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What's the Point of an 'Elf'?

I recently had a writer contact me to ask about his use of elves in various stories that he was working on. He was wondering in particular about the ‘trope’ of ‘elves’ and whether or not readers were tired of them; he also had questions about whether to combine characters from various stories into one. This is more or less what I wrote in reply:

It might help to step back from the tropes and conventions and ask ‘What exactly am I trying to accomplish with this thing called a “character” (elvish or not)?’

And to examine that a little more closely, let’s look at the grandmaster of modern elfdom, Tolkien. In his works, elves have a central role - and I don’t mean that elvish characters participate centrally in the stories of Middle-earth, though they obviously do. I mean that for Tolkien, elves were an extension of his ideas about beauty as encapsulated in language. The languages came first: Tolkien wove into his created words intimate ideas about things ranging from stars to woods, from love to hate, from God to evil. He tried to capture the essence of the way things were in new forms of speaking and writing. In a sense, Tolkien’s created languages are the ‘Matrix code’ of his stories. Later, he began to imagine a type of being that might use those words, and thus began the sub-creation of a whole world of tales. To do this with integrity, he challenged the existing tropes of ‘elves’ at that time, the winged, diminutive creatures popular in children’s stories, and replaced them with an older idea of elves as a separate and noble race. Such was the power of this created people that Tolkien’s idea of elves quickly evolved into a new trope, used by fantasy writers (as well as game designers and movie makers) ever since.

So when you mention ‘elf’ in any work of fiction these days, readers immediately and subconsciously picture the Tolkien-influenced trope - and quite possibly roll their eyes, simply because it’s been used so often in the sixty years since The Lord of the Rings was published.

But the trope is so prevalent precisely because Tolkien’s use of it was so uniquely powerful: he invented the modern conception of elves in order to convey something else, an idea about life and the universe which resulted from much deep thinking and language creating. It’s easy for modern writers to simply borrow that whole package by using the word ‘elf’, but they do this often without thinking of what they mean or what they intend.

Much creative writing these days is like fast food: we reach for quick, pre-prepared ‘idea packages’ and throw them together in derived plots, hoping to strike the winning ‘recipe’ that people like Tolkien laid the groundwork for last century. But that’s not the way truly great fiction is put together. Great stories start with profound ideas, which then take form in images which are themselves made largely of vacuums, as anyone who has read my book How Stories Really Work would know.

To try to answer the question about combining elf-characters together in various ways, I think we have to forget about them as ‘characters’ and think of them almost as symbols: what are they in the story to do? What kind of effect are they there to create? What does an ‘elf’ mean in this context? There’s nothing wrong with plucking a pre-packaged idea like an ‘elf’ straight from the fiction shelf and placing it in a story, as long as you are completely cognisant of why you are doing it. Maybe the readers’ ‘eye roll’ is part of the effect you want to create - perhaps you want them to accept a contemporary trope with some cynicism so that you can turn that to humorous purposes, or spring an entirely unexpected turn of events on them, or make them question the trope by bringing it to new life.

Examining the idea of ‘elf’ in this way may help to clarify the different roles of such characters within the different stories. Perhaps you’ll strike upon something fundamental at work in your fiction - something so deep that you didn’t even know you were drawing on it - which, in better understanding it, will take your work to a whole new level. Tolkien saw the elves as a kind of ‘unfallen Man’, a vision of what might have been had Man not taken the road out of Eden. In doing so, he breathed life into a new kind of character and engendered a trope for lesser authors to make use of. Perhaps it’s time for the appearance of a new vision of what an ‘elf’ is? Or what such a character means in telling a story?

Hope that helps.


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