Having explored the psychology of conflict and the way that conflicts can go from simple disagreements to smashing galaxies with a Dimension Cannon, let’s take a look at some of the more personal elements of conflict. It’s a bit of a break from the galaxy-smashing thing, but the potential is there of course.
Let’s talk biases and bigotry, those steps that often let us climb the ladder to conflict. Or descend into the pit of conflict, whatever, pick your metaphor.
We’ve all encountered biases and bigotry in real life and been driven crazy by them. We know people affected by them. In our historical readings we’ve seen cases where biases and bigotry have led to atrocities with depressing regularity. Bias and bigotry is everywhere.
Which means that as world builders and creators, we need to think about these horrible things because they’re probably part of our worlds.
Worldbuilding isn’t for people afraid to get their brains messy. So since you have to write the biases and bigotries in your world, and the results of their existence, let’s talk about them.
But first . . .
A Quick Aside On Psychology
When discussing people’s biases and bigotry I am, of course, thinking of our fellow humans, humans in our settings, and human-alikes that we may create. If you are creating other species, you’ll need to ask just how similar they are to humans in how their minds work as they may have a completely different way of functioning (dare I say, an alien one). In turn that means their biases and bigotries may just work different than humans.
This is important to keep in mind as, when world building, when you try to make things believably alien, you need to be aware of your own biases as it were in making things just like people. In short, we’re all inclined to humanize – it’s part of being human – and we may well do that to the non-humans we’re designing. You don’t want things to be too human.
Besides, if you can design a species that functions in truly an alien way, that will be impressive for your readers, your players, and so on.
Enough on that, back to the pathologies. OK, one more detour.
A Quick Aside On Psychology II: Electric Boogaloo
Something to remember as we explore bias and bigotry in the characters and cultures in we create is that these attitudes often make sense to the people who have them. To others, to the reader or player, to you, they may seem quant or outright pathological – but to the people in your world they make sense, remain unquestioned, or have been dressed up in rational wording. How do you portray characters in ways people can connect with when there’s this disconnect?
I find the goal should be establishing empathy – can you (and your audience) understand the characters and cultures in question. Even if the reaction is ‘there but for the grace of the gods go I” when they realize they could be as messed up as a given character, that brings in empathy. If people can truly understand your world and its people, even in their darkest moments, then you’ve definitely got a good level of detail.
Now if people step out of your world and suddenly go “oh, ick, I sympathized with that character” count yourself fortunate since you let them suspend their reactions long enough to relate to someone truly dislikable. Well done.
OK Now onward . . . well, downward perhaps. We are talking bias.
Big Bad Boundless Bias
You are biased.
Sorry, but you are. We all are. We have certain experiences and traumas and insights that are going to bias us towards specific actions, judgements, and, yes people. Right now I bet a small amount of personal contemplation will reveal a range of people and things you have strong opinions on that are, let’s face it, perhaps a tad irrational or simply automatic and un-considered.
This is completely normal because it’s not like we spend all our time asking “hey, do I have stupid ideas?” If we’re mentally healthy and well-balanced people we confront our biases, deal with them, and go on. If not . . . well we’ll cover that later.
Because we, as people, have biases, the people and cultures we create would almost certainly have them as well (unless you’re doing some utopia-based setting). I’ve found a basic rule in understanding bias well enough to anaylze it and create it is this:
Bias is when opinion becomes solidified enough that it’s hard to change and distinctly affects our behavior. It has a a gravitational pull, it’s a weight that holds us to certain actions, and it takes a bit of effort to overcome.
I’m sure this makes you think of your own biases which are rather rock-solid and distinctly affect your behavior.
Why do we have opinions (and thus biases)? Because we’re limited by our own experiences and see things in certain ways. None of us are truly objective, none of us analyze everything we do all the time, none of us have a gods-eye view of things – and it always seems people who think they do have these traits are the real ones who are ragingly biased or outright bigoted.
Now let’s look at the characters in your world. I’ve gone on and on (and on) about how characters are viewpoints on your world. They are how people experience the world because they provide a point one can relate to, one can view through, and one that translates experience into something reader/player comprehendible.
That limited, narrowed, personal set of experiences, that specific lens? That’s where opinions come from – and when they solidify, that’s when bias comes in. All of your characters have biases because your characters are people with limited viewpoints – you just need to be aware of it.
Biases can be both personal and culture-wide. An entire family, city, country, or galactic empire can be biased about something and people won’t be aware of it because it’s simply common enough that that’s just what they do. We swim in biases, and as the classic saying goes, fish have no word for water.
It can be a bit of a shocking experience in writing some of our characters to realize they are or should be biased (or that we are and are projecting), but that’s what good worldbuidling is all about. Characters are “flawed” and personal because they’re persons.
It helps to stand back and think this over. So in writing bias, a quick checklist for you to keep in mind.
- Understand what opinions characters have about things. They’re going to have opinions anyway, so contemplating this will just build a better character and world.
- Understand where opinions become bias. Opinions can be analyzed, bias is a bit more ingrained and solid. Your characters’ experiences or background may help or hinder the formation of biases.
- Understand every character has opinions and thus have biases. Write them down for your world building notes (in fact, dividing up opinions and biases will help them be clearer).
- Understand the larger cultures role in biases and how characters pick them up (often innocently). It’s rare that any person is free of the flaws of their culture, so accept your characters may have those biases.
- Understand how your character regards their biases – often as reasonable. A mark of a good world builder and writer is that the characters biases and flaws make enough sense in their heads that people who normally would disagree with them can still relate.
A bias is a solidified opinion. But what happens when that bias becomes something more? That’s when it becomes bigotry. That’s when things get ugly.
Bigotry: Dense And Intense
If bias is what happens when opinions become solid, bigotry is what happens when bias collapses in on itself like a black hole and starts sucking in other parts of your life.
Read Donna Kossy‘s book “Strange Creations” (which you must read – in fact all her works explore humanity in its wildness) where she explored various ideas of human origins. In exploring many racially charged theories of human development, she noted that when people play “who’s tribe is best” they only play if they think they can win. In short, their various intense racial theories and such always seemed to be “hey, look I’m awesome and it’s justified by . . .”
That definition stuck with me for some time, and made me realize that the simplest way to understand bigotry – it’s when bias becomes so intense it’s a vital part of your life. The bigotry is not just a held opinion, or a solidified inclination, it’s when it is part of your identity that you may even work to maintain and that often spurs you to action. And rather unpleasant actions at that.
Like a black hole, it sucks in everything around it. In the case of raging bigots (which we’ve doubtlessly read about and encountered) it can even become a kind of insanity, coloring everything they see and enmeshing them in conspiracy theories. I’m sure it won’t take much digging to find some rather unpleasant things on the internet in that vein.
Bigotry is the point where opinions have not only ossified, but challenging them is something that produces an existential crisis, a challenge to one’s very core. To challenge the bigotry is to challenge this force in someone’s life that is powerful and contains part of their identity. To challenge it is to challenge who they are (even if they’re not aware it plays sucha vital role).
Bigots often have to engage in acts to reaffirm their bigotry and justify it – it takes action to keep maintaining that level of hatred, even passive or passive-aggressive ones. To not reassert it is to not reassert oneself, and to threaten one’s identity. You have to feed the black hole.
Of course these actions may often be self-destructive. If you’ve ever met a person with racial bias who talks about “those people and how we should do something” without realizing the irony that “those people” have good reason to hate him/her, you get the idea. By the time we get to bigotry, rational thought and empathy are out the window, and we can at most hope the bigotry is contained or limited.
Human cultures almost always have some bigotry in them or the potential for bigotry in the form of strong biases. Sometimes it’s something that evolved due to various reasons that may make some sense, but the irrationality is still there. Sometimes it comes and goes – and at times it goes full black hole and everything goes to hell.
Creating and writing bigotry can be a downright unpleasant experience for people, because we have to step into the minds of characters in unpleasant states, and of course confront our own issues. All of us have opinions, many of us are biased, and some of us may have to face unpleasant bigotries past and present.
However, like writing biases, writing and creating bigotry right is important. Again, Worldbuilding is challenging.
So to help us understand and create believable bigotry, a few rules:
- Understand the opinion-bias-bigotry pathway and look at where it starts and stops in your characters and cultures.
- Bigotry is almost always part of identity. Changes in identity can increase it – or decrease it.
- Bigotry in cultures is usually tied to identity as well.
- Because it’s irrational, it leaves to irrational behaviors – for cultures and people. As a writer/creator you have to step inside the head of those with bigotry to understand why they do things, and how they react to the realists.
- Bigotry doesn’t seem like bigotry to the people experiencing it – and often seems harder to overcome because it’s so tied to identity and so “dense.” At times a person’s bigotry may seem to border on the insane – while they’re functional otherwise.
- Bigotry is something that may be manipulated by people in a culture or institution as a form of power – they’re aware of it (even if unconsciously), and use this powerful force. People in your stories may not be bigots but may be invested in maintaining bigotry.
- Rampaging bigotry is often where the bigotry does become insane, and one commits atrocities and irrational acts due to it – acts that often lead to consequences.
- Remember when I mentioned psychological balance earlier? Bigots in a way are working to maintain it, but because their belief system is unbalanced, it requires excessive belief and activities to do so.
Remember, It’s a Continuum
I think the opinion-bias-bigotry continuum is a useful tool for creating worlds, cultures, and characters. It lets you ask where along the lines ideas, behaviors, beliefs, and cultural norms reside. That also lets you know when things may go off the rails into bigotry-fueled nightmares and/or bad decisions.
Within these three areas of “solidified belief” there are also many nuances to explore. How do characters regard their biases and bigotries? How can they change? What role do they play? Exploring that builds better worlds and lets you be a better creator.
Oh sure, the results aren’t always pleasant, but that’s the point of what we’re exploring.
– Steven Savage
Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach. He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at https://www.stevensavage.com/.