Why do fantasy races exist? To provide something different, the fantastical element, maybe. Although plenty of fantasy, such as Robert E Howard’s Conan, manages a fair amount of fantasy without non-human characters (but still manages to get in some comments about race). To shine a spotlight on a particular aspect of the human condition, even if they don’t look human? This allows races to function as a shorthand for a particular set of characteristics, and show their consequences or likely actions in any given situation.
But these aren’t really enough for me. Fantasy races in general tend to be the typical elf, dwarf, orc, dragon, troll etc etc, with little variation in what these are. There is the occasional setting that breaks away from this and makes something new, but by and large these races are quite often the same.
This wouldn’t be a problem, if there was some variety in character. But it very often isn’t. Elves are proud, aloof and astonishingly competent (when’s the last time you saw or read about a short, clumsy and personable elf?), dwarfs (or dwarves, depending on your linguistic bent) are bearded, stubborn, honourable and skilled craftsmen who have a peculiar dislike for swords. Orcs, although they have received a more varied treatment recently, are often senseless antagonists who love violence.
There is nothing inherently wrong with these presentations, but they seem to get trotted out for every single example of every race. Races become personalities, with very little variation apart from in the world of roleplaying, where players can and do come up with incredibly varied and convoluted backstories for their characters. But in the main body of fiction, racial characteristics come into play far too much.
This can be argued that there are national characteristics for human beings as well, but these aren’t determined by “race” but generally by culture. And most importantly, they aren’t universal. While we may have Brits that constantly talk about nothing but the weather and never grumble about anything, or Yanks who are loud and eat too much, neither of these define every UK or US citizen. So why should they define every member of the dwarven or elven races?
This way of thinking is damaging on more than one level in fantasy, as it creates expectations in the readers as well as the characters. It implies an essentialism that just doesn’t exist in the real world; people aren’t bad because they’re orcs, or good because they’re elves, they are good or bad because of what they do, the choices they make (despite the claims of authors like Howard and Lovecraft to the contrary). Ultimately, it’s because of the kind of person they are. Which is not down to an “essential nature” but a whole raft of factors from upbringing, to culture, to genetics, to life experiences etc etc. Getting out of thinking of race as a universal touchpoint for fantasy characters opens up many more avenues for thinking about heroes, villains (or not having villains at all), accomplices and back-up characters in original ways.
One springboard into doing this is thinking in terms of species rather than race. This means that certain physiological characteristics will hold true, but all personality traits are variable, depending on environment and upbringing. This set-up allows for a lot more variety in creating characters, and while cultures might be similar to those tropes we know already in fantasy, at least it allows some potential for characterisation beyond being the “stock” dwarf or elf.
I’ve been reworking the background for Mists of Albion with Hypersleeper recently; things had got rather staid and conflicting, so we’re trying to get some more unified themes into the setting and more solid basis to expand the world than the increasingly disparate setting we did have. One of the main things we want to do is reinvent perceptions of race so there are effectively no “races” as such within the world, just collections of particular characteristics that lean towards particular groups of behaviours or abilities. A given individual may have a certain number of these characteristics to a greater or lesser degree, but will never have a standard set. This will allow for a more fluid and varied conception of characters in the world, who will hopefully be better for it.