On writing

Elves are out: In defence of elves … again

When I was a child what I knew of elves came from English books written for children—these tiny little creatures with green tunics and peaked green hats who sat under red and white toadstools and sewed. I was never sure what they were sewing. As a young child I adored these little creatures, but I got older and left all the ‘fairy’ stuff behind me. Elves were for kids.

I’m not sure where these images came from, because elves have been around in folklore for hundreds of years. In most tales they are human-sized and human-like, with some powers. It took Tolkien to breathe life back into the old-style elf with The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Suddenly elves were fashionable, and Tolkien’s depiction of elves as more beautiful and longer-living than humans was the accepted elf-standard —or stereotype, as many people now say.

I loved these elves. Give me a stunningly beautiful elf with power and talent, and have him/her struggle with some truly human emotions like friendship and moral right, and I’m hooked. If I thought I could get away with it I’d write a lot more elf stories myself.

But anything that’s fashionable eventually goes out of fashion. Elves are out.

If you’ve even got a whiff of an elf in your story, then your story is doomed. Or so popular opinion has it. They’re old hat. No-one wants to read about them any more. But … but. I want to read about them. Am I the only person in the world who wants to?

I don’t think so, no.

But they’re stereotyped. They’re always beautiful. They’re always haughty. They’re always arrogant.

So. Tolkien’s definition of Elves is what we have come to know and expect. It is what we, the writers, bring to our books that makes our elves special. And it’s not the fact that they’re elves, per se, that makes the stereotype, it’s how we round out, or don’t round out, the characters to make them complex, multi-dimensional people.

I don’t mind starting with the stereotype. I’ll read a book about a long-lived elf who considers his race slightly superior to humans as much as I’ll read a book about a stiff-upper-lip Englishman, or a post-traumatic stress disorder war veteran, or a hairdresser who minces around the salon and talks in a high voice. (Incidentally, I have a hairdresser like this. He’s got an elegant, graphic artist wife whom he absolutely adores and they have a two-year old son called Benji he can talk about for hours.)

All I care about is where the author takes it from there and how they make the character someone I care about.

The mincing hairdresser and the stiff-upper-lip Englishman have gone the way of elves. Out of fashion. The ptsd veteran will go the same way. It’s fashion.

Fashions come and fashions go, but they usually come around again.

I want more books about elves. Maybe I’ll just have to wait until the next generation of readers comes up. The ones who haven’t read about elves before (because they were unfashionable and they were too busy reading about their own fashionable creatures—vampires and werewolves) and look on them as something new.

Maybe, because they’re so out right now I should start writing a novel about elves. It takes a long time to create a book. By the time I’m up to the fifth draft elves might be fashionable again.

I’ve got lots of ideas.

In Defence of Elves, part 1.

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