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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