Diversity in Fantasy

I write fantasy, if you can’t tell. I also read a lot of it. I enjoy dragons, fairies, magic and mayhem. It’s fun, and a nice distraction from every day life. But most of all I love building world’s where people can change everything around them with a little magic.

Today, while youtubeing, I ran into an interview with George RR Martin about GOT, and specifically why it is so “monoculture”, i.e. most everyone is white. Martin’s answer, and many people’s answer for this, is “Because most fantasy is written by middle aged white guys.” And there is a lot of truth to this. There aren’t a lot of fantasy writers of other ethnicities. Wiki even had an article about it, and a list of the notable authors. There aren’t a lot.

But I think there is more to it than that.

Most fantasy books have mono cultures because they take place in small areas before the advent of travel between countries. In my own series all of the characters are the same race because they all live on an island nation together. There have been no immigrants, so no other races are present. There are more diverse characters in other parts of my world, but there are no planes to encourage mixing of the cultures. No TV, no phone, no cruise ships. No extensive way to travel, so few do it.

Integration and diversity are modern concepts created because travel and relocation became easy. On the other hand most fantasy is built on the Victorian age when only the rich or explorers could afford to visit far off lands. That means a natural lack of diversity.

Plus if you wanted to base the culture of your world off an actual real world equivalent then the place with castels, Knights, priests, etc (things people often equate with fantasy) was Europe, not Africa. A fantasy novel based on Africa, or Asia, or South America’s past would look entirely different than one based on Europe. If you just make all of the characters in your Anglo influenced book dark skinned then it’s still a white culture book with dark skinned people. The skin color often becomes irrelevant at that point, window dressing to go with the dragons. Then you get to the question “if you call a rabbit a smeerp is it still a rabbit?” Does it matter, does it make a difference. I don’t know that answer because it doesn’t effect me in the same way, I’d love another person’s opinion.

Another way to look at it… Why is Merideth from “Brave” White? She’s from Ireland. Why is Elsa from “Frozen” white? Scandinavia. Aurora, Snow White, Cinderella… All from predominantly white countries. Would it have changed them had they been Black or Asian? I think so,just the same as making Mulan white would have been wrong on so many levels.

Also, we write what we know. I learned a lot in history and English about the ancient days in England, I know very little about Africa before colonization. Our studies in public schools in the USA are very USA centric. I’ve also read a lot of fantasy books that take place in Anglo influenced realms, because there aren’t a lot that don’t. Therefore when I sit down to write I’m more apt to write in the same sort of world because that is the world I know.

There is also the risk that if you write about diverse cultures you risk catering to stereotypes. I don’t know much about the early days of Africa, but are the few things I do know heavily influenced by stereotypes or not? I don’t know. How much research do I want to do in order to write that book without appearing to be “another white girl labeling black culture?” It’s often safer not to attempt it, and so many newer authors won’t. Then you have your series that you have a fan base in and why would you step out of it to try something new?

I find the question of diversity more appropriate when dealing with science fiction because one would assume that most science fiction would take place in the future where integration was more predominant, or modern fantasy that takes place after the industrial revolution. Even then you might come accross species, groups, or colonies that are monoculture for one reason or another. It’s a good time to explore it.

I suppose I’m more curious about this question as I get closer to writing the books and stories I have planned that take place in areas of my world that are distinctly not Anglo in origin. I love my world, and I want to share it with readers, but I also want to be faithful to the world I created.

I suppose there is a balance to be struck somewhere, and it’s my job to find it.


5 thoughts on “Diversity in Fantasy

  1. That is true. For instance, in Irish black people are called “blue men”, because up until 150 years ago no one had seen a black person. There was a famous and funny case of a touring show, where they offered a chance to see a real “blue man”. It was a white guy with blue paint on his skin, because they thought that’s what black people looked like.

    At the same time, I agree with what Garrett says: It’s fantasy, so we can make up any rules we like. He has equality for women in his otherwise medieval society. About half my series takes place in a kingdom where everyone is black because I want it to. I just made up a reason for it afterward.

    • Oh yes, I totally agree with that. It’s fantasy and it can be whatever we want it to be. I just think the natural starting place for young or new authors tends to be with what you know already, and once you lock yourself into a series it’s tough to change. Unless of course you write a whole new series.

      My series does have diverse cultures, and the first race I introduce (the menaides) have translucent blue skin. So…ya, it’s fun making other worldly races and cultures.

  2. Travelling vast distances was (relatively) common in pre-Christian Scandanavia and the Abbasid Caliphate, so fantasy set in a Viking/Arabic analogue could be both true to source and racially diverse.

    The real limitation on travel came from feudalism; once society is based on a contract between serfs to produce and nobles to protect them (however one sided it is), moving far from where you are born becomes very difficult as you are either bound to the land or need to be nearby anyway to protect against threats to the serfs.

    • Very true. And a lot of fantasy is feudalistic in nature. Funny enough it’s all about the lords and ladies, not the serfs (unless the serf becomes a lord/lady). Guess that would be an argument for trying something new.

  3. Pingback: Quotes Wednesday | InstaScribe

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