LESSON Prejudice in Fiction - Why You Should Use It and Why It Can Be A Good Thing

Discussion in 'BUILDING WORLDS' started by Jorick, Oct 17, 2015.

  1. Disclaimer

    Before anyone gets all riled up, no, I am not in any way, shape, or form advocating for people to be prejudiced in real life; note the “in fiction” part of the title. There is a divide between fiction and reality: what happens in fiction does not necessarily advocate or represent reality or the views of the writer, and if you cannot understand that then you might want to see a psychiatrist because an inability to separate reality from fiction can be indicative of some major problems. Just as writing about characters killing each other doesn't make someone a murderer, writing racist/sexist/homophobic/etc characters does not make someone a racist/sexist/homophobe/etc. Please check your moral outrage at the door.

    This workshop will focus on how to make use of these negative but realistic aspects of culture in your fictional creations without turning it into a silly caricature of real issues. First off, however, I will explain what I meant by saying racism and prejudice in fiction can be a good thing.

    Benefits of Prejudice in Fiction

    First and foremost, the presence of prejudice in your world will lend it an extra sense of realism. A lot of people lean heavily on the use of plain black and white morality to set their good and bad characters apart, but this pushes fictional works an extra step away from reality because the real world is not so simple. Prejudice is a great way to add shades of grey that will help your world feel more like the real one. Everyone is aware of prejudice on some level, and many people have at some point in their life realized they've been prejudiced or faced prejudice directed at them, and making those personal connections to your world will make players care a lot more and be far more invested in what's going on.

    Prejudice can add some character depth from the start and opens up new opportunities for character development, which is a boon both for you as the creator and for players in your roleplay. If you take a good guy and make him a little prejudiced against some group, that can be the difference between Generic Protagonist #2254807 and an actually interesting character. People like seeing protagonists that aren't all bright and sparkly and shiny boy scouts, which is a large part of why anti-heroes are so popular. Even better, prejudice is a flaw that can be overcome with time and experience and effort, making for a simple but effective way to show that a character has grown. Alternatively, you could go the opposite way and have a character develop a prejudice against some group that has caused them trouble throughout the story. Prejudices also act as a decent way to accentuate your villains, to turn them from single-minded maniacs into fully fleshed out characters. Everyone has some kind of biases against groups due to preconceived notions, so basically any character that isn't supposed to be the ultimate paragon of virtue could do with having a little bit of prejudice in their life.

    Related to the above, prejudices can add to drama and tension between characters. Having a bunch of people that just get along and have no problems is boring, and this is a pretty natural way to avoid such sterile groups. These sorts of antagonistic starting points can open up further paths of development that can make things a lot more interesting in the long run. For instance, take a look at Gimli and Legolas from The Lord of the Rings, particularly the Peter Jackson movie version. They started off disliking each other because of fantasy racism, grew into rivals, shifted into friendly rivals, and eventually became bros because they found that there was a lot more good in the other than they'd originally thought in their prejudiced minds. Their rivalry turned friendship was, in my opinion, the best character development in the entire LOTR trilogy, and it wouldn't have been nearly as good if they hadn't started out from prejudiced positions.

    Prejudice can also be an effective narrative tool. If you need to explain why some war happened, or why some city is having a lot of crime, or why two groups of people are angry at each other with no chance of reconciliation, so on and so forth, then prejudice can be the answer. It can be used to explain anything from individual character actions to the workings of a government to the rampages of an angry god. Negative emotions can cause people to do all sorts of things, both good and bad, and prejudice can work just as well as fear or anger or so on in that regard.

    Another potential positive of prejudice in your world is that various forms of it can push you toward developing more of a cultural history than you would otherwise do. If you decide a lot of people from group A hate people of group B, then you'll want to come up with reasons why A and B ended up that way. Did they have some fight over land or vital resources that soured previously amicable relationships? Did one defeat and enslave the other? Do they naturally look or behave in very different ways and consider each other to be lesser beings for simply being different? Figuring this stuff out will give you a framework for the history of interactions with these two groups, and including some information on that will make your world feel more realistic and fleshed out than it would if you just have a bunch of people that don't have any hate on a personal level toward one another.

    Causes of Prejudice

    I feel it's worth noting at this point that I am no expert in history, sociology, anthropology, or any other potentially related field, so this section is based off of my opinion and observations. If you want to maximize the realism levels of how the emergence of prejudice works in your world, I'd suggest you do some research into prevailing theories of how they came about in the real world.

    Anyway, as far as I see it there seems to be two predominant causes for the rise of prejudice: history of conflict between two groups and group mentality. They tend to be rather intertwined as well: conflict will create us vs. them group mentalities, and group mentalities will lead to conflicts. The fights could start over anything from control of resources to religious beliefs, and the group mentality of “they're bad because they're different” could stem from physical traits or religious beliefs or simple cultural traditions. I don't think it would be inaccurate to say that these two things work as a self-perpetuating cycle to keep prejudice operating for generations. Also, on a related note, prejudice is a learned behavior, and it can be learned from parents, friends, or other role models. If someone is prejudiced against a particular group, odds are very good that they learned it from someone else at a young age rather than developing it through their own personal experiences. All of those principles ought to be considered and utilized for explaining the history of prejudice between groups and for characters that you've decided to make prejudiced.

    By the way, unless it's a kind of systemically built into the culture, it probably won't be a majority of one group that is prejudiced against another. It could be just 10% of people in group A that hate generally everyone in group B for whatever reason. It's also worth noting that while prejudice doesn't necessarily have to be a reciprocated thing; it tends to end up that way because once there's a consistent pattern of negativity or outright abuse from a portion of group A to all of group B, then some of group B is almost certain to grow resentful of it and start feeling negatively about group A as a whole. This tendency also helps to perpetuate the cycle of prejudice because once some of group B starts being negative right back to group A, especially if there are any violent outbursts, then the prejudiced parts of group A will see that as validation of their prejudice and will be better able to convince others of their views, thus further entrenching themselves in hatred; that likely increased level of prejudice plus their dismissal of group B's justified anger will cause some people of group B to get even more fed up with group A and act worse toward them, so on and so forth probably until the end of time. It's not really a perpetually growing thing, as some generations may chill out about it and try to fix things, but at best that tends to just reduce tensions for a while rather than removing them entirely. You can probably break that apparent rule in fiction, but I'd suggest not doing so in the history of your world because the destruction of prejudice would make a far more interesting plot point to be experienced directly rather than through historical information.

    Expressions of Prejudice

    This part is more the purview of a character workshop, since it's about putting concepts into action rather than specifically worldbuilding, so I'll keep it brief. The over the top raging racist type person is rather uncommon in reality, and it comes off as lazy in writing. On an individual level, prejudice is most likely to be expressed in subtler ways that may seem like simple rudeness, with most of the actual vitriol staying in the person's mind because even bigots hew toward social norms when out in public. The caveat to this is if the majority of a society is heavily prejudiced against a particular group, then extreme hatred expressed out in the open is probably going to be seen as totally acceptable and thus more common. If the prejudice is built into the society rather than just being a fringe thing, then it could be expressed through discriminatory laws, law enforcement types giving people of that group a lot of crap for no good reason, and segregation of various forms. There's a whole spectrum of ways prejudice might be expressed, so make use of a lot of them rather than sticking to one or two kinds that will get repetitive and stale.

    Prejudice and Non-Human Species

    Those of you who work primarily in fantasy or sci-fi and make use of elves and aliens and such may be wondering how or if this stuff applies to them. The short answer is this: however you want it to apply, that's how it applies. I would suggest that the closer to human they are in general behavior, the more likely it is that they should be similar in the formation and expression of prejudices. You can get away with saying a certain fantasy race or species never has that kind of general hate of another group, but to make that make sense they'd likely end up feeling very inhuman (due to lack of general negative emotions, or just thinking so differently than we are used to) and thus would be hard for people to relate to. Honestly, I would say you should probably include prejudice in any race/species that is not framed as unwavering paragons of goodness or super highly advanced intellects that humanity cannot hope to achieve, because people are going to project humanity onto anything that's not already set up as being utterly inhuman so you might as well give them the nasty side of humanity along with the good traits, because realism.

    Also, to get a little scientific on things, remember how I said prejudice seems to form via conflict and group mentality? Those are things found in almost every form of life we have discovered. Almost every form of life comes into conflict with others, be it in competition for food and other resources or territorial fights or fighting for mating rights or so on. Almost every form of life prefers those of its own group, be it from a species level or from a family unit level, over other living things; most animals who are just kind of hungry would not give up food to a starving animal that is not part of their perceived group but would indeed give it up for a member of that group, and that sort of preferential treatment is group mentality on a very basic level. Take those two traits, add in higher intellect, and you've got the recipe for prejudice completed.

    Non-human sapient species are actually a great tool for making use of prejudice as a narrative device without people getting angry at you for doing it. Instead of using the classic prejudice form of racism by making light-skinned people prejudiced against dark-skinned people, you can have your humans generally okay with each other but direct their prejudice against non-human things. Honestly, who would care about skin color when you have sneaky little goblins or slimy slug people to discriminate against instead? If you want to test using prejudice in a world of your creation, doing it with non-human species is a great starting point, so give it a try.


    Basically, the whole purpose of this little workshop was to dispel some of the taboo against using prejudice in fiction. People tend to be totally fine with using nasty things like war and murder and various crimes as part of their worlds and plots, but any sort of prejudice more complex than “these groups dislike each other because they've fought each other a lot” seems to be off limits for a lot of people. Prejudice is in fact a useful and versatile tool for worldbuilders and storytellers, so don't be afraid to make use of it.
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  2. Excellent read! Thank you for the workshop!
  3. This is wonderful-- an excellent resource!
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  4. Wow. Amazing work :D I'm totally using this in ALL my writing projects :3
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