Elf, Man, Dwarf, Vampire, Warlock, Dragon, even Ghosts, are all fairly established alien or non-human races of the Fantasy genre. On the side of Science Fiction, however, we have races such as the Formics in Ender's Game, and the Wraith (among others) in Stargate. They're less common, but still there. Non-human races are quite the staple of speculative genres, many settings borrowing and reinventing concepts from each other. But it works.
Some of them, at least. Some simply fizzle out of memory; some you vaguely remember existing in said setting, but nothing more. Why is that? What makes an enduring fantasy race, or set of fantasy races? What keeps them in the general thought of the genre? To this day, there are whole accounts on Instagram dedicated to recreating the details of races such as Tolkien's elves, or dwarves in general. Likewise with vampires, and for dragons: everyone loves them.
What makes some races so enduring, and endlessly reusable in so many stories? How can races be reused without seeming stale or bland.
It goes beyond the aesthetic of the race. Just like with every trope and story archetype, it lies at the heart of the concept. By rehashing what you've seen before, you may evoke the same feelings and themes. To execute a race, or set of races well, you have to think about the concept, the heart, and the message of the race, regardless of if the race is one you're creating from scratch, or plugging into your story with your own twist.
(I ask your apologies in advance, these are all highly subjective and simplified)
What if? What if a race were given extreme power, majesty, and also extreme greed? (Dragons) What if a race were given extreme greed, not extreme power, but also extreme will? (Dwarves) What if a race were better at everything, and lived almost eternally as well? (Elves/some offshoots of fair folk) What if there were something above humans on the food chain? (Vampires)
These beginning questions more or less influence the behavior and general culture of the race you'll bring to life. Quirks, relationships, and spirit: the heart. For example, given their fallibility, but also their creativity and will, Dwarves would likely be closer to Man than, say, Elves, who are set apart by nature of being heavily better at everything. Elves could be most likely to fall prey to hubris. Or perhaps because they live apart from much of the outside world, they are less likely to notice the changes of it, the passing of time to signal their general fading. These are the effects of the concept the races have been written upon.
Everything (or most things) from their concept, to defining traits, to surface-level details (the way they forge and fashion their weapons, for example) should line up logically.
So the concept brings about the culture of the race. In a set of races (usually non-human cultures compared to the general culture of Man) comparison and conflict will occur, and this is where messages start to appear. These are what make non-human races mean something, a product of their best qualities, as well as their worst.
Messages may be intentional, or simply a byproduct of the quirks that have entered the races. Chances are, subtext and themes will appear that were not intentionally written. That happens. Often, it can be a good thing. It may even inspire someone to create their own version or offshoot of that race.
Plugging in the races:
There is nothing wrong with simply using the base aesthetic of common genre non-human races, particularly if they're not the focus of the narrative. However, if there is going to be commentary on, for example, dwarves and elves of the world being prejudiced against each other with no solid history, opposing cultures, or values in the least, it might be worth considering some extra time spent on what makes those races logical, believable, and distinct.
is a writer and self-dubbed professional daydreamer. Her work has appeared in Unpublished Magazine and Paper Crane Journal, among others. She is also a staff writer at Outlander Magazine.