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Always Chaotic Evil denotes an entire species in a fictional setting as outright evil - no matter how one treats them, they reward kindness with treachery and violence. Frequent recipients of this trope include but are not limited to aliens, demons, vampires, zombies, trolls, dragons, ogres, goblins, werewolves, giants, orcs, dinosaurs, and scorpions. I mention this because my trilogy has a species called the Degenerates, who are an antagonistic force for the trilogy's first half.

The Degenerates are genderless humans and animals who share similarities with a parasitic extraterrestrial thanks to being parasitised by prehistoric pentastomids and style themselves after various nomadic Indo-Iranian cultures. I've tried avoiding portraying them as violent savages by justifying the Degenerate's aggressive tendencies via implying Degenerated animals are slaves to the pentastomids' desires. While some Degenerated humans retain enough humanity to even be sympathetic characters, with their "king", Koloksai being a polite, idealistic and moralistic individual who wants to eradicate every form of discrimination by turning humans in Degenerates while founding a proto-nation where they can live centuries-long lives in harmony with nature.

But when all is said and done, I feel that this still isn't enough to avoid characterising all Degenerates as bloodthirsty barbarians.

How can I avoid falling into such a trap?

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    I would note that in some political circles the word "Degenerate" has been hijacked to refer to vulnerable minority groups. Given the context of your fiction, you might be unintentionally treading on rather sensitive political implications. – Onyz Jul 31 '19 at 13:44
  • Minor point, but I don't think that dinosaurs belong on your list. Evil implies sapience, which dinosaurs (usually) don't possess. – Arcanist Lupus Jul 31 '19 at 22:47
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I am going for a frame challenge. While scanning the question all that I remembered was a big bag of buzz-words, starting with degenerate, barbarians, nomadic, Indo-Iranians, viruses, and further fluff.

It seems to me that you have overloaded your antagonists with all that you think could raise a sense of fear and exotic, in the hope that the reader will feel compelled to feel the same. It may work for your closest circle, but it is not in these buzz-words that you will find believable non-stock antagonists.

My frame challenge can be summarized as:

The evil that you know best is the one closest to you.

This has the corollary:

The unknown is not necessarily evil, even if you are afraid of it.

My suggesions

First, wash the exotic. You may want an antagonist to which the reader can relate. Bring them closer to you. Write about them in the same manner in which you would write about people that you know, in the setting that you know.

Second, come to terms that in depicting an entire populace as non-stock believable evil, you have to take a racist1 point-of-view. While there can be people that perceive pleasure in harming others in any possible circumstance, it seems fairly unsustainable for a population living with scarce resources, as is often the case for nomadic tribes. In contrast, a misuderstanding of certain cultural nuances, or even a clash of objectives, whereby two groups of people need a certain resource to survive, may fall into the perceived category that the others are evil. Alternatively, your antagonists could just be ignorants, bigots, or bureaucracy fanatics, as the standard Western evils. Note that not one of these groups profess being evil per se, in fact they are rather convinced of being doing the right thing.

1 Racist as in 'the country to which the MC belongs is so much better than the nation of these evil antagonists'

Third, while not true in general, I may suggest that in your case less is more. Do not force yourself to explain things unless the explanation serves a very clear purpose to your story. It will make your story easier to follow, and easier to relate with, as the imagination of the reader will fill the gaps.

Finally, the writing advice is to not place the antagonists next to the usual buzzwords of bloodthirsty mindless brutes. Describe their actions as well thought, their speeches as deliberate with a specific albeit not simple style. Ensure that they sound consistent throughout the entire spectrum of emotions. Trace a line in the way you write about them, and the way the MC speaks about them. They may be mindless brutes for the MC, but for you as author they are complex and deep at least as much as the MC.

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While some Degenerated humans retain enough humanity to even be sympathetic characters, with their "king" being a polite, idealistic and moralistic individual who wants to rid eradicate every form of discrimination by turning humans in Degenerates while founding a proto-nation where they can live centuries-long lives in harmony with nature. ... I feel that this still isn't enough to avoid characterising all Degenerates as bloodthirsty barbarians.

You're right: it's not enough. The king that you mention seems the out-of-book benevolent dictator (at best), a tyrant lead by wrong ideals at worst. It won't be enough to redeem the entire species.

Another issue is that your Degenerates are capable of being sympathetic characters ... when they retain humanity. So it's not by their own virtue, but by their "hosts" still being partly human.

In order to make them less textbook evil, you need to rethink the core concept. If most Degenerates are "savage, driven by the pentastomids' desires", and the only desire so far is to expand the pentastomids' influence over life, you've got your hands full of a rabid horde of infected animals. Not very different from any zombie outbreak.

How can I avoid falling into such a trap?

Multiple things you can consider:

  • Change the pentastomids base desire. If Degenerates are hyper-aggressive, infectuos, and survival-driven, you won't have much chances to portray them in any different light. Maybe the pentastomids do want to grow and infect more beings, but they do in a more conservative way (e.g., a Degenerate wolf has evolutionary advantages over normal wolves, so it has more chances to have degenerate offsprings...). Maybe the pentastomids work by enhancing and prioritizing the individual wellbeing, rather than force it to infect as many others as possible.
  • Make them sentient. A rabid animal won't be seen as sympathetic no matter what. But an animal that show sentience, even if prone to anger, is at least more interesting.
  • As per Amadeus suggestion: show examples of different behaviour. The degenerates may as well be aggressive towards other civilizations or strangers, but maybe they are very compassionate between themselves.
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... an entire species in a fictional setting as outright evil - no matter how one treats them, they reward kindness with treachery and violence.

This premise seems incomplete to me, and unnecessarily harsh. Why don't they exterminate themselves? And if they respond so uniformly, they should be easy to bait, trap and kill. That's how our early ancestors dealt with wild predators and big cats, they are so predictable they are easily tricked.

If you don't want them to just be rabid wolves, show them in light where they don't know they are being observed, but have non-rabid relationships. Some person, by accident or intent (e.g a scientist), spying on them, studying their behavior to find a clue to defeat them.

Otherwise, resign yourself to the fact you have created an unredeemable species and you have to find a way to exterminate them. The plot then becomes defeating the pentastomids; by inoculation, or extermination, or finding a medicine to cure the infection.

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Remember the proverb "Everyone is the hero in his own story."

They might be evil from your point of view, but you need to make sure that their actions are guided by reason, even if it might be misguided. If they come to their conclusions in a rational, understandable way, even if the actual conclusions or reasons are irrational or wrong, the characters won't be chaotic evil.

For example, if they have a history of getting scammed and mistreated, they will see signs for treachery where none are, but they won't just backstab out the blue. They will see something they interpret as treachery and will backstab, before the other can backstab them. It will be rational for them that they backstab their companion, because they saw him go to bed with his weapon nearby, which they might interpret as the other planning to kill them in their sleep, even if he actually was just concerned about local wildlife murdering both of them in their sleep. Small actions can be interpreted in many ways and they will always assume the worst interpretation, but always for rational reasons.

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I highly recommend you read Animorphs and watch Transformers: Beast Wars. In the case of the former, the political system of the Allied aliens (Andalites) and antagonist aliens (Yeerks) is rather unusual. The Heroes main allies are a group of people who are at the point of the series, lead by a military junta and military commanders are given a wide berth of discretion in how they treat inferiors and how they can handle a battlefront with little input from command or the people (who by the end of the series are outraged by war crimes that the just learned about). Inferior officers must have a commander and must not betray them to the point of near blind loyalty. This is seen through the eyes of the character Ax, who's main conflict is that he has declared a human his commander and treats him as such, but does not always understand the human perspective of his commander's decisions. The Yeerks on the other hand, have an elected Council of 13 and an Emperor. The Emperor is the head of the government but has extremely limited power. The council elect the Emperor in secret from one of the 13 council members. The Emperor does not have a vote unless there is a deadlock of the 12 regular members and is not allowed to be revealed to the general public (both for safety and to prevent him from becoming a populist figure). The military is subservient to all 13 members and they will deliberate over command decisions that are improper. Because of the race's parasitism, they're infesting of other races is naturally villanous but over the course of the series, we learn that there is a growing faction that object to infesting unwilling hosts and a long lost offshoot that has formed a symbiotic relationship with their non-intelligent hosts, and both factions (more so the former) provide infrequent assistance. Among the other aliens featured, no species is without a good counterpart (Hork-Bajirs, the shock troops of the Yeerks and described as walking knives, are largely pacifists who are terrified by what they are forced to do, and the Taxxons cannot eat enough an feel full and willingly joined the Yeerks to not have to live with their hunger. They en mass leave when a better option is presented).

Beast Wars offers a character study of a "race" traitor in the form of Dinobot, who renounces his affiliation to the group of Predicons who are the antagonists, but still sees himself as a Predicon even after committing to the Heroic Maximals. While not apperent, its inferred that the Predicons are an honorable warrior race and trechary is a prized virtue in their eyes if successful. Dinobot is not betraying all Predicons, but the leader of his group, Megatron, because he views Megatron as dishonorable. Dinobot's relationship with his Maximal allies (who are prone to diplomacy first, and war only as a last resort) he does come to respect their leader, Optimus Primal, who's defining leadership characteristic is that he will never give an order he would not be prepaired to do himself and thus values his inferiors. Optimus may give Dinobot an order that Dinobot agrees with, but he doesn't single Dinobot out. He'd give the same order to Rattrap or Rhinox, both of whom are loyal to the end (though Rattrap shows it in an unusual way). This is especially true in the series must watch episode, "Code of Hero" where Dinobot's conflict is resolved with his Maximal friends admitting that Dinobot was a valued member of the team and uncompromising Predicon Warrior (the final scene is confirmed to be a Predicon Tradition, for an honored warrior and is one carried out by his comrades out of respect.). Dinobot is also humanized by having a love of human culture (Shakespeare in particular) that is beyond that of even the Maximals, despite his Predicon ancestors being enemies of the humans in a previous war.

In the case of Dinobot, it might be the case that your noble parasites are noble because they can reconcile the seemingly disparate philosophies that are making his people fight his allies... thus is an important character as he can bring peace to the two people who are seemingly incompatible. It's important that the guiding morals of the parasites are worked in such a way that the King has a warped understanding of them while the heroic member is seeing what is good. This happens a lot in real life as many times two philosophies are not incompatible but merely value different things. A a warrior race and a diplomatic race are not incompatible. Both are capable of fighting with honor and giving the due to the heroes on the battlefield. They only differ on when it is proper to fight and what the threat of war will look like in the tactics (Both want the best outcome for all sides. But the Warrior will see the threat of war as a show of their committment to their belief, while the diplomat relies on the high cost of a war, to hope that negotions will continue when compromises cannot be reached quick enough. The warrior asks "Are you committed to your idea that you would die for it" while a diplomat asks "surely we can agree that dying for this is not something we want to do?". These questions are not opposites, and it's entirely possible for one to be prepared to die for a goal, but still would prefer not too.). Dinobot's final test of his conflicted loyalties is resolved when he understands that this very concept. He would not choose to die for something to believe in, but he has no choice in the matter. A warrior on the losing side is a warrior still. And the battle must be joined.

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The problem with tropes isn't that they're tropes, it's that they're symptoms of lazy writing. In this case, having a species that always does the worst possible thing is a) too easy b) not very interesting and c) uncomfortably close to how real groups have frequently been stereotyped in real life.

You should take the time and effort to make this group a little more three-dimensional and multi-faceted, if only in your world-building notes. Do they think they are doing good? Is there a case to be made for their vision? Is it possible that they're right, and your protagonists are wrong? Conversely, are there individual "Degenerates" fighting their brain parasite? If you understand and can emphasize with their culture and society, it will add depth to how you portray them, even if your protagonists can only conceptualize them as pure evil.

Consider the Borg, the memorable villains introduced in Star Trek: The Next Generation, an implacable, technological, hive-mind monstrosity. Part of what made them so effective is that they were easy to understand. They weren't just doing evil for the sake of evil. Instead, they were fulfilling their mission of absorbing all other species into themselves, at all costs. Their fixation on efficiency was a direct extrapolation of modern trends in technological advance. This made them believable as a credible possible alternate future for the human species (versus the more optimistic vision represented by the protagonists). That, in turn, kept them from being cardboard stock villains of the type you are describing.

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