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Villainous racism in fantasy

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Jabrosky, Jul 31, 2013.

  1. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    I have started the first chapter of a novel (over 1,000 words into it now), and in it I introduce both my heroine Sekhotep and my villain Ishtar. They're both queens of their respective countries, but Sekhotep is Black African and Ishtar is Middle Eastern. Now the moment they meet each other in the first chapter, Ishtar throws some nasty racial insults at Sekhotep (e.g. mocking her hair, skin color, and backside), and needless to say this gives Sekhotep the motivation to defend her country from Ishtar's invasion.

    Now my idea is to make Ishtar an especially despicable character so that the audience roots for Sekhotep, but I am concerned that including this racism might offend readers. It's one thing to have historically appropriate racism in a period piece, but since my setting is fantastical (albeit influenced by history) I don't really have the excuse of historical accuracy to justify the villain's slurs.

    Would you be uncomfortable with a villainous character's blatant anti-black racism in a fantasy work?
     
  2. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I'm not uncomfortable with villains being as nasty, mean, and inappropriate as the author wants them to be. They're villains. You're likely going to get some people who are offended, but I think most readers can make the distinction between the acts and words of a despicable villain and something that is meant to portray racism in a positive light.
     
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  3. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    That's what I would expect, but it is still irritating to have a vocal minority of hyper-sensitive people accusing you of malicious attitudes simply because of what your bad guys say. You may recall how upset certain people got at the movie Django Unchained for its liberal use of a certain word, for instance.

    In all honesty I wouldn't think my question would be worthy of its own thread since there were many past threads devoted to a similar subject, but I didn't want to engage in thread necromancy.
     
  4. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    It happens. Some people got upset when Loki used a sexual slur in The Avengers. My thought was "Hello! Bad guy!"
     
  5. Addison

    Addison Auror

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    As it's fantasy and you're not calling them African-american or anything then I don't think you'll get bad feed back. But, personally, I believe that anyone who hates another just for their skin color or anything as skin-deep as that is just shallow. So this could add something to your villain, show just how petty she is.
     
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  6. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    You can't control people's reactions, especially those that aren't well founded. The only thing you need to do is portray your characters honestly. If this villain is the no holds barred, slanderous, abusive, racist type then you shouldn't hinder his tongue. It will only ring false. If he's a twisted bastard, he's a twisted bastard.

    Be true to the character.

    Trying to establish some link between an author's characters and their own personal morality is fool hardy. I wouldn't give those voices a moment of thought. The character's voice is far more important.
     
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  7. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    I should add that I've also encountered the attitude that having blatantly racist villains would make my story appear preachy about race relations. For my part, I do want racial themes to play a role in my story, as it is a subject I care about deeply. I guess the real question is how to write touchy themes without preachiness.
     
  8. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    You just tell the story from a truthful character viewpoint. It's real for them, not merely a social issue. That minimizes any preachy tones.
     
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  9. Twook00

    Twook00 Sage

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    What did Stephen King say? Tell the truth? If you're going to do that then you'll surely step on a few toes, but that's what you want out of a villain.

    I think hinting at why the villain is what he is will help it feel more like it's coming from him and not from you.
     
  10. C Hollis

    C Hollis Troubadour

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    I think things tend to get preachy when other characters point out what the reader should already know (which is also condescending). If a person is racist, and their dialog and actions show that, then there is no need for Billy Good Guy to point it out.

    I think if you avoid that, then you avoid being preachy.

    I actually stopped reading a popular series because the author got all preachy about organized religion. His voice actually came through via the main character when he started thinking about situations that had already been made clear. Funny thing was, I actually agree with that author on a lot his points.
     
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  11. teacup

    teacup Auror

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    I personally think it's stupid when people get upset over racism, sexism, etc, from a character, because it's a character. You can't have a racist character who's not going to be racist at all, can you? If anything, it's good, because you're painting racism to be bad, as it's associated with the despicable villain. Just do it, I'd say.
     
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  12. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

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    Just one (black) guy's opinion: you're totally fine. I mean, it's a villain. Villains do bad things. I have a couple villains in my WIP who are motivated almost entirely by their racism. I can understand why you would ask this question, but it's extremely obvious to anyone of reasonable intelligence that you're not supporting racism. So I don't think there's anything to worry about.
     
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  13. Mara Edgerton

    Mara Edgerton Troubadour

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    When Loki--um, Tom Hiddleston--came to recruit his army at Comic-Con, he used that same slur against two guys, lol. (Man, that was a great appearance. I want to sign up for Loki's army. :p)

    Re the OP: as long as it's the character who's racist, and not the author, I don't see a problem. A book like Gone With the Wind, on the other hand, is problematic since the author seems to endorse the racism. But I'm kinda thinking that won't be your problem, Jabrosky. :)
     
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  14. Sam James

    Sam James Dreamer

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    One problem that might have readers cringing and stop reading is a lot of racial slurs (especially about black people) are often based on western ideals of beauty, which differ greatly from traditional African ideals. (For example you mention a large backside.)

    Even though it is your character saying them, not you. You may very well choose slurs which give away the story as being written from a modern western perspective, breaking the immersion.

    I would consider other forms of racism not relating to physical appearance. You have a whole culture to draw slurs from. Have the queen say that the others are known to eat dog meat, or are inbred, or when they speak it sounds like a pig snorting. You have many more options than just physical appearance to consider.
     
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  15. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

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    Honestly, you really need to stop worrying about this and just write it as it ought to have happened in such a milieu. Would the people of (say) 1500 BC have any sort of concept of the 1st World sensitivity to racism that (I hope) most of us share on this forum?

    No, they would not. They would have revelled in the detestation of otherness in all its forms OR not noticed otherness at all depending on the milieu and social condition. There is absolutely no way that otherness would have manifested as any sort of moral concept at all.

    So that's the way to write it. Racism, as we understand it morally, is a comparatively modern thing and you run a risk introducing such devices into a milieu that didn't have it.

    As for racism itself - it is a hideous thing in the modern world. My most successful book was, in part, a crusade against racism but in order to do that I had to have some racists and I made them pretty bad. What's more, as I always do, I really got into their heads when writing the characters and they say and do some appalling things. But you can't have a novel about racism without some pretty convincing racists.

    Of course, two of them got the most dreadful comeuppance, and the other two were profoundly changed. So there were no racists left at the end.

    Which is what we all want, I hope.
     
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  16. Amanita

    Amanita Maester

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    In my opinion, the only thing you should be careful about is avoiding any slurs or remarks directly related to the specifics of US-history in some way. If you do that, it seems to the readers af if you're trying to preach about modern issues of your own culture rather than giving a realistic portrayal of your fantasy ones.
    The general idea that villains are evil shouldn't bother most readers or so I hope. If they're the antagonists who the characters the reader is supposed to support fight against, this should make it pretty clear that the author doesn't endorse their view point.
     
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  17. Gecks

    Gecks Scribe

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    I don't think there is a problem here - it is the character who is being racist, not you. Just like if your villain wanted to blow up the world, doesn't mean you do! I would suppose it would be a bad plan to go too over the top, as (and it has been mentioned already) so people might find it cringey if there is a large number of racial slurs. But I don't think it is an issue for your character to be and act racist.

    However, be aware there will always be people who will get upset offended.

    Even though this had no -isms involved, I managed to offend some people with an evil text-based role-play character once. She basically just liked to murder people (of course I was banned from having her murder anyone else's character without their permission... so she just went after a large number of NPCs or short terms chars people created for her). A lot of people had difficulty drawing the character/puppet-master line and I got a lot of comments like "you are so evil" "I can't believe Gecko did such and such" "how can you..." etc. Eventually, I was asked to have my character get murdered (which I did, dramatically). A lot of people really acted like I was her.

    I think it is the same often in writing, where people imagine the person doing the writing is, in fact, the character (somehow) or at least shares the thoughts or ideals of the character...
     
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  18. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Auror

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    Looks pretty good to me. The only thing which I don't really understand is if Sekhotep would lack motivation to defend her own country from a foreign invasion if she had not been insulted?

    But in all it sounds pretty good and I wouldn't be to concerned really: Art isn't about pleasing everyone - as someone much greater than me once said, or something like it anyway, some time ago.
     
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  19. SineNomine

    SineNomine Minstrel

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    When you are dealing with sensitive topics, the best course is to work hard to not make it cheap. What I mean by that is to not use it as a short cut to make us hate someone and have it be no deeper than that. Is Ishtar virulently racist, is she simply a mean person acting mean, or is she trying to use insults more tactically to get Sekhotep to act in a certain way? If it is the former and is really a racist, expand in the story why she feels this superiority and why it motivates her. If it is that she is just a bad person, have her be equally insulting to other characters, and if she doesn't meet anyone else in person she can be a dick to, then just have her throw offhanded insults at other people throughout to cement home who she is. If it is tactical, you can easily lampshade it to let people know it's all part of her plan to rile Sekhotep up.

    In my experience, people only get mad when you use something like that as a complete throwaway and the story would be exactly the same without it.
     
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  20. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    Just in case anyone's curious about the scene in question, I've posted it in the Showcase just now.
     
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