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I'm interested in starting a pleasure project: a fantasy story, along the lines of a witch delivering a prophecy to a king about a dangerous and deceitful foe who will overthrow him, and the king enlists three other witches to seek out and destroy this foe.

I want to draw on traditional, arguably "cliché" (?) fantasy species, like elves, orcs, goblins, dwarves, faeries, etc. However, I realize that many aspects of these races contain hidden racism--blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white elves that are completely superior, barbaric orcs with dark skin who just happen to be the only race that wears dreads/braids, banking goblins with hooked noses that totally aren't Jews.

How can I involve some of these older elements, while leaving behind the racist subtext some of them carry?

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    Is your goal here to not use the stereotypical versions of the species (in which case the answer seems to be "don't write them that way") or to use the stereotypical versions, but not have the supposed racial baggage (in which case I'm not sure I have an answer). – eyeballfrog Aug 21 at 21:32
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Aug 21 at 21:54
  • First two or three comments that were here (now moved to chat) were referenced by top answer, if anyone's curious what it's referring to. – Thing-um-a-jig Aug 21 at 23:35
  • Maybe this is harsh, but this reads like help me before I Jim Crow again. Your characters and races embody the values you want them to as the author. They are symbols and finger puppets for the story you want to create, and nothing more. – EDL Aug 25 at 19:15

17 Answers 17

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This is a great question. I think being aware of the problem is a good first step. If you really do want to use the traditional creatures but without the baggage, I think you'll have to take on the suggestion from the comments section, and subvert the tropes --either by inverting, replacing or mixing up the coded racial signifiers, or by revealing the inner heroism of one of the despised groups, or the inner villainy of one of the favored groups.

I've encountered it done both ways. Ursula LeGuin deliberately made her more civilized races darker skinned, and her more barbarian races paler in her famed Earthsea sequence (but it was so subtle that most readers and basically all illustrators and adapters just ignored it). For a more bold statement, Shrek is a revisionist fairy tale that recasts the ogres as the heroes and the prince as the villain (although it's only the donkey that is portrayed by a voice actor of color in the movie version). It should go without saying that there's still plenty of potential to offend people, however, if you do this wrong. Jar Jar Binks was on the side of the heroes in the Star Wars prequels, but that didn't make people any happier about his pseudo-Jamaican patois.

With that said, I would still encourage you to make the effort. When I was a young FF & SF fan of color, I was pathetically grateful on any of the --excessively rare --occasions that I encountered a legitimate hero of color in any of my favorite books. These kind of portrayals, whether or not you notice them consciously, do make a difference.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Aug 23 at 18:28
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    While I agree that having protagonists that reflect yourself is a positive experience, I don't consider this subverting a trope. Having a physically weak character in the role of a swashbuckling hero is subverting a troupe, but making the hero African, Asian, or Hindu isn't – EDL Aug 25 at 19:21
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Humans don't all look the same, dress the same, speak the same language. Why should $FANTASYRACE?

So you have Legolas elves. You should also have Rhea Perlman elves. You should have Lupita Nyong'o elves. Benedict Wong elves. Peter Dinklage elves. Your dwarves can look like Gimli and Thorin, and they can also look like Michelle Pfeiffer. You should have deaf dwarves, dwarves who need the equivalent of a wheelchair, band geek dwarves. Some of your orcs have dreads. Some of them look like Masai warriors. Some of them look like Dwayne Johnson.

Humans evolved to adapt to geography and climate. Their clothing and culture varies widely over even a few hundred miles depending on politics and history. Your other races should be the same. They may all be symmetrical and bipedal mammals, but beyond that, try to work beyond the [TV TROPES WARNING] Planet of Hats syndrome.

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    For this to work well, the elves also need something in common more than just pointy ears. Something that sets them apart from humans. Horses and donkeys each have a wide variety of possible features, but each also has a set of common features within their species that make them distinct from the other. Maybe elves have opposable toes? Maybe dwarves have inhumanly large eyes with tapetum lucida? – called2voyage Aug 21 at 14:10
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    This depends on how geographically spread the elves are, though. If there's elves all over the world, you'd expect variation between the different populations. If they all live in the same magical forest, they probably won't look all that different from each other. – eyeballfrog Aug 21 at 21:27
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    Mix it all into a giant ball of crap until I literally have no idea where to start because you've stolen from everywhere but subverted everything. +1 – Mazura Aug 22 at 2:50
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    I would love to see a Peter Dinklage elf! – Stig Hemmer Aug 22 at 7:12
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    @StigHemmer Along with Verne Troyer and Warwick Davis — instead of Snap, Crackle, and Pop, or the Keebler Elves, they could be Smoke, Drink, and Gamble, the Organized Crime Elves. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Aug 22 at 10:06
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A world with races (or species) so dissimilar from one another, without a continuum between them, ought to be racist. Subverting the trope, which is a trope in itself, is going to just flip the racist viewpoint, without removing it. You can make short dark elves with long beards, and you simply switched names between your previously established racial tropes.

You could create characters with such a depth that your readers would not care if they were a human, a spider or a rock. However at that point, all your characters could just be humans. And if you could you write the same fantasy story with just a few distinct groups of humans, then racial differences are nothing more than a garment, which you use in the attempt to add color to the scene, but serves no purpose. That is possible, but no matter how you paint them, you are using their features to help the reader discriminate between them. That is yet another way of being racist.

Alternatively, make all of them look the same, with the same variety. All drawn from a population with a similar continuum of features, and just give them different names. The people from near the lake call themselves "humans", the people from near the seacoast call themselves "orcs" and the people from the hills call themselves "elves", but stripped of their clothes, and of their traditions, they all look the same. Eddison, the author of "the worm Ouroboros", did something close to that to differentiate between Demons, Imps and Witches: while they all look rather similar1, the personalities of the characters and traditions of each group are then so powerfully written that as a reader you feel immediately whether you are reading about a Demon, an Imp or a Witch.

1 Similar like two people from the same country could look. Definitively no defining stock racial features.

On the other hand, if you wish to keep races/species with stock features which are defining of each group, then I would suggest to embrace the trope, use it, exaggerate it, and if it deeply bothers you, show its pointlessness in your story.

  • OP is asking how to change my perception of reality. Good luck with that. – Mazura Aug 22 at 2:39
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I noticed something interesting in the way you phrased your question:

I want to draw on traditional, arguably "cliché" (?) fantasy species

You don't want to re-invent the wheel, you only want to avoid using the old, racist-looking one. I think what you're looking for is archetypes.

Every concept which you refer to has it's own archetype. There's a creative process to this. Sure, elves are often depicted as blue-eyed magical warrior princesses, but it's not necessarily representative of the idea of an elf.

This is how many authors or lore can have their own depiction of the same thing, under different lights. They delimited what what vital to the archetype they wanted to use, then threw the rest away.

Still with the example of elves, Tolkien kinda set the bar here. Kinda, since he too was drawing from archetypes, which in turn drew from a specific culture. Yet, when we think of elves we more often than not think about his version of the archetype. Other authors often just took it as is and ran with it, and that's fine.

On the other hand, some authors didn't.

The Warhammer 40k creative direction made their elves into exquisitely savage aliens.

Terry Pratchett made them fascinating, dangerous fae.

Guy Gavriel Kay used Tolkien's archetypes, yet subverted them to his means.

What you need to do is to start asking yourself:

"What is an elf to my story?"

Then you'll learn a few things. Maybe you really just want to do like Kay and use the Tolkien's archetype, but in a way in which you'll be more confortable. But maybe you'll discover that elves are, to your story, something else entirely.

Let's say, for the sake of making an example, that your though process ends up with you thinking this: "Elves are immortal, beautiful prophecy-driven magicians from an ancient race which has strong ties to nature." Notice how they don't need blue eyes, nor blond hairs. Also, notice how you could give them horns or cats eyes and they would still fit this description.

I'm not saying "Go on, make something new!". I'm saying: "Archetypes are a tool, not an end. Use it for all it's worth and let go of the rest."

Good luck.

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    +1 on this, but Pratchett didn't just make elves dangerous, he also skirted very well with attitude to 'magical creatures' & also human races, by making some characters a bit racist [some massively but not really A-List characters] & others not at all. Compare Ridcully & Rincewind's idea of what "other people" are like, or people's attitude to the Librarian, or TwoFlower, or trolls, or dwarfs... [& a million other examples I'd have to make a whole answer out of ;) Some books deal almost entirely with 'speciesism' of one sort or another; Thud, Jingo, even Monstrous Regiment to some extent. – Tetsujin Aug 23 at 15:01
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First of all, learn about the fantasy species you want to write about

You want to populate your world with the traditional fantasy species, but your own perception of them appears to be based on only a few pop-culture reference points. As an example, you talk of dreadlocks-wearing orcs as if this was a common trait. However, this is merely how Peter Jackson depicted them. Not how Tolkien wrote them, not how a hundred other authors wrote them. Maybe someone else did write orcs with dreadlocks, but why be limited by that?

So, start by learning more about each fantasy species. Find out what their mythological originas are, as @Oxy points out. Find out how different authors treated those same species - @Laancelot mentions this. Get a grounding in what each species that interests you was, and how it changed. Terry Pratchett, for example, plays with all those elements a lot, in particular giving us an example in Lords and Ladies:

Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.
The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.
No one ever said elves are nice.
Elves are bad.

Pratchett plays here with both what Elves originally were, and what they became in our perception, and in the process he creates the Elves that are his.

The more you know, the more material you have to play with, to adopt, hint at, or deconstruct at will. You needn't be confined to the best-known stereotypes - you can create something that is completely unique, while at the same time being absolutely true to what we "know" about the species.

Step two: decide what makes each species unique, and what they mean to your story

As @Amadeus says, if your elves and your dwarves and your goblins are just differently-shaped humans, what do you need them for? As @Laancelot says, what makes each species "special" is not their appearance (although their appearance might well be derived from what makes them special).

Tolkien's elves are super-wise and super-beautiful and super-artists because they represent a yearning for the past, specifically for a past that is more magical and more heroic and more beautiful - the past that we read about in romances rather than the past as it was. They belong to that past - there is much talk of them fading, their age ending, etc. They themselves are nostalgic, busy with remembering how things were 3000 years ago.
Because this is their part in the story and in the world, they are beautiful, and also not very active - they offer council, but don't actually do much. Them being pale-skinned is is secondary to this, but also makes sense in this picture: this is how an early 20th century Englishman would code nostalgia.

In your story, Elves might mean something different, or they might mean the same - but being a different person, you might code it differently. Either way, nothing says they have to be pale-skinned, unless you choose to say they are.

Most important, so I will stress it again, find out what each species means to your story, and why it is there. What makes them unique, why they aren't humans. Everything else will be derived from it. (Although, you can first write the first draft, and then find out what it all means. As a discovery writer, that happens.) To use Neil Gaiman's words,

There is room for things to mean more than they literally mean. [...] And I'm not talking about allegory here, or a metaphor, or even the Message. I'm talking about what the story is about, and then I'm talking about what it's about. (Neil Gaiman, The View from the Cheap Seats, Confessions: On Astro City and Kurt Busiek)

You can talk about racism and deconstruct "racial" perceptions

@ChrisSunami mentions Shrek. In Star Trek the Ferengi started out as small, ugly, money-loving, suspiciously Jewish characters (all the more visible since Jews as an ethnicity were rather conspicuously missing from the series). Then the series started deconstructing the "racial traits" of the Ferengi as a bad thing. Tolkien has the orcs discuss how they're not at all happy fighting for Sauron, only it's not like the other side would be nice to them.

There is no reason why each of yous species shouldn't be complex and interesting, while at the same time maintaining certain unique traits. Since the species has unique traits, you can examine them, note the good and the bad, note why those traits came to be and why they are perpetuated, and how they affect things.

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    Where did this deconstruction of Ferengis' "racial traits" as being bad happen? Do you have an Episode to reference as example? – DrCopyPaste Aug 22 at 9:37
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    @DrCopyPaste In Deep Space 9, the later seasons, Quark's Ferengi attitude saves the day. I'll have to do some digging to find you specific episodes. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Aug 22 at 22:14
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    I suspect @Galastel is referring more to DS9 than Next Gen. A lot of time was spent in the later series exploring Ferengi culture from the inside via Quark, and to a lesser degree Rom and Nog. Edit: Ninja'd by 42sec! – MandisaW Aug 22 at 22:14
  • Yea I'd guess that, too, but then again, where do you draw the line between "racial traits" and culture then? Is exploring culture really the same as deconstructing racial traits as being bad? Saving the day does not seem so bad... Isn't it maybe the case that they just show that some supposed "racial traits" aren't racial at all, but were limited to the individuals we were exposed to before? Might be nitpicky, but there is a difference imho. – DrCopyPaste Aug 23 at 8:10
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Distance yourself from the Tolkenian interpretation on those fantasy races (and be aware that most modern fiction draws heavily from it, so ditch it all too).

If you look at pre-existing folklore, elves are not precisely arian, goblins are not precisely rich, orcs are more nordic than southern... etc. If you are aware of where's every trait that you add coming from, you can more easily separate the traits that come from local prejudes of the last re-harshal of fantasy, and what comes from an underlying mythology (which could perfectly be based on just ancient cultures prejudices, but they are so different from ours that it's hard to distinguish those from Original Ideas).

This is not really a subversion of the classical creatures, more like the "reversion" of the current pop interpretation. There are virtually limitless gold nuggets to pick from if you go down this rabbit hole, as every town has their own stories regarding mythological creatures. At least around here (southern Europe).

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    Welcome to writing.SE, Oxy! You make a good point. I would just add that most of the stereotypes you mention are in fact post-Tolkien: familiar to people from Peter Jackson's interpretation, but not actually stemming from the book. For one thing, in Tolkien's legendarium, Orcs and Goblins are the same creatures, they are not rich, and they are only vaguely humanoid, so there's no reason to describe them as "southern". – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Aug 21 at 9:48
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    @Galastel you are right. But tolkien defines a point in time around when others illustrated orcs as tribal and goblins as greedy. I'm not saying it was tolkien per-se. Modern orcs may be product of D&D or Warcraft, I don't really know. But it has to start somewhere in "modern" times, because folklore and fairytales are another world, and fantasy was more or less made pop by Tolkien. And modern "monsters" will be defined by what modern society views consciously and subconsciously as bad, which will of course include prejudices such as racism, sexism, classism... etc. – Oxy Aug 21 at 9:56
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    I'm just saying that by going to the myths roots may allow you to grab traits from a pool of "monsters" made by societies so different from ours, that their prejudices are effectively childish enough to us to not be considered prejudice anymore. Things like the night, what makes the trees grow and wind blow, why do owls stare at your soul, why did the lady go to the woods and never made it back, etc. Those things fueled stories of made up elves and faeries and trolls that no one can sincerely relate to a specific modern "-ism". – Oxy Aug 21 at 10:02
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    Tolkien's "Elves" are completely different from older interpretations for a simple reason: He was drawing from Christian Mythology, and his elves (tall, imposing, wise, radiant/glowing) were based on Biblical descriptions of Angels. (And then, having left the noble elves in Rivendell, they come across the greedy antagonistic 'corrupted' elves in Mirkwood...) – Chronocidal Aug 21 at 12:22
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    @Oxy I like your answer regarding how it helps to go to the source. (see my comment in the chat) Going back even older, before the concept of "troll" was formalized, you'll find a lot of variety in their forms (they could look like normal people), and some suggest that they represented nonchristian peoples--a different kind of "other". In those regards they are similar in origin to stories of fairies – user1675016 Aug 22 at 15:37
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I want to draw on traditional, arguably "cliché" (?) fantasy species, like elves, orcs, goblins, dwarves, faeries, etc.

How can I involve some of these older elements, while leaving behind the racist subtext some of them carry?

Racism is about Mental Traits.

The problem with racism is the assumption that mentality, morality and agency are inherited qualities. The problem is not that the shape of my nose or the color of my skin are heritable, it is the assumption that this means something (predicts something) unchangeable about my attitudes toward others, my intelligence or stupidity, my ability to make decisions for myself, how hard I am willing to work, whether my greed precludes sympathy or fairness, whether or not I am prone to violence or rape or thievery or deception for selfish gain, even whether or not I am able to clean myself.

Note that all the racist tropes are basically about externalities predicting mental traits. The same goes for other bigotries; assuming women are not as smart as men, cannot do math, or that a pretty woman is automatically short-changed in intelligence, or is less competent in a strategic or intellectual job than a male.

Simply swapping around skin colors (or genders) isn't enough to break the racist associations. In a movie that might be part of the solution, because they are on the screen every minute. In a novel, you can't keep repeating that your "goblins" are tall blond Norwegians with celestial noses. Eventually the reader is going to fall back on the stereotypical description they have been trained to hold, and ignore your description.

IMO, to break through the racism and bigotry, you need to break the connection between their physical appearance or morphology and what MLK called "The Content of Their Character".

But the thing you want to break is the assumed correlation, so it isn't enough to say goblins (with hooked noses) are all now accomplished musicians and live in communes and share all the money they earn. That is still maintaining a racial connection, it is still saying that their morphology predicts the content of their character. To break the correlation, goblins that all look similar must come in every variety of personality; i.e. their appearance does NOT predict anything about their personality or proclivities or intelligence or behavior.

The same goes for other characters; if you just swap around skin colors and nose shapes and hair types, you are still reinforcing the notion that the body you are born with determines the content of your character.

Unfortunately for your project, avoiding the stereotypical assumptions destroys the utility you would get by drawing on the traditional "elves, orcs, goblins, dwarves, faeries, etc."

Authors use those as a shortcut to signaling the content of their character, and describing the physical characters. When we hear orcs in the woods, we think "danger", we don't think of calling to them for help and them coming to help, give us a pat on the back and a hoagie for the road.

If you use them, you get them with their racist baggage. If you want to avoid the racism, you need to invent your own races, or just go raceless: Don't describe morphology, or when you do ensure it is not in the vein of "All redheads are irish, and all Irishmen are drunks". i.e. you may want a character to stand out by making them a redhead, but that doesn't make them "hot headed" or determinative of anything about them; and nobody in your world expects it to be.

For example, if Goblins really are individuals without a common personality, your characters would not assume anything about them; just like whites in America don't automatically assume they can trust other whites. Other whites can be serial killers, thieves, con-men, rapists, drug addicts, selfish greedy bastards, who knows what? Whites are represented in every category of human depravity.

In order to judge somebody by the content of their character, you have to get to know them first, and if you wish to portray non-racist characters then they cannot take the shortcuts of using morphology to predict character content.

I fear that destroys the utility of using the fantasy stereotyped races (quickly conveying character content), and it is part of the reason I never use them.

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    Good point about readers falling back to stereotypical descriptions as soon as they are left to their imagination. – NofP Aug 21 at 22:40
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I'm not a writer, but I had similar thoughts about this. As a not-writer, I can give some practical suggestions that are based on what I've read.

Basically, in many fantasy books, only the tropes you mentioned are highlighted, however there are other cultural tropes that deserve attention.

  • Elves - I am definitely not a fan of those tall, all serious, super smart elves in some games and (IMHO lame) books of fiction. There are other tropes that can be attributed to elves, which make them more fun and relatable.
    • They are quirky and frisky, singing crazy songs without much reason and messing around with travellers who venture near their home in the forest with stupid pranks
    • They are irresponsible and will never refuse some good wine (as seen in The Hobbit, when the hobbits get the elves drunk to steal the keys)
    • They definitely are not tall as seen in pictures, forest terrain and vegetation benefit those of lower weight and stature (running under branches, climbing)
  • Orcs - I never understood why cave dwelling orcs should have darker skin at all. I never heard of them wearing braids. But they definitely should be barbaric.
    • Lot of writers draw the "barbaric" stereotype from Africa. That's probably something we want to avoid. How about you structure their culture around pagan religions, such as Vikings or Celts? Both are known for their raids.
    • They will probably same height as the elves
    • They are definitely skilled with metallurgy, they must have figured out that some of the rocks they dug out aren't just rocks
    • It may be worthwhile to intertwine metallurgy with their religion, that would allow you to explain that such a barbaric culture with high tech smithing.
  • Goblins - I haven't read much stories featuring goblins. But check out wikipedia on them and you will see that the particular stereotype is just one of many meanings of goblin so just pick some other one. And not all of them have the hooked nose. I am thinking of something like this:
    • Greed is common for many goblin stories, so let's keep that
    • They are close to fairies, and so they shall have some small magical powers and for their elders, also some magical wisdom (eg. not exactly seeing the future, but sometimes knowing things)
    • They are very small, but tough and stubborn
    • The above attributes make them creatures that will often move to other species' cities. They can do little magic work here and there for some of that precious gold and for food. Remember two carrots are a dinner for a goblin, and humans can farm entire fields of them.

Te above is just an example of simply ignoring the racial stereotypes and using those that have none to do with race and are often more fun.

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    For goblins, Pratchett really takes on that one with Raising Steam. Although his goblins are very much not about the money - they're more keen to be allowed to live. Much of his work has anti-racist elements, but this might be the clearest. – Graham Aug 22 at 8:16
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    @Graham Yeah, I should definitely have mentioned Pratchett. – Tomáš Zato Aug 22 at 8:26
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I would refer to Sanderson's Third Law (of Magic Systems, but it applies here as well):

3. Expand What You Already Have Before Adding Something New.

or Go deeper, not wider.

Brandon Sanderson posits that a magic system will feel more immersive if many of its nuances are explored thoroughly than if it has a broad range of powers that are barely mentioned. He also discusses fantasy races in this context, since they are often an extension of your magic system: a world with three races whose cultures are nuanced and complex will feel more realistic than a world with twelve races that are only briefly described.

You say you want to draw on traditional fantasy races, which is fine. But you don't need to include all of those races. Consider using only three or four, and having members of those races fill the roles that would stereotypically be filled by a member of a different one. For example, instead of barbarian orc tribes, perhaps your primitive cultures are "low elves" who reject the social complexities of the "high elves." Or instead of greedy hook-nosed goblins, perhaps the financial sector is a combination of orcs, who like the conveniences of city life thankyouverymuch, and dwarves, who help their mining cousins turn a profit. Real-world human cultures are incredibly complex, and if you can show some of that complexity in your fantasy races, it will help you avoid any racist undertones that would otherwise appear.

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I came across this problem a few years ago and (while I ended up changing the project and not writing about these Fantasy Races for other reasons) I found it really helpful to read more diverse SFF, even those that didn't include elves/orcs/etc directly. Personally I would recommend authors like NK Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Daniel José Older, Victor LaValle, Jeannette Ng, ... But really the point is to read (or watch) stories with diverse cultures to help you develop a greater diversity among elves/orcs/etc, as others have suggested. This may also help you dodge new racist tropes as you create your world.

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I completely agree that Tolkien’s racial hierarchies haven’t aged well. “That’s just Elf propaganda, and actually the Orcs are the exact opposite!” has become a cliché in and of itself.

Here are a couple of things High Fantasy traditionally did that you probably want to avoid. Whether or not you consider them “problematic,” they’re definitely cliché and not all that interesting. Some of the examples I’ll give, I’ll say up front, didn’t exactly focus on their world-building.

  • Some races (meaning Fantasy races) are superior, either in all respects like Tolkien’s Elves, or at different things.
  • Others are so inferior that they get no moral consideration, and can be genocided without remorse. If they have any positive traits at all, it’s to make them scarier.
  • This maps to physical traits of humans in the real world in unfortunate ways.
  • This is innate and inherited. A human with exotic blood is special and better.
  • Conflict is more-or-less racial: all the Elves are on one side, and all the Orcs are being manipulated by ther Dark Lord.
  • Each race is somewhere between stereotypical and one-dimensional. If there are any exceptions, we’re often reminded that one is not like the others. There are often entire societies that are missing important social and economic roles (like in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, where entire races have no wizards) because that whole race is all the same.
  • A race is represented by one character, whose abilities and distinguishing features are attributed to his race. (Like in The Legion of Super-Heroes, where originally every member was defined by their one superpower and from a planet where everyone had the same power.)

So just don’t do any of that. If you’ve got a party that’s got one Elf and one Dwarf in it, for example, you can make them important to the story as individuals, without attributing whatever talents they have to their ethnicity.

You also discuss giving some ethnic groups in the setting dark skin. It’s realistic that people living in the tropics of your world would have dark skin. If one group of people looks like Europeans and another looks like Africans, readers are going to take them as representing those real-world groups. So you don’t want to make one of them like Tolkien’s Haradrim, “swarthy” colonized barbaric bad guys. Completely reversing all of the stereotypes is also a cliché, but one alternative I haven’t seen as often is to have the people look different from any real-world ethnic group. There aren’t any real-world stereotypes about blue or green hair.

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In one writer's group I was in we had a Turkish writer whose (fantasy world) character used the word 'boy' to refer to another character. And the American writer in our group went off about how you shouldn't use that word because it's racist.

At that point I think there's diminishing returns when it comes to trying to avoid racism. For instance if you put any kind of slavery in your fantasy medieval-equivalent world then someone is going to get triggered - Even if you portray the slavery as clearly bad and undesirable.

Anything to do with skin tones is going to be a minefield.

Feminism has similar issues - you can try to be sensitive but if you're writing a first person account where your protagonist is a man it's actually surprisingly hard to pass the Beschdel test.

To pass it your male protagonist basically has to be standing in the same room as two women who are having a conversation about their dreams and goals (with no mention of men at any point) - and he can't be part of it because that would automatically invalidate it. It's actually surprisingly difficult.

Partly that's because of the nature of conversations in first person - they tend to follow a star pattern, where everyone talks directly with the protag.

(Of course the Beschdel test is much more useful in some other contexts - I'm just pointing out that in first person it's not terribly useful and pretty much boils down to an auto-pass/auto-fail depending on the gender of the protag)

So having questioned the usefulness/applicability of BT in all situations, I've got some bad news. Racism doesn't even have the equivalent of a Beschdel Test, so as subjective as that is, racism is even more so.


With my Bronze Age book series - to pass BT I shoehorned in a section late in the book where I info-dumped some stuff about ancient societies by having the two women in the team sitting on the back of a chariot that the protag was also standing in.

With respect to racism, in one of the books they're travelling from the Mediterranean to the Orient, via India, and to keep interest up of course I was throwing tricky situations at the heroes. And that basically meant that they kept having conflict with the locals.

At some point I decided that I was uncomfortable with this - not because I had native brown people attacking lily white European explorers - (racially the breakdown of the hero group was Egyptian, Caananite and Arab, so I was pretty okay there - no Europeans in that grouping), but at the end of the day I decided that I wasn't representing any positive qualities of the local people groups or cultures.

So I had to do some more research and one of the ways I represented their culture in a bit more balanced way was talking about some of the things which they had invented or discovered.

2

What makes the traditional fantasy races prone to the racial analysis which has been lamented in the other answers is the simple fact that each of these fantasy races is a variant of humanity, and thus can be compared to real-life human ethnic groups.

What you need is to make the races different (or else why have them), but in a way that they are neither better nor worse than the humans. And the way to do that is to make each race a different species altogether, so that any comparison with humanity is an apples-to-oranges comparison.

You can easily do this while still remaining within the known races of traditional fantasy. In addition to the races that are variants on humanity, there are dragons, unicorns, will-o-wisps, rocs, and so forth.

This also allows you to give them personality traits that are universal (or nearly so), because a creature that is a different species altogether is going to have different needs, different priorities, and different perceptions.

Take, for instance, the Ents from Lord of the Rings. Their extended lifespan (Treebeard is several thousand years old) and preferred environment (wooded areas) gives them a perspective and a set of motives that sets them apart from us, and this makes them neither better nor worse than us, but merely different.

Another example of how this works is seen in the criticisms of the Narnia series by C. S. Lewis. Quite a few people perceive a heavy dose or racism in the series, but this is invariably associated with the characters and races who are humans (specifically, the Calormenes). There are other intelligent races in Narnia, but except for the dwarves (who are as morally variant as the humans) they are all so distinctly non-human that there is no perceived racism; anyone claiming that Reepicheep is a dog whistle for some racist notion is clearly seeing things that aren't there.

2

Recognize that classic fantasy settings are racist.

Tolkien's, Tolkien imitators', D&D and the many D&D-derivative fantasy videogame settings that followed. If you're thinking, "Tolkien wasn't a Nazi, how do I imitate his writing", the answer is you shouldn't.

Ever noticed how, when a Dark Lord rises, his or her armies often include the usual complement of the "ugly" races (orcs, goblins, trolls), but also renegades, criminals, ambitious minor nobles, and dark magicians of the "pretty" races, who then proceed to collaborate reasonably well, while Our Heroes are urgently needed to stop the elf prince from trying to rip out the dwarf queen's beard over some perceived millennia-old slight? These stories often contain stock platitudes about unity and tolerance, but it doesn't negate the fact that the default state of Good correlates with casual racism and Evil correlates with puppy-kicking, mustache-twirling, but otherwise commendable meritocracy.

Ditch the word "race".

Race used to mean "ethnicity" (a meaning that could be applied to the original folkloric peoples) and now means, basically, "skin color". Unless "human" is the equivalent of an ethnicity in your world (and maybe even then), ditch it - you don't need either the historical or modern baggage.

Instead, use "peoples" or "nations". (Some writers use "folk" -- it really grates on me for some reason and won't mesh well with the writing unless you artificially age the style.) As an author, unless your narrator is prejudiced, apply the chosen word to all sapient social humanoids and "monsters".

Decide early on if the different peoples are different species.

This is a worldbuilding aspect that you have to decide early, because it determines what kinds of large-scale conflicts are possible in the story -- very important for epic fantasy, which often poses a threat to the world and a need for the world to unite. Possibility of interbreeding is a strong drive toward unity, multinational societies and states. Incompatibility of staple food production methods favors separatism and isolation. The more time you spend designing the economic aspects of civilizations, the less your writing will need to fall back on lazy generic stereotypes.

As the narrator, do not ascribe "natural" personality traits to fantasy peoples.

Elves are not inherently noble and goblins are not inherently treacherous. But it may be that elves live in forest sanctuaries in relative isolation from the outside world, and, to prevent perpetual grudge-holding No Exit style, they have collectively agreed to never lie. Meanwhile, goblins wander the wastelands and have to trade for staple resources. A goblin won't "honorably duel" a much stronger human, and in a world where status is inextricably linked to fighting prowess, what goblins do to gain the upper hand against humans the latter consider "cheating". Obviously, don't have naturally evil or naturally stupid peoples.

If you must have Demons in the Judeo-Christian / D&D sense, do not have a Demon civilization.

You can have weird opposite-world people who live underground, spoil milk, wear pants on their heads, and don't understand the concept of honor. You can't have a culture of sapient beings who always wish ill on humanity and have to be killed on sight.

Avoid Total War.

Wars of extinction were almost never a thing in the historical period fantasy commonly styles itself after.

If goblins raid your village, rustle some cattle and kill three farmers in a fight, you raid their village, kill their fighters, and take their priest's stash of medicinal herbs and magic armor they'd found in an abandoned dragon's lair. You do not tie them to volcanoes and blow them up with hydrogen bombs -- that'd be seriously messed up and you'd be the next Ultimate Evil if you did it.

The same goes if, instead of goblins, dark elves show up, steal the dreams of the village's children and the voices of cockerels, stick three of the villagers with poison darts and carry them off to be sacrificed to the blood tree -- raid back, free the captives, take valuables. It may be creepier than a cattle raid, but it's not more capital-E Evil.

Do not style different fantasy peoples after different real-world "exotic" cultures.

Even if the styling is supposed to be understood as flattering. Even if you mix and match them, as long as a trait will still be recognized as characterizing a specific culture by a reasonably educated reader.

YES:

My story is set in Fantasy Japan, where Human samurai fight Bakemono (goblins) and Oni (orcs) and romance Yuki-onna (elves).

NO:

My story is set in a fantasy world where Humans are Greek, Elves are Maasai, and Orcs are Ukrainian.

Watch out for pointlessly racialized loanwords, don't use them when a native equivalent exists. If the words for leader for Humans, Elves and Orcs are "archon", "laibon", and "hetman" respectively, it's the NO example above once again.

The exception to this is if there are no humans in your setting, and cultures are represented by their signature civilized non-humans.

Avoid words associated with tribal cultures when describing tribal cultures.

Tribes in fantasy are a form of social organization used by Stone Age "ugly" "monstrous" enemy peoples, whom the heroes fight and kill, often to extinction. Your characters are not anthropologists and your peoples can't be blamed for their lack of technological progress. So the orc leader is technically a chieftain, but the narrator and the characters will refer to him as a king.

Don't use conspicuous phonetic patterns of real cultures or their stereotypes in names.

Instead, invent some, or find some that are shared by disparate real cultures.

Don't ascribe annoying speech patterns to some of your fantasy peoples.

Annoying speech patterns portray the characters so afflicted as dumb and unpleasant. Also, they make reading unpleasant, and that's something best avoided.

  • Can't say I agree with the "classic fantasy settings are racist" statement, but +1 anyway for a whole bunch of very good recommendations. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Aug 23 at 12:52
0

Actually stereotypical fantasy characters would not be "racist" but "specist" since elves, dwarves, orcs, etc. are members of different species, not different races. And all humans are members of the same species, despite their variety in personality.

Of course it is not certain that other species will have the same degree of variation as humans do. One way in which species may vary from each other is in how much variation there is within each species. So some species might be less variable than Humans, others might be as variable as Humans, and others might be more variable than Humans.

Maybe a member of one species will be angry at a protagonist for expecting them to behave in a specific way, and curse the first member of their species who Humans met, the origination of Human stereotypes about their species, for being so eccentric and thus creating such misleading stereotypes.

Or maybe some of the characters may be outcasts from their societies because they don't fit in, and thus other characters won't know which of the stereotypes of their species they will follow until and unless they get to know them.

As for appearances, a fantasy author can create characters, especially nonhuman ones, with any appearances they want to, including any skin colors they chose to. So you can color code the various species in your society, or make every single species, including your Humans, share the same wide variety in skin colors, more or less lighter or darker shades of red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple, for example.

By the way, about "banking goblins with hooked noses that totally aren't Jews." I never heard of any banking goblins in any works of fantasy except for Harry Potter, first published in 1997 only 22 years ago, though I don't read a lot of fantasy. The only fantasy Goblins I remember are in George MacDonald's The Princes and the Goblin (1872) and The Princess and Curdie (1883) and Tolkien's similar Goblins in The Hobbit (1937). And Tolkien's Goblins in The Hobbit are the same species as Tolkien's Orcs in The Lord of the Rings, the origins of fantasy Orcs. So I really can't picture Goblins as bankers in fantasy, except in stories written by writers who really distrust the banking system as anti-banking propaganda!

  • I think you misunderstood the OP's point about banking goblins. It's not that goblins are stereotypically presented as bankers, but that Jewish people are stereotyped as "greedy moneylenders," and casting a goblin (which has separate negative stereotypes) as a banker combines the two negatives. Giving a goblin (stereotyped as "bad" and "ugly") a hooked nose (a typical racist caricature for Jewish people) again combines and underscores the two negative stereotypes. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Aug 23 at 10:00
0

Since you have said this is a pleasure project, I think you shouldn't concern yourself with inadvertently stumbling into someone else's definitions of crypto-racism.

The story you are telling is yours. And, you should really put your heart into telling it. If you feel that your story needs Manichean polarities represented by these fantasy races then great, more power to you.

I think worrying about these kinds of unintended consequences of story writing are strategies that lead to failure. You never need to worry about what you write, since you can always revise it once you've finished the story. If you get done with it and to your horror find you've protagonist's exhortations to his army strongly resemble the words of an infamous jerk who rallied his people with a series of speeches at Nuremberg, Germany in the 1930s, then you can rewrite it. It's not a problem.

In short, have confidence in your own intent and write your own story.

  • This is actually my definition of racism as I see it in literature, not anyone else's. But your point about not worrying about what I'm doing while I'm doing it is quite helpful, thank you! – weakdna says reinstate monica Aug 23 at 16:49
-1

An alternative could be to not discuss the skin color etc of the fantasy races but make the humans in the story dark-skinned. I think that Daughter of the Empire by Janny Wurts and Raymond E. Feist does a good job of this, in that story, the vast majority of humans are of color.

protected by Sec SE - clear Monica's name Aug 23 at 7:35

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