I think I mentioned it once or twice, but last week I had pretty bad case of writers block. Nothing I hated pretty much everything I drafted up, and struggled to actually release content on my self imposed schedule. Naturally I’m not under any real deadlines, but I feel that I need to give myself strict schedules. Otherwise I’m prone to endless procrastination.
Good ideas don’t form in a vacuum. Creative work is really a function of the information input. This is usually why writers who close themselves in a distraction free room usually go into a loop of endless frustration and creative blockage. You need to get out there and get inspired by things that exist outside of you. You never know what might set you off.
For me, a dose of Reddit can sometimes do wonders. The other day I was browsing the more creative corners of that establishment and stumbled upon this thread. Basically an aspiring world-builder is asking for help making his elves unique:
I have decided I want an elf-like race living in deep in the forest. My problem is, though, that using elves would be too cliche for me. I still want them to be elf-like, but I’m having trouble thinking of how to make a more original but similar race. By the way, the humans in my world evolved from them, so I don’t want them to look too non-human.
This was pretty much what I needed. I found this premise interesting – humans and elves sharing an ancestral link, with emphasis on non-standard, non Tolkinesque elf interpretation. Seeing how I just recently wrote a long article re-inventing Orcs this was right up my alley.
This, ladies and gentlemen is what I do. This is what my brain runs as a background process. Some days it feels like I mentally shit out and discard three or four fictional universes before I even get my morning coffee, and then it becomes much worse after that. So I took up the challenge and came up with not one, not two, but four separate ideas for this guy:
Our Proud Ancestors
You said these guys are ancestors of humans in some way so lets make them an impossibly ancient and proud race. Tall, stoic and strikingly beautiful. Think larger than life – most should stand at 7-8 feet tall towering above mere humans and look like finely sculpted Greek statues. They are ageless, wise and stoic. They move with such grace that defies physical possibility. Every gesture, every movement is as a finely choreographed dance, full of grace and elegance. You could stumble on one of them shitting in the woods, and you would go “wow, this guy makes taking a dump look awesome and dignified at the same time…”
When they talk, they do it the way we sing. Their conversations are beautiful to human ears. In fact their voice has a hypnotic quality to humans – it touches some deep ancestral nerve in all men. There are countless tales of woodsmen being led astray, hypnotized and dominated by an elf.
Their eyes are like deep caverns – mirrors to another universe. All black, with occasional gleams of strange color. Most humans can’t look directly into their eyes without loosing their wits and becoming susceptible to suggestion.
Not only that, these elves consider men to be simpler, less sophisticated cousins. They can look straight trough us. Any attempts of subterfuge by a man, are almost completely transparent to an Elf. They know you are lying from your body language, perspiration, temperature changes – they are attuned to such things, because these minuscule details are part of their very complex native language.
Other races can still dupe them. They don’t have this level of control over other sentient races. These powers are mostly a feature of the ancestral link. Humans were just like the elves once, but then they lost something. They lost the magic and grace and became what they are today. And deep down inside, humans want that grace and beauty back.
But, these new elves die just like everyone else. Despite their stature, they posses about as much physical strength as a human. They tend to be slender, and rather fragile. A human warrior can probably easily dispatch an elf via brute force, despite the size difference. This is so that the players/readers don’t think you just made some marry sue type race made out of pure awesome. They are lousy in combat, but awesome at social things. They socially dominate and inspire awe humans because humans are a stunted, less sophisticated off-shot race. When they see an elf, they instinctively feel that this is the “right” way to be, and that humanity was somehow led astray, and become corrupted by their vices and riddle with flaws.
Our Feral Cousins
This is the inverse of the above. Instead of elves being stoic, proud and beautiful we make them more wild and strange. This makes them more fay, more animalistic and more in touch with nature.
Think Bosmer from Elder Scrolls but crank it up to 11. First, they are short – about hobbit sized, but slender and well proportioned. They are almost solid muscle though – very wiry and therefore strong, and blinding fast.
They are the apex predator in the forest, whereas humans are an off-shot race that went omnivorous and developed agriculture. These elves do not grow or gather – they hunt and kill. They have rows of needle sharp teeth of an adapted carnivore and small claws where we have finger nails that help them both capture pray and climb trees. Instead of hair they have thin spines that vary in length and coloration. Their eyes are deep red, and glow in the dark.
When they move, they do it with a grace of a born predator. They move slowly, with a premeditated intent and deadly focus, and then pounce with blinding speed. When they leap between trees they are almost a blur to the human eye. Their mannerism is alien and unsettling.
Their language is sharp, guttural and disturbing to listen to. Humans are actually quite perturbed by their presence. It dates back to a period in history when the two species broke off. Humans left forests and sought their fortune in steppes and pastures growing slow and fat on their rich diet and more sedentary lifestyles. Elves remained predators, and for a long time prayed on humans, riding their villages in the night. They are the bogymen of children’s stories, they are what goes bump in the night. Creatures of pure nightmare – our ancient enemy, now turned a reluctant trade ally.
Granted, they are not bestial. They are as smart as we are. They use tools, make clothes and have a culture of their own. But they are predators first and foremost. They are extremely territorial and they dominate and subdue everything in their realm. They react very violently when challenged on their own turf, always needing to re-assert their dominant, apex predator status.
They consider humans a prey species, and treat them as such. Their society is similar to that of pack predators – like wolves they work in close knit tribes that live and hunt together, led by an alpha female. They have a matriarchical society with the women being dominant, and physically stronger and larger than men. Somehow when the two species split, our ancestors developed patriarchical society (perhaps in defiance?).
So they are weird, alien, predatory and scary wood creatures that shoot first, claw your face off later and then ask questions, because that’s what befits a lousy prey species like humans.
They inspire us with fear and fill us with disgust but also with morbid fascination. There is a lot of bad blood between the two races. They are ruthless, violent and frightening but they are our kin – they are closer and more familiar than other races. An elf who hides his teeth, squints his eyes and lays his spines down flat can almost pass for a short, wiry, twitchy human. But then the eyes open, the teeth are bared and the spines shoot up and you jump, like you have never jumped before. Because you suddenly see a visage of a beast that tormented your ancestors so horribly that you still feel the terror in your bones.
The True Fae
What if the link between humans and elves is not evolutionary but magical? Let’s say Elves are not our ancestral species but something else entirely. Elves are the Fey folk of songs and legends. They are immaterial, truly magical creatures of myth. They hail from Elsewhere – a realm where mortal men cannot thread, and cannot even attempt to comprehend. A realm which exists beyond space, beyond time and where laws of nature do not hold true. It is a realm of chaos, change and unbridled emotion. In the olden days the two realms intersected. The physical world and immaterial fields of Elsewhere blended into each other. The fey were rulers of both realms, and they rode out into our realm to play, hunt and frolic and cause mischief. Over time the realms grew apart and it became harder for the fay to maintain their presence outside of their home realms.
There was a schism in their ranks. Some of the fey folk thought that there are important lessons to be learned from the material realm. They spoke about the “joy of matter”, about the fragile permanence of solid forms, and the slow churning wheel of nature. They bound themselves to this realm, wrapped themselves in flesh and made themselves mortal. They became the first men – they awoke naked, cold, weak and fragile but connected, grounded.
The True Fay scoffed at material realm and considered it mere distraction – one of their many playthings. They shunned the first men, and decided they debased themselves by becoming corporeal. The two races broke all ties, and as the two realms grew apart so did the fay and first men did.
Today, only wise sages remember that men and fay are closely related. The realms are now very far apart, and traveling between them is hazardous. The True Fey still manifest themselves in deep dark forests – in ancient magical places that used to be centers of their power, and the link between realms is strong. They have a tradition known as “The Great Hunt” – an endless game in which they ride through all these ancient forests, killing, burning and entertaining themselves by disrupting the material realm. If the conditions are right, and the winds of magic blow strong they ride out of the forest and swarm local villages, usually torching them to the ground and killing men for sport.
It is said that the fay kill men by ripping their immortal fey souls out of their chests and carry them off to Elsewhere. It is unknown what exactly happens to such souls. Some say they are consumed – a strange and sought after delicacy amongst the elves. Others think the souls are used as slaves and forced laborers, or perhaps even raw building blocks used to build in the ever-shifting immaterium of the Elven home realm. Needless to say, no one taken by the True Fey has ever returned.
How do they look? It is really hard to say as they do not have a static, unchanging physical form. The way they look often changes depending on the mood, and who is looking at them. It is said that when they hunt, or when they are angry they become monstrous and frightening. Other times they appear to be creatures of unspeakable beauty. There are no common features they all share – each one of them is unique. When describing a Wild Hunt it is an opportunity to whip out all kinds of mythical monsters and creatures and put them all together – some will have horns or antlers, some will be classic fauns with hooven cloves, others can be centaur-like. Seriously, whip out a bestiary, and go down the list of half-man, half something creatures and those would be your elves. Fauns, centaurs, nagas, minotaurs, mer-men, creatures of the black lagoon, crab people, you name it. Some will have a look of classic elves – humans with es with spiky ears but the point is that it is all a choice to them. They can wrap themselves into whatever type of body they want.
They have two weaknesses – one is banishment magic. The same stuff that turns undead, and banishes ghosts, spirits and daemons will also affect elves and shunt them back to Elswhere. Other weakness is Cold Iron. It burns their skin on contact, and causes intense pain. When bound with it they lose their magical abilities, become helpless and almost comatose. When wounded with it, they usually lose their grip on their physical manifestation and discorporate, returning to Elsewhere.
Psychologically they are utterly alien. Most of the fay that invade our realm are participants of the Great Hunt. They are the equivalent of drunk frat boys out on the town looking for a party in the amount of mischief and wanton destruction they can inflict. Only frat boys have conscience whereas elves have none.
Not all elves visit our realm to hunt though. The more sophisticated ones participate in what they refer to as “The Game” – in which humans are pawns. The elves infiltrate human society, whisper to kings, incite peasants to rebel and etc.. Sometimes they steal souls of infants, and replace them with fey souls. Such changelings are usually unaware of their origins, but they are usually evil and rotten to the core. They are ruthless sociopaths, their minds utterly alien and pre-programmed to sow discord and chaos in human societies according to some unknown agenda.
There are a lot of interesting plot hooks here. The Wild Hunt is a terrifying force of alien menace that makes even bravest of men shit their pants and the changelings make for excellent magnificent bastard antagonists. Think Prince Joffrey from Game of Thrones – that’s an example of how you would design a changeling character – spoiled, rotten, immoral, despicable and evil to the very core.
The Forgotten Ancients
Sometimes a dead elf is better than a living one. And not in the way you probably think. Here is an idea – instead of having elves exist in the world, lets make them an extinct species. Once upon a time, they were a dominant intelligent race in all of creation, but one day they all have vanished. No one remembers how they went extinct. Was it a natural process? Was it magic? Did they die or did they leave and go elsewhere? No one knows – it’s the central mystery of your setting.
The elves are long gone, but they have left a lot of history behind them. The earth is basically littered with ruins of their civilization. Most human cities are built on top of Elven architecture. Slender towers, white marble, self weeding gardens tended to by arcane magic, mystical chambers, labyrinths of unknown purpose, artifacts that radiate unknown energies – are all common sights in metropolitan areas. Kings and nobles usually own and display expensive elven-made armors made out of unknown, nearly indestructible metals using methods beyond the understanding of the best human smiths. But they can’t wear them, because judging by their gear elves only appear to be vaguely humanoid in shape. Tall, slender, oddly proportioned, limbs jointed at weird angles – subtly and disturbingly wrong. Their armors look odd and menacing, but beautiful at the same time.
How did they look like? No one knows. It appears that depicting living things was a taboo in Elven society. Their art is full of abstract patterns and floral ornaments but there is not even a single known depiction of a living creature. The closest thing we have are their oddly jointed, mis-proportioned armors, and their impossible to grip weapons that do not possibly fit in any human hand.
The Elven language is even more opaque to us than their appearance. There exist whole libraries of Elven books, that no one can read. Their writing system has been baffling linguists and scholars for centuries. Despite efforts to catalogue and organize knowledge about their alphabet, there is no complete list of symbols. In fact it appears that even though their books are filled with small glyphs akin to our letters, none of them is used more than once. Every glyph, on every page of every book so far is unique, original and completely devoid of meaning and context. Scholars think that it is not the individual glyphs, or their arrangement but rather their flow and the patterns they create when read in specific ways is what conveys the meaning. That their books can be read from left to right, right to left, using vertical or horizontal rows, and each method would convey a different story and a different message. Thus far no one cracked the code yet.
Some think that the libraries ought to be torched, considering the recently uncovered wood elf camps – the most recent elven traces in the history. You see, all the elven ruins are thousands of years old. Their culture, and their white marble plazas predate humanity. The first recorded human history deals with the fading of the elves – an ancestral race that has mysteriously vanished a few generations before men invented the written word.
But recently explorers have uncovered more recent ruins – perhaps a century or two old. They were hidden deep in remote forests, far away from human settlements. Were these settlements inhabitants by last survivors of the accents? Were they an off-shot race like humans? Or something else entirely?
No one knows. The architecture and technology of these hidden villages is unmistakably Elven, but strangely altered and perverted. Those who have seen these Wood Elf towns described them as dens of complete and utter bedlam, chaos and perversion. Places so twisted they defy human senses. They talk about places ripped apart by magic so twisted and profane it horrified god fearing men to their very core. The beauty of elven craft subverted via an unholy, obscene blend between altered, perversions of nature and unhinged elven technology. Organic, oozing with strange auras, crackling with foul smelling arcs of energy. Instead of beautiful self tending gardens their towns feature pits overflowing with pure distiled despair, ponds of forlorn hope and orgiastic bonsai trees moist and oozing with uninhibited lust.
These places drive men mad and have been sealed, forbidden or destroyed. Wood elf artifacts are therefore insanely expensive, and sought after. But people say they are cursed. All noble families which dabbled in trade or collecting of these items have fallen from grace – either driven mad, or broken apart by infighting. Whomever touches wood elf history becomes tainted, and marked by bad luck and misfortune. Whatever caused Wood Elves to fall into such perversion and vanish seems to be able to affect humans as well, though to a lesser degree.
What exactly happened to wood elves? What happened to the ancients? Was the perversion and downfall of the wood dwellers connected to the fading of the ancients, or is the curse they brought upon themselves new? Those are the questions you can explore in your setting. Or not.
So, what do you think? Does any of these strike your fancy? How would you re-invent elves for this guy? Let me know in the comments.