All fantasy authors are free to create their own elves, and all science fiction authors are free to create their own aliens. But the key to this are the words “their own.” If the elves in your fantasy novel are obviously Tolkien’s elves, or D&D’s elves (which are basically Tolkien’s elves), you’re just not working hard enough. Of course fantasy readers will know what you mean, will easily adopt the basic archetype, but believe me, they will pick up on the fact that there’s nothing special about your elves, and please also believe me: they want there to be something special about your elves.
As you begin to develop your elves (or dwarves or vampires or Martians, etc.) ask yourself:
What function do these people serve in my story?
A sentient species or radically different race shouldn’t just show up for no particular reason, or because you think fantasy readers expect there to be elves and science fiction readers expect there to be aliens. In fact, nothing in your writing should show up for no particular reason.
Sometimes a new race of people can add a fresh perspective to your characters’ journey through the story. Maybe they know something your human characters don’t. Tolkien’s elves fill this role (and others), and Star Trek’s Vulcans are similarly aloof mentors.
Maybe the role of your elves or aliens are more metaphorical than practical. Tolkien’s elves can be seen as a metaphor for the decaying British Empire. Aliens can be enemies standing in for some real world “other” the way Cold War era Star Trek gave us the warlike and expansionist Klingons in place of the Soviet Union and the coldly mysterious and xenophobic Romulans in place of the Red Chinese.
If your goal is to create a world rich in “others,” you may want to look into the Jungian archetypes. You could easily imagine whole planets full of sentient beings for each one. You’ve probably seen some version of the list:
You can find a deeper dive into the archetypes in general all over the web, including Understanding Personality: The 12 Jungian Archetypes.
A lot of authors draw from this list as inspiration for their cast of characters, so one character serves as the Innocent, another the Jester, etc. It wouldn’t be difficult to apply these archetypes to the cast of your favorite book or movie. But in science fiction and fantasy, the genres that absolutely require some degree at least of worldbuilding, whole species of intelligent beings could built from these roles. The basic concepts can be a building place for political and religious institutions, too. Think about how easily this could be formed into a pantheon of twelve gods and goddesses.
Though some might be obvious character archetypes: your protagonist is likely an Everyman, and the villain could easily be an Outlaw, there are some that feel very much like the beginnings of a culture, like Ruler (the Roman Empire) or Sage (ancient Athens).
Of course, something like this list should never be applied as some kind of law or unbreakable rule. There is absolutely no reason for you to feel as though you have to include all twelve of these archetypes in your cast of characters, your worldbuilding… or in any combination of elements. If your story doesn’t call for a Caregiver or an Explorer, then I’ll refer you back to that first question: What function do these people serve in my story? If the answer is “none,” then out they go.
In any case… food for thought.
Where Story Meets World™
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