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Q&A

Avoiding racist tropes in fantasy

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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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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.

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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.

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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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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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a witch delivering a prophecy to a king about a dangerous and deceitful foe who will overthrow him,

dangerous and deceitful

Given the negative stereotype that a certain race tends to commit the majority of crime, if your story is going to contain, mention or allude to any crime, the only safe way to not be accused of enforcing or perpetuating a negative racial stereotype, is to remove race entirely from your story or have everyone be the same race. Even role reversal wouldn't work so you couldn't just flip the races round.

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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.

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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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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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