1. Adrian Perron

    Adrian Perron New Member

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    Discussion on pros/cons of stereotypical races

    Discussion in 'Fantasy' started by Adrian Perron, Sep 22, 2020.

    Just a forewarning, this will be a little long but there is a reason. I am sorry it is so long winded but I wanted to put my opinion out in its majority so that i could get detailed feedback about this topic. It is one that I struggle with in my daily thoughts and is an issue (for me) due to things I have read and reviews i have taken notice of on this topic. Thank you for your time. :

    It seems to me that in recent years there has become more and more discussion against the use of stereotypical races in fantasy novels. Races such as beautiful elves, raging orcs, smithing dwarves, ect. In forums and especially book reviews it seems to be a major point when writers use the stereotype of a race in their novels and generally given a bad light. Generally it comes down to people having an issue with authors using some derivative of Tolkien's races.

    Recently I have been doing a lot of research into the mythology around the stereotypical races such as where they came from and how they were viewed and it seems to me that in mythology the stereotype as described in Tolkien's novels is relatively accurate. This is to say that mythology more or less lines up with the stereotype in many cases. There are a few examples such as dwarves being like mine fairies that help miners or warn them of danger. Elves being diminutive and helpful creatures that talked in riddles to humans and play with children.

    Though it can be argued that making up some crazy twist to these races or inventing entirely new ones would be a credit to your creativity as a writer, in my opinion the act of inventing entirely new races or twisting around an already set notion of a fantasy race seems somewhat tedious and annoying(to the reader). The reason I say this is because when writing about any race, either it be their physical attributes or their specific traits / abilities, the readers have come to see each race in a certain light (beautiful elves, smithing dwarves, ect.). The act of simply changing one aspect of a race doesn't seem to curtail the negative light given to writers who use the races, and (in my opinion) if you simply switch the races characteristics around (ex: beautiful dwarves, smithing elves) then would it not be the same thing as using the stereotype but calling the race by another name?

    If you change elves into creatures who love to smith but live in trees then in all reality you are doing nothing more then describing tall dwarves that live in trees. Like wise if you made gnomes ferocious evil fighters who are chaotic and war-like it would be the same thing as using orcs but simply calling them gnomes instead. To me this would only confuse or annoy a reader into thinking "why do they not just call them orcs and make them tall" afterall it would accomplish the same thing within the book, only it would make more sense to the readers imagination since they already have a stock of orc-like information to draw on to help pain the picture that is your novel.

    The reason I am posting about this is because I have done research into the origin of the stereotypical races and more and more find it almost necessary to use them as the stereotype that they are even if only to spare the reader the mental gymnastics required to sort out a crazy mismatch of them. These races are often used because of their stereotype and simply changing the spots on a leopard doesn't make it any less the ferocious cat that it is. That said I do believe in changing the personality of the races or in avoiding the over-simplified "always evil / always good" trope that can accompany the stereotype.

    Again I apologize for the long winded text above. I wanted to get my opinion out there so that I could hear the rebuttles and opinions for or against it. Please let me know if you believe in using the stereotype or not. Though i have no issues with creating my own races I have heard it said that familiarity within a book and easy to under stand references help the reader to paint your novel within their mind and understand the writing as you intend it without boring them with too much information.

    In my writing I have struggled to avoid using the base races such as human, elf, dwarf, gnome, orc, and hobbit, but find it increasingly difficult to do so without needing to invent some crazy variation of the above races with different body dimensions. Even so the more I do research on these races the more i feel that there's a reason they are used so often and in (at least a portion) their stereotypical form. They just fit.

    Thank you for your time and I hope to hear what your opinion is on the usage or the various ways you could or would change them or even invent new ones if that is your preference and how you would deal with the issue of explaining to the reader what or why they are the way they are.
     
  2. Lazaares

    Lazaares Senior Member

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    You're hitting a point here, about the aged idea of fantasy races. I addressed a similar essay/post to my fellow loremasters when we were designing a fantasy roleplaying platform and its lore in early 2017. It's what led to our decision to "rip" fantasy races from our lore and present a different take instead - a decision that proved successful and completely viable.

    My main argument there was a position of deconstruction. Separate each fantasy racial profile into a set of "traits" instead of looking at them together as a whole. Stellaris was popular at the time and was my example; the game has to present a wide variate of races & additional potential to make custom ones therefore it has - by default - deconstructed racial traits. You can make space-dwarves by choosing "long-living", "miner" and "ugly" traits.

    Expand these "traits" to culture, history and religion and you have the full picture.

    Based on this logic, you face two choices with regards to how you assemble fantasy races:

    1. Assemble them based on the "default" pack, which leaves them stereotypical and boring.
    2. Assemble them based on a "unique" pack, which leaves them unique but alien, unfamiliar.

    You remarked both of these situations in your own post.

    The last option is what I see more and more people take recently which I consider the worst one. I am fairly active on r/worldbuilding and every week you see a post titled "Introducing the [name difficult to pronounce] of my world: [fantasy race] but with a twist!"

    Going back to the Stellaris-example, this means taking the whole "default" loadout of a race - then removing one trait arbitrarily or adding one with very little explanation for fit (or a rather convoluted & shoehorned one).

    Introducing my elves, it's just that they are barbarian cannibals (next to being high society magical creatures - look, I loved Ultra Luxe!)
    Introducing my orcs, it's just that they are technologically advanced industrial warmongers (and are filled with German WW1/WW2 references because people already complain enough about the racial references in orc lore and background!)

    My own abandonment of fantasy races had a decisive argument behind it: Narrative.

    Racial abilities and traits are too static for my taste - a good narrative requires development and change. If I say that all elves are immortal, there's very little that can be done about it (I admit, there /are/ fantasy worlds where writers push for narrative even with elements as static as this). If I say that immortality bears a material costs and nobility are immortal, there's already a gigantic pre-packed societal conflict. A human won't likely attack an elf for being immortal, but they sure will attack a powerful human mage, a rich human noble or a dark-arts-practicing human warlock for it. Furthermore, fantasy races are as limited in their narrative as they are in their looks and abilities. Dwarves tend to be confined to their mountains, orcs are usually defined war-mongering, etc.

    To answer some specific points, however:

    I know about myself that I am a loud minority hating on fantasy races. All those by the round table designing the world I mentioned shared this minority view, but we had our own opposition as well, even within the bounds of a largely low-fantasy community. I honestly expect the issue to not be as large in the extended fantasy community as you describe it to be.

    Honestly, the original mythological source matters very little. It just so happens that Tolkien was accurate in following the source material; Dungeons and Dragons forever ingrained some historical inaccuracies that have stuck with the fantasy community ever since (the big leather armour vs gambeson debate). He could have written everything he did upside down and, taken the same success of his books, it'd be the canon now.

    There is a note to be marked here. Thanks to extended fantasy universes (Forgotten Realms *cough*) we already have certain "alternatives", that is, names for these "subversions. Ugly, evil & war-loving elves are drows or wild elves. Similarly, you've got the duergar for a different take on dwarves that is pretty-much ingrained into the fantasy conscious by now (or dark dwarves, if you're more familiar with warcraft/warhammer worlds).

    Similarly, there is a point where Tolkien's races became "less relevant" than the derived races. Here I am specifically referring to the fact that the general picture about orcs is /not/ Tolkien's depiction but the highly successful warcraft orcs who are more inspired by Mongolian history/culture than Tolkien. The success of Warcraft also left a permanent mark on the perception of elves; there is a stark difference between choosing to represent Tolkien's fey-like elves in your universe or Warcraft's urbanized, decadent high elves. I see the latter far more prominent as an influence than the former. Same as goblins that moulded to their warhammer/warcraft depictions of volatile machinists over their cave-dwelling Tolkien origin.

    In fact, I do think the only persistent depiction that still holds from Tolkien are dwarves and the occasional wood elves.
     
  3. Naomasa298

    Naomasa298 Contributor Contributor

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    In Norse mythology, dwarves *were* the dark elves - the inhabitants of Svartalfheim.
     
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  4. Wreybies

    Wreybies Thrice Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Taking your words at face value, this paragraph here feels enlightening to the thought process you are using, and I feel like that process is that accuracy with respect to portrayal against the backdrop of historical deployment is paramount. All else is subordinate.

    Why?

    That's a rhetorical question. You give your personal, individual answer later in the post, but I challenge that answer as to its mathematical validity, as in the idea that only one set of integers can be plugged into the formula to make it true. I don't think that's remotely the case. In truth - and having played in so very many threads with a similar question - it sometimes feels like the sentiment answers to dynamics of addiction. What the "dragon" is has been set, now the only question is how to chase it. Light this pipe again for me, won't you? The buzz is fading.

    Here you describe the addiction. You describe it in terms of a dynamic that belongs to the reader. The races are the drug, the reader is the junky, and you ain't slip'n a junky some kind of other shit and not expect the reader to know this ain't the horse they expected to buy.

    And again, the sentiment is presented in terms that give one to believe that the stereotypical 5 races of Fantasyland and the typical setting in which they are found are the only pieces from which to pick, the only selection of Lego blocks within the box.

    And here you have presented a petitio principii fallacy. They must be used this way because this is what the reader knows and because this is what the reader knows, this is as it must be. The thesis and the proof are one and the same. It's circular.

    ---------------------

    My suggestion - as always in this particular flavor of question - is that the real issue at hand is sampling error and how that sampling error has invoked a set of very large blinkers. Broadening your reading and play well away from Highly Standardized Faux Medieval Northern Europe Inhabited by Humans, Elves, Orcs, Dwarves, and Halflingsā„¢ is the only way to break the cycle, or at least to present to you the idea that this template is not remotely the only one that can work, though derivation is a very strong force within the rivers of creation.

    And if the answer is "I don't like those kinds of books" or "those kinds of stories don't speak to me", then I argue that this was never a question on your part, not really, but only a declaration of why you take the stance you do, which is, in truth, also fine. I'm pretty damned immovable when it comes to certain things I do and/or don't include in my narratives, and some of that immobility goes directly against the grain of my sociodemographic cohort. My opinions on these things are rather in the minority these days among my peers, and that's all right. They may view what they do or don't like in my work through a moralistic lens, but I don't view their lack of engagement (if that's what they choose) through the same lens. Doing so is just the adult version of petulance.

    My writing credo is "Make your choices - Own their outcomes - Never ask permission".

    What's not all right is knowing that I am in the minority and then still expecting/demanding the majority to go with it anyway. I mean, I can want that or feel that I should be humored in that sentiment, but it's not going to align with the empirical rollout of events. Those who do not wish to read it or engage it have no obligation to do so, and that too is an ever-present factor in the creative process, one that doesn't need resolution, but acceptance.
     
    Last edited: Sep 23, 2020
  5. John Calligan

    John Calligan Contributor Contributor

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    Sometimes books are written for people new to the genre. Sometimes they are written for people heavily invested.

    People who read a lot of books, like BookTubers, reviewers, agents, and editors, might already be sick of tropes like elves and dwarves by the time they get to your book. The exceptions might be an agent who is specifically looking for books for new readers, because they know an editor that wants one, and BookTubers that are so enlightened that they can tell when a book is good, even if it isn't for them. "DNF 4-stars, this book is fine, but not for me."

    Agents and editors are even trickier because there are a lot of people writing fantasy who have only read the classics. Tolkien. Sword of Shanara. Whatever. They might have a harder time getting traditionally published because their prose might sound old fashion, but they still clog the pipes with books about elves and dwarves, so your writing game has to be even stronger to stand out if you use those tropes.

    The downside is that when you write that book, a lot of people will be happy to tell you "Simpsons did it," and call you silly for having tried. Your only choice is to write what you like, and if it finds an audience of people who like it, listen to those people instead of the haters (who will be the majority).

    Even if people complain about elves and dwarves, there is no Tolkien trope I've seen more than Ring Wraiths. Writers bend over backwards to try and reskin them, but I know a Ring Wraith when I see one lol.
     
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  6. Adrian Perron

    Adrian Perron New Member

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    I apologize. I guess the real question is more like "What is wrong with using these races? And if done so, what is wrong with the stereotype?"

    I am not trying to imply that the majority believes it is wrong, simply trying to understand the perspective of someone who discredits their use and to understand the fault in doing so. I understand they are rehashed and reused models all from the same production line but with minor custom changes to the interior. However to me the "rehashed and reused" term can be applied to almost every idea ever conceived for writing. In the end these are but small parts and they are a tool used to tell the tale, an object used to help implement the story.

    I don't believe that these standard 5 are the only ones that can work. If you wanted to create something all entirely different and alien you could do so and it would work just as well as any other. An elf evil overlord is the same as an orc evil overlord, the only difference is you changed one word. I am just having an issue understanding the negative mindset to using them. The familiarity is a draw to me rather then a cliche' rewording of someone else's work. That said I understand too that the readers opinion do matter in some degree and that if you write something wholly unpopular then its expected to do poorly, in this respect it would be my fragile confidence that takes the hit and does the most harm.

    Thank you for your post, it was quite... colorful. lol. I hope to hear more opinions and to better understand the negative aspects of such writing tropes.
     
  7. Wreybies

    Wreybies Thrice Retired Supporter Contributor

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    :-D I do occasionally wax magniloquent. Appy-poly-loggies. ;)

    To address the question concerning "what's the big deal with the continued reuse of these elements" question:

    Knowing that this setup has a clear point of origin, a known provenance, my thinking turns to a pet idea I call the "Betty Crocker Problem".

    You are tasked with baking a cake (writing a story) and you've seen the kind of cake you want to make. In fact, there's one already made sitting there on the counter. You want to make your own, but you have no recipe, no list of ingredients, no baking instructions. All you have to guide you is that cake someone else already made.

    How do you know which ingredients to use? And those ingredients, do you know their individual purposes, what they bring to the cake paradigm? Like, you may well have an idea that eggs will be involved, but how many, and the whole egg or just the white or maybe just the yoke? What if you have no eggs, is there something that can substitute? In order to know what can possibly substitute, one needs to know what the eggs do in the recipe, why they are there.

    Do you know what LotR was about? Not the surface story, not the ring and the hobbits and the trek, not Gollum, no Gandalf, etc. etc. etc. That's just the surface of people, places, and events. Tolkien most certainly had numerous things to say through his story. He was clearly a man who prized infinitely minute detail. He used that story to talk about the England of his day, the experiences that nearly shattered him in the war, the advent of industrialism, the changing face of British society and culture, to which he was witness. He chose his elements to speak about things that were personal and unique to him. There was an understood scaffolding underneath those 5 races, and the scaffolding fit the races as much as the races fit the scaffolding.

    And now those elements seem to live on past him, but no longer for the original purposes he chose, because those purposes were unique and personal to him. And still, though we are as different from Tolkien as a puppy is from a pogo-stick, there remains this tradition - a tradition I would argue is unique in modern literature - where his singular work has become a kind of go-to set of tools and elements for a whole genre. Fantasy's sister genre, Science Fiction, has nothing like it. Though the DUNE saga can be said to be the Science Fiction analogue of LotR, the genre of Science Fiction did not latch onto the elements of the story as genre-defining traits. There is no tradition of Arrakis analogues, or Fremen here, there, and everywhere scattered across the Science Fiction landscape. The Harkonnen do not live outside the realms of the Padishah Emperor, the Landsraad, or the Kwisatz Haderach in the way that Orcs managed to escape Middle Earth and emigrate to WoW, where they underwent a wild eugenics program, culminating in Thrall, who is a being I will never, ever, ever be able to engage as an Orc. I am too old to accept him. Thrall, under the right circumstances, is someone I might consider boning, and "boneable" is a word that should never, evah apply to an Orc. I remember too well and too strongly the days when Orcs were horrid, only lived in Middle Earth, and only belonged to Tolkien, no matter where he found them in mythology. I know where he found them and it doesn't change my mind in the slightest. When I was a kid, to speak of an Orc was to speak of LotR and absolutely nothing else, ever. Period.

    So, I think perhaps (perhaps!) the fixation on the 5 races is at least in part due to that unique, strange status of having become a kind of substitute definition for the genre, so it receives a good deal of scrutiny in a way other Fantasy elements do not.

    I would also argue that there comes a point where any archetype - and we are certainly discussing archetypes - either stop being relatable to modern culture, or become uncomfortable to contemporary culture.

    We enter the acidic, dicey realms of virtue signalling and P.C. thought. Gird thy loins.

    Take Orcs again as example. As a stout defender of the Orc homeland being firmly in Middle Earth, the change in Orcs over the past two decades has made them hard for me to engage. I remember when the point of an Orc was to talk about purpose twisted out of its true form. They had been elves before Melkor got his hands on them. And that narrative purpose made sense to me within the envelope of the story in which I found them.

    That is not what Orcs represent anymore. As they gradually became more and more human, they took on a new job. Now, they fill a roll that is still problematic to many - the Noble Savage. Every other representation of the Noble Savage that once populated literature became taboo as people realized that picking actual groups of humans for that roll is demeaning and reductive. But, the drive to talk about the Noble Savage remains, and doesn't that have a lot to say about us? So, the Orc, in storage and unused since Middle Earth, suddenly got retooled for that roll.

    "See, Noble Savages that don't insult anyone!"

    "Yeah... that's not better."
     
    Last edited: Sep 24, 2020
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  8. TheOtherPromise

    TheOtherPromise Senior Member

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    I don't think there's an issue in using the races and relying upon the general attributes associated with the race. The problem comes in when that is all they are. Especially when the human race has tons of diversity but all dwarves are just drunken miners/smiths.

    To me the differences between races should be treated like the differences between sexes or as different cultures. There are generalities that can hold true for the race as a whole, but not always so for the individuals.

    To me the standard fantasy races are part of what I like about fantasy so I'd hate it if the genre dropped them entirely, but there are better and worse ways to handle them.
     
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  9. Not the Territory

    Not the Territory Active Member

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    You have blown my mind, good sir.
     
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  10. Naomasa298

    Naomasa298 Contributor Contributor

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    I dunno... I rather like space elves.

    [​IMG]
     
  11. Azuresun

    Azuresun Senior Member

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    I think the first thing you need to ask yourself is: why not humans? I wouldn't recommend putting dwarves or elves in just because it's fantasy; instead ask what your nonhuman species are doing for the setting that couldn't be done by a human culture?

    If you do want to have non-human species in your fantasy world, then two things that always make my teeth itch are just doing them with superficial differences that are just there for the sake of being different (no, no my minotaurs are pirates!), or making everyone, essentially, into rubber forehead aliens who are pretty much just humans with funny hats (which I think is a side-effect of using the word "race"--it's meaning is closer to "ethnicity" than "species", so authors then shy away from saying that an "ethnicity" is inherently better or worse at anything for obvious reasons, and strain so much to make it clear that the differences are just cosmetic that you end up with an indistinct mass that might as well all be humans).

    I think the key to writing non-humans in general is to give them a logical place in the world that humans couldn't fill, and to actually think about how their different traits would make them see the world and develop a culture that a human would find at least a bit alien. For example, there was a fantasy webcomic I read years ago where an elf describes how elves don't really have a concept of "eternal love" or "soulmates". They're pretty much immortal and even if it takes centuries, they always get sick of any partner eventually. A very romantic thing in elf culture is if one partner dies early in a relationship before they get too jaded. It's just a footnote, but it did so much to convey how the elves see the world and how a simple detail like "they live a really long time" informed their psychology and culture.


    The archetypes are almost universal when it comes to creating nonhuman species. Take the "gruff-but-honourable warriors" and "long-lived and highly cultured snooty folk who often look down on humans as brash newcomers", and as well as fantasy dwarves and elves, you'll notice that also describes the Narn and Centauri of Babylon 5, the Klingons and Vulcans of Star Trek, the Elites and Prophets of Halo, or the Turians and Asari of Mass Effect. :)
     
  12. Naomasa298

    Naomasa298 Contributor Contributor

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    I'm talking about the pointy ears and figure-hugging clothes.
     
  13. peachalulu

    peachalulu Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I would say the problem is three fold. You're in a sub-category of fantasy. It's like Gothic romance - that's a sub category. So once you enter subcategories the tropes become tighter and more obvious. Your setting/time period puts restraints on what you're characters can do. Of course dwarves smith - someone's got to - but maybe in another era or another local (pyramids, deserts, jungles) maybe they'd be doing something else because changes in environment always changes what people do. You're focusing on the same occupations/social customs that everyone else does.
    I think if you wanted to shake it up look at different cultures and customs and different locations. Or even take note of the animal/mammal/insect world and use them for inspiration on how they interact. You don't have to completely abandon dwarfs, orc, etc but you could freshen up their motives, occupation and setting. Just take spiders for instance they literally create something in their body that they use to weave a web to entrap their food - there's nothing more fantasy-minded than that.
     
  14. Naomasa298

    Naomasa298 Contributor Contributor

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    There is a lot of fantasy that eschews the use of races altogether, and simply has all the characters as human, albeit humans who are very different from one another.

    Frank Herbert was quite good at creating different human cultures. The Fremen could have been dwarvcs in another setting, but they're not. They have their own culture surrounding water and so on. The Bene Gesserit could be elves, seeing as they have access to an unbroken line of memories of other Bene Gesserit, but they also have their own aims and culture with pseudo-religious trappings (which they do deliberately, despite knowing that they're not a religion). The Tleilaxu are only hinted at, but we see a little of them with Facedancers.

    The point is, whatever your races look like or are called, you can make them entirely unique even while retaining some of their religious features.

    BTW, I wouldn't say the depiction of elves in traditional high fantasy is particularly true to folklore. Traditionally, elves were pixie-like creatures with a penchant for spinning gold, stealing babies or helping poor old cobblers. Woodland archers aren't exactly what they were renown for.
     
  15. Bolu Kai

    Bolu Kai Member

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    I'll keep it short, but I think a lot of the problems that surround using the "stereotypical races" isn't the use of those specific races. Rather, I believe it's that people don't treat the races like individuals from a cultural POV. Moreover, you can have a story with a humans, but you still have to avoid the stereotypes that are attached to our races (i.e. caucasians, african americans, asians, and etc). I think we get lazy because we feel we can fall back on the already-established cultures from other fiction which then creates these stereotypes. Tolkien used races that have existed in mythology for centuries yet you will find many difference in his races from those in mythology. Tolkien wanted to create his own mythology for England. The question posed is no different than making a statement such as "There are too many stories with humans. Should we keep telling stories about humans?"

    In addition, I think the inclusion of those races is also based on that particular race's purpose in the narrative. If you write a fantasy novel and want to make a horse a dragon just to include a dragon, is there any real point in including the dragon? The dragon should have a purpose. If it's just a placeholder for a horse then use a horse. Don't litter your fantasy worlds with races that have no purpose in the story.

    Hopefully that logic makes sense! :supersmile:
     
  16. Bone2pick

    Bone2pick Prince of Typos Contributor

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    I know it's not central to the thread topic, but I prefer the theory that eternal love is even more valued among those who can live for millennia or more.
     
  17. IasminDragon

    IasminDragon New Member

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    Write what you like. But if you want the story to be engaging, every choice should in a way up the stakes. It's like other have said. There are nuances as to why elves and dwarves became the default. Those have been lost since the superficial appeal of movies and video games. If you must go with the stereotype, it has to be because it serves the story. People read for that, not for the existence of dwarves and elves, at least that's how I imagine.
     
  18. Lifeline

    Lifeline North of South. Contributor

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    :D I remember a girl (me, more than a few years back) who, as an adolescent, read everything I got my hands on that had the label 'elves'. Yes, I was immature, but I don't think I was the only one.
     
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