My project has an environmental theme.

My characters eat meals, and because of the setting, this includes meat and eggs. Some environmentally - friendly friends find those scenes very distasteful and opposed to the environmental intent of the project.

I'd like to not lose a portion of my potential audience because of this conflict, so -

(1) I'm pruning out 'meat' wherever I can (except for the villains), but it's not sensible to never have some sort of meat, given the book's setting.

(2) I've changed some of the game to fictional in-world animals, hoping this will soften the edges.

(3) I'm considering modifying a character to be a vegetarian. < this is my question.The character I have in mind is already fastidious.

Question: If I make one sympathetic character a vegetarian, in order to give voice to the environmental cost of meat-eating, will this come across as tokenism?

Where is the line between diversity and tokenism? I would not have this character preach, on the other hand I'd like to acknowledge the sentiment among vegetarian readers while not alienating others. Is it sufficient to have a vegetarian character who gives one single line of "No thanks, I don't eat that" while wiping his hands on his kerchief, ... is this enough to nod at the readers that I recognize the problem?

  • 18
    Can you just avoid saying what they eat? Feb 26, 2018 at 18:23
  • 4
    @S.Mitchell Yeah, I wonder that too. Most fiction stories don't describe the contents of the characters' meals. Occasionally they'll say to emphasize the wealth or porverty: "The table was covered with rich food, from steak and lobster to piles of fresh fruit ...", versus, "Fred gnawed on the single moldy crust of bread. It was his first meal in three days ..." But usually it would be an irrelevant detail that would just bog down the story.
    – Jay
    Feb 26, 2018 at 18:30
  • 52
    I'll just go ahead and say it: Someone who dislikes your story just because some characters eat meat is someone who is dogmatic and has given your story a very shallow reading. You can probably ignore that feedback pretty safely - and look for feedback from someone who will read your story seriously. (Unless there's something more to the advice than what you've described here?)
    – Kevin
    Feb 26, 2018 at 21:02
  • 7
    @Kevin No, I think it's good feedback. I mean, you have a point, on the other hand, so does this guy. He picked up on something that I was unaware of in my story because I was focused on the other stuff, and I'm grateful. It's an opportunity for me to nuance that angle. It also made me think about how Sci-Fi usually handles it. Klingons eat meat (raw) and humans use replicators. Spock has a famous scene where he deals with carnivorism. In Parks and Rec, Ron Swanson's love of meat was fantastic but also a caricature. It's worth thinking about and being aware in my writing.
    – SFWriter
    Feb 26, 2018 at 21:04
  • 24
    If you try to please everyone, you'll fail every time.
    – user29910
    Feb 26, 2018 at 22:30

9 Answers 9


Thought one: To my mind, a "token character" is one who can be completely described in one sentence. If after reading your book you gave someone a quiz, like reading this book was a school assignment, and you had a question, "Describe Bob", and everyone who took the quiz replied, "He's the vegetarian", then I think you have a very shallow token character. Similarly if everyone replied, "He's the black guy", or "He's the smart-aleck teenager", or some other one-line description. This is okay for a minor background character, someone who just shows up briefly or now and then to make one point. But if your major characters can be completely described with one sentence, you need to flesh them out more.

Thought two: If people really find your book distressing because the hero doesn't share their beliefs on some point, this seems pretty narrow-minded to me. I've read plenty of books where the hero is an atheist, but that of itself has never made me dislike the book, even though I am not an atheist. (If the whole book was about pushing this point, different story. I mean, if the whole book is pushing a message that eating meat is good and vegetarianism is a dumb idea, I can see vegetarians finding that annoying and quickly losing interest in the book. Just like, I've read stories that are all about why you should be an atheist and how religion is dumb, and I generally lose interest quickly.) But whatever, I suppose. If that's your target market, you need to appeal to your target market.

Thought three: If vegetarianism or lack thereof is not the point in the story, is it even necessary to bring up what they eat? In many stories there's no need to mention the characters eating at all. If you do, can't you just say, "They ate lunch and then ..." without going into details about the nature of the lunch? If what they eat is important to the story, then I don't see how you can simply change it without changing the story. Like if there's a crucial scene where the characters are lost in the wilderness and starving and then they see a deer and hunt it down and kill it and eat it and their lives are saved ... maybe you could change that to they find a grove of banana trees, maybe not.

Thought four: I don't see how changing the animals to fictional animals would help. Presumably if someone is a vegetarian, they think that killing and eating ANY animal is bad, and not just certain ones. If a vegetarian expressed displeasure at seeing me eating meat, I can't imagine that it would satisfy him if I said, "Oh, it's no problem. This is a species of animal that was unknown until just a few weeks ago, recently discovered in the Amazon, so I'm sure he's not on your list of creatures that it's bad to eat." I'd be surprised if that helped at all.

  • 1
    The point of the story (and the planned series) is to contrast cultures and ideas, and raise/provide awareness of the connectedness of ecosystems; they're complex. Economies underly cultures and many economies spring from agriculture. Agriculture involves crops, but also animals for eggs, milk, and protein. And there is the wilderness component. Your thoughts are helpful, thank you.
    – SFWriter
    Feb 26, 2018 at 19:00
  • But Ned Stark wasn't a token character, even though you can definitely describe him as "The Ultimate Good Guy." How would you reconcile this?
    – corsiKa
    Feb 26, 2018 at 21:13
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    (a) I have no idea who "Ned Stark" is. I just did a bing search and they say he's a character in Game of Thrones. If that's the Ned Stark you're referring to, sorry, I've neither read the book nor watched the TV show. (b) Let me make clear that I am saying COMPLETELY describe him. Presumably any character in a story can be PARTIALLY described with one sentence. But a rich, realistic character requires many statements to completely describe him. Of course this isn't an objective criterion. I might say that a certain character is completely described by saying "he's the good guy" and someone ...
    – Jay
    Feb 26, 2018 at 22:19
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    ... else might say, "That's ridiculous! He's not simply 'the good guy'. He's physically brave but terrified of what others might think of him. He is deeply in love with the heroine but doesn't know how to express it ..." etc. (c) Just because someone is a famous writer doesn't mean that his work is flawless. I have no idea about Game of Thrones, but for example, I thought Star Wars Episode 1 was filled with cartoon characters: the wise teacher, the brave but arrogant young man, the corrupt politician, etc.
    – Jay
    Feb 26, 2018 at 22:23
  • @corsiKa wasn't he? He's a morally rigid good guy, and that's pretty much it, isn't it? And I always felt his arc was kind of an introduction to the story, to warn you that good guys probably won't win.
    – Nico
    Feb 27, 2018 at 7:54

One form of tokenism is imposing a preconceived set of labels on a character for reasons that have nothing to do with your narrative, or that make any substantive change to the story --the equivalent of spraypainting a character a different color. Unfortunately, this proposal is a dead-on hit for that kind of tokenism. I don't think this is a problem you can put a band-aid over. You've implied that the purpose of this project is to promote environmental awareness. If, then, you buy the argument that eating meat is a significant environmental problem of primary importance, then something doesn't match up. What you need is not a minor character expressing an off-hand preference for vegetables, you need a significant wrestling with the challenges and costs of meat in your narrative.

If this book is just "environment-themed," green-painted just for the marketing, then your target audience is probably going to see through that pretty easily. On the other hand, if you reject the meat kills the environment argument, but you still want to pay lip service to it, that's probably pretty transparent as well.

It's worth noting, however, that the usual argument is not that meat eating is always intrinsically environmentally disastrous, but that the modern factory farming of meat is unsustainable. Without knowing more about your storyline, I don't know if that helps or not, but it's something to keep in mind.

  • 2
    There are many threats to the environment. I certainly don't intend to tackle all of them. So I hadn't tackled vegetarianism (and have no desire to do so in this project). The question is: How do I say to vegetarians who might pick up the book: "I hear you, I know, that's a problem too, but that's not this book." Is a simple recognition of that specific issue, enough? You seem to say that such an approach might be ill considered. I think the anti fur sentiment, which comes out fairly naturally late in the story, might solve the problem for this issue.
    – SFWriter
    Feb 26, 2018 at 20:49
  • In case it isn't clear ( :-) ) and I think it should be, meat was no-where on my radar because that ... isn't this book.
    – SFWriter
    Feb 26, 2018 at 20:54
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    That's fine, I agree that there are plenty of other environmental issues. But the people for whom meat is a central environmental concern aren't going to perceive your book differently because one character turns down a piece of meat at one point. Feb 26, 2018 at 20:57

Great characters need not be perfect, but they will definitively strive to achieve perfection. If a reader is caught in the detail of all the meat and eggs that your characters eat, rather than dragged along by their enthusiasm and determination towards reaching their goals, then your characters are already tokens.

Unless you are scriptwriting for pantomime shows, your characters have to be believable above all else. Make them faulty. Make them human. Make them struggle for greatness, and make them change to reach what they dream. I would find it much more compelling that meat-eating characters would gradually stop eating meat to be true to their goals, than to believe that every vegetarian is a saint and every carnivore is devil incarnated.

I believe that you can best express and respect diversity in the choices that your characters have to make.

My suggestion is step back on your original track. Try to understand what made your reader so focused on the dietary habits of your characters rather than the story itself, and, to fulfill the goal, give your characters an arc compatible with your intended message (e.g. make them realize their need or wish to become vegetarians).

As for the villains, you can give them a similar arc, but make them refuse to change their habits. If you wish to avoid tokenization you may need to place them in a situation where they face a struggle in making their choice: for instance, it is a family tradition to eat turkey for thanksgiving, and their older grandparents are terminally ill and it will give them a heartbreak to not share that particular meal; or they have been borrowing large sums to run a (very profitable) abattoir and would be bankrupt if they give it up.

  • Really like the idea of having a character trying to stop with the meat. Yeah you're right, the idea of choosing is powerful. (Oh! And i see an easy edit that accomplishes exactly this.)
    – SFWriter
    Feb 26, 2018 at 18:33
  • 2
    @DPT I just noticed your comment about surviving in the wilderness. There could be a very difficult choice of having to trust that eating certain roots will cause the character to die. Some characters will refuse and pursue hunting (villains), others may close their eyes and give a bite (possibly with some minor negative consequences, so that the difficulty of the choice is justified).
    – NofP
    Feb 26, 2018 at 18:37
  • 2
    I hadn't considered roots. I have mushrooms and pine nuts, and leaves and lichens. I'll look into the root possibility.
    – SFWriter
    Feb 26, 2018 at 18:39

A few notes you may or may not want to bear in mind.

First, the 'token character' is just that, a token, not a character. They have no personality, no character, no history, nothing. They are just there to be there, to say you have someone like that to represent the group you feel uncomfortable (or not confident) writing. (Basically what Jay already said about that)

Second, 'environmental' and 'vegetarian' aren't synonymous. I'm a vegetarian. Born and raised. I'm not super concerned about the environment, because being a vegetarian is about what I eat, not what I think about it. My gf is vegan, and she is politically active, trying to help the environment. If you start going into 'vegetarian=environmentally friendly', then you'll have vegans frothing at the mouth, because "vegetarians still eat cheese and that's so bad for cows. And don't get me started on the poor chickens laying their eggs." Is that really a path you want to wander?

Third, making the villain a meat-eater? That's basically just making this a propaganda piece. Now, listen to the difference: "making the villain a meat-eater" versus "the villain eats meat". If the good guy is a vegetarian (or vegan), and the villain eats meat, then you're going to be creating more of a headache than not catering to the vegetarians.

While it would be nice if there were more vegetarian representation (me being a vegetarian and all), it isn't quite the point to make all non-vegetarians the 'bad guy'. That's like me writing a novel where all the good guys are gay and the bad guy's this straight cis-hetero white guy frothing at the mouth every time he sees the good guys hugging in public. (which, btw, is called queer-coding the bad guy if the reverse is true)

So, I would say: don't go down that road. It's a slippery slope, and one you'll find yourself being criticised for every decision made. Unless you have one of the good guys listening to all the reasons why eating meat is bad ("it takes three times more land for raising cattle", "Oh really? I didn't know that. Well, I still love me my hamburgers. So, yeah."), in which case you will tap into "God, vegetarians are so preachy!" and still upset someone.

  • Yes, I am concerned about the vegan angle too. :-)
    – SFWriter
    Feb 26, 2018 at 19:58

I think it is tokenism, by virtue of the fact that tokenism is indeed your stated intent! In fact you may weaken the tokenism by saying the character is also fastidious; most of us consider a high degree of fastidiousness a flaw or symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder, because most such fastidiousness costs time and effort that is essentially wasted and could have been spent doing something more productive.

You can also explicate their motives. For a workable point of view, I offer myself: I am not a vegetarian, in fact I am an enthusiastic carnivore, but I am quite concerned about the environment and our destruction of it. I do not feel guilty about being a carnivore, I consider it natural; nearly all top predators are. If anything, I think man is not the worst of them, we don't eat our meat alive and on the hoof, and at least in most countries "harvest" them quickly and with little pain compared to the typical deaths of equivalent meat animals in the wild (by predation, starvation, disease or accident).

I am for preserving a livable planet with forests and rivers and an atmosphere that isn't going to give me or any wildlife cancer or chronic lung or skin impairment, that isn't 175F at the equator, that doesn't require us to live in boxes with constant A/C and air filtering and piped in water. I don't want 99% of wildlife to go extinct.

Although, if I had the power I would certainly mandate a more humane treatment of food animals and how they are slaughtered; I have no moral qualms whatsoever about raising our current crop of common food animals for meat. I do believe animals have emotions, but I do not believe cows, chickens, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, goats or fish, are capable of anticipating death or imagining their future; death takes no hopes and dreams from them. They can certainly feel fear, but as Temple Grandin showed in revolutionizing the cattle industry, there is no need for them to feel it while being slaughtered: They will follow their instincts right into the necessary position and die so fast their brain did not have a millisecond to feel any pain.

I can be an environmentalist that believes in preserving nature and nature's beauties for their own sake, not just for survival but the enjoyment of future generations, and that can include wild animals galore; I am upset about the loss of so many species. I don't have to be a vegetarian to do that, and neither do your fictional characters.

  • I believe I'm finding a path that 'explicates the motives' as you say, for a different character - and now he decries the use of animal skins. Basically, an anti-fur argument that he arrives at as part of his story arc, prompted by @NofP . In combination with pruning the explicit mentions of meat back, I think I'm getting there. I like the Temple Grandin idea and might throw in a humane treatment of livestock, somewhere.
    – SFWriter
    Feb 26, 2018 at 20:02

I'm going to risk not completely answering the question. The fundamental problem here is that your friends - and perhaps your project - have a very US-centric view of what raising animals involves. You're getting preachy about something you and your friends may not really understand that well.

The US carries out a great deal of intensive meat production. Animals are raised indoors, in vast sheds, and feed is transported to the animals. Since feed needs to be transported, this is often in the form of grain, which could equally well be fed to humans (or the land could be used for other purposes). Naturally this leads to complaints about the ecological footprint of meat rearing, and those complaints are perfectly valid.

This is NOT the case worldwide though. In most of the world, animals are allowed to graze - and they graze on land which could never be productively used for agriculture. A classic example would be cattle ranching in the hotter states of the US, in Australia and in much of Africa, where the soil is too poor to support agriculture. Hilly areas of Europe (and other places like New Zealand) where it would be impossible to use agricultural machinery are used for sheep farming. Farming animals for meat allows this land to be used to feed people, which otherwise it never could.

More than that, in many places this has been in place for thousands of years, and the landscape has literally evolved around animal farming. Take the sheep off the South Downs of England, for example, and the grassland environment, home to many specialised species, is overtaken by low scrub and all those species go extinct. Or meat may come from hunting, which does not affect the environment so long as breeding populations are left - but if the locals choose to stop eating meat then they'd have to cut down the forests (where the animals live) to plant crops, and then the topsoil dries up and blows away.

So your first mission in your "environmental theme" is to understand the environment where you're setting this. If the environment looks like the US intensive farming environment, you'd better have ideas where else it can go. And remember that intensive farming comes from a genuine need to feed people. We're used to famines being something that happens elsewhere, but in the 1920s and 1930s, Americans were starving in the Midwest. Intensive farming was how the First World stopped that happening to their people.

For us, it turns out we could support animal farming and arable farming on our current footprint. Perhaps the environment in your book can't? In that case you have a Malthusian problem. Do you make people eat differently - or do you try to have fewer people? If your world is going to mandate (or at least pressure) people into eating for calories and not for enjoyment, how do you avoid your society becoming "Fidipur" from Beauty?

I'm going to say that your best way of stopping your character from being a "token vegetarian" is by clearly and accurately illustrating the world he/she lives in. Not with pages of exposition, but by showing. Give us reasons why they're vegetarian. Some people are vegetarian because of views on animal cruelty - but you're talking about presenting a world where it's based more on Malthusian or at least economic reasons. If that's the case, this isn't going to be something where your character is unique. Whether or not society agrees with them, there will be a wider movement which your character is part of.

What you don't want is what your friends seem to be talking about. They seem to be asking for a Mary Sue to identify with. At this point your character stops being a character, and becomes a caricature. Really don't go down that path.

  • @DPT Cool - glad I could help. Advocating for the environment is great, but it's easy to fall into traps where what's best long-term for the environment is not necessarily the "nice" option. It sounds like you're worldbuilding a different environment, so we can't really predict the problems in that environment without knowing more. But if those ideas are helpful, that's good.
    – Graham
    Feb 27, 2018 at 16:00
  • +1 for the understanding the local environment part. It also reminds me of a documentary where tribal people clearly stated that when killing an animal to eat (either hunted or raised by themselves), one must be careful to give the animal a clean death and then thank it for its meat. They were clearly horrified by the idea of someone causing the animal a prolonged, suffering death. These people cared for the animals and were grateful for their sacrifice, since they recognised that without their meat, people could not survive. Mar 3, 2018 at 9:06
  • @SaraCosta Yes - but even that is rather idealised. You can't generally kill a deer outright with an arrow (not with a short bow anyway), so hunters would shoot it and then track it for hours until it died from loss of blood. American Indians are frequently shown as living in harmony with nature, but there is a strong hypothesis that they caused or contributed to the extinction of many species. So even "getting back to nature" needs an evidence-based approach.
    – Graham
    Mar 5, 2018 at 13:22
  • @SaraCosta, I live in a community with Inuit, and that belief trends into the "noble savage" concept. People are people, and some will hold a reverent attitude. Others will idly say the platitudes expected of them while salivating over that nice hunk of tenderloin they're looking forward to. Jun 11, 2019 at 14:59
  • @KeithMorrison: I understand your point, but the same can be said of saying 'grace' at the beginning of the meal. In the past, a lot of people would have been upset if you didn't do it; now, few people care. Where I live, the idea of euthanising abandoned dogs and cats is seen as ok. However, most people would decry if those animals were killed painfully. I have family who live in the countryside. They kill their own animals to eat. They do try to do it in a painless way. It's not about being a 'noble savage'. It's about having a modicum of respect for living beings. Jun 11, 2019 at 15:09

Short answer, yes, if you make one character a vegetarian to espouse that viewpoint you are coming close to tokenism.

You haven't said much about the world you are building. But I figure it's either alt-earth fantasy, or a science fiction colony. So you get to explain what your world's population is, and what kinds of pressures exist. Several other answers have mentioned this.

What they haven't said, though, is "show, don't tell!" If a bunch of IT workers go to lunch, they'll probably automatically go someplace with veg, because Raj is veg. And they won't talk about it, it's automatic.

But if Raj takes the day off, one might say, "Hey! Raj isn't here today- how about we go to Hooter's/Arby's/Brontoburgers?"

If you only have one vegetarian character, they are a token. You need to explain how or why. There are more of Raj than of Tony, but if Raj is working in New York, Tony out-numbers him locally.

If vegetarians are more environmentally appropriate, you need to show how. Again, others have mentioned this. But it has to make sense in your world. Why did the Plains Indians live off buffalo? Why do the Sami follow the reindeer? Why do your world's people do whatever they do? And how can you squeeze in your token vegetarian? Or, how can you squeeze in a token carnivore? Maybe he's a Cimmerian from the Northern Wastes, where they live on a diet of Ice-wirms and plunder...

If you haven't read them, I'd suggest Modesitt's "Ecolitan" series. He builds a series of worlds for an ecologist (and pretty much beats the reader with them). But he's good at subtle exposition.

In summary, I think you need to develop a coherent explanation of why your token characters are present, and then provide those explanations in the "negative spaces" of your story: The Jewish character who doesn't mind working on Sunday, so he'll swap work days; Raj the veg, who took the day off so let's get BBQ; the werewolf who doesn't eat meat (except, you know, once a month); the woman who fasts two days a week to appease her gods, in the hopes her child will get better.

Remember that your characters are unique. They need some kind of hook, either stereotypical, or anti-. This comes under characterization, not world-building. If everyone is vegetarian, then you ignore that in favor of what makes them unique. Maybe they're a nudist. Maybe a survivalist vegan? "When the SHTF, there won't be any chickens! What will you do then, blood breath?"

  • This is a good answer.
    – SFWriter
    Feb 28, 2018 at 5:15
  • @DPT I think this nails the core concept of always asking why. If you have no good explanation for something, you probably shouldn't be doing it. On the flip side, if something is important, it's better to show it than to simply describe it. Don't have your character state that they are vegetarian, make it important to the plot. If it's not important to the plot, you don't need it to begin with. Another way to think about it is by asking yourself "If this character/detail never existed, would the story be any different?"
    – thanby
    Feb 28, 2018 at 12:56

You say that food production isn't the (main) point in your environmental theme. However, if you are going to mention food in the story, it's almost inevitable that readers will wonder where it comes from, and why the characters make the ethical choices that they do.

Tokenism in fiction is generally having a character that "ticks a box", e.g. Black character (check), LGBT character (check), female character (check). In this case, vegetarian character (check), or even vegan character (check). The issue is compounded if that character is basically a stereotype of the group in question.

An example of going against the stereotype appears in Terry Pratchett's Johnny and the Dead, where the Black kid is nicknamed Yo-less because he is uncool and has no rhythm. (There are other details of his character that make him a character and not merely an anti-type of a stereotype.)

So if you make your villain a meat-eater and your hero a vegetarian, lots of stereotypes immediately come into play. (But fer gawds' sake please don't make the villain a vegetarian... if I hear that thing about Hitler being a vegetarian one more time, I shall explode. For the record, he ate chicken and avoided red meat on the advice of his doctor.)

So either avoid discussion of food altogether, or get your characters to have a nuanced discussion on factory farming, free range meat, indigenous hunting practices that respect the animals and the ecosystem, permaculture, mixed-use habitats, soya production, laboratory-cultured meat, etc etc. (There are loads of good articles on the internet about these topics.) Or have different characters who have made different ethical choices for good and cogent reasons, to show the complexity of the issue. And to avoid tokenism and stereotyping, make sure that they have some interesting internal contradiction that makes them a character instead of a stereotype, e.g. all their friends are vegetarian and they're not - how do they cope with the pressure to be a vegetarian? You should be able to write that one from personal experience.


I think that if you made your main character a vegetarian, that would NOT be tokenism. That should be enough to satisfy your friends. All other characters can be meat eaters, but you're setting them apart as "villains" as against your hero.

Tokenism would be when a minor, and eminently forgettable character has the desired qualities. In such a situation someone's "vegetarianim" would be trivial to the plot. That would not be the case if the vegetarian were the main character.

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