In a recent post, I suggested that fantasy fiction is a reflection of the school experience. This is a long-held, personal interpretation that has helped me process my own school experiences — both as an educator and as a student.
The concept is simple. Students struggle to make sense of their world by defining themselves relative to others in the microcosm of their school. Anyone who has spent time in schools knows there are unique cultures, cliques and hierarchies — and whether intentional or not, I believe fantasy writers imitate these structures.
Fantasy stories and games define characters by a few primary data points: gender, race, class, and alignment.
Race distinctions in fantasy are exaggerated relative to our own world with races such as elves, dwarves, hobbits, and orcs having dramatically different characteristics from humans. Perhaps ironically, fantasy worlds often characterize humans as a single race distinguished only from non-humans. It’s not unusual for fantasy and sci-fi fans to feel an affinity to a particular race as a way of defining themselves, and they often have opportunities to explore race relations through the fictional worlds they encounter.
Class distinctions (such as warrior, mage, or thief) are often an over-simplified approach to putting characters of a story into a category. While we know that people are more complex than is suggested by a single title, this simplification is aligned with the way we think and learn (see here for more on that). It is also a reflection of the oversimplified way school cultures define its members as (if I may borrow from The Breakfast Club) a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, or a criminal.
Alignment is the old D&D word that refers to a characters inclination toward good or evil, lawfulness or chaos. This is perhaps one of the most deeply ingrained ways of thinking about characters in our stories, myths, and lives.
When old folks like me were in school, gender was a simple matter, but that is no longer the reality. As our country gradually acknowledges the rights of the LGBT community, students are exploring the range of possibilities. In at least some parts of the country, if you talk with a middle school or high school teacher, they will likely have experiences with students who have switched gender identity or even asked not to be identified with a gender at all. Likewise, fantasy fiction is making moves toward more inclusion. (Dragon Age: Inquisition was given props for gender neutral cover art)
In any story, it’s natural for us to find the characters with whom we can identify. To feel empathy and relate to others is, in fact, a very important ability for children to develop. Perhaps the simplified definition of characters in our fantasy stories — like a chaotic-evil, male, half-orc, assassin — help us to better navigate the complicated nature of the people who surround us in schools — like an altruistic, gender-neutral, emo Egyptian.