Fantasy Fiction and Stereotypes

Posted in Prose by Sandra on July 12, 2009

Skye has been waxing lyrical over the Wheel of Time series — especially over Lan.

“Oh, Lan, how much I desire thee, to feel thy strong arms envelopeth aroundeth me, to shriek in fan-girlish squeals as, gallant gentleman thou art protecteth me!” she cooed.

Really, I swear she actually said (typed in MSN) it all!

True story.



Ok, maybe I over-exaggerated a tiny little bit.

I’ve been tempted to pick up the heavy series again, but laziness stills my hands. They’re a colossal pain to prop up in bed and while eating with a hand. Of late, I’ve been reading a lot of Raymond E. Feist. The Murloc had introduced me to this extraordinary writer – for the curious, his first book is Magician – when our WoW-centric relationship turned to more RLish topics. (He also claims that he’d tried to order it through Borders Australia so I can pick up a copy from Borders Singapore… which didn’t happen because it can’t be done…?)

So far, I’ve noticed a thing (or three) about fantasy novels/movies. There’s always at least two factions (duh) and more often, three. By factions, I mean cultural factions.

There’ll be the obligatory Western /English society which your primary protagonist (for there can be many) stem from. This society will use terms that are familiar in most aspects, most evidently in their military and governmental infrastructure (ie, Sergeant, Baron). Free will is greatly valued; there will rarely, if ever, be slaves – for most men will be freemen, like merchants and carpenters. Not much store is placed by death – for the most part people of this society prefer life, not death in any form. Mannerisms will be polite but easy without much societal constraints, depending on station.  Clothing will be either conservative or slightly fancy, but never too extravagant. And nakedness is definitely a topic to blush upon. Religion is part of the free-will package, and there’re usually a variety of Gods to choose from. Appearance-wise, these people are usually “average”, like humans, with hair colour typical of Westerners. And similar builds.

Then, there’ll be a society with great semblance to the Eastern society, particularly Japan and Korea. They are the “foreigners” whose customs make sense only to themselves. This society’s language is usually convoluted with societal niceties, and words are often carefully considered before spoken lest it leads to an undesired consequence. When it comes to names for stations, they are usually unnecessarily long and ornate. Slavery is an accepted fact of life, and chances are practically nonexistent for slaves to be freed or climb up the social ladder. Free will exists in two choices when death greets you in the face – death, or the shame of you and your entire family. Honour is (very, very) important, and can be the deciding factor in decisions made rather than logic. Clothing can either be very formal with layers upon layers of robes, or so informal that a sheer short robe is appropriate for lounging within one’s own house… even with guests around. As you can expect, nakedness isn’t as taboo a subject as it is for the Western society “read-alike”. Religion is worship of the Emperor (or in the “…Of the Empire” series, the Light of Heaven), even to the exclusion of gods with temples. These people usually have dark hair and eyes, and slender of shorter build.

The third society would be of barbaric origins. The closest RL example would be tribes. This society’s language range from primal to “normal” (of a Western society’s). Government and military infrastructure range from simplistic to a structure that rivals even the best organized equivalents of their world, with station names of a straight-to-the-point-and-obey-immediately nature. Free will is commonplace – which is probably why there’re so many factions within this society around; half of them are renegades from the original faction. These barbarians, for a lack of a better name, don’t discriminate when it comes to slaves. They can be outsiders or of their own society; they don’t give a fuck. Slaves are slaves, and all slaves do the same thing. Survival is key, and there is no family to speak of, for one could easily turn on members of their own if their life was in danger. One who runs away, lives to regroup and attack another day. Clothing is versatile, they can be sparse or be a varied combination of spoils taken from their victims, but hardly elegant and pretty. Nakedness is probably a way of life… swing on, twig and berries! Their god is whatever god they have for harvest, life, and bloodshed. Of course, that’s simplifying it a whole lot.

Obviously the third society has the most to offer when it comes to variety. Do you want a grunting region of barbarians who barter instead of using currency, but overwhelm the more “civilized” nations with their sheer force and tactical ingenuity? You got it. Perhaps you prefer barbarians who are almost indistinguishable from those of the Western society, apart from their array of materials thanks to their incredible resourcefulness. Or maybe, barbarians who’re actually the most normal of the lot, a people you can actually sympathize with, apart from the fact that they eat babies every full moon. These barbarians usually look a lot more aggressive and dominating than the other societies with their imposing stature and tanned skin, but hair colour can be quite varied. Oh, and unlike the other two, this society revels in bloodshed and living in gloominess. They also seem to have a natural aversion to light (think Romulans of the recent Star Trek movie).

It’s a little annoying to read a fantasy novel series and then be able to say, “These Tsurani people are way too similar to the Japanese!”. It’s almost as if it takes the magic away because you now have a people in real life that you can compare to the characters in the books.

However, I understand that it’s unavoidable, these stereotypes. They help the audience identify with the various characters on a subconscious level, saving the author a great amount of work when it comes to explaining his societies. It’s easier and less complex when you have real life stereotypes to build your fictional characters on, requiring only minor tweaking of the real life counterparts to make your fictional heroes more believable in the pages of your novel. It’s okay.

I’m too tired to argue otherwise anyway… not that I have a good alternative for you, aspiring authors of fantasy fiction novels to come.


One Response

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  1. Skye said, on July 12, 2009 at 7:37 am

    NO I DID NOT!! >.>
    Actually I just like Lan and Nynaeve together :(

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