December 17, 2017, 04:02:16 AM

Author Topic: Is the trope of evil monstrous humanoids problematic?  (Read 1377 times)

Offline NinjaRaptor

Is the trope of evil monstrous humanoids problematic?
« on: November 19, 2017, 10:59:43 PM »
I don't necessarily intend to discourage people from writing stories about evil orcs, goblins, lizardpeople, demons, etc. threatening human civilization if those truly are the stories in their hearts. But I've come not to care for that trope personally. The core idea seems to be that the forces of evil must necessarily look monstrous, ugly, or otherwise unattractive (by conventional human standards). In other words, subhuman.

The reason I'm bothered by this is that, historically, a lot of the evil that people have done to each other has been motivated by the perception that the victims were the subhuman ones. Very often, denigrating those people's natural beauty has come hand in hand with this dehumanization. For example, look at Jim Crow portrayals of African-Americans, or Nazi portrayals of Jews. They always make the subjects look hideous in addition to threatening.

Of course, orcs etc. aren't actually supposed to be Homo sapiens, let alone representative of any real ethnic group. But since they're traditionally depicted as monstrous in appearance as well as behavior, couldn't that reinforce the prejudicial link between evil and ugliness? Because, ironically, a lot of very real evil has been driven by that belief.
NEW self-published anthology:
Dinosaurs & Dames

Offline Dark Squiggle

Re: Is the trope of evil monstrous humanoids problematic?
« Reply #1 on: November 19, 2017, 11:59:18 PM »
I agree with you, and think this is a real problem. It is even more of a problem in Tolkien and Tolkien derived fantasy, as all of those 'species' elves, dwarves, humans, orcs, etc. have clear racial counterparts in the real world. This is more clear in Tolkien's own work then elsewhere, because of the languages, traits,and geological distribution he gives them, but still applies to his successors. I was particularly bothered by the Hobbit movie trilogy that chose to highlight this, such as when the dwarves fight with Bard and each other over their fare.
The 'Homo sapiens' argument doesn't help things because it has been used by such people as well. When the Spanish came to the New World, they decided that the Mayans/Aztecs/Inca were not human, and therefore not potential Christians, and gave them the legal status of animals. The rest is history.

Offline Peat

Re: Is the trope of evil monstrous humanoids problematic?
« Reply #2 on: November 20, 2017, 12:02:14 AM »
Can be. The link you draw is one that many people do and I see why it makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

I also think that, more than discomfort, its chief sin is making things too black and white. Its easy to kill the irredeemable. For a lot of people, that makes it boring. Some people just want to read adventure fantasy and don't give a hoot who the bad day of the jour is - I get like that too at times - but if the bad guy is just straight up bad mmkay then it cuts down on a lot of the complexity.

Ultimately though, I'm okay with it. I'm okay with the idea of absolute evil, I'm okay with exploring things that aren't true about humanity through the medium of the imaginary. I accept that it could reinforce poor real life behaviours but a) so can virtually anything b) at some point you've got to give the audience some credit for being able to spot the difference.

I would prefer the presence of absolutely evil races to be linked to some point of philosophy and statement about the human condition. There's a lot of mileage for examining to what extent making monsters of ourselves is acceptable when fighting monsters f'instance. But if people want to write adventure fantasy that draws on old school tropes, cool. Have fun. Heaven knows its far from the only thing in the fantasy catalogue that has problematic issues. Or make that fiction catalogue.

I am curious about the fact you've tied this to monstrous looking races and the whole ugly thing though (not that it hasn't been a way of making people seem subhuman). Would you consider the various breeds of batshit insane psycho elves to be less problematic because they're super pretty?

p.s. I don't see clear racial counterparts for Tolkien's species.

Offline The Gem Cutter

  • Captain Analogy
  • Writing Group
  • Master Namer
  • ******
  • Posts: 2326
  • Total likes: 1766
  • Gender: Male
  • We've exhausted all possibilities - time to begin.
    • View Profile
    • The Gem Cutter Tales
Re: Is the trope of evil monstrous humanoids problematic?
« Reply #3 on: November 20, 2017, 12:46:23 AM »
Doesn't bother me in the slightest because I am not looking at real world parallels, and even if I was, I would not hold a work or author responsible for my conclusions. That would, in my opinion, be unfair - I do not think anyone should care about my subjective conclusions of a subjective piece of art, or anyone else's. The idea that there is an objective assessment that can used to reveal the 'true' meaning is flawed and quite out of date.
We humans prize our ability to compare and see patterns. But even though you can see faces in clouds doesn't mean they are there; even less can one hold the weatherman accountable for their handsome or loathsome demeanor.
Ultimately the ugliness mentioned arises not from the work but in the hearts of those who read it and use it for equally questionable purposes - to reinforce ugly ideas.
The Gem Cutter
"Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There's always the possibility of a fiasco. But there's also the possibility of bliss." - Joseph Campbell

Offline tebakutis

  • Falsely Puffed Up Rascal Pig and Writing Contest Regular
  • Writing Group
  • Master Namer
  • ******
  • Posts: 2115
  • Total likes: 1476
  • Gender: Male
    • View Profile
    • www.tebakutis.com
Re: Is the trope of evil monstrous humanoids problematic?
« Reply #4 on: November 20, 2017, 01:18:28 AM »
Great question.

I see both sides of this trope as problematic - both the implication that "other" or "non-human-looking" races are so often inherently evil, and the fact that pure "black and white" morality narratives bore the hell out of me. I absolutely prefer that both sides see themselves as being "right" even if their morality is skewed horribly from what we'd perceive as such. Though you could argue this is just reframing *why* an antagonistic race is doing something, while still keeping them antagonistic.

If the orcs of LotR were reframed as fighting (what they see) as a war to carve out a nation for themselves after being relentlessly persecuted and murdered by humans (perhaps even having their ancestral lands stolen and taken over) they could still be the "bad guys" from the perspectives of the protagonists. But at least then you understand why they are fighting, rather than "We're evil!"

That's one thing that the World of Warcraft universe has always done well, IMO. As it has evolved you can see the rationale for why the various factions do things and consider themselves right, even if you wholeheartedly disagree with why they are doing it. And I will always find conflict between two groups who both think they are right/good/moral more interesting that conflict between good (because we're good!) and evil (because we're evil!)
T. Eric Bakutis: 2014 Compton Crook Finalist and author of Tales of the Five Provinces

You can read my cyberpunk police procedural Loose Circuit for free at the link!

Offline cupiscent

Re: Is the trope of evil monstrous humanoids problematic?
« Reply #5 on: November 20, 2017, 02:04:50 AM »
I am, at base, disinterested in fantasy races, because it's not as though humanity itself doesn't contain multitudes.

The correlation of ugly and evil (and, correspondingly, fair of face with fair of nature) is a pernicious one. It crops up even in fiction that seems to be fighting against it, where "Beauty" gets to know the "Beast" and realises he's "not so ugly after all"--where the discovery of (contradictory?) moral beauty translates itself to a perception of greater physical beauty that doesn't actually exist. "Beauty" often becomes a shorthand analogy for "humanity" which is problematic all by itself. (This, of course, also applies to correlations of ugly and stupid, or lazy.)

I don't think that Tolkien can be blamed for that one. He was just plugging into a deep vein of human sentiment that the pretty elves are good and the ugly trolls/orcs/whatnot are evil. (The dwarves can be good because they are industrious, somewhat like humans. We have to earn it.)

Mostly, though, I get bored with non-human baddies because, like others have outlined, having "inhuman evil" villainous forces is like zombies--you never have to feel bad about killing dozens of them, so you can have heaps of slay-fest action scenes! (I find such scenes a total snore.)

Offline Peat

Re: Is the trope of evil monstrous humanoids problematic?
« Reply #6 on: November 20, 2017, 07:56:11 AM »

I don't think that Tolkien can be blamed for that one. He was just plugging into a deep vein of human sentiment that the pretty elves are good and the ugly trolls/orcs/whatnot are evil. (The dwarves can be good because they are industrious, somewhat like humans. We have to earn it.)


Until you get to the Silmarillion and see how their massive hubris is to no small extent responsible for all the problems shown in LotR anyway. Feanor is arguably a sympathetic villain, but a villain nevertheless.

Although given how large numbers of his villains started as wholesome normal peoples and became corrupted into non-human forms, I think he's doing more than plugging into human sentiment, but to a certain extent setting out a vision of how power and evil corrupts and degrades.
This is the blog of Peat - http://peatlong.blogspot.co.uk/

Offline cupiscent

Re: Is the trope of evil monstrous humanoids problematic?
« Reply #7 on: November 20, 2017, 09:02:48 AM »
Innnnteresting, Peat, thanks. I admit to never having made it further than a few dozen pages in the Silmarillion before lapsing into hibernation.

Though it could be argued that "corrupted into non-human forms" is problematic all by itself: humanity is capable of evil, and capable of not looking evil while being it. (Again, this is a common humanity problem that Tolkien just reflects. And he's nothing like alone. The fact that Voldemort looks less human as he becomes more evil is not JKR's finest moment of nuance. But all the authors/creators who hit this trope are just making the villain "believable" to the audience, because we all want to think that we can see the villainy.)

This is a big good story/story expectations vs reality issue. The problem runs deeper than the story issues.

Offline Eli_Freysson

Re: Is the trope of evil monstrous humanoids problematic?
« Reply #8 on: November 20, 2017, 09:17:47 AM »
Doesn't bother me in the slightest because I am not looking at real world parallels, and even if I was, I would not hold a work or author responsible for my conclusions. That would, in my opinion, be unfair - I do not think anyone should care about my subjective conclusions of a subjective piece of art, or anyone else's. The idea that there is an objective assessment that can used to reveal the 'true' meaning is flawed and quite out of date.
We humans prize our ability to compare and see patterns. But even though you can see faces in clouds doesn't mean they are there;

I agree with this. I don't wish to offend anyone, but I feel that lately, as a side effect of increased awareness, there are sections of the western world that seem to be looking for reasons to wring their hands.


If the orcs of LotR were reframed as fighting (what they see) as a war to carve out a nation for themselves after being relentlessly persecuted and murdered by humans (perhaps even having their ancestral lands stolen and taken over) they could still be the "bad guys" from the perspectives of the protagonists. But at least then you understand why they are fighting, rather than "We're evil!"

Tolkien's orcs are not a naturally occurring species. They were specifically bred to serve as troops for Morgoth, and later Sauron. A god of pure evil obsessed with conquest wouldn't have any reason to give his cannon fodder empathy or other positive traits. And as I understand it the orcs are ugly because Morgoth is basically destruction incarnate; he can't create, just warp and destroy.

And when it comes to other works I see no reason for why an author can't create a species that evolved to have much more aggression and less empathy than humans. Fast enough reproduction rates could maintain a stable population through constant internal and external fighting. Although, yes, I feel that an author should be careful not to draw parallels to real demonised ethnic groups.

I recently found this write-up of Lizardfolk from D&D, and I find it an interesting take on a sapient species that doesn't really have emotions:

http://gdnd.wikidot.com/race:lizardfolk

They don't mourn fallen comrades or feel anger at enemies. They may come to appreciate an individual at a sort of an intellectual level, but if that person dies they just become a food source. I recommend reading it.


Though it could be argued that "corrupted into non-human forms" is problematic all by itself: humanity is capable of evil, and capable of not looking evil while being it. (Again, this is a common humanity problem that Tolkien just reflects. And he's nothing like alone. The fact that Voldemort looks less human as he becomes more evil is not JKR's finest moment of nuance.

But humans are also capable of good, of creativity and aesthetics and acts of kindness. "Where the falling angel meets the rising ape" I believe is how Terry Pratchett summed it up. So I can see how a human being twisted into something not-human as abandoning what makes us worthwhile is a concept that can work.
I've never read the Harry Potter books themselves, but wasn't Voldemort's physical transformation a symbol/symptom of his utter depravity and lack of connection with people? I mean, what kind of person has the slightest appreciation for human contact and yet lets their body twist into something that makes interaction virtually impossible?
« Last Edit: November 20, 2017, 09:24:34 AM by Eli_Freysson »
I'll notify your next of kin... that you sucked!

Offline Magnus Hedén

  • High Lord of commas and Grand Master of semicolons
  • Builder
  • ******
  • Posts: 112
  • Total likes: 89
  • Gender: Male
  • My name is Magnus. I make stuff up.
    • View Profile
    • My Patreon
Re: Is the trope of evil monstrous humanoids problematic?
« Reply #9 on: November 20, 2017, 09:58:46 AM »
I think it's very human to want to move evil onto an other. After all, dehumanisation has enabled every genocide in history.

But dehumanisation is not just something we do during world wars. If you actively look for it in your everyday life you will find it everywhere. It's how we identify our tribe; the people outside of it are not quite as human as we are. They are capable of being slightly worse than us; therefore it is morally defensible to treat them differently.

At the extreme, we find the obviously morally corrupt; murderers, rapists, war criminals. No one would fault you for calling these people inhuman. It makes everyone feel better that there is something wrong with them and therefore, they are nothing like us (read, me). But if we looked closer at the path that brought them to commit atrocities we would inevitably find a human story. And that would make use face the uncomfortable possibility that we are capable of doing what they did.

Psychologically, everyone has a breaking point, but the pressure required to break varies. The 'problem' is that you don't have to go full-on Cuckoo's Nest to do terrible things. Horrible deeds have been committed by masses of ordinary people throughout history. Ironically, in turn, they become the victims of the same dehumanisation that made their actions possible; the constant references to a group of people as lesser, vermin, insects, animals — inhuman.

But closer to home, we still dehumanise the people around us in smaller ways; we attack people, not ideas ("oh man this guy is so stupid for believing in chemtrails"). Even in everyday talk, we use names that suggest people are less than us, intellectually and physically (beast, animal, pest, dog, insect, retard, etc.) And we hold people in our 'out' group to a different standard than people in our 'in' group.

The problem is that the stories our culture perpetuates tend to reinforce that mindset. I believe we are slowly digging ourselves out of that hole, but if you look at the most popular narratives today they are still oversimplified versions of the human story; us and them, black and white, good and evil.

I find it is often uninteresting to consume those stories (but not always; sometimes the value lies outside the narrative). And honestly, I find it — if not intellectually irresponsible, then certainly intellectually bland — to contribute to that pool of stories. I know I'm sitting on a high horse, here. And I'm definitely throwing stones in my glass house. Because it's impossible for me, or anyone else, to write a story not coloured by our biases. I work hard to avoid it, but the work I do to avoid it will inevitably be biased, as well.

And I've recognised some serious biases in my writing, as well as that of others. @Gem Cutter; a story is not a cloud. It was not randomly assembled but created and structured by someone with a conscious and subconscious mind. And most of the time it's the subconscious that's running the show, even if we don't like the implications of that. But we put our interpretation of the world into our writing — whether we intend to or not.

That doesn't mean that everyone who writes orcs as inherently evil is racist. To me, it just means they took the easy way out, followed the straight path. But if we want to write stories that evolve the collective narrative we have to question how and why the stories that are popular today are built. And then we have to look for ways to do it better. Every time.

More writers are doing just that, and there are some great examples of it out there (many are speculative fiction). But the bulk of what's being written is still a mere regurgitation of established ideas.

Now, feel free to push me off my high horse.  ;D
« Last Edit: November 20, 2017, 10:01:37 AM by Magnus Hedén »
You can find stories on my Patreon
I'm also on Twitter and the Book of Faces

Offline Peat

Re: Is the trope of evil monstrous humanoids problematic?
« Reply #10 on: November 20, 2017, 10:09:29 AM »
Innnnteresting, Peat, thanks. I admit to never having made it further than a few dozen pages in the Silmarillion before lapsing into hibernation.

Though it could be argued that "corrupted into non-human forms" is problematic all by itself: humanity is capable of evil, and capable of not looking evil while being it. (Again, this is a common humanity problem that Tolkien just reflects. And he's nothing like alone. The fact that Voldemort looks less human as he becomes more evil is not JKR's finest moment of nuance. But all the authors/creators who hit this trope are just making the villain "believable" to the audience, because we all want to think that we can see the villainy.)

This is a big good story/story expectations vs reality issue. The problem runs deeper than the story issues.

Yes it could and it is arguably all the worst for having a fairly deliberate hand (or at least what looks like one). But then - Gollum and the Ringwraiths are corrupted by cheating death, which I find fairly fair. The Orcs are corrupted by Morgoth as a deliberate perversion in every form - its not that evil alone made them that way. I don't know if that makes it better, worse, different, what mind.

And Voldemort is both. Do we want to see the villainy, or do we want to see logical repercussions to perverting the natural order, or both? Is there a difference between villainy and perverting what we see as the natural order? It would be pretty weird if someone who came back from the dead and ripped their soul into 7 different pieces.

I mean, yeah, it is problematic on some levels. But I think it is also a useful and logical tool for the genre. Maybe at times necessary. See all the complaints about Vampires who just look eternally pretty as a result of escaping death by becoming monsters.
This is the blog of Peat - http://peatlong.blogspot.co.uk/

Offline NinjaRaptor

Re: Is the trope of evil monstrous humanoids problematic?
« Reply #11 on: November 20, 2017, 03:15:54 PM »
I am curious about the fact you've tied this to monstrous looking races and the whole ugly thing though (not that it hasn't been a way of making people seem subhuman). Would you consider the various breeds of batshit insane psycho elves to be less problematic because they're super pretty?
I am less familiar with those portrayals, to be honest. But I guess they're still overly simplistic and one-dimensional, so no.
NEW self-published anthology:
Dinosaurs & Dames

Offline Peat

Re: Is the trope of evil monstrous humanoids problematic?
« Reply #12 on: November 20, 2017, 06:39:25 PM »
I am curious about the fact you've tied this to monstrous looking races and the whole ugly thing though (not that it hasn't been a way of making people seem subhuman). Would you consider the various breeds of batshit insane psycho elves to be less problematic because they're super pretty?
I am less familiar with those portrayals, to be honest. But I guess they're still overly simplistic and one-dimensional, so no.

If you're not that familiar with them, how do you know they're overly simplistic and one-dimensional?

Tbh, given how frequently Tolkien/D&D style Orcs are found in the same setting as D&D Dark Elves, I'm curious as to what books you've been reading with evil monstrous humanoids. There's really not a lot of flat out malevolent species in fantasy these days (with a lot of them tied to fantasy games, most of which have some form of Dark Elf). The two I can think of most easily are the Wheel of Time and The First Law. The Shanka are a sideshow in the First Law; the Shadowspawn overshadowed by the human servants of the shadow and counter-balanced by a monstrous race of humanoids that are pro-Light.

Maybe you think that all uses of fantasy races and species that have nigh-total ideological leanings are simplistic and one-dimensional. I can't agree. I think the webcomic Order of the Stick is a fantastic example of how evil humanoids offer plenty of complexity for inspection. Most books don't scratch deep at the surface and generally use humans for exploring their nuances, but the possibilities are there and most books do scratch at least a little.
This is the blog of Peat - http://peatlong.blogspot.co.uk/

Offline NinjaRaptor

Re: Is the trope of evil monstrous humanoids problematic?
« Reply #13 on: November 20, 2017, 08:30:50 PM »
Tbh, given how frequently Tolkien/D&D style Orcs are found in the same setting as D&D Dark Elves, I'm curious as to what books you've been reading with evil monstrous humanoids.
Well, one self-published book I've read (which I otherwise really enjoyed, by the way) had antagonistic lizardpeople fighting tribal humans. In that case, they were serving some kind of evil god. Another book I remember, which had the Warhammer brand on it, had human antagonists defending their realm from evil orcs and goblins.

 But when I wrote my OP, I didn't have only books in mind. I was thinking of a cliche I perceive in fantasy media in general.
« Last Edit: November 20, 2017, 08:53:05 PM by NinjaRaptor »
NEW self-published anthology:
Dinosaurs & Dames

Offline Peat

Re: Is the trope of evil monstrous humanoids problematic?
« Reply #14 on: November 22, 2017, 08:47:03 PM »
Tbh, given how frequently Tolkien/D&D style Orcs are found in the same setting as D&D Dark Elves, I'm curious as to what books you've been reading with evil monstrous humanoids.
Well, one self-published book I've read (which I otherwise really enjoyed, by the way) had antagonistic lizardpeople fighting tribal humans. In that case, they were serving some kind of evil god. Another book I remember, which had the Warhammer brand on it, had human antagonists defending their realm from evil orcs and goblins.

 But when I wrote my OP, I didn't have only books in mind. I was thinking of a cliche I perceive in fantasy media in general.

Ah right. I see. Hrrm.

Yes, it is something of a fantasy cliche. As in a lot of people associate it with fantasy.

But that doesn't mean its actually commonplace.

I think a lot of people form their opinions off of the big names in the room, see enough another examples to confirm it, and call it a day without thinking hard about what they're actually seeing.

Take Fantasy gaming, which I think is the most given to Good vs Evil mindsets in its backgrounds. You can see it in parts - fairly big parts - in D&D and Warhammer (although Warhammer prefers Not Great vs Really Bad), and that's two of the big four. But you can find monstrous races on both sides of the spectrum in Warhammer and most D&D settings (as well as elves, dwarves and humans). And Warcraft, the third of the big four (I'd say MtG is the fourth but I know little about it) has consciously moved away from it. Not to mention a big range of big to mid-list fantasy games that simply don't have time for that and happily use Orcs/Trolls/Lizardpeople etc.etc. as ordinary guys - Eldar Scrolls, Iron Kingdoms, Shadowrun, Exalted.  Think Dragon Age should be filed here too.

So... is it an accurate cliche? I guess at least partially, lord knows you can find it, but at least partially not. I'd say majority not. Just that there's two big overshadowing things that do use it a lot. But even then its not completely one note.

Which isn't saying "So lets go make Good vs Evil, Fair vs Foul after all". I think there's a reason its not the norm.  Just I'd like to see Fantasy Cliches that reflected what's actually going on. I'd say Orcs as Noble Barbarians is at least as common a trope right now, if not more so.