I think dwarves have a different set of problems than elves. They have characteristics that could make them different, but they’re rarely allowed to use them. I think this is the fault of people being over-enamored with elves.
1. If dwarves have technology, let them exploit it.
The only things dwarves ever seem to make are weapons, armor, and sometimes decorations that show up in other races’ houses. They are variously rumored to be engineers, sappers, and expert technology-users, but where are these inventions? Fantasy authors seem reluctant to show them.
This is squarely the fault of elf enamorment.
I think the same impulse that leads so many fantasists to depict elves as happy nature-worshipping Luddites makes them shy away from actually showing a race that uses and exploits technology. The escapist element of fantasy often includes a horror of the modern world, and post-apocalyptic stories, science fiction or fantasy, lay the blame squarely on machinery’s shoulders a lot of the time. All of which is fine and dandy, but if you’re going to portray dwarves as using technology to make up for their lack of magic, then show them using inventions not readily available to other races. I think the height of dwarf inventions I’ve seen in fantasy has been a kind of elevator, and other races are sometimes shown devising that, too. Why not let the dwarves have the escalator?
2. And what’s wrong with dwarves having magic, anyway?
Perhaps you really don’t want to write about technology or don’t have enough information to write accurately about it. All right, then. So what’s wrong with dwarves having magic? It seems to be “unnatural” in a lot of fantasies, but then, those fantasies also tend to rely on the usual suspects like magic wands and muttered incantations, which they say dwarves don’t have time enough to learn.
What about magic involving rocks, metals, or gems? Earth magic could be incredibly strong, if you think about it. Imagine a dwarf mage with the power to cause an earthquake if he got irritated, or to repair a fault in the earth if he was feeling benevolent. Perhaps dwarf dowsers could seek for metals and gems instead of water. They’d probably get incredibly rich doing so. Other possible forms of magic include mudslides, creating tunnels to use as escape routes (something a lot of nobles and royals in fantasy seem to have constant need of), causing volcanoes to erupt or preventing them from doing so, felling trees quickly by causing violence near their roots, and so on. It seems as though dwarf mages could either be very helpful or cause a lot of havoc, yet they’re doomed to sit in their caves and only come out when the authors want them to be gruff or something.
And that’s another thing.
3. Where are all the dwarves with more than one personality facet?
All dwarves are gruff (except for Peter Jackson’s Gimli, who’s just weird). Gruff and kindly, or gruff and dark, but gruff. I think the only author who gives some kind of variety to his dwarves while still maintaining the gruffness believably is Guy Gavriel Kay, in his Fionavar books. Tolkien has a little more variety in The Hobbit, but since Gimli is about the only dwarf we see in LOTR itself, I think people tend to pick him as the model for all dwarves.
The same thing applies to dwarves as to elves. Just as there have to be stupid elves somewhere (even if the more polite ones keep them locked up when guests come over), there have to be open dwarves, cowardly dwarves, whiny dwarves and dwarves with a ribald sense of humor somewhere. I think it could make a lot of difference, and help readers and authors move away from seeing dwarves as stock characters, to introduce that variety.
4. While we’re at it, what about female dwarves?
I’ve seen a very few of these in fantasy books, but mostly used for purposes of humor. Fantasy authors seem to follow Tolkien’s lead slavishly in this; he indicated that female dwarves were very rare and didn’t often leave home. (That was the main cause for the dwarf race’s fading, since they didn’t have enough children to keep their numbers up). If female dwarves look exactly like the men, they would probably be able to leave home and fight without detection or harm, or go on adventures the same way. And if they don’t look exactly like the men—as females of other fantasy races tend not to do—then it could be even more interesting.
Terry Pratchett uses the dwarves on the Discworld to make the point that dwarven courtship is very delicate; they have to find out exactly what sex the other dwarf is under all the chain mail. Dwarven society is also scandalized when female dwarves decide to start wearing lipstick and not drinking ale. It’s very funny, but it also provokes a wince when one moves to reading that from reading fantasy books with typical dwarves, and realizes how persistent the stock characterizations are that Pratchett is hitting.
5. To a dwarf, shortness would be normal.
Even more than comparisons of short-lived, quick-thinking humans to long-lived, slow-thinking elves, the comparisons between humans and dwarves show the anthrocentric viewpoint a lot of fantasy takes (even if it’s supposedly being told by someone of another race). Most fantasy humans cannot get over how short dwarves are. It’s supposedly cute in some way, or at least strange, and humans never seem to think about what they look like from the dwarven point of view.
In a world where members of different races have lived side by side for decades or centuries, it’s likely they would start noticing things about each other beyond height. If it’s a world where humans don’t often see elves or dwarves, then the strangeness might be more understandable, but still, try to concentrate on something else about dwarves beyond height.
6. Differentiating dwarves by culture is a good way to start differentiating them in other ways.
Just as elves seem to sit around wringing their hands or singing melancholy songs most of the time, dwarves seem to forge armor and weapons and fight [insert evil foe of the day here]. Yet surely there are other parts of their lives. If you’re writing a story with a dwarven character, why not include music, art, cooking, weapons training (something that doesn’t often show up either), teaching children, bargaining, or love affairs? Sometimes it seems as if humans are the only race in fantasy who have these.
The common counter to this idea is that showing dwarves or elves or any other fantasy race too closely would make them too human. Yet considering how often dwarves are stereotypes or short humans with beards, I think going after the culture and making it as strange as possible would a good place to start moving them into the other.
7. Dwarves would also have different standards of beauty.
Perhaps one of the reasons a lot of fantasy authors have a difficult time writing dwarves is that dwarves aren’t pretty like elves or dragons, at least according to the way fantasy readers have been taught to think. This is yet another thing that would change depending on the eyes the author sees through. If those eyes remain exclusively human, or exclusively the eyes of the “omniscient” author stuck in human mode, then yes, it’s likely that the supposed problem of ugliness will remain.
This might be purely personal, but I think there’s too much concentration on outward beauty in fantasy. The evil creatures are overwhelmingly ugly, the good characters overwhelmingly beautiful, and few if any are ordinary or average. If the humans and elves have to remain the epitome of beauty and the orcs or goblins have to remain the epitome of ugliness, then perhaps the dwarves could be the average. Or perhaps they can be beautiful in an entirely different way. Strength can be lovely, as well as slenderness. If dwarves are close to the stone, they might be beautiful in the way that mountains are, or the way that stone pillars are. Those aren’t even slender, but authors can rhapsodize on about them. Why not rhapsodize about dwarves once in a while, especially if you’re writing from inside them?
I still want to write a dwarf epic at some point, all from inside their heads, and if I do that, the humans are going to be the weird ones.