Pet Peeves: “Bad Species” Fantasy

One of the great things about writing fantasy and science fiction is that you can write all kinds of characters of all kinds of “races” or “species” and show how different ones are different ways even within the same race.  It drives me bonkers when a writer makes a species all one way – they all act alike, think alike, there’s no variation to their characters within that, and they’re all evil or all good (usually depending on how pretty they are).  Oh, and elves are always slender – that bugs me too.  Who says there isn’t a single fat elf out there???  Let’s have a chunky elven chick with a few vices, because I’m tired of reading about pure, slender ones.

I find that fantasy is much worse about species stereotyping than science fiction (on the whole – ha, sorry for the generalization!)  Even the original Star Trek, which relied more on personality traits to define the alien races than prosthetics and makeup (for obvious reasons), often focused on the crew finding their own generalizations about other alien races weren’t accurate on an individual level.  And don’t get me started on how incredible the Babylon 5 series is from a writing standpoint, particularly in making each species distinctive, but showing how different the individuals are at the same time.

One explanation that comes to mind for me as to why fantasy is guiltier than science fiction of demonizing or idealizing entire species is this:  fantasy is usually based in the past (or in a culture technologically or sociologically less modernized than our own time), and science fiction is usually based in the future (or, again, in a society that is technologically or sociologically “ahead” of us, even if Star Wars does claim to be a long long time ago in a galaxy far far away).  Well, we all know how well people dealt with other countries, cultures, races, philosophers – anyone different was scary, in most histories of most cultures.  People were very superstitious about each other.  I think that ends up reflected in fantasy, as something that is past-esque, whereas science fiction looks to the future, where many writers hope things will be better and people will be less divided by their differences.

End broad generalizations of writers of these two genres.  On to addressing the issue!

Now, I know you’re thinking, “But Tolkien had evil races in his books, and everybody reads him!”  I have two answers to you:  (1) Everybody, please stop trying to write Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien already did it once, and so far I haven’t read anyone who did it better.  Write your own world already! and (2) While Tolkien is guilty of the slender elven maiden thing, and the orcs are all evil, and yeah he did some of that stuff, there is at least some deviation between the elves (and you never know which way they’ll go on an issue – they’re pretty unpredictable in that regard).  The orcs were also explained as having been made by Sauron (big bad guy, if you live under a rock don’t know LOTR) by messing up elves somehow (sorry, I’m not so nerdy that I remember all the details of that) and killing off any that didn’t turn out vicious enough.  That’s a pretty solid basis for making a whole species evil, in my estimation.  So do follow Tolkien’s example on that score:  if you make a whole race evil, have a damn good reason why they’re all evil.  And a difficult history is not an acceptable reason – Ghandi came from a country with a difficult history.

It’s far more interesting, to me, to read fantasy with a varied landscape of characters, where individuals may be shaped by their racial heritage, but aren’t ruled by it.  If you take the pointy ears off your elf and he’s no longer interesting, he was never interesting to start with.  Sorry – harsh but true.

The world you build will also suffer from generalizing your races.  Fantasy is all about suspension of disbelief.  Amazingly, you can get people to suspend disbelief when it comes to dragons and magic and shapeshifters, but you have to write those things realistically – funny as that sounds.  If your world is rich and full and varied and fascinating, people will go along with almost anything.  Generalizations are like a badly-done background at a play – they make it obvious that your world is just a one-color wash on plywood.  Make your characters so different and so intriguing that people want to slip into your world and meet them.  (Babylon 5, curse you for making me wish I could go hang out with G’Kar!  It is an unfulfillable dream!)

If for no other reason, don’t make your species “Bad Species” or “Good Species” because it kills hundreds of opportunities for unpredictability.  If all your goblins are vicious, throat-slitting thieves, it’s going to be pretty obvious when one shows up that something will get stolen, and someone might get their throat slit.  If your goblins tend to be vicious and, culturally, they have very little understanding of “mine” and “yours”, but your readers have seen that some understand more than others, and some are peaceful and maybe even spiritual or something, they don’t know what will happen next!  Interest!  Worry!  Will this goblin steal something, or will the “good guys” treat him badly because they are stereotyping him, and will they turn out to be wrong, and the reader will be ashamed of them for their bad behavior when this goblin was trying to help them?  That’s the kind of stuff you want your reader to wonder about.  Don’t take that away from yourself by plugging in lame, stereotypical fantasy races where every individual member of that race is interchangeable with the others.

Okay, end rant.

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