Adding Depth to "Simple" Races

Updated on April 28, 2016
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Every experienced writer knows that stereotypes, while usually a negative thing, can be a blessing to the writing world. When you need a minor character the last thing you want to do is spend more time on their introduction than they're worth. Would you want to spend a page and a half reading about a character who only shows up for a paragraph or two later on? No. This is why stereotypes can be a useful tool for writers: they allow us to quickly conjure up an image in the reader's mind and move on with the plot.

But what happens when the stereotype works against you? Not all stories are about cunning humans, crafty gnomes, or eloquent elves, after all. There are other races out there in the fantasy world that are not so loved, but even they have their stories to tell. And while orcs and ogres are oft portrayed as big, lumbering brutes, do you honestly think that species like these would last very long if they were really as inept as they seem?

When you decide to write about a "simple" race such as orcs or ogres, you need to realize that you are taking on the challenge of changing your readers' perception of these creatures. The Warcraft books did a fantastic job of portraying orcs as cunning and fierce, as well as understanding and -- at times -- gentle; and when it comes to ogres, who doesn't love Shrek? But you can't rely on those examples to do the work for you when it comes to your writing -- you need to customize these races to suit your needs.

One method you can use is to directly contradict the stereotypes -- just tackle them head on. Make a list of all the stereotypes you can think of that apply to your character, decide which ones you want to break in your story, and brainstorm different ways to shatter them.

Stereotype
Possible Ways to Fix
Ogres are dumb
Create a scholarly ogre; give your ogre a strong vocabulary; show understanding of difficult issues; display problem-solving skills.
Ogres are violent
Display the softer side of ogres; give them a pet to care for; have them try to talk out a problem; create an ogre who doesn't know how to fight, or who is afraid of violence; have them show compassion.
Ogres are hideous
Tweak the typical image of ogres; describe them using only objective words and phrases; describe them from the point of view of someone who finds one attractive.
Ogres are disgusting
Opting for clothes and not the stereotypical loincloth; an ogre who complains if he can't shower nightly; an ogre who uses a toothpick after every meal; an ogre who is grossed out by another's lack of hygiene; an ogre with good table manners.
Ogres are basically animals
Give them more human characteristics; have them show empathy and compassion; display a deep understanding of complex issues; create a structured society for ogres.

How relatable is too relatable?

As always, you want to make your character relatable to your readers. This can be difficult with "simple" races, because we're so used to that fairy tale image we've known since childhood. It's not just difficult for the reader, but it can be difficult to write such characters in a way that doesn't entirely humanize them. We want to make these creatures relatable, but at the end of the day they are not human.

Once you start replacing the typical ogre traits with ones more typically seen in humans or elves, you run the risk of your reader forgetting that they're dealing with an ogre. You must try to leave a few traits that remind your reader that they are reading the story of a revamped ogre, and not just a plus-sized human. This is why, when you're making your list of stereotypes above, I recommend that you don't try to remove all the stereotypes. Maybe your ogre is brilliant and gentle and very hygienic, but his human companions cringe when he sits down to his favourite dish: boiled slug soup. Maybe he's got a long fuse, but when he finally loses his temper it's pure, terrifying ogre rage.

There are lots of ways you can play with this, so just mix and match the traits on your list until you find a combination you like best!

Going Beyond the Individual

When trying to add depth to a "simple" race, it's a good idea to expand that depth beyond your one character. By fleshing out the entire race, you're adding a layer of depth to a whole section of your world instead of just one little pin-prick that is your character. It provides a strong background for your character, adds realism and relatability on a larger scale, and overall makes for a better story and a better world.

The next step to adding depth to our "simple" race is to flesh out their society a little bit. You don't need to get super detailed here, we just want a few things that we can show the reader that make our non-human more relatable on a larger scale. We're trying to erase the image of ogres being barbaric cavemen and replace it with an image of a functioning society.

Here, you need to consider the five categories of society: social, political, economical, religious, and military. Every successful society has structure -- someone needs to make the rules (politics), people will fall into some form of hierarchy (social), and something needs to make the wheels turn (economy). Religion is a goldmine for a writer, as it can be spun many ways; and military is something that will crop up in any society, whether they're attackers, defenders, or prefer to flee (a lack of military in a society says just as much as a strong military).

All of these topics should be covered, even if only one or two make it to the reader's eyes. A writer needs to have a good grasp on their characters, and part of that is knowing how their society works.


Bringing it Together

Now that you've got the pieces, it's time to put them all together. You've made your ogre more relatable, you've fleshed out his world a bit, and now all he needs is a bit of backstory to tie it together and create a solid picture of what the ogres of this story are like. Shall we take a peek?

Zug was born into a small village hidden in the mountains, and he grew up playing games similar to those that humans play as children. He had two brothers and a sister, his father raised sheep, and his mother was a seamstress. He went to school to learn his letters and had chores after -- usually picking grubs and roots for dinner with his siblings. At night, they all set bowls of cream outside their doors to thank the forest spirits for their protection against the humans.

Many years ago, the ogres were forced from the plains by soldiers intent on conquering the land, and though the ogres were stronger, the humans had greater numbers. Shamanistic in their beliefs, the ogres fled to the mountains where they asked the forest spirits for aid, and the spirits acquiesced. To this day, any human who wanders too close to an ogre settlement will become confused and change direction, with no memory of where they were or what they were doing.

While the ogres are safe for now, they remain vigilant. Though the humans think them extinct and the spirits keep them hidden, every ogre has an escape plan should they be discovered, and the largest of every village are prepared to hold off an attack while the rest escape.

For now, though, Zug can live in peace. He will mentor under the village healer when he learns his letters, learning which herbs to mix to make cures for various ailments and how to set bones and birth babes. If the spirits deem Zug worthy, he will continue this course to learn healing magics as well. And, should he live long enough, he will one day have his own students to mentor, and the cycle will continue.

If this was part of a real story, you would probably want to space this information out a bit more so that it flows more smoothly, but this example sums up the various elements well enough. It provides enough information that we can assume ogres are quite well organized, peaceful (possibly even timid), and are in tune with nature and the spirit realm. With this example, it's also easy to see how the ogres could make a fearsome foe if pushed to violence: if their size wasn't enough, they are organized, intelligent, and have some capacity for magic.

In Conclusion

As with all things writing-related, it will take practice to find the right balance between the traditional portrayal of "simple" creatures and your desired potrayal. You'll write and re-write, doubt yourself, nitpick, and throw it all away to start again. One day you think you've nailed it, and two days later you re-read and think 'damn, I basically just wrote a human with green skin'.

Don't give up! Keep trying, keep applying what you've read here, go Google other methods and see what you can find! I promise, as long as you keep practicing, eventually you'll strike the perfect balance.

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