Sunday, February 26, 2012

Fantasy Races Physiology | Overview

True confessions of a world building geek.

Whether from mythology and legend or borrowed heavily from J.R.R. Tolkien's notes or the D&D bestiary, the fantastic races are another literary vehicle by which to explore the human condition, in a manner which is equally incredible and yet relatable.

No matter the origin of their usage, there are general expectations of the fantasy races which most readers will have.

My own world building includes several Fantasy races, hence the interest. I have mentioned elsewhere that I am not interested in calling a short, stocky bearded race of fantastic creatures Puddlefuds (or whatever) for the sake of being original. Nor am I interested in giving Elves facial hair for the sake of being different (with all due respect to those who have).

Rather, I'd like to go a step further; I want to explore what is expected of fantasy races as a trope, and craft some rules and ideas that I (and others) can build from further on down the line. In this, I expect to debunk some accepted ideas and give strength to others.

This becomes my new project, and I hope to get some feedback - because it'll make it more fun. I should note that I am not a doctor, psychologist, or a biologist, but I like to dabble. I haven't done the research (yet) to know whether someone else has already done what I'm about to do (I suspect someone has); if that's the case, then this becomes Zherlios canon and nothing more. No harm, no foul.

To begin, we have to answer the basic question of why there must be fantasy races to begin with. Because it's fantasy? No, of course not. There's plenty of fantasy tales that don't incorporate non-Human races. It's a lesson in cultural awareness. Non-human races allow us to explore (potentially exaggerated) themes of the human condition from the perspective of an outsider. The same holds true for aliens in science fiction.

In this post, I'm simply going to cover a few of the more well-known races and what will be my jump-off points for future articles.

Elves - In Tolkien mythology, Elves are a race of long-lived humanoids. They can represent longevity. Patience. A race that can look at humans and say, "Ah, you humans, always in such a hurry." They are nearly always attractive, graceful and particularly adept.

Physiology, not magic, can answer the questions of long life. Cellular regeneration must be high and overall metabolism must be slow.
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Dwarves - In Tolkien mythology, Dwarves are short, stocky, strong and bearded. Their affinity for mountains and mining seems to me a representation of labor as a human theme. Where power and magic can corrupt, can make humans greedy, Dwarves potentially represent the power of good old work ethic.

With Dwarves, we have to address muscle density. I've noticed that short, human athletes tend to have better muscle definition and are stronger, "pound for pound", then their taller counter parts. If you go with the trope that all Dwarves live in mountains (I don't see why that would necessarily be true), then there has to be some other considerations. For starters, a throat/nose/lung filtration system for the amount of dust that would be encountered in living underground, for mining, for forging, etc. (Otherwise, what, all Dwarves die at the age of thirty to emphysema?) Secondly, their blood would be more oxygenated from living at high altitudes where the air is thinner. Each breath has to carry more oxygen to the lungs, assuming near-Human O2 requirements, etc.

Which, aside, would mean that Dwarves outside of their natural habitat, and at sea level, would be virtually cheerful and giddy (if not flat-out dizzy) from the extra amount of oxygen. (At least for a few hours?)

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Halflings - These are pretty much Tolkien's creatures, through and through, despite the use of this race in fantasy games. I believe that Tolkien wanted us to connect to their simplicity, their love of nature and its abundance.

Physiologically, I am drawn to the idea that they are a race of people that work with their hands and go barefoot, in addition to the scientific implications found in Homo Floresiensis. I am reminded of GRRM's Hornfoot tribe in ASOIAF, as well as the particular talents of relatively short people throughout human history, such as Bruce Lee, Sylvester Stallone and Napolean Bonaparte. If we use Dwarves to explore muscle density in their stockiness, then we can use Halflings to explore agility and litheness - think "The Amazing" Yen in Ocean's 11.

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This post is getting longer than I wanted it to be, so I'm going to summarize the rest.

Giants, Amazons, etc. - Whether an all-female tribe or an entire race, I want to explore the physiological aspects of a humanoid race that are much bigger than humans. Basically, fiction meets WWF, right? Casual observation has been that human giants tend to have reduced life expectancy.

Half Elves - To be honest, I don't buy into the idea of Half Elves as a race of people. Going back to the idea that Elves will live hundreds or thousands of years - would you get married and have children with someone who was only going to live ten years? And if you have children with them, your children would only live twenty years? It's a great idea as a fantasy trope (My character has the best of both races! Magical, but real and relatable, too!), but functionally it's ridiculous.

It'd be like marrying your favorite pet. Having said that, it has to be pursued - love is stupid like that, and doesn't always embrace practical considerations. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has heard of some crazy old lady leaving her entire estate to her cat and her butler. But, you better believe I'm approaching it with a scalpel.

Orcs, of course. Goblins, too. Evil things to represent the dark sides of humanity.

Dog people, cat people, lizard people. Yes. Well. Eventually.

Centaurs. Unicorns. Pegasi. Dragons. Why stop at the humanoid races... though I'd like to focus on the races that can some how, some way, be a reflection towards human themes in storytelling. This project, however, as an exercise in world building and magical realism.

And... I'm taking requests! What fantastic race do you want to put under the scope and scalpel?

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