by Keith Morrison
©2009 Keith Morrison
Generally speaking, Im a mellow guy who doesnt like arguing with people or being confrontational and seeking a dispute
Okay, I cant write any more of that with a straight face.
I havent taken issue with anything any of my fellow columnists here have said (because I either dont have a strong opinion on some things or disagree with them on those where I do have an opinion), but one of last issues columns made me laugh a bit because it was the equivalent of the common protest, I dont speak with an accentthe rest of you are the ones talking funny! In talking about cultural aspects in fiction, Wanderer made an interesting comment when talking about literature: He referenced stereotypes about French, German, and Japanese fiction, but then asserted that American fiction couldnt be characterized the same way because, after all, Americans write about everything.
The thing about stereotypes is that theyre generalizations, attempts to condense large numbers of observations into pithy statements. As such, a stereotype is necessarily built around a kernel of truth (however small), but as the same time, it also glosses over lots of relevant details. The problem is when you start to believe that a stereotype says all there is to say about its subjectbecause it doesnt, full stop. The kernel of truth means that if you go looking for evidence to support a stereotype, sure, it's not hard to find. But at the same time, the glossed-over details mean it's also trivial to find counterexamples.
French fiction centers around love, romance, sex and the lives of the beautiful? Right: Jules Verne. Pierre Boule (Planet of the Apes, The Bridge over the River Kwai). If you look at the best-selling fiction authors in the world, the top French entry (from Belgium, but still wildly popular in France) is Georges Simenon, writing crime fiction (he created Inspector Maigret). The best-selling French author proper is Gérard de Villiers, who writes espionage, action, and detective novels. The best-selling French book of all time is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (which doesnt fall into the stereotype). And the French have taken up graphic novels and animation with a passion second only to the Japanese (some stereotypes are true), with a variety of subjects and topics that are wide ranging, and often edgy. People do know that Heavy Metal is an English spinoff of the (still published) Métal Hurlant, yes? Thats why most of the English-language magazines content is, in fact, translated from the European originals.
I could do the same sort of thing regarding German fiction and Japanese fiction. While of course those countries do have many (perhaps even most?) creators who produce work that fits their nations steretotype (society, loyalty and bravery, for Germany; society, loyalty and obedience, for Japan), by no means is it all they produce.
And contrary to the implication, American fiction has been classified just as stereotypically: Rugged individual on the frontier is one version Ive seen. Canadian writing has been tagged as People versus a hostile environment more than once.
And those are all true and theyre all wrong. The categories are so broad as to render them almost meaningless because, with minor tweaking of definitions, you can include almost everything in them.
Let us take, as a recent example, David Webers By Heresies Distressed. Clearly, it is a typical American novel, featuring the highly competent Nimue Alban/Merlin on a technologically primitive world out in the middle of nowhere.
As another example, the obviously French novel By Heresies Distressed by David Weber, revolving around as it does the handsome King and his beautiful Queen, their love for one another and how that love is threatened by a secret that he cannot reveal.
Then there is the German By Heresies Distressed by David Weber, which is about the society of world Merlin finds himself on that conflicts with his natural inclinations, the loyalty of the armies to their nations and their faith, and the bravery of everyone involved from king to advanced android to common soldier in a war shaking their world apart.
And need I mention the quite clearly Japanese novel by David Weber called By Heresies Distressed wherein Nimue fights to change the cultural status quo of a society thats been corrupted at its very roots, her loyalty to humanity and the greater cause she fights for, and the battle against the mindless obedience the religion has tried to impose on the entire planet.
Its also a typical Russian novel in that, in the end, Nimue has the bleak reality that shes a copy of someone who fought a hopeless battle and died the better part of a millennium ago, Earth is long destroyed, humanity faces extinction, everyone she knows and loves is doomed to die while her mission continues on, and even should her mission succeed it will ultimately mean facing a galactic-level threat that has already pretty much obliterated humanity already. Depressing as hell, really. And a typically Canadian novel in that shes working in an environment thats actively trying to kill her without thought or mercy.
Whats more, even if a cultures fictional output can be easily classified because the creators in a given time frame use similar themes, whats considered typical for a country and/or culture changes over time. A classic example from science fiction is that for quite some time British writers were considered gloomy, writing about the Quiet Catastrophethe end of the world coming about in assorted depressing ways without explosions and excitement. And for a time, that was what seemed to be happening. Now? The cheerful insanity of Charlie Stross, Iain Banks massively space-operatic Culture, and Ken MacLeods assorted anarchy. Similarly, there was a time when a lot of Japanese fiction, from Godzilla to Akira to Grave of the Butterflies, dealt with the threat of nuclear weapons and the massive resulting destruction and social upheaval. Then times and public appetite changed, Nowadays, Godzilla isnt a thinly-disguised metaphor for nuclear weapons; hes a bipedal, atomic fire-breathing, ass-kicking, alien-stomping force of nature whos more likely than not on the side of the good guys.
You see the point? Cultural stereotypes can cause one to unconsciously make determinations as to whats normal about another culture that arent necessarily so and may, in fact, be quite contrary to actual evidence. And even if they happen to be true, well, wait a bit and they wont be.
This applies to fictional cultures as well. My favourite example, which Ive used before, is the uproar some fans had about how Vulcans were portrayed on the series Enterprise. Oh my Rod, Vulcans wouldnt do that! Oh, yeah? Says who? From the very first time Vulcans appeared in the original series, they were portrayed as:
The stereotypical Vulcans that people had created in their minds, and were using as a basis for their opinions of those portrayed in the latter series, had almost nothing to do with the Vulcans actually seen in canon.
And even when the impression of the characters of a given background are consistent with whats been established before, I will give you good odds its because the background is so damn clichéd that its annoying. Elves all have names with light vowels and soft consonants, and they all like trees and flowers and make everything look pretty, and dwarves are of course all miners, and right now I really want to hurl because if I want to read all about Tolkeinesque elves Ill bloody well read Tolkein.
In the end, what all this is about is the danger of looking at something outside of your normal experience and generalizing based on that. The stereotype of the French is as lovers, so of course what they write must revolve around that subject. Spock is a moral, upstanding individual, so of course that must be standard for a Vulcan.
In a fictional context this becomes important because you, the writer, must be aware of this, and because a character from a culture isnt necessarily defined by the stereotypes other people have about that culture (remember sometime back I was talking about sociopaths being on the side of good and earnest hard working people on the side of evil?). However, at the same time you have to be careful that your characters dont show this same awareness. Because while they may not be stereotypical representatives of their culture, theyll still be informed and influenced by it, and that will affect the way in which they interact with other characters. Suppose youre writing a book set in a quasi-realistic 18th Century America, and your characters are a white male and a black female: The odds that theyll react to each other the same way as if those characters were in the early 21st Century is so astronomically unlikely that it would beggar the belief of anyone who knew even a smidgen of what race and gender relations were at the time. You, the writer, and the audience youre writing for might be fully aware that said male character is likely to be unbelievably racist and sexist to our modern eyes but to the character and his peers he wont be. Not even if hes a paragon of virtue and considered absurdly liberal by those same peers.
Your characters, if they are to be somewhat realistic, have to show the same sorts of faults while at the same time you, as a writer, have to make it clear that the faults do not mean that the person is therefore bad or evil. Someone can think furries are weird or pervertsperhaps because of the stereotypes hes been exposed towithout being the incarnation of the Antichrist or just itching to strap on a Gestapo uniform. At the same time, there shouldnt be any reason why a furry character might not have some racist or sexist or jingoistic beliefs of their own, and that doesnt necessarily make them a bad person, either.
On the other hand, the villain could very well be someone who has an extremely tolerant mindset when it comes things like race and gender, and still be evil. I can think of several comic-book villains who dont care if someone is male or female (or other), human, alien, artificial, what colour their skin is, the language they speak, or what religion they belong to; all that matters is if the person is assisting the villain, can be used by the villain, or is opposing the villain. To villains of this type, everyone else is equalequally inferior to them.
We all suffer from prejudices. For the writer, the key is recognizing when you have your own, and when those can be used to give your characters more life.