Writing Fantasy Races

Need a race of fantastic characters or creatures for your science fiction or fantasy story? There are some things you need to consider when creating a civilization.
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Any attempt to survey the multitude of races that exist in legend and imaginative literature is open to criticism of being incomplete in some areas and too inclusive in others. The obvious dilemma is the question of how one defines a “race” in fantastic literature and legend. In reference to humans, the term race is fraught with political and cultural implications; in general, it refers to similarities and differences in certain physical characteristics like skin color, facial form, or eye shape. Political and cultural affinity factor into the debate as well and are sometimes more important than an individual’s particular genetic heritage. But humans as a group are far more similar in appearance than the groups that populate the landscape of the imagination. Bushmen and Celts are virtually indistinguishable in comparison to the differences between merfolk and trolls. But just as with defining human races, there are considerations beyond the physical that enter into the issue. It’s not just a question of which arbitrary physical features to consider since the differences in these imaginative beings are long established; it’s really a question of what distinguishes a fantastic race from a fantastic creature.

The terms race and creature suggest differences, and one difference is in total population in a group. It’s easy to see that a unique being like the Hawaiian shark man is a creature and not a race. Or that rare beings like the rocs are creatures and do not constitute a race. But there is a qualitative difference between the way groups of beings, like elves and giant squids, are portrayed in fantastic stories that has to do with a metaphysical hierarchy. It’s not merely a question of humanoid shape; elves are obviously patterned on humans—often they are more diminutive and more beautiful than the average human—and giant squids are patterned on their smaller counterparts in the real animal kingdom, but what about the Yahoos and Houyhnhnms of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels? The Houyhnhnms, outwardly equine in shape, have a complex society and appreciate art and intellectual pursuits, whereas the Yahoos, outwardly human in shape, have no language and live in packs in the forest like wild dogs. Obviously, similarity to human shape is not the most important factor in determining the difference in race and creature.

As Gulliver’s Travels points out, we must not be too anthropomorphically bigoted when we determine where various groups rank on the Great Chain of Being in fantastic stories. Instead, we tend to be prejudiced by the nonphysical attributes and values of humans. For our purposes in this chapter—and this seems to hold generally true for the body of fantastic literature and legend—we define race using the following criteria:

  • Physical Similarity: This one is pretty obvious. Elves look like elves, dwarves like dwarves.
  • Population: It can’t be a unique being and still be called a member of a race. Now there can be exceptions to this; Tolkien, at the end of The Trilogy of the Ring, suggests that the fantastic races are slowly dying out and humans replacing them. A writer could create a scenario in which a being is the last of her kind, but the implication is that there once were many more.
  • Procreation: The ability to create offspring. This also implies gender, sexual relationships, children, and familial groups.
  • Reason: Call it intellect, intelligence, thought, rationality, sentience, awareness. Members of a race, by virtue of not being creatures or animals, are capable of forethought, of being motivated by needs and desires that are not purely physical.
  • Culture: Call it culture, call it society, call it politics. A culture is constituted of beings with common beliefs, values, traditions, art, and language—all things that involve needs separate from the purely physical and that arise from social and political relationships.

Of the five criteria, the latter two seem to be the most crucial in determining whether a fantastic being is a creature or a member of a race. To return to the example from Gulliver’s Travels, the Houyhnhnms clearly qualify as a race—one that embodies what we would normally consider to be all the best virtues of humans. The Yahoos, however human in appearance, are merely animals to be controlled and used for their brute strength as draft animals.

The technique that Swift employs, that of elevation, is one way of doing something new or unusual in the fantasy genre. Stories of the fantastic are so old that it is often difficult for a writer to do something unique in such well-worn territory. By elevating horses and reducing humans, Swift makes a striking social statement about human society. Richard Adams employs elevation beautifully with rabbits in Watership Down and Tales From Watership Down. The rabbits have a complex social structure, politics, art, and even religion and myth. But both writers are using mundane creatures, not fantastic ones. The irony is that the fantastic races—elves, dwarves, giants, and the like—have become morbidly clichéd in fantastic literature. Many writers have dealt with this problem by using elevation as Swift and Adams did, or by employing humor or parody. In some cases, writers have adapted fantastic races to fit into contemporary or science fiction settings. Other times writers adapt an existing legendary race into a new race.

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