How To Avoid Elitist Overtones In Your Fiction

Elitism is an attitude that holds that one particular group (usually one's own) is inherently better than another in some way - perhaps smarter, nobler, worthier, more spiritual, and so on - and that those who do not belong to this group are inherently inferior. It holds that only members of one's own group can be this good. At best, everyone else can only hope to come in second. At worst, everyone else is doomed to horrible, miserable failure, or is somehow a threat to one's own kind. Elitism also holds that one particular group is more deserving of good and nice things than another, even to the point where anyone who tries to compete or get on the same level as the elite is seen as as wrong for it somehow.

This is not to say that all stories with elitist overtones are deliberately written like this. In fact, many times it seems to be more of a problem of oversight than of actual malice. However, it can still make the stories feel uncomfortable, alienating, and sometimes even downright disturbing to audiences. So here's what to know and watch out for so that you can avoid it yourself.

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So if it's not on purpose, why does it happen?

The story's author gets too enamored with the main characters and/or with the institutions/systems they belong to. Authors who end up infatuated with their creations often end up giving them too much power and prestige, letting them off the hook when they really should be held accountable, and treating their problems as if they're more important or sympathetic than anyone else's.

The author creates a story centering on restoring or maintaining a status quo that is convenient and comfortable for the main characters, but overlooks or sweeps aside the fact that this status quo isn't fair to everyone else. For example, an author might want to write about a royal family struggling to stay in power against an adversary who wants to overthrow them and take the throne. Of course, this adversary needs some actual motivations to want to take over - so the author comes up with a few. But they're actually pretty good reasons - like maybe the royals genuinely gave the adversary's people the short end of the stick at some point and haven't done anything to make up for it, or maybe they're genuinely terrible at making good decisions. If they aren't actually that good or competent, why should we want them to stay in power? Shouldn't we want them overthrown so that someone or something better can come along and take their place?

The author fails to consider things from other people's perspectives. When authors fail to put themselves into the shoes of other factions and groups (especially the ordinary everyday people) and consider what they're seeing and hearing, what they think and feel about it, and what they might do in response to it, it's easy to end up writing them as implausibly complacent and helpless.

The author fell for someone's romantic hype. Goodness knows there's enough fantasy that makes absolute monarchies seem like intrinsically wonderful and noble things worth protecting at all costs. Goodness knows we've got no shortage of stories that make it clear that only the Real True Heir is capable of bringing the kingdom back to its glory days. And there are more than enough stories that take the view that looking after family is more important than anything and everything else... even the lives of hundreds of other people.

This kind of thing is often how we end up with elves who are never shown to be wrong, governments that are considered sacrosanct regardless of their actual fairness or governing ability, and attending some fancy magical academy being the only real way to learn the art. It's how we end up with main characters who are descended only from the purest and noblest lineages as if anyone should care, secretive organizations who constantly get to decide what's best for humanity without humanity's consent, and muggle/mundane characters being completely unable to protect themselves against the story's threats for absolutely no good reason.

Important to note is that stories with elves, royalty, secret organizations, and all that don't have to be elitist. It's very possible to write stories about or involving such without coming across this way. There are plenty of ways to do it, which will be examined in the next section.

What to know and do to avoid elitist overtones.

Never forget that your main characters' personal struggles and tragedies are not more heartbreaking or deserving of sympathy than the hundreds of people they injured, killed, or otherwise screwed over (whether intentionally or not). This isn't to say that your main characters don't deserve any sympathy, but they sure don't deserve more than those other people whose lives they've ended or ruined. And never forget, people are not acceptable collateral in one's personal struggle for healing or closure.

You have a problem if about the only real way to succeed or do anything interesting or cool to be with the "right" crowd or institutions For example, the only real way to learn magic or to actually get good at it is to attend a very prestigious academy, or the only people who get to do anything important or positive with their magic are those who go to this prestigious academy. Or it's shown that the only real alternatives to this academy are all second to third rate and are typically run by dishonest people.

You have a problem if there's a "higher" or "nobler" group that always knows more and/or knows better than everyone else. Many people really don't like those elves, aliens, or other superbeings who tut at how foolish we are - and little wonder, because who are these people to pass judgment on an entire people that they are too far removed from to truly understand its complexities and struggles? Understand that in reality, the sweeping judgments and advice that people pass on situations they don't have long-term personal experience with often tend to be naively oversimplistic or miss the cruxes of the issues altogether.

Actively concealing knowledge from the regular people because "they aren't ready to know yet" is a pretty elitist attitude. Exactly why aren't they ready to know? The human race has gotten on just fine learning some pretty shocking things over the years. We've also survived several decades of having the actual ability to wipe out our entire species at our fingertips. Plus, concealing or failing to disclose knowledge of things that are an actual threat to their safety is ethically dubious. In the real world, disclosure of chemical threats to human safety is legally mandated for a good reason!

Stop and put yourself into the shoes of the regular people and the other guys for awhile. Pretend these are your protagonists. Are they really going to be complacent with the way things are, or would they really be complacent if they knew more about what was going on? Is how they're regarded and treated by your other characters honestly fair? (Also, check out How To Make The Nameless, Faceless, & Minor Characters In Your Story Feel Human To You and do the recommended exercises.)

Always remember that clever and resourceful people are everywhere. Fancy education and equipment can certainly give people an edge, but raw ingenuity is about the same no matter where you go. (Many lifehacks are good examples of how inventive people can be with nothing more than fairly ordinary resources on hand.) Anyone is capable of following the scientific method and using it to get better results. And remember, necessity is the mother of invention.

Remember that information has a way of getting around. Anything that's considered useful or interesting tends to get spread around. This goes extra if the information is supposed to be potentially life-saving or purports to be revealing some deep, dark secret that they don't want you to know about. This is especially true of today, where thanks to the Internet it's easier than ever to find all sorts of self-help and how-to information, and where even relatively esoteric information can be found within a few minutes. Before declaring that your guys can just make all of that information go away, keep in mind just how many extremely awkward information leaks have gotten out in recent times - and how about the best that anyone could really do about it was declare it to be "fake news" or a "non-issue." Also check out Things Writers Need To Know About Security & Concealment and Tips & Ideas To Write More Believable Masquerades for some information on how trying to cover up or hide something can actually make the problem worse.

Be honest with yourself about your protagonists. When you get down to it, do your royals actually have a pretty imperialistic and/or fascist mindset? Are your organizations and governments actually pretty dysfunctional? Do your main characters get away with severe ethical violations for no real reason beyond them being the main characters? Do you even know what sets your protagonists apart from the villains? If your protagonists were to suddenly vanish from the world, would things really be that worse off for it, or would hundreds to thousands of redshirts get to stay alive?

If you're going to write about protagonists who are part of the elite, don't over-romanticize them or make them unbelievably perfect. Go ahead and write about a royal family that's worth supporting - but make them worth supporting because they're genuinely good and competent individuals, not because their rulership is something that simply ought to be. But on the other hand, don't make them too good to be true - them them realistic flaws and shortcomings. And when they mess up, make it clear that they did mess up; don't just brush it aside and act as if it doesn't matter. Don't act as if people are wrong or unfair for wanting to hold them accountable.

Show that there are others who are just as competent and good. The fancy magic school your story features doesn't have to be the best in the world - there might be a few others that are just as good (if perhaps in different ways). Maybe there are other people who are just as skilled and powerful as the team of celebrity superheroes your story focuses on, and maybe their work is no less important - maybe they just don't get all the media attention. Maybe there are people out there who know just as much about the paranormal as your secretive organization does, and maybe sometimes they even know a bit more from first-hand experience. And don't kill these people off or have them turn out to be evil (or manipulated by evil).

If the regular people can be doing something to help themselves, then they probably should be. And on the other side of the fence, you don't want to end up with regular people/faceless masses who are unbelievably inept or complacent. For better or for worse, people tend not to just take things sitting down, especially not when these things personally affect them. If there's anything that they could be doing to help themselves, then let them be doing it!

Consider critically examining or deconstructing elitism. Show the unpleasant and unfair consequences of elitism. Make it clear that people are not wrong to challenge and oppose elitist organizations and individuals for their selfish and unfair behaviors. Show that even while elitist systems and institutions are romanticized and glorified, they are still deeply flawed and need people who are willing to fix them. Show that it's going to be hard and long work, but that it's not hopeless. Go the whole hog and make things actually change. Force your former elite to have to get along in a world where they're no longer at the top or no longer special. Make it clear that this is not a bad thing. (In the real world, countries switching from absolute monarchies to more democratic systems has been a good thing!)

Always be aware that the opposition of the elite can become the next elite. Those who claim to oppose elitism can very easily end up becoming elitist themselves, particularly as they get high on power or on the feeling of being special. Many fictional characters who stand up to fight the evil empire or whatever actually end up taking on some pretty elitist attitudes - EG, "we're the ones who truly see the world for what it is," "we're the only ones who can be trusted with power," "everything we do is okay because we have the truth and we fight for justice," and "we don't have to answer for our mistakes because we're the ones who are actually trying to do good." This can make your characters end up looking very unsympathetic, and people might start questioning just what it is that makes them so different from the guys they're trying to fight.

Note that the following are not necessarily elitism.

Making necessary judgement calls. For example, a team of superheroes with limited resources (or said team's bosses) may have to consciously decide which problems they should tackle and which ones they'll just have to ignore. This is not elitism, nor is it "playing God" - it's simply acknowledging the reality that they just can't take on everything and acting accordingly. To refuse to make judgement calls to the point of not helping anyone who needs help is extremely selfish and callous.

Job requirements. Not elitism in and of themselves. Some jobs require a certain amount of knowledge and skill to perform adequately; it's not elitism to require that people actually have them in order to qualify as a candidate. (However, elitist institutions might tack on irrelevant "requirements" to keep out the types of people they look down their noses at.)

Valuing an point of view with actual research and study behind it over a gut feeling or personal belief. The former is more likely to be correct, as it's probably better informed by actual reality. (That said, those with elitist attitudes may use incomplete, outdated, or otherwise flawed research to bolster a belief or narrative that suits them.)

And these pages might be relevant to you:

Tips To Write Better Royalty, Nobility, & Other Upper-Class & Important Characters
Things To Know When Creating & Developing Fictional Governments
Creating & Writing Fictional Organizations
On Writing & Roleplaying Characters Who Are Good Leader Material

On Writing Sympathetic Morally-Ambiguous Characters
How Good People & Well-Intentioned Groups Can Go Bad
Protagonist-Centered Morality: What It Is, And How You Can Avoid It

Factors That Contribute To Abusive & Dysfunctional Systems/Institutions
On Designing & Writing Oppressive Governments In Your Fiction
How To Write Sympathetic Antagonists Without Endorsing Or Excusing Their Actions, & Without Making Your Protagonists Seem Heartless A Few Things To Know When Writing Rebellions & Coups
Changing Alignments, Allegiances, & Loyalties More Believably

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