Diversity and Fantasy and the “Other”

It’s no secret that love fantasy. It’s a genre of different worlds and different people, of things both familiar and wondrously strange. And also, magic. But it also tends to heavily feature white, male characters in a setting that often resembles Medieval England (Lord of the Rings, anyone?).  Despite that, fantasy still speaks to me. And perhaps I’m so drawn to fantasy  because it often allows for protagonists who are “other” – be it through their magic (or perhaps lack thereof), their destiny, their ancestry, their class or social status – really, the list can go on. And that “otherness” was something I could identify with.

Now, I know what some of you might be thinking. Surely, what I was identifying with was the outcast/misfit character in fantasy, not necessarily the “otherness”, which (when we talk diversity) is a pretty negative thing (and something that JJ talks about here in her post On Writing Diversity).

But here’s the thing: I’m a child of mixed race. My mother is from the Philippines, and my father is from Sicily; and both moved to Canada in their teens. For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with my identity – especially with my “otherness”. I’ve always found myself straddling two distinct cultures – cultures that I desperately wanted to belong to. My family never intentionally made me feel this way – it was just a difference I could physically see. I wasn’t fully a part of either culture. So I turned to fantasy, where I found characters who didn’t quite belong, who were perhaps physically different from the rest (Purple eyes! White hair!), who were sometimes mixed (Half-elf? Yeah, I could kinda relate). Characters who felt like they had to choose sides. And to this day, I can think of one mixed character who has really stuck with me (and remains one of my all-time favourite heroines of any series): Lirael, from the novel of the same name by Garth Nix.

So yes, I related to the outcast. But I also related to characters with a  sense of “otherness”. Because that has always been how I’ve seen myself.

Now, I’m not arguing that the “otherness” I identify with means we should continue writing all POC characters that way. As JJ mentioned, it is problematic – and possibly reinforced that feeling for me. But I think characters (including POC) can sometimes feel “other” so long as they are well-rounded, complex characters. I certainly appreciate seeing characters who struggle with similar issues (even if they are way cooler because they’re half-dragon). But we should also have POC characters who don’t feel that way, because my experiences won’t necessarily match other kids who are POC or mixed –  kids who grew up not noticing their differences, but were instead noticing  their similarities to everyone else. I want to see characters of different colours, of different genders, of different cultures (be they real or imagined ones). Even if you’re a white author. Miriam Forster talked about how she was conscious of not wanting to write a story set in an actual place (ie. a reimagined India), but the alternative of writing a white, Western fantasy didn’t cut it either. So she researched South Asia to help her her build a fantasy world inspired by a land and cultures that are not her own. She tried to create characters who aren’t the default (ie. white) – and I’m happy she did. And I’m happy that their none-whiteness was pointed out. Because it seems to me that people will read characters as white, even when they’re clearly described as POC (think about Rue from The Hunger Games and how shocked people were that her character was black in the movie, even though she is described as such in the book). 

Because, when you think about it, fantasy is where you can really do whatever you want. We, as readers, are required to suspend our disbelief. There’s magic, and dragons, and hobbits! Fantasy shouldn’t be trying to be accurate portrayals of specific countries and specific time periods. Fantasy worlds are familiar but new, and should be filled with diverse characters, because the real world we live in is diverse. Representation matters. As writers, you shouldn’t just limit yourself to European cultures and myths to draw your inspiration for your fantasy world, but from cultures across the world. Piece things together and make something new. Does that make it appropriation? Some might argue it does, but I think the most important thing is writing characters who are real in a fantasy world that feels real – a world that is more than just a setting but a part of who the characters are.

Yes, writers should still be aware that taking inspiration from other cultures can be tricky, and should be sensitive to the culture they are borrowing from – but even if you do your best, someone, somewhere, will probably take offense. And then you’ll remember – even if you were to write about white characters, in a white setting, you wouldn’t be able to please everyone. So write POC characters. And tell us that they’re darker skinned, or have almond shaped eyes. If you don’t (because of a fear of highlighting their “otherness”), you risk writing characters who people will default in their minds as white – and that doesn’t work for me. Make them diverse and not just tropes (something Marie talked about here on her post on Writing Diverse Fiction). I, for one, think it is worth the risk. Because otherwise, a white man would never have written about a mixed girl named Lirael – a character who, to this day, helped me understand who I was and what I could be. Will my opinion anger some people? Maybe. Most likely. Perhaps I’m appropriating a cause that doesn’t concern someone like me, standing in the fringes. Perhaps I have no culture to truly call my own for a writer to appropriate, and therefore can’t understand. Perhaps I am not one of you because I am a hybrid. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. But to think so is to deny me a voice.

Fantasy, more so than any other genre, allows a writer creative license. Allows them to populate a world however they see fit. You can change up dynamics in fantasy. Allow those people who feel “other” to feel anything but. And you can give a voice to those who do feel “other”, and validate those feelings that no one else understands. Nothing makes you feel more alone than believing no one else understands the thoughts banging around in your head.

So, let’s write Fantasy with characters and cultures that reflect the multitude of peoples populating our world, both past and present. Let’s write diverse characters who aren’t just “other” – but maybe write some who are, too. Because I believe the kid in me deserves the chance to feel she belongs, even if that means she belongs to something wholly “other”.


9 Responses to Diversity and Fantasy and the “Other”

  1. Cheyenne Apr 28 2014 at 4:29 am #

    This is a huge and important topic, and you did a great job in addressing it. I’m half Native American (Iroquois) so I experienced some, shall we say, interesting issues growing up. Many people ask me questions about the years I lived on an Indian reservation in Canada, etc. That’s all great.

    Sometimes, though, the way that Native Americans are portrayed in popular books and films — even when they may appear to be used to fill out some POC quota or something — is unhelpful. Prime example: Twilight.

    I was having my eyes examined a few months back here in the UK, and the 40-something woman testing my peripheral vision asked me about my name. When I told her it was Native American, and that I was as well, she squealed and said, “Oooh! Like the werewolves in Twilight, right?”

    Yeah. Just like. I rip my shirt off then run through the woods on lupine legs on a regular basis.

    Granted, Brits don’t often meet Native Americans. But still. Just because POC/mixed races are portrayed, or authors are POC, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be received the way they were intended, or the way they should be. That comes down to the individual reader/viewer. Obviously this woman meant no harm and was clearly just showing her ignorance/thoughtlessness. But I can’t say I jumped for joy when I learned there were Native Americans as main characters in this mega-popular series because they couldn’t just *be* who they were; they had to be werewolves.

    I digress, but I do agree that one of the beautiful things about fantasy is the chance to get acquainted with a huge world of characters full of varying, wonderful races. And I think in *epic* fantasy where this array is commonplace (and not Twilight-type paranormals where they’re considered freaks of nature) is when they’re portrayed most engagingly.

  2. S.K. Falls Apr 28 2014 at 6:57 am #

    Like Cheyenne, I’m a POC and also appreciate *well-done* POC characters in books. In fact, I’m helping with a grassroots diversity campaign right now (We Need Diverse Books) and just being involved has shown me how much of a need there is for respectful storytelling featuring POC characters. So many people are hungry for change. It’s so important that our kids see people like themselves both in the story and in the person telling the story. I’m not a huge high fantasy fan, but even I know there is a problem with books “defaulting to white” no matter where the story is set. Thanks for this post!

  3. Alma Alexander Apr 28 2014 at 3:00 pm #

    Important topic, and thank you for your points.

  4. JoSVolpe Apr 29 2014 at 9:28 am #

    Great post, Vanessa. Something we all should be talking about more.

  5. Traci Krites Apr 29 2014 at 2:36 pm #

    I wholeheartedly agree!!

  6. Rowenna Apr 29 2014 at 3:09 pm #

    Love this! I understand the reticence to write POC characters as a white writer–there are times I find myself stopping to ask myself “Does this sound insensitive? Is this a cruddy stereotypical way of showing what this character looks like?” But you know what? Those are details! I have to remind myself, I can always refine what I say and how I say it, but the inclusion matters more than getting a detail right on the first try. My friends and CPs will tell me if I resorted to saying something crappy without meaning to.

    The fun thing about fantasy (and sci fi and speculative, to a certain degree, and even, if you pick the right era and place, historical fiction) is that you can turn current notions of race and gender on their heads and play with those cultural notions–the writer gets to define otherness and inclusion in new ways. And I love reading what happens when they do!

    (Random aside–for some reason I read Four in Divergent as black. Even though upon rereading I know he wasn’t described that way, I was oddly disappointed when a white actor was cast in the film! So yes, what happens in a reader’s head matters in terms of encouraging POC representations and writers can influence that.)

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