Where does one start when it comes to an epic fantasy? Are races like elves, dwarves, orcs, and wizards fair game for modern fantasy?
Yes. You can write about anything you desire.
My first introduction to the “classic” fantasy races was Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it was continued in my younger days by other great writers. Growing up on a diet of elves and orcs, it was little wonder that I choose to feature them in my first book. I suspect that most authors begin by emulating their literary masters, but eventually you need to break away and find your own brand of storytelling. It’s difficult to find your voice when you’re playing in someone else’s sandbox.
Of course, Tolkien didn’t invent the myths of elves, trolls, and dwarves, but his novels brought them into the genre mainstream, and every one of us who follows afterward takes that legacy into account.
Like so much in life, there are cycles and every genre goes through such cycles. Ideas become overused, get musty, and then are rejected. Eventually, someone comes along and makes them fresh and new.
This approach – the fresh and new – is sometimes called elevation, and is one way of doing something new or unusual in the fantasy genre. Stories of the fantastic are so old that it is often difficult for a writer to do something unique in such well-worn territory. By elevating horses and reducing humans, Richard Adams employs elevation beautifully with rabbits in Watership Down and Tales From Watership Down. The rabbits have a complex social structure, politics, art, and even religion and myth. But both writers are using mundane creatures, not fantastic ones.
The irony is that the fantastic races - elves, dwarves, trolls, and the like - have sometimes become clichéd in fantastic literature. In dealing with his problem I have used elevation much as Adams had. Elevation helps to avoid a certain inertia when it comes to describing those races, that they have fairly firm boundaries in the mind as to what is a true elf, or dwarf, or troll considering the complexities of the new world in which they exist.
Elevation is not about the requirement to use new races, as Adams had, even though that is fun and exciting. Instead, it is about creating a given setting and without the extra baggage that comes with using the traditional fantasy cast.
For fans of the Harrow, the web site helps to provide much insight into the complexities of the races that inhabit the Harrow. As we progress together through the next two books, of course, more will be revealed.
So, just remember, it is just not another elf!