barbarians" who are evil and not really human has been really common throughout history. Today, this isn't commonly practised in western countries anymore, but some comments about Muslims circulating at the moment imply that this way of thinking isn't completely gone.
    During the times these fantasy stories are leading us back to, this was the way many people have been thinking. Authors usually wouldn't get away with using humans in such a way anymore, however. And in come the elves and orcs etc. Given the fact that those technically aren't humans but other species? and in the case of the orcs, zombies etc. often actually created by Evil, most people aren't bothered by this.
    And the readers can escape reality into a world which not only lacks modern technology but which also has wars that are still glorious and don't demand any second thoughts on killing innocent civilians, soldiers forced to fight or in short, humans.

    Recently, I've read an article about fantasy being reactionary. The article itself wasn't much good in my opinion but I believe that there is something reactionary about certain forms of fantasy. Maybe another interesting subject to discuss here. ;)
     
  12. Joanna

    Joanna Scribe

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    In some way you could ask why do you even have humans in fantasy novels when you could make up so many new races. ;)

    Someone mentioned laziness, but I think it's maybe more down to what is your priority in the story and if you like creating new races and creatures or you would rather concentrate on the plot. Also you can always add some personal touches to the races, making them unique while at the same time they stay familiar to many readers. It's a bit like if you have a bed in your story, every one know what a bed is for and how it usually looks, so you can focus on what makes it different from a generic bed, and only describe that small bit, rather than make up a new piece of furniture. :)
     
  13. ShortHair

    ShortHair Sage

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    Of course, elves and the rest go back much further than Tolkein. They draw on archetypes in our subconscious, which is why they still resonate with us. The genius of LotR (and I may be wrong on this) was that it brought elves out of their traditional fae circles and put them in a world where they could interact with, and often dominate, humans. Not only on an individual basis but as entire races as well.

    When you create a new race, you give up that folklore connection, unless you're lucky or you can tap into the collective unconscious. If I put a troll in a story, I can draw on centuries of stories about trolls and on the responses a normal reader has to trolls. I don't see that as laziness. Single words have centuries-old associations, and we draw on those too.
     
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  14. Reaver

    Reaver Kwisatz Haderach Moderator

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    Well said. There really isn't anything I could add to this without ruining this thought.
     
  15. phoenixwings

    phoenixwings Scribe

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    I agree with elves and dwarves being popular as they are fascinating creatures. I have to admit though i'm not a big fan of most elves and dwarves based books. I'm not sure why this is but as soon as they're mentioned my attention becomes less. I guess it's just my taste but i can definately see why people like writing about them.

    It's not so much making new races, it's about going with what you know and turning it into something completely different. For example, mermaids, in mythology used to sing in the middle of the ocean to capture sailors and kill them. Instead of them being killers they could be defensive shy or even just mute. ;).

    It's not completely straightforward but nothing ever is. Especially not in fantasy :D.
     
  16. Wormtongue

    Wormtongue Minstrel

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    To elf, or not to elf... That is the question.

    Both sides have valid points.

    I have vacillated on this question. The current version of my WIP does include elves, even though they are non-tolkien elves. But really, they aren't essential to the plot. I've already dialed back their involvement. I could eliminate them completely. Reduce my "cliche ratio"...
     
  17. Legendary Sidekick

    Legendary Sidekick The HAM'ster Moderator

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    I got together with a group of friends (and acquaintances) who wanted to start up an RPG. Everyone decided to go out of their way to not have elves, dwarves, etc. What people came up with... "mystics" who were like elves, but sparkly. A race of metal skinned people who were experts of mining and smithing. You see where I'm going with this?

    There was an race that didn't fit into LotR archetypes (which we named after the friend who designed them after he died at the age of 23) but the race could really have passed for humans using sword magic. But I don't think any of us came up with races that were completely original. It was more like, "Wow... I get to be a rock-man? What are they like?"

    "Orcs."


    And now, to beat the dead horse:
    *BEAT* Instead of spending a lot of time explaining how your magic archers aren't elves and your miner-smiths aren't dwarves and your monstrous warriors aren't orcs and the common folk that the reader's supposed to identify with aren't human, you can write elves, dwarves, orcs and humans. *BEAT*

    "I'm not... quite dead."

    *BEAT*
     
  18. Wormtongue

    Wormtongue Minstrel

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    To Legendary Sidekick

    Your point is well taken. I came to the same conclusion myself. Unfortunately my dwarves are 7 feet tall so I just couldn't see calling them "dwarves". doh!
     
  19. Xanados

    Xanados Maester

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    I think the use of Elves and Dwarves are fine, as long as they aren't throwaway in the story. They need depth, and lots of it, if they want to satisfy me as not just another rip off of Tolkien. That's why I'm fond of the Night Elves and the Blood Elves in Warcraft, because they are a different take on the Elves.

    In my world, however, there will be no such thing. I wish to create more exotic, archaic creatures. Serpent-headed men that are deeply inspired by Egyptian mythology, that use spears and speak wicked incantations.
     
  20. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    There is nothing inherently wrong with having elves or dwarves or any other fantasy race. It is all in the story and the execution of the story. Thinking one cannot use elves because they are used so much is like thinking one cannot write a story about humans because so many stories have human characters.
     
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