Representation in Fantasy

I’m a member of a number of writers’ groups on Facebook – I love the cozy ambiance of a bunch of introverted, opinionated people all in one place – and although it’s a lot of chit-chatting and resource swapping for the most part, we can actually get into some really good discussions now and then. One of those discussions happened last week, in my fantasy based group, and – without naming names – I wanted to bring that discussion here. I want to explore the issue of representation in fantasy, and explain why every excuse that says it’s not an author’s responsibility is wrong.

Fantasy and science fiction have a particularly bad reputation when it comes to racial representation. I like to think that this is changing, as we move into a new era where more and more voices can be heard. I like to think that, someday, native New Zealanders won’t be told they can only play orcs in the Lord of the Rings movies, because their skin is too dark to be an elf, or even a citizen of Gondor (thanks for that, Peter Jackson). But the truth is that we’re not there yet, and it really is every author’s responsibility to make sure that this someday becomes a reality.

The discussion in question started with the excuse that we hear most often: But my setting is based on a Germanic/Nordic land – wouldn’t it be incongruous to add a character of colour?

There are two reasons that this is a terrible excuse. The first is the simplest – people travel a lot. Even ancient people. If you’ve based your setting on a real place that was historically white, that’s no excuse not to have POCs in your story. They could be travelers. They could be immigrants, or the descendants of immigrants. They could be mixed race with no connection to their foreign heritage.

The second reason is more complex, and more true to our genre – you’re writing fantasy, people.

Just because you’ve based your setting on a Nordic nation, doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to inhabit it with standard white Nords. It’s fantasy – why can’t the people who live in the area you’ve created look however you want? Why can’t they have slanted eyes, straight, dark hair, and an olive complexion – essentially looking Chinese? And in that same vein, for those of us that use paranormal creatures in our story, who’s to say that they have to match the ethnicity of the surrounding people? If you really want your humans to be based off of Nords, because your setting is based off a Nordic region, but you also have elves, fairies and Giants in your story – why do these creatures appear Caucasian? They’re not real, so they can look however you want them to look – why not have elves with black skin and frizzy hair, fairies with slanted eyes and dark hair, and Giants with brown skin and huge beards?

There are so many options open to us as writers of the fantastical, and with this excuse, you’re just choosing to limit yourself, as well as your writing. There are a lot of ways to make your readers – all of them – feel represented while still writing the settings you prefer.

Which led to the usual retort – But you’re not reading books from Asia, Africa, or South America. There isn’t a lack of diversity in fantasy, English readers just don’t see it!

I consider this to be a serious cop out. Representation isn’t about what’s happening in foreign countries – it’s about what’s happening here, in the country I call home, to the people I call my peers.

When I consider representation as an author, I’m considering my audience. My audience is 99% North American. BUT that doesn’t mean that my audience is 99% white. An English speaking American who is ethnically Chinese is not going to be reading Chinese books – they’ll be reading American books. And when they see that every human, elf and fairy in the story is white, they’re going to wonder where they, as a reader, fit into the story. Same for every other reader who is a person of colour. They don’t want to read stories written by authors in countries they’ve never been to to see a character that looks like them – they’re American. They want to read stories written by Americans.

To which we receive the standard response, But if you write a great character, people will love them regardless of their race!

This is true – to an extent. No character should be defined by their ethnicity – that’s how you end up with shallow caricatures that can be insulting as well as hurtful to the group they supposedly represent. But that doesn’t mean that a character’s race isn’t important at all.

If you’ve written a character that is totally, genuinely awesome, everyone is going to think they’re totally, genuinely awesome, regardless of their ethnicity – but if they’re totally, genuinely awesome and also happen to be black, then all of your black readers get to feel good about this awesome representation of their race. You don’t even have to be explicit about it – the only time J.K. Rowling ever mentioned Hermione Granger’s skin tone, she called her “very brown.” Although there were plenty of readers who assumed Hermione just had a tan that summer, there was also a huge sub-section of the fandom who coupled that line with Hermione’s famous frizzy brown hair, and now embrace her as a character of colour – and Jo didn’t argue with them! Everyone already loved Hermione, because she was smart, and brave, and perfectly flawed. But when they found out she was black, a group of fans loved her even more, in a whole new way.

If a character is totally awesome and just another white face, black readers will still like the character for being totally awesome, but they won’t get that chance to feel involved in the story. And when every totally awesome face you come across in a story is white, it can be really alienating for a person of colour who is trying to stay engaged in that fantasy world.

I think that this is a key part of the argument that fantasy authors tend to overlook – it’s not about you. It’s about your readers. It’s about your readers, and how comfortable they feel in the world that you created for them.

As a white reader in North America, it’s easy to take representation for granted. We don’t have to look hard to find it – generally, we don’t have to look at all. We are represented in every book and every news and media outlet we come across, and so we have no comprehension at all of what it’s like to feel completely out of place. Not just that, but completely unseen. Unacknowledged. To really understand the importance of representation, we need to set our privilege aside. We need to ask ourselves, what it would be like if I could never see myself in any of my favourite characters? What would it be like to see the world after world constructed, where people like me simply don’t exist? What would it be like to be erased from the collective narrative of the place I call home?

As white readers, we never have to feel that way. As white writers, maybe we’d have less excuses to make if we did.

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