Sunday, September 25, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: This Thing About Dwarves

(Note the technically incorrect plural. If it's good enough for Tolkien, it's good enough for me. The man wrote the Oxford English Dictionary, for crying out loud.)

I've always liked dwarves. My first favorite movie was Disney's Snow White. Elves and fairies lost a lot of appeal for me when they got human-sized in pop culture. I like how a dwarf is a dwarf whatever book you go to - short, hairy, set in their ways, pragmatic, slightly cranky, craftsmen. The word "dour" crops up when fantasy writers and gamers are describing dwarves, but in fact they are often comic characters - sometimes because the guy with no sense of humor is the funniest guy in the room, and sometimes because his sense of humor doesn't jibe with other people's, but does with mine. Gimli is the only non-hobbit member of the Fellowship of the Ring who cracks jokes, but he only makes them with a grumpy face and at times of tension release. "Here's a pretty hobbit skin to wrap an elfin princeling in!" "Where did you come by the weed, you villains?" He's also the one who initiated the grim kill-counting game with Legolas at Helm's Deep. I wonder how many stoic middle-aged enlisted men Tolkien knew in service? I'm certain they informed the writing on this character.

Anyway, I have a vision of dwarves and their lifestyle that dates back to at least my first reading of The Hobbit, but probably predates it, as I think I read Ruth Nichols's A Walk Out of the World before then. Certainly I'd been reading Tolkien derivatives before I made it to Tolkien, and I feel like I absorbed his dwarves into an existing vision rather than adopting his and grafting details onto it. Dwarves live in mountains, obviously; they have a highly structured society centering on notions of duty; craftsmanship is one of their highest virtues; they believe in emotional restraint; their doors are tapestries (the hivelike nature of the dwarf community probably contributes to the emotional restraint, now I think of it); they love deeply, quietly, and epicly; and the tradition is that only sorrow ever came of romantic relationships between dwarves and other intelligent species.

Yes, I cast dwarves as romantic leads.

I actually tried to make a story around this core concept several times in high school, but I kept getting sidetracked by the necessity of world-building. It wormed its way in as a subplot of the dormant story I discussed here awhile back, but I haven't tried to put it at the center of the story since high school. Not because I didn't want to; but because it gradually became clear that neither high fantasy nor romance is my natural genre, and to tell this story I'd need to do both.

Which is a bummer, because you can make decent money off both those subgenres, especially when you combine them, but life is rough.

The central problem of doing it is, first to create the high fantasy world in which the dwarves and the other races are acceptable and logical, but not boring and cliched. We have enough straight Tolkien-derivatives, thank you. Once you have that world, you need the conflict - which, being high fantasy, almost has to be a macro-conflict, war famine pestilence mystical threat you know the drill - that brings the disparate couple together.

I have one really convoluted plot that starts off in a desert community with the heroine being expelled, with her old adoptive mother, during a witch hunt; and as they cross the desert the adoptive mother gets more and more senile, and finally the dwarves rescue them and that's when we find out about the princess who was spirited away when the usurper killed the rest of her family and all the signs point to our heroine who gets help from the dwarves including the improbable and forbidden male romantic lead - but in fact she's the decoy and the real princess is still in her kingdom getting old enough to ascend the throne, and sacrificing the decoy may be necessary, and...yeah, I kind of bogged down in plot there.

And then there's the one where there's some sort of interspecies war on and the heroine is a prisoner, and she Knows Something, and the political situation is such that the hero (who is her captor) is under pressure to Do Terrible Things but he won't because he's got standards, dammit, and this war is eroding the dwarves' cultural standards and this couple who have to be enemies are the pivot point on which the future of both cultures turns. Which could be pretty epic if I could, y'know, work out the specifics of what the war's about, what information the heroine has, how to get them both facing 90 degrees away from the problems they understand themselves to have at the start of the story to be facing the same direction and agreed that they have a common, totally different problem. I believe I wrote some scenes that were reasonably brilliant for a 14-year-old, but that's a low gate to get over and I trust none of them survive. Without context, a scene is meaningless, anyway.

There used to be others - romances are the easiest stories to mull over during insomniac nights in adolescence, and I was a hell of an insomniac back then - but I have mercifully forgotten most of them. I still think somebody, somewhere, could do - something moving and atmospheric and heck, just different from the human-draconic-elvish centric high fantasy we all know so well.

But I'm afraid it's not likely to be me, so - fly free, vague epic idea! Find a good place to land!

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