Diversity in Fantasy

Over the past week or so, Chuck Wendig (at terribleminds.com) has been doing a series of blog posts and guest blog posts dealing with gender in fiction and the writing industry (and how history is wrong about women), and how things are not all unicorns farting rainbows.  Also, an excellent post on The Underserved Population of Readers.  That’s not what this blog entry is about, but it has to do with similar things and those are awesome to read, so maybe start there?  Seriously, I’ll wait; those entries/essays rock.

Almost a year ago now, I wrote what is probably my favorite post on this rambling blog of mine, The Tacit Complicity of Silence.  Strangely, I think it gets more random  hits than any other entry, though no one has said anything on it (in meatspace or cyberspace).  But it is a darling of mine.  This entry isn’t about that, either, though it does have to do with that, too.

One of the things that I’m getting ready to do (soon, probably after July’s CampNaNo) is start world-building for a fantasy series that has been on my mind forever.  I have started writing it once or twice but have never gotten as far as I should have.  I think part of that is that I wasn’t doing the prep work necessary (and didn’t even believe that that much prep work was necessary – hey, we’re all young and foolish at least once).

This entry is about that, but it’s also about those first two things.

Let me start off by saying that I’m not incredibly well-read in contemporary fantasy.  Most fantasy I’ve read is older, but I’m also working to stay more current (as a writer, I’ve got to read, and let me tell you:  BEST HOMEWORK EVER).  These are just my observations on what I’ve read.  Maybe I’ve been reading a mis-representative slice of Fantasy.  Then again, maybe not.

Most of the Fantasy I’ve read is very…white and patriarchal.  Dudes are in charge, and they tend to be white dudes.  Sometimes women are equal-ish (though it gets trope-y – a chainmail bikini is impractical, and chest armor should not be boob-shaped unless you like a cracked sternum), but mostly they are like they were in medieval times.

And hey, as a starting point, I get that.  Fuck, I’ve done that (this is a guilty admission, though, not encouragement).  It’s realistic to the way things used to be, and the default starting point for fantasy is “medieval Europe” (which, admittedly, is part of the problem).

But it’s a lazy choice, and an unimaginative choice, and I’ve seen it defended as realistic.  That pisses me off.  You’re going to tell me, with a straight face, that readers will believe in dragons and magic before they believe that women can be equals to men?

What I said up there?  Apply it to ethnic diversity as well.  And while we’re at it, LGBTQ (or whatever the preferred acronym is at this time) issues.  There are compelling stories in fiction about more than just white dudes (which isn’t to say there shouldn’t be stories by or about white dudes, just that the balance is very skewed).

Now, I’m not saying that every Fantasy novel should be the paragon of PC diversity.  That would be boring, and could easily get in the way of the story.  Also, these kinds of decisions aren’t checkboxes on a bingo card.  You don’t get points for having a black character, a lesbian character, and a strong female character (a phrase I actually don’t like – I like strong characters, some of which are female, rather than strong female characters (the order of words is important), and if you add one more you win a prize!  Tokenism is bad, mmkay.

But consider what you’re meaning to say, including by saying nothing at all.  There is no such thing as silent disagreement – if you don’t say anything, don’t do anything different, people will assume you agree with them.  You’re not changing anything, just acquiescing to the way things are now.

And that’s something that has been hard for me to realize.  I don’t see myself as a sexist, racist douchebag (and hopefully y’all don’t either), but if I’m not saying or doing anything to set me apart from sexist, racist douchebags, how different am I?  Simply not hating women or PoC is not enough.

“We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior.” -Stephen M.R. Covey

So what I’m saying is, how does my behavior, how do my actions, line up with my intentions?

I’ve always liked strong characters who happen to be female.  In my writings to date, female protagonists have a slight edge on male ones, but in starting to think about this world, I didn’t think about the role of women much.  I defaulted to our perceptions about women in the middle ages (which are mostly wrong) and never stopped to think about the bigger picture, or what this would say.

And this has been a hard realization.  I’ve been going with the flow of our current society and prejudices, and as such, not even speaking to my entire potential audience.  I’ve been perpetuating, even if by keeping silent, the current cultural attitudes towards women and minorities.  Why?  Because I never thought not too?  Seems lazy as fuck to me.

So in this world-building I am doing, I’m going to consider the role of women, and what I want that to say.  I’m not saying they’ll be equals; sexism is a fact of life, and shitty things happen in novels (that’s why they’re interesting).  If it’s there, though, I want it to be intentional and have a point (namely, that this is bad), not just there as a default setting.

As a writer, I can do better.  As a person, I can do better.  My writing is a reflection of what I have to say, so I want to look carefully at what I am saying and what I am not saying.  Not to the point where it gets in the way of the story, but fuck, if I can’t write an interesting story without medieval levels of misogyny and racism, I might not be a very good writer.

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9 Responses to Diversity in Fantasy

  1. quixotic_hope says:

    Funnily enough, I was having a similar conversation with a writer yesterday about something related to this. Do you write a world where sexists, racists, and homophobes don’t exist because you want to model what the world should be, or do you include racists, sexists, and homophobes in order to show why they’re wrong? I’ve written both. I’ve read both. And I really like the way you described it.

    Also, this is perhaps my favorite sentence – “You’re going to tell me, with a straight face, that readers will believe in dragons and magic before they believe that women can be equals to men?”

    I love it. I love this entire post, actually. You make so many great points.

    • cosmato says:

      I\’ve thought about that, too, ideal world versus realistic depiction that is intentional, showing that it\’s bad. I really am leaning towards the latter, but that might just be a style thing.

      And glad you liked it!

  2. tiakall says:

    You’re going to tell me, with a straight face, that readers will believe in dragons and magic before they believe that women can be equals to men?

    Sadly, yes. From men and women both. There’s been a long-going discussion in Nano Fantasy on women warriors, and a few people in there have been continually arguing that a female army is not believable.

    I have not seen any threads about the realism of dragon biology.

    • cosmato says:

      Well, it\’s more historically accurate. One of the above links points it out well – women have been a part of every army throughout history, and not just in tiny numbers. But our history is wrong, so we call unrealistic what actually happened.

      Also, as a writer, I am going to do my best to acquiese to that, even if it makes me more \”sellable\”. Why? Because there is no silent disagreement, and if we keep telling the same stories, those ideas are what everyone will keep believing.

      (My frustration/anger is obviously not directed at you, but those in the forums saying female warriors are unrealistic)

  3. Micah says:

    This is so true… It hasn’t been until recently that I seriously started paying attention to things like this, but as I have my eyes have been opened to the SF/F world where sexism is such a huge thing. There is so much going on about it and I just haven’t been paying as much attention as it deserved. If you don’t mind, I’d like to join you in “look[ing] carefully at what I am saying and what I am not saying” in real life and in my writing. It’s a big deal, and I agree that we shouldn’t let it stand any longer.

  4. L.M. Murphy says:

    Saw the tweet linking this when it went up and made a mental note to come back and read. Glad I did. I figured I was in for an interesting read, and I was. I agree with the previous commenters–and if you think you’re doing badly, hell, I’ve perpetuated those viewpoints on occasion and I am female. How do you think I feel? Yes, I try to show it’s bad, but every now and then the odd bit of sexism sneaks in and then I facepalm. Some of that is because some of my male characters have been around a long time and not shaken the views they have. Some of it… well, the world sucks sometimes, okay?

    However, I also have a six-foot-tall sword-toting stripper who takes shit from no one, so there’s that.

    Excellent post. And even if you let the ideas go on–even by merely being silent–before, I don’t think you can claim to be doing that now. Well done.

  5. racquelin says:

    Thing is, how do we promote the use of nonwhitemen without coming off as a cheap agenda? How do you have a minority character without looking like it’s just a token? Have a dozen minorities? How do you balance sheer percentages/probability with fairness?

    If I say that I generally don’t THINK about skin color, ethnicity, or anything when I’m writing–oftentimes, I’m 70 pages in and still don’t know how to describe a character beyond ‘female, brown hair’–doesn’t that incite sneers and patronizing from hypothetical readers? It means I’m either lying or just completely wrong about the fact that my learning disability means that I can’t/don’t hold images in my head accurately. They’re always fuzzy at best.

    I’m not sure what it helps and doesn’t help that even trying to disagree gets you ripped apart by condescending Internet sociologists who know better than you about how you’re wrong in every way, you racistmysoginisticasshole. Or ripped apart by editors and critics, who want to know what your character has going for them besides being a two-dimensional lesbian park services firefighter (and are in turn ripped apart by aforementioned Internet sociologists).

    I’d love to see more diversity in fiction, but not so… forced and/or criticized to death? If you include something, you’re token-ing and don’t really understand because there is no such thing as research and empathy. If you don’t, you’re actively perpetuating the problem and need to diaf. If your story doesn’t have room for social observations for whatever reason, it’s not worthy of being told at all.

    YA is not anymore innocent than the traditional SF/F, by the way. Yes, female characters abound–but they’re also most often defined as a love-and-death love triangle center. It’s hard to find YA that’s not also a romance. It’s like yes! Girl characters! And they kick things, so they’re clearly strong and badass! (Except for the part where their lives revolve around boys and they turn into withering dipshits the moment someone looks at them intensely and in a smoldering fashion.)

    Change would be nice, but not angry, politicized change. It’s not meant if it’s forced.

    (i might see more anger than others. i’m slightly sensitive to it.)

    (rabble rabble i just woke up.)

    • cosmato says:

      And I agree here, pretty much entirely (which I don\’t think is a contradiction). It certainly shouldn\’t be all stories, and things shouldn\’t be added because you can, because diversity points! Part of the reason I stuck to Fantasy is that I think there is more room than average to at least have some background noise on this; you\’re inventing a society, so even by default, this weighs in (though possibly not heavily).

      In horror, for instance, this isn\’t true. In a horror novel about a family, they very well may all be straight and white. They might have friends or acquaintances that are minorities, but those aren\’t the focus; demons/possession/monsters/etc are. I think the difference is that, in a small cast like that, there isn\’t a lot of room to show the societal defaults of misogyny or racism, either, so trying to show the opposite is forced.

      In Fantasy, part of the focus is the world you\’ve built, even if it\’s just background interest, so any decision plays heavier.

      Also, about YA: -.- . Females can have narratives other than love. I\’m glad my female friends think about other things; otherwise, they\’d be pretty boring to be around.

      But in summary, yes: not forced change, but something to think about, to add where you can not for bonus points (look at me! I\’m being diverse!) but because there are all kinds of people in the world and they make for interesting stories too.

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