In the fantasy genre the term Race has come to refer mostly to the species of the character in question. Whether they are elves, dwarves or orcs, these are understood to be “fantasy races”, intelligent creatures that live in your fantasy world. But the English term “race” has a lot of negative and potentially inflammatory associations. I will continue to use the term race throughout this article to talk about these differences, but I want to make it clear that technically what I’m talking about are better termed as species, genetics, ethnicity, or nationality, depending on the context. Okay, cool. Let’s move on.
Elf, dwarf, halfling, human. These fantasy races existed long before the lands of Middle Earth were conceptualized, but it wasn’t until the publishing of The Hobbit in 1937, and then the Lord of the Rings in 1954 and ‘55 that these races were presented together, in this particular style, that absolutely changed the face of fantasy. Prior to and contemporary to Tolkien’s works, there were authors like C. S. Lewis, Robert E. Howard, and H. P. Lovecraft who presented fantasy worlds with talking animals, lizardmen and aliens as their inhuman fare. These races remain common in fantasy as well, but nothing tops Tolkien’s Big Four in terms of frequency of use. We could speculate endlessly about why these stuck, but we probably wouldn’t get anywhere. Instead, let’s just acknowledge these four for what they are; classics. No one will ever call your setting inventive for having elves, but everyone you talk to about your setting will know right away what tone you’re trying to evoke and what types of characters they might see from your elven races. This might be part of why these are so common in tabletop RPGs, because these comfortable and familiar forms give players a solid ground to stand on as they develop their characters in an otherwise alien world.
So, if you want something easy and quick to feed your audience, these races are your fantasy bread and butter. But, there’s more to all of these races than Tolkien, they all have roots in ancient beliefs of real world people, and by acknowledging these roots you can deviate from the default in a way that still embraces the core aspects of these races. Let’s examine the origins of these races to understand what exactly an elf or a Hobbit is.
The word elf comes to us from the albiz or alp of Proto-Germanic mythology. These were envisioned in many different ways over the years but were primarily thought of as a sort of malevolent spirit or goblin that would frequently accost people while they slept. These attacks might include nightmares, vampiric blood sucking, or “wet-dreams”. Norse elves were markedly different, and were presented more as powerful beings similar to giants. Unfortunately very little of the Norse canon remains to us, and the sources we do have rarely expound on the exact nature of their alfar. It’s likely that Tolkien meant to conjure images of the Norse elf here, rather than the horrifying monster that is the alp. Most of his readers would be familiar with Norse mythology given that Bulfinch’s and similar anthologies were standard reading in English language schools at the time.
But, he may have also wanted to evoke the word alp in the sense of a goblin or fae-like creature. Certainly Tolkien’s elves have more in common with the faeries of English folklore than they do with vampiric night spirits. However, Tolkien may have been deliberately avoiding the term faerie or fae, which at the time had the connotation of being part of children’s “faerie stories” which were not considered respectable literature. By the early 1900s faeries had been reduced to pleasant little people who dance on toadstools, a far cry from their own mythological roots as wardens of the mysterious woodlands. Tolkien loved these faerie stories, and wrote extensive essays on the subject, but also understood that using the term faerie would appear rather childish to his audience. Regardless of what Tolkien’s exact reasoning was for choosing the term “elf”, in doing so he effectively wrote elves into the fantasy canon and spawned endless works that use the term in emulation of his vision of the Quenya.
Understanding this gives us a number of different options for any elves we design to give them some additional flare while remaining true to their roots. Your elves may be dream-eating night spirits, wise and ancient immortals, or mysterious forest sprites, all without modifying the core of what makes them elves. But, you also have an infinite number of options to consider beyond these more traditional elvish styles. In the 70 years since the publishing of Tolkien’s works, the popular interpretation of elves has shifted, with many authors discarding Tolkienian elvish immortality and bringing them more in line with the power level of humans. Another common trope now is the division of elven races based on an elemental system of some kind, or the environment they choose to live in. Terms like High Elf, Wood Elf and Dark Elf are common enough in fantasy to qualify as archetypes of their own. It’s clear to see that the concept of what makes an elf an elf is adaptable. The inherent wishy-washiness of the term allows you to make all sorts of changes, and as long as they remain humanoid, magical and long eared, most people will know what you’re getting at.
Dwarf, a little magical man associated with stone and mountains. These creatures have been a part of broad Germanic folklore for well over a thousand years, appearing in Old Norse, Old English and Old High German all with roughly the same basic form. Use of the plural dwarves instead of dwarfs was started by Tolkien to bring the word more in line with English words like wolf/wolves and of course, elf/elves. Reading older sources will show you that they consistently use dwarfs prior to 1937, and many dictionaries still list the original as the standard spelling.
In Scandinavian mythology dwarves, like elves, are immortal magical beings of comparable power at times to the gods. Famously, the greedy dwarf Fafnir became a poison breathing dragon to guard his horde of gold. Dwarves are often depicted as being greedy or at least very self-serving in these myths, while also being craftsmen or at least collectors of artifacts. In another myth, the dwarves Fjalar and Galar murder a man created by the gods and boil his blood with honey in a magical cauldron to make the “mead of poetry” which makes any drinker into a wise poet. In English folklore, dwarves are again, dream-like creatures who come in the night to cause nightmares. The Germans however tended to view dwarves as the Norse did, as little men of the mountains. The Germans were the first to make beards one of the defining characteristics of dwarves, and the Germans further expanded the canon of dwarves with stories like the Nubelungenlied which feature dwarves as prominent characters.
In modern times, dwarves are mostly defined by their iconic appearance. The beard, the stocky build with a barreled chest, and the often ornately crafted armor or clothing are all part of what makes a dwarf a dwarf by modern standards. Most people will expect your dwarves to live underground or in the mountains, but this expectation is slowly vanishing as people move toward more integrated settings where all the races live together. Craftsmanship has also persisted as a mark of the archetypal dwarf, and many dwarves in fantasy settings will be featured as smiths or masons, hearkening back to their roots in Norse mythology.
Dwarves are a great traditional fantasy race. They’re evocative without being over the top and fit in even in low-magic settings as an alternative to stock-standard humans. You can make them very mundane, essentially just a genetic offshoot of humanity, or you can make them wildly magical with shapeshifting powers, invisibility or the ability to craft magical wonders. Neither seems too out of tone for dwarves. And unlike other fantasy races, there aren’t really expectations for the role that a dwarf plays in a story (perhaps aside from “gruff”). A dwarf seems equally at home as a knight, a priest, a barbarian, or a hunter. Dwarves are basically the tofu of fantasy races, they readily absorb whatever sauce you decide to put on them. They will work with basically any world you throw them into, and you can spice them up and people will accept just about any odd detail you choose to give them. If your dwarves eat rocks people will roll with it. If your dwarves are all sailors and fishermen who live on floating sea-mountains, people will roll with it. If your dwarves turn into solid gold statues in the sun, people will just accept that fact, even though they would definitely raise some questions when presented humans with the same traits. Personally, I think if you were going to choose one fantasy race aside from humans to include in your world, dwarves are a strong contender for their versatility and simultaneous simplicity.
Halflings are sort of the odd man out here. Tolkien invented the word Hobbit himself, borrowing it from the Middle English hob or gob. Halfling was a “mannish” term for the hobbits in the stories and was used extensively by humans in the books when talking about them. But, when TSR decided to add hobbits to the list of standard races for Dungeons & Dragons, they were forced to use the more generic term halfling instead, because Tolkien and his estate actually own a trademark on the word Hobbit. Now the words are basically interchangeable in the general parlance of fantasy, but you’ll never see a published author with hobbits in their stories other than Tolkien and this is why.
Moreover, while tiny people who can easily hide or disappear are common in mythologies all over the world, the specific image of a halfling is certainly distinct enough that we can say that Tolkien “created” the idea, though he did so by iterating on well tread narrative ground. Unless you really reach, it’s hard to say directly where the concept of the halfling comes from. They could be partially based on leprechauns who have the same ability to hide from sight and the same stature, but halflings clearly lack the other magical abilities of leprechauns. Halfings strike me as being more similar to domestic spirits like brownies, tomte and kobolds: small local humanoids tied to homes and lands who are content to do house and fieldwork in return for offerings of dairy products and food. Regardless of their origins in mythology, the halflings of most fantasy settings today are most similar to their Tolkienian ancestor, the hobbit.
Because of this I think halflings are by far the weakest of what I consider Tolkien’s Big Four, and the most likely to be left behind in favor of other options. The problem with halflings is that they are often too specific to fit into a setting while remaining distinct. When does a halfling become a gnome? Or a Santa’s-workshop-style elf? If you tweak them too much they lose what makes them distinct, and they get lost in the malaise of mythology. This isn’t a problem, just a reminder that people will have expectations for your races based on the names you use for them, so be deliberate with the names you choose for your races.
Including halflings solidifies your place in the Tolkeinian/D&D realm of fantasy. If this is what you want for your setting, these guys are a big comfy and friendly flag to let people know what to expect. If you do make changes to their formula, make them subtle, or be a little more creative with your names for them to highlight the changes you make.
Humans are almost a given. We’re human, so we like to read stories about humans. We see ourselves in them, and their appearance in an unfamiliar fantasy world gives your audience some understanding to work from. You don’t need humans, but I would recommend including them in every setting unless you have a specific reason they can’t be there. The big exception seems to be stories like Watership Down and Redwall with anthropomorphized animals. I think that between the anthropomorphism, the cuteness of the animals, and the often still very down to earth settings of these types of stories, people can suspend their need to directly empathize with the characters by appearance. Other than this and a few other exceptions, humans are a crucial part of making fantasy worlds connect with the audience of your work.
Humans are often the most diverse ethnically of all the races in a fantasy setting. While elves may have a few varieties, humans will invariably have dozens of cultures in a fleshed out setting. This should extend to other races as well, and I encourage you to make all of your races at least as diverse as your humans, if not more so. The following sections will try to cover how wide the range of ethnic and genetic diversity can get, and while most of this will be spoken of in terms of humans, you should keep all your setting’s races in mind when it comes to developing independent ethno-cultural groups.
Mythological and Personalized Races
For many of us elves and dwarves will not suffice. Maybe you want even more variety, or maybe you want something with a different flavor than the blanket Germanic pseudo-history of Tolkien. Once you look beyond the familiar tropes of contemporary fantasy, the next place to look is at the original fantasies: myths. World mythology provides us an endless list of demi-humans all with a prewritten set of abilities and limitations. Reaching for mythological inspirations also allows you to quickly suggest huge amounts of information about the culture of your races without giving much more than their name. “Giant” might be the name of a generic fantasy race, but Jötunn suggests a Norse inspired culture, while names like Nephilim or Fomorian would suggest Hebrew or Celtic inspiration.
Using mythological races can help you define the scale of your world in a few easy steps. Consider these two lists of races from two theoretical settings; 1) Satyr, Dryad, Human, Cyclops, Centaur; and 2) Oni, Jötunn, Deva, Human, Menehune. The first setting has clearly defined its thematic scope as being set in fantasy Greece. The second setting is worldly, with cultures differing vastly from country to country. Both of these work, but for very different sorts of settings, and the familiar names help to quickly solidify the aesthetic and feel you want to portray.
There are too many different magical creatures that work well as alternate races for me to cover them all. Instead, I would suggest that if you plan to go down this route, that you read as much of your favorite world mythologies as you can. Especially try to find original sources, because you will often find very strange and evocative imagery that has not survived into the popular view of those myths. In some versions of the myth of Perseus and Medusa, the Pegasus is born from the neck stump of Medusa’s corpse after she is decapitated. This detail is often omitted in modern retellings in favor of the version of the myth where Perseus rides the Pegasus after receiving a magic saddle from Athena, which is much more heroic and quite a bit less gory. Details like this one are hidden throughout older and pre-Christian versions of myth, and I encourage you to go find them in your favorite mythologies. There are all sorts of strange monsters, magical races and odd rituals that our ancestors believed they shared the world with that would fit perfectly into your story.
Maybe even mythologies aren’t original enough for you, and you want something completely personalized to your specific world. In sci-fi, almost every writer that includes aliens feels obligated to do something new and inventive. I’d even argue that it’s a faux pas in modern sci-fi to copy someone else’s aliens; you have to at least change the names around or you might at worse be accused of plagiarism. In fantasy we’re a bit more lenient depending on the situation. You obviously can’t take someone’s original race that’s unique to their setting, but otherwise, and especially as it pertains to mythological reborrowings, it’s kind of the wild west. Dark elves are forever and inextricably linked to spiders and other insects thanks to D&D. Even though that specific detail came later than the mythological inspiration, it’s still stuck pretty hard in the modern consciousness, to the point that some people just can’t help themselves but add at least one drider. And, that’s fine, but it might be too simple for you.
So, you’re gonna make up your own fantasy race. My number one suggestion is; KISS, keep it stupid simple. When you present people with your homebrew fantasy race, I’d say you have about ten seconds to explain them before people’s eyes will start to glaze over in boredom. Your race must feel like it’s a fixture of your world that belongs and is firmly set there, and you have to give people this sense quickly. Develop an elevator pitch for your race, I’m serious. “These are the X, they live in Y and they Z.” That’s it, one long sentence and you have to be able to convey the basic spirit of your race or people will not give you the time of day.
Now, once that foundation is laid, go wild. People love to discover things in fantasy, it’s one of the perks of the genre. And, as long as people are bought in on your world and its characters, they will accept and even clamor for you to feed them the bread-crumbs leading into your “deeper” lore for the race. One of my favorite fantasy settings is Elder Scrolls for this exact reason. They have the stock standard fantasy races on the surface. But then as you dive deeper, they give you reasons to doubt everything you’ve been taught upfront. They set up a very simple world that satisfies your preconceptions, but once you start paying attention everything becomes a bizarre facade overlaying a lot of cosmic horror and confusing metaphysics. By structuring your races with a simple-up-front but a deep backstory, you will be able to maintain engagement with your world and stories much easier.
Remember not to info-dump unless you’ve got the investment from your audience to sustain interest in the information you are giving them. There’s a reason the villain always monologues right before their plan is complete, and not at the beginning or after. Before you’ve seen the villain’s plan in action you might not really care, and once he’s defeated it doesn’t really matter what he has to say. So the best moment for the dramatic monologue is right in that sweet spot where you care enough to give him the time. Info-dumps are exactly the same. And also much the same, they should usually be cut a little short at the end, just to keep people wanting more.
In some settings, creatures like goblins, orcs or vampires might be intrinsically evil. They have no choice in the matter and though they may have intelligence it will always be bent and twisted toward hatred and suffering. I don’t like this style of race in my settings because I like complex characters with good justifications for the things they do. Which isn’t to say you couldn’t develop a character like that for a race like this, but the overwhelming majority of your evil race’s members will have to be evil for the sake of being evil, and that just kind of rubs me the wrong way.
But, maybe it’s necessary for your setting, or you like having a henchman race your main characters can go around killing without remorse. In a fantasy world evil may be a literal cosmic force in the universe, and if that’s the case it’s not surprising that there would be evil creatures of some sort. You could pull the old “evil is a matter of perspective” card, with hive minded ant people or aliens. Their goals and morals may simply be beyond our understanding and lacking empathy for humanity. Vampires and similar “converted” evil races may struggle with their previous persona coming into conflict with their new nature.
Evil races are relatively common in both fantasy and historical belief. The demons of Christian mythology serve as the devil’s eyes, ears and hands in the world, inflicting curses and diseases on the living; and of course torturing the seas of the damned in hell. Orcs in Tolkien’s stories were evil creations of Morgoth who made them by torturing and corrupting elves into new twisted shapes. The 15th century concept of a witch or wizard was often accompanied by an infernal familiar or homunculus which they believed would have been granted by the devil. The semi-divine Erinyes or Furies of Greek myth, much like demons, were given the task of tormenting betrayers and murderers and thus were universally aggressive and unpleasant. The skinwalker or yee naaldlooshii of Navajo belief was an evil witch made into an animalistic shapeshifter by committing heinous acts like murder or necrophilia. Skinwalkers in particular are a great example of how to plausibly create an entirely evil race. Because all new members choose to become skinwalkers, they self select only for those people willing to sacrifice their humanity for power. Any of these “evil” races could easily be adapted into antagonists for your fantasy stories, and there are tons more examples out there of this trope being played out well.
Evil races can serve a purpose in your story. They can provide a morally black and white antagonist for your noble-bright setting. They can provide you an opportunity to explore inhuman intelligences in your stories and introduce moral quandaries for your readers to consider. Maybe you just chuckle at the idea of goblins being goofy little murder machines. Whatever your reason, I encourage you to think twice before making a race 100% evil. It’s easy enough to frame your enemies as evil regardless of whether they really are or not. Instead give your people vastly conflicting cultural values or goals, or pit them in a war against one another and allow tribalism to do its work of alienating them from one another. You will have more freedom as a worldbuilder to create characters atypical of their home culture if you aren’t grappling with this hard moral limit.
Culture and Ethnicity
So far I’ve been talking entirely about the species aspect of what constitutes a fantasy race. But the interesting aspects of these races are set much more in their culture and traditions. Culture covers every aspect of how a group of people live from how they eat, to what they find attractive, to what they believe and everything in between. An ethnicity is a group of people who identify with one another based on shared aspects of that culture. Each of your races can, and in my opinion really should, have several ethnic groups among them. How many of these exist will depend highly on the scope of your setting. If you plan to focus only on a small part of your world, or have a literally small world, there may be only a few ethnic groups who exist. In an Earth sized world it is very strange to not at least suggest that the world is as diverse as our own.
So this poses a conundrum, because we can’t feasibly build hundreds of unique cultures to populate our world with, instead we have to do a little worldbuilding smoke-and-mirrors to make everything seem a lot deeper than we actually have time to make it. If you have a small scope of focus, you do this by making the small part you focus on deep, and merely suggesting “there’s more out there”, to your audience. Harry Potter pulls this off very well. By giving a lot of focus to just one small part of the world for the whole series, we are led to presume that the larger world is just as filled with quirky creatures and people as the part of the world we’re familiar with. A few offhanded comments on foreign affairs or world history serve to remind us that there is a whole world still out there, even if we never see any of it directly.
On the other hand if you have a large scope, like a whole world, especially a “realistic” world, you have your work cut out for you. You still have to focus your attention on the stories you plan to be telling about your world, but in order to make each area feel unique you are going to be spread thin. My suggestion is to have a small number of ethnic-forefathers, a few progenitor races if you will, or at least ancient ancestors of your people. Develop this smaller number of ancestors and then imagine how they might change over time. As the years go by there will be wars and disasters that divide these people until they represent a larger number of ethnic groups. These new, smaller, groups will be similar to their parent culture, and will share some of these similarities with their neighbors, but can also be given unique traits that specifically align them with their new culture. This is essentially how ethnic diversity develops in the real world (with a lot of cut corners), and it will be an ongoing process at all times. Wherever you decide your “modern” era is, you pause that development and if you’ve done your job right the world will feel cohesive and complex. By simulating a history you’re introducing natural complexity while also producing the families of related cultures that we frequently see in the real world.
You will have to borrow some of your cultural cues from real life. Even if you staunchly plan for your people to be absolutely unique with their own incomparable culture, you will recreate the wheel, and ten months later you will learn about how so-and-so culture in real life does that already. Don’t “Simpsons did it,” your setting, borrow the things you find evocative about real world cultures, and if it still bothers you that you aren’t being “original” enough, just hide your work by obscuring your source culture under some unfamiliar aesthetics and terminology. Even as you shamelessly pillage history and your favorite media for ideas, also keep an eye on things you want to be unique about your setting. Your personal history and experiences can be just as rich a resource for worldbuilding as Wikipedia or another novel. You are looking to put something together from all these familiar pieces, and that end result will be the unique thing, not the steps you took to get there.
In real life, cultures are rarely distinct in the sense that there are no clear cut boundaries that divide, say, Portuguese culture from Spanish culture. If you were to map the cultures of the world, you would have to blend a lot of the edges to represent how culture bleeds across national and international borders, or at times simply ignores the borders set by nations entirely. While a few sharp divides exist in culture across certain borders in the real world, these are usually formed either physical impediments like mountains, or by military intervention that prevents the exchange of ideas. Otherwise, any groups living near each other will eventually adopt and borrow things from one another over the years until they begin to look similar. This is great for worldbuilding, because it gives you a good reason to blend your cultures and create some really inventive combinations. Think about how distinct Caribbean cultures are from any of the African, European or Native American cultures that they were formed from initially. But you can still see the similarities if you know where to look, like the ties between the spiritual practices of west Africa and the various vodoun religions. Cultural intermingling like this is very interesting, and goes a long way toward making your world feel like it’s constantly in the process of changing and developing.
The patterns of subsistence that we talked about in the last part will take you a long way toward forming the basic shape of your culture, including deciding what they eat, their social hierarchies, their population size and the way they organize their lands. But there are a myriad of other factors in culture like how they dress, speak and express their faith. These in turn will be influenced by their cultural neighbors, their oppressors, their environment and the twists and turns of history. Culture could be broken down into hundreds of different full length articles of its own, and it will be one of the biggest topics of discussion in this series going forward. For now, suffice to say, worldbuilding could be properly described as “culture-building” at least half the time.
Once you have hierarchical societies with the surplus resources to wage war, nations will begin to form. Unlike ethnicities which are defined by shared culture and beliefs, nationality is determined by a shared central power structure. Nationality can become at odds with ethnicity during times of war, when refugees and colonizers frequently find themselves in unfamiliar places, placing cultural and military pressures on one another. A shared power structure means some kind of government be it a monarchy, a democracy, a theocracy or whatever else you like. The government will implement taxes, levies and laws which will heavily impact the lives of the citizens in ways they cannot control.
With the birth of nationality and government, ethnicities may be promoted or marginalized based on who is favored by those in power. The decision to make a distinction based on genetics, religion or bloodline will lead to implicit bigotry within the power structures perpetuated thereafter. This sets the scene for culturally motivated violence and racism, which are unfortunate but consistent factors in the development of real world societies. For this reason, nations often find it productive to foster a shared cultural identity among its citizens, promoting internal cooperation and external suspicion. This is the reason that cultural boundaries are often most sharp at the borders between nations. Not because the people themselves are different, but because their power structures are encouraging differentiation between “our” population and “the other people”.
Additionally, if a nation becomes powerful or isolated, and remains free of outside conquests for a time they may develop a truly shared ethno-culture confined to their nation state. These situations are rare, and more likely to lead to further divisions into ever smaller groups, than to true harmony. Island nations and Empires in particular tend to develop a strong shared culture, at least within their “core” territories. Regardless of how united a society is, they will always experience periodic upheavals and schisms.
A strong shared identity can also be born from shared suffering. The unity born of a shared memory of oppression can be even stronger than the shared bond of an idyllic homeland. Communities in exodus or living through wartime must learn to help one another or perish. This fosters a strong sense of trust and communalism that might be lacking in more privileged societies that don’t rely the same safety net.
National boundaries are based on the geography and history of the surrounding areas, and they will shift to accommodate the changing political landscape. As empires rise and fall they will push at their borders and attempt to seek new lands. The native people will resist and the end result are borders that are either in constant motion or stabilize around a geographical element like a river or mountain range. The shifting of borders will contribute to the blurry divisions between the cultures as people on the border are forced to live in a nation-state to which they are not native, bringing their cultural practices and belief systems with them. Look at the border towns of the American southwest where bilingualism has become the norm, while food and music culture have also adapted a distinct Latin American flare. This comes in a part of the US that has historically had tensions surrounding immigration, illustrating that even out-and-out racism will not stop the exchange of culture across borders.
To put this all together, your steps are generally going to be this; Choose your races and their physical characteristics. Determine the environment they live in and how they sustain themselves. Then decide on the cultural inspirations you want to borrow and how you want to work them into your world. Establish the heartland cultures of your major empires and independent ethno-states, and then work outward creating new traditions through cultural diffusion. Remember to focus most of your efforts on the parts of the world you plan to actually use. Then finally, consider the nations of your world and their histories. How might conquests and changing borders affected the culture of the local areas? And how might this have an impact on the political situation going forward?
Once you have this outline for your race, revise things as necessary. Don’t be afraid to reevaluate decisions you made earlier with your new expanded view of the world. Maybe you have too many races, or too few. Or you don’t quite like how one of the cultures turned out in the end. These sorts of changes are easy to make now, but might be heart-wrenching later if you have to throw out a bunch of lore because you want to make changes. I encourage a good night’s sleep, or putting the setting down for a few days and coming back if you’re unsure about anything. I’ve often found that ideas I hated initially were great choices looking back, and I’ve just as often gone back to something and thought “How did I think this was a good idea?” Your mileage may vary, and sometimes you just have to put pen to paper and get the idea out, no matter what.