I have started a series on world building. I’m trying to incorporate these things into my own worlds, and I hope they’ll help you with developing yours. Last time, I talked about fleshing out your world with diverse races, religions, and customs for different people groups in your world.
This time, I want to talk about how you can use stereotyping to create a richer understanding of your world.
What do you think of when you see the characters in this picture?
When you see the character on the left, what do you know about him? Obviously, this particular character is iconic, but if you saw another character with the same features, what would you know about what he thinks, how he reacts to the world around him, and what his personality is like, based on what you know about this character?
What about for the character on the right?
Cultural influences are important both when writing fantasy and when writing in the real world. Think about some of the cultural stereotypes that are prevalent in our own culture. Stereotypes are there for a reason. Of course, as a writer, you want to avoid writing characters who are stereotyped, but at the same time, those stereotypes serve a purpose.
We all make certain conclusions about people based on what we know of those cultures. Suppose you see a woman in a burka. You’re automatically going to make some assumptions about her culture and religion. You may or may not be accurate in your assessment of her, but those thoughts are going to be there. If you’re traveling through Utah and you see a clean-cut man in a white shirt with a black tie leading a troupe of women in denim dresses, two of whom are pregnant, across a street, you’re going to make certain assumptions about him. If you’re watching a movie and in the opening scene you see an Italian man counting money in the back of a little restaurant, you’re going to come to specific conclusions about him.
Stereotypes are useful because they help us paint a picture based on the information we already have. If you have a character who speaks with a drawl, you give a picture of where he’s from, and you can use that to round out your character.
Stereotypes come from all sorts of places and are based on all sorts of attributes. We stereotype people according to race, what type of clothing they wear, what religion they claim, where they grew up, what kind of accent they have, and dozens of other things. Understanding and using stereotyping can help you create a setting that your reader understands. You can lead your reader to certain conclusions based on stereotypes that are already present.
But what if you’re writing sci-fi or fantasy?
You can create your own stereotypes, of course!
When you create stereotypes and play with those, you build a world in which you can create round characters, which will flesh out your culture. For example, in your sci-fi story, you could have an old adage that says, “Never make a business deal with a Plutonian.” In your fantasy, you could have elves suspicious of dwarves because dwarves always lie, or you could have a stigma against anyone who doesn’t know how to use magic (or who does).
As you’re writing your world, think about the different places, people groups, and religions you have, and how you can incorporate stereotyping to create a sense of understanding of how the cultural dynamics play into your characters and story. Creating stereotypes based on the races, religions, geographical locations, and occupations will give depth to your world and your characters. Is there a set of tracks (or a galactic divide or a river) that your character can be from the wrong side of?Is there a dominant religion or political regime that your character follows or rebels against? Is there a minority race that your character identifies with? Write stereotypes into your story in order to give your reader a fuller understanding of your world.
Moreover, once you establish those stereotypes, you can break them to create interesting characters. For example, an Orc who just wants to write poetry. A Martian who isn’t a crook. An elf who believes all races are equal. And so on. These are the things that make your world unique but also enable your reader to identify with your setting and characters.