Antagonists are an indispensable tool of storytelling, and a lot of stories require large groups of bad guys to oppose the heroes. But in addition to all the technical challenges of crafting antagonistic groups, we have to consider when these groups become harmful in real life by sending bigoted messages. Most of us can understand why a Western that glorifies the slaughter of Native Americans is bad, but it gets a lot more complicated once you introduce speculative elements. Even so, it’s important to understand the dynamics at play, so you don’t end up hurting your audience by mistake.
Evil Human Races Are the Worst
This feels weird to say in 2019, but it’s wrong to portray an entire group of humans as evil based on their race. I almost left this section out, but then I remembered that lots of people still read the Belgariad, so we need to talk about it. Even if the race of humans in your story is entirely fictional, it’s still wrong to portray them as evil, whether you’re doing it via D&D-style alignments or just saying everyone from a certain part of the world eats babies.
Naturally, it’s also wrong to use gender, sexuality, disability, or any other marginalized trait to mark your humans as evil. Disability is probably the one most likely to come up these days, as storytellers are still coming to terms with the statistical fact that mentally ill people are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. I can only assume that’s why even blatantly progressive books like Winter Tide have an evil group of “Mad Ones” who are bad because they all went “insane,” whatever the author thinks that means.*
Portraying entire groups of humans as evil to justify their antagonism reinforces bigotry in the real world, adding to the already immense pile of problems that marginalized people have to deal with. If that’s not enough, it also makes your story harder to take seriously. Most of your audience knows that no one is actually evil because of their race, and they won’t believe a story that tells them otherwise.
While we’re on the subject, this dynamic extends to any kind of broad generalization based on race. In the same way it’s still racist to say that Asians are inherently good at math, it’s racist to make a Thief Country, a Knight Country, a Farmer Country, etc. With time and attention to detail, you can show why certain groups of people might be inclined toward a specific profession because of cultural tradition and environmental factors, but if you say or imply that everyone from Avalon is good at archery, that’s going to be a problem.
Finally, you can’t fix any of this via in-setting justifications. The Belgariad explains why there are inherently evil people and inherently unintelligent people by saying, “The gods did it,” which technically makes sense within the setting’s context, but that doesn’t matter. The story still supports racism, no matter its justification. It’s possible you could write a non-racist story about freeing a group of people who were forced into the service of an evil god, but you’d need to be really devoted to that premise.
So Are Evil Non-Humans That Appear Human
Once we accept that it’s wrong to portray races of actual humans as evil, we graduate to considering non-human species like orcs or Klingons. This is where much of the “evil race” discussion lives, despite the fact that “race” doesn’t really apply. Orcs, goblins, and kobolds are all clearly different species, even if fantasy authors insist they can all somehow produce viable offspring with humans.*
If you’re new to the discussion, it’s easy to imagine there’s no problem with making a fictional species inherently evil. They’re not real, they’re not even human, so how could their portrayal reflect on actual humans? Here’s the rub: they’re human enough. If your fantasy beings talk like humans, think like humans, and have a distinct culture like humans, then they meet all of our brains’ requirements for humans, even if they also have some bumpy forehead makeup. Since they appear human to our brains, everything from the previous section applies.
All of that assumes a vacuum for what specific groups your non-humans are standing in for. Most of the traditionally evil non-humans have traits that are associated with marginalized people in real life. Things like darker skin, poor living conditions, less advanced technology, shamanistic religions, and so on to infinity. It doesn’t matter if those traits are accurate portrayals of marginalized people, only that we make the association.* Once your story creates the connection between evil non-humans and actual humans, it will be read as commentary on those humans.
This can easily happen even if you don’t intend it to, especially if you’re using classic non-humans like orcs. Orcs have so much established history as an “evil race” that audiences will automatically assume orcs are evil, even if your story never directly states it. Heck, they’ll probably assume it unless you give them a strong reason not to, which is why I don’t recommend using orcs unless you’re going for a very blatant subversion of the usual tropes.
Just like last time, this isn’t a matter of justification. No matter how many paragraphs you insert explaining that goblins were created to be evil by a big mean wizard, it’ll just come off as excuses. Not only will that not help you, but it’s also a waste of space. You have better things to explain with exposition than how some god made an entire species of people that the heroes can kill without a second thought.
Even if your non-humans aren’t evil, it’s usually best to avoid making them an obvious parallel to marginalized groups from real life. Parallels to actual problems are great, but once it gets too obvious, it becomes dehumanizing instead. The orcs in Bright, for example, are designed to look and sound as much like stereotypical Black people as possible. While this film is trying to condemn racism, it ends up reinforcing the idea that people of color aren’t fully human.
Why Monsters Are Different
As the consensus shifts toward condemning the evil race trope, I see some people wondering why no one is up in arms about the vampires on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the demons on Supernatural, or the Borg on Star Trek. Those are also groups of intelligent, thinking beings that are portrayed as inherently evil, so it’s morally justifiable to kill them on sight. Are we all just being wildly inconsistent?
Nope, because despite being sapient, those creatures all fall firmly in the monster category. Buffy-style vampires don’t have a culture of their own; they are part of human culture. If they represent anything, it’s serial killers or parasitic billionaires. Supernatural’s demons are similar, except that they’re more of a cosmic force than a part of human culture. The Borg are more complicated and can change based on the episode, but at worst they’re portrayed as a single entity that forces innocent victims to become soldiers.
By default, there’s nothing to make these creatures read like their own race or culture. The same can be said of a cosmic horror story with cultists who worship a Great Old One. On its own, sacrificing victims and summoning ancient horrors doesn’t create a connection to actual religions. And since cultists can be anyone, they don’t automatically represent a marginalized group. All of these monsters, even if they’re technically human, reside far enough into the realm of fiction that you’re usually safe to use them.
Of course, monsters don’t give you a blank check that absolves all problems. If your monsters have traits that are primarily associated with a marginalized group, then your story will seem like it’s calling that group monstrous. That’s why you wouldn’t have your evil cultists read from the Torah or insist that your vampires are closeted like queer folk.*
At the same time, traditional monsters can also be made non-monstrous, if that’s the kind of story you’re going for. The show Teen Wolf is about werewolves who aren’t inherently evil; they’re just people with special powers. They even have their own culture, to a certain extent. If you want such creatures to be antagonists, you’ll need to consider reasons why groups might come into conflict other than plain old evil, and that brings us to…
Antagonistic Groups Require Care
If you don’t want to use monsters, the best way to make sure your antagonistic group isn’t problematic is by studying why groups of people antagonize each other in real life. Sometimes this is easy. You don’t need a deep understanding of humanity to see that a corporation could act evilly in the name of profit, and since corporations aren’t a marginalized group,* the risk of problematic messages is low.
The same technique can be used for other organizations like corrupt police departments, ruthless crime syndicates, or power-hungry political parties. Unless you go out of your way to give these groups a lot of marginalized traits, you’re probably fine. For instance, being in the mafia doesn’t make someone marginalized, but if most of your criminal gang is Black, it raises questions.
Things get tricky when you zoom out to the national level. Countries fight all the time in real life, and often one side is clearly in the wrong, but portraying an entire nation as evil is still not a great message. It’s even worse if one of those nations is associated with marginalization, like we talked about earlier. There are plenty of non-problematic reasons why the human kingdom and the orc republic might fight, but if the orcs are the antagonists of your story, it’ll look an awful lot like you’re playing into tropes of orcs being inherently evil.
In most cases, it’s best to have marginalized characters on both sides of the conflict. That way you’ll have room to show the complicated reasons that nations go to war without your audiences making problematic assumptions. The exception is if you’re setting out to tell a story about resisting oppression, in which case you make the marginalized group the heroes.
If this all sounds complicated, it’s because stories about big groups need to be more complicated than tales of individual heroes and villains. Otherwise, the setting will come off as flat and underdeveloped. If you want something on the easier end of the spectrum, then an evil megacorp or merchant’s guild is probably your best bet. If you want to feature the more complex conflicts that take place between groups of people, then be prepared to portray those conflicts with the nuance they deserve.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?