Okay, full disclosure, I love Orlando Bloom as Legolas as much as the next girl, and Cate Blanchett kills it as Galadriel. And I am forever, forever, awaiting the King Killer Chronicles Day Three.
But the template needs to change, my friends. Tolkien published The Fellowship of the Ring in 1954. Many fantasy writers even today are modeling their own works after Tolkien’s. It’s kind of like what one of my college professors said when I was a whee baby undergrad. “I hate Twiggy! She’s the reason models have to be so skinny nowadays!” Now, I disagree with hating Twiggy. I love Twiggy to death, and I think she’s a sweetheart. But the sentiment is that people are desperately holding on to standards from decades ago. Likewise, while Tolkien’s works deserve all the respect they receive, it’s time to move on and walk on our own two feet as fantasy writers.
And as much as I hold Kvothe’s tales near and dear to my heart, every single woman in the King Killer Chronicles is pale — especially if she’s attractive or meant to be a love interest.
But people are quick to defend the sea of whiteness that pervades the fantasy genre with excuses such as “But I’m basing my world off of Medieval/Renaissance/Victorian Europe. Adding black people would be unrealistic.”
Ah, I forgot. The blacks weren’t invented until the 1980s.
(They use similar excuses to avoid including other POCs, LGBTQA+ individuals, and the disabled, too, but to keep this post from becoming ridiculously long, I’ll focus on one group. Although, just about all of my points can be applied to non-black POCs, LGBTQA+ people, and disabled folks.)
I have a few counter points.
- You can write dragons and wizards and fairies, but black people, who actually exist, are unrealistic?
- I would also like to debunk the myth that blacks didn’t exist in European history. (Shakespeare literally wrote a play about a black man.) People who use this as an excuse most often haven’t actually done any real research, and I will debunk this myth using Medieval and Renaissance paintings of black women:
- In the case of Victorian England (I’m looking at you, Steampunk writers), as if the presence of black people in Europe for hundreds of years wasn’t enough, I invite you to meet Sara Forbes Bonetta, the West African Egbado princess whom Queen Victoria herself adopted as her goddaughter when Sara’s parents were killed in intertribal warfare.
- I’ve heard people say that they’ve always lived in white neighborhoods and feel uncomfortable writing black characters, but the thing is, not only is this a lame excuse because things like internet and television and books exist, but also, black people are still human beings. Write them how you would normally write a character. If you’re writing fantasy, you’re creating your own world with its own set of politics and social/cultural norms. In this case, you don’t have to worry about representing the mindset of an African-American dealing with racism, colorism, and disenfranchisement as is pertains to the real world.
- Finally, I hear a lot of people say something like “Well maybe I just don’t want to write black (or brown or Asian or gay or queer, etc.) characters and you can’t make me.” You’re absolutely right. I can’t make you, but I would challenge you to really ask yourself why. The world is beautiful and colorful and diverse. What sense does it make to have the power to create a completely other world… but then everyone is the same? Everyone, in the entire world, looks the same.
Using my stories in Fairy Tales and Space Dreams as an example, I have written characters that are black, white (one specifically has roots in Scotland), Asian (specifically, Korean), part-Polynesian (with Maori roots), gay, lesbian, and agender. I’m not saying you need to write the entire United Nations into your story, but you get the idea.
Some people also complain that when they write in one person of color, they’re accused of tokenism…. That’s because it is tokenism. Whether you realize it or not, people tend to hang out with other people who have things in common with them. Although I have friends of all backgrounds, I also have friends who are black, female, straight, or cisgender, like me. Gays tend to hang with other gays. Women tend to hang with other women. It’s a little weird if you have an entire world full of straight, white characters and you add one queer person or one person of color.
The last question I want to ask is, why does so much fantasy take place in Europe or settings modeled after Europe? I’m going to chalk this one up to relying on Tolkien, for the most part, anyway. There are literally six other continents on the planet, and each and every one of them has their own fantasical, mystical stories (well, except Antarctica). They have their own mythologies. There are gods and fantasy creatures aplenty to explore in every region, so why do so many writers confine themselves to Europe?
A wonderful example of breaking away from this is Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who is a lover of fantasy. I’ve read it twice and eagerly await the second book’s release in March. ❤
It is a fantasy novel that takes place in a setting modeled after West Africa, and not only is the story riveting, but the culture is so rich, it’s almost tangible. You can tell Adeyemi put a lot of research and love into building this world.
It’s so refreshing, and I didn’t know I was starving for a book like that until I actually read it.
As a nerd, I generally surround myself with other nerds. Many of those are girl nerds. And many of those are black girl nerds. And trust me when I say, we get ridiculously excited when we see ourselves represented in some of our favorite books (like Children of Blood and Bone), TV shows (like Gwen in BBC’s Merlin), anime (like Canary in Hunter x Hunter), movies (like Princess and the Frog, or Brandy in Cinderella), and video games (like Marina in Splatoon 2 …. but not League of Legends… STILL not League of Legends… I will never not be bitter about the profound lack of black female characters in LoL, considering the ridiculously large character roster… but I digress).
The point is, we get pretty hype. Representation matters.
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