Every fantasy novel worth its salt needs a couple of nonhuman species, but not every writer can pull off writing one. Here’s how to make sure your dwarves or elves seem real and human (even though they’re not).
If You’re Going For the Classic Fantasy Species, Do Your Homework
I’ve said it before and I will say it again: barring some truly bizarre stories, most fantasy is simply the same myths our ancestors used to explain the world, endlessly evolving throughout the years.
If you’re going to take one of those artifacts of fantasy in your story (elves, dwarves, demons – you know the drill), the best way to begin is to learn as much as you can about the history of those species in the fantasy genre.
Once you’ve picked out your classic fantasy species, read some of the previous authors who worked with that species. Find out which culture told stories about that species and look up the original myths. If your story has some weird explanations that are halfway based in reality, you’ll want to find those too.
You don’t necessarily have to use any of this in your fantasy story, but it’s a great way to gather ideas as you write your fantasy species. And it’ll help to fully understand what you’re writing about, and why it works.
Separating Species into “Good” and “Evil” Usually Doesn’t Work
A lot of fantasy with other humanoid species – usually either very old, very bad or both – attempts to separate the species into “good” and “evil” camps, with the assumption that every member of this species would adhere to that stereotype.
Elves and dwarves are good; orcs and trolls are evil. You know the drill. Only humans get to have any moral ambiguity unless they’re firmly in the “hero” camp.
Unless you’re J. R. R. Tolkien, this is generally a bad idea (and even J. R. R. Tolkien allowed his magical elves to be villains sometimes). A fantasy species can be antagonistic, but that’s not exactly the same as being evil.
Like any decent antagonist, an antagonistic species should have their own reasons for doing what they do. And the label “evil” shouldn’t necessarily apply to a whole species, even if it does apply to the society that controls that species. Individuals of any well-written fantasy species, like humans, should be individuals and not a monolith.
Remember That Nobody Thinks of Their Own Species as “Different”
One thing that can ruin the writing of a good fantasy species is when the author is too obviously writing it from the outside. They’re technically writing from the perspective of another species, but they can’t help but acknowledge how strange the world around them is.
The thing is, an individual of that species would probably never think of their own way of life as “other.”
No matter how bizarre the customs of a species may be – or their biology, or their history, or their weird brand of magic – that would be the norm for that species. And what’s normal to us would probably be weird for them. Try to keep this in mind as you write your fantasy species.
This may take a few drafts to get this right – at first, it’s downright impossible not to acknowledge how weird the other species is. If you can establish the worldbuilding of your fantasy story before you begin writing, or practice writing from the perspective of an individual from this species, this may help you get comfortable writing from their perspective.
Any fantasy series worth its salt need its weird humanoid species, but writing one is harder than it looks. As you do your writing and worldbuilding, you’ll want to pay attention to how you write other species and what makes it work.