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:
- There’s a lack of diversity because authors “write what they know” and naturally create characters who resemble themselves
- There is plenty of diversity in fantasy; you just have to read the right authors
Diversity in fantasy falls along a spectrum.
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.
I 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.
A.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.