Should You Give Non-Human Groups Marginalized Traits?

A dark-skinned Klingon from star trek discovery

Star Trek: Discovery doubled-down on depicting dark-skinned Klingons. This was not a great idea.

At Mythcreants, we get many questions like “Can I avoid racial justice implications by using alien characters?” or “Is it okay to make my intelligent monster gender neutral?” To better answer questions like these, I’ll outline what you should know when making non-humans resemble marginalized people – or privileged people. For this post, I’ll assume the traits under discussion are typical in the non-human population, if not universal. I won’t cover characters that differ from most others in their non-human group.

But before I offer insight on what traits to give your groups, I need to cover a few basics.

Character Traits Aren’t Always Literal

You might wonder how aliens could possibly have marginalized characteristics, like being people of color. They’re aliens, aren’t they? Well… not really. Characters must have some human-like qualities to be relatable to human readers, so almost every character has human reasoning and a human-like personality. In movies and TV shows, non-human characters are usually played by human actors. And humans have a habit of anthropomorphizing everything they encounter, even inanimate objects. So regardless of whether characters are technically orcs or talking fungi, the audience will draw parallels to real humans groups.

Let me give you a couple examples.

What Human Races Do These Non-Humans Have?

a shot of Neytiri and Jake from Avatar, next to a shot of an orc in street clothes from the film Bright The film Avatar (left) has a species of nature-loving aliens with braided hair, feathers, and beads. They are clearly inspired by Native Americans. In Bright (right), Orcs dress in garb associated with black people and embody stereotypes about black people.

What Human Genders Do These Non-Humans Have?

Piggy and Kermit from The Muppet Movie In the Muppet franchise, Piggy is depicted with feminine hairstyles, makeup, and accessories. The absence of these features on Kermit mark him as masculine.

These depictions are usually referred to as “coding.” While a cartoon object or animal with a bow on its head is not explicitly a human woman, it’s definitely coded as one. Many storytellers who put in coding do not intend to make their characters a specific human group – at least not consciously so. But that doesn’t make the connection any less real to the audience.

Now let’s do a little exercise. In your head, picture a primitive tribe.

Now, what race did you first picture? Whatever it was, it’s pretty unlikely your tribe was composed of white people with blond hair and blue eyes. The idea of being primitive is a stereotype that has a long history of being applied to people of color, especially to indigenous and tribal peoples. Because of this association, just by putting a “primitive tribe” of non-humans in your story, you’ve created what’s probably a racist depiction. It’s not your fault that this association exists, but you can choose what to do about it.

While it’s easy to end up with coded depictions that are problematic, coding is not in itself bad. What’s important is that you understand the coding your characters have. If you are consciously aware that your male characters with nice clothes and high voices are coded as gay, then you’ll make smarter decisions about how to depict them.

Privileged Traits Are Applied by Default

Next you might think, “If I’m careful not to code my monsters, then they’ll fall outside any human identities, right?” Sorry, but no.

The overabundance of representation for privileged people has led us to subconsciously view privileged traits as default. Unless you code your non-humans as marginalized – or just state they are – then they’ll be viewed as privileged people. For example, if you have a character who is a doctor, the majority of people will assume that this doctor is a white man unless you specifically state that this doctor is something different, such as a black woman. This status of default assumptions is sometimes called “the unmarked state.” For practical purposes, an unmarked character is a white, youthful, monogamous, heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical cis man. Any trait that deviates from this is a “marked” trait, because it has to be specified by the storyteller in some way.

To storytellers, it can feel like a lot of work to specify marked traits. But when our characters have few marked traits, we only perpetuate this problem. To change what’s viewed as default, we’ll have to do more than assign a marked trait to a few characters. For instance, let’s say you have five characters, and all five have one marked trait each: one is old, one is a woman, one is disabled, etc. Because their remaining traits would be unmarked, at least 80% of your characters would be youthful, at least 80% would be men, at least 80% would be able-bodied. Privileged traits would still be over-represented in your story.

The good news is that it’s possible to alter cultural defaults in the context of your work. You could make it clear that everyone on your spaceship is black and then describe a few white people as exceptions to that rule. However, you’ll be facing an uphill battle against cultural assumptions, so you may need to remind your audience periodically.

Please note: default assumptions don’t make alternate interpretations of characters invalid. For our purposes, if we don’t communicate what traits our characters have, we have made them white men – because we can predict that’s how most audience members will view them. But for a fan’s purposes, the canon for that character is unspecified. If they interpret a character as an Asian woman, that impression is as legitimate as the storyteller’s intent.

That said, let’s move on to examining the intersection of non-humans and marginalized traits. Because marginalized groups face unique kinds of oppression that operate differently, my recommendations will change somewhat depending on which marginalized group we’re talking about.

Non-Human Groups and Race

Tuvok head and shoulders shot Tuvok from Voyager is both Vulcan and black.

First, some readers have wanted to know if they can write a character who’s racially neutral. Must every alien have a human race? I’ll say that if your characters look like octopuses and speak in clicks that require a translator, then, okay, they are racially neutral unless you apply some racial coding to them. So the aliens from Arrival shown below? I think they’re racially neutral. However, they’re also very alien – they were designed to be strange to viewers, not to be relatable. That’s not what you’ll want for most characters.

Strange Octopus-like aliens from Arrival

It’s also important to understand that avoiding race is a common tactic used by white people, so they don’t have to address racial grievances or take responsibility for writing race respectfully. That doesn’t mean it’s never okay to depict racially neutral characters, but it does mean that if you find the issue of race intimidating, you should look extra hard at any supposedly race-neutral depictions you have. Pretending race doesn’t exist will not erase racial bias; it will only allow bias to flourish unchecked.

Since being white is an unmarked trait unless you give your non-human characters racial coding, you should consider them white people. Often, that’s actually for the best. People of color are frequently dehumanized to justify violence against them. If your aliens have brown skin, you aren’t just depicting your non-humans as people of color; you’re depicting people of color as inhuman. That’s why you have to be especially careful about racial coding when depicting non-human groups.

You definitely don’t want any type of primitive, violent, or barbarian race to be coded as people of color. In fact, we generally recommend against any depiction of human-like groups that are inferior in some way. If you have a race that’s less advanced technologically, don’t label them as “primitive.” The idea of human-like people who are inherently evil or unintelligent is in itself problematic. But if you’re going to make a race that’s bad anyway, strongly coding them as white people will help to counterbalance the continued association between these groups and people of color.

For highly “civilized” or technologically advanced non-humans, however, it’s beneficial to include people of color among the population. Otherwise, you have one more depiction associating white people with being “advanced” and “civilized.” A good example is the Vulcans in Star Trek. Some are black and some white, but they are always Vulcan. Remember that every group will have diversity, including elves and Martians. It’s not unrealistic to give them a variety of skin colors or other characteristics.

If they encounter humans, remember to do the same for your human population. Nothing humanizes people of color like depicting humans who are people of color.

Non-Human Groups and Gender, Sex, and Sexuality

A woman hugs a man, saying I'm Jadzia now. In Deep Space Nine, Jadzia re-introduces herself to old friends who know her as a man named Curzon.

For our purposes, I’m grouping together a whole plethora of different marginalized traits related to gender expression and identity, sex, sexual orientation, and relationship styles. While these groups are often dehumanized, a bigger obstacle for them is being erased. Our depictions constantly show cis people adhering to traditional gender roles and conventional relationship styles, even when it’s unrealistic. Any kind of natural variation or diversity is simply absent. This erasure is almost always extended to non-humans.

So giving non-humans marked traits in this category is in itself fighting back against erasure. When we depict relatable characters who have these traits, we make it more conceivable that humans have them too.

However, that doesn’t mean giving non-humans these traits doesn’t take any thought. First, you have to be clear about their characteristics, or your characters will still be interpreted as privileged. Unfortunately, even if you state a character is of nonbinary gender, that character will often be imagined as a man or woman. To some extent, this is not something you can control. However, do not encourage it. Don’t code single-gendered non-humans as being all men or all women, and don’t use gendered pronouns for characters who are genderless. Use gender neutral pronouns, or if you aren’t ready for that, don’t use any pronouns for nonbinary characters.

Second, dehumanization can still be an issue if you are careless with your depiction. Remember that many humans also have these characteristics. Don’t let human characters treat marginalized traits as strange or scary. No one should say, “Wow, you form romantic relationships with a whole flock? We humans are monogamous.” To be safe, it’s helpful to have a human character with the same marked trait as your non-human group.

To stay respectful, don’t juice marginalized traits for all the novelty they can offer. A character who changes gender would naturally be interesting, but don’t use gender stereotypes to emphasize the contrast between them as a man and them as a woman. If the character screams whenever she’s a woman and yells whenever he’s a man, you’ll not only insult both women and men but also make the character a laughingstock.

Speaking of which, never use these traits for humor. These characters can be funny, but their gender, body, or sexuality itself should not be funny.

Non-Human Groups and Disability

A woman in a wheelchair wearing a star fleet uniform In Deep Space Nine, Melora comes from a low-gravity world. She requires assistive technology to visit a space station with Earth-level gravity.

While erasure and dehumanization are concerns for disabled people, one of their top obstacles is the way they are belittled and devalued. Storytellers perpetuate this by frequently portraying disability in an exaggerated, negative way. By doing so, we stereotype disabled people as pitiable, helpless, or bitter. Luckily, the natural variation in ability between non-human groups can be a great way to offer representation for disabled people that counters these negative stereotypes and changes how we view disability.

To understand disability, it’s important to know that many of the obstacles disabled people experience are created by society. For example, some buildings are designed without any way to access them by wheelchair, and people who use wheelchairs are regularly talked down to by the people they interact with. This doesn’t mean disabled people never experience a condition they have as a limitation, just that focusing on the way society creates limitations for disabled people can help us move away from negative stereotypes. Depicting a world full of non-humans with different abilities is a great way to explore this social understanding of disability.

The key is to treat differences as neutral in value rather than judging whether everyone meets some theoretical standard of perfection. Perhaps you have an alien species that inhales gasses that are poisonous to humans. They have the advantage on their home planet, but on a human ship that wasn’t designed for them, they need an assistive device to breathe. Don’t be afraid to recast humans as disabled in the same manner. Maybe the eight hours of sleep humans need is an unusual limitation. None of the alien spaceships or spaceports humans visit have a place suitable for sleep, so human travelers must ask for special accommodations wherever they go.

Notice in both of these examples that the group needs an accommodation not because there’s anything wrong with them, but because they weren’t considered when facilities were designed.

Neurodiversity can also be represented this way. Perhaps your elves are used to a great deal of motion and interactivity while they work; the human expectation that they remain still during a meeting and just listen for a while doesn’t work for them. On the other hand, most humans assigned to assist an elven team become disoriented by the way the elves make decisions through a dozen separate conversations. The human must explain to the elves that they aren’t able to keep track of what’s happening, and they need a single person to update them.

Again, don’t frame any characteristics coded as disabled or neurodivergent as weird or otherworldly. They should be a normal part of the diversity of the setting. And if your non-human group has something reminiscent of a specific human trait like ADHD, also featuring a human character with ADHD will help counter dehumanization.

Depiction of marginalized groups, whether literal or coded, should always strive to counter stereotypes. That means we can’t treat all groups as though they’re the same. Our culture doesn’t treat them equally, and if we want that to change, we have to correct our course.

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  1. Dvärghundspossen

    Good article.

    Related to this, I thought it was a fun choice in the Aquaman movie that all the notable human characters are POC, and all the notable Atlantean characters are white, most of them even blond or red-haired. I don’t think it’s that common in fiction. It also kind of fits with the fact that it’s the Atlanteans who look down on the humans, and who punish Nicole Kidman’s character for having been in a relationship with and having a child with Teumera Morrison’s character.

    • Chris Winkle

      I did like that they focused on human POC in the movie, but since the Atlanteans have super high tech, I think making his mother’s tribe all lily white wasn’t the right call. They could have other distinctive physical traits to make them look like the same tribe of people while also having varying skin tones. (I wouldn’t give the more fish or crab looking tribes POC coding.)

  2. LiliesAndRoses

    That’s interesting to me. Also, still have some questions. Is it better not to include human beings at all? Also, is it a good idea to assume fantastically-skinned characters “human race equivalent” by color shade: lighter shade->white people, darker shade->people of color? What about shapeshifters?

    After reading the article I thought again about “The Land of the Lustrous”, and noticed, that in the anime the Gemstones have very light “skin”, regardless of what they are made with. Despite being genderless, they are female-coded. While they also can lose body parts, that body parts can be reattached or replaced.

    You also pointed out “youthful” as privileged trait. What should be considered? What about “eternal youth due to immortality”? In “Eight Absurdities We Force on Female Characters” Oren Ashkenazi stated that they wouldn’t worry about ageism in that case, so what else should be considered?

    • Roger

      “Is it better not to include human beings at all?”

      That could be a great idea if done correctly. By correctly I mean they should be unique and substantially non-human. It won’t work if its “space Prussians vs space Arabs”.

      Now something like “compassionate, yet hierarchical Space Termites vs rationalist yet quarrelsome Living Rocks”? That might work.

    • Cay Reet

      1) Not including humans at all: that can be a problem, because somehow your audience needs to understand the aliens and the easiest way to introduce them is through a human character interacting with them.

      2) Different skin colours which are not in the human range (like blue, green, red, pink, etc.): Those skin colours will never by themselves be considered an equivalent to ‘white’ or ‘black’ skin. You need to make that clear through the story. by showing that, for instance, blue-skinned people are treated very much like white people among humans and, for instance, green-skinned people are very much treated like people of colour among humans.

      3) Youthfulness: the fact that a character whose age is not mentioned is considered on the young-ish side (usually below 40, depending on the genre even lower) can only be ageism if you have older people. If you have a species (like us humans) where people grow physically old and you can usually tell age from the outward looks. Your eternally young elves, who do not grow old physically, even though they gather experience and thus age mentally, are not a problem, because the elves can actually be every age and, usually, older and more experienced ones will have more influential positions and will be treated with more respect or even reverence.

      • Roger

        There could be several good ways to mak ethe audience understand the aliens, without introducing human characters.

        The first and most obvious is an omniscent 3rd person narrator.

        Another (which would likely be something I’d do in these circumstances) would be presenting the reader with some sort of texts or communication between specific persons. See how the aliens communicate with one another, what they say (or imply) about their own society and what they say about other species.

        Lastly: Starting with the aliens being very weird and mysterious can be a boon to the story. Piecing the puzzle and using it to understand what is going on can be a reward in itself for the reader.
        Many of S.Lem’s books centered around “aliens” function like this. Arguably the most enjoyable element for the reader is solving the “mystery” or “cracking the cultural code”.

        • Cay Reet

          Yes, there are ways to have the reader understand alien (or fantasy) races without the help of a human character, but it’s often easier to have a human interact with them.

          A problem with omniscent narrators is that they can quickly destroy tension (because they know everything, since that is what omniscent means) or appear very selectively omniscent. However, having an alien as viewpoint character and having them internally comment on important things can also work. You also don’t need to introduce the whole culture at once, so it doesn’t have to be some information dump on the first four pages.

          Texts (whether they be letters, books, or other collections of information) work well, too, but you need someone to interpret them – or you need to write some sort of diary style, which is unusual these days. If you merely want communication between two aliens, though, a regular dialogue or several will do as well.

          Depending on the plot, keeping the aliens mysterious can be good. But if you make them the main characters of your story, you have to give the reader some understanding about them, because if you don’t understand the main character, that can put a lot of people off.

          • Roger

            “A problem with omniscent narrators is that they can quickly destroy tension”

            Not if done correctly. One obvious example – Terry Pratchett. If something ever destroys the tension in his books, it is never his narrator. Rather it is the predictable plot.

            Oren made a decent post about this:

          • Cay Reet

            Sir Terry (may the Clacks forever carry His name) was an excellent author, who could definitely work the omniscent perspective. I’ve read a lot of other authors who couldn’t. It’s a question of having the right skill level, other perspectives are easier to write than that one.

    • Yog-Sothoth42

      In land of the lustrous they are female coded, true, but don’t forget they actually powder their surface with a coating. You see this in the infirmary when they are put back together. It seems like some or all of them feel their natural state, uncoated is displeasing to view or disgusting.

  3. Roger

    My main issue with this article is that it seems be written as a general guide, but seems to strongly assume that the default reader is American. Most of the tips seem to be about avoiding American stereotypes and biases. The section about disabilities is a notable exception.

    If anyone wants to play a short game as a test:

    1. Species X stereotype: They are honourable, and chivalric. They like to dress and look nice, often wear expensive clothes or accessories. They make good political leaders, good soldiers, good sportsmen and decent lawyers, but poor researchers, bad merchants, bad musicians, poor doctors.

    What would be the association of species X in your mind as a reader? What does this group represent in Real World terms?

    2. Species Y stereotype: They always think about money, both how to earn more and how to save and spend less. They are always late. They dress in practical clothes, yet have no fashion sense. They make friends only among other Y species persons. They don’t like ‘active forms of spending free time’, rather they prefer to be couch potatoes.
    They make good traders and marketing people, good political leaders and lawyers, but poor sportsmen, poor soldiers and bad PR employees.

    What would be the association of species X in your mind as a reader? What does this group represent in Real World terms?

    “In your head, picture a primitive tribe. Now, what race did you first picture? Whatever it was, it’s pretty unlikely your tribe was composed of white people with blond hair and blue eyes.”
    – Actually, the first image that popped in my mind were European paleolithic people. I’m Central European, so this association is natural here.

    “Pretending race doesn’t exist will not erase racial bias; it will only allow bias to flourish unchecked.”
    – I strongly agree when it comes to depicting historical human multiracial societies.

    Writing about a fictional species is more tricky, because if done correctly (the race really feels like a different species as opposed to say blue-skinned native americans), then the “internal divisions” within that species should be unique to them (say having a stereotype about people with pointy pseudopods). Thus the reader would need to reflect on the described situation and only then maybe look for some sort of real life equivalent.

    ” Use gender neutral pronouns”
    – That is assuming the language in question has gender neutral pronouns and doesn’t have any other linguistic “gender traits” (both the fictional language and the RL language that the story is written in).
    One of the languages I write in has gendered nouns and verbs (names of countries for example are gendered – Argentina is female, Paraguay is male). I can use masculine, feminine or neuter forms. But using neuter for a whole species will make them strongly appear either “objectified, dehumanized and robotic” or “childish and immature”. This is because neuter is used mostly for children or inanimate objects.

    • Cay Reet

      Due to the (mostly European) history of colonisation, a lot of cultures have dipped into the ‘white’ default over time. It still shows today in tendencies like suits being considered the only business attire even in areas like Africa or Asia, where the climate is not suited (no pun intended) for it. In the fact that African people straighten their hair to appear more ‘appropriate.’ In the fact that Asian people have surgery to gain a more ‘European’ eye shape or dye their hair to appear lighter. All of this is only because ‘white is beautiful’ and still seen as the high standard. On a more dangerous level: that a lot of new medicine is tested only on European people (and often only on men) and then has unforeseen side effects for people from other areas of our planet (or on women). And, yes, I’m aware that Europeans (or North Americans) who are fascinated with specific cultures do the same the other way around, but the numbers are far smaller.

      As far as gendered pronouns and avoiding them is concerned, I agree with you that it depends very much on the language you speak. I write English, where ‘they’ has become a suitable way of keeping the pronoun gender-neutral, but I speak German (and live in Germany), where there’s no way of keeping things gender-neutral, due to the way the language works. We have gendered objects and our equivalent to ‘it’ is tightly connected to either children (which suggests immaturity) or, indeed, mere objects, so it wouldn’t be suitable.

      The best way to avoid stereotyped species is to avoid the Planet of the Hats (a very homogenous culture). If your species is not only defined by few traits, like your species X and Y above, then you will not be in that much danger of making them stereotyped. You have gathered very specific traits for both of your species, essentially heaping ‘good’ traits on species X (chivalrous, good leader, snappy dresser) and ‘bad’ traits on species Y (greedy, lazy, bad-looking). If you had spread those traits differently, you would have gotten two much better species. As a counter example: species X is now chivalrous, but lazy (they are good and honourable fighters, but hard to motivate to fight), and dresses well. Species Y is now financially careful, makes good leaders, but has little interest in mingling with others or take care of their looks.

      • Roger

        That was my point about language – it can be inherently gendered. It can have more than 3 grammatical genders as well. I imagine aliens with 4 sexes would likely have 5 or more grammatical genders (unless their language is like english with ungendered verbs entirely).

        Oh thank you for playing the “species X and Y” game. It is quite interesting that you saw the stereotype of X species as having essentially good traits, because the actual enthnic group hidden behind it doesn’t like that stereotype (neither does Y like its own stereotype).

      • Roger

        Neither species X or species Y stereotype was my invention. I used real world Indian ethnic group stereotypes, as described to me by an Indian colleague.

        Species X stereotype is the Rajput stereotype.
        Species Y stereotype is the Gujju stereotype.

        Both groups aren;t happy with the stereotype. I would agree the Rajput sounds nicer at first glance, but look how it contains only physical and “people skills”. Its not considered a “smart” one.

        • Cay Reet

          If you consider them species instead of social groups, you will also run into a problem explaining how they have developed over time. A species with many soldiers, but few, bad doctors and no research and development won’t go far, in all likelihood. Which is why every species needs balance.

          • Lizard Witz Hat

            Isn’t that the problem of the klingons? with all the warrior i its hard to see how they got into space as they don’t seem to value scince je talk very much.

          • Roger

            Cay Reet: “A species with many soldiers, but few, bad doctors and no research and development won’t go far, in all likelihood”

            We know how human society works, but we have no other technological civilization to compare.

            Many SF stories simply have Human civilization be the “average of average”. Certainly Star Trek does – Klingons are the “more martial” species, Ferengi the “more economic” species, Vulcans the “more logical” species…

            But that’s not a given. Perhaps if we encountered an actual alien civilization, we would find out that we humans are in fact the “space mongol raiders” who have “many soldiers, but few, bad doctors and no research”.

            We know from history taht societies, especially if isolated from one another, develop in very different and unique ways. The 8th century Mayans had a vastly superior math and astronomical systems than anyone else at the time (they calculated what would be the movements of some planets like Venus and Mars well over 1000 years into the future). At the same time their navigational and metalurgy was vastly inferior to the ones known in Europe and the Middle East.

            At the same time in Australia you had cultures who were doing just fine withhout basic mathematics (no notion of zero, no fractions, no multiplication). What we like to call “progress” is hardly an orderly linerar process..

            We can assume that holds true for planetary civilizations.

          • Cay Reet

            It’s hard to imagine bad doctors and bad researcher advancing the technology for war enough for a militia to turn into an army (meaning it’s no longer about every capable member taking up arms in case of a fight, but about training soldiers specifically for battle) or keeping soldiers fit enough for battle (since injuries during training are far from unlikely and can be severe). It’s not only about the development, it’s also about the chances to stay alive and healthy long enough to make it.

            Mathematics are not necessary for survival in a place like Australia – but a lot of other knowledge, which these people possess, is.

            It’s always down to the preferences, but you gave your species X that warrior streak – and that without medicine and a bit of development in weaponry, is hard to imagine. They are chivalrous, which suggests mounted units (the word comes from the French ‘cheval’ – horse, after all). They enjoy dressing, which means they must at least have developed basic technology like the loom, if not more. They must have designers to make new clothes in new looks. All of that is not covered in your description.

  4. Mammie Grein

    Amazing info, Regards.

  5. LiliesAndRoses

    (BTW I’m white) Given there were people who looked like white people but weren’t considered ones legally (e.g. “one drop rule”), I have always considered “fantastically-skinned” characters to be people of color.

    • Cay Reet

      Well, especially with characters heavily featuring in a story, most people consider fatnastical skin-colours white (well, standard, which is white), unless the story makes it clear they are marginalized in some way. It’s not about the colour, it’s about the treatment. Yes, people who are considered white by most societies today (such as the Irish once upon a time or the Greek in Australia) were not considered part of the majority group at some point. Minorities aren’t always set apart by their skin colour, event hough it’s an easy way, because it’s clearly visible. Yet, having the standard skin colour doesn’t automatically mean you’re not part of a minority. It’s how people treat you in everyday life which determines whether or not you have a minority status.

      • LiliesAndRoses

        Okay. The narrative could feature an exactly black character who suffers no prejudice or even privileged because of their skin color. How it applies then?

        • Cay Reet

          Different history and background (see below). A faery is no human (so a black faery is not automatically a member of a minority in their race) and in a fantasy world, humans might never have developed racism against other humans (because why look down on a person with brown skin, when you can look down on that green-skinned brute of an Orc?). In that case, your black character will not be treated any differently. Or if you have a science fiction story set in the far future where humans have overcome the remnants of our history and all humans are considered equal. It’s always down to the setting.

          In our reality and time, black characters are part of a minority and suffer prejudices because of that. In a fantasy world, there is a different past which creates a different present and black people may not be a minority. They might even be privileged because, for instance, they have the most powerful mages. Or humans just historically oppressed halflings instead of other humans, so the skin colour doesn’t matter, because humans never oppressed each other.

      • Dvärghundspossen

        I also think people tend to imagine an, e.g., blue-skinned humanoid alien as a caucasian person with blue face-paint rather than a black or Asian person with blue face-paint, if you see what I mean. At least unless they’re heavily coded black/Asian/something other.

        • LiliesAndRoses

          I think that “imagining” isn’t something that you can’t control (some readers could just skip the appearance description and imagine a character of color as white character). I do understand why describing skin colors of characters can be important , and why it’s necessary to have diversity among human characters. But if a story features no humans and is about, for example, faeries who can be of any skin color (not just human ones), I find it weird to say that they’re all white people unless their skin color exactly matches that of human people of color. If there’s such thing as “colorism” in real world, isn’t depicting dark-skinned characters of any color good? Is there really a reason to interpret any deviation from human skin coloration as whiteness?

          • Cay Reet

            We know that societies on earth treat people with non-white skin (since that is what people of colour means, after all) different and, usually, worse than people with white skin. That is why we assume that a blue-skinned, green-skinned, or magenta-skinned faery who isn’t treated different than other faeries is, for all intents and purposes, the faery-equivalent of ‘white’ and not of ‘brown,’ ‘black,’ or ‘yellow.’ If you show that the faery society (or the human-faery society, if you have both species cohabit) treats magenta-skinned faeries (for instance) worse than others or treats faeries worse than humans (or the other way around), then you have a faery-equivalent to a person of colour. The outward appearance and ancestry of a faery makes them a minority.

            It is not about having faeries of three or four different skin-colours. The idea of race and the idea that the ‘white’ race is more privileged than all other races comes from the past of human history, especially from the colonisation history of our world. White people have ruled over people of other skin colours and enslaved them. They have destroyed non-white cultures in their will to dominate and to promote their supposedly-superior culture. Fragments and remnants of that are still in our thinking and that, together with the human tendency towards xenophobia (being afraid to hateful of everything and everyone different than them), is the reason why we still have racism today. Because some white people still think themselves better and still think ‘all black people are this’ and ‘all Asian people are that.’ Because black and Asian people are ‘different people’ and ‘not like us white people’ to them.

            Your faery society might have gone through something similar with, for instance, the blue faeries colonizing the lands of the magenta and green faeries and because of that treating them like they are worth less. But since faeries are no humans, you need to establish that part of the history which explains why it’s different to be a green faery.

            In a different version of our history, Africa might have colonized Europe, for instance, and that would mean that white people would be in a similar position to that of black people in our society (the Ottoman Empire actually took a good shot at that). It’s all down to the past, it’s not something humans are born with. Little kids couldn’t care less about someone’s skin colour – until someone (family, friends, society) teaches them that the colour of the skin makes a difference.

  6. Peter Molnár

    To offer a personal perspective as a worldbuilder (and apologies if something is unclear, feel free to ask): When I started working on my setting years ago, one of the main guidelines I established right at the start was “No ‘evil/unpleasant fantasy species of pure evil/unpleasantness’, good and evil will be as complex and as straightforward as in the real world.”.

    In this context, by “complex”, I mean “no one is born good or evil, we all have the capacity for good or evil, and we can always try to make a choice, good or evil”, and by “straightforward” I mean “do not do to others what you wouldn’t want committed on you”. That’s the basic philosophical morality behind my setting. How it plays out with specific characters, groups and situations is down to the story, the social and character dynamics and interactions.

    I don’t like saying about my setting that it’s “morally ambiguous”, because many people nowadays tend to have the false impression that expression means “everyone is a mean-spirited, backstabbing, cynical git”. Whereas, in my setting, the moral ambiguity is firmly of the “morality and ethics can get complex” and “the quality of morality and ethics will vary, depending on the individual” type. I also approach my setting from the presumption “Most people are good, want to be and try to be good, or at least lie to themselves that they’re good.”. It is not an idealistic setting, but it’s not a cynical setting either. And all of the above applies to every thinking being in my setting, be they human (of any origin) or non-human (of any origin).

    To expand a bit more: Things like prejudices or dismissiveness or distrust are not something that can always be easily quantified. While some types of prejudice are blatant and obvious, I’m always far more interested in the smaller, far less obvious aspects of this. What are things like distrust or fear or self-serving motives born out of ? Looking at the real world, people don’t tend to go announcing their dislike of another person or another group with an evil cackle, they tend to rationalise it. Sometimes there might be valid reasons behind that later rationalisation, mixed in with the obvious nonsense and obvious fear. Sometimes, a member of a group might feint his respect for another group (or someone from his own group), only to be eventually revealed to be a lot less magnanimous than thought. Similarly, a person judged as “they look shifty” and “no doubt they’re awful and prejudiced” by someone might turn out to be actually decent, respectful and altruistic, if a bit withdrawn at face value. While “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” is an old and somewhat well-worn sentiment, I feel it is rather timeless in value. Even what fictional people hold as a fear or grudge against others can vary. The exact same judging-by-the-cover “gut reaction” might ellicit a very different emotional and cognitive response in two different individuals.

    In the case of non-human (if humanoid) fictional species, the one already existing framework we are capable of deriving things from – the behaviour of our own species, our ethical highs and lows – becomes even more complicated. I often seem authors assume that a non-human species might do stuff that is odd to us merely because that is what they do, and no logical or semi-logical explanation is needed. I always find that lazy. Even beings and creatures with very alien psychologies and viewpoints (whether humanoid or non-humanoid, depending on the setting) tend to have understandable parts of their mental worlds. Maybe their logical arguments are different to what a human being what construct (in most cases, at least), but it can still have a logical structure, even a rational structure. I don’t think humans in general are entitled to some lofty claim of “always understandable motives”, with aliens/beastpeople/whathaveyou “always inscrutible and weird”. In fact, part of what has fueled human prejudice in virtually any human society in history has been the notion that “the others are weird, therefore never understandable”, or the taken-even-further idea of “we shouldn’t even bother to understand them”. A lot of conflict and misunderstanding in the history of our species has happened for those reasons alone, coupled with the aforementioned “judging by the cover” or “I dunno who/what it is, therefore fear !” impressions.

    Concerning fear and distrust in interactions and understanding (or lack thereof), I am reminded of an old saying from my country: “Fire is a good servant, but a bad lord.” We could say the same about fear, in humans, or any mentally similar species. Fear might have served us well when it was a trigger of self-preservation (“don’t let the predatory animal eat me”), but it can be highly divisive and destructive once applied as a rule to the daily functioning of any society (“we should fear everyone and everything we deem suspicious and dangerous, paranoia, rawr”).

    I’d be willing to provide an example of how I’ve handled a rather difficult situation surrounding the intereactions of several species in my setting. However, I wouldn’t like to bore others, unless they’re interested in a follow-up comment. If there’s interest, I might talk about that example a bit more in-depth. Thanks.

  7. LiliesAndRoses

    I think that the whole “default privileged” thing can’t be applied to every case. For example, if faeries can have ANY skin color (including both “human” colors and “fantastic” ones), how can human races be ever applied to them? The whole “their skin color should exactly match that of people of color or else they are white” is looking ridiculous, given the existence of colorism and one-drop rule in the real life. If it’s about treatment — but then faeries could just not care about skin color, does that mean that they are all white?

    • Dvärghundspossen

      I really don’t think Chris argues that thinking of all characters as white unless it’s made pretty explicit that they’re not is RATIONAL or MAKES SENSE. I think the point was that this is, in fact, how audience imagination tends to work, and writers should take that into account.

      We read about fairies that are green and pink and blue, but unless the author supplies them with really strong traits that are associated with, e.g., black people in our own society, the audience will simply imagine them with typically European features despite their many fantastic skin colours, etc… If you start throwing strongly black-associated features on them, that makes a difference, and they’re now imagined as the fairy-version of black people, even if their skin is still blue. None of this is particularly RATIONAL; the point was just that this is how people tend to think when reading books.

      I think this is very likely true. We know that even when it IS made explicit that the protagonist is a PoC, some people STILL imagine them as white… like editions of a Wizard of Earth Sea where the MC is pictured as a white man on the cover, even though he’s brown-skinned in the book, and only the northern barbarians are white. Or the angry Hunger Games fans who thought that having Rue played by a black actress in the movies was some kind of PC race-bending, even though she’s explicitly black in the books.

      Obviously people who desperately turn even explicit PoC into white people in their own imagination when reading a book are stupid and racist, and there’s no guarding against that. But it seems plausible to me that something much milder in that direction – a tendency to imagine everyone as white or like a fantasy or sci-fi equivalent of a white person unless it’s made very clear that they’re not – is a real psychological tendency in most people. Doesn’t mean it MAKES SENSE, but writers should be aware of it, so they can take it into account.

      • Cay Reet

        No, it doesn’t make sense at all, but is true.

        Readers tend to imagine a ‘hero’ with no defining features at all as a white man – even if the readers themselves are, for instance, Latinx or Asian. I think it’s all the media with a white, male main character. We’re so used to see the main spot taken by such a character that we automatically assume a hero without clearly non-white features is white. Logic would tell us that every reader would imagine such a character to look like them – or, perhaps, like they’d want to look -, but that’s not the case. Humans are no logical creatures…

        And, yeah, some people go so far in their ‘white dude hero’ thinking that they even make characters described as POC white in their minds, because ‘how can someone important in this story dare not to be?!’

      • Tifa

        Oh, it frustrated me so much seeing those editions of A Wizard of Earthsea. Apparently Ursula le Guin herself was also very upset by it.

  8. Olivia

    If your non-human main characters belong to a real-life animal species (like The Lion King, or the owls in Guardians of Ga’Hoole, for example) but are sentient/sapient in your story, what advice would you give? In my story my heroes are sentient talking jaguars and pumas and the setting is in northwestern Mexico. My central characters are a male puma and a female jaguar – both of whom have Latino/a names and overcome many hardships. I want to depict them and their environment in a positive way.

  9. Raimey Gallant

    Bookmarking this to read again and again! Thanks!

  10. Amniote

    “Don’t code single-gendered non-humans as being all men or all women”
    This doesn’t always make sense: for example, a humanoid klepton is realistically going to be seen as mostly female, due to having to interact with other species who aren’t single-gendered

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