Bigotry in Fantasy Worlds

Legolas and Gimli

Something that many consider a ‘staple’ of fantasy is conflict and tension between the various races.  There’s this weird dislike that seems to appear among them, which is hateful globally and more mild bickering for those in the same party.  Typically, it involves a pompous elf, a surly dwarf, or both.  All of this makes me believe the ‘staple’ comes entirely from ‘Lord of the Rings’.  It’s a constant attempt to replicate the Legolas/Gimli dislike to rivalry to friendship story arc.  Never seems to work for me because of a few issues:

  1. There was something about how Tolkien did this that made it work.  The specific situations and overall plot explains the unity.  Enough history is given to explain the bad blood.  Legolas and Gimli are also supporting characters, who are often defined by this bigotry.  This is just personal opinion though because they were flushed out more in the movies.  In the books, I only remember them for their rivalry and being representatives for their races.
  2. Many times, an author will be too heavy-handed with the hatred.  It reaches a point where both races come off as jerks.  Every opportunity for the bigotry is taken and it gets tiring.  We don’t like dealing with racists in real life, so those in fiction won’t get a better reaction.  If the hate becomes too much then we simply hate the character and feel that the inevitable ‘turn’ is an act of desperation on the author’s part.
  3. Yeah, the characters finding common ground and shedding their bigotry tends to be a given.  Not doing this makes it feel like nothing was learned and that bigotry can never be defeated.
  4. Other times, an author might add it for the sake of adding it.  This comes off as forced and uncomfortable.  There’s not background and you might even see that the races aren’t consistent in their bigotry.  This is a reason why it is easier to make characters that are bigots instead of going for an entire race.  Still, you do need some reason for the hate beyond ‘they killed my family’.  While that is understandable, it really only works for monster races.

Now, this is all my own thoughts on it because I know people who are thrilled with fantasy bigotry.  They love seeing it because they feel like it’s mirroring the real world.  It does get weird when you see real world racism in fantasy though.  Humans hating on each other for different skin color in a world with elves, dwarves, halflings, orcs, dragons, gnomes, goblins, and other races comes off as evil.  It makes it seem like even in a world with multiple civilized species, humans will still quarrel amongst themselves.  This is a reason why I don’t do this in Windemere.  I can’t see the humans of this world falling into our type of racism since they have other targets.  Might be more wishful thinking on my part here.

In regards to Windemere, I did have a lot of trouble doing interspecies bigotry.  I attempted it in Beginning of a Hero and I didn’t like it.  This became an odd nod to LOTR since it was dwarves teasing about elves.  The issues didn’t carry over because I couldn’t see it working.  The next dwarf you meet is working for a half-elf and admits that his best friend is an elf.  I had two half-elves in the main cast for the first book and a third joined in the sequel.  The only races that were disliked were chaos elves, giltris (lizard people), goblins, and orc bandits.  These were all aggressive groups too, so they earned that reputation.  I simply couldn’t find a way to justify the other races hating on each other when I demonstrated that they were all living together.  So, I threw the ‘staple’ away unless it fit a specific character.

It took a few years for me to see why it didn’t work for Windemere.  I had already designed a few big events in the world’s history.  Massive threats that forced the species to unite for survival.  So, why would they splinter after having to join forces so often?  That’s just asking for the next global catastrophe to wipe them out.  So, it’s almost like large scale racism in Windemere was eliminated out of necessity and fear of extinction.  At least it is in my mind.  There are plenty of people who have messaged me over the years and mentioned that the lack of bigotry makes the world unrealistic.  Amazing how the absence of such hate is seen as a negative.  Probably says a lot more about the humanity of Earth than the races of Windemere.

So, what do you think about bigotry in fantasy?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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22 Responses to Bigotry in Fantasy Worlds

  1. L. Marie says:

    Great topic and tips! I also appreciated the way it was handled in LoTR. I didn’t see the movie Bright, but it seemed to be a theme in that movie as well. And of course Star Trek in all of its forms dealt with the issue. It is a huge theme in science fiction.

    How true about the need to avoid heavy handedness. I am dealing with this aspect in a YA novel–mainly prejudice between elves and humans. Even when wars end, there are still a few embers of anger here and there that can easily catch fire.

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    • Bright was pretty heavy-handed with it. To the point where I forgot the main plot at times. With LoTR, that’s a tough one because Tolkien started the dwarf vs elf thing. He injected racism into the genre and people just kind of kept it.

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  2. I’m like you regarding racist behavior. We see it every day and don’t need to read it in my stories. Yeah, it may be avoiding reality but it’s my money. Good post, Charles.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Writers have the power to change real world attitudes, so, keep writing stories with characters ribbing each other, in a friendly rivals way.
    In my opinion, ‘Racism’ is a term that is grossly misused, because humans are all the same species, and as such should NOT be subdivided into races.

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  4. I glanced off it in Cock of the South, but not heavily. I think racisim is a useful tool, but have used more of it in other genres. It was prevalent in Panama, and a driving force in Wild Concept. A bit of it showed up in Playground too. Like all tools, it can be overused and become low hanging fruit after a while.

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  5. V.M.Sang says:

    In my Wolves of Vimar series, the races, in general, get on, except obviously evil ones, like orcs. Bigotry is something individuals posess. One of the group that call themselves Wolf is an aristocratic young lady who thinks everyone is beneath her and expects everyone to do her bidding. This, of course, sets her at odds with the others in the group.
    I deliberately did not have racism in order to show it’s possible for different races to work together and become friends.

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    • Classism can work pretty easily in fantasy since they tend to have monarchies. You get a clearer social hierarchy there. Side note with orcs: I made mine rough around the edges, but not evil. Can’t think of any truly evil race on my series beyond demons. Even those have proven to be somewhat human.

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  6. It is kind of a trope, isn’t it? Something inexperienced authors feel like they “have to” include in the story. What’s more interesting to me is when someone you think would be hostile turns out to be okay, and someone you think is okay turns out to be secretly bigoted and the reader has to slowly figure that out. Maybe for some writers, they make it broad and blatant because they don’t trust the reader to figure out subtext?

    To me, a more visceral source of bigotry would be religion, where you have competing ideas on everything from the creation story to how people should live good lives.

    All I can say is, you don’t have to put anything in your story if you don’t want to.

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    • Readers do have a history of missing subtext or making their own. I put religion in a different category because of how it operates. Many have codes of positive conduct alongside the control. This can be necessary for certain people. Bigotry is always negative.

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  7. jyvurentropy says:

    I guess I’m kind of over bigotry being covered in almost any story. There’s no reason to address a real world issue, unless you have a new take on it. How many stories can say “Racism=Bad” it’s like…yeah, obviously it’s bad. What was the point of saying something so obvious?
    Like for me, I don’t cover something unless I have a fresh take on it. In my fantasy series (which involves a lot of time travel) some readers were rallying for me to throw in some Trump supporters and have them fight with my Hispanic characters. I just couldn’t justify doing that, because I had no fresh insight. I feel the same way about immigration and racism that almost every other liberal feels. Nothing new for me to say, so why say it?

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    • I think it can work as low key world building. If it isn’t Earth and you want to show how some races hate each other then it’s a way to go. Going to the point of blunt social commentary can definitely backfire.

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  8. Reblogged this on Archer's Aim and commented:
    An interesting discussion. I think this topic is way over done in fantasy when political rivalries work far better.

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  9. rsrook says:

    I think in many cases the “different races” are just sort of surface-level in their differences. Sure, there might be physical differences, and different customs for mourning or celebration, etc. But it’s rare for the more subtle differences to emerge, such that each group actually thinks differently and has different priorities in their cultural understanding of what is rude and what is polite, or even what is considered moral or immoral. This also plays into the ways different peoples can have fundamentally different understandings of the same historical events, and what kinds of stereotypes they would have about each other.

    Additionally, I have often seen where certain species all seem to carry the same stereotypes about themselves? For example, an elf might consider an orc boorish, loud, and uncivilized. In some cases this is also how the orc seems to view himself, and he values being boorish, loud and uncivilized. But I would think it more likely that the orc would view the same behavior under a different light entirely, as being forthright, friendly, and open, for example. That’s what really makes the bigotry kind of painful to read. In real life, the victim of bigotry never sees themselves the way the bigot sees them.

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  10. 1221bookworm says:

    I think you have a really unique premise of not needing racism when they have united against a common enemy so many times before. While, unfortunately, I think human nature will continue to find the differences once the threat has passed, I think, as you point out, continued reliance on each other makes the differences seem less, and the similarities exaggerated. Great take on a touchy subject.

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