Common Ways Fiction Trivializes & Others People

Whether intentionally or not, fiction often reflects rather questionable assumptions we have about people - assumptions that may be demeaning and harmful. This is done by way of representing various groups of people in ways that reflect these assumptions.

Sometimes, that representation is direct and obvious. For example, a character intended to be autistic may be explicitly referred to such within the narrative.

Sometimes it's implied; EG, a character may be given traits commonly seen in autistic people, but won't be called autistic within the narrative. (Many authors think that this frees them of the responsibility to write good autistic representation, since they are not labeling the traits autistic per se. But this is not true, because their narratives will shape and influence impressions of people with these traits regardless.)

Sometimes the the representation is indirect and more metaphorical. For example, robots are frequently given traits associated with autistic people. This isn't inherently a bad thing, but if the story suggests that these traits fundamentally separate robots from humanity, then it also implies that autistic people lack humanity.

Likewise, a character may be a foreigner from a real foreign country, and practice an actual minority religion. Or a character might be an alien from another planet. Aliens, of course, represent foreigners and all things strange and unknown in general. And what's not inherently bad to depict aliens as hostile or antagonistic, doing so with tropes historically used to dehumanize and demonize vulnerable minorities is is not a great way to go about it. Conversely, idealizing your aliens with tropes used to romanticize and downplay the struggles of minorities isn't a great way to go either.

In this article, I'm going to explore some ways fiction trivializes and others people, and where possible, link to outside articles that you should definitely take a look at.

First uploaded: August 15, 2021

Table of Contents

Depicting them with a lack of internal diversity.

Real groups and cultures are internally diverse. People within them have many different life experiences, come from varying backgrounds, and often disagree with each other over fairly important things. They have different struggles and different advantages, and make different life choices.

Portraying a culture or group as a monolith is othering because it suggests that they lack the individuality we assume ourselves to have, and encourages us to think of them as a hivemind rather than see them as individuals with unique experiences and personalties. This in turn makes us feel more confident in making sweeping judgments about the group as a whole, and creates the impression that if we've met one, we've met them all.

An example of this can be depicting each and every member of a particular religion as unwaveringly devout, with each of them understanding and interpreting their myths, sacred laws, holy books, etc., the exact same way. It's often a easy to imagine that members of other religions are 100% loyal and unquestioning when you haven't taken a look at them up close. But any time you actually do, you'll find that this is never the case. People always interpret and engage with their religions in a variety of ways, and take different aspects of their beliefs more or less literally.

It can also include depicting a group as completely loyal to the leaders regardless of how well they're treated. In reality, maltreatment and neglect often creates doubt and mistrust. Just because they aren't saying anything bad about the leaders, doesn't mean they agree with them. They might be too afraid of the consequences of speaking out, or they might feel like there's just no point because they can't see any way for things to change.

It also includes assuming that everyone within a country or other large region will all speak the exact same language, celebrate the same holidays (and celebrate them in the exact same ways), share identical myths and folklore, and so on. It includes assuming that everyone will share the same ethnic background, the same philosophy and religion, and the same styles of hair and clothing. It includes assuming that everyone shares the same values and personal priorities. Sure, in a given region some cultural traits and characteristics will predominate, but that doesn't mean they'll be identical or universal for everyone. And groups of people have always been on the move, so the idea that a region can remain culturally and ethnically homogenous indefinitely is absurd. It takes extremely unusual conditions to keep people in place and keep them from interacting with each other.

We also have to remember that simplifying people down to basic stereotypes is a tool of propaganda. Generalizing a group of people as immoral, violent, fantatical, uneducated, lazy, greedy, or whatever can make it seem more reasonable to take sweeping action against them. This is basically a propaganda technique.

Even postive generalizations are bad, too, because they often imply that a group of people are better off than they actually are, or that they don't have pressing needs or concerns that matter. For example the stereotype that poor people live relatively carefree lives because they don't have the same worries that rich people have, or that they're happier because they have each other, erases how poverty can turn nearly every waking moment into a calculated effort for survival.

Depicting their culture as inherently strange or disturbing, rather than simply just different and unfamiliar.

No culture is absolutely perfect, and some definitely have more issues than others. But depicting any culture in a light that makes the entire thing as a whole seem menacing or disturbing is just plain xenophobic.

This can include deliberately focusing on "gross" foods in such a way to imply that they are inherently disgusting beings or people. (Worth noting, Chinese people are frequently demonized this way.)

It can include a pervasive framing of the culture's values, practices, and beliefs as "backwards" or "barbaric." Once again, no culture is absolutely perfect, but consistently emphasizing perceived negatives is always a way to demonize them in the eyes of the audience.

It can include depicting them as overly obsessed with rules, laws, or taboos. While this is something that can absolutely happen (Christian legalism, for example), it's worth noting that most of us are much more preoccupied with our own rules, laws, and taboos than we realize. We're simply so accustomed to them that we take them for granted. So more often than not, a culture that appears to be overly-rules focused simply has rules and customs that we aren't used to, and thus seem excessive and unnecessary.

It can also include a conspicuous lack of warmth, joy, or love within the culture. While it's definitely possible for a culture to demonize affection and happiness (puritanical types have been known to do that kind of thing), painting a culture up as uncaring and cold can also be a way of demonizing them, as has been done to East Asians.

Depicting them with a simplistic or limited emotional range.

Depicting a group or culture with a simplistic or limited emotional range suggests that they aren't capable of feeling things the same way we do. This can be used to make us feel okay with seeing them get hurt. For example, depicting them with a limited capacity to feel anger, distress, or sadness suggests that they aren't capable of being genuinely hurt by other people's words or actions. Showing them with a limited capacity to feel love or compassion suggests that they will always be hateful and violent, therefore justifying showing them no compassion.

Another example is showing them with no sense of humor whatsoever. They might take everything super literally, or just never laugh at anything. Generally speaking, laughter signals that someone is in a good mood and therefore safe to be around. Showing an entire group with no sense of humor can subtly signal that the whole entire bunch is dangerous, and may lack the ability to feel emotions that foster love and closeness. Now of course, it's true that among human people, some individuals struggle with clocking what's a joke, but that doesn't mean they completely lack a sense of humor.

Or they might be completely emotionless. This can be used to position them as being unable to feel love, affection, or treat anyone with compassion, thus making them a threat. It can also be used to frame them as incomplete or lacking in some way, making them only quasi-people rather than actual people, and therefore lesser than ourselves.

Depicting them with simplistic minds.

Depicting everyone in a group with simplistic minds or intellects suggests that they're less developed than we are, or less capable of handling the kinds of problems we handle. In some contexts it can suggest that they are somehow purer than us, which can idealize them to the point of dehumanization. (See the myth of the noble savage.)

This can include depicting them in ways that suggest that they don't really have a rich inner life, nor engage in contemplation or reflection. They might simply do everything on impulse or instinct, and never think back and reflect on their choices.

It can include depicting them as unable to grasp the severity or gravity of a situation, or showing them with no interest or ability in grappling with weighty moral issues. It can include lacking genuine moral problem-solving skills, instead perhaps relying solely on their personal feelings or instincts, or on a simplistic "warrior's code," "nine laws," or something like that.

It can also include a lack of internal conflict that doesn't revolve around their culture's most notable or famous trait. For example, while the "normal" character is conflicted over things like whether they should visit their parents for the holidays, the character from the designated-warrior culture is always fretting over whether they're enough of a warrior, and the character from the designated-religious culture is constantly struggling with their faith.

The idea that people are always focused on the aspects of their cultures that you feel are different from your own is a xenophobic assumption. It dismisses the possibility that their lives are complex and multifaceted, or that they might be focused on something you're not. It also ignores the reality that the things a culture tends to idealize doesn't actually represent the full spectrum of their feelings and interests. Yes, any group of people will have certain things they idealize, but the complex realities of life means that their lived experiences will be far richer and more complex - and in many ways, a lot more like your own than you might think at first.

It can include being unable to understand jokes, sarcasm, or figures of speech. While this can be a thing some individual people struggle with, applying it to an entire group is often a way of demeaning them in the eyes of the audience and make them seem less competent at performing mental tasks.

Idealizing their lives or existence.

Everybody has real problems at some point or another, no exceptions. Therefore, depicting a group as living an ideal, blissful existence is inherently alienating and othering. We can't relate to them because they don't share our problems, and we can't expect them to sympathize with ours.

Depicting a group's existence as harmonious and tranquil all the time can also veer into victim-blaming if it suggests the reason we don't live that way is because we're insufficiently spiritual, or not in tune with nature enough. The reality is that you can be very spiritual and very in tune with nature, and still have real problems that you have every right to be upset about. To claim otherwise is abusive and cruel.

Sometimes you might see someone claiming the spirituality they're peddling can fix all your problems, but it's always a scam to exploit people's suffering.

It's also worth mentioning that in the real world, depicting oppressed and marginalized minorities as living carefree, happy-go-lucky lives has been used to trivialize and dismiss the very real problems they faced. This was often applied to slaves in America and is today applied to Roma in Europe.

Depicting them with no meaningful goals, interests, or social connections outside of their relationships to non-marginalized characters.

This effectively suggests that they have no rich personal lives of their own, and have nothing interesting going on within their own communities or with others like themselves. It also suggests that they only exist in relation to "normal" people, and implies that everything ultimately revolves around the lives and assumptions of "normal" people.

It ought to be common sense that if a character belongs to, say, a religious or ethnic minority, then they'll have friends and family who do, too, and that these people will matter to them. If they're LGBTQ+, they'll probably have other LGBTQ+ friends, because there's things you can't really talk about with your cishet friends because they'll never be able to really understand or sympathize. Neurodivergent people will often have neurodivergent friends because they're less likely to see each other's behavior and thought processes as weird, and will be able to sympathize with each others' struggles.

Depicting them as being constantly able and willing (even if reluctantly) to assist a relatively non-marginalized character is careless writing. Yet, far too many writers fail to acknowledge that being willing to drop everything for a relatively non-marginalized character is unfair, and that the relatively non-marginalized character actually has inappropriate and unacceptable expectations.

Other articles and videos you might check out that relate to this topic include I Want to be the Superhero, not the Super Magical Negro, Monica Rambeau Was WandaVision's Real Hero, and the Show Did Her Dirty, The Black Best Friend Trope Explained, The "Token Fat Friend" Role: Let's Talk., and You Have Fat Characters On Your Show. Now Do More.

Dismissing or trivializing their needs and frustrations.

As stated earlier, everyone has real problems now and then. Due to systemic discrimination, marginalized people have even more of them. Ergo, their frustration and anger is often wholly justified. Additionally, many bear some degree of trauma from ongoing discrimination, and therefore are justifiably wary of possible abuse.

Non-marginalized people often assume mistakenly that because they see marginalized people speaking up about their frustrations, then they're basically always angry. This isn't true; marginalized people are often happy and often enjoy things.

They also tend to assume that because they personally can't see a problem, means that the marginalized person is complaining about a non-issue. Generally, this is because the non-marginalized person lacks the necessary insight to fully grasp the situation and see exactly what makes this an issue. It is, after all, easy to dismiss problems that you don't have to face on a regular basis. It's difficult to fathom the slow, yet certain impact they have upon one's mental and physical health.

Black people in particular are frequently assumed to be angry when they're not. White people often accuse them of being angry when they're expressing sadness or just speaking up for themselves. White people often fail to consider that they are projecting their own fears and prejudices. You might take a look at Busting the Stereotype of the Angry Black Woman.

People's needs and frustrations can also be trivialized and dismissed by consistently portraying them antagonistically. For example, when antagonists are consistently members of certain marginalized groups, or are very obviously stand-ins for them, it can suggest that these people are the "real" bullies and villains in society, rather than the institutions and systems responsible for their marginalization. (A good example of this is Paramount's Heathers series, where the titular bullies are all reimainged as various minorities.) In some cases, it can imply that the way marginalized people respond to the systems and institutions that marginalize them is actually more of a problem than marginalization itself, particularly if the abuse or mistreatment they faced was a product of these systems and institutions.

They rarely, if ever clearly communicate with other characters or to the audience.

When a character does not clearly express their opinions and desires in some way, the audience does not have to think of them as an independent, autonomous person with needs or feelings that matter.

Characters who don't communicate in some way are often conceptualized as infantile - innocent and devoid of complex thoughts or feelings. This can be used to make the audience comfortable with seeing the character treated as if they are far younger than they really are, which is something they shouldn't be. The audience is also free to imagine that the character has no opinions, desires, or boundaries at all, and is therefore fully receptive to the whims of others.

Lack of communicative ability can also be used to dehumanize antagonists, suggesting that they are far too alien or animalistic for negotiation to be possible, thus justifying extreme violence against them to the audience. (Worth mentioning, oppressors often demonize their victims for speaking a different language. The very concept of an evil language, or "black tongue," is rooted in xenophobia.) The audience is also free to imagine that such antagonistic figures have no desires or thoughts beyond causing mayhem and violence, meaning they never think to question the protagonists' choice of using extreme violence.

Complete desexualization, or hypersexualization.

So first of all, desire for sex varies from person to person, so it's important to remember that we're not talking about individual characters but rather the portrayal of entire groups. Asexual characters are valid, and so are characters who have mighty desires. Again, we're talking about how entire groups are portrayed or implied to be, not individual characters.

Desexualization can happen through making characters unaware of or disinterested in sex. This can be a form of infantilization, suggesting that they are ill equipped to handle the adult world, or "real" world. Characters can be desexualized through an absence of other characters showing that kind of interest in them, which can can imply that they (and other people like them) are undesirable or unworthy. For example, if nobody ever shows sexual interest in the one disabled character, it suggests that disabled characters are somehow icky or undeserving. Likewise, if the Black character doesn't get a romance arc despite everyone else having one, that suggests Black people aren't desirable or deserving of that kind of intimacy. For more on this, I suggest checking out Asexual Disabled People Exist, But Don’t Make Assumptions About Us and Black Girl Tragic: Misogynoir on the CW.

Hypersexualization can happen through depicting characters as constantly preoccupied with sex, whether they're talking about it or actively trying to get it. You might see characters pushing themselves on others regardless of personal boundaries, and without consideration of rather salient reasons sex might be a bad idea given the circumstances. (For example, becoming intimately involved with someone who has horrible prejudices against you and wields systemic power over you is a super bad idea.) You might also see them depicted as pretty much always open and willing to having sex, basically never turning anyone down. This is unfortunately how many nonwhite women have been conceptualized and depicted, whether to demonize their cultures or to objectify them for the pleasure of white men. Some relevant articles you might check out include It's Time to Stop Hypersexualizing Black Women, How The Colonial History of Hypersexualization Obscures the Possibility of Black Asexuality, Halloween, Colonization, and Hypersexualization of Native American Women, and Sexualized, Submissive Stereotypes of Asian Women Lead to Staggering Rates of Violence.

Hypersexualization can sometimes imply that personal boundaries come from a place of shame, rather than a desire to protect one's body and autonomy. This happens when a culture is depicted as universally open to sexual intimacy because they've given up their shame and repression. Sure, some people might be repressed due to shame, but that doesn't mean personal boundaries are unimportant or invalid. (And even if someone's motive for abstaining comes down to shame, their boundaries should still be respected. If nothing else, pressuring them into sexual intimacy before they've had a chance to work through their issues will likely only increase their shame.)

Hypersexualization can also imply that some groups are simple-minded and one dimensional, rather than complex and nuanced. It suggests that they live only for bodily pleasure, and have no comprehension or interest in abstract ideals or long-term goals. Such is a stereotype has often been applied to Black men. The hypersexualization of Black men has long been used to frame them as a threat to the safety of white women by framing them as predatory.

Infantilizing adult or nearly adult characters.

I mentioned a couple of ways characters might be infantilized already, including sexual naiveté and an inability to communicate their desires and opinions. But there are many other ways of infantilizing characters to go over.

First of all, depicting them with simplistic emotions can be used to suggest that they are unable to experience deep or complicated (IE, "adult") emotions.

They might be shown to speak with a child's vocabulary (EG, using words like "tummy" or "mommy" in place of "stomach" or "mother," or referring to enemy agents as "bad men), implying that they only have a child's ability to think and reason. (Realistically, this would actually imply that their parents or guardians failed to provide them an education.)

Their expressions of negative emotions (for example anger or outrage) might be framed as an expression of childish petulance. (This also relates to what I said earlier about portraying minorities as irrationally angry.)

This can also include treating a character's lack of height as a reason to dismiss their opinions or feelings, or treat them as an annoying upstart when they show ambition or initiative. Short adults are still 100% adults, and should never be treated or spoken to as if they're children.

Some relevant articles to check out include Stop Infantilizing Me - I'm Mentally Ill, Not A Child, The Infantilization Of Women In The Workplace, and Stop Calling Asian Women Adorable.

Depicting them as able to withstand and bounce back from injury, abuse, and trauma that would cause serious lasting damage in real life.

Earlier I mentioned the problem with the acting as if certain groups of people are immune to having their feelings hurt and sustaining emotional trauma. If you show that certain people don't feel anger or sadness the same way we do, you suggest that they can't really have their feelings hurt, and can't sustain emotional or psychological trauma.

There are other ways of treating certain kinds of people as functionally invulnerable. The story might claim or imply that they can experience and shrug off any amount of violence or upheaval simply because they're just that "strong." (See: Why the ‘Strong Black Woman’ Trope is Both Worn-Out and Dangerous.) Or the story might claim or imply that trauma actually makes people stronger. (You might check out Joss Whedon Showed Us Exactly What He Thought of Women With Dollhouse.)

These narratives imply that being harmed or even disabled by traumatic experiences is a personal failure or caused by personal weakness. (Relevant article: Be a Real Man: Toxic Masculinity.) This of course isn't how it works, and it's incredibly harmful to tell people otherwise. They become ashamed to admit they need help, let alone seek treatment for health issues.

In closing...

When designing characters and cultures, it's best to do it with the presumption that they are just as complex and nuanced as any real person or group of people you know. Simplification might be easy, but it frequently plays into harmful stereotypes in some way.

It might be tempting to justify depicting characters this way if they're antagonists, because how else will the protagonists and audiences know that they're evil? Personally, I think it's time we start acknowledging that people can be complex beings with real problems, and that they need to be stopped ASAP because they've made it clear that they intend to harm others. It really doesn't matter what kind of personal problems someone has when they've decided, say, that they're going to do violence on you because they think you're genetically inferior or something.

Now, I'm not saying that you have to include a ton of detail about your villain's personal life or whatever. Sometimes there's just no room for that in your story. But you should at least write your villain with the basic assumption that they have a three-dimensional existence. If you do end up with room to reveal more about your villain, don't treat it like some kind of plot twist or massive irony. Just frame it as a normal, unremarkable part of the human experience.

If you're aiming to do something like write a story for kids where everything is simplified a bit to make it easier to grasp, then it's important to remember that simplifying things for the kids doesn't have to mean stereotyping and pigeonholing people. There's no reason a child can't understand that other people are fundamentally just people like themselves, their own families, and those in their immediate community. They can also understand that everyone has good and bad impulses alike, but ultimately chooses which one to act upon. Kids can also understand that it's harder to do good if you're tired, stressed out, afraid, etc. And they can also understand that they have a right to set boundaries and say no when someone's behavior is inappropriate or hurtful, regardless of their personal struggles.

We should also be more mindful of where the media we engage with might be painting an oversimplistic, trivializing, or even propagandistic picture, and consider that when we see it, we shouldn't repeat it in our own work without further research and investigation. (An important note: we shouldn't be too quick to accuse the creators of intentional malice - these things are so deeply ingrained into the public consciousness that many people simply have no idea about their dodgy origins or implications.)

Finally, it's important to remember that there may not be a simple yes-or-no answer to what you, personally, should do in your work. There will be a number of gray areas, and many things will be heavily context dependent. "Is it okay to depict a marginalized person as a villain?", for example, can depend on factors such as whether or not you share that marginalization, how many other marginalized villains you might have, what their motives are for behaving villainously, and whether there are any prominent characters of that marginalization who aren't villainous. Figuring out what you should do might require careful thought and consideration, if not conversation with people whom this might impact.

That said, you can never, ever go wrong by assuming from the start that everyone in your setting is fundamentally just people, and that people are inherently diverse and complex. Assuming that each and every character in your story, no matter how minor their role, lives a multifaceted existence and experiences complex emotions will help you write characters who feel more authentic and natural.

I hope you found this article informative and useful. If you liked it, please share it with your friends and on your social media, and consider supporting me on Patreon!

Also check out:

Tips to Create Better & More Believable Fantasy & Science Fiction Species
Points To Remember When Designing SF Creatures & Species
Fantasy & Science Fiction Creature Development Questions
How To Write Better & More Believable Masquerades

Tips To Create Richer & More Realistic Fantasy & Science Fiction Cultures & Civilizations
Country & Culture-Development Questions
Representation: Why It Matters, & How To Do It Well

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