People create monsters that reflect the fears of their society, including fears about disability. Because of this, ableism has been incorporated into our depictions of monsters. In some cases, disability is used to make monsters seem dangerous, unsettling, or unpredictable. Other times, it’s used to give monsters weaknesses that heroes can exploit.
In each case, these depictions spread harmful stereotypes about what it means to be disabled. This is a real shame, because a good monster can add a lot to a story, and ableism detracts from that. So let’s have a conversation about ableist monsters and explore our options for ridding our monsters of ableism.
Content Notice: This article contains multiple examples of ableism, including ableist words, phrases, and some intensely ableist excerpts.
Understanding Ableist Patterns in Monsters
Ableism is incorporated into monsters in many different ways. The majority of these fall into one of four categories.
To understand why monsters with humanlike minds (sapient monsters) shouldn’t be described as having “low intelligence,” we must look at the real-world history in which some groups of humans were viewed as subhuman. In this history, racism and ableism intertwine in dehumanizing depictions of people of color as “unintelligent” and “primitive.” These bigoted depictions were used to justify conquest, slavery, displacement, and genocide. Sadly, some of this history is still alive and well in the form of modern white supremacy.
Modern depictions of monsters like orcs, goblins, and ogres are direct descendents of this terrible history. Not a lot of people know this, but J.R.R. Tolkien deliberately created orcs from the worst Asian stereotypes of his day. Over time, depictions of orcs shifted to incorporate racist stereotypes about Black people. The coding of orcs as racist caricatures is so ingrained that some alt-right people use orcs as a stand-in for people of color so that they can get away with saying racist things.
This is some disturbing stuff, and the depiction of monsters with “low intelligence” is similarly disturbing. For example, the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Monster Manual discusses the mental capacity of ogres in profoundly ableist terms in a subsection titled “Legendary Stupidity.”
Few ogres can count to ten, even with their fingers in front of them. Most speak only a rudimentary form of Giant and know a smattering of Common words. Ogres believe what they are told and are easy to fool or confuse, but they break things they don’t understand.
This is nothing less than a toxic stereotype of what it means to have a cognitive or developmental disability. And it is being used for a monster that is depicted in the Monster Manual as lazy, violent, gluttonous, and “primitive.” Not only is this a negative depiction of disability, but it is also entwined with racist depictions of tribal cultures as “primitive.”
Ableist terms like “simple,” “dimwitted,” and “stupid” are regularly used when describing monsters with “low intelligence.” In addition, these monsters are regularly compared to animals – a classic dehumanizing tactic that has long been used against both people of color and people with disabilities. A blatant example of this is in the description of hill giants in the 5th Edition Monster Manual.
The hill giants’ ability to digest nearly anything has allowed them to survive for eons as savages, eating and breeding in the hills like animals. They have never needed to adapt and change, so their minds and emotions remain simple and undeveloped.
The worst part of these toxic descriptions is that they exist to create monsters that heroes can kill without guilt – no questions needed. Any ogre or hill giant can be killed on sight, allowing the story to skip straight to dramatic action scenes. In the fiction of the game, killing these monsters makes the world a better place – but that’s genocide. The justification that hill giants are an “evil race” doesn’t help, because the concept of an “evil race” originated in the stereotypes and violence of the real world.
If we want to stop recreating this terrible history in our games, we need to let go of the concepts of an “evil” or “stupid” race. Let’s move on to better monsters and villains that don’t send the harmful message that some real-world people are less human.
Another way that ableism comes up is the depiction of ugly monsters as “deformed,” “twisted,” “misshapen,” and “unnatural.” These depictions use ableist descriptions of disabled traits, such as hunchbacks and atypical limbs, in an attempt to create revulsion in their audience. In the 5th Edition Monster Manual, there is no better example of this than the description of the fomorians.
The most hideous and wicked of all giantkind are the godless fomorians, whose deformed bodies reflect their vile demeanors. Some have facial features randomly distributed around their misshapen, warty heads. Others have limbs of grossly different sizes and shapes, or emit terrible howls each time they draw breath through misshapen mouths. Their wretched appearance rarely evokes sympathy, however, for the fomorians brought their doom upon themselves with the evil that rules their hearts and minds.
These ableist descriptions of disabled bodies being “wretched” and “deformed” send a terrible message about what it means to be disabled. In addition, this example also clearly shows how these stigmatizing descriptions of disability are also being used to represent moral failings. The idea that whether or not a person meets an ableist beauty standard reflects their inner worth is horribly stigmatizing. Not surprisingly, this idea is a common dehumanization tactic used in many other forms of oppression, including racism, sexism, classism, and ageism.
If we want to make monsters that are grotesque, unnatural, or unnerving without being oppressive, we need to move away from traits that real-world people have. Fortunately, in speculative fiction, we have a lot of options for traits that go beyond the bounds of nature.
Blind monsters are by far the most common monsters with sensory disabilities. Despite having an easily recognizable disability, blind monsters are regularly played for laughs, where they stumble around like a sighted person with a blindfold on. An interesting example is the three gray witches from Greek mythology who share one eye between the three of them. Despite each of them spending two-thirds of their life blind, in both versions of The Clash of the Titans these witches struggle to cope when Perseus steals their eye. They beg for him to return it, and when he throws it on the ground, they stumble and grope after it, demonstrating a complete lack of the skills and tools that actual blind people use. In this incredibly stigmatizing depiction of blindness, these three witches are simultaneously portrayed as comedic, horrifying, and pathetic.
This example demonstrates a huge problem in the depiction of blind monsters: they are based on a stereotypical and inaccurate understanding of blindness. This comes from the myth that sighted people can experience what it is like to be blind by putting on a blindfold. Research has shown that simulating blindness in this way makes sighted people think that blind people are less capable of functioning. In fact, these sorts of “empathy exercises” actually increase stigma against blind people.
Because of this stereotype, rather than exploring what blindness is actually like, sighted creators focus on replacing sight. The 5th Edition Monster Manual has a great example of this in “blindsight.”
A monster with blindsight can perceive its surroundings without relying on sight, within a particular radius.
Creatures without eyes, such as grimlocks and gray oozes, typically have this special sense, as do creatures with echolocation or heightened senses, such as bats and true dragons.
For creatures like oozes, blindsight is a completely undefined, sight-like sense that has no properties of its own – it is simply a replacement for sight. For other creatures like bats and dragons, real senses like echolocation are being treated as equivalent to sight, rather than being accurately described as unique senses with their own strengths and limitations.
Taken together, these depictions of blind monsters perpetuate stereotypes and stigma, rather than an accurate understanding of blindness. When other sensory disabilities, like deafness, come up, they experience similar patterns of misrepresentation. If monsters with sensory disabilities are going to be portrayed, it is important that they be depicted with greater respect and accuracy.
“Insanity” is an inaccurate and stigmatizing concept that has long since been left behind by modern medicine. It comes from a time and place wherein people thought that mental illness was contagious. At that time, “insane” was used for anything that resulted in “abnormal behavior,” including mental illnesses, certain physical disabilities, and the behaviors of stigmatized groups, like unwed mothers. This terrible history also includes “insane” people being institutionalized, tortured, and experimented upon.
One of the things that makes the concept of “insanity” so inaccurate is that it lumps all types of mental divergence together. Because it was never based on the specifics of real mental illnesses, “insanity” has not kept pace with our developing medical understanding of the mind. Instead, it remains a toxic stereotype about people with divergent minds being dangerous, out of control, irrational, and disconnected from reality.
Because “insanity” remains a broad and amorphous concept, it is used many different ways in storytelling. Sometimes the stereotype of mentally ill people being dangerous and out of control is drawn on to make monsters seem more threatening. Other times, the stereotype about mentally ill people being irrational and disconnected from reality is used to explain erratic and unpredictable behavior. In addition, the idea that terrible things “drive a person mad” is used to accentuate horror and demonstrate psychological harm.
Once again, the 5th Edition Monster Manual has an example that effectively illustrates this.
Of all the terrors created by foul sorcery, gibbering mouthers are among the most wicked and depraved. This creature is the composite eyes, mouths, and liquefied matter of its former victims. Driven to insanity by the destruction of their bodies and absorption into the mouther, those victims gibber incoherent madness, forced to consume everything in reach.
Here “insanity” acts as an explanation for this monster’s incoherent babbling and is used to represent the psychological torment that these victims endure.
Regardless of how “insanity” is being used, these depictions are stigmatizing and they promote misinformation about mental illness. Because “insanity” is used in so many ways, there is no one thing that can replace it. Instead, we need to look carefully at how it is being used and swap it with a different story element that is appropriate to the context. It helps to think of “insanity” as an intermediary that is being used to get a desired result, like explaining erratic behavior. Once we know what the desired result is, we can use something else that gets us there.
Finding Disabled Traits in Your Monsters
Below is a checklist you can use as a starting point for finding and examining a monster’s disabled traits. Keep in mind that some of these traits, like “insanity,” are inherently stigmatizing, while others can be neutral or stigmatizing depending on the context. For example, depicting a blind monster “comically” stumbling around is ableist, but accurately depicting a blind monster is fine.
When reviewing your monsters, check for:
- Atypical Humanoid Bodies: This includes hunchbacks, joints that bend in unusual ways, bulging eyes, “twisted” or “deformed” bodies, and limbs that are unusual sizes and shapes.
- Limited Mobility: Key words to notice include “shambling,” “shuffling,” “lurching,” “lumbering,” “limping,” “hobbling,” and “stumbling.” Also watch for body parts that are dragged along as the monster moves.
- Ugliness: This includes descriptions of stigmatized bodies, such as fat, gaunt, or elderly bodies, as well as things that are considered disfigurements, such as blemishes, scars, pockmarks, and blotchy skin.
- Diseases, Sores, and Growths: Look out for symptoms of disease, such as labored breathing, as well as words for sores and growths, such as canker, infection, warts, lumps, moles, pimples, puss, blisters, and boils.
- Sapient Beings With “Low Intelligence”: Words to look out for include “stupid,” “dumb,” “simple,” “dimwitted,” “idiot,” “moron,” “primitive,” and “savage.”
- Any Recognizable Disabilities: This includes being blind or deaf, having cataracts (white eyes), having prosthetic body parts, and using medical technology, such as respiratory equipment.
- “Grotesque,” “Deformed,” and “Unnatural” Creatures: Related words to notice include “warped,” “broken,” “disgusting,” “repulsive,” “freakish,” “disfigured,” “twisted,” “contorted,” “malformed,” “mangled,” and “misshapen.”
- “Insanity”: Words to look out for include “mad,” “crazy,” “unhinged,” “deranged,” “lunatic,” “maniac,” and “psychopath.” Also, watch for monsters that “drive people mad.”
Once disabled monster traits have been identified, investigate each one thoroughly. Is this trait being used to make the monster feel dangerous, create revulsion, or to explain erratic behavior? Is a disability acting as an exploitable weakness? Does the depiction of this trait send a negative message about what it means to be disabled? Are any disabilities being misrepresented? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then this is a stigmatizing depiction of disability that needs to be fixed.
Designing Monsters Without Ableism
Because ableism is incorporated into monsters in many ways, removing ableism requires a combination of techniques.
Use Neutral Species Instead of “Good Races” or “Evil Races”
Psychological researchers at Tel Aviv University have defined racial essentialism as “the view that racial groups possess underlying essences that represent deep-rooted, unalterable traits and abilities.” Their research has shown that racial essentialism affects not just what people think, but how they think. This leads to increased bias, stereotyping, and discrimination.
In speculative fiction, racial essentialism shows up as the idea that fantasy and alien “races,” such as elves and Vulcans, each have many biological, behavioral, and cognitive traits that every member of that “race” shares. It is this racial essentialism that tricks people into thinking that “evil races” and “stupid races” are okay. Ditching racial essentialism is a key part of removing both racism and ableism.
So what do we do instead? Creating diverse, fantastical “races” is part of the fun of speculative fiction. We want to have stories about elves, orcs, Vulcans, and Klingons.
To start out with, let’s shift from the language of “race” to the language of “species.” Race is a social concept that we use to talk about different groups of humans. Because race is not a real biological category, it is important that we don’t act like it is. In contrast, species are real, biologically distinct groups. Because the fictional “races” of speculative fiction are intended to be biologically different, they are best referred to as different “species.”
However, just shifting language isn’t enough. We also need to remove essentialist concepts from the way different species are designed and discussed. This starts with removing value-laden concepts, like “good,” “evil,” “intelligent,” “unintelligent,” “beautiful,” and “ugly,” from species descriptions. Instead, species descriptions should focus on neutral physical and mental traits, like having wings or being easily startled. These biologically based, neutral traits should also be limited in scope. Anything more complicated, like behaviors and skills, are cultural traits and should be kept separate.
Another essentialist concept that needs to be removed is the idea that species are uniform. Just like the real world, there should be a wide range of diversity within each species, including disabilities. Just because most fairies are born with wings doesn’t mean that all fairies are. This diversity can be highlighted by talking about common variations within the species. In addition, it is helpful to move away from absolute language that implies that all members of a species share the same traits and instead talk about common physical and mental traits of that species.
When depicting the mental traits of each species, research and consultation are particularly important, because it is easy to accidentally fall into ableist stereotypes. It can help to model the common mental traits of species on real-world neurodiversity. For example, there are similarities between anxiety and certain cat behaviors. Based on this, a catlike humanoid species could be created to incorporate some characteristics of anxiety, such as high awareness and being easily startled or overwhelmed. The process of researching anxiety for this species will make it easier to avoid the kind of false assumptions that come with stereotypes.
Update 2/27/21: This section has been changed to use anxiety as an example instead of autism, because the author’s personal experience with anxiety made it easier to clarify what is being suggested.
Recast Sapient Monsters as Villains
So if we aren’t going to use “evil races,” what do we do when we want sapient monsters for our heroes to fight? Use villains. I suggest reserving the word “monster” for any creature that has an animallike mind, while “villain” is used for any sapient being that does unethical things. Depending on the story, villains can be isolated individuals, like an evil necromancer living out in the wilderness, small groups, like a band of raiders, or large groups, like a faction of xenophobic political extremists.
Be careful when choosing what species the villains and heroes are. Because of the history of coding orcs as people of color and elves as white, it sends a harmful message if all of the villains are orcs, while all of the heroes are elves. There is no way to fully escape this history, so it is important to make sure that for every villainous orc there is at least one heroic orc, while elves are not exempted from being villains. Another thing to keep in mind when choosing character species is to avoid the white savior trope by having members of victimized groups be involved in stopping the people who are hurting them.
If a more epic villain is desired, create an evil power structure, such as an evil empire. Fascism and totalitarianism are worth opposing. When doing this, it is important to be clear that it is the ideologies, power structure, and people in charge that are evil. The everyday people within the society are trapped in a violent system that forces them to go along with their leadership, regardless of how they feel. While some of those everyday people will have bought into the power structure’s toxic ideologies, others won’t have.
When depicting an evil power structure, be careful not to depict a whole culture as evil. This is especially important when depicting people of color because a lot of real-world racism is expressed in judgments about non-European cultures being “backwards,” “uncivilized,” or “immoral.” One way to separate the culture from the power structure is to have a group of dissidents who oppose the evil power structure based on firmly held cultural values.
Explore Non-Ableist Strengths and Weaknesses
Certain types of traits can be used to make monsters more dangerous or horrifying, such as strong defenses or body horror. These traits are useful for replacing ableist traits. The following list is full of ideas for these replacement traits.
- Animal Body Parts: In particular, insects and sea life are diverse groups of animals that are an excellent source of inspiration. For example, a monster could have centipede legs, fly eyes, a segmented body, stinging tentacles, a glowing lure, or transparent skin.
- Built-In Weapons: Animals also provide inspiration for weapons. Extreme strength, claws, fangs, spikes, antlers, and horns are most common, but there are other options, like needles, stingers, suckers, poison, harpoons, and stunning electric pulses. In addition, some weapons can be used in unusual ways, such as blades that pop out from unexpected places, fangs that rotate sideways, and ratcheting club arms with a shattering punch.
- Unusual Kinds of Harm: This can be direct harm, such as draining vitality, stealing breath, turning people to stone, absorbing abilities, or feeding on emotion. Or this can be indirect harm, such as starting a rockslide, collapsing tunnels, magically animating plants, controlling an element, or creating extreme weather.
- Enveloping Forms: Some monsters can grab, envelop, or surround their targets. For example, oozes can engulf, snakes can wrap around, tar monsters can catch, packs can surround, swarms can envelop, tentacles can grab, and large monsters can swallow whole. Monsters can also use tools to envelop, such as webs, vines, pits, quicksand, and whirlpools.
- Body Horror: Some body horror is ableist, but a lot isn’t. It helps to get inspiration from nature and to use things that aren’t possible in the real world. For example, a monster with no skin, swarms of parasites that chew their way into their victim’s body, a monster made up of internal organs, and a creature that slowly transforms its target into fungus.
- Strong Defenses: Toughness, armor, spikes, agility, and regeneration are most common, but there are other options, like poisonous skin, slippery skin, wads of choking slime, corrosive blood, toxic feathers, body parts that fall off, ink clouds, and terrible smells.
- Mobility Advantages: Monsters that move through their environment with great speed and ease have a significant advantage. Most often this is a fast land creature or flying monster, but it can also be one that climbs walls, moves rapidly through the earth, attacks from the water, or lives in a maze only it knows.
- Unknown Forms: The unknown can be more frightening than the known, so any trait that interferes with the perception of a monster’s form can make it more intimidating, such as exceptional camouflage, being covered in shadows, or glowing so brightly that it can’t be looked at directly.
- Harmless Appearance: The contrast between a harmless appearance and the danger beneath the surface emphasizes how threatening a monster is. Looking harmless also helps a monster get close to prey. Harmless-seeming monsters can look like a child, be cute and fuzzy, act frightened, sound like an injured animal, look physically fragile, make beautiful sounds, or take the form of a valuable object.
In addition to having useful strengths, monsters usually need weaknesses for characters to exploit. Treating disability like a weakness is stigmatizing, but fortunately, there are many other weaknesses that can be used instead.
For monsters, the most commonly used type of weakness is a vulnerability to a specific type of harm, such as an ice monster that is vulnerable to fire. However, things that attract or frighten monsters can also be used as weaknesses, as can mental traits, like an intense focus or distractibility. For example, the scent of a monster’s favorite prey can draw it to a specific location. Alternatively, a monster can be frightened away by the silhouette of a dragon circling overhead. Monsters that focus intensely will be easier to sneak around if their attention is fixed on something. Meanwhile, it will be easy to sidetrack distractible monsters.
In addition, it is worth thinking about whether a monster’s strengths have downsides. For example, crocodiles have such powerful muscles for biting down on prey that the muscles that open their mouths are left small and weak. As a result it takes little effort to hold a crocodile’s jaws shut, provided one can get into position. This principle can be easily applied to fictional monsters. For example, two of a dragon’s strengths are flying and having protective scales that provide it with armor. However, a dragon’s bat wings need to stretch as they fly, so they can’t be armored. That makes them a weakness.
In contrast, villains can have weaknesses that are individual flaws, like being arrogant, gullible, obsessed, fickle, greedy, or controlling. Another option is exploitable desires and fears, like a desire for recognition or a fear of losing status. In addition, conditions like anger, tiredness, and boredom make great temporary weaknesses. However, be careful when choosing flaws, because villains, especially major villains, need to be threatening.
A villain’s weaknesses can also be used to explain irrational behavior. For example, a controlling villain might lie to their underlings as a way to test their loyalty. If extreme behavior is desired, a magical explanation can be used, such as a cursed item that whispers lies to the villain.
Finally, groups of villains can have social dynamics that create group weaknesses. For example, if a main villain is a terrible boss, then their underpaid employees are more likely to slack off and get distracted. A group can also be ill equipped, minimally trained, disloyal, overconfident, sleep deprived, jumpy, overworked, or distracted by internal conflict. In addition, a leader’s orders can impose their personal flaws on the behavior of their followers.
Treat Disability as Neutral
To create disabled monsters that are respectful representations, disability needs to be treated as a neutral trait. This means that disability isn’t used to make a monster feel more or less threatening, nor is it portrayed as either positive or negative.
That means stereotypes must be replaced by accurate depictions of disability. Based on research and consultation, work out how the monster’s disability affects its life. Does this disability affect where the monster lives, how it gets around, the way it communicates, or how it gets food? How does the monster deal with any limitations created by its disability?
Delving into the skills and abilities that monsters use to meet their needs is helpful for avoiding stigmatizing depictions of disability that focus on limitation. While it is true that disability can create limitations, that isn’t the only way to experience disability, and many of the limitations experienced by disabled people are created by accessibility barriers. Disabled monsters don’t have access to accommodations and assistive devices, but they wouldn’t exist if they didn’t have ways to address the most important access barriers in their lives.
Research is also important when psychological harm is being portrayed. Delving into the details of trauma, PTSD, and mental illness creates a more neutral and accurate portrait of the long-term effects of overwhelming experiences. For stories that focus on horrifying events, additional tools can be used to avoid stigma while emphasizing the impact of the story’s events. For example, the fight, flight, or freeze response is a universal response that can be used to highlight moments of stress, while conditions like “jumpy,” “fatigued,” “angry,” “sad,” and “overwhelmed” can be used after a big event to show its ongoing effect on characters.
In addition to being harmful, ableism makes for stale, predictable monsters. We can change this by learning how to spot ableism, ditching racial essentialism, swapping villains for sapient monsters, replacing ableist traits, using alternative weaknesses, and treating disability as neutral. By being more intentional about the choices we make when designing monsters, we can remove ableism and create fresh, vivid monsters that will strengthen our stories.
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