Well, lately the forums have been awash with discussions of diversity and politics in fantasy whether we’re talking about diversity of authors or characters.
This blog is going to deal with writing diverse characters from a world building perspective. I don’t have the data to discuss diversity of authors, so I won’t attempt to approach it, and others, with access to much better data, have already done a good job.
As a historian and a fantasy author, and when it comes down to writing diverse characters, this is the only real point that I’m going to make:
If you are writing a fantasy story, and it doesn’t feature diverse characters, then one of two things is true:
- Your story is set in such a way that it’s important to the story that all of the characters are similar. E.g. it’s three men, all of whom love the same woman, stuck on a boat together for the entirety of the narrative.
- Your world building needs work.
If the answer is number 1, then that’s not an issue. You doubtless also aren’t the people worrying about the ‘politicisation of fantasy.’
But if you’re not.
It was put to me recently that my suggestion of inclusivity and diverse characters had a political motive. You know, I consider myself a liberal, a supporter of feminism, LGBTQ rights – or somebody who believes in equality and freedom, in other words. But that’s not why I wrote diverse characters in Blackwing. Blackwing isn’t a story that I intended to use to push a social agenda on people. It’s about wizards and monsters and killing people with swords
I have to wonder whether the people that feel that the inclusion of diverse characters is a political push have ever been to a city. Do they know how diverse cities are in terms of population demographic?
I grew up in a small village in the English countryside. Total population about 3,000-5,000. The woman who lived next door to me was Indian. One of my school friends was mixed race Caucasian/Indian/African. One of my teachers was French. Two of my best friends came out as gay after we left school. There were people with a range of body types, of disabilities, of mental health conditions. And that’s just in one small village in the middle of nowhere. If you don’t see diverse people in your daily life, then that indicates a blindness to it, or that you live somewhere that’s bizarrely monochrome in terms of population (maybe on the boat with the love-struck guys).
Maybe some people do grow up seeing nobody who isn’t just like them. But that just means that they aren’t there: they just aren’t seeing them.
So don’t give me some guff about me ‘politicising’ my books because I write diverse people. I live with diverse people. That’s what the world is like. And good fantasy writing reflects reality, even among the monsters and the wizards.
But I’m writing about a medieval setting and there weren’t… blah blah.
Through history, western countries had minority populations of non-monochrome people. I can show you pictures of a woman fencing in our earliest German combat treatise (shown above, right, from Leeds Armory exhibit 1.33, c.1290-1325). I can show you a black fencer in a 16th century German treatise by Mair (above, c.1570). We have Jews and PoC in Shakespeare. Post Roman Britain was highly multicultural. The Sutton Hoo burial site features artifacts from Byzantium. We have archaeological evidence of Scandinavians reaching the USA long before Columbus. We have plenty of historical evidence for varied sexualities going back to antiquity. So arguments that the typical historical cultures we often emulate in our fantasy writing should be mono-themed for any kind of historical reason are, quite simply, bollocks.
If you’re writing monochrome, then it may not be an attempt to politicse: it may instead simply be a limited world view. I’m not accusing those that have written this way of being anti-diversity, only maybe that they’ve lacked observation. Those that show diversity are more accurately reflecting the variety of people who exist in the real world both now, and throughout history.
Showing diverse people is at its heart good world building. As previously stated, if a story is about a small group of men on a ship or a monastery, you don’t have to force female characters onto the boat to fulfil an imaginary quota. But if you think that writing diverse characters is somehow a political issue, then either you’re a reader who dislikes seeing diverse people, or you’re not as aware of the world around you as you ought to be. Now, perhaps, is the time to take a look around you when you next go for a walk and drink in all the beauty that a diverse world has to offer.
There are other issues to consider, such as how great it is to be able to see someone like you represented in a book. And I agree. In many ways, when we look at male-dominated online communities it shouldn’t surprise us that they overwhelmingly prefer books where they see themselves represented as the hero. This doesn’t necessarily reflect wider readership, though, and it would be a mistake to draw large scale assumptions. But I’m also aware that others – with far greater life experience of experiencing marginalisation than I ever will – have argued that point far more eloquently and with far greater authority than I ever could. If this is something that’s new to you then I find that Aliette de Bodard’s Twitter feed gives some excellent insight into the experiences of a fantasy writer who has struggled to see people who represent her in western fantasy in the past – follow her at @aliettedb
I didn’t write Tnota to be gay because I wanted to tick a box. He’s gay because he’s gay, just as Nenn is straight. The characters are who they are. They draw on both imagination and the inspiration that real people provide me. Tnota’s sexuality doesn’t impact the plot of Blackwing but neither does Nenn’s, but the lack of stigma attached to either helps to create a sense of a cultural environment. The same is true for Prince Herono, a character who demonstrates that in the society that I write about, gender is a non-factor in determining attitudes towards capability. That doesn’t mean that Nenn can beat Galharrow in an arm wrestle (though she’d bloody well try), but that’s because he’s 6’6 and 300lbs and she’s 5’9 and 160lbs. She’d certainly beat Dantry though. There are physical differences between my characters, but attitudes and cultural values are freeform in imagination.