Bad Apples Spoil the Barrel: On Writing Realistic Oppressive Societies, Part II

In my previous post, I discussed the fact that society-wide inequality and oppression are the result of systems, not just the efforts of a few ‘bad apples’. After all, the full saying is that ‘a few bad apples spoil the barrel’– that is, for every person actively terrorizing a marginalized group, there must be many more who are to some degree complicit. This can range from people who don’t know the problem exists to those who completely believe propaganda about the problem to those who were ‘just doing their job’.

The upshot is that while your marginalized characters will likely encounter a few shouting, cartoonist bigots, they will mostly be fighting an overall system and society that sees them as less than human. Many people who oppress them will not see themselves as oppressors– some, in fact, may see themselves as actively helping marginalized people.

So what does this system of oppression actually look like? Here are some real-life ways   power imbalances are maintained, none of them mutually exclusive:

  • Captivity
  • Unequal legal system
  • Double standards and biased criteria for education, jobs, etc.
  • Lack of access to public spaces and services
  • Segregation
  • Forced removals/relocation
  • Physical assault
  • Martial law
  • ‘Reeducation’ or other forced assimilation programs.

Think about which of these are in play in your setting, and how they manifest. As unpleasant as this is to research or create (depending on whether your setting is real-life history or a constructed world), you need to think about details and the internal logic of the oppression. Is the dominant class trying to wring an indefinite supply of free labor out of people? Or drive them to extinction and take their stuff? Or push the ‘competition’ out of their way? Exploring those questions in depth will give you a more realistic and meaningful portrayal of an unequal and oppressive society than simply adding some mustache-twirling bigots.

It’s also worth fleshing out how these systems manifest not just in dramatic ways, but as part of the characters’ ‘daily grind’– the endless parade of low-grade discrimination, scorn, erasure, and aggression, coupled with the endless emotional labor of finding the response to such behavior that will allow them to survive another day. Defiance is not always a viable option, but sacrificing one’s autonomy, and dignity and ‘sucking it up’ also comes at a high price. If this is not something you experience, I’d recommend checking out some examples of the type of microaggressions experienced by marginalized folks all around you.

Of course, the details will be specific to your setting, plot, and characters. But understanding how and why these unequal power dynamics exist in the real world will give your setting the realism it needs to resonate as a depiction of systemic injustice.


Help, Help, We’re Being Oppressed: On Writing A Realistic Oppressive Society Part I

Some months ago, NPR ran a  poll, which found that 55% of white Americans believe their demographic, as a whole, suffers from discrimination.  These beliefs likely stem from fear of change, or discomfort with moving from a heavily rigged system to a (very slightly) fairer version. But my personal observations would indicate that part of the problem is how we talk  about bigotry and oppressive societies.

In some cases, it’s a perspective problem, wherein people producing fiction and nonfiction media have not experienced the discrimination about which they are telling a narrative, and leverage tropes and imagination instead of lived experience or research. Those particular tropes are then self-feeding, and contribute to an environment where narratives that present a different perspective are dismissed as ‘inauthentic’.

In my observation, there are two key problems with how media– particularly mainstream fictional media– portrays oppressive societies. First, the bigotry in the setting appears without explanation. People just hate and discriminate the targeted group with no context or motivation. Second, oppression is framed as the actions of a few ‘bad apples’ rather than being part of a larger system. The villains are not shown to be products of their environment, or having tied their fortunes to their participation in an awful system; instead, they are just evil for sheer enjoyment.  (Extra self-awareness failure points for narratives that flag the ‘bad apples’ as being bad apples due to their membership in a marginalized group).

On a very surface level, its just not realistic. This is because real-world systems of oppression are, well, systems. For example, the British and Spanish empires could never had kidnapped and enslaved 10 million West Africans without the active cooperation of thousands of sailors, sugar merchants, weapons manufactures, and a whole bunch of people who either wanted to buy human beings or were sanguine enough about their neighbors doing so not to make a fuss. Although individuals who commit atrocities seemingly for laughs have existed throughout history, most people who prop up unjust and abusive systems do so because they have been misinformed or not informed at all about the harm they are doing, or are complicit out of fear for their own safety or material comfort.

The first question you have to address is why the power imbalance exists.  Was there a war? Settler colonialism? Mass immigration? Mass enslavement? Something else? If you’re going to write about systemic inequality and discrimination– whether a real-life example or a fantasy counterpart– you need to understand how this system came to be. People do arbitrarily pick on difference, but petty personal malice will not built the machinery of mass oppression, which requires mass cooperation in maintaining inequality.

Second, you need to explore why the inequality persists. Usually, it’s about resource hoarding– those in power do not want to give up access to free/cheap labor, or return stolen lands or goods, or stop sitting on golden toilets, or the like– but there are conceivably other issues at play, especially in a speculative fiction setting.  Whatever it is, the motivation has to be strong enough to uphold both society-wide oppression and personal bigotry.  Often these systems become self-perpetrating, with propaganda feeding prejudice, and the prejudice being used to justify the system itself.  People who participate in this injustice don’t necessarily see themselves as bigoted, but rather rational, based on the self-serving stereotypes and social norms they have observed.

Next time, we’ll talk about how to swap out your mustache-twirling ‘bad apple’ for realistic depictions of systemic oppression.

Let’s Play Monopoly

339841374cc7a451b4d7995201445940-el-hobbit-hobbit-artThis year, millions of people across the United States called and emailed Congress and the FCC to demand that the internet remain an information democracy.  Like many  essential resources that require a lot of infrastructure– such as roads, running water, hospitals, and telecommunications networks– are prone to being exploited by a monopoly.

Exclusive control over a critical resource is, unfortunately, a common way for the power-hungry to seize and accumulate a vast amount of wealth and power.  The resource doesn’t have to be scarce if the entity which controls said resource can create an illusion of scarcity. For example, DeBeers long maintained a diamond stockpile which would have dropped prices dramatically if released at the rate they were mined; however, by controlling the number of diamonds available on the market at any time, they were able to keep prices artificially high.

Whether you’re writing about a historical setting, a contemporary real-life setting, or building a fantasy world from scratch,  consider who controls the resources. If there is genuinely equitable distribution of resources in your universe (such as the setup implied by Star Trek), how did this come to pass, and how is this system protected against individual greed?

If there is a monopoly on some resource in your setting, how does that effect the daily lives of the population, your characters in particular. If the monopoly is centered around a luxury good, it may not concern your characters much– unless the elites decide to start a resource war. Alternately, if there’s an artificially restricted supply of a good or service that people across all social strata need– water, medicine, housing– then the stage is set for a major power struggle.

Even if  your setting doesn’t have a monopoly on goods or services that effects the lives of your characters in a tangible way, thinking about who controls those goods or services is a useful worldbuilding exercise that can enrich your plot and setting.


The Art of Infodumping

In his list of eight basics of creative writing, Kurt Vonnegut instructs aspiring writers to ‘start as close to the end as possible” when telling a story.  This is excellent advice– we the audience want to get pulled into the story right away, and that means starting as close as context (and key plot buildup) allows before your protagonists spots the Council bulldozers coming for his house or meets a sexy stranger who needs to be rescued from the faeries, or emerge from wandering the jungle to found a Colombian town*.

However, this creates another problem. You, the author, have to convey the relevant backstory and context around your plot and characters. If you are writing fantasy,  sci-fi, historical fiction, you need to provide additional information so your audience can make sense of your story. This is also true if your setting includes a culture– fictional or otherwise– with which your audience will be unfamiliar (this goes double if you are writing about people who are widely misrepresented in popular culture due to racism, classism, etc).

At the same time, we’ve all been warned to avoid the dreaded Infodump. This is less of a problem in certain genres– some hard historical fiction writers use the third-person omniscient voice to fill us in, delivering entertaining nonfiction history lessons interspersed with the story, and some humorists turn the exposition into an opportunity for jokes. ‘Found’ stories structured as letters, diaries, and so forth collected by an editor can also accommodate an introductory infodump without breaking plot momentum.

If you’re not writing in a genre with easy opportunities for infodumping, however, there are other ways to get your audience up to speed without bringing the action to a screeching halt:

  • Noobs: Your character(s) arrive in a new location, or confront a new threat, or start training for a new job. They all have to learn what’s going on, and because the audience is learning with them and seeing their reactions to this new information, it keeps the story on pace.
  • Arguments: Characters disagree how to respond to a problem in their world, and they bring out competing ideas, backed up with information and evidence. The suspense over the final decision that characters make with that information
  • Outsiders: A background character who is not familiar with the setting can ask questions on the audience’s behalf. If done sparingly, it can be a way to quickly introduce key exposition.
  • Descriptive details: Make sure you use specific nouns, and describe the sights, sounds, smells, activities, clothing, foods, commerce and traditions in your setting. Saying ‘she slipped a green cotton dress over her head ‘ give the audience a lot of information about the setting compared to ‘she got dressed’.

Using one or more of these techniques, you can build up a richly developed setting for your story, without having to stop the plot for paragraphs of exposition. That said, even Vonnegut admitted that some of his favorite authors broke all of his ‘rules’, so if an infodump really speaks to you, you’re in good company among speculative fiction authors.  In the end, it’s your world.

*Nerd points to whoever identifies all three stories correctly in the comment section!



Vanishing Act: On Settler Adoption Fantasies, Part VI

The final act of the Settler Adoption Fantasy, of course, requires the disappearance of the indigenous people so that the settler may inherit their place as the rightful heir to their identity, traditions, and land. In the words of Patrick Wolf, ‘Settler colonialism destroys to replace’.

CN: genocide, anti-indigenous racism,

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Playing Victim: On Settler Adoption Fantasies, Part V

Colonialism is a violent, non-consensual process, and even the most sheltered of Settler Adoption Fantasy narratives must eventually include that violence in order to maintain some veneer of realism. Since the Settler Adoption story is completely concerned with coddling colonialist thought and assuring the colonizers that their actions are correct and that they are the true heirs of indigenous lands and culture, this presents a narrative hurdle. How that hurdle is handled in fiction says much about the glamorization of group trauma and ‘victimhood’, and the conflation of personal grievance with systemic oppression that infuses Western politics.

CN: genocide, anti-indigenous racism

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Resource Extraction: On Settler Adoption Fantasies, Part IV

In my last post, I described how the indigenous characters in the Settler Adoption Fantasy primarily exist as props for the non-indigenous character’s self-discovery or coming of age, and to continually affirm how special the main character is.  As author Beverly Slapin observes: “If your protagonist is a white boy, make sure that your Indian character exists in order to teach him all about hunting, honor, dignity, loyalty, decency, and the necessity of washing up before dinner.”

But it isn’t really all about the protagonist’s personal growth. It’s about claiming a right to indigenous cultural, spiritual, and scientific knowledge, as well as staking a claim to indigenous homelands.

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