Diversity in Fantasy

by A.M. Justice

Over the past year or so, I’ve had several conversations about diversity—or the lack thereof—in fantasy. Opinions on this issue can be roughly divided into two camps:

  1. There’s a lack of diversity because authors “write what they know” and naturally create characters who resemble themselves
  2. There is plenty of diversity in fantasy; you just have to read the right authors

Diversity in fantasy falls along a spectrum.

Diversity

I love every series shown here, with the two on the ends vying for all-time favorite. Nevertheless, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings sits pretty far to the left on my scale: all the protagonists in LOTR are white and all but Eowyn are male. George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series fall in the middle of the spectrum. Both series include roughly equal numbers of male and female protagonists as well as supporting characters with nonwhite features and/or LGBT orientations. However, the main characters all fit squarely within the European diaspora, and most are heterosexual. Finally, over on the right side we have Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea Cycle. Ged, the central figure in Earthsea, is distinctly not European; he and most people from his world have black hair and complexions ranging from reddish brown to black (resembling Native Americans and Africans), and only the Kargish have pale skin and light eyes. As for gender balance, two of the Earthsea books lack female voices entirely, but the role of women is a bedrock theme of the series and we see Earthsea mostly through female eyes in the other four books.

Perhaps the last frontier of diversity is sexual orientation. While the Earthsea books feature main characters with a broad range of racial characteristics, there are no LGBT protagonists. In fact, other than Cersei in the Song of Ice and Fire, who might have had a lesbian affair (Martin was a bit vague about it), Ammar in Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan is the only fantasy protagonist I can think of who isn’t strictly heterosexual.

I think fantasy offers plenty of gender diversity, but the principal characters still tend to be white and heterosexual (and young and healthy—elderly or disabled protagonists are very rare). It could be that I’m reading the wrong books. When I informally surveyed the Guild of Dreams members, Autumn, Steven, and Chantal all chimed in with lists novels they’d written or read featuring protagonists who are not white and/or not heterosexual (and Chantal wrote a blog on this site about disabled characters). The winds seem to be blowing the field toward greater diversity, and that’s a good thing. Earthsea’s Ged opened my mind and shaped my beliefs (I gleaned my personal philosophy from the Earthsea books the way others gain theirs from Thoreau’s Walden). Ged’s physical features played a relatively minor role in the books’ influence on my value system, but the fact that he was heartbreakingly heroic and not white had a huge impact on my imagination.

When I created Knownearth, I peopled it with a broad range of physical types. Sometimes I amuse myself by playing casting director for the Woern Chronicles. Many of the actors I would like to see in the movie check “African American” on their U.S. census forms. Yet the residents of Knownearth wouldn’t do that; they have no concept of race. They shrug off skin color differences as easily as hair color, because their world is so far removed from present day earth that people are no longer classified (or judged) according to which continent their ancestors came from (thank you, marooned spacefarer trope!). My imaginary societies also have total gender equality—eliminating racial and sex discrimination from the picture freed me to explore power relationships without the confounding influences of gender and ethnicity.

Woman-on-the-Edge-of-Time-225x225I wonder why we don’t see a broad palette of character types from more authors. Are other fantasy authors simply writing “what they know”? For authors writing contemporary urban fantasy, this makes sense. I doubt I could write believable characters who practice magic in housing project stairwells. There’s also the risk of backlash when authors create characters outside their own ethnic group. In college, I told my writing professor how much I admired Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. When I mentioned that Connie, the protagonist, was Hispanic, my professor dismissed the book as inauthentic, because a non-Hispanic author “couldn’t possibly capture the Latina experience.”

Yet the question remains: why is epic fantasy so often a whites-mostly affair? Just because the societies in these stories are based on feudal Europe doesn’t mean the characters themselves have to look like Vikings. Populating a made-up world only with people who look like the author shows a lack of imagination. When an author invents a world, he or she also creates an opportunity for different skin pigmentations to be no more remarkable than different hair colors, or for sexual orientation to carry no more significance than a preference for tea over coffee. In such a world, characters’ deeds will matter, not their physical characteristics.

A world where people are judged only by the content of their characters remains a dream, but increasing diversity in fantasy may be one way to turn it into reality.

 

Photo on 7-25-12 at 12.24 PM #3_2A.M. Justice writes fiction from distant times and places and chronicles journeys in the here and now. To see more of what’s on her mind, drop by the KnownEarth Works website, follow her on Twitter, or hang out on her Facebook page.

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18 comments on “Diversity in Fantasy

  1. I think there’s one problem with thinking about race in fantasy. These worlds are often not Earth. So, it’s difficult to assume that there will be white, black, Asian, or other races in them. I know that Lord of the Rings is mainly white people, but you also have to consider that it’s based on Europe. A Europe from before recorded history. For all he knew at the time, people of Europe were all white, and that’s a fair guess. And there’s no way he’d write about other sexual orientations. That would just be condemned and his books likely never would’ve become as popular as they are now. The thing is, I’d base races on the environments in the worlds. If it was a cold land, I wouldn’t include dark skinned people. If it were based in a hot and sunny land, they would be quite dark skinned. I’m more concerned about diversity in science fiction. Since fantasy involves created worlds and created peoples, the diversity doesn’t need to be based on our Earth-based expectations.

    • Jay, I totally agree with you that the populations of fantasy worlds don’t need to be based on our earth-based expectations of skin color vs culture (and regarding dark-skinned people in cold lands, I just want to point out that the Inuit [Eskimos] have dark skin). That’s pretty much my point, and why I suggest more authors people their worlds with a wider variety of folks. However, I also believe, first and foremost, that authors should create characters as they see them and not strive to produce a Benetton ad only for the sake of political correctness.

      • I agree. And good point about the Inuit, though I think their skin colour has a lot to do with the fact that they spend a lot of time outside in the sun. Reflection off the snow is pretty bright.

        But yeah, authors need to base their people on what they think is appropriate. I’d find it odd to see a token (insert racial description) in a fantasy novel to satisfy those who want more diversity for the sake of political correctness.

  2. You have conveniently forgotten to put fantasy literature into its historic context. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit both try to “invent” a Nordic mythology for the British Isles…because the British Isles do not have what could be called a pure and generic mythology of their own (Celtic origins destroyed by too many invadors). He put his experiences of the Great War into the books. Naturally, this means a male-oriented “boys’ own storyworld” and a world where white Nordic types dominate the landscape. He wasn’t trying to write a fantasy story – he was trying to give the UK something it lacked compared to most other European countries.

    Most fantasy literature is based on medieval references – and since we do not know a great deal about the Middle Age acitivities of Australian, African and South American natives, fantasy writers resort back to what they know makes their writings believable for a modern audience. Would it be believable to have gay Asian knights hopping about Camelot wielding swords? Nope. Who actually reads fantasy literature? My gut feeling would be to say the demographics show 17-30 year-old white males. This means that professional writers have to please their target audience and that target audience doesn’t want politically correct fluffy stories where everybody is equal and there’s nothing to fight for, but the blood, gore and politically incorrect Middle Ages.

    • Oh, I didn’t forget the origin of Lord of the Rings and, as I said at the beginning, it’s one of my favorites. Tolkien was a man of his era and I’m sure putting people of color into his stories never crossed his mind. It doesn’t reduce the quality of the tale at all. However, my point is there is no reason why fantasies set in wholly imaginary worlds MUST be populated by any particular type of people. And actually, I think you might be onto something with your suggestion for Camelot. The Arthurian tales are set in England, but Camelot was a beacon of culture and known throughout the world. A story about a gay Samurai visiting Arthur’s court might be pretty interesting! My other point is that in fantasy you can separate physical appearance from culture. Earthsea society is pretty similar to that of Middle Earth–medieval technology, feudal governments–but the people don’t look at all like Europeans.

      As for your final point, I think the audience for epic fantasy is much broader than you presume. But regardless of the audience makeup, an author can absolutely write a gritty, dark, bloody story set in a medieval type society but with a multiracial cast and sexual equality. There is always “something to fight for.” If you doubt me, read my books! 😉

  3. Yes, yes! I would love to see fantasy diversify. My partner and I often have main characters with alternative sexual orientations (Korsten of our dark fantasy series, to name just one, )and many more either are a non-white ethnicity (Xu Liang of our epic fantasy- do I need to say more? 😉 ) in fact, many of the 1star reviews we’ve received see because that reader didn’t care for that kind of diversity.

    I probably do need to look for the right books, though. Just started reading a series about Minotaurs- does that count?

    Good thoughts!
    -C. Sheehan

    • What a shame you’ve had readers who can’t handle diversity! Remember the brouhaha over the fact that Rue was played by an African American actress in the Hunger Games movie? The actress fit the character perfectly, but people hadn’t read the book’s description carefully and some embarrassed themselves by objecting. What a show of narrow-minded ignorance!

  4. Interesting discussion. I agree with Jay Dee on diversity in fantasy. With the creation of your own ethnic races there seems to be plenty of diversity other than just the usual european hero. I would hate to see fantasy written with multiple races that fit our world today just to satisfy some quota. However, reading fantasy with the same white based creatures can be a drag over time. I also agrees with A.M. Justice that usually fantasy is written from what the writer knows. It also could be that the majority of fantasy written today is written by white folks. Maybe if other ethnicities joined in on fantasy from what they know then there might be more diversity that way? Who knows really? Whatever the story, I would hope it comes about organically, that way it will be believable and pure. Nice post.

  5. Nice post, AM! It got me thinking over the weekend of the not-so-far-gone era when finding a woman lead character in fantasy was difficult (such as Tolkien). But look how far we’ve come! And posts like this will motivate other authors. Happily, e-stores like Smashwords help by adding categories/search terms for LGBT. The future looks very diverse. 🙂

  6. Thanks for the link, Robert. You know me: I’ll go for the Jungian explanation every time! In my mind, while Tolkien’s faith may have influenced his creation (and his strong, clear good vs evil narrative certainly mirrors the Christian worldview), his power as an author was in his deep empathy for human frailty, and his admiration for our ability to strive and succeed despite our failings. The elves of Middle Earth may be like “man before the Fall,” but they are nevertheless limited by their inherent talents and beauty. Only men (humans), who can straddle the line between good and evil and turn weakness into strength, are truly capable of greatness.

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