World Building—Creating a Culture (Part 2: Stereotyping)

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?

spockandlegolasWhen 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.

About Avily Jerome

Avily Jerome is a writer and the editor of Havok Magazine. Her short stories have been published in various magazines, both print and digital. She has judged several writing contests and is a writing conference teacher and presenter. She writes speculative fiction, her ideas ranging from almost-real-world action/adventures to epic fantasies to supernatural thrillers.

9 comments on “World Building—Creating a Culture (Part 2: Stereotyping)

  1. Like legends, there is truth in stereotypes to one degree or another or else the stereotypes would not have arisen in the first place! Tolkien’s hobbits are based on the rural England and its people whom he loved. They are stereotypes of bucolic, good-natured British farmers. And that only serves to make LOTR even more true.

    Your title however took me aback at first a bit, because in today’s climate the word “stereotype” lends itself to the witch cry of “racism” so prevalent in certain voices. Using elements of stereotypes is not racist, it adds texture and accuracy as long it is not overdone. For example, my current WIP Jezebelle is set in the deep south. Two minor villains are a couple of good ol’ shotgun-totin’ boys who really aren’t so good. That’s not a stereotype, I went to high school with some guys like this. 🙂 It’s “local color” and any artist using stereotypical traits with care embellishes the portrait.

    You are absolutely right, stereotypes can help define character and give them a realistic edge, even in fantasy. I love your comparison between Spock and Legolas. And an Orc who just wants to write poetry. That’s taking a stereotype, the evil nasty goblin, and showing us something fresh. Niiiiiiiice. Excellent post. Show us more on how to be a better sub-creator!

    • I considered clarifying that point. And also the fact that I’m not encouraging people to stereotype the people around them, but rather pointing out that we all do it already. Our minds automatically put stimuli into categories and we make conclusions, often unconsciously, based on the information our minds have already categorized. Of course, each person is unique and layered, but you’re absolutely right, the reason stereotypes exist in the first place is because certain things tend to be true about certain people/cultures/religions/etc. and using those pre-existing categories isn’t racist profiling, it’s acknowledging certain tendencies and using that to give a sense of realism.

      And thanks! I’m glad it’s giving people some things to think about.

  2. There is a fine line of difference between stereotyping and profiling, and it comes down to motive. If we try to paint all southerners as good old gun toting rednecks, we do the other 99% of the population a disservice. As you say, Avily, stereotyping serves the purpose of giving the reader the picture without having to use a thousand words. And even profiling can be used for good, when good is the motive.

    • Exactly.
      Stereotyping is different from profiling. As I mentioned in my comment above, I’m not trying to encourage people to put others in boxes, I’m simply saying that we already do it to a certain extent, because that’s how our brains keep track of information, and using that to create more realistic fiction is a good thing.

  3. […] I’m continuing my series on world building. Start by checking out Part One and Part Two. […]

  4. […] continuing my series on world building. Come check out Part One, Part Two: Stereotyping, and Part Three: Building a […]

  5. […] continuing my series on world building. Come check out Part One, Part Two: Stereotyping, Part Three: Building a Religion, and Part Four: Climate and […]

  6. […] that is available at that time. If you’re just joining me, come check out Part One, Part Two: Stereotyping, Part Three: Building a Religion, and Part Four: Climate and Clothes, and Part 5: History and […]

  7. […] my series on World Building, I had a section on Stereotypes. Stereotypes exist for a reason. It’s okay for your character to fall into them. Add dimension […]

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