Odds are decent that you've heard that joke before. It's especially funny from a roleplaying perspective because you can substitute all sorts of things for "unicorn" in that sentence. Vampires, for example. Or werewolves. Defectors from another faction. Magical offspring of major storyline characters. The rarest of all breeds is the character that seems to fit perfectly with the setting steretypes.
Roleplayers tend to view stereotypes as one of the seven deadly sins, up there with naming your character after a major lore character and ERPing in public. (It's not the usual list.) This is unfortunate in the extreme because there's a lot to recommend stereotypes beyond the usual. So before you sit down and make a character directly playing against a stereotype, please, stop and keep a few things in mind. Not only are stereotypes not bad, but they actively verge on being good.
Before I continue, a note of warning: This column is discussing stereotypes in the narrow context of stereotypes within a game setting. The word "stereotype" is unfortunately loaded, so I want to be very clear that this discussion applies only in that single context. If you take this article out of context to justify stereotypes in the real world, you are not reading it correctly and you should feel bad.
Let's move on.
The opposite of a stereotype is another stereotype
If I'm going to talk about stereotypes, I need an example, and so I'm going with the most obvious one: dwarves. There's a dwarven stereotype in pretty much every game that has dwarves, and it's rote. Dwarves are angry and violent, they like alcohol and precious metals, and they're good at building stuff and don't care for magic. The details change from game to game, but from Guild Wars to Dungeons & Dragons Online, the stereotype remains consistent.
For some reason, a lot of people make their second roleplaying characters an exercise in opposites. The first character is fairly bland; the second one is the elf who dislikes nature, the calm and sober dwarf, the erudite orc, and so on. And while these aren't necessarily bad characters, they're still just as beholden to the stereotype as the inverse. Moreso, even, as the "X who isn't Y like every other X" stereotype has been pretty well beaten into the ground.
Having a sober and calm dwarf works only because there's a stereotype of dwarves as angry little berserkers. Otherwise, your character is just calm. And making him calm without explaining why is essentially a non-starter; it's a character trait established solely to refute the stereotype, rather than being something that fits into your conception of the character. "Calm dwarf" is a fine place to stop, but it's a lousy place to stop. Why is he so calm? Why doesn't he drink?
More to the point, if you don't want to play a dwarf, why are you making a dwarf?
Stereotypes invoke a background
Most stereotypes get that way for a reason. In many cases, those reasons involve people being short-sighted and ignorant, but there are kernels of truth even there. While dwarves aren't all angry berserkers with a mug of liquor in one hand and a blacksmith's hammer in the other, the idea got that way for a reason.
I could talk about the mythological origins for these ideas, but they aren't really relevant any longer; the important point is that dwarves have a culture in which these things are, in fact, valued. The exact mixture says a lot about dwarven culture. Dwarves in Lord of the Rings Online value discipline and inheritance, family ties, and steadfast loyalty; friendship with outsiders is nice, but it's not as valuable, hence why they sometimes come off as callous or rude. Meanwhile, dwarves in World of Warcraft value courage and community -- what better fosters that than everyone sitting around and getting plastered together?
Cultures in a game are always going to be thin sketches, but the stereotype helps you get a feel for how these cultures interact at a glance. Your dwarf might be very calm by dwarven standards, but dwarves just don't place a high emphasis on reserve and decorum. Around other people, he's a little firebrand. That alone creates a more interesting character -- a man who thinks of himself as being calm and even-tempered while others see him as being much more volatile. His society has different rules.
There's a lot of room even within stereotypes
The biggest reason roleplayers try to play against stereotypes is because they want to make unique characters. There's nothing wrong with that; it's a natural drive. But what tends to get lost in the rush is that there's a lot of room for characters to be unique and memorable without just discarding all the traits that they come with.
Maybe you've got a dwarf that really has a short fuse when it comes to insults about his family. Maybe your dwarf is slow to anger but stays angry for a long while when she gets there. Maybe your dwarf tries to avoid saying anything angry but is prone to stomping around and speaking loudly in a more passive fashion. To a casual observer, they're all fitting a certain stereotype, but there's a lot of subtle variation in personalities that makes a big difference in the long run. These are people with personalities, ones that fit into a larger culture without just being slaves to a single ideal.
More to the point, these traits lends definition to why you're playing a dwarf instead of anything else. You want to play an artist -- but you're playing a moody artist by human standards, one who flies into a rage at the slightest provocation. To other dwarves, however, your artist is fairly normal, responding to critics with the expected level of vitriol. It's a normal reaction in one area and less common in another, and you're playing around with the disconnect between cultures.
And let's be honest: If your setting has drunken angry dwarves working metal on a regular basis, those should not be rare. Leave rarity for the unicorns.
Feedback can be left down below or sent along to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, I'm finally going to pick up the RP 101 thread again (like I had planned to a couple of weeks ago) with a talk about the actual mechanics of roleplaying.
Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did.