Writing Fantastic People & Creatures Without Unfortunate Implications

It's often been noted that many science fiction and fantasy races have been designed with a lot of uncomfortable and even potentially harmful implications attached to them. Whether it's hostile species that play out like the worst stereotypes about POC, traits associated with neurodiversity being given to everything but actual humans, or using characters' non-human statuses to justify behaviors or attitudes that would be considered horrendously wrong in any other context, there's a lot that goes on that we should be a lot more aware of and aim to stop doing in our own work.

This article has partially been inspired by Overly Sarcastic Productions' Trope Talk: Robots video and Lindsay Ellis's video Bright: The Apotheosis of Lazy Worldbuilding. I'd recommend giving them a watch as well, since they explore related issues.

First uploaded: January 15, 2020. Last revised: January 23, 2020.

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Know that all fantastic beings have political implications, whether or not you intend them.

So we gotta bite the bullet: everything in art and fiction is political. Literally everything. Even things that you think have no politics to them whatsoever do, in fact, have politics attached to them somewhere. Even a simple picture of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich makes a statement about what kind of food is or should be considered normal.

Now, this really isn't a bad thing as such. Although some people make it sound like politics are something you should try to purge from your story at all costs, it doesn't really work that way. What most people think of as a "politically neutral" story is usually just a narrative that advocates the status quo - which is itself a political statement. And while people think that the presence of politics is intrinsically bad, it's not. Politics, in and of themselves, are neutral. Basically, it's not something to avoid like the plague; it's something to be mindful of so that you don't end up creating a narrative that advocates or reinforces harmful ideas.

Here are some examples of how fantasy and science fiction beings can have political implications:

If you constantly depict aliens as hostile, you imply that other = bad. If all of your aliens turn out to have hostile intentions, then you send the message that beings who aren't like us can never be trusted. If you don't want to imply that, then it's important that you depict non-hostile aliens as well.

If your "evil" fantasy race looks disfigured or fat while your "good" fantasy race doesn't, you imply that disfigurement or fatness = evil. People sometimes make their "bad" aliens look disfigured to induce fear, but in doing so they make a statement that disfigured people are to be feared. Similarly, making your bad aliens fat or blobby tacitly implies that fatness is a sign or symptom of bad morals.

Depicting certain traits only in non-human characters implies that the traits themselves are inhuman. For example, if the only characters who act like they have ADHD aren't human, then you imply that ADHD itself isn't human, and that anyone with ADHD is less human than everyone else.

If your fantastic beings look, dress, act, or talk like a real life group of people, they will be read as fantastic stand-ins for these people. In The Last Jedi, the patrons of Canto Bight are all dressed in clothing that looks very much like what rich people in the 20th century might have worn - essentially, their fashion codes them as members of the obscenely wealthy elite. This is a perfectly fine and good use of coding. What's not fine is coding your fantastic beings with racial stereotypes, ala the antisemitic designs of Watto.

Whatever you frame as acceptable behavior toward non-humans will be interpreted as endorsing similar behavior toward anyone those non-humans happen to resemble. In other words, if you portray it as acceptable and fine for humans to expect deference and servitude from a race of beings who just so happen to resemble East or South Asians in some way, whether through their appearances, mannerisms, accents... yeah. That's some massively icky vibes.

Some people will claim that if you agree with this, then you're reading too much into things. But this isn't how things work. Human beings are creatures of metaphor and allegory. We look for patterns and draw connections. We use symbols and other forms of cultural shorthand to quickly communicate complex ideas to each other every day. To deny this is to engage in malicious literalism - a form of gaslighting where one claims that the message or implied message doesn't actually exist in reality because only the medium is physically real.

Malicious literalism isn't something I've seen people talk about, but we need to acknowledge it. So what does it look like, exactly? Claiming that a digital picture of a hate symbol doesn't actually convey any meaning or send any message because "it's just pixels on a screen" is one example of malicious literalism. So is claiming that a derogatory slur is "just a word." Also claiming that a hate-filled screed is just "ink on paper." And claiming that age is "just a number." And of course, anyone who claims that coding (EG, queer coding, racial coding, etc.) doesn't actually exist is engaging in malicious literalism.

Let me reiterate: Politics aren't intrinsically bad. You can't completely avoid them, so you shouldn't really try. Instead, you should aim to be mindful of what kind of political messages you might be sending, and try to send ones that don't perpetuate harmful or hurtful ideas. (Or better yet, actively undo harmful or hurtful ideas.)

Fantastic cultures and species should never reify or reinforce real life prejudice, nor justify oppressive attitudes.

What this means is, you shouldn't base them on bigoted stereotypes about real people, nor should they be designed to fill second or third class roles. There are many, many reasons why you shouldn't.

Firstly, it's just plain uncomfortable (if not downright disturbing) to anyone who knows what kind of an impact these bigoted ideas have had on real people and aren't massive bigots. For those who have been directly affected, it can be extremely painful. Maybe not everybody in your audience will be seriously bothered, but that still doesn't mean it's okay. Just by creating a fantastic race that looks like bigoted stereotypes dressed up as aliens or fantasy creatures (for example, the goblins of Harry Potter, which mirror many antisemitic stereotypes), you are still perpetuating and reinforcing these bigoted ideas, which in turn perpetuates discrimination and chauvinism.

Additionally, by making intrinsic traits out of prejudiced stereotypes, you imply, at least on some level, that the bigots are actually correct. Your worldbuilding repeats and reifies everything they've been saying all along: that some groups are just genetically like that and it can't be helped. Once you do this, you tacitly justify their opinions in how we should treat either the marginalized people, or justify their own hateful attitudes toward them. Let me just bring up what I'm going to call the Dalek Genocide Paradox.

The Daleks of Doctor Who are a race genetically engineered for aggressive hostility. They literally commit genocide because it's in their DNA. However, the Doctor refuses to destroy them all, citing that it would be genocide.

First of all, this setup agrees with certain actual bigots who believe that hating others and preferring "their own kind" is just in their DNA, rather than something they learned from social conditioning, and could therefore change with critical thinking and counseling. Secondly, it implies that some outgroups are just genetically hostile and malicious, and there's just nothing you can do about it short of wiping them out. Third, it implies that tolerating intolerance is taking the moral high ground, which it isn't.

This isn't to say that the creators of Doctor Who or the Daleks meant for them to be taken this way, because they didn't. However, you cannot ask your audience to accept the possibility that an entire race of beings that are inherently aggressively hostile could exist without on some level asking them to accept the possibility that racists, chauvinists, and other bigots could in theory be right. Maybe not everyone will make the connection, but some people certainly will.

Now let's take a look at an example of a fantasy species that exists to fill a social role created by oppressors: JK Rowling's house elves. Rowling's house elves are biologically hardwired to act as a class of domestic servants, which mirrors classist ideas that people of lower birth are biologically predisposed to serve and submit to the upper class. While the text of the Harry Potter series frames outright cruelty to house elves as wrong, it overlooks the reality that the very existence of a servant class is inherently abusive, as it creates a social power imbalance.

One might try to argue that the house elves are filling a kind of ecological niche by moving into human homes to form a kind of symbiotic relationship with them. But if the elves are supposed to benefit equally, we have to ask ourselves: Why do they only move into upper class homes (are we really supposed to believe there wouldn't be enough food for them on a rural wizard farm?), and why are they unable to leave or take other action if the people who live there are cruel or violent; EG, wreaking vengeance like the folkloric brownies they're inspired by? Additionally, why do we never see any evidence of house elves having their own lives and perpetuating themselves? Where are their spouses? Their children?

Victorian servants were often treated brutally while those who employed them claimed that they were doing them a favor by providing them with food, a home, and moral guidance. They often didn't have time to live their own lives; it wouldn't be unusual to have a seventeen hour work day and get half of Sunday off - for going to church. Many were forced to sleep in damp basements filled with fungus and bacteria, and they didn't exactly get fed well. Between constant exposure to pathogens, malnourishment, and overwork, many servants died young. Many maidservants were also raped by their masters; and if pregnancy occurred she would likely be fired without references, ultimately giving her no other recourse but to become a prostitute - which itself was an illegal and dangerous profession.

Servants' lives were so harsh that many protested and formed labor rights movements. However, the narrative of Harry Potter mocks the idea of servant emancipation by showing us that house elves like being servants, and that only the ignorant would claim they shouldn't.

The presence of a servant race asks your audience to consider the possibility that one could exist, which again, asks your audience to accept the possibility that bigots and chauvinists could theoretically be right. Again, this kind of thing is very uncomfortable for anyone who's historically and socially literate, and isn't a massive bigot. In the case of Harry Potter, the existence of a servant class is actually romanticized, making it even worse.

One might try to argue that it shouldn't be an issue because the house elves aren't actually human, but that raises even more uncomfortable questions: why should we assume that just because it's not human, means it would be fine to treat it in a way that would be considered oppressive or degrading if we treated anything else that way? No species on Earth wants to be treated like this. Even dogs, who have been domesticated to the point of being extremely submissive and willing to obey humans, still want nice things if they can get them, and require socialization and recreation for their psychological wellbeing.

And speaking of that whole "they aren't actually people, so it doesn't matter" attitude, we gotta talk about how some fiction frames it as fine to kill a sapient species simply because it doesn't meet some arbitrary qualifier of personhood.

The first arbitrary qualifier we'll examine is species itself. According to this one, the fact that this species merely has different DNA and biochemical makeup makes it moral to kill them with no compunction.

Here's a thought experiment: Suppose that somewhere in the universe there is a nonhuman species whose social structures, cognitive capacities, and emotional needs are in most ways comparable to human. They perceive themselves as "people," and their political leaders believe it's fine to kill anything that isn't of own species, because they aren't "people." One day they set their sights on the human race; and in particular, wherever you and your friends and family live. Because their technology is far more powerful than our own, we can't fight back. Do you still believe that they should have an intrinsic right to kill anything that's not of the same species they are simply because they don't deem them "people"? Or would you really prefer that they re-evaluate their moral values and expand their definition of what they consider to be people?

Another arbitrary qualifier too many people fall back on is so-called "level of civilization." First of all, the very notion that civilization has "levels" comes from a Eurocentric worldview that considered European civilization to be at the forefront of spiritual, social, artistic, technological, and economic advancement. Cultures that didn't measure up were written off as superstitious, simple-minded, and even bestial.

Of course, all of these people were human, and as such, all of them had the same basic emotional and cognitive capabilities. Sure, not every culture had all of Europe's fancy things, but it wasn't from a lack of intelligence; it was because they lived in environments and societies that didn't pressure them to develop their technology and structure their society in the exact same way.

And while we're at it, humans were definitely fully human before they started even migrating out of Africa. People of the Middle Paleolithic hadn't developed the fancy tech we have today, but they were the exact same creature we are. If you've read How Myths & Lore Don't Originate - And How They Do, you'll know that they had richly-developed mythological traditions.

So it's entirely irrational to dismiss a group's personhood simply because its society, technology, and art don't measure up to Eurocentric standards. If anything, just having any kind of culture and shared identity at all should qualify them as people by default.

If you really, really want to have something in your setting that people don't have to feel too bad about killing, you might consider drones or non-sentient constructs, even making them extremely non-human in appearance. Alternatively, you might go with soldiers of an evil empire, since it's no one's moral duty to be pacifists in the face of violent oppression.

You should probably also ask yourself why you're so attached to the idea of mass slaughter in the first place. This isn't to say that killing should never exist in your narratives, but rather, that you should ask yourself what purpose it actually serves.

I'm gonna run over some really bad justifications I've seen real quick:

If you find yourself realizing that all of this would leave you with very little (if any) justified slaughter, congrats and welcome to the real world. Because the reality is that violence and death are largely avoidable, and most "justifications" for killing people or even just letting them die are nothing more than selfish excuses.

The fact that they aren't human shouldn't be an excuse to generally bully or patronize them, either.

The Force Awakens contained a joke where General Leia tells an anxious C-3PO to "wipe that nervous expression off your face." It's supposed to be funny because Threepio is a droid who literally can't make facial expressions. But "joke" or not, the fact remains that General Leia was policing and dismissing Threepio's emotions in a very condescending and patronizing way.

Arguing that Threepio's emotions don't deserve respect simply because he isn't human is morally bankrupt. Threepio (as most other droids) is shown to feel genuine emotions, and therefore feel genuine emotional pain. When we proclaim that we be considerate toward the feelings of other human beings, it is because we acknowledge that failure to do can cause emotional pain.

Here's the deal: whatever you frame as acceptable behavior toward non-human sapients will be read as a statement on how it's acceptable to treat real people who are frequently dehumanized, both by victims and by perpetrators. If you think it's fine to treat Threepio this way because he's "just a robot," remember, for example, how often autistic people are labeled "robotic" and have their very real emotions dismissed as childish, annoying, disrespectful, or otherwise unimportant.

The trouble with creating a group of fantastic beings it's supposedly fine to treat like this implies that it's theoretically fine to treat someone like this. The only thing that someone has to do to be considered fair game is fail to meet whatever arbitrary criteria society claims you need to be a "real person" this week.

Additionally, infantilizing entire groups of people has historically been used to justify oppression and exploitation. The British Empire often painted other cultures as childish, framing their objections to colonialism, exploitation, forced assimilation, and even slaughter as the grumblings of petulant children who refused to obey their elders because they were lazy and too simple-minded to know what was good for them. The Empire framed itself as a kind of benevolent parent, whose actions allegedly served to morally and materially benefit these supposedly primitive and child-like races. Any time you see a fantasy race portrayed as amusingly incompentent or endearingly naive in relation to more "normal" humans or a human-coded race, or unable to live without humans/human stand-ins to look after them, you are seeing echoes of this.

You shouldn't try to justify questionable behavior or social dynamics by making it integral to a fantastic species, either.

Sometimes, the "it's okay, they aren't human!" argument swings the other way: people claim that a fantastic race or species is justified in behaving in extremely sketchy ways simply because they aren't human.

For example, me and some friends once encountered a guy who argued for hours that you couldn't really call the subplot where werewolf Jacob Black imprinted on half-vampire baby Renesmee "creepy" because none of the characters were actually human, and therefore shouldn't be held to human moral standards.

Not how it works, bub.

Even if you believe that the vampires and werewolves aren't human by simple virtue of having become supernatural beings at some point in their lives, Meyer's "non-human" characters are still human-coded. They're written with human motives and human feelings that we're meant to recognize, sympathize, and even empathize with. All of them were born and raised in human culture, and all of them participate in it. The fact that they also happen to be vampires and werewolves with superhuman abilities is actually pretty superficial here. The fact remains that psychologically and socially, these are very human characters whose relatively superficial non-human attributes are being used to justify a course of action that would be instantly and correctly recognized as horrifying and immoral in any other context: a little girl is placed into a parent/child relationship with an adult man, with the intention of shifting the relationship to romantic later on. In essence, their (very debatable) inhumanity is simply being used as a paper-thin excuse to justify romanticizing child grooming.

Another example is how pop culture often portrays wolf packs. You'll often see them depicted with a single alpha that the beta wolves are all compelled to obey, thanks to some kind of supernatural werewolf bond. Sometimes you'll see omega werewolves, who are so low in status that they're little more than slaves or punching bags for the other wolves. So what you basically end up with is a hierarchical authoritarian dynamic. Now, this is not a healthy social dynamic - it's inequitable and abusive. And again, some people will claim that this is actually perfectly fine, because werewolves aren't humans and therefore this could be perfectly healthy for them.

Just one problem with this, though.

The pop culture wolf pack dynamic is based on a study that observed wolves living in an unnatural environment, which resulted in unnatural and unhealthy dynamics. Normal, healthy wolf packs don't work like this. If anything, the dynamics are much closer to healthy human families - because normal wolf packs are families. A pack consists of two wolf parents and their cubs.

And no matter how you slice it, there's one issue with imprinting and bonding in fantasy that's pretty hard to avoid: it idealizes a system in which consent is nonexistent and irrelevant. Whether it forces two people into a relationship or places them into a master/servant relationship, the whole thing is pretty icky.

There are many other skeevy behaviors that some writers want to make part of their fantastic species that would've been prevented by natural selection. It's just not possible for most of society to be comprised of predatory personalities because they'd be too selfish and uncooperative to form a functional society in the first place.

And finally, trying to claim that the behavior of a sci-fi or fantasy race is fine on the sole grounds they're not human really isn't different from how actual human abusers and oppressors try to justify themselves. They might claim that they can't help themselves because it's just who they are or it's just in their blood. They might even take it a step further and accuse you of being the abusive or oppressive one for suggesting that they need to do something about their behavior and stop being so horrible to people. For anyone familiar with how this works in the real world, seeing a work of fiction and its author doing basically the exact same thing won't exactly be a fun experience.

Now, absolutely none of this is to say that you can't write fantastic people with some really odd-seeming behaviors and norms, or even behaviors and norms that wouldn't be acceptable within human society. But there's a huge difference between making your aliens alien, and simply using alienness as an excuse to let them behave in ways that mimic abusive or oppressive behaviors. The former is fine. The latter makes your work - and you - come off skeevy as hell.

Finally, know that anything that resembles what society wants to cast out, will be adopted and reinterpreted by people who feel outcast, and this is fine.

Some people out there complain when someone decides to take a "monster" and reinterpret it as something more sympathetic, possibly even benevolent.

The thing is... this is pretty much inevitable. By simple virtue of being something that society at large rejects, people who feel rejected often feel a kind of kinship with it. This is why you have so many popular works of fiction where vampires are imagined as protagonists. It's why demons are often used as anti-heroes or unlikely heroes. It's why the Babadook was adopted as a gay icon.

Marginalized and minority groups are frequently painted as monstrous and out to destroy society, which is exactly what monsters in fiction are shown to be doing. If they die, it's usually at the hands of non-marginalized/minority characters. So it's only natural for them to look at a creature and relate to them at least just a bit. They might feel like the monster had a point or deserved more compassion, or that the story was told from the perspective of someone who wasn't seeing the whole picture. So naturally they're going to put their own spins on it.

Getting in a dander when people reinterpret monsters to be more sympathtic sends some pretty unfortunate messages. There's a pretty strong implication that you don't believe that the real people these creatures happen to resemble deserve to tell their side of the story. You also imply that a black and white worldview is fine and should never be questioned or challenged; or at least, that your own personal worldview should never be questioned or challenged. Not a good look.

If anything, reinterpreting monsters and creatures a good thing. Depicting them as complex or misunderstood can serve as an important reminder that the world really isn't black and white and that we should question the narratives we hear.

And sure, some people are just really into monsters. And that's also fine! In fact, while we're here, let's talk about another elephant in the room: how girls and women, and the entertainment they favor, are disproportionately targeted for criticism and hate. When Twilight came out, numerous men complained that it was "ruining vampires" by making them sexy. But when it was Seras Victoria, Selene, and Rayne, nobody said boo.

So yeah, all of these are things that are just gonna happen - and it's fine. Every monster at some point will eventually be reimagined as a protagonist or love interest, and there's nothing wrong with that.

In summary!

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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