What Makes an Antagonistic Group Problematic?

The White Orc from the Hobbit films.

Sorry, but giving one of your evil orcs white skin doesn't fix the problem.

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

Cover art from The Guardians of the West The “West,” huh? Wonder what that’s about. Probably just coincidence.

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

Orcs from The Lord of the Rings films. What experience do you boys have with menus?

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

Buffy staking a vampire Get ’em!

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

French and English forces lining up for battle. It takes a lot to bring two sides into conflict like this.

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.

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  1. Jenn H

    And then there is the inevitable “baby orc dilemma”.

    I’m not sure how an entirely evil “race” would even work. They would need to have some positive traits in order to function as a group, especially a civilisation sized group.

    Many of these “evil” races seem to be based off raider cultures like Vikings, Huns and Mongols. Though they portray the warriors as being the entire culture, we don’t get to meet the orc civilians.

    • Dvärghundspossen

      I like how they handled the koloss in the Mistborn series. SPOILERS AHEAD

      At first, it seems like they’re a separate species made up entirely by really aggressive, more or less adult warriors, who even kill each other from time to time since they’re hard to control. The human main characters do think about how weird this is, and how there’s got to be some explanation for how they manage to reproduce, etc. Later on, it turns out they’re actually a kind of zombies created from dead soldiers via magic, so they’re not their own species.

      • Jenn H

        If an author wants to give their characters something to slaughter without feeling guilty, then undead always work. As do non-sentient robots, lab grown monsters etc.

        Some authors want things that fight like humans so there can be epic battles, but they don’t want to examine the morality of killing people. So they make things that are like people, but are not people. Unfortunately if they are too human like, you run into the problems in this article.

    • LeeEsq

      People who should know better tend to have a high tolerance for evil orcs because orcs and other goblinoid species are depicting as being ugly looking by conventional human standards. Terry Pratchett is still the only author I know whose protagonists tend to be average or below average in physical appearance. Since beauty equals goodness is a very strong brain reaction, people are willing to accept that orcs and company are inherently evil.

    • LeeEsq

      Also Vikings tend to be portrayed as universally good in fantasy novels. Its the horse based raiders inspired by the Huns and Mongols, because Vikings are good white blondes I guess, that get to be the bad guys. In his published notes Eddings states that the Angaraks were entirely based off the Huns, Goths, and Mongols.

      • Gray-Hand

        It’s hardly universal.

        The Viking type characters of house Greyjoy in Game of Thrones/Song of Ice & Fire definitely aren’t portrayed as the good guys.

        Most of the antagonists in the Last Kingdom tv show and novels are Vikings too.

        Even the protagonist characters in The Vikings tv show are barely sympathetic and morally dark grey at best.

    • Leon

      That’s the thing. We never meat the civilians.

      A good comparison would be American media. Most of the world only sees smutty trash and morons telling us how awesome they are (yet they still have to remind us what their name is).

      Most people who see americans as monsters would be surprised to meet an American in the flesh.

    • Leon

      And they would be surprised to learn that the obesity that they see as a sign of sloth and gluttony is actually something that many people had forced on them by parents who were unable to access the resources needed to make changes.

  2. Yora

    I was quickly checking the cultures in my setting in my head and felt very good about it.

    But the Iranian-styled country ruled by evil sorcerer-kings who keep their subjects enslaved through their evil priest-administrators definitely needs some reworking.
    I feel that this situation is greatly defused by also having cities in the country that are enemies of the sorcerer-kings, and to have migrants in neighboring countries who got fed up with them and went searching for a better future elsewhere. This literally took me just two or three minutes. It’s really not hard to do if you just make the effort to think about these things.

    • Jenn H

      Your setting does sound a bit like something out of the Shahnameh, so if you wanted extra inspiration you could look at that.

  3. Innocent Bystander

    The only reason for the “these people are evil/stupid because God made them like that” argument should be because of propaganda. For instance, “We Set the Dark on Fire” has government people using this justification for why they have to shut away people living near the sea using a wall, which the protagonist and her family had snuck across before the story began (if it sounds familiar, the author likely intended it). Of course there’s more reasons than that, but religion is offered as the main argument.

    • Cay Reet

      Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten – Walter Ulbricht. (Nobody intends to build a wall, said by GDR leader Walter Ulbricht days before building of the wall began.)

  4. LeeEsq

    David Eddings kind of recognized the mistake he made with the Angaraks by having the Nadrak Angaraks join the good guys and have the Thulls be seen as victims rather than evil. He further corrected the entire evil race thing by providing some theological justification in having the Angaraks has having the misfortune of being selected by an insane evil God when the Gods were dividing up the human tribes, That doesn’t make everything all well and good but it provides a lot more of an explanation on why the Angaraks ended up the way they did. It was the Gorim, Murgos, and to something of an extent the Malloreon Angaraks that were the truly evil ones.

  5. Tony

    “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.”

    Yep. Some good examples of what NOT to do are the cultists in Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” and Lolth’s followers in D&D. In both cases, the cultists mostly have dark skin: because of Lovecraft’s explicit white supremacism in the former case, and because most of Lolth’s followers are drow in the latter case. Along with the racist vibe, drow are also aggressively matriarchal, which carries a double whammy of sexual objectification (since Lolth’s female cultists tend to dress in dominatrix outfits) and a “female rule is dangerous” subtext.

    In terms of evil human nations, an example of what not to do is Calormen from CS Lewis’s Narnia books. They’re an Arabian Nights-style empire who practise slavery, worship an evil chief god, and generally represent everything opposed to Narnia’s Christian-inspired virtues. The only good Calormenes end up rejecting their heritage in favour of worshipping the Narnian messiah Aslan.

    Also, the caption on the image at the top — “giving one of your evil orcs white skin doesn’t fix the problem” — is accurate. If anything, the Hobbit movies traded racism for ableism in that case, since Azog the pale orc is a classic example of the Evil Albino trope.

    • El Suscriptor Justiciero

      “It would be innacurate to describe Lovecraft as a man with issues. It’s more like he was a bundle of issues, shambling around in a roughly bipedal approximation of a man. Chronically depressed, hypersensitive to criticism, almost certainly agoraphobic, prone to horrible nightmares and nervous breakdowns, and thoroughly racist even by the standards of the time.”

      As for the Drow, remember that they were created by the same authors who created the Alignment system, and who were convinced that becoming a woman was supposed to be a curse.

      • Tony

        Now I’m morbidly curious. Where does the curse of becoming a woman appear in D&D lore?

        Also out of curiosity, what issues do you have with the alignment system?

        • Yora

          An infamous “classic” cursed item in D&D is/was a magic belt that permanently turns men into women and women into men when put on the first time.

          “Haha, that man is now a woman. So funny!”

          I think it has been quietly phased out from the books for decades now, but it’s memory still exist to this day, now more as the “perfect sexual reassignment artifact” that is greatly thought after by transsexuals.

          How times have changed.

      • Cay Reet

        Ah, a friend of Overly Sarcastic Productions.

        Yes, Lovecraft had a huge bundle of issues to unpack, but he did a good job with creating a new type of horror – even if a lot of it might have been based merely on his own fears.

    • Elda King

      I would say that “cultist” in itself is a problematic trope. In part because of the influence of Lovecraft, that not only made his cultists people of color but associated all the evil elements of the cults to “primitive” cultures and their rituals. And his stories had very racist _themes_ – about how interbreeding made people less human, how Europeans were corrupted by their contact with “lesser” people, a lot about evil being somehow hereditary.

      It is kind of hard to unpack Lovecraftian stuff, and while I think that in explicitly Lovecraftian works it is ok to have cultists (as a reference to a known work) I wouldn’t say that they are a good target for “evil group” if you are looking to be progressive.

      But perhaps more importantly, “cults” are also a way to refer to “lesser” religions. If you are not Christian, or from some other recognizable organized church, your beliefs are not a religion deserving of respect; they are occult rituals, secret cults, worship dark entities, have exotic and mysterious practices. This is a problem because there are plenty of minority religions that are painted in much the same light (of sorcery, superstition), religions that are practiced in secret due to actual persecution, and a millennial effort to characterize gods from rival groups as demons.

      This wasn’t given much focus in the article, but painting other religions as evil is also deeply problematic. We had plenty of religious wars, after all. And no, “that God is actually evil” doesn’t solve it, because that is exactly the argument people made in real life. But with cults, it has the twist that most people don’t even realize the relationship to real world marginalized religions.

      • Bubbles

        (Disclosure of my personal biases: I’m nonreligious and tend to have a negative view of religions in general).

        While I understand where you’re coming from, I don’t think your arguments are entirely correct. After all, in principle at least, I think many would agree that some ideologies-in-general can, in fact, be considered evil (fascism being just one example). And in my opinion at least, religions are subsets of ideologies, so if a specific religion happens to have similar traits, I think that you could consider it evil as well. It’s true that people might have said “Their God is evil” in real life, but it’s one thing when it’s just people saying that and another when there’s a world with an actual observable deity/deities who are clearly doing evil things.

        What you do have to be especially aware of is how portrayals of religion can easily tie into stereotypes, especially about race. Also, religions generally have many different factions, so its entirely possible that even if the original religion had morally negative elements, there are some groups that ignore, reinterpret, or change those elements and therefore aren’t really “evil.” (I would argue that this is true of many, if not all, real-life religions. Note that many people who are religious would also agree that there are morally negative elements or at least things that could be interpreted as such in the original versions of their religions.)

        As for the original article, I think it’s mostly fine. I think that it goes a little too far, in two ironically somewhat opposite places though. One is saying that even if there is a good in-universe justification, it should never be used. I personally would argue for allowing any logically possible thing in fiction.

        With that said, I would definitely agree that even if justified in-universe, an all-evil “race” (and any Planet of Hats, in fact) is still extremely overused, so I would recommend (not absolutely command) against using one. Also, even if there is an in-universe justification and the group does not share traits with real-life oppressed people, it is entirely possible that bigots will still consider the work as support. However, bigots have been known to do that with nearly anything (even things meant entirely to condemn their views), as they aren’t thinking rationally. Meanwhile, it probably will not turn non-bigots into bigots.

        The other place it goes too far is in saying that “monsters” can safely be used as always evil. I would disagree, as even if their general portrayal as always evil doesn’t have anything to do with real-life bigotry (which I personally have some doubts on), it still often makes no internal sense if they’re intelligent and have free will. If you’re arguing that there can be good in-universe reasons for them to all be evil/antagonistic, there might be some truth to that, as I stated above. But if there aren’t such reasons, they shouldn’t all be evil (or all be anything).

        • Elda King

          Oh, for sure religious ideologies can be evil. And it makes for an interesting plot when you explore the morality of religious beliefs.

          My point is that “cults”, as opposed to “churches”, refer to marginalized groups and reproduce real world religious bigotry. So painting those in particular as evil is a problem.

          And also, those often go unnoticed. Many traits we associate with “Lovecraftian cults” were in fact traits of African-American or Inuit practices.

          • AIdan Chappuis

            “Cult” has definitely been used to delegitimize the religious beliefs of marginalized groups, but that’s not its only meaning. I would argue that “cult” is properly applied to things like Scientology, Heaven’s Gate, and the People’s Temple [i.e. predatory, manipulative, potentially deadly, often gain traction in the upper echelons of society. What another commenter describes as “white collar powerful old white men”]. That conception has fewer problematic associations, and also fits in way better with many fantasy settings. For example, I’m currently running a d&d campaign focused on fighting basically a fantasy equivalent of Scientology, which controls members through blackmail and exploits its members for the benefit of the leadership and a few politically connected individuals and has enough political pull to be a problem.

    • Yora

      Most cultists in media that I have come across in media in my lifetime seem to have been white collar powerful old white men, with their demon worship representing their moral corruption and disdain for others.

      Though I won’t rule out that this archetype evolved as a satirical comment on older cultist archetypes.

      • Cay Reet

        Yep, most cultists I’ve seen in media also seem to be white old men with power and money (and a few white women, old or young, usually with money).

        It might have evolved with the idea that cultists usually worship demons or dark gods to preserve their power – so they need to be powerful in the first place.

        • Elda King

          I was talking more of the new-ish (Lovecraft and 20th century) cultist archetypes, but for sure there is also the old Faustian pact and satanism. But in those cases, it is still white men that deviate from the faith of the elites. Heck, sometimes it is explicitly a story of how white people are corrupted by “evil religions”.

          I guess in older fiction, satanism is less explicitly about native religious faiths and more a mix of old Middle Eastern pantheons and various European pagan practices.

          • Leon

            There’s also the Cult of Jesus of Nazareth.

  6. Dave L

    > explain with exposition than how some god made an entire species of people that the heroes can kill without a second thought.

    That is Redcloak’s motivation in Order of the Stick. The gods created the goblin races to be evil specifically so good guys could kill them and gain XP. So paladins could kill goblin children, and still be paladins

    Redcloak’s god, The Dark One, plans to use a deicidal monster to force the other gods to level the playing field and give goblinoids a chance

  7. SunlessNick

    I see some people wondering why no one is up in arms about the vampires on Buffy the Vampire Slayer

    I do remember people calling Buffy a Nazi. (But only when it came to human-looking vampires – none of them ever extended their criticism to Spike’s genocide of the entire Turon-Han people).

    That’s why you wouldn’t have your evil cultists read from the Torah or insist that your vampires are closeted like queer folk.* [* Or I guess you would, if you were a writer for True Blood, and that would be a real mess]

    True Blood is an interesting case in this regard. In the novels, the “parallels” between vampires and gay people were deliberate propoganda by the vampires designed to obfuscate the very good reasons humans might have to be wary of them.

    • Yora

      I don’t remember Buffy ever killing any vampire who was not clearly implied to be a serial killer.

      • Disa

        Buffy waited by graves for vampires to rise. She often staked them before they were all the way out of the ground.

        • SunlessNick

          However, ever single vampire we see come up out of the ground without being stakes is immediately happy to be a murderer (and they are *not* overwhelmed by bloodlust, because we see one emerge from a grave without Buffy spotting him, and heading in the other direction when he realises she’s armed and might be able to defend herself).

  8. Leon

    The main criticisms against non humans is that they are not white and not not Christian-like.
    That gives a very small part of the human color spectrum (which n itself is quite limited), and a very small number of tropes to build a fictional religion from (the world is vast and varied and wonderful and Christianity is only a tiny part of it).
    Making all antagonists white Christians would become very repetitive vary quickly.


    What about non humanoid people, would a space based race of octopi be problematic in any way?

    • Cay Reet

      One big problem with make a whole race (humanoid or not, white, black, green, or polkadotted) evil is that it goes against reality. A race (or species) is made up of individuals (Seven of Nine to a degree proves that there’s individualism left even in the Borg, although it’s suppressed as long as they’re connected to the collective) and individuals are never all the same (even clones would, most likely, develop personality over time as they experience life).

      While you could argue that your race of space-travelling octopi has certain traits which make them unpleasant to be around (like eating humans), there might be octopi who do not want to eat humans. There are examples of vampires who do not drain humans for blood (Nick Knight, Louis from Anne Rice’s vampire novels, Angel while he’s in possession of his soul, and probably quite some I don’t have on top of my mind right now). There are werewolves who will try to not even hunt animals when shifting (like Angua from the Discworld novels). There are helpful dragons every now and then. Even Baba Yaga (know for happily snacking on unlucky humans stumbling over her hut) has her moments of being helpful.

      The concept of ‘this race is evil’ is flawed by itself, because the race is made up of individuals and not all of them will act the same way. It is, at best, an excuse for someone else to kill members of that race at will.

      • Yora

        Ultimately, racism is the believe that people’s behavior is determined by their ethnicity, and consequently that you basically all there is to know about people based on their ethnicity. No need to try to understand individuals or observe what they do. They are all the same.

        Even if your fantasy world only includes orcs, klingons, and octopus men, when you say they can all be judged simply by the fact that they are orcs, klingons, and octopus men, which are all evil and should be killed, you do make the implication that the same approach also applied to human ethnic groups.

        Racism is not about hating specific people. It’s the mindset that you can judge people as a group and not individuals.

    • Jenn H

      I think the problem there is figuring out how/why the whole species is evil, and what evil even means in this context.

      There are plenty of species that humans struggle to live alongside, such as large predators. We have to build big fences between them and us to keep everyone safe. Then there are those we would never want to co-exist with, such as parasites. It is possible to imagine a sapient species whose biology would put them in conflict with humans, such as hyper intelligent parasites. From a human perspective such creatures could be seen as evil.

      There is nothing intrinsic about the lifestyle of orcs, goblins, kobolds etc that would put them in conflict with humans, except for the fact that they are similar enough to us to be competing for the same land and resources. The result are races that seem to be evil for the sake of evil, rather than doing evil things for understandable reasons.

      Artificially created things can plausibly be evil for the sake of evil if they were created like that. Being evil is often detrimental to the survival of both individuals and groups. But if it was easy for the entity that made them to create more, than it wouldn’t be a problem for them.

      Antagonistic octopi could work, but they need a better motive than just evil. Maybe they like to eat humans, maybe humans used to eat them and now they want to exterminate us. And they would need to have some positive aspects to them in order for their society to function.

      • Cay Reet

        Even sentient parasites aren’t evil – they aren’t going to kill humans because they’re evil, but because they have to in order to survive.

        You’re right, of course. Behaviour has a reason, so if the behaviour seems evil to humans, that doesn’t mean it’s evil by itself.

    • Leon

      I was talking about ENEMY races/species/genetically modified families/etc.
      I didn’t say anything about EVIL.

    • Dinwar

      Orson Scott Card dealt with this to some extent. (Note that I’m limiting this to specifically the topic at hand–I’m not a fan, and am fully aware of his open bigotry.) Basically, he divided sentient species interactions into four categories, one of which was, essentially, species which are fundamentally incompatible with one another. Their psychology, physiology, reproductive strategy, or some other aspect is such that peaceful interaction is not possible.

      An example of this is the xenomorph from the “Alien” franchise. It requires hosts to reproduce, and uses humans when it gets the chance. We humans tend to react poorly to being used as food/resources in such a direct way. Ergo, in any situation where a xenomorph and a human are forced to interact, one of them is going to kill the other; no common ground is possible. This contrasts with Predators—they are alien and often hostile, but humans can find common ground and interact with them in ways other than purely destructive.

      Demons are another example. In most settings demons are entirely destructive, and while interactions may not be hostile in the short-term, in the long-term either the human or the demon always suffers (not always dies, but sometimes that’s worse).

      Note that the important factor here is biology, NOT psychology. It’s not that these things choose to harm humans; they can’t choose not to, any more than we can choose to not breath. Ergo convincing the creatures to not harm humans simply isn’t an option, even if you can find ways to communicate with them.

      It’s hard to set up a situation where interactions are necessarily and always destructive, but if you can pull it off it gives you a justification to label the entire group evil.

  9. Fay Onyx

    “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.”

    In addition to being devoted, you need to have a good understanding of the White Savior Trope and avoid it.

    • Yora

      The Last Samurai is the story of an American man following a Japanese Rebel leader into battle and observing his deeds. Nothing wrong with that.

      But the posters still said “Tom Cruise – The Last Samurai” with Tom Cruise’s face taking up the whole space. No visible mention or depiction of Ken Watanabe.

      • Cay Reet

        I wouldn’t necessarily list The Last Samurai as the go-to example for the White Saviour trope.

        Basically, the White Saviour is the first white person to go to a group of people who are not white, see a long-lasting problem, and solve it – suggesting that the other people simply don’t have the necessary intellect/skill to do it themselves, which is highly racist.

      • SunlessNick

        Furthermore, he still becomes master of all their skills over the course of a summer, is the last survivor of the charge who the army all bow to, and is the one pleading the case of the samurai to the Emperor at the end.

  10. Adam Reynolds

    One idea that I think has some merit is to make the antagonists essentially fascists. The problem with this is that it is far too easy to make it look cool, a trap Star Wars largely fell into with the Empire and marketing, something Lindsey Ellis notes in her excellent video on the ideology of the First Order.

    Also, anyone who wants to do this absolutely needs to read Umberto Eco’s essay on Ur-Fascism, and the nature by which it changes to fit whatever culture it occurs within. American fascism looks very different than Nazis because of the different underlying culture.

    • Cay Reet

      Fascism has its own problems and, again, it’s not a solution for painting a whole race or people as evil.

      Fascist regimes always also have citizens who do not buy the ideas they peddle and who are not actively helping them (or even, to a degree, fighting them).

      Fascist organisations work better, because an organisation picks its members and they would only go for those who at least very successfully pretend to agree with the ideals.

  11. Black Flower

    Are The Fair Folk/The Unseelie Court racist or problematic tropes?

    • Jenn H

      Depends on how they are portrayed. Fae that are very human like (both in terms of behaviour and appearance) but are always cruel/evil could be problematic.

      But fae that are more like monsters than people are less likely to be an issue if they are always antagonistic.

      They are often shown also as having traits associated with privilege, such as being beautiful and wealthy. Fae are often far more powerful than humans as well, rather than being mooks.

    • Yora

      I think the whole point about them is that they are strange supernatural beings that look similar to humans, which tricks people into trusting them more.
      It’s a case where the outside appearance conceals the true nature of a threat. Humanoid spirits certainly can be used to make racist implications, but I think the risk of that happening by accident is far lower.

  12. StyxD

    This article made me wonder: how problematic would it be to portray cultures as evil?

    Specifically, the example I have in mind with this question are Spartans. While Spartans are somewhat glorified in western culture, I have a feeling that if a culture like that appeared in a fictional work with no historical precedent, they’d be considered almost cartoonishly evil.

    Or should Spartans be considered more of an example of an evil ideology, or an evil ruling class (considering helots made up most of the population)?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I would say that the “Spartans” meaning the slave-holding elite would be more of an ideology than an entire culture, similarly to the American South’s plantation owners. A very evil group by most standards, but only part of their culture. Although it could certainly be argued that the Spartans and Helots were actually separate cultures entirely.

  13. Michael

    I’ve seen a lot of this “fantastic racism”. Perhaps the most stark was in a series I once liked, Redwall. It has lots of anthropomorphic animals in a medieval-style setting. They can be easily divided into good and evil species, with only a few exceptions on both sides. It wasn’t really something that I noticed at first, being a child at the time. However, in one book the author really made the fact explicit. A baby ferret (they’re one of the evil species) is adopted by good beasts yet grows up to be an attempted murderer and thief even so. Bear in mind he’s had no contact with his species or other “vermin” (as evil beasts were called) since infancy. This book makes clear that it’s all in the blood though. He’s even given a name that’s an anagram for “evil” and “vile” because one person is convinced of it from the start (they’re right of course). Even after he dies saving his adopted mother, rather than affirming her belief there is good in him (she was the only one who maintained it) she’s convinced he really was evil all along. Mind you, these books are intended for children (though some rather grisly violence is present in many books). None of the other books are this stark on the racism, but really. Even as a child that was disturbing for me. I couldn’t view them the same way again. Yeah, the author likely didn’t intend for any real world racist message (I hope), but what the hell was that about?

    • Tifa

      That’s one reason why I’ve only read two Redwall books…

    • Dvärghundspossen

      In Jack Kirby’s New Gods, Scott was born to good gods but grew up with the evil ones, whereas Orion was born to evil gods and grew up with the good ones. Interestingly, they BOTH turned out heroes.

  14. Jem

    The only time you would ever portray an entire country/nation as 100% evil would be if you’re planning on doing a plot twist (and they aren’t actually). That being said, you have to pull it off well.

  15. Jem

    aren’t actually evil*

  16. Kieran

    The idea of “freeing a people from service to an evil god” sounds really novel, actually, but there’d have to be several caveats.
    1) the protagonist seeking to free the enslaved people would have to be a member of the group enslaved by the evil god, as opposed to part of a better-off group (because if she isn’t, it’s a White Savior story)
    2) Heavy emphasis would have to be put on the aspects of service that are non-consensual and are widely regarded to be unpleasant by the majority, as opposed to having the majority consenting to serve the evil god the way the drow consensually serve Lolth.
    3) Heavy emphasis would also have to be put on the lack of rights people generally have under the system (perhaps speaking the evil god’s name in vain is punishable by a life sentence in the mines)
    4) The humanity and general goodness of the people must also be shown despite the evilness of the god. (I.e., there are loving husbands and good dads in this society, who are not “exceptions to the rule”)
    5) any groups who are better-off than the enslaved people must be not be white or the lightest-skinned in the setting. Also, the enslaved people should not be brown or the darkest-skinned in the setting. Doing this causes the story to immediately become a white supremacist screed.
    6) There should be no Order of the Stick-like situation where the better-off group considers it acceptable to kill the enslaved group despite clear evidence of sapience and goodness.(That comic is good in that it acknowledges the problems with that, but it’s not a good situation for this story) Both groups should have as little contact as possible prior to the protagonist’s rebellion, and should each have misconceptions about the other.
    7) The better-off groups should not directly contribute to the oppression of the enslaved group in general. ESPECIALLY if the better-off groups aren’t white and the enslaved group is the lightest-skinned in-story. Any and all oppression should be entirely the evil god’s fault.
    The better-off groups’ role in liberating the enslaved people should be limited. While they can help the protagonist, the protagonist should do the majority of the work involved in liberating her people.
    9) The enslaved groups’ religious system should also NOT be coded to resemble any real-world religion (a.k.a., Judaism, Islam, etc.)
    10) The protagonist’s hands should be atrocity-free or as atrocity-free as possible. She should not relish, say, whipping subordinates for minor infractions. In fact, she should already start the story with several misgivings about the evil god’s system, and should do her best to be a moral person despite the horrible system.
    There are probably more caveats, but those are the ones I thought of immediately.

    • Kieran

      11) Bouncing off of #10, the protagonist should not also be totally loyal to the evil god until some super cool man from the better-off group teaches her the error of her ways. She CAN have a guide if she ever explores the world of the better-off people, but that guide should not brag about the superiority of their culture. The protagonist must discover the situation of the better-off group for herself, and come to the appropriate conclusions BY HERSELF.
      12) The protagonist should not be kidnapped by the guide or taken to the better-off people “for her own good”. Rather, she should have a believable reason to visit the better-off people, most likely on the orders of the evil deity.
      13) Once the rebellion proper starts, priests, soldiers, and/or civilians who still align with the evil deity should not be considered fair game to kill. Remember, the protagonist used to be like them, and the people are ENSLAVED to the evil god. The good guys should have an appropriate amount of angst about killing the loyal members of the enslaved faction, and try to avoid violence against them whenever possible.
      14) All of the horrible things in the enslaved people’s culture should be DIRECTLY tied to the evil deity, as opposed to just being “their culture”. They should also have a history, where, prior to their enslavement to be the evil god, their culture was relatively positive and/or benign.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That is a really good list to work from, Kieran, thanks for posting it!

      • Kieran

        Thanks you. And you’re welcome.
        Define “work from” though.
        Because I kind of feel like these caveats are really necessary in order to avoid making the premise racist.

        • Cay Reet

          You still need to work on your world-building and plotting from this. Even if you keep to all the caveats, you need to build a world where this evil cult can exist and grow strong and you need to construct a throughline and plot lines to build a story from. So these caveats are a list to check, they do not make the story already – the story needs more work.

  17. Amniote

    How inhuman should an evil-seeming sapient be? Would a kleptoparasitic lizard be far removed enough from humans that it would be OK?

    • Cay Reet

      There’s a difference between one evil being and a race which is generally evil. There’s evil humans, there can be evil dwarves, elves, orcs, or space-travelling octopuses. That’s okay, that can happen, since all those humans, dwarves, etc. are individuals and, as sentient beings, have the choice to do by the laws and morals or ignore them. The problem is when you use a human or humanoid race which is completely evil.

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