This is the fourth post in my worldbuilding series. If you’ve missed the earlier parts, you can find them here. If you’re already up to speed, then let’s get started!
We’ve spent some time thinking about the cosmological and physical nature of our new world, but if we’re going to have stories, we’re going to need people. Before we get to the specific cultures which populate our shiny new continents, we should spend some time thinking about the kinds of characters we want, and where we stand on one of the more contentious issues in fantasy literature: other races.
Speculative fiction authors populate their worlds with non-human sentient races for a number of reasons, in varying proportion. Non-humans can offer interesting perspectives on quintessential human issues — elves are long-lived or immortal, which allows us to reflect on our own fleeting lives — or open up interesting questions with which we do not have to directly contend — what is the nature of the soul for a magically-wrought golem? Some authors will use them because they arose logically or organically from the roots of their worldbuilding; some will use them because they are simply cool, or fun to write; some will use them simply because they are emblematic of a particular sub-genre, and would be conspicuous by their absence. This last reason may not seem as compelling as the others, but the trick with storytelling is not necessarily to make your own unique tools, but to use whichever you need to construct the best story. Each of those rules has an inverse, of course, which explains why an author would be reluctant to use a particular archetype. The sword cuts both ways.
So, how do we proceed? Let’s sketch out what we’re looking for — what feels right for this world — and then work backwards to the specifics. Given our cosmology, our sentient races should all be mortal, and none should be inherently — or at least unalterably — Good or Evil. I also want to avoid the trap of thinking of humanity as wonderfully diverse, while non-human cultures are monolithic. There should be a sense of history, of the ebb and flow of fate and fortune; there will be old grudges and obligations, acts of loyalty and vengeance. Now would also be a good time to think about the origin of life on the planet. Did our races evolve from a common ancestor? Are their paths entirely separate? There’s no definitive answer in our cosmology, although it’s likely that each culture would have its own variation on the creation myth. Let’s stick a pin in that, and come back to it in due course.
Getting down to specifics, let’s begin with humans. There will be a number of human cultures on our world, although I want to dodge the temptation to simply transplant real-world settings. Humans, then, live as long as we do, mature as we do, and generally possess the same emotional palette as us. It’s very likely that they outnumber the other races. I haven’t given any thought to technology yet, but we’ll get there — in the meantime, let’s simply assume that humans are inventive, restless, impulsive and valorous. There are exceptions, and different cultural groups will prize different sets of virtues, but that’s our big picture.
(A small tangent: there has been a debate recently about the conspicuous absence of real-world diversity in most fantasy stories. The argument, as I’ve heard it expressed, is that since western fantasy is rooted in Medieval Europe, we needn’t worry about ethnic, cultural or gender diversity or equality. Here’s the thing: we obviously draw inspiration from innumerable real-world settings when we write, and they all come with their own particular mix of progressive and regressive social conventions. That said, the integrity of your fantasy world — and your story — over-rules your dedication to any historical period. If you want to have an Arthurian court populated by racially-diverse knights, go for it; if you want your feudal society to have granted equal standing to men and women, that’s awesome. Don’t hide behind history to defend your worldbuilding, and don’t break the structure of your society in the name of diversity or equality; at the same time, don’t limit yourself to replicating real-world societies, or limit your ambition in the name of historical verisimilitude. It’s your world, and your call.)
To accompany our human cultures, I want to use some fantasy staples, quirked just so. Elves. Dwarves. Orcs. There may be others, but that’s enough for now, I think. In order to populate our world, we need to look at these races as they are typically represented, dig down beneath the tropes and the trappings, and try to discern a fundamental truth about these archetypes that opens up some new possibilities for storytelling. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with using off-the-shelf dwarves, if that’s what your story needs. I talked in a previous post about the dangers of predicating your worldbuilding on gimmicks. If playing it straight seems right to you — and you’ve spent enough time turning it over that you feel sure — then don’t overcomplicate things just because you feel you should.
Even as I wrote that last sentence, an odd thought occurred to me, so let’s follow it. As I said, we’re going to reconsider our classic fantasy races through the prism of their essential natures, rather than the trappings that we’ve come to associate with them over a century of fantasy fiction. When I think of dwarves, I think first of their boisterous, hard-partying, life-affirming natures; I think of beer and song, smoldering fires and roasting meat. Alternatively, elves seem to me to be somewhat detached, thoughtful, even ascetic. What would happen if we exaggerated those qualities just a little, and dialed down some other traditional associations by a degree or two?
This is what we get: deep in the lush forests, ancient trunks have been felled and fashioned into cavernous homes and meeting-halls. The air smells of smoke and sweat, and thrums with the sounds of life and laughter. These halls are the homes of the dwarves: raucous, much concerned with honor, myths and adventure, lovers of a simple life filled to over-flowing with pleasure. Think of Anglo-Saxon or Norse mead-halls, and the convivial, rough-hewn life within. Here, men and woman are equal, children are wild, and political power can generally be found in the hands of the person who can tell the best story, as well as lift the largest tankard. Outside, the walls are shrouded in ancient foliage and new trees; the aged halls are an integral part of the landscape. I think that they live in clans, wherein every resident of a given hall is a member of the same extended family; they leave only to trade, to earn their fame or fortune, or in search of husbands and wives.
By contrast, the elves are a cold, distant people. They live in small communities of spires and arches, high in the mountains where the air is clear. They are given to solitude and introspection, to philosophy and learning. Their pleasures are refined, and their language and customs are subtle and complex. They are long-lived, and there is no hurry; as a result, they look down upon the other races as riotous and intemperate. Their magic is more powerful and complex than the simple, everyday magic of the dwarves, and they understand it more fully than even the greatest human mage. Family connections mean very little to them — another product of a long life and isolationist nature — and they gather in large numbers to vote upon important issues. That happens rarely, and only in the most dire of circumstances, since it’s considered a serious matter to impinge upon the freedom of another elf.
So far, so good — we have interesting races who stand in opposition for real philosophical reasons. Neither of them, interestingly, care that much about human beings, since they are not inherently expansionist in the way that humans are. They are content to live in their communities, and let the humans go out and build sprawling cities and bustling ports.
There’s one more major race that I want to throw into the mix, but I’m not entirely sure how they’re going to fit in. I want a race of orcs, and I’m thinking of a small, nomadic, honor-bound culture which travels the grasslands, hunting on foot, living in accord with tradition. It needs a little more development, but it’s a place to start.
Next time, we’re going to get down to specifics, and start drawing some lines on our map.
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