When it comes to Fantasy writing, I have a number of rules. Maybe not rules, but red-flags. Things that, when I see them, let me know that I’m probably not going to enjoy the work.
1. No Fucking Elves.
This is my big number one. Now, what do I mean by that? I don’t mean it literally, that any story with an elf will be no good. But odds are high.
Why is that? Because, in my experience, it’s usually a cheat. People will have “elves” as a shortcut to avoid doing real worldbuilding and society creation work. Too many works just say “elf”, with the idea that it’s understood that said elves are forest-dwelling, bow-wielding, tall-and-graceful, long-lived ponces. Likewise with dwarves, trolls, gnomes, orcs– and to a lesser degree, werewolves and vampires. Using this stuff just makes it look like you’re cribbing off of Tolkien. Or worse, cribbing off of D&D.
And just renaming them something else… that doesn’t work for me either. I’ve had some writers tell me they have their X-race in the Forests and Y-race in the Mountains, and then in a low whisper say, “You know, my elves and dwarves”, like they KNOW they’re cheating, but they hope they are getting away with it.
Now, as with all things, it’s not the tools you use, it’s how you use them. Just like some people have mined vampires, werewolves and zombies recently to really interesting effect… I’m certain that elves… and dwarves, trolls, gnomes and orcs… could be used in a new and interesting way. Heck, Stan Nicholls’s trilogy of Orcs books has caught my attention. I haven’t read them yet, but I’m intrigued to see what he did there.
I’ve been going back and forth on that sort of thing. One one hand it is unoriginal. On the other, I think when you write a fantasy series, (and by that I mean in the sword and sorcery vein), it feels like a pink Christmas tree if you make up too many fantasy races whole-cloth. It becomes heroic sagas what GI Joe is to Saving Private Ryan. Of course, this also means making the figures LIKE their counterparts in questions. For instance, elves that worship spiders or winged trolls or whatever.
Of course, I also think fantasy should explore different traditions from Anglo-Saxon and Celtic stories. Like something in a nice slavic tradition.
Perhaps that’s part of the problem: some people expect fantasy to fit certain mold, and if it doesn’t, it’s a pink Christmas tree. I disagree, though. Take China Meiville, for example, who has crafted a fantasy world filled with its own fantastic creatures and rules of magic, and it totally blows the expectations of what fantasy is “supposed” to be out of the water.
(Sorry to be late to the party.)
It’s a useful archetype, which makes it overused. I mean, fiction’s full of archetypes: the mad scientist; the honorable sheriff; the whore with a heart of gold. These character types aren’t bad, except to the extent that they make a writer lazy.
I’d argue that the Elf (or the Cheerleader, or the Crooked Business Tycoon, etc) makes a useful template, in that it gives the reader a head start toward understanding that character. The real problem is where the writer just stops at the archetype. At that point, it’s just a cardboard cutout, and it robs the story of surprise or originality or suspense.
I think a big part of my feelings about this arise from my love of the short story form, where it’s almost a requirement to start with some familiar tropes in characters and settings so that you can save a few thousand words of exposition.
In any case, give me a cheerleader who knows it’s all just adolescent silliness, or an evil land developer who really thinks his development will improve the community, or a sheriff who drinks off-duty because his stern exterior is just a facade*, and then at least I’ll be entertained.
* I’ll admit, even these “twists” are becoming cliche.
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