Overgeneralizing in Fantasy: Finding a Clumsy Elf

I just had the dubious pleasure of reading through a student’s basic English essay (at the college level, it saddens me to say) that was so incredibly bad it was hysterically funny.  This zealously ignorant student had the task of writing a comparison/contrast essay and write one, he did.

Now, I’ve seen a lot of very special essays on comparing and contrasting two objects: the essays comparing cats to dogs (did you know that dogs wag their tails when they’re happy, but cats only do it when they’re mad?  *le gasp!*), the essays comparing high school to college (in college you actually have to do the homework *le wheezy gasp of horror!!!*), and the essays comparing soccer and football (they both use balls, but football is just better and cooller and sweeter and totally wicked and awesome and why do people even watch soccer, I mean, come on… *le tragic sigh*)

This essay, though, was on a whole new level of horrific.  My job is not to grade, but to tutor, so I usually just read the essays, make a few specific comments, and explain to the poor darlings how to use commas, words, sentences… brains… You know, basic stuff.  This student’s teacher had given him a list of possible topics and he’d chosen this one: compare athletes to couch potatoes.

Okay, that could be fun, right?  Only, here’s the problem: English 101 students rarely know how to differentiate between general facts and overgeneralizations.  They don’t qualify.  They just claim.  And this student claimed the following:

  • Athletes are clean, beautiful, smart people who are motivated in everything they do.
    Couch potatoes are dirty, nasty, mean people who hate everyone.
  • Athletes are primarily motivated by their desire to make the world a better place.
    Couch potatoes want to destroy the planet.
  • Being an athlete is the highest calling in life.
    Couch potatoes are an epidemic worse than AIDS that mostly affects teenagers and old people.
  • Oh, and by the way, if everyone was an athlete and we got rid of the couch potatoes, there would probably be no AIDs or global warming!

I did my best to explain to this student that you cannot make claims like this without support (God help him in finding any) and that you cannot stereotype athletes and couch potatoes quite so strongly.  I can only pray that he took my advice into account when he revised his paper.

It was a traumatizing experience, reading that paper, but I decided to make it a constructive one if I could.  I considered the issue of stereotyping and profiling groups of people and it made me think about novels, particularly fantasy novels.

This is an issue that I think authors actually need to be very careful of.  Stereotyping entire fantasy races happens far more often than it should.  Think about the last novel you read that had elves in it.  Were they all tall, graceful, noble, perhaps mysterious, very good with bows, prone to frolicking?  Whatever the author chose to do, he or she very likely made all of the elves the same:

  • They are famous for their _________.
  • They are always __________.
  • They never __________.

Fill in the blanks and you have a stereotyped people-group.

Unless your race is actually cloning itself, there should be some major differences within the people-group.

Now, there are obviously reasonable explanations for some supposed stereotypes.  Making an entire race vegetarian is reasonable enough.  Maybe they’re not made for meat eating or they had a bad experience with those pesky cannibals down south that put them off it entirely.  Making an entire race peaceful, on the other hand, is much riskier.  Every single one of the ten thousand members of that race is peace-loving, soft spoken, and willing to die rather than defend themselves?  Really?

Of course, those same fantasy novels rarely do these things with the human race.  Humans are varied, some good and some evil, some talented in war, some in healing, some in magic, some in learning.  Humans are always varied because everyone knows that they really are, right?

So why do other races so often get a blanket description?  Obviously, this doesn’t happen all the time.  Let me not be guilty of stereotyping fantasy novels.  But it does happen and it can be quite irritating.

So to avoid being like the unfortunate student whose whole world revolves around shining, godlike athletes and slovenly, trolls known as couch potatoes, take a long look at that short story/novel you are writing that has different races.  Are you guilty of overgeneralizing and making those races unnaturally uniform?

I challenge you to give some variety within those races.  Consider adding a clumsy elf or two.


About Melissa

generally in love with things Celtic, mythological, fantastic, sharp and pointy, cute and fuzzy, intellectual, snarky, cheerful, or some combination thereof. Such things as sarcastic bunnies wielding claymores might come to mind...

Posted on July 26, 2011, in Cliches, Fantasy, Humor, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Melissa Rogers, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Wayne the Shrink

    Melissa, you are right but don’t go far enough. It’s simply laziness – a lack of willingness to work hard enough at what you do to make it varied and interesting. Unfortunately cognitive laziness is now taught in High Schools. As a Psychologist I see it almost every day.

  2. Great post, Melissa! I would guess that if the writer of this paper were confronted, he would quickly respond with a lot of backpeddaling. Aside from a lack of critical thinking skills, such students are usually just trying to fill the page requirements, to heck with the argument. I recently took what was supposed to be an advanced expository writing class, which happened to be nearly full of education majors (apparently the course was required for them), and through our peer reviewing process I met very few capable writers, most sounding much like the writer described above, which made me very sad.

    I haven’t yet encountered this problem in a fantasy novel, but I talked about this in one of my posts about writing aliens- Monocultures are rampant in science fiction, but just as you said, Melissa, humans are usually exempt from this- unless we’re talking about humans on other planets.

    It’s hard to write differentiated cultures- it takes a huge amount of thought and detailed planning (see: worldbuilding), but the best of us craft worlds that feel real, because the people feel real- which means not being lazy and making your races generic.

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