I feel like writers, especially writers on the young-ish side like myself, can’t turn around without someone warning us about the dangers of stereotypes, like stereotypes are strangers wearing trench coats that own rusty vans with blacked-out windows, waiting to whisk us away to a place where our parents won’t be able to find us. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems to be the new number one rule of storytelling; don’t use stereotypes. If you’re writing a fantasy story with an elf in it, you shall be scowled at you until you shred and then burn the manuscript. And do both, please, you can’t be too safe nowadays.
It seems to me like we’ve forgotten the real number one rule of storytelling: every rule has exceptions.
The fact of the matter is that stereotypes – and I don’t mean offensive stereotypes, I mean genre stereotypes – can be useful to writers who know how to handle them. It’s a bit like playing with fire; yes, you’ll get burned if you make a mistake, but sometimes you’ll get fireworks. I’d like to talk about how they can be helpful, and then afterwards I’ll lay out some tips that’ll hopefully keep our hands from getting blown off.
So, first, what exactly are stereotypes good for? I think that there’s some truth to the argument that they strike a very powerful emotional core in us – they were popular enough to become stereotypes in the first place, after all – but personally I approach them in a much more practical sense. They’re useful because they convey large amounts of information quickly. If I tell you that one of my characters is an elf, you already know exactly what I mean. You know that she’s probably tall, graceful, good with a bow, really friggin’ old, and you’re less likely to call bull**** when she starts talking to trees.
If I tell you that she’s a Xaqlika, I have to stop the gameplay dead in its tracks to explain what the hell I’m talking about.
Stereotypes are useful when it comes to cutting down on the amount of exposition you’ll need to feed players. Take Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning as an example. There was a lot of good work done in that story, but because it was all completely unique information it was entirely possible that the player would have to spend an hour or more completely divorced from the gameplay, simply listening to expository dialogue in order to figure out who was who and what was going on. If the Fae were elves, and the Winter Fae were dark elves, I would have understood everything a whole lot quicker and we wouldn’t necessarily have to lose all of that interesting backstory. We could have kept their culture exactly the same, but by invoking the power of a genre stereotype, the player gets a solid base of information right off of the bat that they can use to understand the plot much quicker, and we can correct the details from there. Just because we’re invoking the power of a stereotype doesn’t mean we have to rigidly adhere to every aspect of it, but more on that in a second.
Stereotypes can also indirectly help gameplay. I think the attitude that story and gameplay don’t mix is largely growing to be untrue as we develop our narrative design toolkit, but one conflict that still remains tricky is the balance between subtlety and clarity. Good storytelling demands subtlety, it asks the player to keep guessing what’s going to happen up until the very end, which means it can never provide hard proof of anything too significant until that end. But gameplay demands clarity. Players need to have a sense of what exactly they’re expected to do and the exact set of tools that they can use to accomplish it. Stereotypes are one of the few tools writing has that conveys such clarity. If a dragon makes off with a princess, then the player knows exactly what they’re supposed to do. If the player character is a handsome knight, they’re going to know exactly how they’re supposed to do it. If a bat-eagle hybrid makes off with a middle-age bank manager and our avatar is a starbucks barista, yes we have a whole lot more originality to our story but we’re going to have to explain to the player exactly what we want them to do some other way.
Lastly, and this is sort of a sidenote because it’s not really my territory, genre stereotypes are useful to marketing. The most important aspect of a story, when it comes right down to getting people to pick up the box, is its ability to be quickly identified. It’s an “epic fantasy” or a “noir mystery” and because of "x" it exists for this target audience. Attempts to defy genre can be interesting and, truth be told, I think are in the best interest of the art form, but you’re also handing your marketing department a slingshot when everyone else is going to have a semi-automatic. Your marketing department can sell elves. They’re going to have a harder time with Xaqlikas.
So stereotypes can still be useful, but they’re also still pretty dangerous. How can we use them to get everything moving quickly while avoiding the dreaded eye-rolls from critics and players alike? Well, like I said earlier, just because we call on a stereotype to deliver some accurate information to the player doesn’t mean we can’t contradict parts of said stereotype. Just because a dragon kidnaps a princess doesn’t mean they have to behave the way we expect them to. The princess doesn’t have to be helpless. The dragon doesn’t have to be the bad guy.
Here’s the thing: storytelling is manipulation. My job as a writer is to manipulate the player into feeling emotions that are going to make the experience more enjoyable, and once we accept that I’m here to lie to and trick them, that job gets a whole lot easier. As Aaron Sorkin once said, and I’m totally paraphrasing: “The difference between persuasion and manipulation is whether or not they notice. What I’m doing is just as manipulative as a magician doing a magic trick. If I can wave this red silk handkerchief enough in my right hand, I can do whatever I want with my left hand and you’re not going to see it.”
My point is that we can use stereotypes as long as we hide the fact that we’re using them. Here’s how.
There’s a principle known as “The Pope in the Pool”, which was originally taught to me by Blake Snyder in his book Save The Cat. The name comes from the movie The Plot to Kill the Pope in which there is a scene where the very technical plot to kill the pope is laid out in an exposition dump for the audience’s benefit. But, while the exposition dump is happening, the pope is swimming laps in his private pool while wearing a bathing suit. You’re so distracted by the weirdly subversive sight (you mean he doesn’t have to wear that hat all the time?) that you don’t even notice as the exposition is fed to you. The fact that the pope is in a pool is the red silk handkerchief, and the left hand teaches you what you need to know about the plot while you're distracted.
This technique is primarily used when it comes to hiding exposition, but I’ve adapted it to hiding any unpleasant aspect you need to introduce to the audience. Say, introducing a stereotype. When you’re introducing a stereotype to the audience, 99% of the information can fit their expectations and get all that information across quickly, but you also need to, simultaneously, introduce something flashy and fun and different about the stereotype that is so distracting and all-consuming the audience doesn’t even realize that they’re being introduced to another damn elf. They were too busy noticing that the elf was bright green because she survives on photosynthesis.
If you introduce any stereotype that’s 100% what we expect it to be, you’re going to get the same reaction as every other terrible fantasy story, but add a red handkerchief and we won’t even notice as you feed us all the information we need to get on with your gameplay.
David Kuelz is a freelance writer and narrative designer based in New York City. If you like what he had to say, he has free monthly newsletter with tips and resources that you can sign up for here.