Fantasy is great, ain’t it? Ain’t it grand? The wondrous escape that it provides to our desiring psyches, while at the same time (if done well) presenting viewpoints and/or troubles that we face and question in our own world in a thought-provoking manner, simply can’t be beat. So many, many, many (many many many) different fantasy tales have been written and told through the passing of the years, that it is truly impossible to keep track of them all. However, all follow a common thread or two—or five or six, depending on the author. This is all well and good; I mean, after all, there’s nothing new under the sun, right? But (there’s that word again) there is something—one of the threads I mentioned, if you will—that rather bugs me from time to time: The generic uses of certain fantasy races along with the “stereotypical” actions and attitudes thereof.
What do I mean, you ask? I mean that so many people who write fantasy often—not always, but often—conform the races that inhabit their worlds to the usual depiction. For instance, elves are likely hands-down the most often used race (besides humans) in fantasy tales. How many books have you read wherein the elves that were part of the story were physically superior to humans, so veeerrryyy much more beautiful and elegant than humans, and so much wiser and more skilled in magic than humans? More often than you can remember, I doubt not.
This is great for some stories, and even more than some if the story is still good enough, but when this becomes the norm, the allure of having a new race involved in your story is diminished almost at once. Just how many times are we gonna read the wise elf—always older than our protagonist (and more beautiful)—lecture and lecture about how violent and uncouth humans are, while simultaneously doing a backflip and firing four arrows off a longbow??!! This kind of thing gets repetitive, and done without or with little skill, it’s just downright annoying.
Obviously, it is no small thing to stand out and be separate from the crowd, yet this is what needs to happen more regularly in fantasy with regards to fantasy races. Now, there are some folks who have done some interesting things and broken off the beaten path; in my experience, it seems to be indies who do it most. To my most recent memory, author Michael J. Sullivan had what I thought was a most welcome original concept for the elves in his story. (I know that there are others, people, he’s just the one I could readily remember.) His elves were not as strong and beautiful as elves so often are, and they were, get this, slaves to the uncouth humans of the land for some time. A nice historical background that was. By the way, now might be a good spot to mention that it isn’t elves alone who fall victim to this problem. Dwarves, dragons, gnomes (meh), and, yes, even humans, have, and are still being, what I like to call fantasy-stereotyped. (That is now copyrighted. You can’t have it.)
My fellow authors, it is a struggle to be original, yet it is our lot to struggle to be as original as we can be nonetheless. You know, there was a time that I thought that fantasy writers should just ease up on using elves and dragons and dwarves for a while altogether. Give them a break and use humans or something else. Yet I have since progressed to the reality that, while it still might be a good idea to give these creatures (especially those pretty-pretty elves) a break, it is not necessarily necessary. Just use them originally. It doesn’t even have to be totally originally, just make them different somehow. Make their ears point downward instead of upward, give them dark skin (and not just so that it can make them an outcast/oddity to the other elves), make them mutate into four-foot tall frogs with rabbit ears whenever they eat the peanut-butter soup of our protagonist. Just do something different that will stand out to the reader. You don’t know how huge a favor you’ll be doing to your readers, and to all elves, dragons, dwarves, gnomes, and other victims of fantasy-stereotype out there.