Five Insufficient Reasons for Including Bigotry in Your Story

When should you add real bigotry to a story? This is a complex question, but one thing is generally agreed on: you need a good reason. If you’re not a target of that bigotry, you need a really good reason. Unfortunately, many authors continue to add bigotry to their stories when it isn’t needed. As an editor, I have seen this more times than I’d like to say. To help you avoid this awkward conversation with your editor, I’ve listed the five most common reasons I see, and why they aren’t good enough.

1. Balance of Viewpoints

Your novel is about a badass black woman who hunts down the galaxy’s most dangerous criminals and brings them in for the bounty. The story goes great, until you introduce a character who doubts that someone of the protagonist’s race and gender is up to the job of bounty hunting. Sure, that view is ridiculous, but you’ve got to include both sides, right?

This attitude is common far beyond the storytelling profession. Once an opinion gains enough adherents, people think it must be treated with legitimacy, no matter how absurd it is. You see this in the way news outlets now discuss far right ideology that would have been laughable twenty years ago and in how climate deniers are given equal air time with reputable scientists.

The error of this thinking is that it equates popularity with truth. The idea that Earth was at the center of the universe was once very popular, but that didn’t make it true. No matter how popular the Flat Earth movement grows, the Earth won’t get any less round. The same is true with bigoted stereotypes: they’re wrong, and they will never be right.

At best, including such views will only make your story seem ridiculous to readers who know better, as if you added a character who insists that getting caught in the rain would dry them off. At worst, someone who doesn’t know any better will read your story and think this bigoted view has legitimacy.

Making a character who holds such views a villain doesn’t give you a free pass either. Villains are cool and can legitimize an idea even if they are set up to be wrong. That’s why Darth Vader wants to crush the Rebellion, not kill the Jews. Of course, determining which views are nonsense is more complicated, but an easy rule is to include views because you believe they have value, not because a lot of people happen to hold them.

2. Realism

This time, your story is about a cyberpunk hacktivist living happily with his two husbands in the year 2057. The drama is building, and your protagonist is ready to rise up against the system with spiky hair and retro tech. But first, he’s got to deal with his homophobic boss. What? “It’s just realistic,” you say. “There’s no way humans will have completely stopped judging each other based on sexuality in just 50 years.”

Fans and storytellers both love to use the realism defense whenever a story is called out. Make any criticism of Game of Thrones, and you’ll quickly receive dozen replies of “things were just like that back then.” We’ll assume that “back then” means the historical time period that GoT is largely based on, since Westeros never existed in the first place as far as I know.

Let’s assume for a moment that the claims of realism are accurate, that the bigotry in question really is or would be common to the story’s setting. With that in mind, this excuse fundamentally misunderstands the point of realism. Realism is not a goal in itself; it is a tool used to make a story more immersive. You must decide how to use that tool.

When and how to use realism differs depending on the story. In a gritty story about the horrors of war, realistic combat injuries are a must. In a hard scifi story about surviving on Mars, realistic Martian weather is hugely important. On the other hand, most adventure stories would suffer from having realistic injuries, as the plot would be constantly on hold so the protagonist could recover from a shattered collarbone.

That’s why most fantasy stories don’t include realistic elements like half the cast dying from smallpox or fashion trends that seem ridiculous to modern eyes. Consider then: how does realistic bigotry help the story? Who is it more immersive for? Audiences who don’t suffer from the bigotry in question are unlikely to care either way, and audiences who do will be too busy reliving their real-life trauma to enjoy your story.

3. Saluting Past Works

In your favorite childhood movie, a sentient dinosaur saves the day by winning a potato-eating contest while drunk. Now that you’re a storyteller yourself, you want to pay tribute to the work that inspired you. So you include a scene where the inebriated protagonist must save the day by consuming a mountain of spuds. Only later do you remember that the main character in your story is Irish. Oh no.

Many storytellers want to salute the stories they loved in their youth, and that’s awesome. That is, except when it adds bigotry to the story. Sometimes, the original work was fine, but the story’s new context makes it a problem. This is what happened to Stranger Things’ E.T. tribute. The original scene is funny because the protagonist tries to disguise an alien as a human with makeup and a hat. In Stranger Things, the alien has been replaced by a human girl, and the scene is now about making her look more traditionally feminine. Not only is this gender policing, but it’s also got a creepy element as the boy characters suddenly decide the girl is attractive.

In other instances, the original story was bigoted in its own right, and a storyteller copies it too literally in their tribute. This is to be expected, as older stories are less likely to be socially conscious. Either way, when a storyteller is called out on their tribute, they’ll often insist it’s about respecting the past. But that’s not how respect works. We respect something for its positive elements, not its negative ones.

If a story you love wasn’t bigoted, adding bigotry in your tribute is slander, not respect. You’re taking the work you love and dragging it through the mud. If the story was bigoted to start with, the best way to show respect is to improve it by taking that bigotry out. This is a story that meant something to you, and you can share that meaning with a greater number of people if you take a little care to make the story more accessible.

4. Character Development

You’ve cooked up an exciting tale about elite warriors protecting humanity from a dragon attack. You’re cis, but your protagonist is trans, because why not? Gender isn’t an issue when you’re the only thing standing between murderous reptiles and the last surviving human settlements. But then you decide the protagonist needs some development, so you add a flashback with someone misgendering them. That sort of adversity will really kick things up a notch!

This is one of those times when otherwise good storytelling instincts can work against you. It’s true that most stories benefit from the protagonist facing adversity. That’s an important requirement for conflict, the fuel stories run on. But not all adversity is good, and bigotry will usually fall into the bad category.

For one thing, whatever form of bigotry you’re thinking of is almost certainly overdone. Marginalized groups are often thought of by outsiders in terms of the bigotry they face, and so lots of other authors have had this idea before. Rape is the go-to adversity for female characters, misgendering is the default for trans characters, etc. Audiences are sick of it.

Even if you’re not concerned with how overused a type of bigotry is, you’ll probably care about how much it pisses off your audience. No matter how good your intentions, many people in a group will not appreciate an outsider trying to tell their story. Most obviously, outsiders are more likely to make mistakes. But even without mistakes, a privileged outsider’s story is likely to overshadow works from people within a less privileged group. That’s why most people in marginalized groups are happy to see themselves represented in stories, no matter who the author is, but feel that stories specifically about a marginalized group’s experience should be left to an insider.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to develop a character without invoking bigotry. Just do what you’d do for a character who wasn’t from a marginalized group.

5. Controversy

You paid attention in history class, so you know that in the past, people thought women were genetically inferior to men. But no one believes that anymore, right? Everyone you know is a firm believer in gender equality, and you want to shake up the status quo. You write a scifi story about how faster-than-light travel is inexplicably lethal to women, so all space explorers have to be men.* You don’t really believe this idea of course, but it’ll get people talking, and that’s what matters.

The desire to create controversy by including bigotry is common among people raised in homogeneous environments with liberal values. No one they know is the target of visible discrimination, so they figure it must not exist anymore. And if a form of bigotry is only in the past, then what harm can come of adding it to their story?

Lots of harm, it turns out. No matter how ridiculous a prejudice might sound, someone out there believes it. Probably a lot of someones. They might not admit to their bigotry publicly, they might not even be consciously aware of it, but they still act on it. Real people will feel the consequences.

If you’re not convinced, a little googling will turn up endless accounts from people who’ve suffered the bigotry of all kinds. But you don’t actually need to go looking. If you think a form of bigotry is serious enough to cause controversy, odds are 100% that people in real life suffer from it. It’s likely that someone you know suffers from it.

None of this is to say that controversial stories don’t have a place. The issue is what makes them controversial. A story about everyone deserving medical treatment will be incredibly controversial. People will call it communist propaganda and say it undermines the American dream. That’s the route to go if controversy is what you want, and it won’t require validating anyone’s bigoted views.

Bigotry is never something to include lightly. It has the potential to harm real people, something no storyteller wants. If you find yourself justifying the bigotry in your story with any of the reasons from this list, take a step back and reassess. You could be saving yourself a difficult talk with your editor.

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

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  1. Alice

    I could be wrong, but I wonder if ditching bigotry from a story that doesn’t require it would improve a story on the principle of ‘less is more’. Since gender roles and racial segregation would take more world-building than equal treatment, taking it out would give writers more space to focus on story essential elements and audiences less to think about. I don’t know though, I am really biased towards minimalist world-building.

    This article got me thinking about something else too: does implied bigotry make a setting bigoted in the way described here?
    Like, if a story has no overt sexism and has female characters treated equally to male ones, but character behavior and clothing choices indicates that the author sees a distinction between men and women, would that count as a bigoted setting? Does a setting that doesn’t need bigotry require utopian style equality? I assume not, but it does make me wonder where the line would be.
    I’m not passing judgement, I simply think it’s an interesting question and am curious to know what people think.

    • Carl

      Didn’t think of that, but “less is more” argument clicks in my mind. Good point!

      If it’s not someone necessary/central to the story, it’s probably an unnecessary distraction.

      Given the Mythcreants view on writing stories about being X, especially when not being X yourself, I’m guessing writing about how being X ensures this sort of story-point causes problems there as well.

    • Cay Reet

      The question is not if they’re treated the same, but if they’re treated equally. If a woman dresses different than a man, that doesn’t make a setting bigoted. But if being a woman barrs her from, for instance, studying medicine, then that makes the setting bigoted. Slight differences in behaviour aren’t bigotry, either. People will generally not all behave the same, men and women might behave slightly differently for a variety of reasons. If the differences indicate that men have more influence and power in general, then you go into sexist behaviour. If, for instance, a woman is not allowed to enter a sacred place (church, temple, etc.) through the main door, but has to go in at the much smaller side door, whereas a man can enter through the main door, then you have a rule which is based on sex for no good reason and treats men and women inequally, assigning less importance and standing to women.

      It’s more a question of using bigotry in a setting merely as a flavour, even though the story doesn’t profit from it. The list speaks of ‘insufficient reasons’ for using it. There are reasons to use bigotry in your story, but only if it’s an important part of the story itself. So your suggestion that “less is more” is a very good one. If you don’t need the bigotry to make the point of your story, ditch it.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That’s a good why to look at it, Alice. Including gender roles and other kinds of discrimination does indeed take time away from worldbuilding, especially if the discrimination is different than what we’re used to in the real world, like Branden Sanderson’s Way of Kings, where women aren’t allowed rulership positions (normal) and men aren’t allowed to read (not normal).

      As to the question of differences in gender presentation, I don’t think you have to worry about that in most cases. Women wearing dresses while men wear pants isn’t inherently sexist. Similarly, it’s not racist for people from different racial backgrounds to have different tastes in music, unless you’re playing into existing sterotypes.

      This can get blurry in some areas. Like, if your characters are going on a dangerous journey into the wilderness and the women are all wearing court gowns, the reader is gonna start wondering if this is a world where women aren’t allowed to wear non-restrictive clothes.

  2. Sam Victors

    I came up with a solution for avoiding bigotry in my historical story ideas; I always have my intersectional/diverse characters as the outcasts of society, some of them as rogues or non-conformists, but not too 21st century. My first example, in one of my stories, is a political gang of Highwaymen who include a Half-Romani Crossdressing Gentleman, a Tomboyish Crossdressing Gentlewoman, and a bisexual Scottish scholar. The other characters are tolerant of them. This idea came from watching historical dramas like Black Sails or Harlots, shows about historical diversity and intersectional groups on the outside of society (pirates, sex workers).

  3. Julia

    So the question becomes, how to include diversity in your cast of characters for a historical setting without at least touching on bigotry? For example, to have a black, Asian, or female character move through 1800s America without experiencing any bigotry could be seen as revisionist history.

    • Cay Reet

      Ask yourself how likely it would be for them to encounter what kind of bigotry. If it’s necessary for the story, if the bigotry keeps them from doing something important or pushes them towards certain behaviour (secrecy, because they’re not allowed to be somewhere, for instance), you can incorporate it. This article is about insufficient reasons.

      A lot of people pepper the story with examples of bigotry without having a plot-relevant reason. Not having everyone remark upon how women don’t have the mental capacity to go to university isn’t revisionist, unless your story is about your female character going to university. Not having everyone assume that your black character must be a slave (especially outside of traditional slaver states) isn’t revisionist, either, unless your character is living under the constant threat of being enslaved in your story. There’s no reason why your badass Asian highway-woman shouldn’t pretend to be the meek daughter during the day, playing into expectations, as long as you make sure to let the reader know it’s a front. But bigotry displayed without deeper reason is unnecessary and will rather damage your story than help it.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That’s a good question Julia. Cay already covered this, but I’ll add that while having a minority character who doesn’t experience historical bigotry is a form of revisionist history, it’s not necessarily a bad form.

      For example: A story set before the Civil War that shows black people being happy as slaves would be revisionist history, and it would be the bad kind because it furthers the harmful myth that slavery wasn’t that bad when it was in fact a scourge on humanity.

      On the other hand, a story where a black woman is running for congress in 1928 and isn’t the constant target of racist/sexist slurs would also be a form of revisionist history, but it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad kind. It’s not furthering any harmful myths, and it’s done in the name of giving a woman of color center stage.

      This is similar to how it’s technically revisionist history not to include the sewage running in the streets of cities that don’t have modern plumbing, but no one minds.

      • Emeryael

        That’s a good point, Oren. What really bugs me about the “But Realism!” argument is when it is used for stuff like Game of Thrones. People are willing to accept dragons, ice zombies, and magic, but heaven forbid, you have women in positions of power. Yeah, I know Game of Thrones is hardly perfect when it comes to their portrayal of women and PoC, but I used it, because it’s currently in popular culture.

        Though another example that bugs me is when fans in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are all nitpicky about Steve Rogers not being all racist, as were many in the WWII era. You want to know what else the WWII era didn’t have? Villains with red skulls for faces and massive energy weapons!

        The WWII era wasn’t the most enlightened when it came to PoC and women, but more than one person did exist during that era and it’s possible Steve was able to see through the BS. It would kind of go with his whole “I don’t like bullies” philosophy. My head canon regarding Steve Rogers is that occassionally he slips up regarding terminology, like says Colored or Negro, instead of Black, but he promptly apologizes afterwards because he’s not an asshole.

        While every fantasy and sci-fi universe/story has rules it has to follow, there’s no reason to hold onto our world’s discrimination towards PoC and women. Don’t get me wrong–discrimination can be the source of some good stories–but maybe the presence of dragons causes the fictional world to develop differently from ours and as such, not have the same prejudices of ours.

        Because if fantastic beasts/magic/or insanely advanced tech did exist in our world, we would figure out how it works, then use it to our advantage, and as a result, not only would our standard of living change, but so would our cultural mindset as well. For example, think about how cars changed our perception of travel.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          The Captain America point is a good one. So long as Marvel and other franchises want to have a fictional past where, for example, the Army wasn’t segregated by race, great, so long as they use that to further people of color. They do… okay on that front. Could be a lot better.

  4. JXMcKie

    I do agree that bigotry should only be introduced to a story, if there´s a good point to it, and only after careful deliberations. I Especially agree with this in regard to the inclusion of bigotry just to add some controversy to a story. But…I also thinks that many of the points here in this commentary, smacks to much of Political Correctness, taken to the point of sanitation or even sterilization. Maybe I misunderstand your arguments Oren, but from your commentaries here, one could easily get the impression that f.eks. Margaret Atwood should never, ever, have written “Handmaidens Tale” because it features (massive) bigotry, and immensely unpleasant oppression of..well, almost everyone ? I think it is fair to feature heavy bigotry in a story, if it is used to show just how wrong exactly that bigotry is, and it seems your commentary is warning against that practise, or maybe I am getting something wrong here ?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Margret Atwood didn’t include the massive oppression of women in the Handmaid’s Tale for any of the reasons on this list (or if she did I can’t tell from reading it). She did it to make a statement on the oppression of women in real life, showing the evils of forcing women to have children by taking the practice to it’s natural conclusion. So she wouldn’t run afoul of any entry on this list.

    • Cay Reet

      The whole point of “Handmaiden’s Tale” is to show the bigotry and how it’s used to shape a society. So no, Oren hasn’t suggested she shouldn’t have written it. Again, look at the words ‘insufficent reasons’ in the header. If bigotry is the point of your story, you are, of course, allowed to use it.

  5. Tony

    In terms of misogynistic violence used as character development, what’s worse is when a story abuses a female character to hurt or motivate a male loved one (i.e., Women in Refrigerators). As Anita Sarkeesian put it: “In the game of patriarchy, women are not the opposing team; they are the ball.”

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yep yep, that’s another one to avoid.

    • thelogs

      while i don’t disagree with you that the “torture the women to get a rise out of them” trope is overused, i’m absolutely saddened to see a social instinct born out of men and boys protecting their families is reduced to such cold “pragmatism.”

      and that we, as writers, would need to keep in mind that people would think we’re awful in our own ways for adhering to values like that.

      • Tony

        Yeah, protecting and/or avenging relatives is a good motive and doesn’t always veer into “chivalry” toward women. Some good examples include:

        The Princess Bride — “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

        Return of the Jedi — It makes sense that after years of grudgingly serving the Emperor, the final straw for Darth Vader was when the Emperor was about to kill Vader’s son.

        The Incredibles — All the Parrs protect each other, gender be damned.

        Harry Potter — Ties between family and friends, and loving sacrifices, are a major theme throughout the books.

      • Cay Reet

        A social instinct for men and boys? You’ve never seen what women and girls can do to a threat to their families, obviously.

        • Tony

          I once again point to Lily Evans Potter and Molly Weasley.

          • Cay Reet

            Do never threaten any Weasley while Molly is in the vicinity. The rest of you life will be nothing but pain and sorrow.

  6. Jesse

    I enjoyed the article, any advice that inspires people to be more thoughtful is good advice.

    One nitpick, I’m not saying there aren’t people out there that deny the climate, but I’m pretty sure you mean climate change deniers.

  7. Stephen

    So it sounds like the only time bigotry is okay to be included is when the authors themselves have been a victim of it themselves, eh? So a straight white male can’t write stories about racial injustices, for example, because they’ve never experienced the plight of a black person? Even if they think it’s an important topic that needs to be addressed?

    • Cay Reet

      I should make this an automated message, really. If your story is all about bigotry and you do your research beforehand, then there’s no reason not to have it in your story. Nowhere does this article say otherwise.

      Please note the use of the words ‘insufficient reasons’ in the header. That means just sprinkling in bigotry, because you think it spices things up or ‘that’s just how it was at that time’ is insufficient, if it has no bearings on the story as a such.

      You write a story about a black woman who wants education at a time at which she didn’t even have the right to go to school? Bigotry will feature heavily in that and will be necessary. You write a story set in modern time and in a relatively liberal place, but want to include one bigot just so that person can regularly tell your black female protagonist she’s too stupid to learn anything, despite the story being about her looking for her lost father? Insufficient reason.

      • Tony

        And if you’re writing about systemic injustice that you yourself don’t face, you better do your homework. A good example of that is how George Miller consulted Eve Ensler while making Mad Max: Fury Road, in order to better depict female characters who survived abuse.

  8. Michael

    Personally, it bothers me not only when a medieval fantasy will have all the characters holding modern views with no basis for it, and also shrugging off injuries that should be much worse. I find them equally unrealistic. That is not to say they can never be justified, of course. Magical healing that lets people bounce back from stuff they otherwise wouldn’t is an example. This could also be used to give women better status, etc. It’s just when this is dumped into the world with no explanation that I find it jarring. Sure, there may be dragons in a story. This is called “acceptable breaks from reality”. It does not excuse all other unrealistic parts of it. When these things happen, I’ll continue objecting on the basis of realism. It just kills the story for me.

    • Cay Reet

      The interesting question for me is why you expect a medieval fantasy story to be 1:1 the real middle ages, but with dragons. The middle ages were a relatively long time (roughly a thousand years) with a lot of changes, which means there’s not just one kind of middle ages to begin with. 500 AD is a lot different from 1500 AD.

      And even during the middle ages, views weren’t the same everywhere. People in one area of France would see things different from people in another area of France – not to speak about Britain, Germany, Italy, or Spain (or Africa or Asia or both Americas). Whatever views you get will be regional in every case. So, perhaps, this region just happens to hold more modern views than the one five days to the north.

      Women’s status in medieval society is also an interesting topic. Early middle ages had women at a much better status than late middle ages when it came to rights. Most societies in Europe were based on relatively small units (clans, villages, small towns), where every member mattered, not just all the men. Therefore, women usually had more or less equal rights. With bigger units (up to kingdoms and empires), things changed on the larger scale of things (non-nobles living outside of free cities usually had few rights overall), but not so much in everyday life.
      A farmer’s wife was, essentially, always the farmer’s equal, because they could only keep the farm going together.
      A craftsman’s widow had the right to take over his business and was acknowledged by the guild he had belonged to. The same went for the widows of merchants or innkeepers.
      A noblewoman held control of all keys of the family seat and usually also all control over the servants, because her husband was away so much (most noble jobs were in warfare).
      Women in Viking society held the villages and towns while the men were away (first pillaging, later on trading) or they went along (recently, several presumed male Viking warriors for several different burial sites have been genetically identified as female). Greek and Roman traditions of seeing women and children as rightless come from ancient times and were not widely spread north of Italy, before Rome started conquering a lot of areas there.
      Women were anything but rightless, unless they happened to be serfs. But male serfs had just as few rights (because they were all half a step above slave status). The church put pressure on them over time and Christianity did away with a few older traditions which saw women in a better position, but if you think women were rightless, you haven’t paid attention in history class.

      How unrealistic is it that in a world with dragons women also take up arms (especially given they did so in our reality as well)? How unrealistic is it that a noblewoman has control of the area, because her husband is dead (and the oldest son too young to rule) or somewhere in war? Why do you think a society where, perhaps, dwarves or elves or orcs exist should also have predjudices against humans just for a different colour of the skin? If you really feel like that kind of suspension of disbelief is too hard for you, fantasy might not be the right genre for you to enjoy.

      • Michael

        I don’t except them to exactly be like the medieval era, but with dragons (or some other fantasy elements). However most take their inspiration from that, there is no doubt. Of course you’re right, it was a long and diverse period.

        I know the things you mention-I’m also aware that women weren’t “rightless”. The examples you list are not what I have a problem with. It’s ones that have gone far beyond it. The more I learn of the medieval era (eras?), the greater it bothers me.

        It’s not that they can’t make their own, different society. Rather it often seems to me a disordered hodge-podge. Since you mention serfs, oddly there is a lack of them in every fantasy that I have thus far read.

        In a world with elves and dwarves, I think bigotry toward those beings might (sadly) indeed replace that toward humans with other skin colors. So don’t put words in my mouth on that. It’s not that I can’t suspend my disbelief, but there’s a limit. Also it’s because I enjoy it that these things affect me. This is also not all of fantasy by any means, though I may have given off that view.

        • Cay Reet

          I apologize, if it felt like I was putting stuff in your mouth, that was not my intention.

          Yes, a lot of fantasy worlds are an odd mix-and-match of medieval tropes. It would probably be even more interesting, if they could keep stuff to one area or one era of the middle ages. Also, I often do find the lack of serfs suspicious.

          Since this is a post about bigotry, I thought your complaints were going in that direction (they’re not putting in all those predjudices that ought to be part, you know…). If you’re speaking of using the middle ages (or the general image of them), but throwing stuff together without a second look, I’m completely on your side. I usually can just push that aside with ‘it’s not the real thing, anyway’, but some stories make that pretty hard.

          • Michael

            Well, just the bit on racism really, as I didn’t even mention that. I realize it was more you guessing about possible things I’d object to however. Given that I wasn’t specific it’s not surprising.

            I think that is my main objection. Certainly I’ve got no objection to a medieval-type story that deviates from the real era significantly (they all will somehow). It just seems that a lot of authors know nothing about it, and leaves out things which the real medieval era relied on (like serfs). I mean, they need not have serfs, but with how many peasant characters exist it seems a bit odd that their relationship with the upper classes never gets any detail in many books.

            Well no, I am very glad to have women with a greater status and so on. It’s just the lack of justification for this that gets to me. Often it goes the opposite direction too, with the fantastic elements not affecting the story enough I think. Magic would really be a game changer, for instance, along with various creatures. It often seems they just get dumped in a medieval-esque world though.

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