LESSON A Note for Worldbuilders on Racial Stereotypes in Fiction

Discussion in 'DEVELOPING CHARACTERS & CULTURES' started by Minibit, Feb 3, 2014.

  1. The original version of this thread caused a lot of misunderstanding due to poor explanation and flawed examples on my part; the following is a rewrite, which is hopefully clearer. The title has also been changed to become clearer and less offensive.

    Let's talk about creating world races!

    Worlds with multiple races and sentient species - especially new and original ones as opposed to cookie-cutter elves and dwarves - have a diversity and a colour to them that monoracial worlds simply cannot achieve. But there are a few things you should keep in mind while creating races for your world

    Please note that if your story intentionally calls for one or more races to be viewed from a stereotyped or biased perspective, that this article is not intended for your work

    • Stereotypes
      No matter what you do, someone is going to come up with a stereotypical view of your races. But it's a generally good idea not to present this viewpoint as the writer/GM. Stereotypes limit character options, and present a biased perspective. They emerge from a combination of factors that all members of a group (allegedly) share. for example; "All Canadians love hockey", or "All Asians are good at math". New races you create should have defining characteristics that all members of the race share, but try to make sure there is room for variety within them, and stay away from things like hobbies or skillsets
      "The majority religion in Elvish Culture worships the Goddess of Life and Nature" is better than "Elves love gardening"
      "All Dwarves have improved night-vision, and a predatory advantage underground" is better than "Dwarves prefer to live in caves"
    • Variety
      As mentioned above, it is important to allow room for a wide variety of characters and lifestyles within a race. This means that when describing a race, you should try to be nonspecific about how it's members look and behave. Each race will have traits that they all share, which are usually genetic, but try to avoid creating a uniform race as it will limit player's character options. Remember that you are creating a profile not for a few characters, but for probably several hundred - or even thousand - individuals with a wide variety of hobbies, skills, and motivations. A race may be KNOWN for one thing or another, but don't take that to the level of saying that all members of the race are associated with this thing.
      Saying "Canadians are known for their Hockey Teams" and saying "All Canadians love, play, or watch hockey" are two different things. One asserts that Hockey is associated with Canada. The other claims everyone in Canada is associated with Hockey.
      Saying "Elves love all living things" closes the door to Elvish characters who are afraid of certain creatures, or enjoy hunting, metalwork, pyrotechnics, and a whole hosts of other things.

    • Realism
      It's my personal opinion that adding an element to a race or creature generally should have a better reason than "It's cool". You don't have to go into an in-depth analysis, but having a reasoning for the unique traits of your race other than "to make them different" is crucial for a believable, realistic world. Again, remember that your profile is for multiple people; there's bound to be a few elves who want to sit and eat all day; why aren't they fat? What makes every male dwarf want to grow a large beard; some of them are bound to find it uncomfortable/inconvenient/unattractive. Again, allow room for individuality, and find reasoning for it if you want these traits to be at least semi-universal.
      Elves may have slimmer bodies and weigh less because they descended from a winged race for whom a lower bodyweight was an advantage. This means the average Elf is thinner/weighs less than the average human, but doesn't imply that elves are effortlessly slim as part of their genetics.
      A new race may have brightly coloured hair (pink, blue, etc) because of a camouflage advantage in the brightly coloured foliage their ancestors evolved in. This gives the option of brightly coloured hair without the world also having to have hair-dye that is only popular with one race for some reason.
      Dwarves may wear long beards because famous and respected figures in their history had long beards, and it's become a combination tribute/positive association. This implies that beards are simply popular, rather than that all Dwarves have them or want them.

    • The Token Normal
      (Reminder: If your story intentionally presents one race as 'the good guys/the normal ones' then this article is not intended for your story)
      Token Normals should be avoided; a token normal is what happens when a world is constructed of racial stereotypes that present one race as likeable, relatable, or familiar, and all others as weird, foreign, freakish, or scary. This is not always done intentionally, but it's fairly easy to avoid if you pay attention and ask yourselves questions like "Am I modelling the villain's race after the villain?", or "Does my story paint a picture of one race beset by a world/universe full of strange or dangerous foreigners/aliens?" "Does stepping into the shoes of one of my races create an uncomfortable or over-the-top amount of culture shock/unfamiliarity?" If your story does not call for this perspective, remember to always allow room for many kinds of people in all the races of your world.
    #1 Minibit, Feb 3, 2014
    Last edited: Feb 17, 2014
    • Love Love x 2
  2. I have a very, very bad question, that may or may not be, a bad question.

    What if we told our roleplay/story from multiple races points of view. Therefore eliminating any sense of a normal race. They all came here to capitalize. None had originally existed there. Also, couldn't we combine the races by having children and ending up with sub-races?

    To sum up, if there is a MAIN character for every race, what normal is there?
  3. I think you've misunderstood

    I'm not saying don't have multiple races, or that all races should behave the same and there can be no subtypes or mixed races, in fact, that's the opposite of what I'm saying

    This is a commentary that, when you design fantasy races, you need to remember that saying things like 'this race is good at such-and-such', or 'this race enjoys such and such' is a bad habit to get into, because it makes the race one-dimensional and boring, and is a racist perspective to tell a story from.

    The 'token normal' doesn't happen because the main character is from a race, and therefore the reader identifies the main character as normal, it happens because one race is presented as relatable and pleasant, and the other races are presented as different and unfamiliar. Even if your average earth human and your purple, raw-meat-eating fire-breathing alien are both main characters, one is obviously going to be more relatable than the other.

    The way you have multiple races without having a 'token normal' race is simple; every race has to be relatable. Maybe not in appearance or ability, but every race should display relatable emotions like happiness, excitement, pain, and loss. Every race should have some sort of community or family structure that we can relate to, every race should have something they're good at, something they can aspire to and be proud of.


    Ellis is an example of a typical human, he lives with his mother and father and helps to raise his little sister. He goes to school and dreams of becoming a pilot.

    Aaron is an example of a typical elf, he lives mostly by himself from a young age, and travels the world looking for individuals to teach him various skills. He dreams of converting the world to the ideology of the elvish culture.

    In this example, Aaron is almost totally unrelatable; there is nothing about his character that we can look at and say 'hey, I have that in my life, too!'

    If Aaron also had a family that helped to raise him, or if he was involved in the caring of others, or some kind of organized education system, or if his dream was of personal success instead of a stereotypical 'everyone should think like me' villain (which we are conditioned to distance ourselves from), then he would be relatable and humans would no longer be the token-normal race.
    #3 Minibit, Feb 4, 2014
    Last edited: Feb 4, 2014

  4. lel

    We both misunderstood each other. I meant that if we mix those races into other races, would that help avoid that linear perspective.

    And to the last one. "Aaron" Just because someone is relatable doesn't mean we like them, and when you gave that description of the elf, literally everything you said was vague.

    Travels the world - where?

    Various skills - Like what?

    And then we get a ball from left field.

    Dreams of converting the world into elvish culture - What even mang. (also spelled it like that on purpose) If he's traveling the world for skills, where does this dream of conversion come from.

    For the "Human" character

    "Ellis" is a typical human. We are humans, we are (excuse my language) batshit crazy. There is no typical. Unless you mean stereo, typical. stereotypical happy "Europeans" (I will not be racist ((EUROPEAN IS NOT A RACE. JUST A BUNCH OF PEOPLE))). Or the general shoujo character...

    He dreams of going to school and becoming a fighter pilot.-
    What... he can't go to school? Is he poor? Is there no school? IS family more important?

    Whatever. Right? That sounds more of a character building issue than a race building issue. Lol, I can make two boxes, give it the ability to breathe air and spit fire. Then build the character more.
  5. Sub-races help, but creating sub-races does not automatically solve the problem of creating racial sterotypes in your fiction.

    If we make a stereotype race list where Elves are good at archery, and Dwarves are good at using axes, and we add a sub-race with mixed Elvish and Dwarven blood, and say the outcome is a race that is good at using bows and axes, or has come up with some weapon that is a combination of the two (throwing hatchets, for example), then that hasn't solved the stereotyping, only added to it. The point of the lesson was to make all races multifaceted.

    I think you're making an unintended connection between 'Relating to' a character, and 'Liking' a character. My example wasn't meant to show characters, 'Ellis' and 'Aaron' were purposefully left vague because the point was not to understand their characters, but to show how if you give one race a stereotype that is relatable to the reader, and the other stereotypes that are foreign to the reader, it makes one race appear 'normal' and the other appear alien, creating an us-and-them perspective. In this way, even if Ellis and Aaron were both main characters of a story, you'd be more inclined to relate to Ellis, since his racial stereotype is one that's similar to most human experiences. It doesn't matter that Aaron is equally important to the story, we don't understand Aaron and relate to him the way we do with Ellis. This makes humans the token normal race.

    It doesn't matter for this lesson where Ellis goes to school, or what skills Aaron wants to learn. If I were writing a story about them of course I would have fleshed out their characters more, but the lesson I was trying to get across from my original post was this

    • Creating a stereotype race results in an entire species of predictable characters (the phenomenon of saying 'all elves are good at archery, live in harmony with nature, love green things and plants, enjoy poetry, and believe in the Goddess of life'. Details may change, but if this is your race definition, all elvish characters in the story/roleplay will have too much in common to be varied and dynamic. Obviously this is an exaggeratedly detailed example, but hopefully you see what I mean.)

    • When you create races, you should try to give ALL races relatable traits to avoid creating a racially biased worldview. (

    • If one race is relatable (and by relatable I mean we look at the traits of that race and can see similar or identical traits in our own species or life) and the rest are not, it creates a racist, us-and-them perspective.
    This is literally all I was trying to get across. I'll try to summarize:

    Flat, stereotyped races create flat, stereotyped characters. If the stereotype of one race is instantly and easily relatable, and the rest are not, it creates a racist 'normal vs weird' perspective
    #5 Minibit, Feb 5, 2014
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2014
  6. Ah, okay I see. Thanks. No harm done right?
  7. Yup! Sorry if my tone was kinda crazy there, I was running out of ways to explain and getting frustrated with myself
  8. LOL. I'm sorry.

    I was just stating possibilities

    *edit* I DID say it was a potentially bad question.
    • Like Like x 1
  9. I'd like to argue against the racist view here. In modern culture 'racist' has come to mean "saying anything related to race period." That is a racist statement in and of itself supporting whatever the culturally dominant stereotype at the time is. It promotes a sentiment that being different, or recognizing differences is bad. Some people are proud of their particular coloring and culture and to deny them that is racist. To that end, one must keep in mind that in a fantasy world the different races ARE different. Physical qualities and cultural tropes are and should exist in a fantasy world.

    I do however think you make a good point about differentiating races not on lines like "Elves are archers" but rather saying "Elves are predominantly archers." Then you have room to flesh out the culture and abilities. Maybe their god is the god of the hunt and they revere archery, maybe the average elf is born being naturally dexterous and thus archery comes easy, is elf eyesight really good? Did a god create a race to be especially strong? I have a hard time believing that centaurs are physically equal to humans, how do you get a 7'-8' half-human half-horse into doors made for humans.

    Point is, if you have different races, racism is inherent by definition. This is not a bad thing (in a role play, in this setting). One could even turn the inherent racism into a plot gimmick. Or, if you really don't want to have different races but your players demand it have every sentient creature be an offshoot of a base race that took on specific genetic and cultural traits based on location.

    Generally speaking, only a REALLY bad GM will say that you can't play a character a certain way because of their race (assuming you wrote the backstory convincingly enough to explain this). Dwarves like tinkering, mining, stone, and treasure? Play a Dwarven druid who hates the underground and lives in peace with nature. Then look at what sort of social pressures would have shaped such a dwarf growing up. It is a lot of fun to do. Not to mention that the old stereotypes often give the story a comfortable feel that people are used to.

    Just some thoughts, feel free to disagree.
    • Like Like x 2
  10. We're using different definitions of the term, I think. While I agree, the term 'racist' has been watered down, my point was NOT

    'Have minimal differences between races so that there isn't racism'


    'Avoid portraying races as uniform stereotypes, and avoid presenting one race as normal and the rest as weird'

    We need also, I think, to differentiate between 'weird', and 'strange'. By definition they are the same, but there is a slight difference in connotation. For clarity, I use 'weird' to refer to things that are different from the norm in a disturbing or off-putting way.

    A celebration of the differences between cultures, or even having actual racial prejudice or xenophobia in a story is fine, but that's an issue of storytelling, this lesson is about not giving your READER a racist perspective via stereotypes and token normals.

    I hope that makes sense, you make some good points but I think you may have misunderstood what I meant when I used the word 'racist'
  11. Yeah, I think that at the core we agree over how to create a balanced, realistic, vibrant world. Our disagreements are in semantics. I just wanted to make sure that was clear, because you have some great advice. :)
    • Like Like x 3
  12. What @Minibit is saying is true, races shouldn't be extremely specific/stereotypical in your worldbuilding or in your fiction.

    However... @Minibit what if the exposition of your world is through the historians of one particular race? They're for sure going to ascribe to stereotypes and certain biases. *looks at his Crucible of Mirrors world* YEP. They are very biased.
    • Like Like x 1
  13. Let me first say that I'm typing this in a half-joking manner.

    Your requirement to make all races relatable is incredibly racist. My purpose in having a race that isn't human is to have something unrelatable to us as humans. And it still doesn't work. I'll use your example above.
    Ellis grew up in a family. He received a general education. He has a self-gratifying career in mind.

    Aaron did not have a family around him to grow up in. He wasn't taught in one place, so he seeks out knowledge of his own accord. He wants to teach the world his beliefs because he believes it will help make the world better. (maybe he'll post threads about how to live right) What about this character is unrelatable?

    Number 2
    Again, I disagree. Here's the situation.
    Every elven child is taught how to wield a bow at the same time they learn their alphabet. They worship their goddess faithfully, and a part of that worship is to respect her creations. Because of that, they do not demolish forests to build their homes; they live among the trees, using what their goddess has given them rather than discarding it. Poetry is an important form of praise and thanksgiving. (I should thank you; the poetry bit is a wonderful little quirk I hadn't thought of before.)

    Even inside this, there will be different characters. Lalaith is a skilled poet and musician, so she often puts her poetry to music. She loves her peaceful life in the forest, taking long walks almost daily and always stopping to smell the flowers. She always smiles and greets everyone she sees.

    Kaleh, on the other hand, is not content. He critiques any poetry he listens to, free form especially. He is zealous in his worship of their goddess, and he is quick to pass judgment on those who transgress her commandments. He often looks outside his community at the wider world, seeing corruption that should be cleansed in the name of their goddess. He scowls most of the time.

    Nym came from a different village. They worship their goddess slightly differently where she comes from. She is a graceful dancer and will happily perform to any poetry one might have. She is attracted to Kaleh, so she listens to his tirades frequently. She does think he has a point about the evil in the world, but she thinks his violent attitude is in the wrong as well.

    That drew on a lot longer than I had first intended. To summarize my thoughts, if I'm going to the trouble of making a different race, then by golly I want some solid stereotypes. If there wasn't anything to make them fundamentally different from humans, there wouldn't be any point.
    • Like Like x 3
  14. All valid points, and I 100% agree! It seems I'm causing a lot of misunderstandings; I'm going to go back up and reword the original post; hopefully it comes across less drill-sergeant-y and racist :(
  15. Okay. After dealing with it often enough, I can see why you would be upset with stereotypical races. Having the same elf, the same dwarf, and the same orc in every RP would be frustrating and/or boring. I think the important part is how much thought one puts into a race and culture. Stereotypes can be good as long as there is a reason for them.
    • Like Like x 1
  16. All right, I've edited it; I hope it's easier to understand what I was trying to say. Looking over the old version, I can see how I raised some eyebrows.

    This is what happens when I don't save a workshop draft for a day to re-read and revise >.<