I was involved with a discussion on Facebook this morning about using Tolkien style elves, dwarves and other creatures in modern fantasy fiction. I was very happy to find that most of the writers in the group but that was fine as long as you put a unique spin on their culture or the story itself. I’ve seen this discussion plenty of times before – people seem very caught up in the idea that fantasy fiction is nothing but a cluster of clichés and they need to invent wild new things in order to produce quality stories. (Of course doing that is great, but there is plenty of room for classic tropes as well.)
Orson Scott Card warned us not to call a rabbit a smeerp. If you have a fuzzy little creature with moderately long years, wiggly nose and a penchant for nibbling clover and carrots, you have a rabbit. Maybe the rabbit is green or highly intelligent, but it is still some form of rabbit.
If you take an elf, make it have purple skin, a theocratic culture, no magical capabilities whatsoever and a love of jewels instead of trees, is it still an elf or is it a smeerp?
Like I said above, it’s awesome when quality writers make up new types of beings to populate their worlds with. I do some of that myself. It’s part of the whole creativity, world building, character creation thing that writers do. But I think trying for uniqueness when a well-loved trope fits better is, perhaps, trying to hard.
Readers want something new and different, but just as many want the comfortable and familiar. A friend of mine has read the Lord of the Rings trilogy 27 times now. He isn’t looking for smeerps. He’s looking for a good tale.