Friday, May 30, 2014

FANTASY RACES

Very recently I got into a discussion with someone about fantasy races.  We all know the usual ones like elves and dwarves, and some are even aware of the more obscure or odd ones like Khajiit in Elder Scrolls, Draenei in World of Warcraft, or Kender in the D&D Dragonlance setting.

Alternate races are part of what makes fantasy feel more fantastic; like monsters and magic.  They aren't necessary, but they are a comfortable and common aspect to the genre.  Having a race other than humans allows the writer or game designer a chance to introduce different perspectives and abilities to the setting.

However, there are some who find these alternate races uncomfortably Caucasian.  Those elves look white, so do the gnomes, hobbits, dwarves, and other races.  Its terribly white out there!  Now, this isn't particularly a valid concern these days, with all kinds of shades and hues of races, but its still around in some settings.

Tolkien's elves were very pale and blonde in general, white in modern terminology.  Hobbits were, too.  Now, there's a good reason for that: he was writing an English epic, in the same lines as Beowulf or The Odyssey.  So the characters were all based on English types and mythology (along with some Norse themes).

But are fantasy races "too white?"  Does there need to be a change?

REACHING READERS
The person who I was discussing this with proposed that many women and minorities are turned off from fantasy and comic books because there aren't enough people that "look like them."  All those characters are white and I'm brown, I'll read something else, he claimed.

Now, in my experience, that's not the case.  I've met a lot of different sorts of gamers in several different states across the USA and not one of them brought this up.  In fact, I've only heard this complaint online and in specialty study classes at universities.  That doesn't make it untrue, its just not something I've run into.  If people have a problem with fantasy or comics, in my experience, its because they think the topics are childish and lame, not because they can't relate to the characters on a racial or ethnic level.

After all, I'm not able to lift a bus or fly through the air, I can't cast spells or slay dragons with a sword.  That sets me apart from these characters significantly more than their physical appearance.  And when it comes to physical appearance, I don't look like these guys:

Not like you or I
I'm a bit less pale than Legolas, but I'm not as pretty (nor do I have pointy ears), and I'm certainly not as ripped as Thor.  But somehow I'm able to see past that to the story, the characters, and the content and I'm confident that most other people are as well, unless ethnic appearance is the central concern of their lives.

But that's not to say there shouldn't be some thought along these lines.  Why should elves look like white people with pointy ears?

BUILDING THE PERFECT ELF
Creating or adopting a race for a fantasy realm should be more than just humans with different looks and abilities.  Dwarves ought to be more than simply short humans with the ability to see in the dark. When writing a fantasy race, the task is to create something different, a race that stands out and is distinct from ordinary humans.

woof.  There I said it.  Happy?
Physical appearance is the easy part; most typical fantasy races, and especially the unique ones, are quite distinct from humans.  Pointed ears, different stature and build, unique coloration, even fur, hooves, horns, or tails can play a part.  My Wolfen race in my fantasy setting is essentially wolf-people, like the movie monster (although not as scary looking).  Fur, ears, tail, wolf snout, and ditigigrade legs, they are an anthropomorphic race.  They don't look like white dudes.

In fact, none of my alternate races look like white people.  The humans in my world vary quite a bit in hue; the primary campaign and story setting so far (the kingdom of Morien) has humans that are more tanned in skin color with typically dark hair.  Other nations and areas have different typical coloration.  Elves aren't one brand either; some are tall and pale, some are shorter and very brown with even greenish hair.  Dwarves tend toward very dark and gray colors.  That's the easy part, as I said.

The hard part comes when you try to make them seem different.  Dwarves aren't just short humans with beards, their culture, worldview, and even their natures have to be distinct.  For my world, Dwarves are incredibly driven by work.  They long for work the way we long for a vacation; when they take time off from their primary job, they find other things to fix and improve.  For a dwarf, taking time off is shocking and even immoral, they would be ashamed to even consider it.  They sleep lightly and spend the rest of their day carving a bit more, improving a bit more, cleaning up a bit more.

Dwarven arts are influenced by their work and setting.  Dwarven voices are deep despite their small stature and resonate well with the rocks they tend to be around.  Their music is pitched to resonate off the surrounding land rather than for aesthetic pleasure; the result can be oddly atonal or dissonant, but

in its proper setting is moving and uplifting.  Dwarves do not dance, as they are heavy and squat, but they do have a sort of ritualized marching done in groups, like group folk dances.  The footfalls and movements are timed in rhythm and act as a sort of percussion effect which takes advantage again of echoes from the surroundings.

And then, there are other subgroups of Dwarves which are distinct from the main, familiar Mountain Dwarves of Morien - wild Dwarves in the Barbaric Wastes, Dvergar deep under the earth, and so on.  All are culturally shaped by their physical form, their surroundings, and their specific social and traditional values.

That's the kind of thing that starts to make the races become more distinct and unique.  Humans live short lives so they are affected by a need to act now.  Elves live centuries and are considerably more laid back and patient.  Wolven are very tribal and focused on survival as they tend to live in harsh, cold environments, but love song and poetry to the point of honoring a bard above a king.

By making the races more than just another group of humans with funny ears, you create a deeper, more 'immersive' world which pulls the reader in and helps them forget about the fact that they are reading and absorb the story.

DISTINCTION
This isn't easy; you have to seek ways to set these races apart.  Picking an aspect of human life and emphasizing it is one tool.  Looking at that races' work and surroundings is another.  Emphasizing some aspect of their physical appearance or form can help as well - wolves howl together in song, so Wolfen love music. Doing this takes time and thought, and while some find it a great deal of fun (such as myself) some find it very challenging.

And this task is made all the more challenging by the fact that you cannot make them too different, or they are so alien you have to spend too much of your story explaining the race. As a writer, the task is to create something somewhat familiar enough for readers to grasp quickly, but distinct enough to seem unique and set apart.

I can't find a decent optometrist
There was an old game system called Skyrealms of Jorune which took this concept very far.  They created a world filled with alien races and unique distinct cultures which was an amazing achievement.  The problem was it was so alien it didn't feel like fantasy any more but a very odd science fiction world.  The races and creatures were so different and so unique that players and customers had a hard time getting a handle on them.  There was nothing to grab on to, almost nothing familiar or comfortable to grasp and pull them in - no "hook" as some put it.

So you want your races to be unique enough that they seem different and interesting, but not so unique they are incomprehensible.  If you cannot get the interesting, unique parts of your fantasy races and creatures in a few paragraphs, you're probably going too far with the concept.  There's nothing wrong with having really bizarre and alien creatures, other than that you will be challenged to explain and show that to your readers without slouching into a biological or sociological textbook.

As for the human "racial" thing; you are probably better off not having ever race seem ethnically Caucasian just because it makes no sense; they are different races from human, why would they be just white people?  But at the same time, and for the same reason, why would they be Hispanic or African or Japanese people?

Elves aren't white Europeans, but they aren't Chinese, either.  They're elves.  And there's no need to force fantasy races into any human ethnic category, white or otherwise, no matter what some sociologist or racial theorist says about readers not finding someone that "looks like them."  I should expect none of your readers looks much like an elf to begin with.