Sci-fi/Fantasy races and individuality

I was talking to a friend recently and mentioned how much I enjoyed the Mass Effect series of science fiction games, she said she tried it but couldn’t get into it because of the stereotypical alien races. I had to admit she had a point, Turians are the military race, Salarians the science race, the Asari the sexy blue space-babe race and so on. In addition I was idly reading through a friends copy of the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons handbook (something I’ve never personally played) and I was again struck by the same thing, especially regarding the dragons, ‘colour dragons’ are all evil and ‘metallic dragons’ are all good etc, so there are no good black dragons and no evil silver dragons? Where does individuality and free-will come into in then?

So basically my questions are, is this a problem, and would it be possible to show fantasy races and alien species without depicting them with general characteristics?

Over on TVtropes, this is known as a planet of hats. And it results from bad writing from lower-level hacks. (See:depiction of alien races in just about any SW EU you might happen to glance at.)

It’s a problem. It’s a nearly ubiquitous problem. It’s a crying shame.

Though at least, Dungeons & Dragons now says that when they say “always Evil” or “always Lawful”, they mean almost always. So in theory you could have a gold dragon that’s a serial killer or a Lawful Good paladin goblin. It’s… still not great, but it’s better than nothing.

Yeah: lazy writing. It’s perfectly valid to postulate an intelligent alien race being more ornery, more anti-social, by nature than humans are, but not making them all “evil.”

If memory serves, Tolkien addressed that in one of his letters: what if you took an orc kid, and raised him with Elvish or Dwarvish foster-parents? Would he grow up to be a nasty, evil, blood-thirsty, vicious orc? Specifically, would he have moral failings?

Sometimes it’s easier to portray them that way; a more nuanced portrayal would get in the way of the story.

I’m writing a speculative fiction novel with different races and cultures, and I find it way more interesting not to make them into one monolithic entity as a people. There are some cultural characteristics they share in common – language, attitudes toward sexuality, religion – but they all have unique ways of expressing those things.

But I’m also trying really hard to explain why these cultures view one another as distinct, aside from the obvious physical characteristics. My male protagonist, Fel, is a Thevian. That means he’s a member of a relatively small minority race that is despised by the rest of the people in his country because he was the product of a brutal occupation (read: rape and pillage spree.) So he and his people were herded into a kind of refugee camp, employed for cheap mining labor and otherwise offered very few prospects for self-sufficiency. As a result, a lot of them turned to fighting and whoring to make a living. And as a result of that, they have pretty loose sexual mores as a culture and tend to look at violence as a part of life. So they are largely viewed by the already biased general population as savage human beings, treated all the worse, and on the cycle goes.

Fel behaves in many ways that are stereotypical to his race. He’s unabashedly violent, an alcoholic, and will sleep with just about anyone. He’s also severely traumatized from a lifetime of brutality and is internally kind of an emotional wreck, pretty damned smart and inclined to protect people he views as innocent. His character arc is largely about growing up emotionally and thinking about someone other than himself for a change. In order to do that, he has to overcome his internalized belief that he is worthless.

I’d like to think this is a realistic way to look at a culture. We’ve established that these are individuals with different expressions of their own culture, but also the reasons why they are viewed in a certain way. The most obvious real-world comparison I could make is the American bias toward inner-city communities without any real acknowledgment that this is what happens when people’s quality of life has been reduced to a struggle for survival and 40% of the population suffers from PTSD.

I mean, these are really my social work roots showing up, but I’d like to think it’s more interesting than Good Race vs. Evil Race.

One of Brin’s Uplift books had a couple of characters who were alien ambassadors (from two different races) to a human world. One of them was chosen because he had a remarkably subdued (by his people’s standards) sense of humor, which made it easy for him to relate to the relatively humorless humans. The other was chosen because he had a remarkably well-developed (again, by his people’s standards) sense of humor, for the same reason. So there is individual variation in each of the species, but there’s also a great deal of variation between species.

Which is basically how reality works.

Honestly, I find there are plenty of novels that seem to recognize this, but not as many games, movies, and short-form media. Perhaps because they have more limited space to tell a story and want to break it down into broad strokes? I only know that I also generally find it unsatisfying.

I do play D&D but I always kind of took the system for granted so I can’t say it bothers me in that context. But in D&D, it’s not uncommon for a player to choose a character with a certain racial profile and do something off the beaten path with him/her. In a humorous example, my husband had a half-orc character named Grog, who was a cleric. He used ‘‘lay on hands’’ on people by giving them a solid kick, and routinely started fights at the worst possible time with NPCs… but also his character was obsessed with literacy and collecting dolls. And he hated my character because she smoked, which he maintained was ‘‘worse than adultery.’’

D&D is an example where you can do just about anything.

From an alien’s POV I’m sure humanity would look mostly the same, despite our protests to the contrary. A lot of dualistic religions are deterministic too, you’re either a good angel or an evil devil.

Yeah, I always like asking “what’s the Planet of Hats stereotype for the humans in this universe?” I think the most common is that humans are the emotional/violent/asshole race.

I find the use of Mass Effect in the OP kind of funny, because I read something a while ago where someone was complaining the ME aliens didn’t wear their hats enough.

I played Arduin Grimoire (Bonus points if you know what that is)…I had a guy play a good Deodanth. (A hated race because they are so bloody evil and dangerous). He got upset a lot cause townsfolk would shun him…and at first attack him, until he quite rightly showed me I was playing into that videogame trope where an entire town of normal folk will attack a literal GOD if they see him accidentally steal an apple.

But as for shunning him…sorry dude, my medieval fantasy world isn’t known for their social progressive tendencies even if you are good.


One of D&D’s biggest franchise characters (if not the biggest) is a dark elf who gave up being an evil guy to live on the surface world and be a good guy.

Granted, he’s a huge wish-fulfillment character with a hefty dose of “No one understands me and I’m so tortured but also I’m the best sword fighter in the world and have a magic panther pet so there’s that” going on but the “left the ways of his kind” aspect is a central part of that.

In games, I think it’s sort of essential that you assume that the goblins or moon-monsters are evil since you’ll be murdering your way through them and don’t want to stop and think that maybe that last one was opening a shelter for orphaned kittens.

In fantasy, with its races that pretty much all live longer than humans (elves, dwarves, etc) it’s generally: “Humans are brash and combative but pack so much living into their short spans that they make the world move” versus the lethargic nature of the other races whose cultures are locked in virtual stasis.

D&D doesn’t actually say that goblins are always evil, either. There’s “often <alignment>”, “usually <alignment>”, and “always <alignment>”. The first two are usually a reflection of typical culture and upbringing, with maybe some degree of biological inclination, so an orc (often chaotic evil) or dark elf (usually neutral evil) raised among humans probably wouldn’t have any particular inclination towards any alignment (though the dark elf might be more likely to have angsty urges towards evil behavior).

“Always <alignment>” comes in three varieties. “Always Neutral” is usually creatures (like ordinary animals) not intelligent enough to make meaningful moral or ethical distinctions, and so they’re just neutral by default (fifth edition instead calls this “unaligned”). Then you’ve got creatures like dragons, and a handful of magical beasts: They’re literally Born That Way. They don’t have what we’d recognize as an “infancy”, and are capable right from hatching of thinking, reasoning, and communicating about as well as a human, and have an inborn alignment. They still have free will, and can in principle choose to change their behaviors, but it’s considerably less common than it is for humans to change their learned alignments (which is already fairly rare). Finally, there are creatures like angels, demons, and devils, which are literally composed of the purified essence of their alignment. Even these can, in truly extraordinary one-in-a-million circumstances, change their alignment, but that’s a change not just to what they do or how they think, but of literally what they inherently are.

In his defense, he says he was looking through an AD&D book where goblins are just evil and not “Typically evil”.

“Lidsville”? :slight_smile:

I can’t dispute that, but a more generous interpretation is found here. If the link won’t work for you try searching for “So to everyone else in the galaxy, all humans are basically Doc Brown.”

Humanity’s “hat” in real life is a kind of jitsu thing where we turn our weaknesses into our strengths. We’re pretty terrible at, say, defending ourselves against hungry lions, so we learned how to technology ourselves into You Do Not Want To Mess With Us, Kitty, and then we just kept going even though the lions were taken care of, because hey, we could. Because the invention-y part of our brain doesn’t go into sleep mode just because the current problem is taken care of. And we did this for all the things that we suck at- we took the one thing we do have going for us, our brains, and we solved our problems so freakin’ hard that we ended up at the top of the food chain. Because that’s just how we roll.

In most fantasy stories? Nonhumans are the lions. They’ve got magic powers and special senses and they live way longer. You can have a virgin forest full of hidden elf villages and they’ll all have food and shelter and pretty clothes without disturbing the local ecosystem, because they’re wise and Closer To The Earth and they figured out the art of frolicking with the deer and the bunnies at roughly the dawn of time. And they’ve probably been doing things the same way ever since, because why fix what’s not broken?

But those poor, pitiful, puny humans- they have to work at it. They have to struggle to put bread on the table, to rain-proof the roof. They get sick and need to be cured, they run out of resources and have to travel to far-away places. They have to come up with elaborate, time-consuming methods for what the elves and the fairies and the dragons do with ease. And you know what? While they’re doing this, while they’re coming up with solutions to problems others don’t have, they’ll go further. They’ll have new ideas. They’ll have lucky accidents. They’ll say, “What happens if I take this thing and this thing, and put them together?” And they’ll come up with grand creations the hidden forest elves never would have dreamed of, that create something new instead of filling a lack. And the world changes, because a human said, “Hmm, I wonder…”

…is completely unknowable, because we don’t know what any other sapient race is like. Maybe the trait you just described is universal to all sophonts in the Universe.

And maybe there are no “hats” at all, just a number of variables that can each have a range of values, and every race has its own set of values for those variables, and you can uniquely define races only by using several different variables. Like, maybe humans are the race that improvises and has a sense of humor but isn’t a hive-mind, but there are other races that don’t improvise but have a sense of humor and aren’t hive-minds, or that improvise and aren’t a hive-mind but don’t have a sense of humor, or that improvise, have a sense of humor, and are hive-minds.

I’m comparing humans to other animals here, not sophonts.

And that would be great. I’m just saying that if you did give fantasy humans a hat of sort, I think it would make sense, based on real human experience and on typical fantasy races, for the hat to be innovation and invention.

It doesn’t even have to be universal, or even true in-universe. I mean, racial stereotypes are a thing that exist, even though most of them are false or exaggerated. An elf, a dwarf, and an elemental [del]walk into a bar[/del] might be sitting around talking about how humans are gageteer geniuses, and then be confused when they meet one and she can’t fix their broken gizmo.