Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
An elf and a dwarf walk into a dungeon. The elf is tall as the average human and beautiful beyond words and uses her bow to snipe enemy sentries out of reach in an expansive chamber. The dwarf is short, big-bellied, bearded man who’s an expert miner and is able to gauge how deep they are underground via dirt patterns. Also, the elf and the dwarf hate each other and bicker all the way in (and all the way out).
If you’re thinking, “That sounds like every fantasy book/movie/game I’ve ever read/watched/played,” congratulations, you’ve gotten the gist of what this essay is about, and if you weren’t thinking that, mind thinking it so that we don’t have any awkward hangups when you get left behind? Okay? Okay.
For the seven of you who haven’t heard of it, Goblin Slayer is a dark fantasy light novel series that inspired an anime in the fall of 2018 that kicked up a whole fuss within its first ten minutes of airing. I originally thought it was based on MMOs, but apparently it has more in line with Dungeon & Dragons, a game I have not once played a day in my life and likely never will unless I wake up to find myself strapped to a chair with the boardset in front of me, with my only hope of escape being to become a D&D god.
Being a fantasy of the dark variety, Goblin Slayer is rife with blood, violence, and that one rape scene, but it’s also lighthearted in some regards, such as how characters don’t have names, just titles reflecting their day job. Goblin Slayer’s called Goblin Slayer because his scenes go great with Slayer, Priestess’s called Priestess because she’s a good little girl who has yet to be exposed to the horrors of the world, and Cow Girl’s called Cow Girl ’cause she’s got huge tits. But strip these elements away and what you’re left with is a generic fantasy setting. Nothing wrong with that if that’s your cup of tea, but reading its depiction of elves and dwarves, I felt like I had seen this same song and dance before. Numerous times, in fact. Goblin Slayer only has the one elf character and the one dwarf character, but it goes out of its way to say all elves are tree-hugging hippies and that all dwarves are obese drunks who somehow haven’t gone extinct from black lung. Which is odd, considering humans in the series are also guild workers, farmers, one spearman, and so on. I had originally written this article to criticize this worldbuilding decision and the implications it has, but I realized there’s a lot of missed storytelling potential when you create a homogeneous race like the elves or the dwarves but stop there. It’s like if a shipwright built a luxury liner but then left it in port. A whole lot of good it’s doing. So, we’ll be unmooring this ship and taking it out on its maiden voyage, if you wanna keep to this metaphor for whatever reason, which I don’t, so I’m gonna abandon ship here and pretend I never made it.
Let’s start off with a little thought experiment, yeah? We type up a sci-fi space adventure book that follows an alien who goes by the name of Bob. He flies across the galaxy but then gets lost and has to land on a little-known planet called Earth to ask for directions. He enters a gas station where he meets a clerk named Charlie. Charlie is a grumpy human being who hates his job and dreams of striking it rich with millions but can’t be bothered to get off his lazy patootie to put in the effort. I imagine we’ve all met a Charlie in our lives. Some of us might even be Charlies. Now let’s just get straight to the point of this exercise and say that everybody on Earth is a Charlie. Every human being is a gas station attendant with a bad attitude. Every single last man, woman, and gender-fluid individual is a gas station attendant, has been a gas station attendant, or will have kids who will grow up to be a gas station attendant.
Sounds kinda dystopian, doesn’t it? Yet we subject fictional races to a similar treatment without a second thought. Now, ignoring the economic and cultural collapse that would surely ensue if such an uninspired civilization existed, what can we do with this type of setup? For instance, it could be used as a commentary of present human society. How often do you run in to someone who wants to be a famous actor or drive a Bugatti or have a killer bod? Compare that number to those who are famous actors or do drive Bugattis or have biceps that could stop the world with their magnificence. The ratio’s pretty skewed.
The advantage that comes with using one individual of a particular race or species is that it allows you to see firsthand the societal problems at large. If we just rely on an expo dump on how lazy and ambitionless humans are, without putting our boots on the ground with one of these lazy, ambitionless Charlies, we don’t have writing that’s that engaging. Getting up close and personal with Charlie allows us to see what conflicts, external and internal, prevent him from chasing his dreams and keep him waking up at 6:00 every morning to go to a job he can’t stand. And if you add in a few more Charlies, the audience will start to notice a trend with the world. Sprinkle in a few rich folks—we’ll call them Adam—who do reach for their dreams and do achieve them and you’ll be able to juxtapose what the Adams have that the Charlies don’t.
As I hinted at before, a world like this wouldn’t work, and if it did, it wouldn’t work very well, and you could possibly argue the same for a dwarven society whose sole economic powerhouse is the mining industry. I’m no economist, and I’m the farthest thing from educated on the topic of how a country strengthens and maintains its economy, but I think we can take a guess at what happens when an individual or an entire country has precisely one source of income and they lose that precisely one source of income. By going this route, we can deconstruct the faulty or tottering build of these economies or governments and maybe reassemble them into something that would function better. Imagine an isekai story where the protagonist, let’s call him Bob, meets a couple dwarves and they show him around their dwarven society. You’ve got dwarves in the mines, mineshafts everywhere, and carts coming up with loads and loads of diamonds. It’s all tremendously prosperous.
Then bam! Diamonds are worthless.
If I’m getting my point across well enough, such plotlines don’t need to be huge, in-depth ethnographic examinations of fictitious civilizations. They can be simple arcs in the stories we’re already enjoying. One where Bob sees what the dwarves have, what they lose as a result of their over-reliance on diamonds as an export, and helps them diversify their portfolio so that when future collapses of certain industries occur, the dwarves are good. Don’t ask me why Bob would be qualified for systemic reconstruction of foreign powers, but let’s leave the author to fill in that tiny detail, yeah?
The problem I originally had with homogeneous cultures like these is that they forget the individual. They create one elf or one dwarf and then copy and paste them across their entire civilization, which leaves no room for, say, a lawyer dwarf or a painter elf. This was the most apparent missed opportunity to me, but there’s a story to be had as well with an elf who wants to paint the trees burning in a culture that worships them as deities.
There’s this distinct distinction between the culture and the individual. The individual is not the culture, and the culture is not the individual, but we have to remember that they form and mold each other. If we gather a bunch of elves and they begin revering trees, succeeding generations will grow up revering trees. But if those elves revered rocks, the entire culture shifts.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but humans tend not to like other humans who are different, and it’s easy enough to carry these fallacies over to made-up races. Our tree-revering elves will deem any defamation of them as heresy. Our painter elf—let’s call her Alice—wants to paint trees that are on fire and dead and forming the shapes of demons, not because she hates them or she’s going through a rebellious phase, but because she thinks burning trees look cool and wants to express that. But because everybody in her culture would frown upon her artwork, perhaps even deem it criminal, she can’t be so open about it, not without risk of ostracization or a prison sentence. If, however, she had been born as a human or lived in another society where depictions of trees on fire was not only allowed it was encouraged on the grounds of artistic expression, she could sell her paintings to museums and tell and show her friends her works without legal or interpersonal repercussions. Granted, you don’t need to cook up entire fictional races to explore this theme, but I hope you can see the potential regardless. (And as a bonus story idea since I brought it up, study up on human fallacies and cognitive biases and then pick and choose which ones transfer to your own fictional race and see how the results play out.)
There’s this scene someways into the first volume of Goblin Slayer where the party’s exploring a subterranean temple-turned-goblin stronghold. Its layout is labyrinthine to them, so their dwarf member, using his knowledge of stonework, helps them navigate which turns lead to victory and which lead to chambers for torture and murder. This is great layering of a character’s talents beyond their primary use, but my problem with this is that this isn’t the dwarf using his abilities as an individual, it’s him using them as a dwarf.
“But if he isn’t a miner, he isn’t a dwarf.”
This argument is true to some extent. In their originating mythology, dwarves are tiny mountain dwellers who work their dayjobs chipping away in the mines and spend their downtime mining some more. But this argument breaks down when you consider elves, which historically has been a shorthand term for “I don’t not understand how this can happen, so an elf must have done it.” They were also midgets. It wasn’t until Tolkien came along and made elves the human-sized archers with a suspect fondness for trees that we have what’s practically become a staple of the fantasy genre. But those were his elves. Consider another type of elf: Santa’s elves. I’m sure you’ve noticed, but the arctic isn’t exactly an amazon up there, so Tolkien’s elves and Santa’s elves are related in name only. Essentially, they’re treated as two separate races. If Tolkien created elves for his own purposes, what’s stopping modern writers from doing the same?
In writing this, I’m fully aware of the fact that I’m probably the only person on Earth who cares to see old races remolded into something fresh, because I get tired of the same old and desire the variety of spice, and that most people either don’t mind races being reused or recycled or enjoy seeing the same race or movie monster or trope portrayed in the same manner again and again and again. The Game Theorists released a video some while back about how gamers, despite constantly demanding new, fresh IPs, in fact prefer to play the same type of game time and time again. In his writer’s book Write to Market, Chris Fox talks about the marketing tactic of discovering a starved genre or subgenre of story readers enjoy and writing a book of familiar tropes and plotlines belonging to that genre/subgenre, e.g., the indie sci-fi book Constitution is basically Battlestar Galatica. So in all likelihood, I’m just talking into the wind. Marooned in the middle of the ocean because I abandoned that ship metaphor in the fourth paragraph.
In conclusion, I’d like to say that I have nothing galvanizing to say. Taking inspiration from this article to write a 50,000 word fantasy novel about a dwarf who helps people get the most back in their tax returns isn’t going to appeal to hardcore dwarf fans, so your book’s gonna flop as a result, and I’d be to blame. I have no logical argument for urging you to be different, to try something new, and the only dagger I do have to fight with is that you should write different stories for the sake of being different. Not a compelling rationalization, is it?
But nothing good comes from somebody doing the same-old that produces middling results. Working your crappy minimum wage job and getting sparkly-eyed about that acting gig and expecting it to fall into your lap isn’t gonna turn you into the next A-list celebrity. When Ursula K. Le Guin first started the Earthsea Cycle, the fantasy market was saturated with stories of blond-haired white men waging battles of good vs. evil, and Le Guin subverted the good vs. evil narrative with a dark-skinned protagonist and cast. A bold move, and one that’s sold the series over three million copies and got it adapted into a movie I’m sure most anime fans would rather forget exists, including the author herself.
There’s an entire mantle of untouched ore to mine from and we keep choosing to dig up all the coal, when there’s a alexandrite vein two meters to the left. I get that different is bad and different is intolerable, but if we never try anything new, we’ll keep running in our hamster wheels, going nowhere and complaining how everything’s the same uninspired garbage.
So experiment a little. Make that dwarf an aristocrat’s butler or build that elven metropolis that has no regard for the wildlife that used to live there. Put a little more thought into the fictional worlds we build and the denizens who inhabit it. The thing about worldbuilding we should remember is that a world is made up of cultures, and a culture made up of a people, but a people is made up of individuals. And who knows? You might be the next Tolkien. Or your only readers will be your mother and all her old lady friends and you’ll remain stuck at your job as a gas station attendant.