The Savage Other as a Stereotype in Fiction

(An early draft of this essay was written in 2011. This is a revised version.)

According to my American Heritage dictionary the word savage comes from the Latin for “of the woods, wild.” Savage is variously defined as “Untouched by man and civilization; not domesticated or cultivated; Ferocious; vicious or merciless; brutal.” Basically, savages are but one step up from wild animals. They are, as it were, undomesticated man.

The issue of how savages are the same as or different from barbarians is a related but entangled issue, one I will not get into now because instead I want to discuss the use of “savages” in fictional narrative both written and visual. This is an incomplete and partial examination of a complicated question. I use the generic “we” as a writing device, not to suggest I am speaking for others. Be aware I am specifically speaking from the point of view of an American (USA) writing in English.

A typical appearance of the stereotypical Savage Other in narrative may include some or all of the following characteristics:

1) Savage Others live in a crude and primitive manner, with primitive technology, primitive homes, primitive weapons, and primitive manners. They may be generally partially or mostly naked, and often they are painted or scarred; if clothed, then the clothing is usually unsophisticated while the decoration is often exotic and beautiful. Bare breasts might be prominent. They lack modesty and are sometimes perfectly happy to have sex in public because, like dogs and other animals, they lack self consciousness.

2) Fights, often to the death, and brute strength (i.e. violence) are often used to solve social problems within the group. Savages often are boisterous, unable to grasp or stomach the subtleties of politics or social relations.

3) They often are not articulate or talkative. There may be grunting. This is not always just because everything is being translated. Or, if they talk good, they have a limited palette of conversational topics.

4) Simplistic notions of the universe often combine with a primitive notion of religion. Also, sometimes they can’t count past 3. They may be cunning but are rarely or never inventors or sophisticated problem solvers.  Usually they are gullible and superstitious, although often their naïve view of the world may prove to be profound in some mystical way.

5) Sucks to be a woman. They get all the worst chores and are also at constant risk of rape, especially captive women without a guardian or some man who has claimed her (see #9 below, the primal edge).

5a) Exception: Free savage women may have lusty sexual appetites to go with their bare breasts. Also, savage women can sometimes best civilized men in arm wrestling.

6) Blind loyalty to strong masculine male leader. Blind loyalty turns quickly to feeding frenzy if leader shows the slightest sign of weakness.

7) Dirty or matted, tangled hair a bonus. Decoration a plus, especially bones woven into the hair. Peter Jackson’s King Kong film, I’m looking at you.

8) Savages are usually “those people over there” and never “our people.” I have not done a statistical study on how many in works written by Euro-American authors map savages to non-white non-European groups. But that wouldn’t mean anything anyway because blond people can be depicted as savage, too! You know, like the Scots! No, wait, the Picts! Aren’t they blond?

9) Savages lack discipline. That is, they live close to the “primal edge” and just one little bit of alcohol or tip of excitement will set them over the top and into the kind of impulsive behavior that suggests they have no awareness of themselves in a social milieu. Another way of looking at it might be to say that adult savages lack impulse control in something of the same way some teenagers are said to lack impulse control; in other words, they have never quite grown up; they are perpetual children lacking adult restraint and insight and the virtues of consideration, decorum, and moderation, unless, of course, they are a Wise Savage, in which case they are connected to the mystical spirit of the universe, or a Noble Savage, in which case, bad luck, because they are soon to be wiped out so “we” who have recorded their Last Days can mourn their passing.

10) Occasionally they need an Outsider to help them out, become ruler, save them, or civilize them.

Here are four problems I have with depictions of the Savage Other, although this is by no means a complete discussion of how deeply problematic this stereotype is.


The idea that the default state of human beings is “savagery” lies beneath many of these depictions: an unexamined assumption that this is “what we-as-humans are really like.” The problem with the “what we are really like” theory is that just as human beings have violent tendencies, they also have altruistic and cooperative tendencies; just as they can be cruel, they can also be kind and affectionate. Altruism, cooperation, kindness, tenderness, and affection are not the purview of civilization, just as cruelty and violence are not the purview of savagery. All exist within human behavior regardless.


A “simple” level of social organization, or a low level of technology, does not mean there are equally simple levels of innovation, social interaction, cosmological understanding, or customary (unwritten) law within the group.

What we think of as “primitive tech” was once leading edge tech. Throughout history people have figured out how to use the technology they have in sophisticated ways to deal with their environment and improve their lives. We got where we are today because of uncounted numbers of innovations and inventions that came before in a steady chain of discovery, many forgotten or unrecognized.

In college I took a class on “South American Indians” in which we studied, among other things, cosmologies of various groups. The cosmologies of many of these groups were exceedingly complex and layered and sophisticated. Additionally, the layers of social interaction are usually extremely complex in all societies, and social relationships may be necessarily multilayered in so-called “simpler” societies. If you have ever studied kinship terms you can see how simplified, or one might say atrophied, American English kinship terms are compared to kinship terms in many other languages.


Human groups have all been developing for the same amount of time. They are continually adapting to their environmental and geopolitical circumstances, which are constantly changing in ways we can’t always see from the present moment. My spouse has worked in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, and he will tell you that some of the most supple and sophisticated thinkers he has met have been highland villagers in PNG who may seem, by external technological Western measurements, to be more “primitive” (or “less advanced”) than “us” but who are far less locked into rigid ways of thinking.

When we say “less advanced,” what do we really mean? How are we defining “advanced?” Usually we are defining it in terms of cities and urban civilization. Politically and bureaucratically state level societies are usually described as “more advanced” than chieftain level societies because they are more populous and have more moving parts and more specialization. (Lest you wonder, I like my technological conveniences and my Constitution just fine, thank you.)

Yet, for instance, the culture of the nomadic Mongols made famous by the 13th century conquests of Genghis Khan was not “less advanced” in cultural terms compared to other cultures of that time. It was suited to its environment, and was as sophisticated and complex in terms of interpersonal dynamics, cosmological understanding, and the nature of lineage and tribal obligations that bound sub-groups together. It had been developing throughout prehistory through stages in a parallel process (with a different outcome) to the development of the complex urban civilizations of the time, those in China, Persia, and the Middle East. Although not based in an urban context, the fluid and dynamic nature of the steppe lineages and groups proved superior militarily to the urban societies they conquered. The Mongols knew how and where to get the outside knowledge they needed to do what they wanted, including bringing in Chinese siege warfare experts just as one example. The descendants of that conquest held on for a reasonably long time in historical terms as the initial empire grew and then slowly collapsed in the way typical of large empires.


“Savages” do not behave that way. Functional societies are orderly in an internally consistent way.  Functional societies rely on social mores, legal (written or unwritten) expectations or codes, and societal ways (which may be repressive, customary, tolerant, familial, or law-bound) of enforcing social cohesion.

Let me repeat:  All functional societies contain social mechanisms to regulate behavior within the group.

Groups that lack social and customary (legal) cohesion do not survive, or they are already disrupted by other forces which are causing them to change or dissolve. Things like environmental stresses, economic collapse, imperial or colonial pressure or exploitation, and war (internal civil or invasion by an outside group) disrupt social cohesion.

In other words, “savage” defines behavior, not culture. Savage behavior is a dynamic that most often comes into play because of disorder or high stress. For instance, when Wellington’s army sacked the city of Badajoz in 1812, they engaged in savage behavior.

No society or culture can function internally, with internal cohesion, with “savage behavior” as its sole social web. We only think it can be true because the contrast flatters us and reinforces our expectations and assumptions about who is a savage.

Do people behave horribly sometimes? Absolutely.

So here’s my problem: An incident of “savage” or “wild” behavior among a people who are classified as “savages” defines “them,” and the entire culture, as savage, whereas an incident of “savage” or “wild” behavior among “us” (ours, people like us) is defined as an aberration, the exception that proves the rule of our disciplined, advanced, cohesive, orderly, and thus superior society.

But human society is by definition social; we have evolved within social bonds, and with human emotions that influence the ways we interact, enforce social bonds and behavior, and create our way of understanding the world around us.

Humans are as a group emotionally sophisticated, although individuals vary. One of the worst problems with the depictions of the Savage Other is that entire “peoples” or “groups” are treated as if, like variant individuals, they fall outside the curve. But people live in social groupings for a reason: not only are we band animals, we are so because we survive in bands (and larger groups) whereas alone we would die.

As soon as any grouping of people settles into a band or larger society, they now have a social order and will interact to improve the social order (even if only in their favor).

In other words, the Savage Other does not exist. It is a construct, held up so we can feel better about ourselves.

When one people or civilization referred in the past (or refers today) to another as “savage” it is important to examine where and why that word was (or is) being used. Usually it is specifically used to create a value judgement that allows “our” culture to be elevated as more civilized and superior and “theirs” as savage and thus inferior. People in the past, just as in the present, had prejudices and agendas and we should therefore not repeat their judgements as if they were objective.

I’m reminded of the argument that the civilization of the Aztecs (also known as the Mexica) was “savage” because they did not use forks: So said anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, writing in the 19th century. Meanwhile, conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo, writing as an old man in the 1560s, reflects that the Spaniards with Hernán Cortés on that first fateful expedition had never seen a city in Europe as large, spacious, orderly, and beautiful as the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Some people typically argue that the Aztecs were savages because they practiced heart sacrifice. A nasty business, I agree. But Mexica heart sacrifice was a tool for political (and religious) power just as the various inquisitions and pogroms have been in Europe, with torture, burning at the stake, and wholesale slaughter part of the historical record. And let’s review a few horrific details of the conquest of the Americas as detailed in Bartolomé de las Casas’s A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (published in 1561):

“The Spaniards forced their way into Native settlements, slaughtering everyone they found there, including small children, old men, pregnant women, and even women who had just given birth. They hacked them to pieces, slicing open their bellies with their swords as though they were so many sheep herded into a pen. They even laid wagers on whether they could manage to slice a man in two at a stroke, or cut an individual’s head from his body, or disembowel him with a single blow of their axes. They grabbed suckling infants by the feet and, ripping them from their mother’s breasts, dashed them headlong against the rocks.”

Are these acts and the religious-political justification for killing any less savage?

Depictions of the Savage Other in fiction and film don’t function as realistic societies because they don’t contain the complex underpinnings and social interaction that functional working societies have. Savage Others in such cases are poorly thought-through as a piece of world-building. They’re bad craft, and they are also extremely harmful stereotypes. Any belief that they represent a real “type” of human social order has more to do with our willingness and desire to accept a simplistic weave of cliches than with the reality of their existence.

Tropes: A Guest Post by Juliet McKenna (Worldbuilding Wednesday 13)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.

This week I present an excellent post on tropes by Juliet E. McKenna. She’s recently released her Aldabreshin Compass series in ebook format. It’s a story I can’t recommend enough for its fantastic setting and characters and story. In fact, check out that link for some excellent posts on worldbuilding.


I asked Juliet to write about tropes because I think that if used wisely they can be a useful tool when thinking about worldbuilding.



Juliet E. McKenna


Just what is a trope and what should you do with it?

It’s one of those words batted back and forth in creative writing conversations, and if everyone else nods wisely but you don’t actually know what it means mostly you’ll mostly sit quietly and try to work out what it means from context.

Unless you can stealthily look up a definition in an online dictionary. Though that may not be overly helpful. According to the Concise OED, it’s ‘a figurative (e.g. metaphorical or ironical) use of a word’, from the Greek/Latin for ‘to turn’. Merriam Webster is more useful. ‘A common or overused theme or device’.

Oh, so it’s another word for cliché? Yes and no, and this is why this particular word has become useful in discussions about plot, character, setting and all the other intricacies of creating convincing fiction. ‘Cliché’ invariably has negative associations. A cliché is a woman spilling red wine on a white dress or tablecloth in the first five minutes of a TV crime show. You just know that’ll be mirrored by blood before the closing credits – or before the first adverts.

But let’s not forget that a classic can often be a cliché that’s simply been really well presented. There are only so many plots after all. The number varies from thirty six to seven, depending on which writers’ handbook you read. Some strip all these down to two essentials, literal or metaphorical; ‘someone goes on a journey’ and ‘a stranger comes to town’. Those who go still further insist these are the same thing, just from two different perspectives. More than that, especially in genre writing, some much-repeated plot elements are essential. If you’re writing a murder mystery, there pretty much has to be a dead body somewhere – without or without a wine/blood-stained dress.

The vital thing to remember is it’s not what you do but the way that you do it. The difference between cliché and trope is akin to the difference between stereotype and archetype. The wiser, older man offering guidance is an archetype in fiction. The very word ‘Mentor’ was originally the name of Odysseus’s trusted advisor. Someone playing this role can be a useful writerly tool. But if all a story has is an old man who turns up to offer plot-crucial information when the narrative stalls, that’s a stereotype. That character has to be integrated into the world and the story’s relationships to be a memorable individual as well as one who resonates with the reader’s familiarity with the archetype. Then you have mentors as different as Polonius in Hamlet, Belgarath in the Belgariad and Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.

In the same way, recognising tropes becomes an essential writerly skill. Then you can look at what other writers have done with them and find your own, distinctive take. Because what the people reading your work – from agents and editors though to the stranger picking your novel up in a bookstore – are looking for is a unique blend of the familiar and the unanticipated. Otherwise you’ll get the same sort of rejection letters as my first and thankfully unpublished epic adventure. ‘There’s nothing to distinguish this from the half dozen other competent fantasy novels that have crossed my desk this week.’

That blunt assessment helped me understand how to work effectively with well-established tropes in my epic fantasy writing. In my Tales of Einarinn, a young woman goes on a quest to unravel the mysteries of magical artefacts – because she’s initially blackmailed and after that, she’s in it for the money. How’s that going to affect her decision making? In The Aldabreshin Compass sequence, the central character is an honourable feudal lord in the high heroic tradition – which means he doesn’t question unpalatable aspects of his absolute power. So can the reader entirely trust the world view of a good man with massive blind spots? In The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, rival dukes are battling for the crown in classic epic fantasy fashion. Only the ordinary folk who suffer in such warfare have decided they’re sick and tired of it. What happens to a feudal elite when those they’re ruling withdraw their co-operation? In The Hadrumal Crisis, I take a look at a frequently unexplored question in fantasy; why don’t wizards rule the world? All too often, the answer seems to be ‘because they’re jolly decent chaps, like Gandalf’. Well, what happens if they’re not?

So you can use tropes to draw readers into your story and then surprise them with a plot twist at the outset. How about setting up a mighty hero with a magic sword departing on a quest, only to have him fall off his horse and break his neck, leaving someone wholly unexpected to pick up that burden? An old woman whose wisdom is countered by her infirmity. A young man with domestic responsibilities which he can’t simply abandon. Let’s not forget how unusual The Lord of the Rings was at the time of its publication. Quests before that were all about retrieving an item of power, not destroying it. Great heroes did great deeds, not humble everyman Hobbits.

As you become practised at spotting tropes you can start to actively use them within your writing. As your story progresses, you can use familiarity to fulfil readers’ expectations and maintain the swift pace of a narrative, saving everyone time and pages. As your tale approaches its climax, you can offer up a range of possible plot options and keep the reader guessing which way events will turn. Is this Thermopylae, Roncevaux or Helm’s Deep? Not that your readers need to know the specifics of those particular battles. They’ve seen these tropes play out in countless movies and books. Will there be a valiant last stand? Will treachery undermine all heroics? Will anyone escape, how and at what cost? Will there be a last minute reprieve? Or something else entirely?

Something else entirely is what you should aim for and the more famous or familiar a trope is, the harder it becomes to do something genuinely unexpected with it. Is anyone going to come up with a convincing new twist on the ‘no man born of woman can slay me’ prophecy after William Shakespeare has given us Macduff from his mother’s womb untimely ripped, and Tolkien offers Dernhelm’s defiant cry ‘But no living man am I!’.

As for tediously repeated tropes, the woman seeking revenge on her rapist and the man seeking revenge on whoever killed his girlfriend/wife/mother really have been done and done again ad nauseam across so many genres and narrative forms. A talented writer might well come up with a new take on these but still fail to find an audience because the familiarity of that premise has now bred such contempt that no one even bothers to read past the first page or watch more than the first five minutes.

So pick your tropes carefully, and always remember to only use them as a starting point or as a writerly tool. You also need all the other elements that make up compelling fiction; fully realised characters, a gripping plot, a convincing setting. Otherwise you still risk falling into stereotype and cliché. What you’re aiming for is that elusive balance between offering your readers the reassurance of archetype and the rewards of the unexpected.



Next week: Trope Study: The Forced Marriage

Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image, Inductive to Deductive, Image to Idea: A Practical Idea, Deductive or Inductive: A Guest Perspective (Aliette de Bodard), The Map as Theory, Geography is Destiny, The Big Narratives Stand Atop Those Lives, Writing Outside Your Own Experience, Narrative Maps, Writing Women Characters into Epic Fantasy Without Quotas

Worldbuilding Wednesday – brief deadline hiatus

Hey, lovely readers. I missed posting this week’s Worldbuilding Wednesday because I am on such a tight deadline that I have no brain for anything else until this draft gets done.

My apologies.

I have a lovely post on Tropes by Juliet McKenna. It will go up next week. In fact, I’m going to set it up and schedule it right now.

Writing Women Characters into Epic Fantasy Without Quotas (Worldbuilding Wednesday 12)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.

This week I have a 9000 word essay going up on, so I’m linking to it as my world-building Wednesday post on the principle that 9000 words is a novelette and thus equals 2 or 3 or even 4 posts.




Here’s the introduction:

The cold equations of “realism,” some claim, suggest there is little scope for women taking an active and interesting role in epic stories set in fantasy worlds based in a pre-modern era. Women’s lives in the past were limited, constrained, and passive, they say. To include multiple female characters in dynamic roles is to be in thrall to quotas, anachronisms, Political Correctness, and the sad spectacle and dread hyenas of wish-fulfillment.

Is this true?

Let’s leave aside the argument that, in fantasy, if you’re going to include dragons you can also plausibly include women in a range of roles. That’s absolutely correct, although it veers uncomfortably close to equating women’s presence in epic narrative to that of mythical creatures. As an argument to include women it’s not even necessary.

Of course there are already many fascinating and memorable female characters in epic fantasy, with more being added every year. So, yes, write women—write people—however you want, with no limits and constraints.

More importantly, any cursory reading of scholarship published in the last fifty years uncovers a plethora of evidence revealing the complexity and diversity of women’s lives in past eras and across geographical and cultural regions.

I’m not suggesting the legal and political situation of women has been universally equal to that of men across world history, much less equivalent in every culture. And this essay is not meant to represent a comprehensive examination of women’s lives (or what it means to be called a woman) in the past, present, or cross-culturally. Far from it: This represents the merest fractional fragment of a starting point.

women writing GR-E

My goal is to crack open a few windows onto the incredible variety of lives lived in the past.  How can women characters fit in epic fantasy settings based on a quasi-historical past? How can their stories believably and interestingly intersect with and/or be part of a large canvas? You can model actual lives women lived, not tired clichés.

Here, mostly pulled at random out of books I have on my shelves, are examples that can inspire any writer to think about how women can be realistically portrayed in fantasy novels. One needn’t imitate these particular examples lock-step but rather see them as stepping stones into many different roles, large and small, that any character (of whatever gender) can play in a story.


You will find the rest at




Next week: An introduction to tropes, by guest author Juliet E. McKenna.
Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image, Inductive to Deductive, Image to Idea: A Practical Idea, Deductive or Inductive: A Guest Perspective (Aliette de Bodard), The Map as Theory, Geography is Destiny, The Big Narratives Stand Atop Those Lives, Writing Outside Your Own Experience, Narrative Maps

Narrative Maps (Worldbuilding Wednesday 11)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.

As readers and as writers we often rely on narrative maps to navigate the rhythms and structures of a story.

By a “narrative map” I don’t mean a map of where the character goes during the story, although that is one definition of a narrative map.

A narrative map can also be defined as the structure of a story. Aristotle wrote that tragedies have a three part structure: beginning, middle (complications), and end (resolution). This is a narrative map used so commonly in Western stories that readers and audience who are accustomed to it may have a hard time engaging with stories that don’t follow its basic outline. It is by no means the only narrative map in terms of internal structures. “Beads on a string”–an episodic structure–is another way of structuring story, although the individual episodes may (or may not) use an internal “three act” structure (as per Aristotle, above). People get used to these rhythms and feel their absence if they are lacking even though other story structures are just as legitimate.

A narrative map may also be defined as a familiar plot form or plot outline. There are seven basic plots, or maybe it is eight, or there is a universal monomyth that follows a known pattern, or folktales repeat similar patterns of departure, journey, and return. All of these can be true at the same time without being the only truth, without being universal. I’m a huge fan of Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale as a way of thinking about structure, but it isn’t the only way. These general plot-outline theories are ways of comprehending and analyzing narrative and how it functions within the human psyche.

Another way to think about narrative maps is as landmarks. Most of us walk through familiar terrain every day as part of our ordinary lives. We navigate by means of landmarks we have become so accustomed to that we half forget they are there. Turn right at the gas station. Drive past the statue of Napoleon. The foothills rise to the east.

When it comes time to give directions we often use landmarks; they are easier to grasp and identify. In older times, before GPS systems, printed maps, and copious signage, people relied on landmarks and knew them well.

As readers we come to rely on landmarks as well. A happy ending or a tragic one, depending on the tone of the story. The expected point in the tale where the good guys suffer a terrible setback. When a couple meets cute, or meets in a hostile manner, we recognize the terrain: after a series of obstacles they will find a way to be together. Character types who will behave a certain way or fulfill specific roles within the story make us feel welcome and comfortable.

Readers may feel a story fails if it doesn’t meet their narrative expectations. If characters behave in ways that go against common tropes readers may feel cheated. They may read past problematic elements if expectations are otherwise met. Often problematic aspects of a narrative are part and parcel of its map, so embedded that the story doesn’t really function without them.

Do we contest biases that are embedded in the text if they are so familiar we have come to expect them? I’m reminded of this every time I see a children’s feature cartoon in which 80% of the voice actors are male, with a single lead female actor and one or two minor roles for women. I’m reminded of this every time I read a science fiction or fantasy novel or watch a tv show that features numerous prostitutes and strippers: space hookers, tavern wenches, brothels, rape towers, strip joints doubling as important meeting places for plot developments. It’s remarkable what a high percentage of women in the narrative universe are involved in sex work, and how often readers and viewers simply let it flow past without remark, because it is the landmark they expect. This comment is not about sex work, by the way, but rather about the common narrative expectation that women-as-characters are most important in terms of their sexual availability and attractiveness to men. Another example is the increasing narrative use of violence to solve problems rather than solutions like competence, negotiation, debate, bargaining, and so on. Recently my spouse and I watched a European film and he kept expecting violence to break out but it never did; he was watching the film as if it had been made in Hollywood, in which case random acts of violence would have been used to ramp up tension and to settle the conflict. It’s sobering to realize how violence-as-appropriate-solution has become embedded in our narrative map.

These narrative maps are the ground we walk on. As writers we can use familiar maps to guide people through our stories. We can strive to create narrative maps that incorporate familiar elements but let them branch off into new directions, or twist back in unexpected ways. It is difficult and perhaps impossible to write a story (within a larger cultural setting) that touches no known landmarks, offers no accustomed landscapes or understood patterns. But by examining context and thinking about what narrative maps we may be walking through without conscious thought, we can vary and complicate an otherwise standard story.


Next week: Either a guest post by Juliet McKenna about tropes. Or an extremely long essay by me on writing women characters in epic fantasy without quotas. Which will it be? Check back next week!

Coming soon: More on tropes. Invisible context. Cultural ecology. Writing past gender defaults. And I know some of you are waiting for the next practical example.

Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image, Inductive to Deductive, Image to Idea: A Practical Idea, Deductive or Inductive: A Guest Perspective (Aliette de Bodard), The Map as Theory, Geography is Destiny, The Big Narratives Stand Atop Those Lives, Writing Outside Your Own Experience

Writing Outside Your Own Experience (Worldbuilding Wednesday 10)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.

Is is possible to write outside one’s own experience?

I would say yes. In many ways the experience of writing stories is an exploration of the world outside our own self, and necessarily so lest we only write autobiographical fiction (which some do, and which is fine as a genre). A major part of all successful human interaction comes in learning how to anticipate and comprehend the behavior of people who are not us (that is, every person, even those we are closest to).

However, writing (and comprehending) outside one’s own experience does not happen in a vacuum. In reality we live embedded in cultural surroundings. We therefore absorb expectations and beliefs from our families, communities, larger linguistic and national cultures (not everyone lives in the USA!), and from popular culture renditions of what the world is supposedly like based on dominant economic and pop-culture models. These expectations and beliefs often reflect distorted and false views of communities that exist within or outside the dominant cultures.

In the wake of current and recent online discussions of appropriation, disrespectful or stereotypical representation of marginalized cultures and groups, and the publication of J.K. Rowling’s (fictional) history of North American magic, I wanted to say a few things about writing outside one’s own culture and/or group.

I’m not an expert and I have made and will continue to make mistakes. Own your mistakes. Learn from them. Listen to others more than you talk yourself.

Don’t take space from people whose voices are more marginalized than your own. Listen.

Act with the same respect you would wish to be shown. If you are going to research a culture that is not your own, listen to the voices from that culture. Don’t grab for received wisdom and “what everyone knows” and images most prevalent in popular culture, because these stereotypes are almost always harmful. Don’t only seek out outside views of the culture whose analysis is more comfortable for you, even if it is couched as scholarship.

Ask politely. Be humble. If people don’t have time for your questions, then retreat gracefully. If they do have time, pay them when that is possible or appropriate. Thank them. Don’t take people for granted. Really, truly listen to what people have to say. People willing to be honest with you are giving you a gift.

No culture is monolithic. Individuals within a culture do not hold the same views and beliefs. People also have multiple ways of understanding themselves, measured against and lived within different aspects of their lives. As in rhythm, the gaps between beats are as important as the beats. Listen to what they may not be willing to say to you.

Pay attention to the details, to the elements of daily life that are often derided as trivial or too unimportant for “important” fiction. I often find the best windows into other ways of living to be the day to day experiences of the world, and the habits, interactions, languages, and rhythms that characterize people’s lives. These spaces are where most life is lived.

Be aware that you will be hauling your own expectations and stereotypes down this path. I don’t believe we can fully rid ourselves of this baggage–the biases, prejudices, and errors-taught-as-fact–but we can try to be aware of where and what some of those assumptions are. Examine yourself. Each day we can try to build for ourselves a new understanding and new awareness that reaches past them. On an individual level we really can only dismantle our own personal wall of prejudice and ignorance one stone at a time. Be determined.

Imagine a reader from the group you are writing about reading your story. How might they react? Is that what you want? Who are you really writing for? Are you using a culture as a stage setting or as an exotic or dramatically harsh backdrop for a story that will almost certainly mostly be read by readers not from that culture or group who won’t know any of the nuances of that experience and will be satisfied with broad brushstrokes as well as oversimplified and probably offensive generalities? Do you want to build your entertaining story atop other people’s pain?

To quote Malinda Lo: Ask yourself why you want to do it.

Then ask yourself again.

Diversity is realism. Fiction offers every artist a vast canvas, measured only against the limits of each individual’s mind. There are good reasons to read and write widely, to let the imagination range, to challenge yourself, to follow the idea that has taken fire. Just be aware that there can be consequences that don’t devolve on you but on others. Be responsible. Pay attention.


Next week maybe the long-promised post on Narrative Maps will finally appear. Stay tuned!

Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image, Inductive to Deductive, Image to Idea: A Practical Idea, Deductive or Inductive: A Guest Perspective (Aliette de Bodard), The Map as Theory, Geography is Destiny, The Big Narratives Stand Atop Those Lives

The Big Narratives Stand Atop Those Lives (Worldbuilding Wednesday 9)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.

In a review of my short fiction collection, THE VERY BEST OF KATE ELLIOTT, writer E. P. Beaumont identifies a worldbuilding aspect I really care about in terms of story, one I don’t necessarily see mentioned in fiction as often as I might wish.

Elliott’s great strength as a storyteller is in thinking about the labor that sustains her imagined worlds, and the dangers faced by those who do it.

I strongly believe we owe the continuity of our communities to the labor and experiences and of course literally the physical persons of so many unsung and trivialized people. Their lives are too often dismissed as “uninteresting” or “unimportant” even though they accomplish the mass of work out of which the rest are sustained.

The Big Narratives stand atop those lives. They can’t exist without them.

In my stories I do try to show labor and infrastructure (however it is handled within any given society) being performed by people as part of the background, and in some cases the foreground (Cold Fire’s boarding house sequence; Alain’s sojourn in the mines in The Gathering Storm).

Especially when it comes to writing about women I have grown increasingly more determined over the years to beware of the tendency to “elevate” a woman character’s story by allowing her to partake in a traditionally “male story.”

This is a short post so I’m not going to discuss here, today, the ways in which masculine and feminine roles differ between societies, much less how (in some societies and cultures) “male things” are deemed superior to “female things” because of which gender that “thing” is applied to rather than the thing itself. Nor am I going to discuss how important it is as you-the-writer to not universalize views of gender and society that are actually particular to your own society. I’m not saying don’t write however you want–please write whatever the hell you want–just realize, Horatio, that there are more things in heaven and earth than those contained in just one philosophy. Not everyone thinks about these things in the same way. In the past and in other cultures people had and have much more fluid views of gender than many of us have been taught.

In both my reading and my writing I enjoy flipping roles and subverting tropes. I adore women characters engaged in all the adventurous and political behavior that often characterizes the science fiction and fantasy stories I love. Of course women have historically engaged in many things people erroneously believe only men did “back in the day,” so writing a wide range of women characters participating in a wide range of activities really isn’t a stretch. Basically I’m all for writing people doing stuff without labeling the “stuff” as ineluctably “male” or “female” (which is one reason I applaud discussions that move away from gender–and binaries–in these contexts).

But over the years I have also had to caution myself not to diminish the lives so many women actually lived.

If the only way to make a woman character “important” is to allow her to be “like a man” or engage in “traditionally male” activities (as defined by the societal values of the setting), then we aren’t elevating women’s lives; we are just confirming and extending the prejudice that treats “traditional” women’s work and historical women’s experiences as lesser. If I can only write women as ‘free and powerful’ by freeing them from their ‘traditional’ roles, am I not then implicitly agreeing with unchallenged cultural assumptions that devalue women’s labor and women’s experience?

Conversely, if the only way to make certain work respectable or “equal” is to have a man engage in it (not just women), then we’re still saying we believe that women bring an inferior social position to everything they do. When, in Cold Steel, Cat cooks for Andevai but he never cooks for her, it can be seen as a hidebound stereotype perpetrated by the author, or it can be seen as a reflection of a cultural value in which cooking is a respected activity performed by women. If cooking only becomes valued if he also cooks for her, then where does that leave women?

It’s not that I think writers should be required or ought to include in their narrative the labor that sustains their worlds. But I do wish those who don’t think it matters would pause to ask themselves why they think that, and how it could be made to matter within the context of a story.

To a great extent narratives are culturally-agreed-upon maps whose landmarks readers and viewers of that culture are familiar with. Journeys that deviate from those maps sometimes do not succeed for readers not because the story isn’t good but simply because it doesn’t fit a stereotype, trope, or expectation.


Next week: Writing Outside Your Own Experience

And after that a swim in the sea of tropes..

Previously: Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image, Inductive to Deductive, Image to Idea: A Practical Idea, Deductive or Inductive: A Guest Perspective (Aliette de Bodard), The Map as Theory, Geography is Destiny

The Internal Map (Worldbuilding Wednesday 7)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.

What do I mean by an internal map?

I define an internal map as how the people in this made up world perceive the cosmos and their place in it.

People and societies have an “internal map” that orients how they see the world and influences the choices they make and the perspectives they cherish, enforce, and share. This is true for characters and cultures in narrative as well.

By cosmos I mean a people’s understanding of the universe, how they perceive that it works, and what brought them to the place (land) they are now. This view may or may not be influenced by religious beliefs.

Other elements of the internal map include cultural beliefs and expectations, laws and customs, and societally approved prejudices and/or rebellion against them. People (and thus characters) understand who they are in the world and what their relationships are to others according to this internalized map. What are the rules and customs of behavior that govern them, and does any given character as an individual obey them or not? Expectations about things like hierarchy, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and race will all be part of a character’s internal map.

There will almost certainly be more than one “people” in a secondary world, and each “people” will have a unique way of understanding the cosmos and their relationship to their gods (if they have them), the natural environment, their culture and sub-cultures, and to other groups and peoples both within and outside their own culture.

Internal maps are therefore not monolithic to each world or even each nation (or even individuals in the same setting). They will be influenced by the nuances, variations, and local characteristics that affect any given individual’s life. For example, a Japanese-American girl growing up in Nebraska as one of only a handful of Asian-American students at her high school is going to have a somewhat different internal map than a girl of Japanese ancestry growing up in Hawaii with its majority Asian & Pacific Islander demographic make up, and they again will have different internal maps to a Japanese girl growing up in Japan.

For me, the beginnings of understanding a world starts with my first explorations into an internal map.

Obviously no made up world is going to be as complex as the real world–I believe it is functionally not possible–but having the idea that there is an internal map provides the foundation on which I can build what I hope is a nuanced landscape.

I also have to remember that this map will always be influenced by my own internal map, the one that orients me. If I’m not aware of my own internal perspectives and biases, the ones influenced by my family, my upbringing and schooling, and the society I live in, then I am likely to reinforce or repeat my perspectives and biases within the story I’m writing regardless of whether I’m trying to write a place that is different from where I live.

I’ll use marriage customs as an example. When I read science fiction novels set in the far future in which a woman automatically takes her husband’s name and there is no explanation for why this happened, I perceive defaulting to certain common American legal norms at work. A woman taking her husband’s name is a specific cultural custom, not a universal one. When it is treated as a universal then I know the writer isn’t stepping outside their own internal map. It’s not that this custom should never be invoked in (for example) secondary world or far future fiction, but rather that if the writer chooses to include it then it’s best to be aware that there needs to be context for it.

Here’s another commonly used default: the virgin bride. Not every pre-modern culture concerns itself with women’s virginity as a token of honor and purity. Nor is marriage necessarily about sexual access. If marriage customs have a place in the society you are creating then understand how they work and in what ways marriage is considered useful as an institution in the society you are creating. If you merely replicate generically understood 1950s American marriage customs and sexual mores, you are re-using a cultural map that has been (in many places) superseded in the 21st century and which gas not ever represented a universal marriage pattern.

So, yes, my perspectives and biases will show up in the stories I write in off-hand and subtle, or not so subtle, ways, but the more awareness I can bring to my world creation the more deliberate I can make my choices. Because I guarantee: our unexamined biases will inevitably filter into our imagined worlds.

This is why I don’t “start with a map” by placing mountains and rivers and cities on a piece of paper: because physical landmarks offer only a partial understanding of a world. A physical map is by definition incomplete and circumscribed because it gives no insight into the mental and emotional and spiritual processes of the characters and the cultures in which those characters live their lives.

But at the same time, the physical geography in which a culture arises creates many of its own constraints and possibilities.


Next week: Geography is Destiny

Coming soon: More on internal maps and how to develop them, including a practical example post and one on diagramming cosmologies. Also a discussion of common narrative maps and tropes and how they influence worldbuilding. And more.

Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image, Inductive to Deductive, Image to Idea: A Practical Idea, Deductive or Inductive: A Guest Perspective (Aliette de Bodard), The Map as Theory

The Map As Theory (Worldbuilding Wednesday 6)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.

I always start with a map.

However–and this is crucial–there are two kinds of maps.

One is the physical, geographical “external” map.

The other is the socio-cultural “internal” map.

When I use the word map many people think I am talking about a physical representation of the geography of a world. But a map isn’t limited to physical representation. Maps are patterns we impose. When world building I believe it is important to be aware of maps AS PATTERNS and to think about what these often unconsciously-imposed patterns may mean when we create a secondary world.

As world builders, writers can go over the same sort of terrain over and over again because it’s the landscape people are familiar with.

Here are three well worn narrative maps:

King (or any authoritarian adult male figure) dies at hand of usurper, son flees, and must return to overthrow the usurper and restore rightful rule/status.

Evil lord or horde lays waste (or oppressive king places chains on his subjects) and band of heroes must rise up (rise up!) to take back the land and/or beat back the threat.

Two people meet and feel attraction; obstacles intervene and are overcome; they kiss.

Most readers recognize these sorts of narrative maps, and often choose to return to places that have familiar contours. I do, too. There is nothing wrong with creating a setting that feels familiar and comfortable and is populated by characters who act in ways familiar and comfortable to you as the writer. I do this as well, or in specific ways within my books.

Just be aware that stories that are specific to your experience and your comfort and familiarity level are not universal stories, even if we have been told they are. For example, the Joseph Campbell version of The Hero’s Journey is not universal, it is particularist. That’s fine that it is what it is, but best not to claim for it something it is not.

The beauty of fiction in general and fantasy and science fiction in particular is that we always have a chance to move beyond the border, beyond the boundaries, to see the world in a way we haven’t looked at it before.

While building a world, I believe one must constantly negotiate the balance between the experiences and subjective assumptions I bring to the world I’m creating and the experiences and assumptions that are meant to exist in the world itself, that are meant to represent this specific world’s way of being rather than my own way of being.

I can think like I do, but I also need to know how the people in my world think.

If the two are the same, I need to know and recognize that. If they are different, I need to write their world as the characters see it, not as I see it. (I’ll explore this point in more detail in a later post.)

Furthermore, maps are not objective. It is commonplace to define a “western-style” map as an objective measure of the land, but it isn’t. Mapmakers are always making choices about how a place is represented and what matters enough to put on the map.

No one builds a world from an objective place. As a world builder, you are making a series of decisions about what matters enough to go in the map, and about what and how it is represented. If a place or character isn’t on YOUR map, the map in your mind of what matters about the world you want to write about, then you the writer can certainly not go to places you’ve never thought about, places you think don’t matter enough to warrant notice. Matters that aren’t visible to you.

This is why the map I start with is the internal map.

Every character in the story has an internal map through which they measure, comprehend, and navigate the world they live in. Their maps won’t be the same as every other character’s, and they (probably) won’t be the same as mine.

To understand how “the peoples of my world” look at the world they “live in,” I have to move outside my own narrow range of experience. To a fair degree I never can, but with conscious effort I can attempt to widen my view and shrink my limitations bit by bit and piece by piece. If I don’t think about the unconscious ways in which my understanding of the world is limited by my upbringing and its setting, and by my own cultural expectations and experiences and perceptions and biases, then I will bring those unexamined assumptions into my world building (and I do indeed do this all the time despite my efforts not to). Again, it’s fine to do that if that’s the story you want to tell, but that too is a choice. Own it.

So, yes, early on in the process I will draw a cartographical representation of the physical world. Yet for me the most important “map” is bigger than that. It’s not flat, it’s multi-dimensional: A physical map intersects with this internal map, and these conjoined maps influence and are influenced by the architecture of the narrative as it unfolds.


Next week: The Internal Map
Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image, Inductive to Deductive, Image to Idea: A Practical Idea, Deductive or Inductive: A Guest Perspective (Aliette de Bodard)

Deductive or Inductive: A Guest Perspective (Worldbuilding Wednesday 5)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.

Today I’m thrilled to present a guest post by Aliette de Bodard. Having written about whether I use an inductive or deductive (top down or bottom up) approach, I thought it would be illuminating to see how another writer works in a way different from my own. I can’t emphasize enough that writing isn’t a specific process to learn, but rather a matter of discovering the process works for you.

Here you go:


From the top down, or how vibes and research drive my worldbuilding

by Aliette de Bodard

Disclaimer: this is the way things happen to work for me now. Like all writing advice, this is no way an obligation. I’m simply sharing stuff that currently helps me write fiction–and if it doesn’t work for you, or if only part of it works for you, that’s totally cool. Everyone has a different process, and also processes change quite a bit over the months/years!

I have a tendency to build my universes from the top down.

It’s by no means an absolute rule: I’m a big fan of “whatever works”, and especially for short stories I have built with a mixture of top down and bottom up, or simply bottom up like Alis does (though I can’t noodle for long. I have to get specific fairly fast).

But very often, with longer works, I tend to go for a very specific vibe, often tied to a subgenre/mix of subgenres that I find intriguing. Obsidian and Blood was explicitly conceived as a series of noir mysteries/fantasies featuring Aztec culture (and in particular Aztec magic derived from blood sacrifices).

The vibe is the dominant mood of a setting for me: for instance, Xuya, my Vietnamese space opera universe, is heavily focused on families and interpersonal relationships, and on the intersections of tradition and science. It gives a certain… tone to the stories? I’m not saying they’re all comedies or tragedies! But rather that they have a certain thematic focus on families and daily life, and that they also have an accompanying tone (what I think of as “quiet”, “intimate” stories rather than large-scales ones). They’re very different beasts from Dominion of the Fallen stories/novels.

Dominion of the Fallen (my series which started with The House of Shattered Wings, and which I’m working on at the moment) is a decadent/post-apocalyptic series set in a Paris devastated by a magical war. The thematic focus is the mechanics of survival/the impossible choices faced in a resource-scarce environment, and the tone is (grim)dark. Even in the short story “Of Books, and Earth, and Courtship” (an adventure/caper featuring two characters who fall in love with each other), the setting is never free of I think of as “grimdark 19th Century”: huge social injustices, an omnipresent colonial mindset, and oppressive, cruel characters in positions of power. In that story, it’s background, and not the main focus of the narrative, but it’s still there.

Once I have a setting, I research a lot. I tend to pick time periods that I think will be relevant: for Xuya, it’s 19th-Century/early-20th Vietnam (which serves as the basis for an intergalactic empire based on Vietnamese culture). For The House of Shattered Wings, I researched Belle Epoque Paris, as well as the history of colonies in both World Wars/colonial immigration to France in the first half of the 20th Century. I read fiction from the time period, non-fiction on it, and other media I find interesting (amusingly, for The House of Shattered Wings, I ended up drawing on a lot of anime, both set in Western-inspired worlds, and in post-apocalyptic settings: Black Butler, Full Metal Alchemist, Ergo Proxy).

This gives me what I think of as the base. The base is the backdrop against which the characters move: it’s both the physical settings (a Vietnamese pagoda orbital is very different from a magically nuked Notre-Dame) and the resulting mindsets of characters. Mindset being very important to me, because otherwise everyone ends up feeling like 21st-Century French characters in period costumes. For instance, in Xuya, familial ties and ancestor worship are very important: characters always know who is eldest/youngest in a relationship. In Dominion of the Fallen, the mindset is pragmatic: it’s not so much what you do, as what you can get away with–all hidden under a thin veneer of politeness and courtesy that preserves an increasingly fragile social order.

I need to know this in order to know about my characters: how usual or unusual they are, against accepted norms. A Xuya character with no respect for their parents, for instance, is wildly outside the norm and possibly a bit of a pariah because of this. And Madeleine, a character in The House of Shattered Wings, is what we would think of, today, as a decent character who tries to do the right thing: in that universe, however, she is widely viewed as being too naive and principled to survive.

I then get the plot in a sort of organic fashion from the worldbuilding: after all of this work,I generally have strong images and ideas for scenes that I slowly string together until it (hopefully) coalesces into something that makes sense! And, lately, about halfway through writing the book, I will pause and look again at the plot on the basis of what’s been written so far, to see if the extra worldbuilding I improvised as I was writing has shaken loose any ideas.

You’re going to point out this method leaves little room for improvisation. Actually, it does! I like having a large chunk of the worldbuilding while in planning stages (because I’m lazy and it’s cheaper to do it early), but there’s also a significant portion that gets added in/changed as I’m writing, because I can’t plan everything in advance.

It can be small things, or large ones: a lot of it is details, which have to be congruent with the larger setting. I agonise over small throwaway things, like the exact name for a low-level servant in my alternate universe (where domestic service isn’t gendered, so “maid” isn’t going to work), or where people get their running water from to wash their laundry (which turns out to be trickier than you think in a city where the Seine has turned dark and rather… aggressive). Some of it comes straightaway without much effort, and some of it comes from research: one particular scene ended up having lush, green gardens because the name of the place evoked something I’d seen elsewhere.

So my worldbuilding process looks a bit like this:

  1. Get a high-level concept
  2. Research, research, research
  3. Get images, ideas and snippets from research
  4. Create a plot congruent with the mood of 1.
  5. Draft, while improvising missing details (keeping previous steps as an overall guideline)

So that’s my worldbuilding process –or at least, the way I currently do it, because, like anything to do with writing processes, this is always breathing and changing and springing last minute surprises on me!



KE: Many, many thanks to Aliette for a fantastic and illuminating post. It’s so important to see how varied and adaptive the writing process is. Remember: The goal is to figure out WHAT WORKS FOR YOU (and what works for the current project).

Next week: The Map As Theory
Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image, Inductive or Deductive, Image to Idea: A Practical Example