One of the best things about writing in the fantasy fiction genre is that anything goes. I’m not saying there aren’t rules – there are – Harry Potter wasn’t able to bring his parents back from the dead, the One Ring gave Frodo powers, but not without consequence. If done correctly, magic or superpowers shouldn’t be a panacea to all life’s problems or there would be nothing at stake, nothing for our hero to overcome or run up against. There are limits to magic and rules that govern fantasy worlds. But – the good news is, as a writer – you make the rules! You can create a fictional world of fish people, so long as you can convincingly explain to the reader how they’re able to breath under water, what kind of teeth they have for eating prey and how they’re able to navigate the darkest depths of the ocean. Fantasy – no matter how far-fetched – must have a basis in reality or you risk the reader suspending their disbelief.
Which is why a lot of fantasy worlds draw from science, historical events, real people or historical periods. Doing this provides the reader with a recognizable framework through which to view the world. Going forward, let’s call that framework belief glasses. As long as the writer provides the reader with a pair of belief glasses, the reader should be able to comfortably navigate the writer’s world and not get taken out of it. So when you’re creating those glasses, why create ones that only see white people? Why create glasses that can see dragons but not women in positions of power? Why not make full-spectrum glasses?
If you create a world based off of Medieval Europe, but your version is populated by dragons and mermaids and evil witches, why is it such a stretch to believe there might be a black guy or two? I mean, is that going to be your historical sticking point? You have enough imagination to create belief glasses that allow your reader to see a three-headed, snow-breathing dragon, but not the prescription for a character of color who isn’t a slave or a background character? If you can create belief glasses that allow your reader to navigate an exciting, foreign landscape, there’s no reason you can’t create ones that show amazing and diverse characters populating it.
People are hungry for diversity in fantasy and sci-fi! Do you know how many little girls and boys cosplayed Rey or Finn from Star Wars: The Last Jedi ? Do you know how many women and young girls flocked to the theatre to see Wonder Woman, a movie that outsold many of the male-led DC franchises? Even people that aren’t normally interested in Superhero movies are interested in going to see Spiderman Homecoming or Black Panther because of their diverse cast. People want to see themselves – and not just as slaves or gangsters or villains or background characters – but as heroes of their own story. So why – in the fantasy and sci-fi genre – are we so often getting the same heroes? Isn’t it time we made a better pair of belief glasses?
A little girl cosplays as Rey, from Star Wars: the Last Jedi.
“Write what you know” is advice that is regularly doled out to beginning writers and is often misinterpreted. Writing what you know doesn’t mean you can only write about white women named Janice who are in their mid-thirties and live in the Midwest (because you are a white woman named Janice who is in her mid-thirties and lives in the Midwest). It’s about getting in touch with a character’s emotions so that your reader can feel them too. If you’ve ever known love, jealousy, longing, or loss in your own life, then have your character go through it. Men can write women (although we wish some of them wouldn’t). Women can write men. Caucasian people can write about Asian people and so on… And if you’re worried about offending people by saying the wrong thing – do some research. You’re already researching how many pounds of sheep a dragon would have to eat in order to have the energy to fly, it’s not some added burden to have a friend look over what you’ve written or do a google search to make sure you’re not unconsciously perpetuating a racist or sexist trope or cliche.
With the possible exception of Harry Potter, most of the popular fantasy books of our day are full of white people. George R.R. Martin – whose Game of Thrones books have been optioned into a wildly popular HBO television series – has come under fire for the lack of diversity in his books. He claims his fictional world is based on European history (fair enough) and it wasn’t as integrated as 21st Century America at the time.
Westeros around 300 AC is nowhere near as diverse as 21st century America, of course… but with that being said, I do have some ‘characters of color’ who will have somewhat larger roles in WINDS OF WINTER. Admittedly, these are secondary and tertiary characters, though not without importance.
But…isn’t Westeros a world of his own making? I mean, if dragons and ice-zombies are a thing, doesn’t his choice to not include characters of color based on historical precedents seem a bit…well, flimsy? If George R.R. Martin can imagine White Walkers in Europe, why can’t he imagine non-white heroes there too?
Many white people ask why non-white characters are important or why it matters in this particular book or movie. Imagine if you will, that a white child has 96 pieces of candy and a black child has 4 pieces. Is it “equal” if we give them each 10 additional pieces of candy? Well, now the white child has 106 and the black child has just 14 – the gap between them is still huge. In others words, even if all writers started to write non-white characters, we’d have a lot of catching up to do in terms of representation.
So why is representation so important? Because it’s part of how we understand ourselves and our place in the world. It makes us feel normal and visible and worthy of people’s time and attention. It affects our self-esteem. It affects what we consider beautiful.
Many writers claim they can only write what they’ve had experience with, so if they haven’t experienced being a black man, they couldn’t possibly write one. Leave white characters to white authors and black characters to black authors and asian characters to asian authors and so on…. Which, sounds a bit like “separate and equal” arguments. But is it equal? I don’t have stats on Fantasy, but in the Young Adult book market (*in 2013 – to be fair I think YA has come a long way since then), only 7% of published authors are non-white and only 10% of main characters in YA books are non-white. Does this mean there are less non-white writers? Or just that less of them are getting published? And how can we bridge this gap? And isn’t our job as writers – especially as fantasy writers – to push the limits of our imagination and the boundaries of what we think we can do? Isn’t it just…lazy to keep writing the same white heroes?
Many writers will get upset at readers who demand diversity because they feel like they’re trying to force an agenda on the writer. But the response to, “Why isn’t there more diversity?” shouldn’t be, “If you want more diversity, write it yourself” or “More POC people should write books then.”
We should be asking ourselves instead: “Why is it that these works out now don’t have more diversity?” And is it really so hard to make a better pair of belief glasses?
*Leave a comment with your favorite book that has a diverse cast of characters*