Q&A

Can I Create Conflict Without Bigotry?

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Hi! Sorry to spam your inbox. I promise to get it out of my system! With the goal of creating a fantasy world in which the forms of oppression and discrimination we see in our world and history are absent, I am pretty sure I should avoid simply creating “new” forms of discrimination for my fantasy world. The problem is, it’s so drilled into me that humans are inherently prejudicial that I keep making mistakes as I build my society, such as putting alternate or less familiar forms of oppression into it. My question is this: What kinds of conflict and tension can I build into my fictional cultures and social systems that aren’t rooted in prejudice, discrimination, or oppression of any kind?

-Kiera

Hey Kiera, great to hear from you again!

It can certainly be tricky to imagine a world without bigotry, especially since our own world always seems to be drowning in it. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with inventing new bigotry for a new world, it’s also fine to avoid that particular unpleasantness. Don’t worry, there’s still plenty of room for conflict!

How you go about doing this depends a lot on what kind of story you’re telling. At small scales, you can build conflicts around personality clashes. Maybe your story is about two rival engineers trying to build the best robot. They could legitimately hate each other because they simply look at the world differently, rather than having any prejudice. Perhaps one of them has a design philosophy that emphasizes experimentation and ingenuity, whereas the other believes firmly in stability and safety. That’s plenty to make sparks fly.

You can also use fantasy elements to generate a lot of conflict without any human prejudices. When the Great Old Ones seek to consume the world, it’s not because they specifically hate any one group; consuming worlds is just what they do.

For your specific scenario, conflict between different cultural or social groups, it’s a little more challenging. The first thing to remember is that just about every large-scale conflict in human history has been, at its core, over resources of one kind or another. Ideology is usually added afterward, often unconsciously.

My favorite example of this is the Crusades. There was certainly a lot of deeply held religious conviction on both sides, but they were really fighting over land. In the First Crusade, the Byzantine Empire wanted to reclaim lost territory, and the crusading knights wanted to carve out petty kingdoms for themselves. Meanwhile, the Pope was eager to cement his position as a power player in European politics, so that was another resource at play.

You can view just about any conflict in history through this lens. WWI started because of a web of interconnected treaties, but those treaties were only written to protect the various empires’ tangible interests. The Cold War was fought over communist and capitalist ideologies, but also because the US and USSR wanted to maintain or expand their spheres of influence so they might gain access to resources. This doesn’t erase morality from conflicts, the Nazis were still evil even though their expansion was largely motivated by a desire to gain resources, but it does help you get things in the right order.

With this knowledge, you can understand what underlying factors are causing the conflicts between groups. Is it a class conflict between rich and poor? Then it’s being fought over shares of economic prosperity. Is it a conflict between nation states? Then it’s likely fought over trade, oil, timber, or some other resource. A conflict between noble families? It’s all about who gets to inherit that sweet throne.

This framework allows you to build believable conflict without normalizing bigotry. However, it’s important to keep two caveats in mind. First, as I mentioned earlier, making the fight over resources doesn’t make the two sides morally equivalent. Particularly if one group is much more powerful than the other, they’re probably the bad guys, simply because weaker groups don’t usually go around picking fights. There are always exceptions to this, the Axis powers were actually the underdogs of WWII, but it’s true more often than not.

Second, if you have two groups in conflict, especially a prolonged conflict, it’s unlikely they wouldn’t develop any sort of prejudices against each other. This doesn’t have to map directly to modern racism, as that’s the product of a specific modern context, but it’s something to remember. If the Elven Republic and the Human Kingdom have been at war for 20 years, there’s bound to be some hard feelings, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be slinging slurs back and forth.

This is a complicated subject, but I hope that helps!

– Oren

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    I’m pretty much with Oren on this one. Personal conflict is pretty easy and doesn’t have to include any bigotry, since people can dislike each other for many, many other reasons.

    Long-term conflicts (say several decades or more) rarely not produce bigotry, because at some point, people tend to think of the other side as an enemy who deserves to be hated and has some specific traits which make a good reason for it (which is, of course, wrong). So, perhaps, you should avoid long-lasting conflicts in your story? Depending on scope, you can do a lot with conflicts between individuals or something like an intrigue or two groups aiming for the same goal (such as possessing the same area or occupying the same throne).

  2. Michael Campbell

    Of cause you can always ridicule; oppression, bigotry and prejudice.

    “Did you hear about the war?”
    “No?”
    “A-land invaded B-land.”
    “Oh, why?”
    “A-land uses a democratic system of elected representatives with elections on a biannual basis.
    B-land feels that any politician who wants to be elected is automatically unfit to govern, so they draw their representatives’ names from a hat on monthly basis. Every citizen is in the lottery, whether they like it or not. They say leadership is a duty.”
    “So why did A-land invade?”
    “Their political elite class, were afraid of the possibility of the methodology spreading and didn’t want to wait and see any evidence.”
    “So how’d it turn out?”
    “Thirty million gold pieces and 20,000 dead later; A-land adopted that very system for their senate!”

    • Cay Reet

      I fail to see bigotry in that example, sorry.

    • LeeEsq

      A systems did to work out B systems in the real world because you have politicians that want to do the job rather than treating it as a chore.

      • Leon

        Some people just can’t see that the world is made of nothing but individuals, who have aspirations and dreams, but are mainly lazy and want to feel safe.

  3. Leon

    Reconciliation with past enemies isn’t an immediate life and death matter (war is perpetual where resources are scarce (most of us don’t feel it so much because our nations are colossal)). The more important thing for a species to survive is recognizing danger, and if those stripey guys across the river were a danger yesterday (or a valuable resource, in which case their friends and family are a danger), your going to need some strong incentive to view them as part of your team.
    For your world to be viable you must figure out what this incentive is.
    Good luck.

  4. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    I’m working on a fantasy world where African-American people live on a separate continent (one of my main characters is from this continent). These two continents were once at war. Because of this, people on the MC’s continent tend to be wary, suspicious of, or outright hostile to people from the other continent out of xenophobia, not racism. There are other minorities in the world too, but it’s mainly African-American characters who experience distrust solely because they’re foreigners and the whole war thing.

    Is this racist? I’m really not trying to make this a racism issue in my story.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      The first thing to understand is that xenophobia is a type of racism, so if you’re looking not to have racism be part of your story, I wouldn’t recommend building a world like that.

      Second, I’m guessing by “African-American” you mean “dark skinned” or “black” in this setting, unless there’s actually an Africa and an America as well.

      If you’re looking to avoid making racism an issue in your story, I definitely recommend against segregating black people on to an entirely separate continent.

      • Sophie the Jedi Knight

        Great, thank you so much. I kind of realized when I was typing that “wait, this sounds kinda bad.” Thank you for your insight. I didn’t think about xenophobia/racism; you make a great point.

        Sorry about the pedantics; I wasn’t sure if it would be disrespectful to say “dark-skinned” but yes, that’s what I meant. It’s a fantasy world; no Africa or America.

        I’ll probably scrap the separate continents idea. When I do that, would it be fine if people just distrust people from that country solely because they recently were at war?

        Seriously, thank you so much for responding. It really means something that you guys put out so many great articles every month and still have time to respond to comments. I don’t know where my writing would be without this site.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          No problem, Sophie, glad you’re find the articles helpful!

          There’s nothing inherently wrong with people distrusting another country because they just fought a war. If anything, that would be expected.

          To be on the safe side, I recommend having both countries display a variety of skin tones, unless you have a major reason in your story for them not to do so.

        • Leon

          IRL Isolation and limited resources seem to be the only reason for homologous communities, (think the pacific islands, precolonial Australia).
          If you want to write a story about characters learning to trust new Others, or Others who have not made a good first impression, you could build your setting not around nations, but small tribes or clans who have recently had a technological leap that has suddenly put the in contact with each other.
          the tech could be anything from sewing, allowing them to cross a snowy mountain range to ocean going boats allowing them to reach new islands.

  5. Sam Victors

    From what I researched, bigotry, prejudice and racism don’t technically mean the same thing.

    Ever heard of Debby Irving? on her website she describes the key difference between the three, even though they tend to overlap.

    http://www.debbyirving.com/qa/are-prejudice-bigotryand-racism-the-same-thing/

    Which brings me to my question; rather than call it racism, wouldn’t it technically be called Speciesism if your are dealing with bigotry between humans and non-humans? and not just animals but also magical or mythical creatures like elves, fairies, witches, centaurs, etc.

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