Thursday, October 6, 2016

The "Rules" of Fantasty

Posted by: CobraMisfit
I was chatting with my wife recently who, very innocently, asked, "Why are elves always described the same way?"

"What do you mean?"

"Pretty, pointy ears, one with nature. They're described the exact same way in almost all fantasy books. It's fantasy, after all. Why not make them ugly or urban?"

I had no answer.

Her question peeled the curtain back on some interesting "rules" that exist within Fantasy. For better or for worse, there are certain expectations that readers and authors bring to the table. Expectations that, for some reason, dictate that certain creatures must fit certain parameters.

Take Elves, for example. The idea of the creature is thousands of years old, yet ask the average person and I'll bet you a dollar to a donut they describe Tauriel. From RA Salvatore to Elf Quest to Lord of the Rings, elves are basically different shades of gray.

How about Orcs? Same thing. In Warhammer, the "Greenskins" look pretty darn similar to the Orcs of World of Warcraft.

Trolls? You betcha.

So how did this happen? How did authors of Fantasy, a genre that prides itself on creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, get boxed in with a standard description for imaginary creatures?

The short answer is, I don't know.

Maybe it started with Tolkien. The popularity of Middle Earth certainly revolutionized the fantasy world. So much so that future writers seemed to use his "templates". Orcs, Elves, Hobbits, Dwarves, etc, all seemed to explode onto the scene and, with only minor tweakings, they kinda' look the same today as they did almost a century ago. Open up a D&D or Shadowrun compendium and you'll see a lot of similarities to their Tolkien ancestors first published nearly 80 years ago.

Is he the father of these creatures? No. Maybe "Godfather" is a better title. But no matter what we call him, it's hard to argue that he didn't have a major, global impact with their dissemination. Video games, novels, comics, art, all seem to point back to him for their common ancestor.

But is that a good thing? Shouldn't we, as authors, break molds and challenge the status quo? Or do we fall into the same patterns because that's what we expect?

I know I certainly fell into that pattern. When I penned elves into my first book, they absolutely looked and smelled like the elves of Middle Earth. It didn't even cross my mind to shake things up. Here I had the freedom to do anything and I chose to go with what I knew. What was familiar.

And perhaps that's the point. Every so often an author comes along who revolutionizes our understanding of the Fantasy world* so much that their interpretation becomes the norm. And maybe that kind of impact is the motivation for us to keep writing, to keep creating. Because who knows, you might just find yourself the Godparent of a creation one day.

*Or any genre, for that matter.


Joshua Roots is a car enthusiast, beekeeper, and storyteller. He enjoys singing with his a cappella chorus, golf, and all facets of Sci-Fi/Fantasy. He's still waiting for his acceptance letter to Hogwarts and Rogue Squadron. He and his wife will talk your ear off about their bees if you let them.

His Urban Fantasy series, The Shifter Chronicles, is available wherever digital books are sold.

He thinks Tauriel is still the best elf.


  1. I think you'll find that the concepts of fairies and elves and other magical creatures traces wayyyy back to myth and legend in various locales. I agree that Tolkien and Peter Jackson have set forth a pretty compelling depiction!

  2. Speaking as a raving Elfquest fan for ages, I should point out that Elfquest does break one mold in that it actually has brown-skinned elves--the Sun Folk. Which were a major inspiration for my own heroine, after all. :) And elves that _aren't_ pale are still a rarity.

    Though yes, all of Elfquest's elves still qualify as pretty, most definitely.

    And as Veronica points out above, while Tolkien may well have dictated the modern mold for many fantasy races, he was in turn drawing on many mythic sources. The Daoine Sidhe, the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, the Alfar, etc., are all mythic archetypes that pre-date Tolkien. And mythologically speaking, all of these entities that we'd lump into the general category of 'elves' these days were, after all, often called the Fair Folk. Which argues against them being ugly. Freggin' dangerous, absolutely, and with perhaps a cold and inhuman edge to their beauty... but beautiful, regardless.

    It's easy to blame most modern depictions of elves on Tolkien, but there are older forces at play here too.


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