While Fantasy is the genre of good vs evil, dwarves, giants, magic, dragons and faeries, there is a definite ugliness surrounding lack of diversity in the genre and the racism that lies in the representations of different races. This isn’t a new observation. I don’t need to wax lyrical about the bizarreness of a genre of made-up magical species and creatures largely omitting people of colour and numerous cultures; that’s been covered by many (I particularly enjoyed reading this post by aartichapati.com and this interview with fantasy writer N. K. Jemisin).
What I do find odd, however, is that when a character of colour is included in a work of fantasy fiction (be it in literature, TV or film), there is usually a lack of recognition that the character has a different ethnic origin from the majority of the other characters. It’s just… well, ignored. Like the character is a place-card representing the ‘diversity’ element of the work, a fake presentation of diversity. This sometimes isn’t a big deal in modern fantasy stories, where the world is a reflection of modern day societies, but in many fantasy sub-genres this does happen a lot, and it’s just odd.
When colour is of no consequence
For example, I discovered the series Once Upon A Time later than everyone else (it seems!) and loved it instantly. I tore through the seasons marvelling about how incredibly clever it is, with the interwoven fairytale (and Disney) stories and how the characters’ motivations tangle, align and set forth in new directions. However, from what I could see, in a whole town of people from a magical land, there’s not one character of colour. OK fine, that’s not unusual with these types of ‘traditional’ fantasy/fairy-tale stories (though it is weird as it is was set in modern day). Since season two there have been some important reoccurring characters, as well as one-off characters, played by people of colour who pop in and out every few episodes, but generally it feels like the casting decision was made for the sake of inclusion.
I’m not saying the actors weren’t chosen for their talent, but in terms of making sense of the story being told, its strange to me when there is a random black or Asian character in a magical land surrounded by white characters, and their ethnic origin or background is never mentioned, referred to, explored or questioned. It’s just ignored. As if their colour is of no consequence and anyone could have played that character. Sorry, but skin colours have deeper connotations about that character and their background and upbringing, even in fantasy.
Now I know some people will say ‘Well at least their present in the story, at least there are some different skin colours on the screen, it’s better to have this fake diversity than none at all’. And that’s a valid argument. But my view is, if it’s going to be done, do it properly. People of different backgrounds have different upbringings, beliefs, cultures, myths and legends, traditions, cuisines, religions…. the convergence of these elements is what makes a story interesting (to me, at least). If characters of colour are going to be in a fantasy setting, they should have been integrated into the world building and therefore logically belong and add something to that world, not thrown in as an after thought. You would think that for a genre that requires significant world building, culture building and fantasy species creation, this would be something writers would jump at the chance to explore. Hell, many political, social, economical and magical conflicts could come from culture clashes alone.
Rich histories are important to character interaction
Looking at Desert Winds created by artist Anna Christenson (left), does the character’s skin colour, hair, jewellery, armour, weaponry and clothing have any less potential for a rich cultured background filled with family, love or torment, training and dark secrets than any other character? No. Could that character, once defined, then be easily switched with another from a different ethnic background? No!
I know that A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t exactly the poster series for diversity but if we consider the character of Tyrion Lannister, and how his appearance affected his upbringing, his views, his relationship with his family and the world, how the world view him, his attitude towards love and how all of this shaped his actions, we can see that he is steeped in the conditions of the world Martin created. Would his character be the same, if he was replaced by another who didn’t look like him? Er.. no.
So why is this the case in a lot of epic fantasy works when characters who have different skin colours and cultures from the majority of the cast show up and interact with them? And I don’t mean just some surface description of their appearance and culture. I mean characters with rich histories that contribute in a significant and cultural way to the main plot.
If fantasy writers can readily do this with elves, mermaids, centaurs, dwarves and fantasy beings they make up, why not for representations of races that already exist? Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that there are no writers doing this. There are a growing number of fantasy and sci-fi writers (including those of colour) creating stories in much more multicultural and diverse worlds. But they don’t always end up on screens. And we can see from the reaction to Finn in Star Wars and Rue in The Hunger Games that black characters in sci-fi and fantasy are just too much for some people.
Reject the traditional racist view
So it comes back to us writers and readers. We have to be the ones to address imbalances in our own work and present our stories in a way that rejects the traditional racist view, as well as celebrating stories that do. With the rise of indie publishing, this has become easier in terms of the number voices that can now join the conversation and add more viewpoints to the genre. It doesn’t matter the origin of the writer – anyone can contribute the broadening of the genre but readers need to support this in their reviews, feedback and recommendations.
I think generally though the genre is moving in the right direction. As long as the broader diverse fantasy fiction is championed and encouraged, TV and film will eventually have to follow. And we can move from no diversity and fake diversity, to true diversity.
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