Tuesday, July 15, 2014

BUILDING THE PERFECT ELF

Arwen regretted all the chili she'd eaten
Fantasy fiction is recognized to have pretty much started with The Hobbit, published in 1937.  Before that there were fairy stories and imaginative tales, but the formalized "fantasy" really began with Tolkien's seminal work.

Since then, for almost 100 years, mountains of fantasy have been written, of all types.  As writers work on their ideas, some begin to strain against the borders of the genre, pushing it out to further and further frontiers.  Urban fantasy set in the modern time such as the Dresden Files, science fantasy where the world has magic but is set in an essentially technological era such as Star Wars, and more have been written.

Each time this happens, the definition of "fantasy" becomes more fluid and uncertain, and writers strive to be more creative and are inspired by what they are exposed to.  Yet there are still limits, boundaries beyond which you cease to be truly fantasy.  Where those boundaries exist and what they consist of  is a matter of speculation and debate, but everyone agrees at some point a book ceases to be fantasy if it abandons too much.

While its fun for the writer and the reader to reimagine the old fantasy tropes such as wizards and dwarves, some care has to be taken in order to keep the genre consistent and recognizable.  There's only so far you can go with "your version" of something before it stops being that thing entirely.  For the purposes of example, I'll use elves.

What is wrong with fan fic writers??
Elves are a pretty flexible concept.  Before The Lord of the Rings, elves were generally thought of as a type of faerie, little and cute.  But Norse elves were tall and even brutal, more human-like and often quite dangerous.  Sidhe in celtic mythology were very elfin in nature and all faerie types in that setting were tall, powerful, and dangerous.

Today, when you mention an elf, most think of beautiful people with pointed ears.  Yet even in that definition it varies.  How tall are they?  Tolkien's elves were quite tall, but D&D elves are shorter than men.  Tunnels and Trolls elves are green.  In Japanese fantasy, elves are often small as hobbits, with very long pointed ears, almost antennae.

As an author when you take a concept and bend it to your own conception, you have to be careful what you do with it.  If you go too far and are too wild with your redefinition, readers may become annoyed or confused.  Elves are understood to be a certain basic type; if you turn them into drooling three-headed monsters with wolf bodies, readers will not consider them elves at all.

I've written before about making races unique by culture and design, but there are some things to consider beyond that.  Anything you change in your world should be changed because it fits your vision and your story.  Changing things for the sake of being different, to defy convention, or to "deconstruct" the fantasy genre is less welcome in most cases.

Born to play an elf
As a writer your first responsibility is to your book, your story, and your craft.  But you still have a responsibility to your readers, to deliver something they appreciate and read, that will not betray basic presumptions and understandings of the genre or world, and that takes their interest seriously.

If all you want to do is write a mockery of fantasy or deconstruct the concept, or abandon everything that has previously been considered fantasy, you're not really writing in the genre at all any longer.  That's a book you can write, but you aren't writing a fantasy novel.  You're writing a literary attack on the genre instead.

So there's always flexibility, and that will be welcomed by your readers.  But that flexibility has to be within certain broad, negotiable limits, and in the service of the story.  In the end, whatever your elf ends up being, it should still be recognizable as an elf.