Genre Pet Peeves: Fantasy Racism Is All The Rage

Vampires hate werewolves. Dwarves hate elves. Humans hate everyone who isn’t human. Fantasy racism, you are the trope that never dies. And I am getting so sick of you, you pastiche excuse of a plot device.

One of my favorite things about fantasy as a genre is its ability to explore real world problems in great depth and detail in a space that’s distinctive from our own world and therefore more neutral. Hard topics can be brought up in fantasy, such as sexuality, racism, and sustainability, and then discussed in metaphorical terms rather than literal.

But so often these days, fantasy racism isn’t used in a well crafted and nuanced manner to shed light on our own failings. It’s a blunt tool used by the author to shove the plot wherever they want it to go.

Having trouble figuring out why your destined pair can’t hook up now and run off into the sunset? BAM FANTASY RACISM! Turn one of them into an elf. Cross species pair, all the angst, none of the development!

Not sure why your party wouldn’t just go to the local authority and ask them for help with the oncoming dark hordes? BAM FANTASY RACISM! The king’s now an elf who hates you on sight for not also being an elf!

Having trouble coming up with a conflict or plot that won’t be solved in the next sixteen seconds by your super awesome character? BAM FANTASY RACISM! Your character’s now and elf and everyone hates them for being an elf!

My problem with this trope is not the potential to explore complex inter-species relationship but rather the complete lack of anything complex.

The problem is that real racism, the kind that exists in our world, yes, really, it didn’t die with Martin Luther King Jr., is that true racism is a deeply nuanced thing. This is what makes it insidious and so hard to see in ourselves or the world around us. But when racism gets boiled down to “we hate elves because we are dwarves,” it belittles the impact and reach of racism. It makes racism into something that can be solved by introducing our dwarvish character to an upstanding and good elf who will then, through the power friendship, show the dwarf that his opinions were narrow and shortsighted!

That’s not how racism works. That’s not even the most dangerous aspect of racism. The loudest cry of the biggot is ‘but some of my best friends are elves!’ Racism isn’t ‘we hate elves because elves’ it sounds a lot more like “I don’t have any problems with elves, they’re really great people, but I don’t think they should be hired by the city guard. Would you really feel safe with elves patrolling your street? They’re so flimsy! And sure they’re great shots, but how useful is that in a narrow street? What about ricochet? I’m just saying, can’t they find jobs as rangers?”

As with many of my complaints with peeves, this comes down to a complaint about laziness on the author’s part. If you’re going to use a trope, use it, don’t just lean on it and expect your novel to stay standing.

But in the case of fantasy racism, this trope isn’t just lazy, it’s also damaging and dangerous. Take some time while writing your fantasy world to consider not just the broad strokes of racial unease, but the subtle, more insidious ways that racism will color your world. Then cut out a few broad strokes in favor of something subtler, sharper, and so much more meaningful to your work.

Genre Pet Peeves: The Destined Lovers

This is a trope that is most common in romance, especially paranormal romance where a touch of magic is expected and given.  It can happen in just about any genre, though, don’t think this is only paranormal romance who run with this.  By nature of the trope, however, there will be romance involved, even if it is not strictly a love story. 

It’s also pretty self explanatory as a trope.  Two characters, usually the main two, meet in unexpected and inexplicable circumstances and are instantly madly obsessed and crazy in love with each other.  There is often some element of fate that’s built into the mechanism of the world, either tragic reincarnated lovers, some variant of soul mates, or something to that affect.  This explains, within the rules of the world, why two people can meet and suddenly, for no reason, fall wildly in love.

And it is so very, very dull.  Whenever you have the Destined Lovers in a book, the question of “Will They/Won’t They?” becomes simply “When Will They?” often with a side helping of “Holy crap you guys are morons, will you just fuck already?!”  There’s no tension in the actual romance, which often leads to ridiculous side plots of old lovers showing up to get some jealousy and build some drama.  Very annoying because there’s already plenty of potential in two different people trying to sort out being with each other and making their lives meld.  Especially if one of them is a vampire or a werewolf or lake monster*!  But no, writers just wave all that way with DESTINY and then have to shoehorn drama into the middle of their book some other way.

But you know the biggest problem I have with it?

It’s lazy, lazy writing.  That’s really why this is a pet peeve of mine and not just ‘something that happens in genre that I don’t like, but whatever.’ 

Instead of taking time to understand and explain character motive, to build them as a person and not a cardboard cut out, writers take the Destiny Short Cut.  “I want to write a love story about these two characters, but I have no reason or logical explanation why they would spend enough time together to actual fall in love so, hey!  We’ll just say destiny says they totally have to bang!  Actually, I have no reason why these two characters would even fall in love, but Destiny fixes that problem right up!”

Seriously, if you have two characters who have no common ground and personalities that don’t work together, if your entire reason for them being together is “THEY’D BE SUPER HOT” then you don’t actually have a plot or characters.  You have a series of dolls getting set up in kinky positions in Barbie’s Dream Mansion.

Don’t just wave off the entire aspect of two characters getting to know each other and developing a relationship with “DESTINY!” It’s lazy and you’re missing out on a lot of really interesting moments of character development.

And if you’re insistent on doing destined lovers, then DO something with it.  Make them the wrong social classes.  Have one of them in a pre-existing relationship.  Or gun shy.  Make one of them already married!  Do something, anything!

A common way this trope is made more interesting is to have one or both character fights the very idea of destiny and resists getting with the other person, often out of fear, confusion, and misunderstanding of the situation.  Or when it makes one of the characters nervous and uncomfortable.  At the least, do the last one, because it only makes sense.  That’s one of the biggest problems I have with destined lovers.  You find yourself suddenly, inexplicably being totally obsessed and spending time with someone you just met who is also, by circumstances of the novel, known to be dangerous.  And what is the reaction of most characters?  Totally chill.  Because DESTINY means that they totally trust their destined lover with absolutely no basis in why they actually should.  Because DESTINY! 

I don’t know about you, but if I found myself in those circumstances, I would be freaking out and wondering if I was crazy.  Or brainwashed.  Or both! 

Point is, this can be an interesting mechanism, but you need to do something with it.  Don’t rely on Destined Lovers to avoid knowing your characters’ actual motives or having good reasons to keep your two characters interacting.

Actually, if you want a good example of making two very different characters interact in a realistic way, check out Shades of A. This is comic is, interestingly enough, a parody of Shades of Gray.  It’s about an asexual young man who becomes involved with a kinky transvestite man (and no, I am not using transvestite wrong here).  The two of them meet via coincidence initially, BUT in their first meeting, they spend several hours talking, which establishes common interests and compatible personality between the two.  Then, they continue to run into each other through a combination of further coincidences and the results of both being (tangentially in Anwar’s case) in the same subculture.  Through these meetings, a strong sense of connection forms, but does not come out of nowhere and is not built on lazy writing.  The comic is still ongoing, but I am massively enjoying it and recommend it to anyone who likes a story with some non-hetero normative pairings.

Also, asexuals.  We need more stories about those.

Wait, what was I talking about?  Destined lovers?  Right, bottom line.  They’re boring and no excuse to avoid proper development of characters.

One day I will do a blog about something that isn’t a genre pet peeve.  But until that time, romance writers aren’t the only ones taking lazy short cuts. 

Also! Taking suggestions for novels that turn the ‘fated lovers’ on its head in interesting ways.

*And also taking suggestions of any romance with Lake Monsters as one of the main two.  Because I want to see how the hell THAT is handled.