This is probably going to be a longer post (another part tomorrow, in other words, as I am lazy and have to go to class in an hour).
From “The Triumph of Time,” by Swinburne, also about a fantasy (he lost the woman he loved):
Yea, I know this well: were you once sealed mine,
Mine in the blood’s beat, mine in the breath,
Mixed into me as honey in wine,
Not time, that sayeth and gainsayeth,
Nor all strong things had severed us then;
Not wrath of gods, nor wisdom of men,
Nor all things earthly, nor all divine,
Nor joy nor sorrow, nor life nor death.
I’ve done rants on elves, dwarves, and dragons in the past, but I’m hoping this advice can also include fairies, goblins, unicorns, and so on.
1) Don’t make the non-humans exist only as foils or moral lessons for the humans.
If you were able to listen to my fantasy reading in the past, you might have heard something like this:
Book: “As SpunkyGirl Generic walked through the elven forest, she reflected on how sad their fading was…”
Book: “…and how short her own mortal life was…”
Limyaael: “Shut up!”
Book: “…and what the world would be like for humans without elves…”
Book: *thump* from being shut hard and tossed down on the couch.
If non-humans are only there to illuminate humans, as walking moral lessons or otherwise, then they’re there for the wrong reason. I’ve heard people accuse Tolkien of this, but one reason I think Tolkien’s Elves, Dwarves, and hobbits work where many pale imitations fail is that Tolkien gives his fantastic peoples histories that are not just reflections of human history, and often last for Ages without crossing human paths. Recall how the hobbits lived in the Shire without seeing humans for years and years. Elves had secret lands into which not just any random human was invited to gawk and lament. (The Rohirrim held a healthy fear of Galadriel, in fact).
Make your non-human races exist in their own right. If you asked them, would they really define themselves exclusively in terms of their relationship to humans?
2) Consider how their “special attributes” will affect them.
These “special attributes” are what people often think of as making non-human races different from humans. For dwarves, it’s height and beards. For elves, pointed ears and long lives. For dryads, great beauty and being bound to trees. And so on. They often break down into just a few simple traits, handy ticks on a list to remind the author’s audience that the human characters are interacting with people who aren’t.
And often enough, they’re useless, because the non-humans don’t actually let themselves be influenced by them. Elves act a little more slowly and patiently, and that’s all. Dwarves are uglier and shorter, and that’s all. Dryads die when humans cut down their trees, and that’s all.
Imagine what it would really be like to be able to fly, or to live for centuries, or to breathe fire. And then think about how it influences humans to walk on the ground, live just a few decades, and not have fiery breath. Given how much those things or lack of them sculpt our lives, wouldn’t different attributes and lacks sculpt non-humans’ lives as deeply? Elves should not be just long-lived humans, dwarves just short ones, dragons just flying and fire-breathing ones. Go beyond the physical, and ask how these “special attributes” would affect their mental and emotional worlds, too.
3) Don’t treat individual non-humans as tokens.
This is what happens when the author has a group of adventurers go on a quest, and there just happens to be one elf, one dwarf, one half-orc, and so on. Unless this is an actual diplomatic mission, or unless the characters are actually standing in as representatives for their respective races as they did in LOTR, then don’t do this. It encourages the author to funnel all of the non-humanity through that one character. The elf named Irronshin isn’t Irronshin; he’s Generic Elf. The dragon isn’t Scarletgem; she’s Irritable Dragon.
This is the reason that I enjoy reading books, and writing in worlds, where the interaction between humans and non-humans takes place from the non-human point of view, or the non-humans are dominant. This forces the author to move out of placing the humans at the center of the universe, and sometimes the humans are seen as the flat and generic ones, which is great fun.
4) Humans shouldn’t be able to do everything while the non-humans are limited to a tiny set or subset of skills.
Ever notice that human mages in fantasy books can freeze things, fling fireballs around, fly, lift mountains, heal wounds, and do anything else the author desires- while the elves are often limited to speaking to trees and animals? Why is that? Surely there is at least one obsessive human mage who concentrates on a particular hobby, while there’s at least one elf somewhere with a talent for destructive magic.
I think this is also a descendant of the D&D system, where the idea is that the other races’ advantages would overwhelm humans in gameplay, so humans are able to advance magically and physically while other races are strictly limited. It makes sense in a game. It doesn’t make much sense in a fantasy book except as authorial bias. If elves found themselves outclassed by human mages because the humans could fling fireballs around, wouldn’t they seek to match that ability, either by learning to fling fireballs themselves or finding something else that was just as powerful? Surely they wouldn’t sit back, bow their heads, and say, “Meep,” especially if the humans were threatening their homes and lives.
5) Careful on the “things-humans-were-not-meant-to-understand” shtick.
Surely you’ve read at least one of these scenes: The elf/dwarf/thingamafairybob goes all misty-eyed and “alien” and starts reciting riddles or prophecies or secrets that the human doesn’t understand. When the human asks about it, there comes only a haughty glance and some refusal to share “things a human was not meant to understand.” This is often followed by the elf/dwarf/thingamafairybob standing and walking off into the darkness, while the human is left behind to look at the fire and ponder the mysteries of life.
I have read these scenes carefully, and often taken the time to look back if the “secret” is revealed in another part of the story at its first revelation, and usually it still makes no sense. Some fantasy authors seem to feel it’s enough to dump mystical shit on the page, with no care for internal consistency.
If you absolutely must have a scene like this, there are two options I think work better:
a) Have the human unable to understand because he hasn’t shared fairythingamabob history and experiences. If he studied their history, he might understand.
b) Have it be something that seems understandable, if the hero only had one more clue. If this is a secret you plan to reveal later, you should be doing this anyway.
Just not mystical shit. The non-human races deserve to have their own coherent philosophies and perspectives, and not just airy babble to impress the humans (see point one).
6) Don’t have the feelings of non-humans towards humans be absolutely and utterly simplistic, unless they’re complemented by simplistic feelings on the human side.
I think this is related to the feeling (prevalent among fantasy authors) that the hero can make mistakes, but cannot have any objectionable attitudes, oh no that’s not possible. Thus fantasy heroes are very rarely racist towards, say, elves. If they are, it’s either, “Oh, elves killed my family, help!” and the hero finds out he’s wrong later in the story, at which point he changes his mind immediately and with no blame; or the racism turns out to be justified, and those elves really are evil. Meanwhile, any elves who hate humanity do so for the most irrational of reasons, and when they get to know one individual human well, they promptly forgive the whole race just as irrationally.
Try setting up some real conflict. Study the history of race relations on Earth, and it’s unlikely that you’ll find a situation where the realities are simple and clear-cut, and the emotions uncomplicated. Both sides have often had a part in whatever the current situation is. And meanwhile, there’s love, cultural borrowing, indifference, and personal animosity mixed into the middle of the “racial hatred.”
If there’s a war between humans and elves, let the humans bear some of the blame. And make the situation as murky as possible, not something that can be solved by the elves and humans suddenly seeing how great the other race is.
Definitely more tomorrow. I like non-human characters more than humans, and about 3/4 of all my viewpoint characters are non-human, so there’s more I want to say about them.