Elves and Dwarves and Orcs, Oh My!

Published by IHaveNoName in the blog IHaveNoName's blog. Views: 158

So you've created a world and populated it with various cultures. You've probably already decided long before now whether or not to add non-human races, and which ones they'll be, so let's take a moment to think this over. In the 80s and 90s, it seemed like elves, dwarves, orcs and such were pretty much required to appear in any fantasy world, thanks to the influences of D&D and similar RPGs. In the last 10 years or so, though, fantasy is becoming more human-centric, with the other races appearing less and less frequently. This can be a good thing - in the sea of human-centric worlds, one with multiple races will stand out. It's just a matter of whether or not readers will show interest in it.

Does the world really need non-humans? I.e., are you including them just because you think they're necessary, or do they serve a purpose? I'm not talking a purpose like allegory or metaphor, although those are fine. What I mean is, do they fill a niche? Nearly every creature on Earth today is here because it fulfills a role - from the smallest bacterium to the largest whale, they've evolved over millions of years to be where they are, and those whose roles are no longer important or who can't adapt go extinct.

Where did they come from? This is a huge question, and one that is often ignored. Granted, it doesn't usually have a bearing on the story, but it can shape a race's history - how it interacts with other races, its myths and culture, and even how members view themselves. Did they evolve from some lower life form, like humans did from the apes? If not, you should know how and why they came about. Did the gods put them down on the earth, fully-formed? Did they come through a portal to this world from another? Were they created by another race, or a single being?

How do they interact with other races? Are they open and welcoming, interbreeding with others (more on this later), or closed and xenophobic, attacking outsiders? Are they territorial, nomadic, content to settle in other races' lands, or something else entirely?

There are a lot more, like actual biology, but let's stick with this for now. In Earth's prehistory, there were dozens of different species of humans, most of which interacted with each other in some form - some were wiped out by competing races (either deliberately or through communicable diseases), and others died out because they were less adaptable, or because of environmental factors (climate change). And yes, there is evidence that our ancestors interbred - I'm sure you've heard that most non-African humans carry 1-4% Neanderthal DNA; scholars also agree that we interbred with the Denisovans, a group that lived in what is now middle Asia (Pakistan, up into Siberia), and another, as-yet-unknown group. So: Any time two races or cultures come into contact, they'll interact; if their biology is compatible, they'll mate, and if the genetics are close enough, they'll produce offspring. Which, of course, begs the question:

Are humans and these races in your world genetically compatible? If so, what do their offspring look like, what abilities (if any) do they have, are they sterile, and how do their parent races view them? How common are they, and where do they live (this leads back to how they're viewed/treated by their parent races)? Aside from RPG worlds, half-breeds, crossbreeds, and hybrids are seldom mentioned or dealt with. Sure, you could just say "they're all incompatible"; that's great, as long as you know *why*.

For the love of all that's holy, if you're going to add new races, please don't use the same tired old tropes. Elves, dwarves, orcs, gnomes... boooring. Give us something new - a race of lizard-like beings that live in the swamps; sentient spiders that inhabit the deep forest reaches; aquatic fish-men or cetaceans living in the oceans. Don't limit yourself to humanoids: dolphins and whales are generally accepted to be nearly as smart as humans (if not more so), and you're creating a fantasy world - the sky's the limit. If you really must use one of the tropes, give it a new spin - cannibal elves, desert dwarves, swamp orcs... or combine attributes of two or more races into something new. Be original. Have fun with it, as long as it all makes sense in the end.
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