Sunday, June 16, 2013

Elves: More than pointy ears and long lifespans

Look up 'elf' in a fantasy dictionary and you are likely to see Legolas, from the Lord of the Rings trilogy
If someone were to ask you to picture an elf, there's a good chance you would picture someone like the gentleman above: green clothing, pointy ears, nice hair, and a bow. Bonus points if you picture that elf in a forest. Elves have been a part of the fantasy genre for so long now that fantasy fans know what to expect from elves, so fantasy settings tend to gloss over them. Magic, trees, bows, ears, done. If a fantasy settings wants to create a race that will make fans sit up and take notice, they create something completely different, like D&D's Dragonborn or the Elder Scrolls' Khajiit and Argonians. World of Warcraft doesn't even have regular elves, perhaps because they thought that nobody would want to play an elf unless it was a "dark" elf or a "blood" elf.

I think that's a shame, because if you stop and think about elves for a moment, you might remember what made them so interesting in the first place. Creators should spend less time trying to come up with new and increasingly ridiculous races and perhaps spend some time thinking about how to make the classic races interesting again.

Lazy writers mention that an elf is a few centuries old without considering how this would change the elf's perspective. These centuries-old characters often behave exactly like a human of the same apparent age, which is especially irksome if they are interacting with a human character several times younger than they are. If an elf is 150 years old but looks like she is twenty-one, fifteen decades of life should have given the elf a different outlook than a twenty-one-year-old human would have.

I can think of two interesting ways a long lifespan might affect an elf's outlook and personality. One is that the elf has a long-term perspective as he/she considers the centuries available to him/her. This elf seeks to improve himself/herself and the world around him/her through learning, building, crafting, and art. He/she would be more like the Tolkien elves, accomplished in fine arts, learned in languages and magic, and extremely skilled at a trade. These elves live in magical cities of architectural wonder, wear shimmering clothing, and fight with inhuman grace.

He's not giving you a 'come hither' look. He's a wolfrider from Wendy and Richard Pini's ElfQuest. That's just his face.
The other possibility is that the elf sets aside the future entirely and lives in the present. This perspective would work well with elves' established affinity for nature and animals. When an elf lives in an ancient forest, one day blends into the next, so the elf is more concerned about where her next meal is coming from than composing sonnets. These elves would be more likely to live in simple houses in the forest, wearing leather clothing while hunting and tracking game animals and anyone foolish enough to encroach on their land.

And elf's appearance can be just as important as the elf's attitude in reinforcing that elves are more than just  beautiful people with light builds. Too often, lazy creators will give a character pointy ears and a skimpy costume and call it an elf. If you can give an alien a unique appearance, it can help reinforce that elves have unique cultures and perspectives. I know that pretty, sexy elves are more easily marketable, but if a company has the courage to make their elves look inhuman, even unsettling, it will make the elves memorable and interesting.
A Dunmer from the Elder Scrolls world, drawn by Minttu
One of the best examples for inhuman elves are the elves in Skyrim. They tend to have long faces, narrow, sharply slanted eyes with broad irises, extremely sharp cheekbones and brows, and long chins. You can't help but wonder what could be going on behind those alien eyes. It serves as a visual reminder that they see the world differently than a human would.

Giving elves their own look also opens up more variety in their faces, since they are not all generic, willowy, and good-looking. That allows each elf to be unique, with different attitudes and personalities. For instance, if the elves tend toward the more instinctual, moment-to-moment way of life, one elf might be aggressive and distrustful while another might be curious and observant.

I love elves, and I think they deserve better than what they've been getting in a lot of fantasy settings. With some thought and creativity, elves can make a setting deeper and more memorable. After all, fantasy is a place to interact with things we cannot interact with in the real world, and elves can be so much more than a figureto hang a cloak and a bow.

Do you have ideas for how to make elves an interesting part of a fantasy world? Have you seen elves done in a particularly creative way?

1 comment:

  1. You didn't address the most important question of all: since elves are hundreds of years old but still look gorgeous, does that make the women "melfs"?

    Seriously, though, very thought-provoking post.