Diversity in Fantasy Novels
This post has been compiled with help from the BristolCon 2016 panel ‘The Regiment of Monsters’.
Are fantasy novels diverse enough?
Many fantasy novels, especially the epic fantasy of the last twenty or thirty years or so, involves a white male human lead character. In fact, the entire cast of many fantasy novels is mostly male, and based on western traditions. It’s not much of a surprise, because we’re looking at fantasy novels written in the western world, and it simply reflects the perspective of history through the ages. We write what we know. And whilst fantasy is from the imagination, the traditional while male-dominated medieval style world is a familiar construct.
But these days, there is little excuse for sticking to these tried and tested scenarios. We have a wealth of information at our fingertips with the internet. Diversity and respect for differing ways of life, whether personal or cultural, is becoming the norm. And by and large, books are beginning to reflect this. I’ve read many modern fantasy books set in a variety of historical periods and countries, based on the traditions of other countries and cultures. The writers I know take pleasure in writing and researching societies different to their own to give a unique twist to their novel.
How can you include more diversity in your writing?
Basing fantasy races on minority cultures, or those that are less represented in general, is a good way to increase diversity. Including a greater number of female characters can also make a cast more diverse. It’s a fine line, though, between making characters diverse, and including token characters with certain characteristics simply for the sake of it. Don’t include (say) black characters because you think you need more diversity. Think about the nation your race comes from. What’s their place in your world? How do they fit into it? Develop their backstories and ensure your characters are needed because of their diversity rather than for the sake of their diversity.
Whilst fantasy often has historical basis–we may choose the characteristics of a certain time period, or base events on parallel ones in history–there is no need to stick to the detail. Fantasy is a springboard, not a blueprint. There’s no need to feel restricted in fantasy because the only limit is your imagination.
As long as your society feels real and believable to your writers, you’re good to go.
It’s said that history is written by the winners. Although we think of history as being objective–certain events happened at certain times–there is no doubt that it’s biased by the historian. In the western world, the historian over the centuries has often been white, male and Christian.
However, history itself has not always been white, male and Christian. When we draw on past traditions, it can be good to choose a different perspective through which to view society. A female slave from a tribal religion, say, would have a very different worldview to her white mistress. And the mistress would have a different worldview to the master of the house. Choosing to look at those sections of society that are in the background, or on the losing side, or from a minority race or religion can bring a whole new perspective.
There have been many female warriors and rulers in history, yet the emphasis in the western world is on the male bloodline. The tide seems to be moving towards stronger female characters, but the existence of the Bechdel test says we still have a way to go in improving the way we represent women in fiction. And if you don’t believe me, check out my friend, the Angry Book Blogger!
(side note: the Bechdel test asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk about something other than a man.)
The white man’s world has been told over and over again. As long as your story is key, and you are not just ticking the diversity box, step outside those boundaries and find a new perspective to write from. People are keen to read something unique and diverse these days–make the most of it.
Dealing with diversity issues in the storyline
Diversity comes in many forms. Gender; sexuality; class; roles in society. To address these as part of a storyline, you have a few options.
You can present a society with issues and show those issues being overcome on a personal level by your character.
You could also show the society itself making a radical change in respect of a nation-wide diversity challenge.
Or you could show society as you wish it to be, where the issue you choose to deal with is seen as not being a problem in your world because it’s the norm.
Finally, you can turn diversity on it’s head, as in the book Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman. Seeing diversity turned upside down really brings to life the privilege you may not realise certain classes of society hold. In that particular book, black people and white people have swapped roles. It stuck in my head how the white person cut himself, and had to have a sticking plaster the colour of a black person’s skin. Before then, it had never occurred to me that the colour ‘nude’ that you find on sticking plasters, women’s hosiery, and makeup, is only nude if you’re a white person. And for me, that was a great way of increasing awareness.
Diversity in non-human fantasy races
Whilst we are moving away from white male fantasy, many other traditional fantasy races remain stereotyped. Dwarves are short, bearded, and live in mines. Elves are tall and elegant with pointy ears. Introducing one rebel member of a non-human race doesn’t always help, either, because it simply reinforces the stereotype for the rest of the population.
The key to diversity here seems to be making the races your own. Take the trope, and give it a twist, so that your dwarves aren’t just dwarves, they are a race based on the traditional theme so everyone knows they are dwarves, but with a unique twist that makes them yours. Don’t just think characteristics and physical nature. Think about the societies and cultures involved in your fantasy race. The deeper the worldbuilding is, the more authentic your fantasy races will be.
It’s better to resist the urge to throw in multitudes of fantasy races, and pick and choose a few carefully so that you can develop a select number of races in a more unique manner.
The downside of diversity
The inevitable consequence of diversity is cultural appropriation. If you are dealing with elements of a culture or race that is considered sacred or has particular meaning, it’s important to treat these elements with the respect they deserve. Even in a fantasy world, it’s important to be sensitive to this outcome. If you are clearly basing fantasy cultures off existing ones, ensure you do your research. Remember that diversity in fantasy novels should ideally make us more aware of others who are different from us, and ultimately bring greater understanding between us as equal members of the human race.