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?
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!