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If the villain of your story is a member of a certain group, how do you keep the story from being offensive to members of that group?

For example, one of the villain in my book is a WWII veteran. I want to make it clear I have nothing against veterans and they have my respect. What makes this character a villain is that he gets hired out to kill. The villain was one of the victims of the USS Indianapolis (CL/CA-35) incident. From this he lost most of his limbs and was left to rot in some old garbage nursing home. His only family is his billionaire son who doesn't have time for his old man and only takes care of his father for the good press. To put it simply his father is a prisoner of the nursing home, and from this his mind cracked, making him a prisoner of his time. And his son payed to give him robotic limbs for more good press and to sponsor an company who would give a big fat check for it. And from his delusions the veteran went out and made a lot of money getting hired out as an assassin, and with this upgraded his limbs into weapons.

Now after all of that backstory is out of the way is their anything I should be careful of when making character like this and how can I make this kind of a character without upsetting veterans, families of them, and people who have lost their limbs? Or, to make this question general, how can you make a very specific character villainous without offending someone? This seems like an especially tough question for a group that a lot of people respect, like veterans.

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    Hi, I edited your question to make it less of a specific "help me write this" question, and more generally applicable. – Chris Sunami Apr 27 '18 at 20:39
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    You can introduce an opposing character(s) who belong to the same group and maybe even had similar experience. In contrast, he(they) would come out as good one(s). – Alexander Apr 27 '18 at 23:06
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    Have you considered the option of simply not worrying about it? – EvilSnack Apr 28 '18 at 2:48
  • Related to this question on avoiding LGBT tokenism. My answer over there applies to this question too if I broaden the wording a bit, but I'm too sleepy to do that right now. – Arcanist Lupus Apr 28 '18 at 6:44
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    It's not just offensive to veterans, but also to disabled people in general. "Being disabled turns you into a psychopath and getting prosthetics makes you able to act on your psychotic urges. Watch out if you see someone with a prosthetic limb on the street. He might try to kill you!" That's a far more insidious message you are unintentionally communicating with this character. – Philipp Apr 28 '18 at 13:50

12 Answers 12

28

Don't focus on him being a "veteran". Yes, he was in a war, blah blah. You don't ever have to use the word "veteran."

If you do, have him use it to game the system or seek sympathy; even veterans hate a cheat.

I was in the military, I don't ever refer to myself as a veteran unless it is a formal requirement in a grant or application. I usually leave it off my CV, if I am required to put it on (for some government contracts) I say I served from 19xx to 19xy as a [profession] in the [service].

You offend "veterans" if your character is used as a representative of "veterans". Don't give that impression, all actual veterans know that the people they served with range anywhere on the spectrum of cool to cruel, and no two soldiers are alike.

So make your guy unique, don't hold him up as a "veteran" but as one of the many jerks veterans know that joined up in the hope of killing somebody as part of the "job", for the bragging rights of having taken a life (or lives), the assholes carving notches and showing them off and laughing about it.

Move him far from the "honorable service" veteran, don't call him a veteran, and veterans will not identify with him. (except the psychopaths, and they will just like him.)

11

In Short: Your character should be villainous because they have the qualities of a villain, not because the group they are from gives them villainous qualities.

I think your real question is "how do I avoid offending people?" and the answer is by having hard conversations with the groups you might offend and if possible getting a reader from those groups to give your draft a once over. After all of that, you'll probably still offend someone.

Generically, you want to construct people who feel real, with all human foibles, but you also want to get any pertinent details about the experience right and not fall into traps of cliche.

The answer to your question is: research. There are going to be verteran communities on the internet somewhere. Should be a good place to start such research. I wouldn't get into everything you dumped on us in your paragraph. Just ask what life is like, what stereotypes to avoid, and what people get wrong in arts/literature/tv/movies about veterans. They'll be able to tell you.

If you do get readers from the population you might be offending and they tell you you're doing an awful job, which is possible, then you're going to have to make the call if what you're writing is publishable. There are published, successful, award winning authors out there who have put a book on the shelf unpublished based on advice from such readers.

You're right to ask, but not everyone is ready or has the background to approach such topics and give them the correct treatment. Given that you're an outsider, you may wish to rethink your strategy if you're unwilling to put in the additional time and respect the answers you are given. Then again, maybe amputees and veterans will love your story and not have a problem or you'll be able to work with them to tell a better story than you might otherwise have done so.

9

You can't always ensure that no one will be offended, but what are actual, legitimate reasons someone might be offended by a portrayal?

1 - Disrespectful: For a group, like the veterans, that most people think are owed a certain base level of reverence, it may be difficult to use them in a plot at all without someone getting upset. A similarly "protected" group is religious figures, such as a priest or the Pope. There's not an easy way around this, except to treat your characters with respect, even if they are villains --don't go for cheap shots or easy laughs unless being offensive is your actual aim.

2 - Stereotypical and/or Inaccurate: This is maybe the biggest one you can directly address. Don't lean on lazy, second-hand, clichéd portrayals. As @Kirk said, do the research. Put the time in to make sure someone actually of that group has some input. If you don't know anyone of the group you're writing about, it might be time to ask yourself if you're cutting corners by inventing a character with no actual accuracy or believability. You see this particularly often when people with no close minority friends write minority characters.

3 - Prejudicial: Even worse than stereotypical or inaccurate is a portrayal that makes the reader think bad things about all people of that type. For instance you'll want to make sure that you don't do anything that implies all veterans are just one step away from turning into contract killers.

4 - Poorly done: People are willing to overlook a lot if something is done well. The Jewish and black characters in Shakespeare's plays Merchant of Venice and Othello have a lot of the faults listed above, but people give Shakespeare a little extra wiggle room because his writing is so good. Conversely, if you don't do a good job, people are more likely to be offended just based on the sheer crappiness of the work.

6

In addition to real war veterans whom you don't want to hurt, there's one more side to WWII. Intellectually, I know that there were good people and less good people among American troops at the time. Emotionally, Allied Troops are the reason any of my family survived. I owe a debt of gratitude to every one of those soldiers. That too is something you have to deal with, with the setup you have chosen for your story.

So how do you deal with it?

First, make your villain a well-rounded character. Make him interesting, human, someone we can understand, if not agree with. Cliché villains are boring anyway, and even more so when you're dealing with a topic that would be sensitive for some.

Don't let the 'veteran' tag be a [TV TROPES WARNING] Freudian excuse for the villain's actions. It isn't an excuse, and it is in fact the most offensive trope I can think of, for any unfortunate situation: it implies that the character's evil actions are somehow OK because of what he went through. It both cheapens the experience, and deprives the character of free will. And it suggests that "anyone in this situation would be the same", which is offensive to anyone in that situation.

You can contrast your character with a war veteran who is a normal decent person - a minor character, perhaps the antagonist's comrade. That would help you get the point across that your antagonist is not representative of any group, and that you're not offering an excuse for his despicable actions.

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    Hey Galastel, we try to add a warning in front of TV Tropes links — not because there's anything offensive, but because the site is such an addictive time-suck that people should know before they click. :) – Lauren Ipsum Apr 29 '18 at 23:00
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    @LaurenIpsum Will add warning in the future. TV tropes absolutely is a time-suck. :) – Galastel Apr 29 '18 at 23:30
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In addition to what others have said about how to portray the villain, a good way to have a portrayal of a bad character who's a member of a particular group(veterans in this case) without implying the same of the whole group, is to have other characters who are also in that group.

If of three or four veterans in your story only one behaves like this, it clearly shows that his behavior is specific to him, not to him being a veteran.

  • Taking this another step, you can arrange to have one or more members of the same group be victims of whatever he's done. – R.. Apr 28 '18 at 16:45
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Deal with the implied stereotype

I think the fear here is that a negative portrayal of a person from a particular group implies a stereotype of that group. The simple way to avoid that is to portray the villain as an individual that is different from, and possibly even rejected by, that group. This obliterates the stereotype and also opens up interesting dramatic possibilities, as you can now illustrate his villainy through contrast with others, and you have a more detailed backstory that almost writes itself.

For example, perhaps your villain served in a unit whose other members are distinguished and decorated. Maybe part of his villainy is partly wrapped up with jealously of the other surviving members. Or perhaps you can write a scene where his former colleagues have a chance to state their opinions, fears, sympathies, or hatred of this individual. Or if you want to be a bit more subtle, you can focus on the ambiguous feelings that can result when an individual strays from the good path followed by his peers.

3

You either don't emphasise on him being a veteran, or use it to your advantage to convey a story which makes the reader actually emphasise with him, such as flashbacks to the horrors of war which "skewed his mind".

I see that your story is also fairly futuristic, perhaps you can create a scene where he uses his robotic powers to save people faced with the same scenario that crippled him (saving people from a sinking ship?)

A good story is a good story regardless of so called "stereotyping" which exist for a reason. I've even read studies that conclude people who are aware and acknowledge stereotypes (commonly observed behaviour) are less likely to be prejudice towards various individuals. I'm actually not aware of too many stereotypes of veterans. Certainly not veterans being murderous assassin psychopaths. If a stereotype does not even exist, do not make it out to be one.

This is just my 2 cents. I'm an individual who is very aware of various stereotypes (many which are true), hold minimal prejudice, and would not care if someone makes an attack on me based on me stereotyping. I like a good story and I am able to differentiate between fantasy and reality, there is no way a story based on stereotyping people of my kind or type will ever offend me. So perhaps my opinions are biased.

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The simplest answer: just don't worry about it.

Most people are intelligent enough to realise that one person's actions don't automatically reflect the behaviour of all people of a certain 'group'.

Assuming that people are going to read your story, see a war veteran behaving as a villain and suddenly think "all veterans are evil" is an insult to your reader's intelligence.

However, doing a bit of research about veterans would still be beneficial. While I believe it's highly unlikely that people will think your character is supposed to be a means of saying "all veterans are evil", people might get upset about an inaccurate portrayal of a veteran.

For example, what sort of experiences would this character have been likely to put up with? What sort of facts would they have learnt while in service? How would they have held their weapon? What sort of slang would they have picked up? Would they know morse code and the nato phonetic alphabet? If you just imagine it and don't do fact checking then for someone who knows what it would be like, the believability of the character goes out the window, and that's far more likely to earn you disgruntled readers.

I can't say I speak for veterans, but I would assume that if your character was well-written and beleivable, that would earn their respect for the character more than attempts to avoid making the character somehow 'offensive'.

If in doubt, just get people to read the story when you're closer to finishing and ask their honest opinion then. There's no sense trying to prevent something that 'might' cause offense if you aren't sure what that would be. It's much easier to get your story proof-read and then remove the offending article after a proof-reader has said it causes offense than to try to predict what would cause offense.

2

Two thoughts.

One, make him a villain who happens to be a member of this group, and not that you suppose that all members of this group are villains. Describe his evil in ways that doesn't make it grow out of his group membership. His experiences as a member of the group may feed his villainy, but should not be the cause of it.

For example, I read a story once about a veteran who became a killer for hire. There's a point in the story where he talks about how the army "trained him to be a killer" so that when he got out he decided to "do it freelance". I found that highly offensive: the idea that learning to kill to defend your country from a hostile enemy would just naturally lead to killing innocent people at home, that there is any sort of moral equivalence between the two ideas. But I've read other stories with veterans who are murderers that did not bother me for a moment. If it says how he started out as a violent thug and joined the army because he wanted to be able to kill people legally, I'd buy that. Or if it said that he was so traumatized by some experience in the war that he went crazy, well now that's a cliche, but it at least sounds plausible.

As someone else said, you can avoid making it an indictment of the group by having a good guy whose a member of the same group. Most of the time, I'd say don't point it out. I mean, don't say, "Bob is also a veteran but he's a good guy". That's going to sound patronizing. Just put him there.

A couple of things I've seen writers do that I find patronizing. 1. Throw in a disclaimer. After you paint this group as soaked in evil and corruption, a character or the narrator says, "Of course not all members of this group are evil. Many are good decent people" etc. 2. Refer to the villains as "extremists" or "members of an extremist faction" within the group.

I've read many books and seen many movies that totally trash some group that I identify with, they portray every member of the group that you see in the story as evil and corrupt, they attack the group's goals and ideals, etc, and then when someone objects to the stereotype they blithely say, "Hey, we said it was an extremist faction, not the whole group". Yeah, you had one lame line about that, but the whole rest of the story made it sound like you were indicting the whole group.

Two, you get a lot less leeway if people closely identify themselves with the group.

For example, if the villain in your character is bald, I doubt that you are going to see a great uprising of bald people crying, "How dare you portray a bald person as the villain!" Because bald people don't really tend to think of themselves as a group.

This can split even on the same characteristic. Minorities tend to identify with the group more than people in the majority. So, for example, if you make the villain black, black people may protest. But if you make the villain white, likely no one particularly notices. Make a transgender person the villain and you'll be attacked as a bigot. Make a heterosexual person the villain and no one will notice.

2

You could always give him a bit of a background that shows that he was maybe of "lesser" evil before he went to war.

Maybe he had a few negative traits like being vindictive, self-absorbed, self-righteous, maybe even a little sadistic, etc. before his war experiences, but the war and the loss of his limbs exacerbated these traits and made him evil.

2

Speaking as someone of German descent, no one wonders if you're going to offend modern day Germans by portraying the Nazis as the bad guys. Villainy has nothing to do with your veteran status or your skin color or your handicap sticker. In fact, there have been numerous villains who have been these things and still been great villains (Brigadier Gerneral Frank Hummel, from The Rock, Cotton Mouth from Luke Cage, Sir Leigh Teabing from The Da Vinci Code, respectively). Great villains are great because they are evil and want to do evil things. Sure, this isn't representative of all members of those statuses, and the vast majority aren't going to be offended because of the villains. Hell, Star Trek: Into Darkness caught flack from the Sikh community because the made the villain Kahn Noonien Singh a white man to avoid portraying a Sikh as a villain... without realizing that he was beloved by Sikhs because even though he was the bad guy, he was a great bad guy (even if he was portrayed by a wrong race back then).

This is one case where you probably are better off steering into the skid. If the villain is a great villain, most veterans won't care. After all, if you can't offend people with the VILLAIN, what's the point of having him in the first place.

2

Nearly all of my favorite antagonists are given at least one moment of vulnerable humanity. For instance: The Departed never shies away from the fact that mobster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) is a murderous psychopath at heart, nor does it ever seek to truly redeem him in the eyes of the viewer…but we do see him express flickers of introspection, if not genuine remorse ("A lot of people had to die for me to be me."). Exploring the inner life of your villain isn't just good character work—it's also a way to avoid portraying your character's affiliated group as a pack of soulless monsters. Two for one!

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