Today, we are discussing Orcs.
Stock fantasy species get a bad rap lately. It can be the first thing you want to do when you start a new fantasy world: Reinvent the wheel. Or in this case, reinvent the elf. But these races have an interesting history that makes them a useful writing tool. The average readers does not care if your world has Elves or Orcs. They care if you did it well.
This is the first post in a series on the triumvirate of stock fantasy species: Elves, Dwarves and Orcs. There are many other species you see pop up regularly, but none are as universal as these three.
What is an Orc?
We need to establish a baseline idea of the trope orc. Generally they are green, have tusks, and may be nomadic or barbaric. Often less intelligent than humans, but much stronger. And prone to chaotic or evil alignments.
They are a number of variations on this concept. Their intelligence tends to vary from animalistic to on par with humans. They may often have shamanic magic, and often have a culture built around strength and war.
Why should you use orcs?
Ultimately, orcs are a stock trope that can be useful for over coming reader disbelief. You can use orcs to insert cultures that wouldn’t feel realistic if they were humans. It is much easier to believe in extremely martial, combat or strength focused societies when the species is different. And it lets you experiment with social mores quite a lot.
Orcs are also a classic element of fantasy aesthetic, and being built out of a long lineage of mythological history, most people understand what you mean. Orcs are a shortcut by which you can establish a baseline expectation with your reader, and then build upon it. By using orcs well you can add flavour to your fantasy adventure quickly.
This doesn’t mean you should skimp on giving them a well rounded culture. But if you have to stop to explain who [insert randomly generated fantasy name] are, you break narrative flow.
The history of Orcs
Orcs are actually a Tolkein invention. Well, mostly. Tolkein took inspiration from the Italian mythological beast called an Orco, named after the Etruscan god of the underworld Orcus. The poem Orlando Furioso makes Orco tusked, and is probably from here that Tolkein got Orcs.
The concept he created is a fusion of many ‘beastial’ semi-human creatures found in European mythology, and Orco and Ogre are synonyms in Italian/French.
How did they end up green? No one is quite sure! Possibly that is Spider Man’s fault. Tolkein originally called them Goblins, and at the time the Green Goblin was debuting as a Spider Man villain. The overlap possibly led to the idea of Orcs as green.
Tolkein described Orcs as “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” The description has been endlessly debated, I’m not going to address Tolkeinist racism here.
Dr Dimitra Fimi has written an interesting article if you wish to read more about that subject. But there is a presiding theory that later authors made orcs green to avoid their comparison to real, human races.
There is also an apocryphal story that someone at Game’s Workshop accidentally painted a bunch of Orc figurines green, and they went with it, but this of course isn’t able to be confirmed. In any case, this was later popularised by Warcraft and Warhammer and green Orcs was cemented into the fantasy canon.
So, how do we make Orcs interesting?
First, I prefer to ditch the idea of Orcs as dumber than humans. Given their origins, it has concerning implications, and honestly – it just feels like a cop-out. We can make them different from humans in plenty of ways without it.
Options to consider
Your Orcs don’t have to be green. In fact, out of the common attributes of orcs, this is probably the most flexible aspect.
You could also take inspiration from the species Orcs are derived from. Trolls, Ogres, Goblins and the such. In The Dark Eye, a German RPG, Orcs are small and furry (clearly inspired by Kobolds – not the D&D ones). In Warhammer, they are fungus and lack internal organs.
Looking further afield, creatures such as Japanese Oni have a strong resemblance to Orcs and could provide some fruitful inspiration.
Diet : Carnivorous Orcs?
Orcs are often hyper-omnivorous (literally eating anything) or very carnivorous. Either option gives you ideas. How do your orcs get food? Perhaps this could be through hunting. There might be an extraordinarily large animal they could hunt; mammoths for example!
Alternatively, orcs could exist as a raid-focused culture, a great source of tension with Elves and Humans, or practice primitive farming – perhaps involving their shamanic magic.
If you want to break from the warfaring culture, you could re-imagine orcs as herders. Their huge size would be perfect for defending flocks and their nature magic for nurturing animals. Herding orcs may migrate with their flocks from the lowlands and high meadows of alpine peaks like nomadic human shepherds once did.
Their size and strength
Orcs are traditionally bigger than humans (ranging from just a bit taller, to waaay bigger). In building an interesting orc culture, adjusting for their size can organically give you ideas. For a start, the architecture has to be different to account for this. They probably need more protein, which could account for a nomadic life style.
Orcs can’t ride horses, so do they ride something bigger and scarier? Lord of the Ring’s Orcs ride gigantic wolves called Wargs. Additionally, height could be a direct indicator of hierarchy in Orcish society, and orcs may view the tallest males as most attractive.
Teeth & tusks on Orcs
Orcs often have tusks. In considering your worldbuilding, your orcs may have a language that is adapted to speak with these tusks. Or they speak a pidgin of human language due to some human words being hard to pronounce.
Tusks could also be used in shows of strength, indicate hierarchy. Or even be decorated with carvings, ink or jewellery to show off battle prowess.
Giving your orcs an interesting origin story can make all the difference. Consider how they relate to the other species when doing this.
Tolkein’s Orcs are corruptions of Elves, while Warcraft Orcs come from another dimension and are viewed as invaders. Warhammer Orcs are living fungus that has roughly copied human shape, and like fungus, are considered an infestation.
Don’t make the mistake of giving Orcs a racial origin that paints them as evil, and then try to present them as good or neutral (looking at you Bright).
Cultural aesthetic and values
Orcs have a tendency to combine a lot of shamanistic and tribal cultures from around the world in their aesthetic. You can definitely play with this, and as we’ve discussed, giving Orcs genuine physical reasons to struggle with or not want to engage with Human society is a good first step.
Build their aesthetic up on these differences and their habitat. Instead of picking a human culture to copy, you can take the environment they live in and use it to inspire you. Their clothing may be scarce if they live in a tropical climate, or they may wrap up in furs in the snow. In a jungle, they may make their homes in hollowed our trees, or in the desert they may use tents and travel by caravan.
If they are nomadic, their villages need to be easy to pack up and move. If they need a lot of meat, perhaps they herd large herbivores and build their towns around pastures. Your orcs might prize hunting prowess and skill with animals.
Nomadic Orcs may place a high value on women, and may even be a matriarchal society. If the environment Orcs traverse is very dangerous, or their prey is fierce, male orcs could be numerous and do much of the dangerous work. Leaving females as the one constant presence for leadership.
If Orcs are more warlike, perhaps forced into a raiding life style, then they would have a great importance placed on armour and strong, sturdy clothing. As well as defensible settlements in case humans try to get revenge, possibly in locations that humans can’t access easily. Rather like trying to invade Russia in winter, it could provide Orcs with a safety net that lets them strike out easily.
Orcish children might be trained in war from a very early age, and a focus on producing many children to provide the next generation would exist. An orcish couple might try to have many children, or free relationships may exist. If Orcish males do most of the fighting, a female may have many husbands in case some of them inevitably die in battle.
In conclusion : Orcs don’t have to suck
Hopefully these tips help you a bit next time you try to make Orcs fit your setting. Be reassured, you don’t have to rewrite the rulebook. Just tweak it a bit.
Tell me in the comments what your Orcs are like. And look out for my next article on making fantasy species interesting.