why is it that in many fantasy stories, humans are the focus?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Ewolf20, Feb 13, 2018.

  1. Ewolf20

    Ewolf20 Master

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    it's been something that has since throbbed in my head the moment I worked on my setting. i've asked this question a lot before and the common answer is because,well, humans are relateable. we can't relate to an elf because they feel too flawless. we can't relate to a dragon because they're too overpowered. and, we also can't relate to an alien because, well, they're very alien. It does make me feel better that as long as i add human traits to a character, they can at least connect with audience just as much as human can. toy story and many others shown us how it was done, and they got a lot out of that.

    so perhaps there is a market for stories set in a garden full of humanized bugs in a sword and sorcery fashion.

    but for any of you fantasy writers and world builders, why do humans exist in your setting? is it because their easier to write or is there so much that you could do with them?
     
  2. Malik

    Malik Shadow Lord

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    I use humans because a central tenet of my series is the disconnect that arises when a leader has a disparate and alien intellectual history from his followers. I also wanted to draw parallels between the society where the books take place and our own, which I did through the portal fantasy trope. I can't do that with a world of talking trees. Well, technically, I could, I guess. But I did it with humans specifically because of the ton of fantasy out there that for some reason has humans in a world that has never had contact with Earth--or specifically, had contact with America--and yet the people of the fantasy world maintain values that We Hold Self Evident (or, more usually, there arises from their midst a plucky young hero who has said values.) Where did they/he get them? Seriously; individual justice is a fairly new thing in our world, and it shook the greatest empire to its core when it was introduced. I wanted to take this all several levels further than many stories do.

    In a world without Hammurabi, Plato, the Sermon on the Mount, or Emmanuel Kant, what would the people believe? Would they have the same values that we do? What part of what we think of as "right" is resident in us as human beings, and what part is artificial? What did they develop as their learned concept of right and wrong that makes their own world function more smoothly?

    That's why I use humans.

    And FWIW, my elves are just as F'd up as the humans are, and serve a completely different purpose in the story.
     
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  3. Ewolf20

    Ewolf20 Master

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    so more or less the "there's so much you could do with them" thing? well i'm semi convinced but not by too much. though, this would be a good plot point to use when it comes to this sort of thing.

    now, in a possible story, my main characters would likely compare how similar the inhabitants are in terms of their conventions yet are mostly divorced from them. They have more in common with the animals their based on then the human cultures they were inspired by.
     
  4. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

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    >so perhaps there is a market for stories set in a garden full of humanized bugs in a sword and sorcery fashion.
    There's a woman out there in the world who writes entirely serious fantasy books about termites. She has a whole series.

    Humans exist in Altearth because it's alternate history fantasy. So, humans. But also dwarves, ogres, gnomes and the rest. The human angle in Altearth is that we have human society existing in tandem with non-human societies. So that's going to change the arc of historical development. I try to retain as much human history as is feasible, but I also look for places where I can stand that history up in a different light. I also have places where I can tell a story with no humans in it.

    But of course we anthroporphize. What else can we do? Our legends have dwarves, elves, faeries, giants, but they're all just humans in other guises. We write stories about animals but they behave as humans. Even our gods are human-like. So having a world without humans is a bit of a pretense, imo.
     
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  5. Malik

    Malik Shadow Lord

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    Not a plot point, but the central theme of a six-book arc, and probably the underpinning of the spinoffs, as well--though I'll do it all in reverse with the spinoffs since they'll be based on people from the other world, and showing their interactions with characters from ours; the whole Ender's Shadow thing.

    I couldn't do it without humans. If I did it with nonhumans, everyone would say, "Oh, obviously, they're different." But by using humans in a familiar (outwardly) fantasy setting, and slowly revealing the differences book by book, I hope to play the expected cliche of "alternate-world humans who are just like Americans" against itself. We learn, right along with the characters, just how different their newfound friends are on the inside.

    (I can't be the only one who finds it racist to envision an enlightened/advanced/idealized society in fiction that conforms to our exact ideals. But that's a thread for another day.)
     
    Last edited: Feb 13, 2018
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  6. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Fantasy races are cool, and there's a lot that can be done with them. For me, however, I want the magic to make readers go "Wow!" And I don't think I can do that if humans, or something almost human (i.e., a hobbit) aren't the baseline. I also feel that a lot of fantasy races have become so human-like that it defeats the purpose of using them. Dwarves are drunk scottish miners, but we have real drunks, Scotts, and miners in this world, beards and all. If I'm going to write about dwarves, I want more to get more from them than what I see on the surface. I would want them to be scratching at the core of the earth, risking the world's devastation in search of a metal that can chain the demons. That's the start of what could be an epic fantasy concept. A bad joke about a dwarf keeping a keg in his beard doesn't cut it for me anymore.
     
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  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

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    >doesn't cut it for me anymore.

    This is a key consideration. The same (well-written) book that is new and exciting to the youngster who has read five fantasy novels, is hackneyed and yawn-inducing to the oldster who has read five thousand of them. You can do your market research. You can read in your genre. But ultimately you have to write what feels fresh and new to you.

    I'm not put off at all by the many voices bemoaning the glut of medieval-ish fantasy settings. My fantasy setting _is_ the Middle Ages. I relish the history and take pleasure in getting all the details right. But the most fun is introducing alien elements into that. Given the human economy already in place, how would elves and dwarves fit into that? Wouldn't they have their own? Not merely currency, but their own ideas about value and lending and a fair wage. They might produce goods and services humans cannot or choose not to do. Then there are social norms, political structures. The medieval human world is like the building. Now I've been handed a brush and told I can paint the ceiling. What fun!

    And, at this point, it really doesn't matter if people think "yet another Euro-centric fantasy work" because people barely know I exist. They're not even thinking. My job is to write, and give them something to think about.
     
  8. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    To be clear, I meant it doesn't cut it for me as a writer, for my writing because I want to say more and go bigger with my works. As a reader I care less. As a gamer I'm all for a lame beer-in-the-beard dwarf joke.
     
  9. pmmg

    pmmg Dark Lord

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    Actually, at this point in my current long tale, I regret that I introduced fantasy races. If I was not so far along, I'd be inclined to go back and remove them.

    I use humans because I want to tell human stories. I want my story, to those that are tuned in to its issues, to speak to people on an inside level. Perhaps as a way of seeing how others dealt with their problems, perhaps as a guidepost or paragon that people might aspire to, and perhaps as a way to show things that seem misunderstood or not present in the way we relate on our own world. I suppose I like humans because I relate to them, and I want to say something about them.
     
  10. I have no humans whatsoever in my stories. I guess I'm rather unique that way.
     
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  11. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    For me, stories say something about being human. They examine us an our society and our beliefs. Sometimes we do that through the lens of an outsider. Other times, we do it from deep within. Regardless of if the story is overtly human focused or not, the story is going to be about humans because that's all we know.

    Now there exist stories, some very good, that try to put the reader into the mind of a character that is alien with an attempt at a completely alien way of perceiving the world around, but those, I find still say something about humans and being human.

    For me, I figure out what's right for the story I want to tell, and a choose accordingly. Most of the time the choice for a POV character is going to be human or humanoid. Then there are times when the story calls for it to be told from the POV of a giant mutant potato.
     
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  12. valiant12

    valiant12 Mystagogue

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    Using only non humans for important roles in the plot require too much exposition. Everybody know what a human is. You don't have to waste time explaining it. Hobits work well as a main characters, because they are very similar to humans and the differences can be showed quickly. The same is true for dwarfs.
     
  13. ^Somehow I managed to avoid all of the exposition, then, with my books.
     
  14. Ewolf20

    Ewolf20 Master

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    note: So what I'm getting at is that anything that stars a mostly non-human may not sell well in older demographics? Not saying that's true as evidenced by some of the replies but unsurprising. I think it was a close call one of my stories is going to have humans characters, even if they end in the bodies of somewhat nonhuman creatures as they still retain human thoughts and feelings. Now, perhaps I may try my hand on seeing how it's like writing in different perspectives.
     
  15. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    Ummm, I can only speak for myself, but from my experience, I don't think that's true at all. For example, one of the most beloved and long selling fantasy books is the Last Unicorn. As the title implies, its protagonist is a Unicorn.

    As an aside, simple google search reveals this list of over 150 books with non-humans as protagonists. I'm fairly certain that it only scratches the surface.

    Fantasy and Science Fiction with Nonhuman Protagonists. (167 books)
     
  16. Orc Knight

    Orc Knight Grandmaster

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    I do use humans as a baseline, being, outside of the internet, human insofar as I know. As of my current fantasy works, I delve into views from the humanoid with mostly elves, orcs and trolls being the view point characters. I do try to make them at least somewhat alien when it comes to cultures and the like. Still try to aim mostly for the emotional involvement with them. Don't have to have them be human to connect on that level.
     
  17. Annoyingkid

    Annoyingkid Mystagogue

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    Humans are not strong enough to resist the villain and his armies in my stories. Modern day humans even with nuclear weapons, and supersonic jets and tanks and guns would still lose badly.
     
  18. pmmg

    pmmg Dark Lord

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    That why we have Godzilla
     
  19. Annoyingkid

    Annoyingkid Mystagogue

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    We'd need a magical Dr Manhattan. (y)
     
  20. Corwynn

    Corwynn Lore Master

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    Writing non-humans is a challenge because we don’t have any clues about what a non-human sentient species would be like. For many, doing those types of mental exercises is more trouble than it’s worth, especially if you aren’t particularly interested in non-humans in and of themselves. Many authors decide not to include non-humans at all, or if they do, they hedge their bets by making humans dominant and/or the non-humans very similar, physically and psychologically, to humans. It really comes down to the writer’s interests and what sort of stories they want to tell.


    Personally, I relish imagining non-human races and how they would function. I intend to put them front and centre in my writings, and I intend to make them even more non-human than is typical in most fantasy stories. Even so, I too have hedged my bets somewhat. All of my planned races are humanoid mammals. The reason for this is that I want to make them alien, but not so alien that the reader cannot relate to them. Humans are also in the setting, and again, this comes back to relatability. Humans are the anchor for my world, to prevent things from getting too bizarre and confusing or repulsing my audience. More importantly, I want my races to occupy the same space. If species are too different, living together long-term would be impractical. Imagine building a civilization in which both humans and, say, sentient ammonia-breathing octopuses would be equally comfortable. The way I have things set up, there will be friction and necessary compromises, but it is doable, and most people believe that this is worthwhile because each race’s strengths can be utilized, and each race’s weaknesses offset.

    Inevitably, I will anthropomorphize. No matter how hard I try, I will slip up when trying to imagine things from a non-human perspective. At least when that happens, I can point to the humans and explain it away as their influence on the world. That being said, it’s a two-way street, and the other races and their needs have an influence on humans as well, with some interesting results.
     
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