In Solo, L3-37 doesn't want to be enslaved. This is treated as a joke.

An essential skill for any writer is depicting people like they’re actually people. This applies not only to individual characters but also to large groups. When we start worldbuilding, we may unintentionally create races, species, and cultures that are less like a real group of people and more like a crowd of caricatures, thereby dehumanizing them. This can reinforce racist messages that are used to do harm in real life.

Does this mean it’s wrong to dehumanize your species of giant cyborg spiders? No, animals and monsters don’t need to come across as people. But we shouldn’t dehumanize humans, and many of the nonhuman groups we create, such as orcs and elves, are simply stand-ins for humans. If you’re not sure whether dehumanizing your fantastical group would be problematic, our articles on problematic groups and ableist monsters should help.

While you don’t have to humanize your giant cyborg spiders, you might want to. If you’re depicting a group of sapient creatures, a humanizing depiction will make them feel more real and complex. This is particularly useful if your protagonist is among them. If their society is a caricature, your audience will notice.

That said, let’s look at six signs your race, species, or culture has lost its humanity.

1. Individuals Are Too Similar

Kirk and Spock sit on the bumper of a retro car, wearing suits and fedoras, and holding antique machine guns.
In Star Trek: The Original Series, the Enterprise encounters an entire planet where everyone acts like they’re in a 1920s gangster film.

We need to make each species or culture feel unique, but when doing that, it’s easy to venture into stereotyping. We might create a warrior culture where every single individual is a soldier or an artsy culture where every person is a poet who speaks in verse. Misguided writers have created groups where everyone is obedient, everyone is lazy, or everyone is a mobster who wears a hat.

Regardless of why this is done or what the in-universe explanation is, stereotyping removes the individuality of members. When a person is an identical member of a horde instead of someone with their own personality, appearance, and identity, their life is no longer valued. This makes it easy to justify violence against them.

You can still have distinctive group traits; just present those traits in more balanced and realistic ways. To start, avoid making overly broad statements about your group members, especially if those statements are positive or negative. You can do that by:

  • Describing the features of the society rather than the personality traits of the people in the society.
  • Replacing generalizations with statements about what is “common” among members, “popular” with members, or appears “on average.”
  • Swapping out traits for specific activities that some or many (but not all) group members engage in.

For example:

  • Instead of “dryads love the earth,” try “the most popular deity among the dryads is the Great Earth Spirit.”
  • Instead of “the shadow dwellers are full of bloodlust,” try “the shadow dweller militia is known for killing anyone who crosses their border.”
  • Instead of “the utopian citizens are lazy,” try “the utopian citizens work about ten hours a week on average.”

Just like characters, groups should be defined by more than one trait. If you have time to develop a group in detail, consider adding factions that have different lifestyles or oppose each other politically. This demonstrates that members of the group aren’t uniform.

Characters in the group should be unique individuals who are influenced by their group membership in reasonable ways. If they only work ten hours a week, that’s probably because they live in a society that’s post-scarcity or nearly so. In that case, working only ten hours makes sense. While some individuals might complain if they needed to work more, others would jump at the chance to feel helpful by putting in more hours.

2. The Group Acts Irrationally

Cover art from March Upcountry: a human rides a large reptile while three more humans run alongside; all four humans are heavily armed with scifi guns.
In March Upcountry, alien enemies kill themselves attacking the protagonists.

Another common and troubling pattern is when members of a group do not act like rational human beings. As a general rule, humans are cunning in pursuing their own interests. They do not pick fights they don’t think they can win, and if an action costs them something, they will only do it for tangible return.

Unfortunately, many stories make groups act irrationally to justify why it’s okay to kill members without a thought. This is the “evil horde” problem, in which soldiers in a horde keep attacking and attacking even as the heroes mow them down. In real-world armies, troops will scatter once the situation looks too dire. When soldiers intentionally sacrifice their lives, it is a strategic choice to protect something they care about even more. While it’s possible for a troubled individual to be motivated by bloodlust, that’s not a compelling motivation for a whole group.

Similarly, groups need understandable motivations for whatever they do – whether it’s worshiping a sinister god, waging war, or wandering the world to collect the best seashells they can find. Treating a group’s motivation as strange and unknowable works great for tentacle aliens that are supposed to be scary, but it’s inherently dehumanizing, so don’t do this with a group of humanlike people.

However, this doesn’t mean every group has to make perfect choices. The leadership might declare war on another group because of political pressures at home, not because war benefits the group as a whole. The group may also be operating based on incorrect information.

It’s okay for protagonists to be baffled by a group choice they don’t understand. But that should be presented as a mystery the protagonists need to figure out, not as a sign the group thinks in bizarre ways that humans can’t understand. Then the heroes should solve this mystery by uncovering the group’s rational motive.

If your goal is to have lots of faceless enemies for heroes to mow down, those enemies should be mindless machines or monsters. Do not use humanlike groups or animals for that.

3. They’re Inherently Bad or Good

Legolas stands before a crowd of light-skinned elves in The Return of the King.
Tolkien’s perfect elves only reinforce the racist dichotomy of his setting.

We’ve all seen species that are supposed to be bad in every way. They’re cowardly yet full of aggression that motivates bold attacks. They constantly fight over leadership roles, attacking at the first sign of weakness. They’re ugly, they speak in a harsh tongue, and their society has nothing resembling art.

Obviously, this is racist. Even when the writer tries to justify it by offering a magical reason, it relies on tropes rooted in the belief that some people are inherently inferior. Our stories are better without this.

What’s less obviously racist is when a society is depicted in the opposite manner – wonderful in every way.

  • Do you have a tree-loving people who are one with the earth and easily solve all of their problems by talking through their feelings?
  • Do you have a group of wise nomads who wander the land offering sage advice and making beautiful art?
  • Do you have a small utopian enclave in the flowery countryside, where honest labor enriches the souls more than cold technology ever could?

When a species or culture is shown in such an idealized manner, it’s inherently othering or exotifying. To anyone who feels misrepresented by the group, it can also come off as condescending, as though they’re children in need of praise. Everyone just wants to be treated like a normal person. You’re making it weird.

Just like individuals, every society has strengths and flaws. Whenever you compare one culture to another, there should be trade-offs between them. One culture might offer more individual freedom but leave its members to fend for themselves, whereas another culture might have a strong safety net but also restrict personal choices.

Even if you love your group and want to show your audience how cool they are, include failings. Then be honest about those failings rather than glossing them over to wax poetic about how everyone has the best clothes and the best food. Finally, show how some individuals in the culture are pressing for change. You can even create traditionalist and revolutionary factions to struggle over it.

If your group is inherently evil, don’t worry – you can fix it just by reassigning the blame. Instead of making members inherently evil, focus on unethical systems and villainous individuals. The current leadership of a group can be authoritarian and oppressive. Perhaps they enslave the poor and press them into service as soldiers. However, these cultures must still have positive features, and again, some members will dream of overthrowing their oppressive government to create a fair one.

4. Group Hardships Are Glossed Over

A group of Star Wars droids sitting and standing around tables with tubes connected to them.
In The Mandalorian, droids tell the human heroes that they like being slaves.

A frequent belittling trend in glorified cultures is the erasure of hardships and suffering. This goes double if the culture isn’t objectively wealthy and powerful. Privileged people today like to idealize low-tech country lifestyles, forgetting that these lifestyles also come with real hardships.

  • In the countryside, there are fewer economic opportunities. When a farming community faces a drought, members may flee to the city to avoid starvation.
  • If someone gets sick far from an urban area, they may not have a hospital nearby. This can lead to a higher death rate.
  • If a culture doesn’t use motorized vehicles, traveling will be more difficult and dangerous. Without technology, good maps may be hard to come by.
  • Without fast, long-distance communication, a society will receive news slowly and have more trouble coordinating.

This doesn’t mean there also aren’t upsides like peace and quiet, closer family connections, and a more active lifestyle. If the society has wealthy and powerful neighbors, there should be enough upsides to explain why members willingly take on the hardships rather than moving elsewhere.

You also don’t have to wallow in hardships or make their lives miserable. It’s okay to ease hardships with magic. Perhaps an isolated community has a magic healer or a mage that relays important messages with scrying. If you’re using a historical setting, you’re not required to include detailed descriptions of bloodletting or other less-than-glamorous aspects of the time period.

Just don’t pretend your society doesn’t have the hardships they do. Then remember that hardships are hardships, not enriching food for the soul. Regardless of whether there are benefits to manual labor, it’s still labor. This is particularly important when a group is poor. Generally, poor people don’t choose to be that way,* and every group benefits from additional resources. While a resourceful group may get by or even flourish without much money, being without money won’t make them better or happier.

Finally, never depict a group that doesn’t mind or care about their hardships. Whether it’s being happy as slaves or wanting to be dirty and disheveled, this idea exists to justify oppression and cruel mistreatment.

5. People Speak Whimsically

A group of people in handmade folk clothing stand on the Star Trek transporter pad with their animals, some wooden barrels, and a bunch of hay.
In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Up the Long Ladder, the Enterprise crew rescues some Irish stereotypes who speak in a folksy manner.

As storytellers, we’re always looking for ways to add novelty. Unfortunately, when we make cultures into novelties, it can come out terribly wrong. If you have a weird poet character who speaks in rhyme sometimes, the character might get annoying, but they probably won’t be problematic. If you have someone speak in rhyme because their culture does that, you’ve created a cultural caricature.

Remember, everyone wants to be treated like they’re a normal person. If group members constantly spout wise sayings or start every sentence with “blessed be that,” they aren’t acting like people. While speech makes this pattern most obvious, you can also take a second look at repeated odd behaviors. Do group members jump up and dance around constantly?

This doesn’t mean that your cultures can’t have their own idioms, sayings, and repeated prayers. However, consider the utility of their speech. How cumbersome would it be for them to always rhyme or repeat a phrase again and again? Give it a try for a day. Do you talk less because it’s too much effort?

If the culture says one phrase a lot, what does it accomplish? Is it a form of emphasis when they’re especially emphatic? Is it a “knock on wood” type prayer to avoid bad luck from speaking about taboo topics? Do they say flowery phrases to authority figures to appease them?

Finally, look at the content of their speech. Are they having normal conversations, or is every word supposed to be whimsical or profound? Sometime, try going about your day spouting nothing but wise sayings, especially when you meet someone new. The stranger in the elevator could be the chosen one, so you’d better give them some sage advice, just in case. When you’re at the dinner table, find a wise way to ask someone to pass the salt.

6. They Revere an Outsider

Captain Jack Sparrow making a threatening face, while wearing an elaborate headdress, his face painted with eyes.
In Pirates of the Caribbean, islanders put Jack Sparrow on a throne before trying to sacrifice him.

Part of being cunning in pursuing your own interests is looking after your own interests and not just someone else’s. Everyone has their own lives to care about. In contrast, many problematic depictions treat the protagonist as though they are at the center of the universe.

This can happen on an individual level when a storyteller employs the “magical negro” trope. The trope is named after Black whimsical characters who pop into the story just to tell the protagonist their destiny, educate them about the magical world, or grant them magical favors. Going out of their way to help a random stranger rather than using that magic on their own behalf is irrational.

When applied at the group level, more problematic tropes appear. One is the white savior trope, in which an outsider plays a glorified role helping the group, while the group acts like a cheerleading troop. Every culture has their own heroes and leaders; they do not need or want an outsider to play that role.

If a helpful outsider has special technology that gives them an edge, they should be sharing it and showing group members how to use it. If there is only one device, the outsider can explain what it does. Then group members can decide how it should be used on behalf of the group. An outsider shouldn’t be making choices about what a group needs. Not only is that paternalistic, but also the outsider simply wouldn’t know enough.

In a worst-case scenario, the group may be overly impressed with outsiders just because of how they look or the technology they possess. This makes the entire culture look subservient or worshipful. I don’t care how fancy the outsider spaceship is; a low-tech culture is not going to think they are a god. Being overly fearful or superstitious of outsiders is just another way of portraying the same problematic trope.

Be wary of making broad generalizations about how group members feel about your outsider protagonist. Remember, they’re unique individuals with their own feelings. Then don’t make it weird. If the protagonist assists them, the most common response should be “thanks” rather than “you are our hero.”

Many species won’t be exactly like humans, but treating them like humans is still the best tool we have for making them realistic. It encourages us to imagine ourselves in their shoes and think through their choices. Even non-sapient creatures have reasons for behaving the way they do.

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