Why use D&D races in our stories?

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Dreamhand, May 19, 2012.

  1. Dreamhand

    Dreamhand Lore Master

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    In commenting on a story in the showcase that included Orcs, I offered the following... well... okay, it's a rant. But I also think it's an important talking point for fantasy writers and I wanted to to put it out to the group.

    The argument was made that orcs are a convention of fantasy literature like knights and vampires, to which I respond...

    A story about a knight or that has knights in it isn't derivative because of the documented historical precedent and the vast body of work that has made the concept an archetype of the genre.

    A story about vampires isn't derivative because of the extensive cultural folklore that spans the globe that supports it and the vast body of work that has made the concept an archetype of the genre.

    Orcs are Tolkien's creation (yes, Lief, they are. He may have drawn from mythology, but the contemporary awareness of the "orc" is rooted squarely with Tolkien), a metaphor for the cruel brutality he saw in the world. D&D took Tolkien's creation and turned them into 1 hit-die targets for low-level player characters. While there are many D&D novels that feature orcs, they all reference back to a single source - D&D - which in turn points back to Tolkien.

    Consequently, ANY work that features orcs ultimately will be associated with and over-shadowed by D&D and Tolkien. It can't stand on its own merit because as soon as the reader sees "orc" they will think of either Gary Gygax or Viggo Mortensen (or possibly Ian McKellen). What they WON'T be thinking of is the AUTHOR's story, and whatever tale they are attempting to tell will essentially be Tolkien fan fiction.

    Not that there's anything wrong with Tolkien fan fiction. It's a great world and a wonderful opportunity for a writer to hone their craft in a world where the original writer has done most of the heavy lifting. Go for it!

    I'm not suggesting anyone remove fantasy elements from a fantasy story. I'm suggesting that, if you - as a writer - need a race to embody the archetype of cruelty and brutality in your fantasy world, that you create one based on YOUR story, not someone else's.
     
  2. Queshire

    Queshire Dark Lord

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    I disagree with this. Yeah, sure they started that way, but with each time they are used in a story they change and evolve. You mention how vampires are ok because of the large cultural folklore assosiated with them, well, with orcs we're in the proccess of MAKING that extensive cultural folklore.

    There's plenty of ways to use orcs without just copying tolkein.

    There's Blizzard Orcs which are proud warrior race guys.

    The Orks from Warhammer 40k which have the mind of a little kid in a 300 pound killing machine.

    Hell, there's even Discworld's Orcs who are considered to be terrible killing machines but are were really modified humans that simply didn't have a choice but to kill.

    The orcs in my world follow the blizzard model most of all but with dashes of the others, they are genetically engineered soldiers created by the elves in their war against the dwarves, but eventually broke free and established their own culture that's equal parts roman legion and feudal Japan.

    'Course, ignoring all the other ways to use Orcs, there's the simple fact that they're familiar to us. Why reinvent the wheel when there's a perfectly good one just sitting there?
     
  3. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis magnanimus Moderator

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    No, I don't think this is correct at all. It is perfectly possible to write an engaging, original story using orcs, and even Tolkien-style orcs, that is not even close to being Tokien fan-fiction, if that's what you want to do. To be honest, I find the breadth of the assertion to be ludicrous. Maybe that's how you read stories that have orcs in them, or other standard fantasy races that have appeared in any number of stories, but the idea that you put forth that any reader who comes across them will somehow be unable or unwilling to think of the author's story because they'll be so engrossed in thoughts of Tolkien or Dungeons & Dragons is insupportable, in my opinion.
     
  4. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I rather think it's normal and fine to use fantasy elements that are well-established by other works. It's better, sometimes, than making a race almost identical to orcs - because that's the element you want in your story - and just calling them Pigmen or something.

    I mean, put aside orcs for a moment. Everyone has thoughts and opinions and preconceptions about orcs.

    What about mithril? One of the things some fantasy writers want to do is to find a way to create a better class of sword or armor, so new metals are common. Is it better to create a new class of metal, with a new funny new name, with all of the same properties as mithril? What's wrong with just using mithril?

    The reason I defend orcs and mithril and the rest of them is this: If you have a lot of fantasy elements, throwing in a familiar element here and there makes it easier for the readers to accept all of the rest. My current WIP doesn't use any of these D&D tropes. But in one of the stories I had worked on, there were orcs and ogres and others - and then three new races called the Gorgit, the Traelu, and the Ettoch, around which much of the backstory was centered. Using the established elements helped to create a more involving setting for these new and much more original races, without having the lengthy introduction process that would've been necessary to have created additional new races (which would have been a huge detraction from the story).

    Even using orcs and ogres, I had no problem making them my own. They were the brute races, which used violent actions to call upon their gods to have a steroid-like drug infused into their veins. Too much of this blood-magic caused an Ogre to degenerate into an Orc. The ogres were capable of living in their own villages; the polluted rage of being an orc made them an outcast, and they joined other orcs in raiding from the hills. And right there, just like that, you already have a clear enough image of that situation in your head, a platform from which I can now talk about the much-more-important Gorgit, Traelu and Ettoch, which uses that same steroid-type magic to create essential (and much more original) plot elements.

    It's like, if you're describing the arsenal of an powerful, ancient army, with half a dozen new magics and weapons and races, you might throw in "mithril" chainmail just to help set the mood without adding still another confusing new name. It saves time and what I can only call "comprehension energy" to help you focus on the more important stuff.
     
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  5. Reaver

    Reaver Staff Moderator

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    Excellent point, Devor. My only questions are: is mithril spelled mithril or mithral? Also, is it a D&D idea or Tolkien's?
     
  6. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Tolkein's. He trademarked Hobbit but not mithril. So his spelling his correct - it's not impossible that I misspelled it.
     
  7. Dreamhand

    Dreamhand Lore Master

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    I'm particularly taken with Queshire's idea that we're in the process of defining a new archetype. That's intriguing and I hadn't considered it.

    I think you may misunderstand the point I was making there. By referencing something that is so strongly and definitively associated with something else - something unique and specific to one particular work - you invite all of the readers perceptions and beliefs ABOUT that work to be infused in the story. That's something you as a writer have NO control over and - in my opinion - is a HUGE gamble. If they hate D&D or Tolkien or whatever (or, like me, believe them to be over-used cliches), that taints the readers perception of the work.

    It's like a lawyer asking a question in a trial that he/she doesn't know the answer to. Why subject your story unnecessarily to such potential bias?

    (more later...)
     
  8. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

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    I agree with Devor that comprehension is best served by using established names for the types of critters, beings, metals or weapons your fantasy characters are using or coming across. As they say, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck. If what you've got is a greenskinned humaniod warrior race, then yes, by all means call it an orc.

    But why use a different species at all? Why not just use a different nationality - a different human culture? I know fantasy species (I wouldn't call them races) like elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls and whatnot are quite popular, but I've never thought much of them myself. They seem like a shorthand. You just need to write "x was an elf" and people think of Tolkein elves and you then don't really need to develop them much because everyone takes for granted that they're archers and live in woods. Same goes for any fantasy species. I'd rather see new cultures, cultures created by the author which are well developed, rounded and layered and interesting. As far as I'm concerned, a culture should be treated like a main character: it must have depth, good aspects and bad aspects and downright weird things about them which make them unique and believable.
     
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  9. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Dark Lord

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    I use common fantasy races because I hate D&D and Tolkien. For instance, if I've just played an otherwise entertaining video game in which you kill hundreds of orcs, I'll write a story in which one of the protagonists is an orc.
     
  10. TWErvin2

    TWErvin2 Dark Lord

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    My novels don't contain orcs, but they have goblins, ogres, zombies, giants, dragons (fire, acid, frost, steam breathing), griffins, wyverns, gargoyles, wizards, werebeasts, etc.

    I guess just about everything you'd find in either D&D or Tolkien in some fashion. While there may be some reflection of those books and games, they're my own, created to be a part of the world created in The First Civilization's legacy series. In truth, a goblin is pretty much a goblin. So what? Kids get an idea of what a goblin is from way back when they're kids dressing up for Halloween. Using conventional elements of fantasy novels, and even some games--there's nothing wrong with that.

    But I also have souled zombies, for example. There are fallen angels and WW II machines of war that come into the mix. The elves (greater elves or immortal bloods) are not the 'standard elf'. And the lesser elves are sprites and pixies. How magic works in my world isn't anything like D&D or Lord of the Rings.

    One can go the direction of Stephen R. Donaldson, creating ur-Viles and the Blood Guard, for example--there's nothing wrong with that, but he did have giants.

    If the 'standard fare,' including a novel that has orcs in it, doesn't strike your fancy, don't include them in your writings, or don't read stories that include them.
     
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  11. Dreamhand

    Dreamhand Lore Master

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    That actually reinforces the point of my stand on this issue, TWErvin2. I never pictured or associated the Bloodguard or the ur-viles as anything but the unique creations Donaldson used to fulfill a needed element of HIS story. He didn't call them "monks" or... um... geez, there is no parallel for the ur-viles... which again, speaks to my point.

    And I'm not suggesting EVERYTHING in D&D is derivative and to be avoided. All those marvelous mythic and legendary creatures you referenced have a rich heritage in mythologies from around the world... hell that's the mana we draw upon as writers!

    I guess I'm not making my point clearly. Let me try it this way...

    If I wrote a story that had an order of badass warriors in it and I called them the Bloodguard, what would you think? Would the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant come to mind? I'm betting yeah (Donaldson leaves an impression ;)). Now if my story was similar to Donaldson's would you think I was derivative, even plagiarizing? Would it diminish the freshness and vibrancy of the story? Would you now be on the lookout for other references to Donaldson's work in my story?

    And if my story was nothing LIKE Donaldson's, then what did I gain by referencing it? Nothing but confusion and distraction on the reader's part. So why on earth would I do it?

    I'm not talking about dragons or zombies or wizards... I'm talking about orcs and hobbits and gelatinous cubes and all the other things that point to and are derived exclusively from a single source.

    I mean really... how many times do we need to roll out the short, stocky, surly, bearded miners who live under ground, drink beer, and wield axes?

    And if you know the race I'm talking about, then that makes my point, too.


    Yes, precisely. Unique and believable... and I would go further to say unique to the story being told. If you're telling a story that requires orcs that are exactly as they are conceived of by everyone else, and elves as they are conceived of by everyone else, or hobbits that are called "hobbits", then you're not telling a new story. You're not telling YOUR story. You're riding on the coat-tails of someone else's work and if the story has already been told, then what motivates me as a reader to continue reading?


    Can anyone reference a novel by a recognized author that has incorporated "orcs" in its story in ANY way other than being ironic?


    Devor, you are an awesome, thoughtful, intelligent dude who I like and (more importantly) respect very much. I've said that before and I want to go on record saying it again.

    But if you ever toss me a story that has mithril or orcs in it to make it easier for me to grok your story, I will hunt you down.

    I get what you're saying and you're right... there must be recognizable elements that the reader can relate to in order for them to engage with the story. But I honestly do not see how using SOMEONE ELSE'S recognizable element serves you as a writer.

    Give the reader a little credit... and if you're throwing a lot of stuff at them and are worried about bogging them down, then find a better way to deliver the information... don't "dumb it down" with orcs and mithril.
     
  12. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Valar Lord

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    I was originally thinking in AD&D terms when I started writing, so I borrowed heavily from that system when it came to everything from monsters to magic. Hence, I had dwarves, elves, orcs, goblins, dragons, and quite a few others, all more or less taken from the handbooks. (I was far, far from alone in this; many of the fantasy works from that period did pretty much the same.)

    Then I started thinking. I decided I wanted the races to be 'tweeked' a bit. I wanted to justify them. I also started reading up on the mythology. So...

    Dwarves remained pretty much the same as AD&D except for an ability to work some types of magic, as per the mythology. I also 'urbanized' them quite a bit, several large human cities boast major numbers of dwarves.

    Elves, mythologically speaking, come across as dang dangerous. Tolkien, I believe was responsible for making them 'good' as a race; previously they were chaotic creatures you could sometimes deal with. They are also represented as belonging in a sort of alternate dimension or 'universe of their own'. I took that idea, mixed in some new age thinking, and came up with a race that *used* to dwell on a 'higher' or 'different' level of reality in *spiritual* form, but were tricked and trapped somehow into assuming mortal form. They retain memories via magic of this spiritual realm, and wish to return, but it is a long, long process. Additionally, they cannot long abide isolation from others of their kind; it drives most of them to lunacy or suicide in short order.

    I ditched orcs - pretty much Tolkiens creation as far as I could tell. Goblins were usually seen as a sort of vaiety of fey or elf, but after some hesitation, I decided to keep them. My problem here was that in fantasy writing today, goblins tend to have a racial reputation for evil, but that reputation really isn't justified. I didn't care for that. After a while, I came across the version of orcs used in the 'Harn' system. Here, orcs are almost insectile as far as reproduction goes - there are a hundred or more male orcs to every female, and the internal and external competetion to reproduce can be fierce. It results in a society where homicide is much more legitimately acceptable, and produces a *lot* of males that want to prove themselves in battle in the outside world. I took this, tacked and tacked on a few mythological elements.
     
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  13. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Dark Lord

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    If you want to use something recognizable, use something from the real world. Readers may have an intellectual concept of elves, but you can only make them care if those elves feel human in some way (or, if your elves are antagonists, if the beings they target feel human in some way.)
     
  14. Amanita

    Amanita Scribal Lord

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    As far as my personal tastes are concerned, I agree with Dreamhand. I don't understand the strong fascination with "standard races" and the like either. To me, some stories with Elves and Dwarves etc. like Eragorn for example actually do feel like fanfiction. Having written fanfiction for Harry Potter, I can understand this in some way because my very first attempts in my original world were quite derivative as well. I quickly moved on from that, because it didn't work out well and it wouldn't have been acceptable of course. With Tolkien and all the Game Worlds that are often mentioned here but which I'm not familiar with, it seems to be different. These things obviously can be taken and used by others without them being accused of copying. In case of Tolkien there is (or at least there seems to be) a deeper meaning behind this, but many derivative writers/game designers don't have anything like that but just use Orcs as canon fodder no one will mind see die.
    Despite of my opinion, there seem to be plenty of readers and writers who like this kind of thing, and I don't mind them reading and writing it, as long as no one claims that there's some universal law that requires this in fantasy.

    For me, a writer adding something like Mithril to his story would very likely be diminishing my enjoyement of his work quite a bit. If he wants a special metal (or any other special thing) because it matters to his story, he should invent one and give it a meaningful place in his story. If he doesn't want this or if there's no need for it, why add something like that at all?
    As others have mentioned, real life offers plenty of stuff which allows the reader to relate to a story, there's no need for borrowed fantasy elements. There's been an article about making magic relatable on the main page a few weeks ago. In my opinion magic doesn't become relatable because it's been used plenty of times before. Very often, the same form of magic works differently in different settings anyway. It becomes relatable if it has effects the reader can relate to. He won't be confronted with fire ball-throwing wizards in his life, but he very likely got burned at some time and knows what fire is and does. Therefore he will be able to imagine what effects the fireball will have on its targets.
    Not that this is always the author's intention, especially if the targets are Orcs which makes me return to the beginning of the post. ;)
     
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  15. Graylorne

    Graylorne Shadow Lord

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    I'm a great D&D fan - in games - not books. If I were to use dwarves in my books, they would be the original ones like in Beowulf: gnarled, nasty types greedy for what the rocks yield. Elves would either be the secretive types living inside a hill, say the Shakespeare ones, or else the light- and darkelves from the Nordic Edda's. Trolls, yes; gnomes and giants, too. But no orcs.
    And no mithril either; that would definitely give at least to me the wrong flavour to my story. The only way in which I imitate Tolkien is in going back to the source, the old legends, myths and sagas.

    Of course that's my personal opinion. Tastes differ, as they should.
     
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  16. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    There was a thread about harpies a while back, and when I saw that word I immediately had a concept of what a harpy looked like - a race of winged women who go about raping males to reproduce. When I clicked on the thread, that's exactly the concept that person was using.

    And it has virtually nothing to do with the Greek Harpy at all. Should he create something "new" for that concept?

    Every time you write you're using the work of other authors. Who decided that a vampire should go sloothing around as a private eye in the big city? One person, plus copy cats. Who decided we should use fantasy races at all? One person, plus copy cats. Who decided that we should create new worlds, new metals, new histories - that wizards should have hats or that faeries should be wistful? Somebody else.

    I think it's a lot more respectful to our readers to pay homage to the people who created these archetypes than to spend a chapter trying to convince them that our orcs are really Pignellian Swem and our mithril is really Tribetan Bronze - especially when these are minor points in the story. When you have a lot going on, control the essentials; outsource the rest.
     
    Last edited: May 20, 2012
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  17. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

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    This is a good point. In some way or another, we're going to always be borrowing from someone else's conception of what a race is. If I say the word "dwarf" an image comes to your mind. If I want to show that my dwarf is different from your conception of dwarf, then I'll describe it the way I want it depicted.

    In a way, I agree that using orc or hobbit is a greater problem than using elf or dwarf. I dare to say if someone wrote stories about hobbits then they'd be ripping off Tolkien. But if they write them about elves (even if they are very similar to Tolkien's version) then people won't bat an eyelash.

    I don't typically use a lot of fantasy races in my stories personally, but when I do, they're pretty close to what most people imagine they'd look like. For instance a gryphon. Think about it. What's your image? That's probably the same as I imagined them. It does save a lot of time and worry to use races and creatures that are already imprinted in fantasy readers mind. However, only using D&D stereotypes can't be a good thing.

    Also Stan Nicholls series "Orcs" from what I read isn't an ironic depiction of them, but you see the story from their POV.
     
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  18. Queshire

    Queshire Dark Lord

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    I think that, at times, coming up with a completely original race instead of using one of the classic standbys can actually harm your story. That you have to take to explain who they are, what they look like, and what they do, is time taken away from the actual plot. It'd be filler. By just saying Orc the reader already has a mental image meaning you can spend less time explaining them and get on with the bloody story!

    Orcs and mithril have entered our cultural conscious. I have NEVER read something featuring Orcs and Mithril and thought it was copying tolkein, hell, until recently, I didn't even know that tolkein created both of them.

    Further, neither Orcs or Mithril are completely original to tolkein. Yeah, those particular names start with him, but brutish beast men and mythological metal aren't solely his domain.

    Finally, you have been seriously discounting the Blizzard style of Orcs which are as popular or more popular as the tolkein style Orcs.
     
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  19. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

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    If you're describing your fantasy race/culture like that, you're doing it wrong. By showing the reader, rather than telling them, what a culture is like - any culture, be it the main human culture or the new species of purple-skinned humanoids with horns - you can introduce that culture without needing to pause the plot of create filler. The way members of the race interact with other characters, the history between your main character's race and the new one - things you'd have to establish anyway whether you were using goblins or elves or the purple-skinned Rehovi - are what build the picture of the culture. Starting with exposition is doing it wrong and will harm the story. Showing the reader the culture is the way to do it.

    The point I'm trying to make here is that you don't need non-human races at all, or special metals. Can't people with superior weapons or armour just have more advanced technology? Can't a warlike culture be human - look at Sparta. Or the Roman empire. Or a nature-loving, vegetarian group - why elves? There are human examples. Hippies, for a start. Huamnity is varied enough on its own to cover most humanoid races. Where things get supernatural - dryads and fae and nymphs, who are part of nature (certain types of dryad, for example, die if the tree they are born of is cut down) - by all means go with established species. Otherwise I see it as not merely unnecessary, but also lazy, because then you don't have to take the time to develop the culture if you just say "dwarves" or whatever - and then it becomes generic.

    Of course, there are always exceptions. The way Pratchett deals with fantasy species is brilliant. Trolls in particular. He explains why they live in the mountains - the cold weather makes their brains work more efficiently - and why they have a reputation for stupidity amongst other races. As far as fantasy races go in general, he incorporates their unique qualities as rounded, believable, interesting characters. He even plays with our expectations of fantasy races - like the bank manager guy in Making Money - and in Snuff he really does goblins well. They have cultural depth.

    I'll admit I'm not one for high fantasy. I've never seen the point in using non-human humanoid species. They feel like a shortcut. Hell, they feel like a stereotype. They feel like the author is telling me "humans are like this, and elves are like that, and dwarves are like that" and discounting the possibility that humans can be all of those things and more.

    What they don't feel is well thought out.
     
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  20. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    That's a good point, Chilari, which I think is lost on a lot of people. But I do think there is a reason to want elves or orcs or another fantasy race - the magical element of that race. If you're reading about elves as simple as a nature-loving vegetarian group, then I think someone is doing it wrong. Typically, elves live nearly forever and are immersed in some kind of magic. Wanting those kinds of fantasy elements, and their impact on that culture, are in my opinion the only reason to consider having a new race. If people are using a new race to create a caricature of some real world society, I think they're missing out.
     
    Last edited: May 20, 2012
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