Prejudice is a part of human society, and some eras were just awful. However, we still want to tell stories in those time periods. The steampunk genre is based largely on Victorian England, a time when being female was enough for people to assume you were a mentally infirm child. High fantasy is clearly inspired by Medieval Europe, where belonging to a non-majority religion meant your family could be “purged.” Even when creating a world from scratch, prejudice will exist* because it’s just something humans do.
So how do we show settings as the prejudiced places they are without making the story itself prejudiced?
Make a Story That Drives Change
You know what makes an awesome story? Revolution. Your setting could start with terrible prejudice against a certain group, but there’s no reason it has to stay that way. For as long as there has been injustice, people have been standing up against it. Revolutions can take the form of violent uprisings, cloak and dagger political maneuvering, or popular protest movements. Any of those makes for a great plot.
Western stories usually maintain the status quo. Superheroes always fight against those who want to make radical changes. It’s so common that a number of works make fun of it. We see this outside of the superhero genre, too. So many fantasy stories are about restoring the rightful king that it’s hard to keep track. Even Star Wars, movies about overthrowing a galactic government, fall prey. If you dive into the extended universe or the (shudder) prequels, you’ll find they’re about returning things to how they were before the Empire took over.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but we also need stories about creating something new. If your setting contains an entrenched tool of oppression, don’t ignore it; use it. There’s story potential sitting right there in front of you! If your feudal empire depends on a class of indentured servants to continue running, tell the story of those servants deciding they’ve had enough.
Few things are more disheartening than seeing a terrible injustice and turning away because there’s nothing that can be done about it. This is your story; something can be done about it. Don’t make your characters passive in the face of an oppressive system. Even if they try to change it and fail, it’ll be a tale worth telling.
Write From the Bottom
If there’s one constant to human history, it’s that rich people have it good. No matter what’s going on with everyone else in the setting, if all you do is show the wealthy and powerful, you’ll get a very stilted view. There are steampunk stories that go from one aristocratic tea party to another, and some space operas take place only on high tech pleasure ships. Even the notoriously dark Song of Ice and Fire focuses on characters who can usually count on getting three square meals a day.
If all we do is look at the winners in a society, we’re tacitly endorsing it, even if we’re vaguely aware that not everyone has it so good. That’s why it’s important to have characters who get the short end of their setting. Not only does it give a more rounded view, but those characters have more problems, and problems drive a story.
The Difference Engine, one of steampunk’s seminal novels, starts out from the POV of a prostitute named Cybil who is also the daughter of a disgraced labor leader. This character is the lowest of the low in her society. If she were murdered in the street, passersby would only care because of the mess on their shoes. Through her, we see the failings of this clockwork driven British Empire, the rotting foundation underneath its facade of glory. Cybil is by far the most interesting character in the book because she has the most adversity to overcome. She generates instant investment because of the challenges she faces. Later on, the book switches to the POV of a rich male doctor and instantly becomes less interesting. Dr. Boring’s problems seem trivial compared to what Cybil was dealing with.
By writing about the victims of oppression, we give them a voice, whether they are from a historical setting or not. We confront a setting’s prejudice instead of letting it carry on quietly in the background.
Show the Exceptions
If you portray a setting where everyone unquestioningly accepts an obvious social evil, it can seem like your story is endorsing said evil. That’s why you’ve got to show characters who don’t accept it. No matter how deeply embedded a prejudice is, there will always be those who fight against it. From the moment slaves were first brought to the Americas, there were abolitionists advocating for their rights. Feminism predates Rosie the Riveter and even the Suffragette movement by a long time.
Don’t worry about it “not being realistic.” So long as you provide decent context, it’s easy to justify characters rejecting some of their societal values. Of course, these characters don’t have to be perfect angels. Rejecting prejudice doesn’t mean you can’t have flaws, but it does show that not everyone accepts these pervasive ills.
Characters who oppose something the rest of their society takes for granted have automatic motivation. The prejudices they oppose are happening right outside their door. They have to do something about it because no one else will. If there’s one thing more impressive about humanity than our capacity to harm, its how many people are willing to risk everything in order to help.
The Underground Railroad and Germans smuggling Jews to safety during WWII are classic examples, but we can go further. If your setting has elves ruling over human serfs, have one character be an elf who campaigns for greater human liberty. The debate over robotic rights is a classic of science fiction, and it allows for some truly amazing stories.
Teach Your Character a Lesson
Not every character can or should be an exception to their society’s views. Prejudice and discrimination are part of being human, so we need characters that portray them. The important thing is to challenge those characters in the story. If you simply present a character who is racist, sexist, or any other ‘ist’ and don’t comment further, you’ll have a problem. At best, the character will be very hard to identify with. At worst, the audience will come away thinking you, as the author, embrace those views.
Instead, put the character in situations that challenge their prejudiced beliefs. If they think halflings are all lying thieves, put them in a plot where they have to work with a halfling police officer. If they hold the opinion that women can’t handle computers, it’s time to pit them against a female hacker with top notch skills.
The novel Consider Phlebas, by Ian M. Banks, does this very well. The main character, a shapeshifter named Horza, hates artificial intelligence. At best, he sees it as little more than computers with an attitude problem. At worst, he thinks it’ll bring about the downfall of the human species. His views are well inline with the faction he serves. Throughout the story, Horza is put in situations where he must rely on robots and other forms of AI, much to his chagrin. His bigotry serves to make him a more interesting character, rather than a detestable one. We see him as a man who, tragically, can’t move past his deeply ingrained prejudice.
Note that your character doesn’t always need to come around and abandon their prejudice. Not everyone does, after all. In Consider Phlebas, Horza dies a violent death, still believing that artificial intelligence is fundamentally bad, even as a robot tries to save him . What’s most important isn’t that you convert a prejudiced character but that you show how they’re wrong.
Here’s the bottom line: you can portray prejudice in your stories, but it’s always important to call it out. Great ills make for great drama, so long as it’s clear they really are ills and not just another part of the story.
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