Trope Talk: Planet Of Hats

Trope Talk: Planet Of Hats


Stories, especially fantasy and sci-fi, love making up cultures with one notable characteristic: You’ve got your Warrior race, and your Pacifist race, and your People-who-ride-horses-a-lot race, and your Everyone-wears-a-funny-hat race, and your Hippy Druid race, and MY GOD they’re everywhere! Planet of the Hats is the TV trope name for a culture that has one specific hat – basically one notable trait that defines every single member of that culture. If you can think of a wacky character gimmick, there’s probably a fantasy race that has that as their ‘thing’. Even the most basic building block fantasy races have a ‘thing’: Elves are generally nature loving hippie archers, except for their cousins, the Asshole Elves who are always pretentious with massive superiority complexes. Dwarves are all miners and craftsmen; Orcs are big beefy tribal warriors. This kind of thing shows up everywhere! It’s not always a single character trait being applied to an entire species or civilizations. Sometimes, the writer might take an existing or historical civilization, crank it up to 11, and slap it on their story as a planet of the hats, where the hat in question is a heavily stereotyped existing or historical culture. Most classic fantasy worlds (at least the non Tolkieny ones), have at least one basically Roman Empire boiled down to its fundamental stereotypes of gladiatorial arenas, decadent empires, and enormous armies that have skirted manly-men. Also frequently present are the basically Mongols, boiled down to the bottom line of scary horse riding archers, and if your world had a lost ancient Empire, it’s probably gonna be a hybridization of every pyramid building society on earth. And basically every classic fantasy story, like the Belgariad, has a Caliphate-ish trading empire, sometimes loosely based on the great Zimbabwe – Kilwa Kisiwani – Middle East – China trade circuit (that mostly dealt in gold and spices). And, unsurprisingly, its primary trait when boiled down for literary digestibility is exotic, unfamiliar, and dangerous, PLUS some decadence and misogyny on the side. Oh, and keep your eye out for fantasy Asia, which will have the rigid caste system, and social structure of Vedic period India, the honor code of a highly fictionalized form of Bushido, and the Opioid addiction of 19th century China. But the bottom line is basically if you have a planet of the hats for the most part, it will either be a highly stereotyped and homogenized version of a real society (or group of societies), or a simplified civilization where every member of the society is basically a copy-pasted variant of a single character archetype. The Hat can be more or less complex: if it’s a boiled down human civilization It’s likely to be a touch more complicated than a simple characteristic, But regardless your planet of the hats is basically going to be defined by a cultural Personality, rather than just having one, and that can be a hard distinction to make when you write. I mean, the fact is, while people are individuals, any sufficiently large group of people will have a cultural personality in the sense that they’ll have recognizable characteristics. The Mongols DID ride horses; the Romans did have a bit of a decadence problem; the practice of polygamy was very common throughout West Africa and the Middle East during the time of the major trade empires; and China did have an opium problem for a while. Stuff happens. Patterns exist. But in real life patterns arise from circumstance, and in stories, we often work backwards, constructing those circumstances from the pattern we want to evoke instead. The real world has stereotypes. In fiction, we run the risk of making a world out of stereotypes. For a simple example, let’s look at fantasy dwarves. Thanks in large part to Tolkien, dwarves are generally short and stocky miners, smiths, and warriors all rolled into one. Now, Tolkien dwarves (and by extension, modern fantasy dwarves) are based on Nordic dwarves, which were basically mountain spirits of wisdom, crafting, and mining that occasionally held longstanding grudges. They didn’t have a fully developed culture in Nordic folklore because they weren’t really people. They were intelligent, but they were spirits. They showed up to help forge stuff, like Sif’s golden hair, or the unbreakable chains that bound Fenrir. But no world building went into the structure of the society of Svartalfheim, because there wasn’t one. They weren’t a species, they were a plot point that showed up sometimes. So Tolkien took that mythology and turned it into the dwarves, a race of short, tough, miners who had complex kingdoms and lived and ruled underground. They had the mining and the crafting down, and the wisdom (though kind of glossed over by the movie version) is very much present and among other things, Gimli is one of the most poetic and articulate of the main characters in the main trilogy. The only main additions Tolkien made were their lineage of kings in their warrior culture, and as always, Tolkien went ham on the world building. For one thing, female dwarves were never really discussed in Nordic folklore. Sometimes, dwarves daughters would feature, but there was generally some distinction made between them and just dwarves. But obviously, if you’re building a society of people that reproduce like people do, you need to consider the women. So Tolkien specified that there were female dwarves, but they were generally either totally indistinguishable from male dwarves, and off doing warrior stuff, or they were spending most of their time in the mountains working as craftspeople. Tolkien moved on to handling the ever-present society-building food question by having the dwarves trade their crafts out to humans and elf societies in exchange for food, rather than having to deal with farming. Though the dwarves were specified to be a race of hearty warrior badasses, they had a fully developed domestic society of all kinds of miners, craftsmen, masons, smiths, etc. Their hat is “Short, Beardy Fighter Type”, but there’s way more to them as a society than that. And as a result, there’s also more to their individuals than just short beardy fighter type. Gimli is a proud princely warrior, But he’s also capable of great awe and humility in the presence of Galadriel, not to mention that whole besties-with-Legolas-thing. The dwarves HAVE a stereotype, but they aren’t a stereotype. Tolkien built them to have a full society with distinct individual members, and thus avoided suffering from planet-of-the-hat-itis. Similarly, and possibly to an even greater degree, Tolkien’s elves look like a planet of the hats where their hat is that they’re all gorgeous, elegant relics of a better time – ancient, wise, and more than a little alien. This is actually fairly common for elves in fantasy universes, not JUST because of Tolkien, but because it’s easy to have an ancient, wise, civilization of people who are just better, Especially if you keep the survivors in reserve as a “deus ex machina” or something. Now, in this case, the fact that this hat isn’t a sufficiently detailed descriptor is obvious, purely because of Legolas. Sure, he’s gorgeous and elegant, but he’s got very little of the relic-of-a-better-time thing going on. Legolas is more of the hippie tree-loving D&D Elf characterization, mostly because he’s probably single-handedly responsible for that archetype. Most of the Tolkien elves just seem really tired, kind of aching to sail into the West in the undying lands. Legolas, on the other hand, even though he DOES end up sailing into the West at the end, is having a BLAST living in the forest and going on adventures and befriending dwarves. The fact that he’s young by elf standards is certainly contributing, but the short of it is: Tolkien’s elves and dwarves look like they fit the feel of Planet of the Hats, but in point of fact, there’s a ton of depth to both cultures, and the hat the best fits each species does not come close to fitting every member. Now, this is unsurprising, because Tolkien was a world building juggernaut who never did anything the easy way. But he was also an inspiration for basically the entire modern genre of fantasy, and let’s just say his successors pulled the planet of the Hats thing very regularly. Fantasy dwarves in general are what Tolkien dwarves look like at first glance: the stereotype is all they are. Fantasy elves? Same thing. And for an example of the ripping-cultural-stereotypes-from-real-life thing, the Belgariad, possibly the most standard fantasy land out there, has a whole mess of cultures of hats! All Drasnians are spies, all Cherricks are warriors, All Nessins are drug addicts with a penchant for poisoning people, And all Tallneddrans are merchants and traders. ALL OF THEM. : There’s a Draznian protagonist; He’s a spy. There’s a Cherrik protagonist; He’s a warrior. And not only that, he’s a berserker that turns into a bear. It’s very hatty, basically. And it’s fun of course, but it’s more than a little jarring. Now, of course, the thing that makes this tricky is that like I said earlier: In real life, patterns exist. People are individuals, but groups of people always have trends. Personally, I think we have a tendency to see too many patterns, where some don’t necessarily exist, and then spend more time trying to find a way to justify those patterns, rather than checking to see if there’s any founded reason to believe they’re real. And that’s how you get conspiracy theories. But that’s neither here nor there. The point is, because humans are really pattern recognition, we see large groups, especially groups we’re not ourselves part of, as homogeneous units. And as a consequence of that, usually when someone writes a culture of hats, that hat culture is specifically meant to be alien to the main character, and their home culture will have a lot more detail to it. And the cool part is, this can actually be a really good trick, because real people DO see new cultures in terms of the big defining differences between their home culture and the new one. So showing us a fantasy or sci-fi culture in terms of the big differences between it, and the familiar culture we presumably started in can be an incredibly useful tool to put us into the head of the main character, who is going to be looking at this alien culture with a buttload of preconceived notions and received homogeneity. But unfortunately, this only really works okay if the culture you write actually has more depth than just what the main character sees at first glance. You don’t even have to elaborate it in story if you don’t want to or it wouldn’t fit. You just have to world build it behind the scenes to make sure it actually holds together. Because no culture is ever as cardboard cut-out as it looks from the outside! You’ll always have subdivisions, and subcultures, and extremely localized social wackiness, and internal social stereotyping, and about a million other things. They’re what make a society feel real. And as a related side note, people tend to treat those first impression cardboard cut-out patterns as a…. lot more…. important than they really are? Like, people in real life will make a big deal about actions or behaviors validating stereotypes, as though the actions of an individual are automatically demonstrative of their demographic collective! Patterns exist, but there’s no need to go all like: “OOOO, you really are all like that!” whenever the pattern manifests itself in an individual. People are individuals, correlation is not causation, etc, etc. Anyway, moving on, there are two major reasons the planet of hats actually shows up in any given story: Option One: It’s a backdrop for a section of the plot That’s meant to be taking place in an unfamiliar land, Or Option Two: it’s the origin location of one of the main characters. Sometimes, It’s both at once! In Planet-hopping sci-fi shows, planets of hats usually happen about once an episode. Star Trek and Doctor Who are both absolutely full of them! They’re usually there to provide a quirky location or premise for an episode, or in rare occasions, are used for the very specific “One of your party members has committed a cultural faux pas they didn’t know about, and will be Executed unless you do a thing” plot line. Option 2 is a little more varied, but it comes in three major flavors: in the first version, your character is exemplary of the culture, and everyone in their culture is basically them, or might even be less hat wearing than the character in question. They probably left for a life of adventure because it’s just what one does in their society, or they found themselves Exiled, or they just decided to for funsies. Regardless, they’re very likely to be welcomed back whenever they want to stop by for a visit. In the second version, your character’s kind of lame or weird by the standards of their home culture, and whatever exemplary cool trait they have that defines their party role is something everyone has where they came from, usually more than they do. Your Viking analog might be seven feet tall and super strong, But where he comes from, EVERYONE is super strong and the average height is actually eight a half feet! This easily lends itself to the plot line, where the character is embarrassed by how much better everyone back home is than they are, whatever their thing is, and they must receive external validation from their friends that they’re still totally cool. And in the third variant, your character is explicitly rejecting their source culture. Very often this happens when their culture is an evil fantasy race like the Drow, But sometimes, you just get a situation where the character doesn’t fit in for whatever reason and runs away in order to make their own life rather than live one they wouldn’t be happy with under the strictures of their home culture. Not only will this character not want to return home, they might not be able to under penalty of death or something. Needless to say, their home culture is liable to have some serious issues. Now, it’s pretty clear why these three contexts lend themselves to being planets of hats so easily. Each one essentially creates a single character for the characters home culture that they either are, fail to live up to, or hate. More specifically, the culture only exists to contextualise the character, which basically means we’ll only ever see it in the context of that character’s actions. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a planet of hats! The culture contextualizes the character, sure, but the culture is also more than just the character’s specific plot trajectory. It doesn’t have to be “character” or “character but better” or “character but evil”. It can also be, you know, world built. It’s pretty much impossible to make a planet of hats by properly world building, So as long as you flesh out the culture as a whole, you’re pretty much guaranteed to avoid this particular pitfall. The planet of the hat’s main problem is that it’s…. boring. It takes what could be a complex multi-varied backdrop, and flattens it into a matte painting with one specific characteristic. Rather than being a fully-fledged culture, the planet of hats is basically a shortcut by which you can contextualize a character or an episode without having to put in too much work. It’s serviceable, but it’s kind of boring. So then how do you world build a culture? Well………? Um… Okay, bear in mind, there’s no single way to world build, and I’m not that good at it. So this is all kind of shaky. You don’t need to do it this way by any means. It’s just what I do. So, basically, here’s my unofficial, highly simplified culture building crash course. So I usually work from the ground up– Joke TOTALLY intended–by starting with the terrain and then moving on to the weather, because those are going to determine the major forces that shaped the culture to begin with. If they’re coastal or Island based, they’re liable to be vulnerable to very large storms on very short notice. If they’re mountainous or blocked by a desert, they’re probably fairly isolated. If they live in or near a forest, they’re potentially going to have fire problems. The terrain questions segues into the next big consideration: What do they have to eat? Can they practice agriculture; do they have the resources for livestock? Or maybe like Tolkien’s dwarves; they just trade for all their food? If you want a big city, how does it sustain itself? Is there sufficient surrounding farmland to feed everyone? Or do they mostly do trade, or do you want to hand wave it with magic? Maybe you’ve built a city in and around an ancient colony ship, and the old life-support systems are handling your food question. But because usually everyone needs to eat, this is one of those questions that can make or break a civilization design. Also, what do they build out of? If your world has magic, maybe there’s a market for stone shaping wizards working in construction, or growing houses out of living wood. If it’s a desert, do they import or excavate stone, or do they maybe build with glass? Once I have the physical support structure figured out, I move on to the people. If you’ve got a much more distributed empire like Rome or the US, or a colony planet based galaxy spanning empire, what’s the internal variation like? is the culture fairly homogeneous or other parts where it’s very strongly one culture and parts where it’s quite different? If you have a centralized Empire with satellite towns, for example, how strongly is the presence and culture of the Empire felt on the edges? In the Galactic colony example, what kind of societies developed in the relative isolation of the very far out planets? What professions are there a demand for? Is there some cool local resource that maybe crafts and/or trade? If there’s magic is there a demand for mages in fields like construction?
Is their civilization secure enough that there’s a market for luxuries? And what’s the education system like? Does everyone get some kind of basic training, or is there some kind of system of schools, or is there maybe like a class system that defines your level of education? Who are the teachers? Also, what’s the society structured like? Is the power centralized or distributed? And how much mobility is there between social classes? Who’s in charge, and how long is that been the case? What religions are present, and how much does that factor into the power structure? This is the part where you can probably do the most playing around. Obviously there’s no real wrong way to think through your world, but the question of politics, education, religion, and the job market is often very flexible, and you can just kind of go crazy here. The last thing to do is basically drop it into the world and figure out what that does. Who do they trade with, how much travel is there to and from them, what people and professions is does it attract and from where? how cool are they with foreigners moving in? If they’re a distributed empire like Rome, what other cultures and people have they subsumed and how will that affect the culture as a whole? Who are their allies and their enemies and why? Who have they fought wars with? How do they defend themselves? Do they have an army or a bunch of strategically placed mountains or a space laser or what? And if they do have an army, who serves in it, and who trains them? And how long do they typically serve for? And for the icing on the cake that brings us all full circle, what does the rest of the world stereotype this civilization as? What oversimplified perceptions define them in the eyes of strangers? What does your world think their hat is? Be warned: this kind of world building is a rabbit hole and a half! I’ve spent days on end doing this kind of thing, and the research alone can eat up surprisingly large chunks of your time! But conveniently, it’s also crazy fun, and tends to give you a lot more story and character ideas than a boring old planet of hats does! Also, it helps to study a whole bunch of history and/or anthropology, since that can give you some really cool ideas for how some Civilizations have worked in the past in really weird environments. So……… Yeah. Captions Brought to OSP by Yuki Kurosaki=3 This has been an Overly Sarcastic Production!

17 thoughts on “Trope Talk: Planet Of Hats

  1. *TF2 Main Theme starts playing*
    Red: *Explain that the "hats" are actually a metaphor for stereotype*
    *TF2 Main Theme stops*

  2. One of my biggest pet peeves about fantasy elves is that most of the time they're basically cribbing the surface of Tolkien elves, being your classic aloof and arrogant, without really paying attention to why they might be that way. I've actually got a D&D character whose entire theme is based around the fact that living about 7 times as long as most people really sucks.

    He's a Chaotic-Good Elf Necromancer, and it tragic backstory is that he simply outlived his happy ending. He married a nice Human girl, and had a couple of kids, but no grand kids. Now everyone has died of old age and he's looking for a way to bring his wife back to life without all of that soul maiming that the creation of undead tends to cause.

  3. I like our system of literally starting from the ground up, I think a lot of authors take shortcuts and make the environment the same as whatever real-world society is being modeled after, a story that basically has a medieval European culture will tend to have European landscapes, and a society with a bazaar will be in a desert, etc.

  4. Yea worldbuilding can take a long ass time, honestly i spent years thinking on my own worldbuilding for a story i've wanted to make, to the point that it got so outa hand i can barely finish the first volume without being distracted

  5. 4:41 I love the Dragon Age elves, where they really kill the 'pretty and intelligent race' stereotype and instead are considered less than humans and the land the humans currently live on was the aftermath of their fallen empires. Not to mention they don't seem that intelligent considered they're really superstitious and misinformed about their own culture

  6. I love David Eddings's work, and have to admit that the Belgariad is pretty much exactly as she puts it. I do wish that she would mention the Elenium or the Tamuli though, or at least the Malloreon, which was David realizing that the Belgariad was basically just a first draft LotR fanfic and him stepping out into real world building. David grew phenomenally as an author and I wish people would acknowledge that

  7. The Mass Effect franchise is especially guilty of this. The Asari are the sexy aliens, the Turians are the militaristic aliens, the Krogan are the big brutish aliens, the Salarians are the clever scientist aliens, and the humans (naturally) are the only species with multiple cultures and a diverse history. It’s worse when you consider that this isn’t just a continental representation, it’s PLANETARY. You’re trying to tell me that every single one of the several billion Turians are born to be in the military or that every single Krogan is an uneducated savage by nature? That’s like saying every single human on planet Earth has a passion for selling cabbages because that’s their ‘thing’ as a species

  8. I'll see you taking days on world-building and raise you years. Longest time spent on world-building for me was 10 years; shortest was one year. Additional time is added if I feel like inventing a language to include with one of the cultures in my world. There is a reason my output for completed stories is as low as it is. I spend so much time on world building that I sometimes never get around to writing the story. Or I write part of it, lose interest thanks to a new idea shoving the old one off a cliff, and start working on the new idea and its world. Finished stories are rare for me. Meanwhile, I am figuratively drowning in unfinished narratives that I never seem to get around to seriously working on. In short: I have an overly detail-oriented brain and a focus problem.

  9. Your comment on conspiricy theories got this video disliked (people as a whole see too little paterns not too meny, caring only about bread and circuses not a virtue).
    Other than that good video.

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