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.

The Eagles: Beast or Race?

In the process of my current world build(s), I’ve been considering the questions of creatures and races. A few questions come to mind with both subjects. First, how many races? That one, I plan to address in greater detail later, so we’ll pass for now.

With creatures, that is beasts, animals, in fantasy and sci-fi we have to ask a few questions too.

Do we use Earth creatures?
This is the easiest way to discuss creatures. Everyone is familiar with the animals on Earth, or can easily become familiar with them. Assuming real Earth animals are used. Earth’s mythic and legendary beasts are also possible and familiar to many, of course, depending on how obscure the source the writer uses is. For instance, most readers are familiar with dragons and gryphons; but they are not familiar with delgeth and amarok. On the other hand, using Earth beasts on a secondary world can be problematic for suspension of disbelief. That said, fantasy has a tradition of accepting certain Earth beasts as standard (ex. horses, bears, rabbits, cats, dogs).

Original beasts, on the third hand, require a lot more work. In each case, the original creation needs appearance, ecology, feeding habits, mating habits, even psychology, depending on their role in the story. They can add a few layers of reality to the world, even a layer of uniqueness. Consider Rowling’s thestrals and pygmy puffs (even in an alternate primary world).

The other major, really important, question to ask is: where is the line between creature/beast and race?
This is a question that people have been asking since at least ancient Greece, perhaps even as far back as the prehistoric era. Numerous attempts have been made to answer the question. Reason was posited. Intellect was posited. The presence of a soul was posited. All were problematic. Certain beings also problematize the divide, such as werebeasts (ex. werewolves, werebears, werecows).

Personally, I’m not even all that sure where I place the dividing line. Intellect, possibly, but maybe not. Sentience (ability to feel), not as such. Creation of societies, maybe, but probably not. Communication, definitely not. I don’t think my decision to say, for instance, that pegasi are beasts and elves are a race is arbitrary, but I can’t exactly say why they are without finding flaws in the argument.

Other writers have this issue as well. Rowling is a great example. She writes of werewolves, for instance, as people, but includes them in a book of magical beasts. Likewise, her merfolk and centaurs demand to be classified by the magical government as beasts, not “people”, because they don’t want to be associated with humans. On the other hand, no one questions the place of house elves and goblins as “people”, even if they treat house elves as little better than beasts.