Mar 22 2012

The “My Dwarves Are Different!” Trap

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(Apologies to my long-suffering beta readers, who’ve probably seen more than they care to on this subject already!)

With some linguistic foundations in place, and using the materials I’d already prepared for the game before my detour into Elvish, I’m ready to start actually populating this setting with stories.

The first thing that comes to mind is reviving my “homecoming hobbit” story, and in fact the character (“Not-Dead” Darby Sandalthorn) features prominently in the background material of the setting-as-campaign-backdrop. I fully intend to start writing stories about this character in the upcoming months, possibly to post here, definitely with the intention of gathering into a book of “Jack the Giant-Killer”-style tales. (The one big sticker there is: do I use the premises for RPG scenarios first and then write the stories, or just write ’em, knowing that my players will read them and that I therefore can’t use them for RPG scenarios? That remains to be seen.)

However, I’ve also been making an effort to look at the setting as more than just a backdrop for my displaced halfling and a weekly D&D game. I’ve tried to make this a setting that would support both big stories and small ones, depending on the kind of story I want to tell. I have at least one very, very epic tale in mind that makes poor little Darby look like a pebble on the beach of time, which could also fit nicely in this setting, but that requires a lot more meat to be put on the setting’s bones.

To that end, as I’ve worked I’ve tried to keep one eye on the big picture, while sketching in all the little details about where Darby lives. And I also cannot ignore certain realities of both the culture we live in, and the fantasy market, and keep these things in my mind as well.

First of all, there’s a lot of fantasy out there. And not just that, there’s a lot of what for lack of a better term I’ll call “Tolkienian” fantasy, and as I’ve mentioned before, this is something I’m going to just have to get comfortable worth to make the story work. Darby Sandalthorn’s world has elves and dwarves and hobbits and goblins in it. It just does. Without those things, it would be a different world. There are some surface differences… my version of Elvish instead of Quenya or Sindarin, dwarves who have dark skin instead of pale, etc., but as settings go, at least on the surface, it’s pretty generic.

I thought about trying to come up with ways to address this, but in the end they all came down to what I call the “My dwarves are different!” problem. A lot of fantasy settings—gaming settings in particular, but fiction settings as well— take the standard tropes of fantasy and tweak them around a bit, then sit back and seem very proud of how “fresh and original” their setting is.

“My dwarves are different! They have blue skin and long noses!” “You call that different? My dwarves are really different! They’re lithophages who subsist on rocks and have diamonds for eyes!” “Oh yeah? Well my dwarves are even more different: they are all genetically-identical close who reproduce by mitosis!” etc., ad nauseam.

I… don’t want to mess with that. First of all, it’s the fantasy equivalent of giving every planet a different forehead and calling them aliens. Second, the only reason to use a literary trope is to take advantage of the tools that trope provides for you. If you don’t have any real use for the trope, don’t bother with it at all. So where I’ve diverged from the “generic,” so to speak, I’ve done so for specific purposes.

Does this mean my setting will be on the plain side? Possibly. But it’s also important to remember that the setting is not the story. I could come up with the most elaborate, finely-detailed byzantine clockwork of a setting, but nobody would give a damn if there wasn’t something interesting happening there. The setting is like the backdrop of a stage: it’s there to provide a context for the play, and can add all kinds of depth and beauty if done well, but it is not the play itself.

The one major exception, and admittedly an ironic one, is the !hobbits. Hobbits and the Shire (or an approximation thereof) are part of the core conception of this setting, and yet they’re the specific creation of Professor Tolkien’s and the one thing I can’t simply lift and use without lawsuit-proofing them first. Elves, dwarves, heck even powerful-but-cursed magic rings all have classical antecedents. And while folklore is chock-o-block with “little people” from gnomes to puckwudgies to the Tuatha dé Danann, none of them are hobbits and hobbits are not them, if only by virtue of not being faerie.

Of course, “halflings” have been somewhat genericized, thanks to RPGs, Willow, and the like. So I can (and will) use them without too much fear, but I have to find a way to make them mine first. This leads to the tricky task of figuring out how to adopt/adapt/assimilate them into my work without losing the core aspects that made me want to use them in the first place.

My halflings are different! They’re lithophages who subsist on rocks and have diamonds for eyes!

Hmm… no.

For now, as least for a working model, I’m sticking with fairly generic halflings. The main ideas I’m playing with at the moment are that their own word for themselves may be “hauflin” (a Scots word that roughly translates to “young adult” or possibly “that weird period when one is neither a child nor an adult”), which gets mangled into “halfling” by the big folk; and that they may also refer to themselves culturally as “dhíbir” (an Irish word which means “banished”), but this gets colloquially munged into “dibbs.” I’ve not completely settled on either of these, and I realize that it’s a sort of “theme park” approach to linguistics, but keep in mind this is just intended to be something good enough to get on with. Hopefully something better will come to me as I go.

-The Gneech

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