Thursday, May 15, 2014

Perils of the Writer/Worldbuilding: Avoiding the Chakotay Problem

I've talked before about worldbuilding and the challenges of just doing a copy-and-paste of Earth cultures, which, of course, you don't want to do.  Draw inspiration from real-world cultures?  Sure. But if you just drop them in, unconsidered, and say, "That, plus magic makes a fantasy culture", you're going to cause trouble for yourself.

The biggest problem in doing something like that is when you do that, if you don't do the research work, then you could easily fall into the trap of making your fantasy culture merely the stereotype of the Earth culture you're inspired by.  And then you'll fall face first into the Chakotay Problem.

Chakotay, if you aren't aware, was the first officer on Star Trek Voyager, played by Robert Beltran, and his primary character trait was being Native American.  What kind of Native American was relatively vague, though at least one episode narrowed it down to a tribe in the Amazon river basin of South America.

Not that it mattered, because the show's presentation of him was "vaguely Native American", slapping any sort of poorly thought out trope or stereotype onto him.  They did this with no regard to where in the Americas it came from, or even if it had legitimate origins at all.  Part of this came from poor research.  Apparently, the document prepared for the showrunners by an "expert" to draw from was written by a sham artist-- someone who claimed to be an expert on Native American culture, but had zero ties to it, no scholarship on the subject, and made things up whole cloth.  

So the end result was a mish-mash of stereotypes and Chakotay mentioning "his people" having sayings, stories or traditions, all of which were utterly made up.  Tripe that was at best ignorant, and more often than not, highly offensive. 

Clearly, this is a thing you want to avoid in your worldbuilding.

The best thing you can do is give your cultures dimensionality. Do the proper research.  Make sure that the real-world cultures you are drawing inspiration from aren't immediately obvious. Build depth into them, and don't rely on trite stereotypes.  Otherwise, all you'll do is highlight your writing as something not to take seriously.

1 comment:

Mike said...

George RR Martin gives a good example of how to do this right. Khal Drogo and the Dothraki are based more or less directly on the Genghis Khan-era Mongols — the horse-based culture, the style of fighting — all he did was change an "n" to an "l" in the title. But he gives Dothraki culture lots of specificity — even though they only have a significant presence in a few chapters of the first book, you have a good sense of what's "in character" for a Dothraki and what isn't. But Voyager applied the "just make up some bullshit" method to most of its characterizations; Chakotay was just the most glaring.