DISCRIMINATION WITHIN THE NARRATIVE

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I opened a topic about representation in games some time ago. I was pleasantly surprised that several pages in, that topic turned out to be surprisingly civil. This time, I want to talk about discrimination - not discriminating developers, but characters. It's pretty much a well-known staple plot of a fantastic race being oppressed (usually by humans), but there's a few questions I want to talk about:

-How do you handle discriminating characters within your narrative?
-What do you do to portay discrimination in a certain light?
-How do you write characters that are being discriminated against?
-Do you base this discrimination on something in the real world? If so, what are you inspired by?
-How does this discrimination in your narrative look like? How much of your plot is devoted to this?

For people who don't write about that:

-What depictions of discrimination are written well/badly to you?
-Which tropes are you sick of seeing in such plots?
-Which tropes would you want to be used more often?

Feel free to add any further questions to be answered. Also, put particularly harsh instances of discrimination in spoilers for the sake of people who are sensitive towards these things.
pianotm
The TM is for Totally Magical.
25619
I'm actually quite scared to make racist or otherwise bigoted characters, largely because of some of the conversations on this site. In a game I just made for the swapsies event, I actually have some harsh language, but an enemy calls the female protagonist a not very nice word to call a lady. The reason is because I wanted to show the villain being a purely hateful person. This should be reasonable. But I was still so nervous about it, I hid the word in @#&@&! speak. I'm afraid, regardless of the context, I'll be hit by this ridiculous PC hysteria everyone seems to have.
I can't speak for the others, but I personally don't see hateful people using targeted insults as wrong. Still, criticism to that is acceptable so long as it is only directed at the game and not its developer(s).

You're not alone, though - cartoons and comics do want to teach lessons about things like drug use, discrimination and abuse, but the strict regulations they have to follow often means that the lesson is either missing completely or twisted to something harmful.
One of the main themes in Steel Spirit SaGa is discrimination. In a world of magic users, one of the main characters, Zach is unable to use magic and he is frowned upon by the majority of people. While it's not racial hatred, it's still a form of discrimination that I'd like to tackle. Discrimination against people who are just different. It's based on my own experience of growing up with mental illness, people looking down on you, or treating you differently just because you don't behave like everyone else. Of course I try to look at both sides of discrimination, those who act negatively, and look down on you, or insult you, or avoid you because of who you are, and those who try to mollycoddle you. No matter which way you slice it, you're still treated differently, and for someone like me. I'd rather folk just act like I was an average, normal person.

And that's represented in Zach, who just wants to live his life in peace, accepted by his peers.

(Sorry if I've just talked a load of bollocks, it's not very often I get to open up about something I kinda feel strongly about.)
Jeroen_Sol
Nothing reveals Humanity so well as the games it plays. A game of betrayal, where the most suspicious person is brutally murdered? How savage.
3945
I feel having bigoted characters in a game is fine, as long as that bigotry is called out by another character at some point in the game.

I'll feel very weird if a character is a giant bigot and nobody in the entire game even comments on it. But if that character is confronted at some point about their bigotry, that can lead to some very interesting character development.
I think variation is a good method of exploring discrimination (or representation, for that matter). So you have a wide variety of characters fitting on a spectrum from extreme and irredeemable to mildly horrible, neutral, relatable, etc.

If the player quits your game because they think that one character saying something discriminatory means the whole work is discriminatory, then that is either the poor judgement of the player, or poor execution from the developer.

Depictions of bigotry can fall into heavy-handed melodrama. I'm not sure exactly why; I guess it's a matter of having all of X be sympathetic no matter what, and all the bigots be horrible no matter what, rather than having characters have a mix of traits to make them all more grey than black versus white.

I'll clarify that I don't think bigotry is acceptable or positive in any way, but certain times it is at least understandable - but still ultimately never excusable.

It's a complex issue in reality so it makes sense that works dealing with it should do so in a complex way. If too simplistic, then you run the risk of creating silly strawmen characters (although sometimes these are deliberately invoked).

Soooo... yeah. Complexity and thoughtfulness.

Personally, a form of discrimination I want to see portrayed more often is the kind I encounter very often - the character(s) claim(s) that they aren't bigoted, yet they will call out people who are being discriminated against if they wish for equality and claim this is them trying to establish a privileged position.

Also, commenting on someone's bigotry isn't strictly necessary - you can also have this view challenged with an event. Maybe they encounter a person they discriminate against that isn't anything like they believe. Maybe they see peers who are also bigoted, but to a degree way beyond the character could handle.
Jeroen_Sol
Nothing reveals Humanity so well as the games it plays. A game of betrayal, where the most suspicious person is brutally murdered? How savage.
3945
Sure, it's also fine if the character finds out they were being a bigot on their own and in that sense calls themself out on it. I just mean the game has to comment on the bigotry in some way. If it doesn't, it'll feel like the game is condoning the bigotry.
author=Jeroen_Sol
Sure, it's also fine if the character finds out they were being a bigot on their own and in that sense calls themself out on it. I just mean the game has to comment on the bigotry in some way. If it doesn't, it'll feel like the game is condoning the bigotry.


Yeah, I may have phrased myself a bit badly. After all, a narrative can say certain things without saying them.
LockeZ
I'd really like to get rid of LockeZ. His play style is way too unpredictable. He's always like this too. If he ran a country, he'd just kill and imprison people at random until crime stopped.
5236
As a white male American I find the theme of discrimination in works of fiction to be pointless and overdone! It doesn't resonate with me at all!

...I don't have any real advice except "Audiences get a lot less pissy about the topic if you use elves instead of black people"
When writing discrimination, I am generally writing discrimination against Furry characters (by which I mean anthros, not real world Furries) within my work. It's not something I do very often, though- It's just not an area I like to focus on as a writer, at the moment, since I'm trying to learn a lot more about more basic stuff. I write mainly about discrimination regarding Furry characters since it's something I am familiar with, so it comes easier.

I think when it comes to portraying discrimination, I don't like to go the classic video game route of blanket discrimination, that is, I don't write the entire setting to be discriminatory to a certain group of people (since I generally don't write small settings), and I don't write it so that the discrimination is magically fixed over the course of the narrative.

I am wary of using real world parallels or anything, since when dealing with Furries it will quickly become "They're comparing X to animals" or something like that. Mostly what I use for real world "inspiration" is just the fact that discriminatory beliefs will often change depending on what part of the world you're in, or even what town, or with what organization, or so on. That, and the fact that discrimination is largely based on both appearance and culture. Or at least, the type that I write is.

When it comes to dedicating plot to it, I do bring it into the plot, but not as a central focus. I generally write it more as part of lore than of the main story.
i think when it comes to discrimination in fantasy settings you have to be careful to avoid the X-Men Problem

which is when you have a parable about discrimination... and then don't use any actual minorities that are discriminated against. like in classic x-men, where it's supposed to be a metaphor about racism and homophobia... but then almost all the characters are white and straight. it makes it feel shallow and safe, like someone is trying to play the "RACISM IS BAD GUYS" card without actually condemning racism and losing racist readers. granted it was different in Ye Ol Comics Code, but this is a commonly seen trope, even nowadays. if people discriminate against elves but all your elves are white, pretty people, that look like humans with ears, it's a pretty shitty metaphor

granted, you can do something interesting on the basis of discrimination based on cultural differences alone, but there's no reason to not make your elves not look like the standard

another related topic, is when you have creatures such as orcs, that are discriminated against, but it's okay because they're EVIL and UGLY. besides being a tired trope, it brings to mind things like slave owners discrediting the humanity of black slaves. if they're EVIL and UGLY they're not human so it's okay to just use them as cannon fodder.

the use of Only Evil Races is in general a bit iffy. it's a bit of a storytelling copout, and it's such an old trope that most modern audiences roll their eyes at it. ugly, antagonistic races don't have to be always evil. i like how dragon age approached the qunari, because it felt more believable (unlike their treatment of mages, but that's neither there nor here)

anyway i'm kinda rambling but my point is Avoid Unfortunate Implications and don't rely on tired tropes
im on my lunch break and apparently feel this is the best use of my time, so I'll just answer part 1 of questions.

I still feel Writing With Color is a good 101-level resource. Here's a post about racism and fantasy, and honestly it's not too far off from my own feelings. I tend to fall into the "does not want to read about racism in fantasy because I like escapism" camp.

This post, about using "outdated" slurs to show racism, is super relevant to this kinda discussion even tho "should slurs happen?" is like, a sub-topic or not overall focus. Selected quote:

author=Mod Lesya, Writing With Color
Stella’s comment reminded me of Mad Max and a meta I read— how the misogyny in the villains is never actually pointed out, and instead it’s all the contextual clues that tell us they’re misogynistic. There’s no obvious marker, no one terrible thing that has society scream “bad person”, and one of the critical missing things is the slur ‘b*tch’. It’s never said by the villains about the women.

It’s kind of the same thing with racism. You don’t have to position racism as the bad person in the bushes ready to jump out and throw slurs at you, the single most obvious sign somebody is Racist and A Villain. Slurs end up lazy in a lot of ways because then you don’t have to explore what racism looks like outside of slurs.


Mod Lesya here brings up Mad Max: Fury Road, which I feel is an especially good example of portraying a sexist society. (and like, I think it's only good about sexism. Do not think it is good about some other things.)

also check out this Rainbow Pyramid. See all the things besides slurs or straight-up genocide that can convey "this society opresses X group of people".

-How do you handle discriminating characters within your narrative?
-What do you do to portay discrimination in a certain light?


Lumping these two together b/c my feelings apply to both. Generally, I try to condemn a particular action or way of thinking without condemning the character as a Bad Evil Person™. I generally try to avoid depictions of outright violence or using things like slurs. I have to say "generally" b/c I got a game where all of the above happens but it's not public yet and is the exception rather than the rule.

-How do you write characters that are being discriminated against?

It's a negative, upsetting experience. People react to it a variety of ways.

-Do you base this discrimination on something in the real world? If so, what are you inspired by?

I write with the mindset that everything ends up based on something in the real world b/c the real world is the only thing people have to use as a frame of reference even for the most fantastical ideas, in the end. so yes.

I'm "inspired" by my own experiences and researching what other people have said about their experiences with discrimination. Just because I've experienced discrimination does not make my personal experience the definitve, One True Opression, but having the personal experience does make some questions easy to answer.

-How does this discrimination in your narrative look like? How much of your plot is devoted to this?

Personal example people can go look at: In Free Spirits, the main characters' mother is transphobic. She misgenders her children and pressures them to lead "normal" lives. I think the first draft has some rough spots (totally has bits of the heavy-handed melodrama suzy_cheesedreams mentioned) but that's what happens when you make something under a time crunch.

The mother in this case is not portrayed as a mustache-twirling villain, but at the same time her claims ("If you get married and lead a normal life you'll be happy") are actively challenged by the narrative (characters responding with "I won't be happy because I'll be pretending to be something I'm not"). She has a complicated relationship with her kids, who loved and cared for her, but still didn't appreciate her being a shitlord about their genders.

Earlier in the game, there's a brief moment where another trans character mentions that he's not on speaking terms with his family due to his gender. It's framed as a "joke", in the way that people sometimes make light of clearly upsetting things in an effort to try and make them sting less.

Yet with another trans character, her being trans doesn't come up at all in the contest version and no one comments on it. Certainly no one uses any slurs towards her. Why bother when there's been players who do that.

In the grand scheme, there's not much talk or emphasis on discrimination. Our primary audience is trans people, and em and I were both of the mind that a heavy emphasis on discrimination wasn't what we wanted to write about. Yet, removing it entirely (especially in something set in "the real world") felt inappropriate.

Bonus:
-Which tropes are you sick of seeing in such plots?
what supersonicsoda said
kentona
I am tired of Earth. These people. I am tired of being caught in the tangle of their lives.
21227
Writing about discrimination exposes my ignorance, so I don't do it.
author=supersonicsoda
another related topic, is when you have creatures such as orcs, that are discriminated against, but it's okay because they're EVIL and UGLY. besides being a tired trope, it brings to mind things like slave owners discrediting the humanity of black slaves. if they're EVIL and UGLY they're not human so it's okay to just use them as cannon fodder.

the use of Only Evil Races is in general a bit iffy. it's a bit of a storytelling copout, and it's such an old trope that most modern audiences roll their eyes at it. ugly, antagonistic races don't have to be always evil. i like how dragon age approached the qunari, because it felt more believable (unlike their treatment of mages, but that's neither there nor here)


Warcraft 3 was great about subverting the evil-only races (though it holds truth for the Burning Legion) - The main story was about Thrall (an Orc) setting out to found a new civilization on Kalimdor based on a prophecy by Medivh, which gets the orcs away from humans who hate them and, as it turns out, an undead breakout (that they're all evil is subverted with Sylvanas Windrunner, who is not under the Lich King's influence like most undead are). A big part of the story is devoted to Thrall working out a mutual peace between the mortal races along with Jaina, culminating in humans, the horde and the elves working together to defend the world tree from Archimonde. (The other main story is a He Who Fights Monsters plot starring Arthas.)

Well, WoW messed this up quite badly in order to establish a neverending conflict between Alliance and Horde.
I dislike stories that rely on "ugly" equalling evil (not just an ugly evil race, but individual characters that are all conventionally unattractive, therefore EVIL). I remember one rather stark example from Tamora Pierce about a child-killing mage or something. He had terrible skin from nervousness because he was always thinking about hurting children. I mean, I thought it was silly enough when I was younger, and still think it's rather silly now.

I hate when there is cause in a story for a bunch of burly dudes to say "the little lady has might!" or something to that effect... For when a woman wants to be a badass warrior, she must expect a lot of scoffs on the path to glory. I much prefer the Dragon Age approach where women are just everywhere and doing any thing a dude would ordinarily be doing in another fantasy work. I'm not sure that it's executed flawlessly, but it's certainly preferable over the alternative.
pianotm
The TM is for Totally Magical.
25619
In defense of Tamora Pierce, one of her best villains, Sir Roger of Conte, was devilishly handsome with a Christopher Reeve grin. He was also the epitome of irredeemably evil. He was kind and brilliant and everyone loved him, and all he wanted to do was murder his whole family to gain the throne, and when he couldn't do that, decided to destroy the world.

suzy_cheesedreams
I hate when there is cause in a story for a bunch of burly dudes to say "the little lady has might!" or something to that effect... For when a woman wants to be a badass warrior, she must expect a lot of scoffs on the path to glory. I much prefer the Dragon Age approach where women are just everywhere and doing any thing a dude would ordinarily be doing in another fantasy work. I'm not sure that it's executed flawlessly, but it's certainly preferable over the alternative.


Yeah, I definitely feel you here. I have a preference for female protagonists in the stories I write, and it always feels cheesy and even a little sexist when a woman hero has to "earn" the approval of her male peers.
I loved the Tortall books when I was younger. I just remember being irked by that one particular character. Well, that and the romance between Numair and Daine, but that's neither here nor there...




author=supersonicsoda
the X-Men Problem
which is when you have a parable about discrimination... and then don't use any actual minorities that are discriminated against.
I was kind of expecting the "X-Men problem" to be how using something like a Mutant for a parable about real-life discrimination doesn't really make sense, since real-life minority/lgbt/etc people don't shoot laser beams out of their eyes.

Not gonna lie, if I was stuck in the world of X-Men, I'd be pretty racist against mutants, if only to keep my own hide from being cleaved in half or worse by someone who causes atomic explosions every time they sneeze or who-knows what else (or getting stepped on by a Sentinel as it chases a mutant).
It should be perfectly Ok to have a bigoted character in a story without having to call them out on it. Or rather, without conditioning their development to "character sees the error of their ways and stops being bigoted". A character can be just as interesting without it... Out of the top of my head I'm thinking of Merle from The Walking Dead. He's your stereotypical "redneck". He's staunchly racist, and an all around asshole. But this does not make him incapable of empathy or respect. He can still appreciate Michonne or Gleen ("POCs") at a personal level, and his love for his brother is genuine. At the end he redeems himself, but he probably still dies a bigot.

I don't meant to derail this thread or anything (Hey, I have to cover my bases. xD). This is more on response to what Piano said early. If people want to "self-censor" it should be only because they want to. It should be a conscious decision (at which point is not censorship anymore). But If they do it because they're afraid of some kind of backlash, then that's no good. Surely we agree.

The thing is, people are pushing a little to hard nowadays for this idea that you have some sort of 'responsibility' to avoid spreading "harmful messages" and whatnot. And that's nice and all, but I have to ask, who is your audience? 5 year olds? Do you really need to spell these things out to people? Why can't you just trust your audience to be able to tell apart right from wrong on their own? Is this what you want your story to be? A mouthpiece to broadcast your beliefs, and condemn those who don't align with them?

Hey, if that's what you want, I'd even say that's a perfectly valid thing to do. But that's not what everybody else may want from their stories. So maybe, don't be so judgmental when reading into these tropes and stuff? Most of the time those "messages" you see are not really there. And even if they are, it does not mean the author endorses them, or that audiences will adopt them...
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