I’m currently writing a story where the main character is an elf princess who flees the evil elven empire to warn the orcs of an impending invasion. The elven empire has a long history of imperialism and attacks against their peaceful orcish neighbours. Orcs also work as servants in the palace the MC grew up in.

Now, I want to avoid racist pitfalls and also avoid making this a parallel for a white-saviour story, even though the elf princess and her mother are dark-skinned. So far what I’ve done in hopes of avoiding harmful messages is a) have it set on a different world with no humans or real-world races or countries b) make it clear that skin tones vary within the elven population and elite (i.e., not all imperialists are Black) c) have the MC merely warn the orcs of the attack and not participate in any actual fighting to drive the attackers off (she’s underage, under suspicion, and untrained so this makes sense). She also goes to find a known rebellious orc servant as her first ally to help her flee the palace. (In an earlier version, she just recruits her personal maid which I changed because it came across as too selfish and not that smart.)

I hope my concept is not sending harmful messages, but I’m still worried. Should I not make my main character an elf at all? Or can I make it work, possibly even include some lessons readers can take away about how to leverage privilege for good?


Hi Bellis,

Based on what you’ve told me, I don’t think you’ll have a white saviorism issue. However, it’ll still be a story about oppression with a privileged main character. Since your story is not on Earth and you’re going out of your way to avoid parallels between your fantasy groups and real races, it’s not a huge problem. But it’s also not ideal.

For one thing, it may feel like your protagonist isn’t at the center of the problems of the story, and it should be about an orc instead. For another, while it’s an analogy, it’s still possible some readers may feel it’s still making oppressed characters work in service to a privileged character and be uncomfortable with it.

Here’s some options for making this better:

  • First, you could use two viewpoints – one from your elf princess, one from a rebellious orc servant who teams up with her. This would allow you to have both a privileged and marginalized main character. As you probably know, I’m not a big fan of multiple viewpoints, but if the two characters mostly stick together instead of being far away, it should be fine. It does still risk making it feel like the story should be entirely about the orc. However, if you want to focus on how to leverage privilege for good, putting that passion into the elf character should help balance things without making it feel like the story is all about the privileged experience.
  • Second, you could give the elf her own mark of oppression that’s a big deal in the setting. That way she can learn to deal with both the oppression she faces and the privilege she wields. If she ends up with an orc friend, they can both learn from each other how to use the privileges they have to help. Keep in mind that any mark of oppression you give her that feels plausible is also likely to feel analogous to a type of real-world oppression, just like the elf and orc conflict is analogous to racism, even if it’s not analogous to the oppression of a specific race. Ask yourself if her mark of oppression feels like a disability, and, if so, make sure it’s represented appropriately.
  • Finally, if covering oppression is more trouble than it’s worth to you, a few changes to your setting could make this a conflict between two groups of relatively equal power. Take away the orc servants and say your rebellious orc character is an ambassador from the orc kingdom instead. The orcs have always been good neighbors. They have a long history of peace, so while they are fairly prosperous, their military is small. The new elf monarch has imperial aspirations and wants to launch a surprise invasion on their longtime neighbor and ally, using the big army the elves assembled to fight off a previous dwarven attack.

I hope that gives you some idea of what you’d like to do with this story.

Best wishes,

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