LOSING THE RACE
By Steven Savage
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Years ago, someone told me Star Trek was racist.
This, of course, stunned me. The original series broke down barriers. It dealt with racism. The Next Generation series dealt with issues too, and . . .
No, said this person, the racism was directed towards aliens, many of whom were stereotypical in some way. Humans were diverse, aliens were very much alike, in this persons opinion, each having a set of stereotypical qualities. In short, stereotyped by the writers the way some people may stereotype ethnic groups.
This got me thinking. It stuck with me for a long time.
Later, I heard complaints that Star Wars: The Phantom Menace had racial stereotypes, using classic stereotypes to define races. I heard arguments about it . . .
I thought some more.
Over time, I came to realize an interesting fact: you could be racist towards your own creations. You can make your races in your worlds stereotypical. Fictional worlds were filled with this.
When this happens it can be boring and glaringly obvious and limit people's ability to enjoy the story as well as your ability to write it. It could clog your mind with your own limitations.
So, of course, I decided to write a column on it.
The problem is that when creating whole new races is that people tend to make them stereotypical: "race X is violent, race Y is wise, etc."
This, in the end, is often just creating by stereotypes - I need a wise race, I need a forest race, I need a villain race. Too often the stereotypes applied to characters are applied to races - villain, brain, warrior, miser, etc.
First of all, let's be honest - this is just laziness. It avoids fine detail, it avoids good explanations, it avoids really exploring the details that enrich your story. When it happens to characters, it can have negative effects on the depth and believability of your work - when it happens to entire races, it amplifies these negative effects. One character being unbelievable is understandable - an entire part of your universe being unbelievable is quite another.
Also, it can become rather boring for the reader "Oh, look, a Kurakian War Mage. Wow, I wonder if he's going to be the villain . . . wow, another kidnapped princess, what do you know." Stereotyped characters are at least one person, but a stereotyped race can be an endless source of potential stereotypes, giving you a crutch that can end up making your story less credible and boring your readers (and possibly you).
Now non-sentient races may be more stereotypical because they're in an ecological nice. However, in dealing with sentient races, races that are intelligent and adaptable, it becomes harder and harder to explain.
Take a look at the one sentient species we know: humans. We exist in every environment on our planet. The difference between a New Yorker and a South American native hunter could practically be the difference between species. Our intellect, our sentience, gives us the ability to adapt.
And there's no reason to assume that other sentient races are markedly less adaptable than we are - in short, stereotypes. Intellect, the ability to process, pass on, and retain information means some level of adaptability.
When designing intelligent races, keep the power of intellect in mind. Remember there's no reason to assume that other sentient races will somehow be lockstep boring clones - so if you create lockstep boring clones, have a reason.
THE SECOND SIDE:
One way to respond to stereotypes of non-human races is the classic, overdone idea that (drumroll) humans are the MOST ADAPTABLE BADASSES IN THE WORLD/UNIVERSE/DIMENSION! Everyone else is secondary and inferior!
It's been done. In one or two cases have I seen it done well. To be frank, I wouldn't risk it in your story unless you're really ready to burn some human brainpower on doing a good story and not creating "Humanz Rulez!" or "well, I don't want to design detailed races."
Don't make humans superior unless that fits your word - make races equally as interesting and detailed.
BREAKING OUT OF
STEREOTYPED RACE DESIGN:
However, it's all fine and good to acknowledge the problem of stereotyping new races, but how do you get out of it?
My usually answer of course, is "design with a strong continuity," but let's face it - it's easy to do this, and thus a hard habit to break.
My advice is:
Make the effort. You'll be happier as a writer and have a happier audience as well.
Don't stereotype your own races - explore and develop them. It'll make more believable, easier to write worlds people will enjoy.