Playing God: Fantasy World Creation and Race
Let me begin this short rant with a quick plug for my friend Derek’s posts on this website elsewhere.
He has a far more indepth and expert examination of fictitious worlds and creation than I could ever hope to achieve. Discussion about his own topics is what actually inspired me to scribble my own thoughts today. Specifically, I want to address world building in a general sense and possibly detail my own methods for creating fantastical worlds.
Fantasy fiction, I believe, poses one unique problem not truly present in any other genre of speculative fiction. To my knowledge, no other genre offers nearly as much possibility or limitless imagination primarily due to the audiences looser expectations towards the realities of the world. General fiction almost universally takes place on Earth with its implicit histories and social constructs. The most ‘world building’ an author is required for these stories is generating their main characters with believable histories and motivations.
One step further from general fiction is science fiction. But most Sci-fi is a speculative look at a future impacted by whatever technological advancement or theory spurred the idea for the author’s narrative. The world building is more substantive than just fabricating the main cast but requires the author to adapt and change her societies to this new dominant invention. However, once again, the general assumption is that advancement of life followed a remarkably similar thread to our own history.
Space operas and fantasy fiction, however, can take place on different planets or dimensions with truly unique and strange people or races. There is no assurance for the reader that the development of the society and structures to the point where the narrative occurs is anywhere close to something from our own lives. Star Wars, for example, has an entirely different history completely void of planet Earth and it could be reasonable to believe that the humans of that universe aren’t actually “humans” at all. Likewise, Middle Earth is truly a world far removed from our own with a past very different to anything we’ve ever experienced (even though Tolkien envisioned Middle Earth to be the lost mythological age of our own world).
This leaves a prominent issue for fantasy writers. How do you create a world that people can understand and relate to while still being believably fantastic? I mean, one of the huge draws for these worlds is that sense of wonder and exploration of visiting places far different from our own. We don’t want to recreate, verbatim, medieval Europe when we could just place our stories in medieval Europe. Tolkien is really the founding father of modern fantasy, so it’s no wonder that his approach is so widespread. Tolkien’s solution was to base the underpinnings of his world on real life mythology. Elves and dwarves were not raw creations of his imagination but legendary figures and beings from earlier cultures. By adopting these figures as real, he was able to shorthand a lot of his world’s creation by invoking those myths.
So successful was this method (coupled with his staggering detail in breathing life to his world) that most fantasy writers just shorthanded their own mythos from Tolkien himself. This perpetuating of the same ideals led to the common tropes of the genre: underground dwelling dwarves with big beards and bigger tempers, lofty elves of a dying or lost age removed from the petty squabbles of other nations and peoples, barbaric orcs obsessed with warfare and conquering and the rest of the lot. One could argue that Tolkien was too successful as fantasy stories became less and less about adopted medieval Europe and its superstitions and more about following the founding father’s exacting footsteps.
Which is a shame, since there are so many other nations, mythologies and legends that could be used as genesis instead. This leads me to my own D&D stories. They began as a simple thought experiment, “What would it be like if my friends and I were born in a universe like Dungeons and Dragons.” Course, obvious obstacles like copyright infringement and my own personal enjoyment for world building insured that this wouldn’t be indulgent fan fiction but a universe of my own. And as my collection of shorts grows and grows, I’m forced to consider the world they inhabit and the rules that govern them.
Some of these decisions were made early on. I knew I wanted to avoid the same old race wars common in generic fantasy. To address the over saturation of dwarves versus elves, I elected to remove race entirely. My envisioning of the race dynamic was to re-purpose the long beards and pointed ears that distinguished the fantasy peoples and instead dress the diverging elements more in cultural clothes and beliefs. Thus, my barbarian Orc is a large, dominating man that absolutely denies his ‘barbaric’ origins (Andre). Likewise, the peculiar half-elf Aliessa is rarely even mentioned as such for in my mind being called an elf is an insult and the powerful wizard commands far too much respect for such things.
But since race is more cultural than physical, it is really easy for the boundaries to be blurred or outright ignored. Most people seem to not care about where someone comes from and pointing out racial differences is really unnecessary unless it’s strictly for the plot. Which is nice that I don’t have to describe a new character as “the dwarf” with all its Tolkien trope baggage and instead I can focus on describing my characters as individuals first and foremost. But that element of race can always be brought up later if I decide it would make a compelling story. The mere presence of race, even if it isn’t a sticking point for most, lays the foundations for future conflicts if I so choose.
I have no idea where I was going with this so I’ll just wrap it up for now.