The Trouble with Elves/Dwarves etc

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

  1. wdavidson

    wdavidson WordDruid

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    OK so: (1) I finished my book. I mean properly finished, edited and re-written many times and polished until it hurts. Next step, submissions, but in the meantime (2) I gave myself permission to come back online and visit the forum for the first time in a few days and I've been reading all the responses to this thread with great interest.

    A lot of very interesting and sensible things have been said and it is good to see where the discussion has moved on to while I have been studiously ignoring the internet.

    To bring things back to the genesis of my original question, and if anyone has the appetite for it, I would welcome some thoughts on the way in which I am approaching the Elven in my writing. For me the starting point was (sorry Jon Sprunk and others) Lords of the Rings, although just for the record Elves had been part of mythology for a good thousand years prior to that, taking a number of sometimes radically different forms. In particular, I was interested by the ending of the book, as [spoiler :)] the Elves depart into the West and the days of magic come to an end.

    Bear in mind that this (when I was thinking about the content of a book/world) was post 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq. The idea of a race who, if only in their own minds, are superior in strength, intelligence and technology/magic, who intervene in other race's domestic affairs to their own ends and then, after the main battle, declare "mission accomplished" and disappear off into the West, resonated on several levels for me.

    From there, I worked backwards, and forwards. Looking backwards - who are the Elven? How do they think about the world around them? Very quickly, I thought that they would be pretty didactic and not very good sharers. They would deploy observers and seek to guide the policy and development of the races that they were assisting. But they would keep secrets and they would be sceptical about anyone who doubted or challenged their ideas. I thought about the Chicago School, Burma and Chile under Pinochet.

    Looking forwards - what sort of places would they leave behind them when they had decided that they had had enough and upped sticks? If you have seen magic/power/glamour first hand how do you react when it is snatched away from you? Firstly, you try to emulate what you have lost. Secondly you are always twitching and looking over your shoulder, because you know - you know - that what you are trying to do just can't be done. You don't have the magic (to paraphrase Scottie).

    So that gave me the world, the setting for my novel. It's a world that is almost exclusively populated by humans, but where magic is an historical fact. A world of half-baked attempts to mimic the ideological purity of a long-vanished master race, whose influence is still felt in every aspect of life from politics to economics to warfare. A world where an awful lot of things have never been attempted because, meh, without magic what's the point? It's a world in which the defining characteristic of my Elves/Elven is their absence, but in which they still cast a long shadow...

    Ramble over. It's late and I need sleep. This is where you all tell me that nothing in what I've outlined above is original and that it's all been done 6 months / 3 years / 5 decades ago by a much better writer than me! :( I hope not, but since starting to write I have been trying to steer clear of anyone in the post-modern fantasy vein (Brandon Sanderson, for example?) for fear of being influenced/discouraged and frankly now it's written I'd rather know before submitting it if it is likely to be discounted as lacking in originality.

    Obviously, if anyone thinks that this sounds like the sort of book they'd like to read, I'd love to know that too!

    Thanks

    Will
     
  2. SilentDan

    SilentDan Registered User

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    Hmm. Master race. Elven nazis? Just throwing that out there.
     
  3. KatG

    KatG Effulgent Staff Member

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    No, they were "the rage" five years ago in the early-mid oughts, and it wasn't sudden. It was actually the result of a complicated set of factors over about seven-ten years, including simply having authors who were interested in writing about vampires and zombies and contemporary fantasy stories in the late 1990's. The majority of novels about vampires and zombies are not successful. The majority of fantasy novels without vampires and zombies are not successful. There's no correlation. The number of vampire and zombie novels is actually relatively consistent as a percentage of the total fantasy and horror fiction produced, with an occasional spike for vampires. What changes are the total number of fantasy novels produced -- it's grown larger, so the number of vampire books proportionately grew larger, what Hollywood is doing with movies, and what some of the titles that are hits contain. Right now, the actual uptick trend is ghosts. I can go through a set of bookstore bookshelves and publisher newsletters and break down the ripples of what's being explored and the marketing aspects too, but the problem isn't that authors notice things -- it's that they put them in the wrong context. They put them in terms of a mythology, ignoring the data that doesn't fit the myth, such as the claim that vampires and zombies are recently and suddenly popular, something that was already being claimed back in 2002. So when an author is focusing on hey what's the cool trend, one of the reasons it's not very productive is that the author is usually wrong about what the cool trend is. And many authors are cycling through myths in their series, so one book may be about vampires, but another is adding ghosts, demons, elves, invented races, ghosts, voodoo, you name it, to the universe. The choice of say vampires to convey symbols is in many respects random.

    The same could be said about shadow magic, which is a really old fantasy element used thousands of times before. But either way, it is still irrelevant. You do not directly compete with any other fiction author. What they've done with something is irrelevant to anything you do. And everything is already in the market. I was not saying that you were trying to censor Dan.

    Been done, more than once. See the B movie film Elves for instance. Although zombie Nazis are more popular.

    Will, again, what others do is not the key factor. Your novel sounds interesting to me. Your novel touches on a lot of poly sci stuff on Afghanistan, though one of the things prevalent in these situations is that the old human culture in this case doesn't lose influence either. The vacuum would create many different forms of extremism and ideology. You are working less with a post-modern idea than a lost magics idea, but the symbolism sounds interesting.
     
  4. Jon Sprunk

    Jon Sprunk Book of the Black Earth

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    Congratz. That's no simple accomplishment.


    Don't ever be sorry for what you write or where you get your influences. No one on this planet has had the exact same experiences as you. Your perspective is unique and just as valuable as George Martin's or Prof. Tolkien's.
     
  5. KatG

    KatG Effulgent Staff Member

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    And for the record, Jon's use of shadow magic is way cool and I like Mike Sullivan's elves too. :)
     
  6. Vinegar Tom

    Vinegar Tom Registered User

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    Frankly, the trouble with elves and their kin is that they hark back to one particular fantasy franchise. Anyone who wrote a sci-fi novel in which the aliens just happened to be Klingons or Daleks, let alone Martians equipped with tripedal war-machines and heat-rays as invented by H. G. Wells in 1898, even though the story had nothing whatsoever to do with that particular franchise, would be laughed at for having no imagination at all. So why does fantasy, a genre in which by definition absolutely anything goes, have to be saddled with these ancient cardboard stereotypes?

    It's true that, as several people have already said, elves and whatnot have a long and very complex pre-Tolkein history that gives you plenty of scope to do unexpected things with them. But if that's your approach, why bother to call them elves, thereby dragging in all that Tolkein baggage? If people see an elf on the cover, they'll expect it to be predictable off-the-shelf D&D-derived cliché-ridden fantasy fodder. And since some people like that sort of thing, it will sell to that demographic. If that's all you're after, fine, and good luck to you! But if you want to write fiction that rises above the ghetto that would once have been called "pulp", you'll have to go a bit further than plundering the rules of a very popular game in terms of world-building.

    And by the way, anyone who honestly thinks that taking a cliché and turning it on its head, thereby making a joke that only works for people who were familiar with the cliché in the first place, turns it into something other than a cliché, doesn't really understand what a cliché is.
     
  7. Michael B

    Michael B Doomfarer

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    As well as elves and dwarves I would add plate armour and castles to the list. Scale and mail armour is good for protection against most weapons and Medieval fortresses are very expensive in taxes to build. David Gemmell wrote good fantasy without involving Tolkeinian/D & D stereotypes, not that I am knocking either of them.
     
  8. Vinegar Tom

    Vinegar Tom Registered User

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    Michael B, I have to respectfully disagree with you. The big difference between elves and castles - and this is the point that I'm really trying to make - is that castles are a pretty basic real-world thing. In fact, since I live in Edinburgh, Scotland, I can prove to myself that castles really do exist and were taken seriously in warfare for a very long time just by looking out of the window. But I have yet to look out of the window and see an elf.

    Military installations with thick stone walls go back before recorded history - Jericho, for instance, had walls 15 feet thick, and whoever built Zimbabwe invented castles before they invented writing, which is why we don't know who they were. Building huge stone fortresses is a really basic idea. And so is wrapping your warriors in the toughest kind of armor you can come up with. The development of armor is all about the practical issues of protection versus weight. For example, an Ancient Greek warrior whose bronze armor weighed about 80 pounds but could be put on very quickly paid a servant to follow him around carrying his armor, so that he wouldn't pointlessly tire himself out prior to the battle. And the first bit of plate-male to become obsolete was the bit you wore on your legs, because even a very strong man becomes tired very quickly if he has to run with lumps of steel attached to his legs! And incoming damage was far more likely to hit you above the waist anyway.

    So, whatever you call them, armor and castles are a basic thing which obviously has its uses. But elves are not. They are completely fictional, and very culture-specific indeed. Consider genies. Or, to use a more correct word, djinn. Almost everybody who read that word instantly thought: "Blue guy who lives in a lamp, has infinite magical powers, and is a bit of a joke." However, if you happen to be a devout Muslim, you will know that the djinni are officially recognized as sentient life-forms who, since they have free will, may theoretically convert to Islam if they are so inclined, though apparently most of them aren't. Still, at least one mosque exists for this specific purpose. Which is more than Catholicism ever did for the elves.

    All I'm saying is that off-the-peg stereotypes are useful if you want to sell totally predictable fiction to the bottom end of a market that's supposedly all about imagination. You can even do interesting things with traditional folklore (depending on which religion it derives from - some of them will still murder you for disagreeing with them...). But using stereotypes ripped off from a major franchise because blondes with pointy ears spell "fantasy"? NO!!! Sorry, there's no word to describe that except "lazy". In any other genre, this would be a joke. But since fantasy has taken over the niche formerly occupied by sci-fi in which square-jawed men with ray-guns saved screaming ladies in space bikinis from bug-eyed monsters, it's become a kind of retarded relative who does the best that he can, and if it happens to be feisty teenage girls learning important life-lessons through their relationship with a unicorn, we'll all pretend that this rubbish is good because he can't help it.

    Excuse me, but enough of the stereotypes already! Incidentally, unicorns are almost unkillable supernatural creatures who are strangely obsessed with putting their horns in the laps of sexually immature females of an entirely different species. Is it just me, or is there something a wee bit peculiar about unicorns? And why haven't we read about it yet? Somebody should write a book in which unicorns have to go to support groups where they obsessively talk about having The Horn.
     
  9. Jon Sprunk

    Jon Sprunk Book of the Black Earth

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    Mike's got a good thing going, but that Sprunk guy is a tool. (That's my way of saying thanks for the compliment.)
     
  10. Jon Sprunk

    Jon Sprunk Book of the Black Earth

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    Vinegar Tom,

    I hear what you're saying, but we should all be careful when assigning certain genres/subgenres to the rubbish bin. As Kat often says, there are people (a lot of them, actually) who enjoy reading about elves, or wizards tossing fireballs, or little green men from Mars. It's not the trappings that determine the value of a story.
     
  11. PeteMC

    PeteMC @PeteMC666

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    I have to agree with you about the castles - I live near Norwich and only have to pop into town to see a nice big Norman castle. Yes they cost a fortune to build, but lords were rich. Like pro footballer rich, comparatively. There were castles all over the place in Norman England.

    I'm fairly sure Tanith Lee wrote something once about how basically pervy Unicorns are!
     
  12. G.L. Lathian

    G.L. Lathian G.L. Lathian

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    This is very, very true.
     
  13. KatG

    KatG Effulgent Staff Member

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    Yes and no. Castles are cultural too. While fortresses built to withstand attack are fairly widespread, not every culture has used them. And the particular use of the word castle, from Old English and Old French, is relevant largely to European cultures. Thus, the use of castles is a fairly "stereotypical" use of European culture that's not particularly more imaginative than using European mythology. If the objection is that European cultures are overused in fantasy, then castles and armor -- depending on its type -- would be things that you wanted to avoid as emblematic, highly overused bits of European centered culture. Elves, which as we discussed further up the thread, were a catch-all synonym for fae mythologies, have numerous uses as symbols and expression of cultural beliefs and circumstances, just as djinn do. In a fantasy novel, they can certainly be as useful as castles. Djinn are used less in English language fantasy fiction than various forms of elves and wider fairy, but that's to be expected -- English Western writers are going to raid most often the cultures with which they have the most familiarity, education and descent from, which most of the time are the European cultures. In Asian fantasy, other mythologies are more likely to come into play. Often, in secondary world fantasy, they'll mix them, having both elves and djinn and Asian mythology as well. (Oddly enough, unicorns are much less prominent in fantasy fiction than many other major European mythical creatures; they are very popular in fantasy art though.) I do think that if a writer does not like/finds tired European mythology, he should avoid it -- why pursue a line of story one has no interest in? However, the reality is that there is still an enormous amount there culturally to be mined if you have the hankering.

    Actually, Catholicism converted their elves. They turned them into lesser forms of cherubs sometimes, they coopted the elvic and pagan holidays, for instance mixing the story of an elf with the story of bishop St. Nickolaus to form Santa Klaus, the stories of the Selkie seal brides who could become human and stay on land in part because they convert to Christianity, etc. Religions adjust and absorb.

    It's interesting that one, not particularly dominant branch of science fiction that was developed mainly in the 1930's-early 1960's, predominantly only in North America, remains the cultural icon invoked when ragging on science fiction.It's clearly movie related.

    Fantasy is not supposed to be all about imagination. The only type of story that is all about imagination is science fiction, which imagines what could be scientifically discovered. Fantasy is under no obligation to look at discovery, and its principle focus is folklore. The idea that fantasy is about imagination seems to have come from the association with children, who are considered to be engaging in imagination when playing make believe, which often does involve magic, swords, princesses and castles. Also pirates.

    Well I'm afraid that you will have to come up with another word for it. You may criticize others' writings here and published books all you like, though we ask that you keep it constructive for stories in progress, but personal criticisms of authors or members here as lazy, retarded, bottom-scrappers and other pejoratives are not allowed under the guidelines you agreed to follow while you are participating here. (Unless you are joking around with another member who knows you are joking and is okay with it.) There will be writers here who are writing about elves. However much you dislike such works, lets try to keep it friendly. They're just going to snort derisively back at you anyway. Your disdain for European folklore has been duly noted.

    In any other type of story, it's not even an issue. Originality and stereotypes are of little to no importance as an issue to be discussed in every other area of fiction, save for the occasional comment by the occasional cranky book reviewer. Mystery continues to produce stories about cats and hard boiled private eyes, thrillers produce stories of lawyers, spies and lantern jawed cops. Romance does the romance thing. Westerns write about the old west and historical fiction produces endless stories about famous wars. Contemporary drama has its procession of white middle aged men cheating on their wives and worrying about their careers, and winning awards for it. Screwball comedies produce plucky but hapless men and women who fall into comical disasters, family sagas trot out the usual stories of black sheep, struggling hardship, betrayal and reunion, "ethnic" fiction continues its interest in assimilation and exile in immigrants, horror (much of which is fantasy based,) keeps its obsessions with monsters and dark places, and remarkably the dominant discussion of all of these types of fiction has nothing to do with stereotypes and originality. Even in science fiction, it only occasionally comes up, and then mostly in the frame that hard SF has been eclipsed by real world science and thus is dead (which is false on all counts.) Only in fantasy is this an obsession in some of the field, though it's not in the actual marketplace.

    And that, I'm afraid, is almost all due to D&D. In the early 1980's, D&D and the various RPG's, video games and following tie-in books, were considered a big threat to the still young fantasy category market and SF as well. It was assumed that the games would swallow up fiction reading audiences, and then with the tie-in books with their built-in audiences that they would take over and blot out original fiction on the shelves. This of course was not at all what happened, but that was the fear. And D&D, which drew from Lord of the Rings, from pulp fiction of earlier times and from every folklore mythology they could raid, was the centerpiece of that ire. That was coupled with the fact that secondary world fantasy greatly expanded and the number of titles in the category market also expanded, so there was more to pick at. And so in the 1980's, sword & sorcery -- a term proposed by Fritz Lieber long ago for his fiction -- started to become a dirty word to parts of the field. To those parts of the field, it became essential to distinguish their works from Lord of the Rings, from anything that might be labeled D&D-like, and to start ragging on most of the reading audience as immature dolts who should stop liking dragons. And over time this became an actual useful marketing technique. It did not, however, diminish interest in playing with dragons by fantasy writers. It did not diminish the opportunities for those not writing about dragons either. The market holds it all, the dragons and the dragonless.

    YA stories feature teens and nearly all of their audience used to be kids aged 10-17. Adults didn't care about those stories at all until Harry Potter, among other things, blew up the YA sector of the kids market from sleepy teen niche to children's powerhouse -- and brought us tons of new, young readers. Now, eighty percent of the audience for all YA novels is still kids aged 10-17. They have no impact whatsoever on adult fiction. (Paranormal romance was well under way long before Harry Potter came out and all the rest of the YA that followed.) YA novels have had a slight impact on television in recent years because teen girls watch t.v., and are having a similar somewhat impact on movies because movies for teens make income, but for adult written fantasy, YA is mostly incidental at best. And yet critiques of the adult fantasy field obsess over books featuring teens written for young teens, particularly girls, as if that was the adult fantasy field, and not, say George Martin's Song of Ice and Fire. It's getting a little bit weird. (This is not to discourage the YA authors among us from talking about their work, however. I just think adult fans might want to concentrate on the books they actually read.)

    So maybe, as has come up before, we need to start talking about what's actually in the market, as titles, so that we move beyond the there's a teen fantasy romance in YA and everything is elves in imaginary worlds philosophy. Because that isn't the fantasy market. But we'll see about another thread for that.
     
  14. Michael B

    Michael B Doomfarer

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    A fortune is an understatement for some castles. Caernarfon cost Edward I the same as putting a field army into France three years in a row albeit spent over a much longer period of time. On the other hand, three similar ones were built (Harlech, Conway and Beamaris) along with ugrading other castles.

    From a looking around them point of view, I don't have a problem with castles. In fact I love them. It is just that they are so Middle Age European, and I include Outremer in that. There are other cultures with equally neat ideas. Let's see some of these in fantasy writing.