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why is it that in many fantasy stories, humans are the focus?

Posted: Tue 13 Feb 2018, 15:44
by fruityloops
it's been something that has since throbbed in my head the moment I worked on my setting. I've asked this question a lot before and the common answer is because,well, humans are relateable. we can't relate to an elf because they feel too flawless. we can't relate to a dragon because they're too overpowered. and, we also can't relate to an alien because, well, they're very alien. It does make me feel better that as long as i add human traits to a character, they can at least connect with audience just as much as human can. toy story and many others shown us how it was done, and they got a lot out of that.

so perhaps there is a market for stories set in a garden full of humanized bugs in a sword and sorcery fashion.

but for any of you fantasy writers and world builders, why do humans exist in your setting? is it because their easier to write or is there so much that you could do with them?

Re: why is it that in many fantasy stories, humans are the focus?

Posted: Tue 13 Feb 2018, 15:52
by gestaltist
For me, it boils down to one word: coherence. I'm a perfectionist, and if I include a creature that doesn't exist on Earth, I want it to make sense. While working on con-biology and con-evolution is fun, it's damn time-consuming.

I started one such a project - Scosya. I worked for months on the planet and climate, then for months on the evolution of creatures. I got to primitive vertebrates when I realized I would need at least a year or so of pure con-evolution before I get to a sapient species. It felt too daunting.

Now I have a setting with a terraformed planet and I have coherence without all the work.

Re: why is it that in many fantasy stories, humans are the focus?

Posted: Tue 13 Feb 2018, 18:07
by alynnidalar
My main conworld is urban fantasy, so it's somewhat obligatory for there to be humans! The reason I'm in that genre in the first place is because I'm interested in the interaction between the real world/modern technology and the supernatural. I sometimes describe it as, "what if elves had cellphones and assault rifles?" That's the kind of thing I find fascinating. If there really were people with supernatural abilities out there--an entire species, my dalar--how would they interact politically with the rest of the world? What would they think of the internet? Whose side would they be on in the Cold War? For stories like this, you must set them in the real world, which means you must have humans.

I've dabbled in more, ah, "traditional" fantasy as well, but typically still have included humans... I think including humans is rather useful from a descriptive perspective, because your readers know what humans look like, so you can contrast other species with them. If my protagonist is an iskin, for example, the reader has no clue what that means. But if I have my iskin character looking at a human and commenting on how much shorter and stockier the human is, and how weird it is that they have brown skin instead of blue, and that they view gray hair as a sign of age instead of just a normal hair color... that's an excellent way to describe what an iskin is. (I put "traditional" in quotation marks for a reason, folks. I don't do dwarf-elf-human fantasy. Gimme them aliens.)

However, I don't think every story needs to go this way, and I don't buy the "humans are the only relatable species!!" thing. Let's be real--most of us are not writing truly alien nonhumans. We're writing characters that are distinct from humans in some way, but still familiar enough to empathize with and understand. (and it's difficult, if not impossible, for a human to write a totally alien character anyway. We're humans who think in human ways--we've never thought any other way!) So given all of this, anyone who thinks they can't write a relatable nonhuman isn't trying hard enough.

Re: why is it that in many fantasy stories, humans are the focus?

Posted: Wed 14 Feb 2018, 01:00
by Salmoneus
I'd see this as as a morton's fork, unfortunately.

Prong one: your species are humans who wear strange hats. [/have wings /have bumpy foreheads /have pointy ears /are descended from lizards, etc]. The more you focus on these people, the more obvious it becomes that they are just humans who are wearing unusual hats, and that it's an ordinary story that an unimaginative writer has tried desparately to make look superficially original by setting it on The Planets of the Hats. This obviously looks very silly (it's expending a lot of effort yet having no real narrative effect, and it's so unbearably "what bad writers do" cliché), and raises the question why you don't just write the same story only not have them wear the hats. Plus, if the hats involve psychosocial aspects ('they're very logical', 'they're very violent', etc), focusing on them just demonstrates how stupid and poorly thought-through these hats are (no, not everyone in the species is always 'very logical', that's meaningless) - mental hats are just "my characters are all intentionally 2-dimensional! and all in the same way!".

So hat-people work best when they're seen at the peripheries, perhaps by offering an implicit (or explicit) contrast to the humans.

But prong two: your species are genuinely significantly different from humans. This makes it very hard to write stories for them that anyone is interested in reading, or can understand. Just think about how hard it is to write stories even just set in unusual real-world human cultures - how many footnotes you need to understand what's really going on in Shakespeare, for instance. The more alien (and hence interesting) you make your species, the more the narrative will have to diverge from conventional Western patterns, and the more infodumping you have to do to let your audience have any idea what's going on, and what the deeper sociobiological significance of everything is. This sort of story can be done well, but it's exceptionally difficult; I think it's been done in short stories, but I'm not sure there are any really good examples of it on the level of the novel.

So alien-people work best when they're seen briefly, through the viewpoint of someone we can actually understand.

Re: why is it that in many fantasy stories, humans are the focus?

Posted: Wed 14 Feb 2018, 01:21
by elemtilas
fruityloops wrote:
Tue 13 Feb 2018, 15:44
but for any of you fantasy writers and world builders, why do humans exist in your setting? is it because their easier to write or is there so much that you could do with them?
In The World, there are human analogues (Men), but they are not quite human. They are Yeola's equivalent race, and behaviourally and historically I guess they take the place of and are perhaps relatable enough to humans that when they appear in stories we don't find them too alien at all. But within The World, they have their own origin, their own place and their own destiny; they have a form and being different enough from humans that, though reasonably understandable by us, they are not immediately equivalent to us.
Salmoneus wrote:I'd see this as as a morton's fork, unfortunately.
As for Morton's fork, I guess the choice there is to take the third prong: forget about the expectations of Western narrative and what a publisher or broad audience might want or expect. (Unless, of course, it's your plan to write for a living!) Do justice to a people who are very different from humans, tell their story, and let any reader willing to take the plunge reap the benefits to be had. How many readers wish to take that plunge might depend on exactly how alien the Others are. For example, in Yeola, while the races are different from one another (and I don't think it's just because of hats), it's no secret that they are also all of the same world. They are bound to share many traits in common. They are not truly "alien" with respect to the race closest to humanity by perspective. Well, I guess the Polupodes are. But, even there, some cultural parallels are shared, even if little else is in common.

While I don't mean to be particularly argumentative: I agree that most writers will choose prong 1 or prong 2; there are other choices that can be made and roads less travelled to tread.

Re: why is it that in many fantasy stories, humans are the focus?

Posted: Wed 14 Feb 2018, 02:27
by Creyeditor
Salmoneus wrote:
Wed 14 Feb 2018, 01:00
I'd see this as as a morton's fork, unfortunately.

Prong one: your species are humans who wear strange hats. [/have wings /have bumpy foreheads /have pointy ears /are descended from lizards, etc]. The more you focus on these people, the more obvious it becomes that they are just humans who are wearing unusual hats, and that it's an ordinary story that an unimaginative writer has tried desparately to make look superficially original by setting it on The Planets of the Hats. This obviously looks very silly (it's expending a lot of effort yet having no real narrative effect, and it's so unbearably "what bad writers do" cliché), and raises the question why you don't just write the same story only not have them wear the hats. Plus, if the hats involve psychosocial aspects ('they're very logical', 'they're very violent', etc), focusing on them just demonstrates how stupid and poorly thought-through these hats are (no, not everyone in the species is always 'very logical', that's meaningless) - mental hats are just "my characters are all intentionally 2-dimensional! and all in the same way!".

So hat-people work best when they're seen at the peripheries, perhaps by offering an implicit (or explicit) contrast to the humans.

But prong two: your species are genuinely significantly different from humans. This makes it very hard to write stories for them that anyone is interested in reading, or can understand. Just think about how hard it is to write stories even just set in unusual real-world human cultures - how many footnotes you need to understand what's really going on in Shakespeare, for instance. The more alien (and hence interesting) you make your species, the more the narrative will have to diverge from conventional Western patterns, and the more infodumping you have to do to let your audience have any idea what's going on, and what the deeper sociobiological significance of everything is. This sort of story can be done well, but it's exceptionally difficult; I think it's been done in short stories, but I'm not sure there are any really good examples of it on the level of the novel.

So alien-people work best when they're seen briefly, through the viewpoint of someone we can actually understand.
I think one possible solution might be to have the hat-people as your focus, but don't talk much about the hats. Maybe just don't mention them having any hairstyle difference, to stay in the metaphor.

Re: why is it that in many fantasy stories, humans are the focus?

Posted: Sat 17 Feb 2018, 05:41
by Thrice Xandvii
I'll answer the question in the subject as simply as I can: Because we are humans, that's why. We know about ourselves, and therefore it is easiest to understand a story about ourselves. Basically, as Sal said above, any story with a non-human race in it might as well be about humans anyway if the writer wants that race to be the main focus and have problems and ideas that its human readers would understand without excessive exposition.

To me, the better question is: Why would you not use humans?
Creyeditor wrote:
Wed 14 Feb 2018, 02:27
I think one possible solution might be to have the hat-people as your focus, but don't talk much about the hats. Maybe just don't mention them having any hairstyle difference, to stay in the metaphor.
Then what's the point?

Re: why is it that in many fantasy stories, humans are the focus?

Posted: Sat 17 Feb 2018, 20:31
by Creyeditor
You make these relatable for people, still different, without lampshading it.