An Elf is an Elf. Of Course. Of Course. Or is it?

I wrote previously about the advantages of single species settings. This week, I’ll take the opposing point and look at having many species. Obviously, once a writer has determined how many sentient races will exist in a setting, there are a variety of pros and cons. I’ll hit what I think are the highlights.

The first consideration is: what races?

By this, I mean, will traditional Earth species be used (drawn from folklore, legend, and myth)? Or will traditional fantasy races (dwarves, elves, orcs, etc.) be used? Or will they be entirely original races?

With the first two, there are some definite pros in that they’ll be immediately obvious to readers and won’t need major exposition about appearances, for instance. On the other hand, making them stand out can be more difficult. But, there are ways to do this. Consider Pratchett’s Elves, Rowling’s Goblins, Ilona Andrews’ vampires, Steven Brust’s “Elves” (Dragaerans), or Naomi Novik’s dragons.

In sci-fi at least, virtually all aliens are original to one degree or another. Sure there are bugs, cyborgs, robots, and catfolk in really broad terms, but nothing to the same degree as elves, dwarves, and halflings in fantasy. This obviously requires more time describing the species’ appearance initially.

Easily the most daunting thing about presenting a lot of races is developing cultures. We want developed cultures to know where characters in this new race are coming from. On the other hand, this need not be too daunting. After all, we do not need to create every race’s culture from the beginning. We can develop them as they appear in the story, at least beyond the window dressing role. Consider Star Wars and Star Trek. Based on the SW movies, what do we know about Wookiees, Ithorians (Hammerheads), Rodians, or Shistavanen wolfmen? These are four “core” SW races and we really don’t know anything about them until up to a decade or more after they appeared (many as window dressing or minor roles in the cantina scene). Likewise, from the show and movies, what do we know about Andorians, Gorn, or Rigellians until ST:TNG or Enterprise? Not much. Even Vulcans and Klingons are relatively undeveloped until later in the series. Additionally, I’m pretty certain Pratchett did not think, thirty years ago, about how he’d include orcs and igors in the Disc, but he did eventually.

There’s also another approach, one I’m exploring with my aspidochelone setting. Basically, this approach says there are potentially hundreds, thousands of races from a potentially infinite number of worlds. Therefore, there may several varieties of dwarves, elves, vampires, catfolk, ogres, etc. present, such that national culture overshadows any “racial” culture, particularly if said family of elves has been living in the area for many generations. Sure, some little traditions may remain, but if the community of immigrants (willing or accidental) was small then not much of the home culture may survive (look at strains of immigration to the U.S., particularly fourth generation or beyond). This also opens opportunities for multiple members of a race to display significantly different abilities and disabilities.

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