Stories for All: Inclusive World Building with Tara Sim

Hi all! Stacey here with a new series called Stories for All, in which I hope to examine how writers can create stories in which all readers can find themselves. In today’s post, special guest Tara Sim will be talking about inclusive world building, with particular emphasis on fantasy worlds. Take it away, Tara! 

There are so many aspects to consider when you’re crafting secondary fantasy worlds. The first place you might start is figuring out how many countries there are, what the world is called, where the oceans are in relation to your setting, and so on. Then you dive deeper to figure out the cultures, the people, the government, the relationships between each nation.

Honestly, I could talk for days about world building (and I’m pretty sure I have). But something I consider very important—especially during a time when We Need Diverse Books and #ownvoices are making waves—is making room for inclusivity in your secondary worlds.

In this instance, you might think “inclusivity” is another word for “diversity.” And, to some degree, that is true. But it goes beyond simply saying “this story is diverse.” Inclusivity is the difference between highlighting a diverse character and actually giving them context within your world. Inclusivity is giving an otherwise marginalized character a space to inhabit. It’s the shift between “the other” and “the norm.”

Growing up, I read a lot of fantasy. I read a lot of European fantasy, because that’s what was easily available: stories about white, hetero, able-bodied characters saving the world and wielding powerful magic in countries that were reminiscent of Medieval Europe. And this is not to diminish those stories in any way, because I still enjoy those stories, mostly through a nostalgic lens. The Lord of the Rings, for instance, played a crucial role in the development of the fantasy genre, and it’s what inspired me to be a fantasy writer. But it isn’t particularly inclusive.

As a result, I started out writing the same sort of things. I had white, hetero, able-bodied characters saving the world and wielding powerful magic in countries reminiscent of Medieval Europe. I’m biracial, but it never occurred to me until much, much, much later to even begin including elements of Indian culture in my stories. It also took time to find the courage to start writing queer characters.

The overwhelming amount of this type of fantasy has made certain settings and characters defaults. Not only are characters defaulted to the traits above, but also tend to lean towards male, cisgendered, and neurotypical. We need to start stepping away from these defaults. We need to start being more inclusive.

This admittedly requires a lot of research and patience and open-mindedness. It requires listening, and learning, because you can’t portray diversity in a new world until you understand things like race and sexuality and disability in our own. You might feel tempted to simply use defaults. But imagine a reader picking up your story and seeing themselves in it. Imagine showing them a world they’ve never seen before—yet somehow feels familiar.

When you’re starting out in creating your fantasy world, here are some questions to ask yourself:

– What does “diversity” mean in this world? What constitutes as being diverse?

– Are there marginalized groups? Are they the same marginalized groups we find in our world, and if so, why are they marginalized in this world?

– How is race/sexuality/disability perceived? What are the pros of these in this world? The cons?

And if you have several different cultures to tackle, make sure you ask yourself these questions for each one. One nation might be more conservative than another. A certain religion could acknowledge and perform same sex marriages. Maybe an island colony celebrates people with disabilities.

Rather than putting an emphasis on diversity, or turning a diverse character/topic into an Issue, make it the new normal. Make it so that the world you make cannot be imagined without it. Make it something so ingrained that it doesn’t stick out, but rather makes you say, “Of course.”

author-photo_tara-simTara Sim is the author of Timekeeper (Sky Pony Press, Nov. 1, 2016) and can typically be found wandering the wilds of the Bay Area, California. When she’s not chasing cats or lurking in bookstores, she writes books about magic, clocks, and explosives. Follow her on Twitter at @EachStarAWorld, and check out her website at tarasim.com.

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