The Trouble with Elves/Dwarves etc

Discussion in 'Writing' started by wdavidson, Sep 28, 2012.

  1. wdavidson

    wdavidson WordDruid

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    In this month's flash fiction competition, some of the feedback I received has started me worrying about an element of the novel that I am now quite a long way into writing. It is a fantasy novel, and borrows from the "epic fantasy" tradition, although in what is hopefully (i.e. intended to be) quite a fresh way. A consequence of this, however, is that, while not a central part of the story, it does involve Elves, Dwarves and other traditional fantasy elements...

    Like some of the people who commented on my flash fiction entry, I have always regarded these elements as very much embedded in the Middle Earth/ Tolkein(esque) story-telling (although of course they originate from much older Germanic and Norse traditions). For me though, that presented a challenge, to see whether they could be reimagined in the way that other classic figures (Vampires/Wizards/Superheroes) are able to be reimagined, and to be made more relevant to a modern audience.

    What worries me is whether by doing this I am likely to alienate a proportion of my potential readership, by including elements that would turn them off from wanting to read the book.

    As such, I would really welcome the comments of anyone who can relate to the instinctive reaction that I am describing, to help me understand whether I am creating problems for myself by going down this route, or whether actually people would be interested in reading something that tries to take a fresh approach to these classic fantasy ingredients.

    Thanks in anticipation/apprehension,

    Will
     
  2. G.L. Lathian

    G.L. Lathian G.L. Lathian

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    The people that frequent this forum are not your 'general reader.' They have an eye for critiquing and often find tropes annoying and jarring.

    Remember that they have their own perspectives on writing styles/ways of setting a story, etc,. Much the same as large publishing houses who have knocked back countless best seller novels for such reasons.

    The fact is that Elves and Dwarves are extremely popular for a reason: people like them. Eragon is a great modern example of how these types of races can capture a readership.

    I say, if you like writing about Elves and Dwarves then do it. Don't worry about what people say in regards to the races you chose to build your story around. Your only worry should be about doing it well.

    A good story will sell, regardless of tropes - that's been proven countless times before... :)
     
  3. Wilson Geiger

    Wilson Geiger Greymane

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    Cononomous said it better than I could, so I'll just agree. Go with it, if it's good, it will sell, elves or no.
     
  4. N. E. White

    N. E. White tmso Staff Member

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    I haven't read your flash, but ditto what Cononomous and Wulfen said.

    I know that when I first started writing, I wrote what I thought was the standard fantasy fare but with what I thought was a different twist. My peers shot me down quick. Some of that was warranted, some of it wasn't.

    But what it did help me realize is that it is all about characters. What they look like and their accents are just window dressings. It's nice, and imperative in some cases, to have great window coverings, but the underlying characters have to make sense and matter to your readers.

    Good luck! :)
     
  5. G.L. Lathian

    G.L. Lathian G.L. Lathian

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    The truth!
     
  6. Laer Carroll

    Laer Carroll LaerCarroll.com

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    One of the big challenges for writers is to take standard elements in any genre and breath life into them. It could be the lone gunfighter riding into town in a Western or seen-it-all private investigator as well as elves, dwarves, etc.

    My favorite writers do it in a couple of ways. One is to change some stereotypical trait of a character or class of actors. Such as vampires. They are often supposedly dead during the day and alive at night. But what if this was a myth that vamps themselves have spread around? So that vamp killers would stroll into a vamp camp during the day and not take any special precautions. Result: food delivers itself for a nice lunch.

    Another way is to develop the characters of the, say, elves as well as you would ordinary people. Elizabeth Moon has her Paksennarion rub elbows with specific elves and learn their individual natures as well as their general natures. They ceased to be standard flat figures and became multidimensional PEOPLE. Laurell K. Hamilton's vampires come in all kinds, including ordinary people desperately trying to fight their blood thirst.

    So don't wonder WHETHER to use fantastic characters. Wonder HOW you're going to make them real and believable to your readers.
     
  7. Jon Sprunk

    Jon Sprunk Book of the Black Earth

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    Excellent reply. As long as you aren't using "dwarf" as short-hand for "short, stout, likes gold, drinks lots of ale/mead, fights with an axe", you have so much room to develop your characters.
     
  8. Window Bar

    Window Bar We Read for Light

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    Elves, dwarves, etc.

    This has been a good thread w/ plenty of helpful insight. I'll add something that I haven't seen mentioned: making sure there is a connection and a reason for the fantasy elements you use.

    For example, using Scandinavian-style dwarf characters in a setting resembling ancient New Zealand is going to pull your reader right out of the tale... unless there's an interesting reason for the characters to show up in the out-of-place setting. Otherwise, you're better off going with characters that arise from the tradition and location you have selected.

    -- WB
     
  9. goldhawk

    goldhawk aurea plectro

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    I would say that for each person who won't buy because it has elves and dwarfs, there's one who will. Write the story you want to it write and write it well. A well-written story will always sell.
     
  10. KatG

    KatG The Bony Hand of Death Staff Member

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    I don't understand, did someone say you had to have Tolkein stuff or something? The fantasy field is not narrow and neither is its audience.
    Elves have been done from everything from monsters who eat people to four and a half billion years old demi-gods. This is in part because elves, like fairy and goblin, is a catch-all term for all sorts of mythological creatures. There are numerous different myths about elves that have been raided by authors over the decades. We've had elves who work on race cars and elves who live in the sea. Dwarves are a sub-species and they vary too. Most of the myths about dwarves makes them on the shorter side, so there's not as much differential on size usually, but mythologically, as we discussed once here, dwarves have been everything from ghouls in graveyards to small barn fairies.
     
  11. wdavidson

    wdavidson WordDruid

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    Thanks to everyone who has taken the trouble to reply to this thread. I do think one of the most valuable things about this forum is the level of support that people are prepared to give to one another, and there is a lot of food for thought in these posts.

    In particular, I think that I had for a few moments slightly lost sight of the concept that a novel or short story cannot be all things to all people. In mitigation, it's been a long week and I am in the midst of my fourth (and with any luck final) redraft, so perhaps a bit more vulnerable to preying doubts than usual!

    Anyway, thank you all again.

    Will
     
  12. PeteMC

    PeteMC @PeteMC666

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    This is exactly it, and for "elf" read "tall, willowy blondes who live in the forests and are like totally in tune with nature, and all awesome archers and stuff".

    If you can do it differently (and in your Flash you did, and I liked it and voted for you) then great, but sooooooo many people seem to pick up a D&D monster manual and go "oh yeah, dwarves, they live underground in something that I can't call Moria but is basically the same thing" and give them an axe and a horn of ale and away we go that it just gets tiresome to be honest.

    Kat's absolutely right that these terms (especually "elf") can mean wildly different things, but sadly they usually don't.
     
  13. SilentDan

    SilentDan Registered User

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    That's why I'm defying cliches in my fantasy book. It still has elves, dwarves and so on, but the protagonists are non-typical ones. It's D&D based, but I'm making some of them classes that you wouldn't expect - like a dwarven druid, for instance (and a bartender who's pleasant and amiable, yet a dwarf... he might even abstain from alcohol!). Or a hobgoblin wizard with class (in the social class meaning, not the character class/role/job meaning, although it's a player class so...). Or a drow barbarian. Or a gnome fighter. Or a city-elf rogue (was going to go wood elf but then woke up to the fact that's been done).

    And you know what? I'm having a lot more fun writing this way - messing with cliches - than I've ever had writing stereotypes.
     
  14. Hellsfire

    Hellsfire Registered User

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    I say write how you envision your races, but just flesh them out into being fully developed characters.

    You can also turn a few things on their heads. I have a dwarf historian in my fantasy series...yet I don't remember why I did that.
     
  15. SilentDan

    SilentDan Registered User

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    Dwarf historian! :) How about, drunk elf who gets into fights a lot? I may use that at some point, actually...
     
  16. Jon Sprunk

    Jon Sprunk Book of the Black Earth

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    What I'm about to say isn't meant as an attack on anyone or their writing: an infinite universe allows for infinite variation, so write what you love and be happy.

    But.

    I guess I was lucky. Although I enjoy Tolkien and some authors who followed his path by including elves/dwarves/orcs in their stories, I was always more drawn to the works of Howard, Lovecraft, Leiber, and such. So when I started crafting my own stories, the idea of using "fantasy" races didn't really occur to me.

    Note: I did write one novel aimed at Wizards of the Coasts that included the typical D&D races, but it just didn't feel right. Like I was copying off someone else's homework. Thankfully, it will never see the light of publication.

    From my own personal perspective, when I see a modern fantasy cover that has an elf/dwarf/etc (or, gods forbid, a drow) on the cover, it doesn't exactly turn me on. If an aspiriting fantasy writer asks me about using those races, I advise them to think long and hard about it. What are you saying by writing about a drow ranger? That you think they are a cool character in D&D? Fine, then write reams about them--for yourself. (Hell, most writers have loads of stories and snippets hidden in their closets and hard drive that they don't ever intend to publish.)

    You need to figure our what you're trying to say. What does Zork the Drow Ranger represent? An attempt to capture the idea of being separated from your home and people because you are "different?" Why do you need a drow to do that? There are people all around you who live lives of loneliness and non-acceptance. Start there.

    You may discover that your story just cannot work without a dark elf character. Or maybe you'll discover that what you thought was a tool for inspiration was actually a crutch holding you back.

    Infinite variations.
     
  17. SilentDan

    SilentDan Registered User

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    Re: Drow... so true. Clearly, a Chaotic Good Drow Ranger escaping from his oppressive Lawful Evil kind (TM) has been done before (hilariously depicted in The Order of the Stick, and defeated not by strength of arms or strength of magic but by copyright infringement law). I might have a drow ranger in a D&D session for a joke, but a carbon copy in writing, for seriousness, would be too obvious.

    I started a series, with a D&D influence, and it was pretty much textbook D&D. It never went anywhere, however some of it was rewritten as a 2nd-person, present-tense, choose-your-own-adventure style story on Protagonize.com, and tidied up so I could use it for a Youth and Children's Writing class at University. It received a Distinction, so I was happy with that. So textbook D&D = nothing special, as is textbook fantasy in general. But textbook D&D/fantasy in general in a non-textbook tense, person or some other thing? Potential critical success, not to mention fame, money, whatever. Well, you can hope for that, and you might actually get some too on the basic that what you're doing is, if not never done before, at least not done any time *recently*. You know, fresh. "New". That's always worth the risks involved - ie the risk of critical failure. But you probably won't get that, if you're doing old stuff re-envisioned in a fresh perspective.
     
  18. KatG

    KatG The Bony Hand of Death Staff Member

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    No, you're not, not on that basis. Because the "old stuff" re-envisioned makes up the better bulk of fantasy fiction and is going on constantly in thousands of titles. Jon is re-envisioning old stuff, and the idea that the "old stuff" is limited to tall elves, dwarves, vampires, orcs and dragons -- and not just these things but done only in certain ways -- is categorically wrong. The "old stuff" involves everything from ghosts and shadows (paging Mr. Sprunk) to genies to time travel to airships to evil machines and it is all "re-envisioned" countless times. And there is absolutely no correlation between publication and sales success and literary acclaim with which elements you pick and whether you do them in a certain way or not, including D&D or to not D&D. None. Nada. Zip. The data does not support any of it. The measurement stick you, Jon and others are talking about -- elves or no elves and what flavor -- is completely irrelevant to what goes on in fantasy publishing. And the people who buy and read fantasy novels, whether they avoid books with elves like the plague or refuse to read anything else (and the vast group in between who don't care,) do not give a farthing about whether you authors like elves or not. But they might read a story in which you explore how much you hate or like them or invent a new species in which you're actually exploring the symbolism of elves in mythology without them being elves. Because symbols are not locked into forms.

    But each generation of authors swears that this is a very important issue, and that their works "re-envision" for the first time or the first time in a long time all the "old stuff." It's a selling tactic and it's psychological as well. Each new author is unquestionably new and what they do in their stories and character voices will be different from others, and may catch on or not, but while acknowledging the infinite variations, as Jon does, the community still likes to pretend that reams and reams of past fantasy fiction in their infinite variations doesn't exist. I'm talking scholarly articles where they also pretend thousands of books never existed. And that's a tribute to the power of symbols. But the symbol itself will be there whether it's in plate armor or a monocle and red coat.

    You can dress the set however you like. You can even make it a major focus of the enterprise. But the meat of the story seldom has to do with the clothes or whether a dwarf is drunk or sober. (And for the record, non-alcohol swilling dwarves have been done before, and wine swilling ones and cocaine snorting ones and vegetarian ones and who knows what else.) I like your set-dressing, I do, but it's never going to be the engine that drives the story entirely. It can set the stylistic tone of a story, which helps with the symbolism, so that you've got a bit of a steampunk feel going to some of what you're bouncing around is something to note, especially as you want to throw time travel into the mix. Maybe you have a natural inclination to go Victorian. That's something to consider.

    But something else to consider -- the character alignment bit of D&D is effective in the game because it's about symbolism. And when you are playing with that, you're simply playing with symbols that are more about telling stories and thinking about emotions and ideas than they are about playing D&D. It's not that the dwarf is sober, cheerful and a bartender. It's what having a sober, cheerful bartender means in the story.

    Alright, I have to go cook a big dinner, so I'll stop the ranting. All of the above is just my own opinion, except for the part about there being no correlation with this stuff. That's fact. There's no getting around that data. Of course, you might come up with something interesting from trying to get around it, but it's still not going to change the publishing field. Elves and no elves are all welcome and may succeed or sink irrespective of their presence or lack thereof or wardrobe therein.
     
  19. EMMAXIS

    EMMAXIS Registered User

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    I agree that you can have a good story with an elf, dwarf, drow etc. in it or a bad story. It's as irrelevant as if your character is male or female. Cliches go round and round in circles. But I also think there are certain trends in publishing that I take notice of. Suddenly, vampires and zombies are all the rage. I am personally sick of elves, since I've read 13 books involving elves and could really care less about them, but there are always readers who may or may not be new to the elf world who will find them fascinating. Elves aren't going away any time soon and there's nothing wrong with that. I think if your true passion, as a writer, is to write about elves, more power to you; BUT, I myself would love to see more originality on book covers these days.
     
  20. Jon Sprunk

    Jon Sprunk Book of the Black Earth

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    The (macro)data doesn't matter to the writing, which is what I was addressing. If you're going to write about elves, or vampires, you'd better be sure about it because there's a high probability that someone else has done it better. Let me rephrase that: there's a pretty good chance that thousands of authors have done it better.

    As I said in my post, everyone is free to write whatever they want. You don't need my permission.