Rigging the world

In the comments of sartorias‘s bittercon post about elves in fiction, the whole issue of good and evil races came up.

I’ve always had trouble with the notion of good and evil races in fiction (though I note that Tolkien’s orcs are actually a little more complex than their descendants, and his elves a lot more so), for many reasons. The implications for human race politics are bad enough, of course. But more than that, psuedo-orcs and other evil races … rig the morality of the entire fictional world.

This became clear to me during a roleplaying game.

I’d decided I wanted to try playing a pacifist in a game that had good elves and unredeemably evil orc-analogues and so forth. The orc analogues were so unreedemably evil in fact, that playing one of them never even came up as an option.

I was playing an elf. And I decided to try playing a pacifist elf–an elf committed to non-violent conflict resolution, essentially.

Now in our world, issues of non-violence are complicated, and non-violent approaches have different effects in different situations and when used by and among different groups of people, and maybe we don’t really have any absolute answers about it.

That’s our world. But in a world where there’s an evil race whose every last member will always want to kill you and all you stand for, no matter what? Well, in that sort of a world, being a pacifist and trying non-violent approaches comes across as incredibly stupid.

My character came across as not only an idiot, but also as a coward, and she had to revise her approaches to reflect the reality of her world pretty quickly.

Not because non-violence is inherently a bad idea, but because she existed in a fictional world that was rigged to make it a bad idea–and to make its practitioners seem like cowards. But if you didn’t realize this, and you were reading–or writing–a work of fiction instead of playing in a role-playing came, it might be easy to think, “Gee, nonviolence is really stupid, isn’t it?”

I don’t think this is unique to nonviolence. I think worlds can be subtly and not-so-subtly rigged to support any political or world view. (I think worlds can be rigged to support nonviolence as much as to undermine it, for that matter.) Sometimes, I think we can’t help rigging our worlds, and the best we can do is to keep the rigging to a minimum. Because in the end, we decide who our characters are and how they react to things.

I also think we rig our worlds even when we’re writing in the so-called real world, and when magic has no part in the story. Maybe the fun of writing and reading fiction is partly that we do get to rig our worlds, in ways we don’t in real life.

Yet pulling back on the rigging–forcing our characters to confront things that don’t fit our world view–that can be fun, too, and can create interesting tensions.

But can we ever fully get away from rigging the world, subtly at least, even if we avoid doing something so heavy handed as creating good-and-evil races?

I’m not sure. It’s an interesting question to ponder.

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