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Stereotypes are bad, right? We’re not supposed to consign broad categories of people into these simplistic kinds of caricatures and yet… we do. We all do it because it’s a kind of mental shorthand for how to react to and deal with people. Some of us make a conscious effort not to give in to the temptation but no matter how hard you try you have to deal with that stereotype and consciously overcome it.

Why do we do it?

The sad truth is that a lot of the time it’s perfectly valid to stereotype. Most blustering, red-faced religious conservatives are fairly interchangeable – at least on the surface. People dress, speak and otherwise present themselves according to stereotypes to express some aspect of who they are and how they want to be treated. We run into problems when the presentation and the intention don’t match, but it’s still true.

The OED defines a stereotype as: “A widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.”

That’s, perhaps, a little uncharitable. Another way to view it, if you’ll forgive me a little pretentiousness for a moment, is that of the Jungian archetype, which often sound more like an eclectic tarot set than a psychological concept. Some of Jung’s archetypes included the mother, the father, the trickster, the child and in motifs such as the flood, creation, the apocalypse.

In terms of stereotyping what you have there are stereotypes and clichés.

So should we banish stereotypes to the dustbin of history or should we embrace them? Archetypes and motifs, stereotypes and clichés have too much power and usefulness to be completely abandoned, though we may need to revise our lists somewhat. The ‘Uncle Tom’ stereotype of the past is probably no longer appropriate unless writing historical fiction, but that doesn’t mean others don’t retain their general usefulness.

A good stereotype or cliché, if such a thing exists, is a weapon in a creative person’s arsenal. Sure, it may seem lazy but in short stories, games and fiction with restricted amounts of text, dialogue or screen time you often need to convey a lot of information in a very short space of time. Stereotypes are a sort of ‘macro’, like stealing someone else’s piece of code and using it in your own programming to save time, or using stock footage in a film.

The thug, the whore with a heart of gold, the dumb guard, the gravel-voiced vigilante, these all serve useful purposes and whether you’re charitable and call them archetypes or uncharitable and call them stereotypes, they convey a lot of information in one go.

This is even more useful when you’re playing roleplaying games and the vast majority of people you run into are unimportant side characters. Without any personality they’re just a cipher, with a stereotype they at least have a little character and you have something to build on.

The ruddy-faced innkeeper, the greedy shopkeeper, the jobsworth guard, these can all be dropped into just about any game at a moment’s notice and they don’t detract from it by being a stereotype, they add an element of character and personality where – perhaps – there was none before.

A stereotype doesn’t have to end there though. While it can be enough it can also serve as a mere foundation.

Consider pretty much every character in, say, The Simpsons. Every single one is a stereotype from the motherly, disapproving Marge to the oafish, irresponsible slob Homer, to the somewhat dodgy Asian stereotype of Apu.

At least, they all started out that way and yet The Simpsons was, from the get go, a big success – once they were free of Tracey Ullman anyway. Why? Because everything was instantly recognisable and we all ‘got it’, because of the use of stereotypes. In 25 years though, every character has developed some nuance, some background (even if continuity is just something that happens to other people) and from those stereotypes have emerged more rounded comedic characters.

The Fast Show was essentially a string of these, centred around mostly stereotypical characters such as Rowley Birkin QC – who was based on a real person. These sorts of stock characters are not a remotely new concept, the idea of the ‘stock character’ a, formalised stereotype, goes all the way back to Classical Greece where, in 319 BCE Theophrastus wrote extensively on character sketches and character as a genre, with thirty stock characters including such recognisable tropes as The Talkative Man, The Coward and The Man of Petty Ambition. Later classical writers and playwrights added to this and the tradition survives to this day in comedy, much of it via the tradition of the music hall.

Returning to games, unless you’re working very intensely with a set character and a set storyline you’re going to need to anticipate certain stereotypes, even more so the case with many computer games which must anticipate and program for the actions of the players, but also within tabletop roleplaying games where the three main archetypes are the magician, the rogue and the fighter.

You can see that in Numenera replaced with Nano, Jack and Glaive.

You can see that in Cyberpunk with Netrunner, Fixer and Solo.

You can see it in almost every game, implicit or explicit, with character classes or without.

Every game starts with a baseline idea of a set of stereotypes, which you can then work with or against, exemplify or contradict.

And that’s where the fun really comes in, where you fill out the details, where you defy the stereotypes or sub-specialise within them to create something new and individual and that can happen over time as you grow more attached to the character and more versatile or powerful, learning new things about their background.

In designing my game Forever Summer I went looking to the source material – kids adventure movies and series, most especially the favourites I saw growing up like Goonies – and saw the use of stereotypes there. Whether it’s Stand by Me or Explorers you know largely all you really need to know about the characters within the first half hour of the film, if not before. Stereotypes get all that introductory mess out of the way, leaving the film free to get on with the story with some more detail about the characters coming out – as a form of character development but not really – as you go along.

Nobody said every game, every roleplaying session, every book, comic or magazine had to be completely stellar and groundbreaking or that you must avoid stereotypes, even when they really do exist in real life. There are people I know in real life who would be unacceptable characters in books or TV series because they seem like crass stereotypes, yet they’re real people.

Seriously, don’t worry about it. Stereotypes are just another tool in the toolbox and if you muck about with them and keep revisiting them, they won’t say stereotypes for long.

Said the long-haired, bearded, role-player with a house full of books…

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$(KGrHqN,!o0E9cz)Z3E7BPm0!92M)g~~60_35Latest internet shit-storm was over a couple of articles in the SFWA bulletin.

I’ll attach the scans of the article below, they’ve been circulated pretty widely but it’s good to have back-ups and redundancy is one of the chief advantages of the internet.

Honestly, I don’t see anything particularly bad with what these chaps are saying. They’re expressing bewilderment at what seems to be a backslide towards the kind of censorship that existed before the 60s and 70s shook up the SF scene and liberalised depictions of sex, drugs, blasphemy etc.

I share their bewilderment and, like them, I worry about the atmosphere of de-facto censorship when someone (a woman even) has to resign because of the presentation of a point of view in an author’s circular. I share their worry about the catch-22 of ‘writing what you know’ and the desire for there to be more women and persons of colour in SF&F and the implicit assumption that you can’t imagine or empathise with someone else’s situation that goes with it.

Troll McTrollington (Vox Day) doesn’t help matters, but nor does notorious ‘Uncle Tim’ Scalzi. These guys are poles of the same magnet and equally problematic in their own way.

We write fantasy, science fiction, we surf the ‘could be’s’ and the ‘what if’s’. We imagine better worlds and worse worlds, transhuman futures and bloody battles for the throne. We need to be free to write good fiction and bad, to write about things we know and things we don’t, to indulge adolescent power fantasies alongside mature and nuanced points of view. We’re supposed to be in the business of dangerous visions.

The landscape will change as we make different art but it is not acceptable to silence other voices for being ‘insufficiently radical’. Old soldiers deserve their rest.

Whatever you think about all this we can’t have any meaningful dialogue, progress or understanding if people are shouted down, if people assume their points are so clear as to not need explaining and if people are forced to resign for airing different, or difficult, points of view. All that’s happening is that people are getting entrenched and embittered, people who – really – believe in much the same things. It’s also possible to explain one’s points clearly and evenhandedly and still be wrong – or at least not believed.

I’ve only written a few games, some short stories, some erotica and an unpublished (as of yet) literary/crime novel, as well as sticking my oar in on censorship issues in the past, so I don’t expect my point of view to be particularly respected but it would be nice just to add my voice to a call for genuine dialogue rather than shouting at each other and then running back to Tumblr to complain about everyone.

Pax

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xlargeI’m sure you’ve seen that picture, above, doing the rounds. Many people seem to think it makes some clever point about gender, SF & Fantasy art and so on. I don’t particularly think that it does. The aim is, apparently, to show the silliness of the first cover by changing the genders around to create some kind of ‘aha’ moment in the viewer but in that task I can’t see that it succeeds. The humour here is not the ‘aha, look how ridiculously women are treated in art’ but rather the ‘haha’ of the pantomime dame or the incompetent transvestite. Its not funny because its a transposition its funny because its a bunch of unfit men in feminine poses. Tellingly, the woman in the supposedly ‘masculine’ pose doesn’t look silly, which rather demonstrates how one-sided this all can be.

The cover on the left is clearly a call-back to James Bond, steeped in reference and film and literary history. An actual reversal has been done in James Bond and wasn’t ridiculous. That was a genuine like for like substitution and, tellingly, it’s a) not funny and b) beloved by many women.

Any point that might be trying to be made is lost because of the stupidity and, yet again, all you end up with is a circle-jerk of the already convinced talking about how clever and meaningful it is. There are discussions to be had on this topic, but cheap and nonsensical stunts like this (and the other cover poses) that fail to take into account gender dimorphism, athleticism, reference etc and fail to do a like-for-like change don’t add anything to it other than being a jumping-off point for discussion.

If I had the skills to do it it might be interesting to do a genuine like-for-like substitution of the same cover, (Tom Daley might make a good swimwear substitute rather than out-of-shape writers) but alas I don’t.

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Anyone and everyone can write and produce a book now and apparently in the minds of some this means that the pillars of heaven are shaking and hell is coming to Frogtown. I beg to differ.

It is cock-explodingly awesome that anyone who loves words can slap together something in Word, pay a mate a fiver for a stick figure drawing and throw their work up on to the Internet for anyone to download, read and enjoy. This is a good thing. It is revolutionary. It is amazing. It means that the barrier to being able to get something published is not, necessarily, being moneyed but having a reasonable amount of savvy for pecking at a keyboard with your fingers.

Of course, a lot of this stuff that comes spewing forth from the minds of The Infinite Monkeys is shite. Sturgeon’s Law still applies (90% of anything is crap) but this has always been the case. For every Charles Dickens there’s a Thomas Prest, for every Charlotte Bronte a Joanna Trollope, for every Robert E Howard a Jim Theis.

The difference now is that we need to rely on our own discernment and that of our friends. The great guardians at the gates of publishing are in the process of being rendered irrelevant. Bookshops are vanishing at a rate of knots as online ordering continues its rampage.

If we’re going to find good books, good stories, then we need to find reliable people who know what they’re talking about. To become our own ‘gateway guardians’. Writers groups, review blogs, a stamp or mark of quality from writers who back each other up and share audiences. Consumers and producers need to look out for each other and need to make a conscious effort to rave about it when we find something cool, rather than just whining and complaining and spewing comedy invective when we find something we don’t like.

I’ve been writing RPG material since ’99, and full time since 2004/2005. It takes time to make a reputation (and it’s not always the one you want) but I have to believe that genuinely trying your best and turning out quality will eventually bring you an audience, appreciation and exposure. The writing business is just broader and more dilute.

Agree or disagree?

How can we turn people on to quality?

How can we create a marque that people can trust without the traditional model?

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