World Building By Deconstructing Bias, Part 1

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

In the world of tabletop games recently, there's been a lot of conversation around the place that certain fantasy races, such as orc and drow, play in the game. These fantasy constructs inherited some real-world, racially coded mythology that can legitimately be seen as harmful and/or enforcing negative stereotypes that can carry over into the way people perceive and process the world, but that's not really what I'm here to get into. Instead, I'm going to use them as examples of how pulling at the loose threads of your own writing and creations can make your writing stronger and your fantasy worlds more nuanced, by talking about things that writers and companies have already done.

Let's start with my personal anecdote about orcs. I work for a publishing company called Paizo, writing and developing adventures and mechanics for the Pathfinder RPG, a table-top roleplaying game born from the Dungeons and Dragons RPG. We recently launched a new edition of our game, and part of that ongoing process was reviewing the way we talked about different fantasy peoples and cultures, such as orcs.
A sidenote here for context: orcs were brought into modern usage by J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings". You may remember them as the large, betusked gents who shot Boromir full of arrows. Orcs were also inspired by what Tolkien called "[...] degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types." That probably hits your ear a bit uncomfortably, and arguably it should. Describing a fantasy creation as the least lovely version of another culture has some obvious inherent issues to it, but Tolkien was only the start of this.

Over the years, fantasy writers and others slowly incorporated orcs into their own settings while elaborating upon that early initial bias, and orcs quickly became one of the stand in "tribal" races. Orcs (along with goblins, trolls, and others) soon inherited traits and terminology that were also used by colonial Europeans to other the people of Africa and the Americas, particularly words like "tribal" and "savage".

It's not hard to see that by the late 90s and early 00s, franchises like Warcraft weren't even trying particularly hard to hide that trolls were a stand in for Black people, taurens (a race of bipedal cow people) were an indigenous analogue, and orcs were a middle-ground blend of the two. Even as dated "Darkest Africa" and "Cowboys and Indians" tropes were being called out for their racist roots, fantasy writers were discovering that they could tell the exact same stories while avoiding scrutiny by making all the brown and black people in their stories green. All of this is just context for my anecdote, though, so let's get back to that now.
As Paizo prepared for Pathfinder 2nd Edition, one of our goals was to move further out of Dungeons and Dragons' shadow and strengthen our own brand, and part of doing that was analyzing everything we'd inherited from D&D and determining where it was appropriate for us to accentuate differences we'd already enforced, move away from tropes or stereotypes that we hadn't examined closely enough, and correct our own mistakes. This led to a close examination of orcs (amongst many others).
As someone who was involved with quite a bit of orc storytelling and some of the writing to bring them forward into the new era of the game, my first task was to read everything we'd ever written about our orcs, so that I could understand where our presentation of them might still align in ways with prior problematic depictions. It didn't take me long to realize that there was at least one key area that we had not been consistently addressing in the best way possible: orcs in our setting were occasionally described with those two key words, "tribal" and "savage", but they weren't a tribal society at all. We were, in fact, pretty specific about their societal structure, where powerful elites ruled over enclaves, apportioned land to their strongest or most loyal lieutenants, and could even find themselves beholden to an even stronger orc to whom they owe fealty and pay tithes. Orcs in Pathfinder's Golarion are part of a clan-based feudal system, not a tribal system, and essentially mirror the Dark Ages of Europe.
So why did some of our books refer to the orc tribes? Why were we using this word that describes a relatively specific thing to describe something that was not that thing? One of the answers is a habit of lazy writing perpetuated in fantasy since at least the 70s. Words like "tribal" and "savage" were intentionally used to bring to mind the spirit of white explorers braving the "uncivilized" wilderness of Africa or America, boldly bringing the white man's intellect to bear to overcome the evils of the dark-skinned heathens. That kind of pulp fiction is deeply ingrained in American and European culture, and it allows you to tell a long story in a few words by evoking all of those other stories. It's also lazy, biased, and ham-fisted. It uses words that apply to modern-day cultures as keywords for "you can kill or rob this with impunity and still call your character good". But I don't need to harp on the issue any longer, instead I'm going to get to the point of this essay, which is how moving away from that kind of writing makes a fantasy world stronger and more intriguing.
So, we've reached the point in the story where we've realized that orcs aren't tribal, everyone agrees, and the next step is "How do we tell a better story and create verbiage that can be easily explained to all of our writers, not all of whom speak English as a primary language or live in a country where the nuances of these words and their social implications are evident?" And part of the answer to that was that we'd already put solutions in place, we just hadn't been consistently implementing them. We'd already dubbed the territory claimed by an orcish warlord (another word that fits the orcs much better than the tribally-coded "chief") as a "hold," an historic word which already meant what we intended to say and which was relatively easily arrived at even if you weren't familiar with the etymology; most people know what it means to hold something and have some familiarity with the word stronghold, so all the pieces are in place.
Now we're in the meat of it. Now we're talking about what this feudal system means, including who do emissaries from other powers talk to, who runs the show, how much of a grip does the showrunner have over the rest of the powers in their country? These questions demanded answers, and as we started writing about orc NPCs in books like the upcoming Lost Omens: Legends and Advanced Player's Guide, we found that the answers to those questions led to better stories. Deeper orc culture, with a subtlety you don't often see in mass-produced fantasy. Webs of feudal alliances and rivalries that allow for far more character interaction and development than the more 1-dimensional "they're a bunch of green folks who are either killing each other or everyone else, depending on whether anyone has a hand on the wheel."

It even provided better context for some of the characters and groups that were previously introduced to show the diversity our system already possessed compared to others; that clan of good orcs that's explicitly a smaller group surrounded by powerful and evil enemies doesn't manage to survive based solely on pluck and luck, they're protected by a complex series of alliances and friendships, their hold unassailable unless their enemies are willing to provoke the wrath of powerful allies. And the most powerful orc in this feudal system? He's old, physically powerful once and perhaps still a force to be reckoned with, but now far more dangerous politically, wielding chaos and cunning with a firm hand and a mind carved from iron. He's the orcish Lion in Winter, an association that is so incredibly apt and apparent as soon as you look at the stories through clear eyes and recognize the truth that the politics and society of said stories, one stumbling step at a time as we continue moving forward, have been striving to tell. By recognizing the inherent laziness and bias of casual fantasy language, we have, in my personal opinion, taken those next steps into even better storytelling and more consistent and logical presentation of characters.
I'd urge any prospective or current writer to peel back the layers of your own storytelling and world-building with the same critical eye; why did you use a particular word or phrase to describe something? Is it because that was really the best way to describe it, or was it a quick way to save some word count by drawing on tropes and stereotypes? Do those tropes and stereotypes include include harmful ideology that reflects on real world cultures and events? Did you mean for them to? Dissecting not just what you've said but why you've said it is one of the steps towards growing and improving as a writer and an author.

-Michael Sayre
Coming Next: World Building by Deconstructing Bias, Part 2: Drow Haven't Been Always Evil Since the 80s and Fantasy is Better For It