Commentary

Why You Should Avoid Bigoted Heroes Who Learn Better

In JJ Abram's TV series Almost Human, John mistreats his android partner, Dorian, who is black, before John grows to respect him. The show was canceled after one season.

Some storytelling tropes are written with the best of intentions but still lead to disaster. Because we see this in editing more than often we’d like, I want to explain what this trope is and why it does so much damage.

Stories are using this trope if all of the following are true:

  • They feature a privileged protagonist. Generally that means the main character is a white guy, but any important protagonist who enjoys a higher status than other people in the setting qualifies.
  • The protagonist unfairly treats people who are less privileged. He might overtly hate those people, or he might just dismiss or demean them in subtle ways.
  • Those people belong to a real-world group that is underprivileged. They may be literally part of that group, or they may just appear to be a parallel for that group. If the protagonist hates elves, but the elves he mistreats happen to be women or people of color, that counts.
  • The protagonist learns that his behavior is wrong. He has a growth arc where he learns to appreciate less-privileged people and treat them with respect. By the end of the story, he usually apologizes.

Looks like a worthwhile story, doesn’t it? It has an important lesson, and isn’t that what stories are for? But as Admiral Ackbar would say, “It’s a trap!”

The Story Will Have Narrow Appeal

In Star Trek: Enterprise, Captain Archer hates Vulcans, and the one Vulcan serving under him is also one of the few women on board.

For your story to succeed, your protagonist must be likable. A likable protagonist will pull some people through your story even when everything else is a mess. An unlikable protagonist will not only annoy your audience but also reduce their investment in the plot. It will cause many people to discontinue the story even if everything else is done well.

You might say, “But a likable character should have flaws to overcome!” And that’s absolutely true. The majority of people don’t want to read about perfect characters. But which flaw you choose for your character is critical. You want a flaw that hinders your character while keeping them likable. If the flaw is too despicable, the audience won’t want your protagonist to overcome it. They’ll want your protagonist to die in a garbage fire.

Now, can you guess which audience members would want a privileged character to overcome their bigotry?

If you guessed “privileged people,” then you guessed right! In particular, people who have not personally experienced the kind of oppression your protagonist dishes out will feel more sympathetic to your character, and people who have experienced that specific type of oppression, or have just experienced a lot of oppression in general, will hate your character. If your protagonist is a white guy who acts bigoted toward black women, your audience is mostly limited to white guys.

Not all white guys though. Sure, most privileged people will like your protagonist at first, but then that protagonist will learn how bigotry is bad. When that happens, many of the privileged audience members will get angry and jump ship. They don’t want to be told to be less bigoted; they want to keep the advantages they have over others.

Who’s left? A privileged choir. Stories like this are told primarily by guilty privileged people for guilty privileged people. Sure, it’s possible your audience will learn a thing or two. But what they learn may not be good.

The Story Will Have Problematic Messages

In Almost Human, the audience is supposed to sympathize with John while he continuously abuses Dorian, the kind android partner who is completely in John’s power.

Just as it’s critical for the protagonist to be likable, it’s also critical for them to fulfill a central role in the story. They have to be the one to make important choices and solve most problems. They need to be central to resolving the story’s important conflicts. Their character arc must be front and center.

If your protagonist is going to express bigotry and then overcome it, that means your story will also need characters who are the target of that bigotry. Your protagonist will need to exhibit their big flaw by being mean to those characters, and then the story will need more character interactions that will convince the protagonist to change their mind. However, characters who are targeted by bigotry will be side characters less central to the story.

Combined, these two factors create an astonishing number of problematic tropes. Your good storytelling instincts will be turned against you, leading you to send terrible messages like these.

Underprivileged people should accept mistreatment.

In most of these stories, the protagonist learns to stop being bigoted because the people they target are super nice or even obedient despite being mistreated. It’s realistic for less privileged people to be put in a position where they can do nothing against a bigot who has power over them, but putting it in a story can still do damage. Depicting a male protagonist being an ass to his kind female colleague only upholds the double standard for men and women’s behaviors.

Underprivileged people exist to serve privileged people.

Because the protagonist is the most important character and their arc relies on interactions with less privileged characters, the underprivileged characters spend most of their time as storytelling servants. They give the protagonist plot clues and teach the protagonist life lessons while never doing anything for themselves.

Basic decency is praiseworthy.

Stories with a bigoted protagonist set the bar really low. Abusive behavior becomes the norm; simply refraining from abuse starts to look decent. Treating less privileged characters with respect becomes saintly. The audience is soon expected to admire the protagonist for having a black best friend. These low standards only reinforce bigotry in real life.

Underprivileged people can’t solve their own problems.

As I mentioned earlier, a protagonist needs to be central to solving the story’s biggest conflicts. So what kind of conflicts does a story about overcoming bigotry have? If the story stays in theme, then the largest conflicts will often involve less privileged people overcoming their oppression, perhaps overthrowing their oppressors. When the protagonist swoops in to save the day, it steals the agency of the underprivileged people in the story and gives the impression that they needed a privileged person in order to succeed.

Mistreated people should forgive their oppressors.

The end of a character’s arc usually involves the character being tested, proving their worth, and then being rewarded for growing as a person. The natural resolution for a bigot is to apologize, do something to make up for what they did, and then receive forgiveness and recognition from the people they wronged. Except this ending only increases the burden on less privileged people in real life. No one should be pressured to forgive someone who targeted them, and anyone who has harmed vulnerable people should not feel entitled to forgiveness, even if they didn’t mean to do harm.

The result of all these tropes is a work that exploits less privileged people to serve a privileged audience. If your intent is to teach people to be less bigoted, that’s the last thing you want. Don’t worry; you can turn it around.

You Have Better Options

Zootopia uses analogy and intersectionality to teach lessons about bigotry while avoiding the problems that can come with it.

My list of qualifiers for this trope was pretty long. To steer clear, you just have to stop following some of them. The more you break, the safer you are. In fact, there’s some wonderful stories out there that have similar themes and teach similar lessons by not quite fitting this trope. Here’s how it’s done.

Don’t focus specifically on bigotry.

Instead of having your protagonist be specifically a bigot, make them a selfish jerk. You’ll still need to be careful to avoid likability problems, but you’ll be less likely to hit close to home or exploit less privileged people. The TV show The Good Place did this to great effect. They made their protagonist likable by putting her in a situation where she can’t do much damage, and if she doesn’t shape up, she’ll be in hot water. The show’s comical tone also helps lighten the impact of her bad deeds.

Use analogies instead of real life.

Make your protagonist bigoted against a group that has no real-life equivalent. Be careful here; it’s easy to create a noticeable parallel by accident. If you have humans or human-like races in your story, make sure that less privileged characteristics like darker skin appear in the privileged group your protagonist belongs to and that the primary characters who are the target of that bigotry do not have those characteristics. Do not apply accents, clothing, or mannerisms associated with real underprivileged groups to your mistreated characters.

Embrace intersectionality.

Make your protagonist part of a less privileged group themself. Your protagonist will express their own bigotry even as they suffer from the bigotry of others. With a less privileged protagonist, your story won’t be about someone powerful beating up on someone vulnerable. Not only that, but you’ll have new tools to bring about a change of heart. Once your protagonist understands that they are doing to others what others have done to them, they’ll start rethinking their ways.


I can’t say this trope should never be done in any circumstances. However, I can say that if you weren’t aware of the pitfalls, you should run as fast as you can in the other direction.

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Comments

  1. Yora

    In the academic field of intercultural communication I encountered the position that you always have to be super careful in working with stereotypes in any way. When you want to make any point about the wrongness of treating people badly based on stereotypes, you are still exposing your audience to that stereotype. Even if you end your lesson that treating people differently because of stereotypical aspects, you still are transmitting the message that the stereotype is true, just not a reason to treat someone poorly.

    It’s a huge minefield with endless potential to backfire. Implying that underprevileged people are unable to help themselves is one example of that.

    • Kody C.

      I’m studying communication as well, but I didn’t get as much time with intercultural communication as I would have liked. That’s a really good point you raise there, though, and I’m glad you shared it.

  2. Nathaniel

    Although I agree there are issues with how Enterprise handles prejudice, I’m not sure it entirely meets all the criteria for the trope. If anything, the Vulcans are the more privileged group; the humans are lashing out because they feel underprivileged and held back by the Vulcans. It’s prejudice mixed with the kind of disdain a selfish child has for an overbearing parent—which doesn’t excuse it, but at least minimally justifies the humans’ otherwise unfair attitudes toward the Vulcans.

    It’s true that the only Vulcan on Archer’s ship is a woman, but there are several Vulcans featured throughout the show, the vast majority of them men, and Archer is even less cordial toward them than he is toward T’Pol. I feel like that makes the trope’s third qualifier a bit less applicable, also because T’Pol’s status as second officer places a woman in a leading role and in a position of power—which, to my privileged white guy sensibilities, takes priority over her being the object of an in-universe prejudice unrelated to gender against a diverse group of people.

    That being said, there are absolutely better ways the conflict and its subsequent lessons could have been handled, particularly in a Star Trek series. Zootopia really is a superb example of how to do this right.

    • Janet

      T’Pol is actually first officer. Trip was originally going to be XO but got bumped out by the Vulcans. She’s a huge contradiction though. Yes she’s in a powerful position but some people in the audience take her less seriously because she’s in a catsuit.

      • Nathaniel

        My mistake—I conflated “second in command” and “first officer” for some reason. Fair point about the catsuit, though; despite the show’s attempts at getting Archer and Tucker undressed periodically (and to a lesser extent, the rest of the crew), T’Pol does seem like designated eye candy first, first officer second, at least at the beginning.

  3. SunlessNick

    Do not apply accents, clothing, or mannerisms associated with real underprivileged groups to your mistreated characters.

    Attaching the bigots leaves a sour taste in my mouth as well.

    • SunlessNick

      Sorry, that should read “Attaching them to the bigots…”

  4. Tony

    In addition to Zootopia, another good example of a fantastical analogy is Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

  5. Sam Beringer

    I think another thing that made Zootopia work was that Judy’s bigotry was the slur-spewing, sneering down at others, kind of bigotry. It was innocently insensitive; she genuinely thought she was open-minded and past prejudices. It wasn’t until Nick calls her out on it that she realizes her bigotry.

    • Keiran

      It helps that she was also a victim of bigotry herself. Her behaviour doesn’t get a free pass because she also faces difficulties.

  6. StyxD

    I can also think of a more utilitarian reason to avoid these kinds of stories.

    When you introduce a protagonist that displays obvious bigotry towards some group, the audience will see the “redemption” coming a mile away. The conflict is completely deflated, because we know what the right choice is and we know that the protagonist will make it (or else they wouldn’t be a protagonist).

    Meanwhile, more subtle cases like Zootopia work by goading the audience into accepting the protagonist’s view, so that at the end they feel the impact of their change as well.

  7. Prince Infidel

    As man of color myself I personally agree with MOST of this. Honestly I was with Chris until the last section about better options. I’ve seen the examples of the approaches she recommends & they’ve mostly been muddled messes. I include Zootopia in that as it swings back & forth between what group is meant to be oppressed & reinforces the idea that some groups should be feared.

    Honestly, the only solution I’ve ever seen to the problems brought up by the article that works is to not have the bigot be the protagonist. If the protagonist is underprivileged, the author be able to address the issues they want without bothering to try to make a “lovable bigot”.

    • Nicks

      I think it all boils down to the original message “don’t have an unlikable character”. He/she being a racist is just one of the many traits of unlikability.
      Mythcreants had a lot of posts about not using sexism, racist, homophobia, etc, in stories but the thing is: those exist and will probably exist for a long time. I get that writing fiction is not making a documentary but this “history washing” perturbs me.

      • Cay Reet

        If you take a closer look at those posts, you might realize that the real message is ‘don’t use them just because you think ‘that’s how it was’ in your stories.’

        If the main character facing sexism, racism, or homophobia is the basic premise of your story, you will, of course, have other characters display it. But if you just think you need to throw in two characters who tell the main character that ‘women are too stupid to learn how to write’ or ‘all black people are criminals,’ because you think that’s how it was at that time, you’re not really doing anything for your story.

        If bigotry or sexism or any other kind of predjudice is important for the story – us it. Don’t just use it for a flavour.

        • Nicks

          I get that the main point is to have a character that is not unbearably annoying (nobody will want to read the story) but I feel (personal opinion) that more and more discussing racism (or homophobia, sexim, etc.) is equated to being racist. I think that is a dangerous path.
          It is like Harry Potter, nobody talks about Voldemort but he was right there all along getting strong.
          There are some many topics that were written so far ahead of their time (especially scifi) but still resonate today that I think making a subject taboo is missing an opportunity to explore ideas.

          • Prince Infidel

            My point wasn’t “don’t talk about prejudice” or “never have prejudiced people in your story”. It was that we don’t need to have those people being the protagonists. These issues are better served by utilizing the perspectives of the underprivileged rather than the privileged.
            We don’t need another story about how racists & misogynists experience the world. They’ve already told us millions of times in millions of ways.

    • Kroz

      I personally disagree and think that Zootopia’s strength is that it shows bigotry isn’t limited to one group. The whole point of the film is that we as human beings are all bigoted to a certain extent. It’s not just white males, females, etc. that are bigoted. It’s the whole human race. Just because one group is in power (carnivores) doesn’t mean that bigotry against them is justified. Genocide is not a white concept. It is a flawed human concept. It happens all over the globe. It happened in Germany, Russia, Africa, Asia, the Americas. That is the power of Zootopia and that’s why so many people love it.

      It’s not a movie about a single oppressive group. It’s about us as people being oppressive in general.

      The movie shows tons of different forms of discrimination. Judy Hopps isn’t discriminated against because she’s a woman (there are clearly women officers) but based on her physical abilities. Gideon is discriminated against by Judy by his past behavior. We have the typical stereotype (heh heh) prejudice against Nick. You have the audience not even thinking that the villain could be a sheep until enough clues are shown. You even have positive stereotypes being shown with the Yak assuming the Elephant had the best memory but he is the one that does. It also goes into the idea that just because someone doesn’t dress nice (once again with the Yak) and has bad hygiene that their mental ability is lower. You have Judy thinking that the crime boss has to be a big scary carnivore polar bear. He’s a vole. We assume that Flash is slow, yet at the end they pull him over for speeding.

      The film is FILLED with prejudice and bias. It’s not just Judy. The film further destroys the ability to easily divide the groups into black & White, male & female. The carnivores are the minority but they are the ones in power. This makes the movie relate-able. All groups can relate because we are all biased and bigoted in our own ways.

      • Prince Infidel

        You’re ironically illustrating why the flaws with Zootopia’s presentation of bigotry with your own argument.

        Racism doesn’t go both ways. White people aren’t oppressed because of their race. Just as men aren’t oppressed because of their gender. Presenting the problem as going both ways is factually & morally wrong.

        • Cay Reet

          I didn’t actually read it that way. I read it as ‘there’s more than one form of bigotry.’ Racism is bigotry, but not every bigotry is racism. Bigotry can be thinking that ‘all white people have it easy’ without oppressing them for being white. Bigotry in Zootopia comes in many different flavours, just as bigotry in real life.

          If you’re white, you might still be oppressed for being a woman, for being gay, for being from a low level in society, for being part of the wrong religion, etc. That is bigotry and has nothing to do with racism, it has to do with the fact that there are many forms of bigotry out there. Racism and sexism are two of them. Looking down on people because they’re poor and ‘all poor people are poor because they’re lazy’ is just as much bigotry as looking down on women for being dumber than men (sexism) or POC for being inferior to whites (racism).

          Bigotry is based on predjudices. On thinking everyone belonging to a group is the same. All women, all muslims, all POC, all non-straight people are . All men always think about sex and all femists hate men and want to castrate them – bigotry. That can be racism, if the predjudice is aimed at POC, and that can be sexism, if it’s aimed at women (or men, sexism against men does actually exist, but it’s often done by other men who claim ‘you’re no man, if you ). Bigotry is a wider spectrum than just this and Zootopia actually shows that.

          • Prince Infidel

            Except Zootopia doesn’t use the language of sexism, classism, Islamophobia, or any other vector of oppression other than racism. It knowingly & deliberately uses the language of racism throughout the movie.

            Also, both you & Kroz don’t seem to get that prejudice against powerful groups doesn’t equal oppression of those groups. No matter how much some people may say “Men are terrible” it won’t equal oppression. When men have been subject to the centuries of violence & degradation that women & anyone who isn’t strictly a man has faced then you can talk about men being oppressed. I can say “fuck whitey” every day. But it won’t come close to the oppression I experience in the United States alone. Every prejudiced action by white people is backed by centuries of violence & entire cultures built on exploitation. No prejudiced action taken towards white people carries that weight.

            It’s not the same. Treating them like they’re the same is wrong.

          • Kroz

            But It does use more than Racism. That was the point of What I was saying. Zootopia uses species to point to different forms of bigotry. Nick shows bigotry against rural people. Nick uses what is essentially a midget and people’s assumptions against them to run a con. The include stereotyping police officers. All of these are not racist forms of stereotyping or bigotry. I could go on. The problem is that for too long people have viewed bigotry is dual in nature. Men vs. Women, Black vs. White, gay vs. straight. The problem is that this ignores the core problem of human nature. We are all bigoted.

            If we remain in the Black Vs White mentality or the Women vs. Men mentality, the end result will be the oppression of one group vs the other. Instead we need to acknowledge that we are all bigoted. Once we acknowledge this we can truly solve the problem. When it is the oppressed vs the oppressor there will always be an oppressor. That is the message of Zootopia. Is is a message that bigotry is everywhere and that it is only by coming together and discarding this victim mentality that we will heal and come together. Nick and Judy were able to heal their relationship because Nick wasn’t a victim, nor was Judy. They were able to transcend that and reach healing. That message is so much more powerful.

            “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
            -Marting Luther King

            We are more than our skin color, gender, or orientation. Each of us has our own unique struggles, view points, experiences, and personalities. To summarize a person by any one physical attribute is a disservice to yourself and others.

  8. Kody C.

    Wow, would that I had read this before I sent my novel in to you all to be looked over. I certainly got some good feedback on my protagonist regarding this sort of topic, but after reading your piece here, some punches were definitely pulled for my sake.

    The biggest take-away I got from this is the realization that “characters like these are usually written by guilty privileged people, for guilty privileged people.”

    I learned a lot reading this piece, which is a sorry thing for me to admit because I should know this stuff by now, but that line was definitely the biggest call to action for me.

    I’m going to take a long, hard look at my protagonist now and see how I can save my story. Thank you

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Hey Kody, glad to hear from you again. I took a quick look back at the recommendations I gave you, and one thing I think that would help if you want to keep your protagonist’s basic arc of learning to be a better person is to lean hard on the fantasy elements of your story, and make sure they aren’t clear stand-ins for real world groups. That was the Zootopia route, anyway.

      • Kody C.

        Hey Oren, thank you, I appreciate that! That’s good advice, but after reading up about this, I think I want to dial it down substantially anyway. I’d originally conceived of the story as more an adventure than anything, I don’t need to make the protagonist’s character growth based on bigotry.

        I like the stuff I have about the protagonist learning about bravery and all that anyway, so it seems wise to me to double-down on that rather than splitting his growth between the bravery-theme and the bigotry-theme.

  9. LiliesAndRoses

    I wonder, does this apply to privileged female protagonists in matriarchal setting who are bigoted against men (who are underprivileged in that setting)?

    • Chris Winkle

      It doesn’t apply in exactly the same way, but it could still cause a lot of problems. I think the risk there is that you would be making a “persecution flip” story. We actually have another article in the pipes about those. I also mention issues with persecution in matriarchies here: https://mythcreants.com/blog/five-signs-your-story-is-sexist/ – it’s not that it’s impossible to have bigotry against men in a matriarchal setting without it being problematic (in the same way a setting where women don’t have equal rights isn’t automatically problematic), but if you make your story all about that oppression, the results probably won’t be good.

    • Cay Reet

      It applies to any protagonist who is privileged and bigoted against an underprivileged group.

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