My newest book, Evan and the Alpha, hit Kindles everywhere last month. The story follows a human who ends up being kidnapped by aliens on strange planet.
The story was originally written for an anthology called Brute’s Bounty. I rarely play up the “toxic alpha hole” tropes—tropes that are all intimately associated with “brutish” behavior.
So, what the heck attracted me to write something that seems pretty far outside my usual lane? Was it the challenge? The chance to mix things up?
Those were a few of the reasons I was interested. But the major driving factor was that I wanted to explore what, exactly, makes “a brute.”
The Brute Is Often a Racist Trope
One thing paranormal romance, sci-fi, and fantasy have in common is their use of made-up ethnic groups. In many cases, the use of these groups veer directly into the swamp of racism.
We see the complaint most often against fantasy writers (and, by extension, sci-fi writers). The complaint is often warranted. These (usually white) writers are using fantasy races as a way to explore racism. And they often do it badly, in part because the majority of white folks don’t truly understand how racism functions.
Yet there’s another common racist trope that crops up across romance, sci-fi, and fantasy alike. It’s the idea of “the brute.”
The brute is often associated with one of these fantastical made-up races or groups. Usually, they’re “inhuman” to some degree, but they’re also humanoid enough. They may be groups like trolls or orcs in a fantasy story. In sci-fi, they may be a race of aliens known for a “warrior” culture.
In many cases, these “warrior” cultures mimic white representations of cultures from Africa and South America.
You can probably see where this is going.
The Brute Repackages Exoticism and Colonialism
The issue with “the brute,” then, is that it takes these imperialist notions and repackages them as “fantasy.” Just as fantasy writers who explore “fantasy racism” lose themselves in the quagmire, so too do romance writers wade into the swamp.
The brute pits “civilization” against “barbarism.” It’s the same thing we might see a Victorian-era story pit the white colonists against “the natives.” I’m thinking here of Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s notorious story of a bunch of white imperialists in the Congo.
You don’t have to be well-read to see this trope in action though. It’s all over TV screens, comic books, and in movies and music. Ever watched an old Bugs Bunny cartoon with “Indians and cowboys”? Or how about Disney’s Peter Pan?
More notorious are Donald Duck cartoons. Donald ends up getting captured by an “African tribe,” who try to cook and eat him. Lest you think this is because he’s a duck, this also happens to TinTin, who is decidedly not a duck.
A more recent example is from My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. The “settler” ponies learn to “live with” the buffalo—a not-so-thinly veiled representation of Indigenous Peoples in North America.
Barbarians and Noble Savages
While many media depictions show us “scary” barbarians, others romanticize the brute—a trope called the “noble savage.” This is another racist imperialist trope.
The “noble savage” is one who is seen as being somehow pure or innocent. This character is usually closer to nature or has a childlike disposition. That allows the imperialist to argue that we don’t need to fear them. We simply need to “civilize” them.
Often, that comes on the back of a “good woman” who falls in love with the “savage.” Of course, she won’t end up marrying her Indigenous love. After all, that would promote some pretty uncomfortable ideas about miscegenation and threaten the purity of the white race. But she’ll argue that he is good at heart and deserves a chance.
How is this racist? The “noble savage”’s redemption usually hinges not on his humanity or respect and understanding of his culture. It hinges on the fact that he can be assimilated to white culture.
The reverse is very much true. In many stories, a white man must defend an Indigenous woman, often against “her own people.” The men of whichever nation or tribe or group are portrayed as being brutal and animalistic. Thus the heroic, civilized white man must rescue this gentle creature, who just needs a good man by her side.
The Animal Other
You might have keyed in on the phrase “animalistic” in the last paragraph. This is a huge issue within all genres of media. The “other” is portrayed as being “like an animal.”
This is imperative for the functioning of both “the brute” and the “noble savage” tropes. If we’re working with the brute, then the people fight and scrap. They howl and dance strange dances. Yet they can be conquered—like man once brought the wolf to heel.
The “noble savage” suggests that animals are closer to God and more innocent than people. Thus, it’s possible to “redeem” the animal-like “savage,” by training him.
Important to note here is that both tropes assign human beings to the level of dogs and other mammals. And, of course, they suggest that non-white people are not as intelligent as white people—they’re “like animals.”
You can see how this line of thinking leads to things like eugenics. It easily gives rise to pseudoscience like craniometry, which tried to argue that non-white people have smaller brains and therefore below-average intelligence.
All of this justifies treating other human beings as “less-than.”
Now, we come back to our fantasy writers and our sci-fi writers and even our romance writers, who are writing about these “brutal” peoples.
More often than not, we’re drawing on cultures that have been “othered” by imperialist racism. Many “others” in fantasy and sci-fi possess distinctly animalistic traits. My own kroakka are no exception here, as they have the heads of crocodiles.
The Kroakka of Evan and the Alpha
So, yes, I waded right into that swamp. I’m not sure I waded back out, although I wanted to take “the brute” and all the racist bullshit that’s bound up in it and see if I could unwind it, even a bit.
That was one reason it was imperative to have Sobek’s point of view in the novel. We can certainly see things through Evan’s eyes—but Evan is the colonizer. He is the “civilized,” coming up against the seemingly “uncivilized” world of the kroakka.
But the kroakka are not brutes. They are warriors, and it behooves us to try and understand that culture. What may outwardly seem like a culture of profound violence and lack of morals is actually a complex code that asks citizens to abide by it. Honor and strength guide almost everything the kroakka do. Proving you are strong is important, but it is not honorable to pick a fight with someone weaker than you. Wronging someone leads to ritualized displays of violence, where the aggrieved parties and the “crooks” resolve their disputes.
A lot of this is different from Western cultural norms, which means Evan necessarily has a hard time understanding the system. For example, he doesn’t see why the kroakka need to fight over omegas or territories. The other human characters don’t understand the “ownership” of omegas, even though humans have had very similar systems.
In failing to understand, they lack both empathy and greater context. Evan tries his best, but he doesn’t understand the complex interweaving of environmental factors that kroakka culture evolved in.
In short, the best he can do is hope to respect the culture, and even that he fails miserably.
What Makes a Brute?
The other human characters—perhaps with the exceptions of Darwin and Vince—don’t make much of an effort to understand or respect kroakka culture. That’s where their imagination fails them.
All human cultures have evolved in similar ways. Even Western cultural norms are responses to various environmental factors. The treatment of women as “angels in the house” in the Victorian era is a response to a number of external factors, including colonialism and exposure to other cultures. In the West’s desperation to exert dominance, people argued the West was superior because women were “bastions of culture.” Women had to protect the culture, just as they needed protection from (civilized) men.
At the same time the Victorians oppressed women by forcing them into the “angel/whore” dichotomy. Yet the West deplored the treatment of women in other cultures. And where women could hold power? They were denigrated as not being women, as being “mannish”—which was also to be feared.
Thus we find a tension in the imperialist world. There is a failure to extend imagination and empathy to other cultures, to simply label them as “barbaric” or “savage” or what have you, while in reality, Western culture is just as brutal.
How Do We Navigate the Tension?
This is the tension we find Evan embroiled in: he wants to understand the culture of the kroakka. At the same point, he’s an outsider. From his point of view, the kroakka look necessarily “brutish.” They’re violent, they resolve their problems with fights and killings, and they treat omegas as chattel or perhaps even slaves.
This is where Sobek’s point of view becomes so key to the story. Sobek reveals the internal logic of the culture that Evan cannot see and cannot understand. As much as omegas are expected to be subservient, they are also held in great esteem. Harming an omega is considered poor behavior from an alpha. His honor would suffer greatly if he were to harm an omega. Similarly, if he is caught engaging in violence against those who are less capable, he is considered dishonourable.
This is a society where social reputation matters much more. One must abide by strict social codes—codes that are invisible to outsiders. All they see is violence. They don’t see the internal logic of why Sobek must fight his father or the alpha Nojak.
Are the Kroakka Really Brutes?
Obviously, the question that arises here is the one I wanted to explore anyway. What makes someone or something “a brute”? In so many stories, the “brute” is just a member of a strange culture, which seems violent and scary to outsiders. Moreover, brutes are usually monstrous or animalistic in form.
The connection to racism is pretty undeniable. Today’s Ice Planet Barbarian, in a not-too-distant past, was once a Wild West “Indian” or a member of an Amazon-dwelling tribe. None of these cultures are “brutes,” yet, to the Western imperialist, they seemed violent and frightening. Thus we arrive at the myth of “the brute,” who carries off (white) damsels in distress.
When we encounter “the brute” in romance, we also come up against misogyny and patriarchy. Often, the brute is revealed to have a heart of gold—something that occurs in Evan and the Alpha. But more than that, his “brutish” behavior is played as something desirable: women, in particular, are told they should want a man who can “go caveman,” who is possessive and violent.
In short, there is a lot of mixed messaging when we adopt “the brute” character into our writing. Examining the racist origins of the stereotype, pushing back against those narratives, and resisting “romanticization” are all imperative both when we read and write within this space.