Rewriting the Bad Guys

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Andrew Knighton put me onto this article in a recent blog post of his. Overthrowing the stereotypes of fantasy – the beautiful elf, the evil orc, etc. – is a trend that’s been gathering steam for a while now. Whether it’s the race in general (Wilson lists a few examples in his article) or an individual archetype, such as the Wicked Witch of the West in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, there’s a general exploration of subtlety going on.

The most celebrated are the rehabilitated. – Wicked, the Musical

Wilson makes some very interesting points about the connection between this and our cultural stereotypes in the real world, which is an angle I’d not previously considered. Whilst I’d agree that we’ve certainly made progress – or had a progressive view of other cultures forced upon us by more open social communication – I’m not sure that we’ve made as much progress as all that. The cultural stereotype is still a prime source of fodder for both comedy and drama, they just tend to be a bit more subtle now. They aren’t gone. Plus there are one or two errors in Wilson’s statements which the comments are quick to point out.

But this isn’t a political blog, it’s a blog about writing. So, leaving the politics of it aside, let’s look at why stereotypes are changing. They do have their uses, after all – it gives the reader some solid ground to immediately identify things on. A short sentence can instantly build quite a detailed and complex scene because you are drawing on imagery that the reader is already familiar with. Why lose that?

Well, there’s a couple of reasons. Firstly, as Andrew pointed out, it forces you to up your game as a writer. To improve, find new words rather than relying on old ones that have had all the freshness and shine rubbed out of them through over-use. That can only be a good thing. It also means the reader has to engage brain a bit more, which means they are more invested in the story. Also worth a big thumbs-up.

Secondly, and building on that, it means the reader is more entertained because what you’re presenting them is something new. There are gazillions of stories out there that they could be reading – why should they pick yours? What makes it different? Everyone knows the tale of the Three Little Pigs. If you want someone to read it again, you need to give them a reason. For example, the Guardian’s award-winning advert for open press:

And thirdly, building on that, our tastes as readers have changed. We want a more complete picture, more sophisticated storytelling, with reasons for everything. ‘Because they’re evil’ just doesn’t cut it any more. Why are they evil? And is it a justified moral judgement, or just a cultural misunderstanding? I think this is where Wilson’s point about cultural perception comes more powerfully into play – stereotypes aside, we do generally have a far greater appreciation that ‘different’ =/= ‘bad’. Building cultures that inevitably clash gives you a much more nuanced and interesting story. Yes, it involves a lot more work on the world-building front but personally I’d put that in the plus column. Anything to make your setting richer and more immersive can only be good. Also, culture-building is fun and often leads to you learning more about other people’s rich history of fairytales. I’m sure I’ve mentioned them before, but Sarah Zettel’s Isavalta Trilogy does some fantastic things with Russian and Chinese mythology.

Finally, I’d like to point you in the direction of a brilliant piece of online fiction by Ursula Vernon, which consciously subverts the stereotypes of elf and orc for comic effect. The story is unfinished, which is a tragedy, but absolutely worth reading. I go back to it at least once a year.

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One response »

  1. Behold, I am a fount of inspiration!

    That aside, I thought of another good example just now. The TV show Misfits undermines stereotypes of both superheroes and urban youth. Stereotypes of the sort of people who end up on community service are used to comedic effect but also undermined in a way that makes the characters very sympathetic (to me at least – mileage may vary with the viewer’s tolerance for misbehaviour and casual swearing). At the same time it challenges expectations around the use of superpowers, and around what motivates people to do good.

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