Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Fantasy Writers, If You're Just Changing Something's Name, Don't Bother

How many times have you been reading a book, and come across what sounds like a really unique fantasy race? They're mysterious, they seem to be powerful, and there are whispers about fallen empires and hidden civilizations that might provide a clue to the current plot. Maybe you start getting excited, wondering when the big reveal for the Gethredgi is going to happen. Then, when our heroes find themselves in the depths of a darkened forest, they're suddenly surrounded by strange, shadowy shapes. Then one of them steps forward... and it's just an elf.

Ears? Check. Strange instruments? Check. Perfect hair? Big check on that.
It doesn't just look like an elf, though... it's an elf through and through. Nature loving, aloof, unusual but alluring, etc., etc. Basically the only thing different is the name, and it turns out that all the smoke and mirrors about lost empires or shadowy rumors was just a trick to keep them off-screen long enough that the reader didn't realize your big lead up was to a copy-paste of the same creatures we've seen since Tolkien put his stamp on the genre.

This is a problem that a lot of fantasy writers run into. They want their world and setting to feel different and unique, but they don't want to stretch too far outside of the tropes established by Tolkien, Dungeons and Dragons, and other fantasy mainstays. Because yes these short, burly, bearded master craftsmen who live in the depths of the earth and tend to be warriors are still a thing... but we're calling them the Sha'an instead of dwarves. And these big brutes who like to fight, are hard to hurt, and have a lovely combination of green skin and tusks totally aren't orcs... they're, uh, the Miskai.

If you've ever found yourself doing this, I want you to slap yourself in the face. Hard. Now stop doing this, because you're not doing yourself or your work any favors.

The Name Isn't What Makes You Unique

Too often writers confuse changing the traditional name of something with actual innovation (note that this also applies to minor cosmetic changes, like giving your elves silvery hair, or making your dwarves gray-skinned). If you haven't actually gotten down under the skin of a story element and altered the way it works and functions, then you haven't actually made something new or unique. You've just stolen a car, spray-painted it a different color, and are now trying to tell us it's a different car.

What's worse is that nine times out of ten you're just going to piss off readers because you're essentially expecting them to treat these minor alterations as if they somehow get you away from the accepted mythology surrounding these creatures.

Make your orcs rum-running, dirtbike-riding anarchists, and NOW you've got our attention.
Interestingly, though, if you leave the names the same but change everything else, you'll find that you both have a whole new monster on your hands, and that your readers will be excited about it.

As an example, take vampires. There have been a lot of different versions of them over the years, and we've seen them re-invented time and time again. We've seen them portrayed as the undead, the strigoi, as shambling, zombie-like creatures, as carriers of a plague, as immortal beauties, and we've seen them as split-faced, whip-tongued monstrosities.

Any time there was a huge change in these creatures, they were still called vampires. Whether it was moving from a mystical to a biological explanation, taking them from monsters to sex symbols, or making them from beautiful creatures into hideous freaks, there were huge shifts in the mythology, weaknesses, strengths, powers, and even appearance of these creatures. But they were always called vampires as a way to deliberately play on audience expectations, which would then be subverted.

By changing superficial things, though, you're doing the opposite of that. You're promising your audience that your creatures, magic system, wizards, what have you, are totally different, but then giving them the same old same that they're used to.

Don't Be Afraid To Stay The Same (Or To Change)

Too often genre writers are overly concerned with uniqueness and originality in terms of the tropes they're using. While you should definitely think about those things, what's more important is the story you're telling, and the characters whose journey we're following. As I said back in Your Fantasy Novel Probably Sucks, and Professor Awesome's University Explains Why, everything about your setting is the backdrop against which your story is actually happening. So while unique cities, bizarre magic systems, or a ground-up re-imagining of fantasy race mainstays will be unique, they won't be the things that keep your readers reading.

They'll read for your story, and your story is (or at least should be) about characters.

So if you get too bogged-down in worrying that your elves are too Tolkien, or your demons are too Moorcock, and your rebellious princess just feels like punk rock Disney, take a moment, and ask the important question; are your characters compelling? And if you feel the answer is yes, ask if leaning on these other tropes weakens your story.

If it doesn't, don't give yourself an ulcer over trying to re-invent the wheel.

Because sure, if your orcs look just like the Uruk-hai, and your elves are master archers, some people are probably going to roll their eyes a bit. But if your characters are good, and your story is solid, people are more than happy to walk down a road that has a few familiar sign posts on it.

And if you really want to give them a different experience, don't just throw on a different coat of paint. Dig deep, and go nuts with it!

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing installment. If you have examples where a creator tried to seem new and different by just slapping some new labels onto existing tropes, and it really didn't work, leave them in the comments below! For more of my work, go check out my Vocal archive where I write about gaming, sexuality, geeky things, horror, and a ton of other stuff, too. To stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support me and my work, consider either Buying Me A Ko-Fi to leave a one-time tip, or consider joining The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, which is my bread-and-butter for making content just like this. Either way, there's a free book and my gratitude in it for you.


  1. Too the contrary, changing the name, demeanor, history of a world, and for them to turn out to be a type of elf etc. . .

    Actually sounds VERY interesting.

    In fact, I appreciate it quite a bit, and obviously a number of other people do as well, otherwise it wouldn't be a formula that actually works. . . and makes money. . .

    Neal Litherland, consider this, maybe the writer described elves in such a way in order to apply the reader into a more immersive experience from the point of view of the other characters in the story?

    If elves are indeed magical creatures/people who have a long forgotten history that is shrouded in deep arcane mystery, then the reader needs to understand it from that same perspective.

    I actually think its an amazing literary tool.

  2. No way. This article is absolutely spot on. Listen, I could care less if someone has elves in their story or lift dwarves whole cloth. That's ok. I like elves and dwarves. But nothing is more attention-seekingly sad and desperate than an author jumping up and down saying "look at how creative and special I am! I renamed everything in my story!" Pass. Not only is it downright pathetic, but the new names are probably annoying and stupid too. Let me guess: They've sprinkled in a couple 'y's and a half dozen apostrophes because it makes them sound "mysterious and unique". No, it makes them unpronounceable and I don't need to learn a new seven syllable word for elf.
    Nothing makes me toss a book aside faster than this garbage.

  3. Several Goobal in a Frimpt commenting how things seem like the Boulanga is meaningless word salad. Several Elves in a Legion commenting how things seem like the odyssey of Boulang is useful. It doesn't matter that there is no such word as 'elf', 'legion' or 'odyssey' in the Goobal language. There is in mine and those words convey a wealth of information to me.

  4. The only way I can see this "simple renaming" working, is this particular group of elves, or dwarves, or whatever the original template was, describes a "tribe" of these creatures. But then, on the literary side, this still requires the author apply some uniqueness, because as Neal has said, it's just another elf.

  5. So to use the spray painted car metaphor for a moment.

    Do I believe you brought a new car to the lot? No, but I might have questions about why you painted the car and what it new use you intend to put it too.

    Could the spray paint add something interesting to the finish that wasn't originally there? Sure, or it might just be ugly. That depends on the paint job, though I think we can call agree that spray paint isn't the proper paint yo change a car's color and a more finessed approach would create more practical and lasting change to the face of the car.

    Will I enjoy watching a spray painted car race, heck yeah! Granted, I'd have probably liked the journey of the car without the spray paint too.

    The point: if you like fantasy, you probably like elves, dwarves, and other D&D/Tolkien tropes. You probably enjoy watching them mash up in different formats. Personally, I overlook naming BS if you give me a compelling story, but I do think remaining something that's otherwise unchanged is a waste of time and energy.

  6. I loved the Jhereg (Stephen Brust) portrayal of elves: tall, hulking and aggressive and oppressive to other cultures. No fair skinned, lithe and easy going forest frolickers, Nope. These guys were 2 handed sword swinging, in your face enemies that got your attention by the dismembered corpses they left on the field.

  7. You have to put your own spin on things. My dwarves are dwarves, but the Iron Dwarves have a culture based on Holland and Germany and the Obsidian Dwarves are based on a mix of ancient Egyptian and Ottoman Turks. Readers need to know what is going on to get involved in a story, just tell them what they need to know so they can take certain things for granted and follow along as you explain more about your milieu.