King Agnul looked out over his evil fantasy domain.
So much evil!
He surveyed with evil pleasure his evil towers, his evil stones, but most importantly, his evil followers, shaggy beasts resembling humans in their form, but distorted and foul beyond imagining: the Ukmoni that he had enslaved to his will. With these, he could conquer the world.
Our trope of topic today is one that, for lack of any official title, I’m calling the Orc Trope; or if you like, in keeping with the evil theme, Insanely Evil Armies That Are Evil.
Many of you have probably read The Lord of the Rings or watched it. For those who haven’t, the orcs of J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium are corrupted Elves who serve their equally corrupted master and make him a formidable army. They are notable for their ruthlessness, their irredeemability, and their hatred of good. In general, they’re pretty disgusting beings.
Well, fantasy writers of many subsequent ages have seized upon this. “I, too,” they say, “will invent a depraved, non-human race that can make a convenient army for my evil mastermind and stand in the way of my heroes. Since they’re so depraved already, I don’t even have to worry about why they’re serving the antagonist, right?”
(The answer, by the way, is wrong, wrong, wrong. But we’ll get to that.)
Published examples of this trope are manifold. You have the Wargals in John Flanagan’s The Ranger’s Apprentice; the rodents collectively dubbed “vermin” in Brian Jacques’ Redwall series; and the Fangs in the less well-known Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson. Like any trope, this one is not all bad. But that’s why we’re here, of course — to examine not only what this trope has that we should avoid, but also what it has to offer.
The Orc Trope has been a popular one partly because it provides an enemy that can be killed without regret. It sets up the classic good vs. evil scenario, where the lines are far more plainly drawn than they often are in our own world, and that is why younger children often enjoy these types of books — the ones where they know who to root for, and who will win. It is also, incidentally, why I think the trope has grown less popular of late, as our generation gravitates toward a world of greys where truth is uncertain. At any rate, it is still prevalent enough, especially among novice fantasy authors — not exempting my past self… Because let’s be honest, writing about humans killing other humans takes either gross naivete or genuine grit.
When you take this pure good/evil division, though, you make the complexity of your story one-sided. After all, your heroes have a mix of good and bad traits, don’t they? A rounded character? They should. But for your “bad-guys”, all you have is a flat plane of evil. Some of the deepest and most rendingly beautiful stories are the ones that come out of a struggle where good is known, and bad is known, but they are impossible to separate in any of the characters. It’s when you wrestle with deep issues that you get deep stories.
The Orc Trope also often attempts to bypass another difficult problem: “How do I get a large number of people to join up with my obviously evil antagonist?” Let’s face it, a lot of us humans are plain dumb and gullible. Still, when you have a strange being who’s basically living, breathing evil, emanating wickedness from his pores, that person might have trouble to amass a sizable following. And no following = no big army to impede the heroes of the story and provide the requisite conflict.
The issue with using your Orc Trope as a cop-out for this question, though, is that it becomes just that: a cop-out. You have to give history even to your orc-analogs. Why did they become this way? What is in their past? Where did they spring from and why? Skimming over these things to get the “easy way out” will only make your creatures hollow and devoid of interest.
So, let’s examine the book examples I gave above in a little more detail. Flanagan’s Wargal race has the least going for it. They’re a weird breed of creature that seems to be neither human nor animal, can be subjected en masse with mind control, and have neither development nor explanation. They also disappear from the universe after the third book.
Brian Jacques’ Redwall vermin, at least, have personalities, dynamic interaction, and social classes. What exactly makes them so corrupted is never said; they just “are” bad. However, it’s evidenced on rare occasions that they can be redeemed.
Now, the Wingfeather Saga takes the Orc trope and turns it on its head. The Fangs seem initially sub-human, but they are humans, humans that have been warped into a monstrous, bestialized version of themselves — not through someone else’s coercion, but always by their own choice. To avoid spoiling the end here, because it’s an end that shouldn’t be spoiled, I’ll only say that the story of the Fangs unfolds deeper and more painful as you go, and breaks into unspeakable beauty at the end.
So, we’ve covered what the Orc Trope is and some of the problems it poses, and studied how various authors in the published realm have utilized it. Now, it’s time for concrete advice.
I don’t recommend that you avoid this trope at all costs. As I declared above, no trope is all bad; it’s all in how you use it, and if it works for your story, you take it and make it your own. I’d be hypocritical if I told you to shun it, because my current work in progress involves a pretty classic example of the Orc Trope, though I flatter myself I’ve handled it well. Do avoid turning your creatures into a mob of utter mindlessness, and don’t forget to add their backstory.
Ways to get creative:
Make them redeemable. Something about this never gets old. Incredible beauty can be wrought under the hands that retell the redemption of the unlovable.
Give them culture! Backstory isn’t the only important thing. Do they actually keep certain moral standards? What are their ceremonies? Their customs? Their interests?
And finally, whatever you do, and wherever you take your story… have fun. Because in the end, the story you write is the one that matters to you.