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Does Race Require a Lot of Thought?


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Jeeze, I never thought dealing with different races was that complicated!  Is this the way it is in all fantasy novels?  Do we really have to go into such detail as Hope from Story Embers does?  Is it like this in other novels?

 

"One question I got a week ago was about portraying races of people, especially in relation to fantasy worlds. What is a good way to keep them separate?

There are many ways to do this; the suggestions I have are just examples, not an exhaustive list:

Base them off real nationalities, or mix two real-world nationalities to create a unique nationality. Remember, you're writing about a people group and more goes into it than their physical appearance. There's culture, kinds of names, foods, who they worship and what they respect. The list goes on. Of course, when basing any fantasy race off a particular culture, make sure you don't go straight to stereotypes. Either add a twist or do your research. Slapping a fantasy name on a stereotyped culture is not the way to go.

Think about what makes cultures different and then twist that. For example, many online applications nowadays base race off the color of skin--a very specific aspect of physical appearance. Sanderson twists this just a little, using hair color as a sign of nationality and eye color as a sign of nobility. You can do the same, be it with appearance or something else altogether.

Creating languages isn't normally a route I'd choose. But if you have multiple races, then it's likely they speak different languages. Make sure you take that into consideration even if you don't actually sit down to write three other languages. Or give them unique dialects or phrases.

My advice is to find one distinctive thing. There will be more, I'm sure. Each nationality should have a whole culture behind it. The way they view the world and live their lives will be different to some degree. But find one thing to focus on.

It might be hair color. It might be a particular kind of amulet they wear. It might be the shape of their ears. Height. Eye color. A traditional garb. Skin tone. Unique dialect. Find one thing to focus on; the one thing the people of your world notice. And then show us the cultures through their eyes."

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16 minutes ago, suspensewriter said:

Jeeze, I never thought dealing with different races was that complicated!  Is this the way it is in all fantasy novels?  Do we really have to go into such detail as Hope from Story Embers does?  Is it like this in other novels?

... Good question. I don't think I have a good answer for you.

 

When it comes to developing different races for a story, they do need to be defined and distinguishable from each other. As to the types of details that Hope suggests, that depends on the races you're developing. For myself, I aim more at developing different cultures, but that's because I don't have elves or dwarves or other races in my stories. At the same time, developing these cultures has meant that I need to know what defines them from each other, if they have physical differences and what they are, history, religion, politics, etc. The aim with all this work is to be able to make the world feel real through the way people respond to things.

 

As to it being like this in other genres, it would definitely pay if you do your research. For example, there have been a few movies I've watched that were set in Africa and I watched them with disdain because the way certain things were depicted are just not the way they happen. As a South African, I appreciate stories that depict my land and people in a realistic way without over-dramatizing things and without ignoring the reality of what life here is like. 

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33 minutes ago, suspensewriter said:

Is it like this in other novels?

My family and I are deep into the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and I love how the different human "races" of Hylians, Gerudo and Sheikah are portrayed. The creators of the game seem to have followed the principles in this article.

 

Edited to add: there are physical differences, but they aren't based on skin colour, since every race has a wide variety of skin tones. They all have distinct cultures which come out in the way they live, the gods they worship, their architecture, artwork, family structure, clothing, and history.

Edited by EBraten
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1 hour ago, Claire Tucker said:

As to it being like this in other genres, it would definitely pay if you do your research. For example, there have been a few movies I've watched that were set in Africa and I watched them with disdain because the way certain things were depicted are just not the way they happen. As a South African, I appreciate stories that depict my land and people in a realistic way without over-dramatizing things and without ignoring the reality of what life here is like. 

 

Wow!  Good point, Claire!

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At the risk of being way too obvious, I think there are details that enhance a story, and there are details that burden it. In my opinion only, there are far too many writers and legions of editors who should know better, but who haven't yet grasped this bit of obviosity... (and I am seriously astonished that that last word was not flagged by the auto spell check...)

 

A writer like Tolkien spent his real life career immersed in ancient languages and cultures, and he loved them dearly. This let him show that deep love in his fiction. He could skillfully place lots of such detail into his stories, and make them interesting in spite of it. I believe this was a specialized skill of a master craftsman, developed after decades of immersion in the field; it was not just a technique to be imitated.

 

This is nowhere nearly as easy as it looks. Dumping vast piles of detail into one's work won't necessarily make the stories Tolkien-like. What they seem to create is Tolkien-parody, and boring parody, at that. We may forget that the appendices listed at the end of The Return of the King were longer than some other writers' complete novels. Tolkien included these as a courtesy, but was wise enough to know that even he had limits as to how much detail he could shoehorn-in to the actual story.

 

I think the lesson there is that a carefully planned story may have lots of cultural detail behind it, but that the author might want to be careful to share only a tiny fraction of it in the work, and only the portions that make the story visibly better. The rest are probably best left as a sort of plotting research, that the reader will never see, 

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8 hours ago, suspensewriter said:

Is this the way it is in all fantasy novels? 

 

There's an important concept in the fantasy genre (and science fiction) called worldbuilding. It can apply to other genres, too, but it basically boils down to creating a rich, realistic setting. Since the real world includes many different races and cultures, successful worldbuilding will do the same (unless there are very specific, restrictive storytelling circumstances). Now, how to do it successfully is tricky business. But I think it must be done.

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@Wes B, you have some excellent points. One of the things I adore about The Lord of the Rings is that there's a sense of vastness that's captured in it. And yes, Tolkien poured his life into crafting a mythology that spanned millennia, but he never info-dumped. Rather, he used his deep knowledge of his world to support the tale that he wrote and wove, as you said it, only the essential elements into the story.

6 hours ago, suspensewriter said:

To ask an obvious question, how does the average reader sit through this?

Great question. As a reader of fantasy, I adore the worldbuilding and exploring new places and cultures. But the key in writing these things is to weave those elements into the narrative so that the reader never sits through a grocery list of how things work. The key to achieving this is the classic "show, don't tell."

 

For example, I recently finished reading Anna and the King of Siam (the true story that inspired the musical The King and I). In it, Anna Leonowens is often confronted with differences between her way of doing things and with the Siamese culture. Rather than give us a thesis explaining the nuances of Siamese beliefs and customs, Margaret Landon (the author) explained the customs that affected Anna when they affected her. In this way, we come away with new knowledge of what life in the Siamese palace was like in the 1860s. Fantasy authors follow a similar approach: we work out what elements of the world are vital to the story and then craft ways of showing these elements through the narrative. This way, the reader never realizes they are being educated in proper customs for this culture or are learning the history of the land. It is also unlikely that they will ever see the full amount of worldbuilding or know the full history of the various races, but they will know what they need to know to enjoy and fully understand the story.

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5 hours ago, Claire Tucker said:

As a reader of fantasy, I adore the worldbuilding and exploring new places and cultures. But the key in writing these things is to weave those elements into the narrative so that the reader never sits through a grocery list of how things work. 

 Now that makes sense!

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There is no such thing as race, other than a social construct. It is a game the world created and Christians have fallen for, just like "woman's health," "inner city," and "underserved." It's also only for one species -- humans.

 

We are one species with a vast multitude of ethnic diversity. Even more ethnic than naming a continent deems some flavor on our "races." (Try to tell a Greek he is the same as an Albanian. Try to tell a Nigerian she is the same as an Egyptian. For that matter, try to tell a Philadelphian, he's the same thing as a Jersey Gal. If you ever do, DUCK!)

 

So, no we don't have to go into that much detail for race. Now, different answer for cultures. And completely different answer for different species, which really does happen in fantasy and SF.

 

The characters in my story -- stuffies/stuffed animals -- have cultural ethnicity from the families who adopted them. The differences don't come up much until the second book, and it's still a layer of the story, not a statement. (Philadelphia is diverse, therefore I couldn't picture "a typical Philadelphian." 😆) But they are a different species than humans. Because of that, they will never have to worry about high blood pressure, heart attacks, pregnancy, or pandemics. (They do need food to keep moving though.) But they are their own species. So are the dolls and the action figures, which is why it never dawned on them to rescue those species... (until later.)

 

I suspect if we get that much, it answers more questions in how to write than trying to figure out what race even means.

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I think a lot of people use the terms “race” and “ethnicity” interchangeably (in the real world—not sure about fantasy) but as @Spaulding said, that’s not really accurate.

 

However, though I’m no fantasy expert, I believe in a fantasy tale you actually often do have different “races”—wizards, elves, fairies, dwarfs, etc. So clearly and consistently indicating the physical/cultural/magical differences between them is important, or else readers will become hopelessly confused. But you certainly don’t want to write a tome...

 

If you’re using established fantasy “races” like the ones I mentioned above, perhaps it’s enough to simply say “So and so was a wizard,” unless there’s something about wizards in your world that makes them significantly different from wizards in the popular imagination...hope I’m still making sense...

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@Zee, I do wonder if fairies and elves are different species. (Seem different enough.) Wizards seem to be a different chromosome. (Judging from Merlin and Harry Potter.) I can't see elves and dwarves as the same species unless it's a lot like the sea iguana -- same genes as a "regular" iguana, but they did manage to survive their unexpected trip to the Galapagos, unlike the ones who didn't. And once there, they had to eat somehow and underwater gave them a good diet. So the elves and dwarfs separated for so long, they developed different attributes. (I'm more inclined to different species. ☺️)

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12 hours ago, Spaulding said:

@Zee, I do wonder if fairies and elves are different species. (Seem different enough.) Wizards seem to be a different chromosome. (Judging from Merlin and Harry Potter.) I can't see elves and dwarves as the same species unless it's a lot like the sea iguana -- same genes as a "regular" iguana, but they did manage to survive their unexpected trip to the Galapagos, unlike the ones who didn't. And once there, they had to eat somehow and underwater gave them a good diet. So the elves and dwarfs separated for so long, they developed different attributes. (I'm more inclined to different species. ☺️)

 

Tolkien wrote somewhere (one of his letters I think), that he saw his humans and elves as the same "species", sort of two sides of the same coin, so to speak. I believe he was writing this in reference to the fact that there are half-elven characters running around. I think I also remember him saying that his dwarves are a different species (which makes sense according to the worldbuilding stories of their creation). 

 

I think every author addresses this differently in their worldbuilding. In Star Trek, for instance, there's half-aliens everywhere you look, and no one's claiming them to be the same species as humans.

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On 10/20/2021 at 1:23 AM, Claire Tucker said:

It is also unlikely that they will ever see the full amount of worldbuilding or know the full history of the various races, but they will know what they need to know to enjoy and fully understand the story.

 

I feel like this is the bane of the fantasy writer's existence! Creating stuff you know won't ever see the light of day, so the stuff that does is sensible and has a feeling of depth.

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On 10/19/2021 at 8:52 PM, suspensewriter said:

To ask an obvious question, how does the average reader sit through this?

The obvious answer is they keep reading it if it's artfully represented, and they put the book down if it isn't.

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On 10/21/2021 at 11:41 AM, Spaulding said:

@Zee, I do wonder if fairies and elves are different species. (Seem different enough.) Wizards seem to be a different chromosome. (Judging from Merlin and Harry Potter.) I can't see elves and dwarves as the same species unless it's a lot like the sea iguana -- same genes as a "regular" iguana, but they did manage to survive their unexpected trip to the Galapagos, unlike the ones who didn't. And once there, they had to eat somehow and underwater gave them a good diet. So the elves and dwarfs separated for so long, they developed different attributes. (I'm more inclined to different species. ☺️)

 

Wow, you have really thought this through! Who knew that doing a deep dive into fantasy biology would raise so many interesting questions?

 

I suppose it really comes down to what kind of creation/origin story you decide on for the fantasy races in your world.

 

If I’m not mistaken, Tolkien had his elves originate in a different world and then move to this one, whereas the dwarfs sprang out of the ground of this world. But there could be many different ways of treating this...

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On 10/21/2021 at 11:57 PM, PenName said:

I feel like this is the bane of the fantasy writer's existence! Creating stuff you know won't ever see the light of day, so the stuff that does is sensible and has a feeling of depth.

 

I  just saw this comment, Claire.  How true it is!

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There is a whole set of "writers" who spend their time worldbuilding to the extreme-creating climates, countries, tradtions, and races all the way down to why their toenails turn green in the frost. 

 

And these tend to be set that never actually get down to writing. They are professional, full-time worldbuilders. 

 

I'm not knocking world building. It's necessary and, when done right, it creates a richness to the story that's unparralleled. There are details to fret over etc.

However, I'd say most successful writers don't take it to extremes, not that I've seen any way.

 

Otherwise, they'd never get anything done. 

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On 10/20/2021 at 7:39 AM, suspensewriter said:

In my writing, I never address the question of race.  It's curious to see that fantasy spends so much time on it.

Your writing addresses the question of robots. A "species" different from human yet acting in a human way. Writers explore difficult questions from a degree of separation. Your readers might get an education about treating others well no matter what even if you didn't think you were writing that!

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