Diverse Fantasy Is Better Fantasy
I recently I submitted a story to my writing group for critique. It was a secondary-world fantasy set in a pre-industrial port city. Of all the comments I received, the one that stuck with me complained that it was unrealistic that the people of my world didn’t have a problem with my lesbian protagonist and her wife. The reviewer found this unrealistic because, in his opinion, lesbians would not have been accepted in a late eighteenth century Western city. However, the reviewer had no problem with sentient beasts roaming the streets of my city or with people possessing powerful magical abilities.
This wasn’t the first time I had seen criticism of the presence of women, of people of color, or of LGBTQ characters in secondary-world fantasy (I think we all remember the Sad and Rabid Puppies). It was simply the first time these criticisms had been aimed at something I wrote. But ever since then, I’ve been thinking about it. Why is diversity criticized in fantasy, particularly secondary-world fantasy? Why will readers easily accept all manner of fanciful impossibilities, but question why a made-up world includes a diverse population? I can’t claim that I have the definitive answer(s) for these questions. But I have concluded that these criticisms are unrealistic, and they lead to bad stories.
Lack of Diversity Is Unrealistic
Picture a medieval world. What do you see? Kings, lords, and farm boys? Cathedrals and thatched roofs? Swords, horses, war? Lots of white people? Sounds like this world would easily fit on the cover of many fantasy novels. But the Middle Ages lasted 1,000 years, and included actors from Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. There is simply no single, standard model. Different cultures, religions, races, genders, and sexualities mixed and spread and clashed. The world was a dynamic, diverse place.
Over the course of the Middle Ages, Vikings could be found sailing to North American and trading in Baghdad. Two men were married in eleventh century Spain, and a variety of civil union ceremonies could be found in France and throughout Mediterranean Europe during the late Middle Ages. In fifteenth century England, women owned property, ran businesses, divorced their husbands, wrote, and became scholars. At the same time, women in England, France, and Switzerland played vital roles in the military. There is even a popular Tumblr account, Medieval POC, that highlights persons of color represented in art throughout the Middle Ages.
Diversity isn’t new now. It wasn’t even new in the Middle Ages. The ancient world was also incredibly diverse. Just look to Myke Cole’s recent piece on tor.com about the diverse fighters of the Punic Wars or to Kameron Hurley’s magnificent essay about women fighters throughout history. Heck, thirteen of the first fourteen Roman Emperors are believed to have been bisexual or exclusively homosexual.
Whether this stunted understanding of history is the product of formulaic novels or of an education system forced to teach a drastically oversimplified history, I’m not sure. The two might even complement each other: read more novels than history and fiction could become shorthand for a false and lazy history. There’s a reason research makes for better novels.
Lack of Diversity Is Unimaginative
Just as bad history has its stereotypes, bad writing has its tropes. Star Trek often had entire planets filled with people who looked alike, spoke alike, and dressed alike, and so too do many fantasy novels have all-male, monochromatic characters. A common bit of writing advice I hear is “don’t stop at your first good idea.” That first idea is usually too easy, too well trodden, or too boring. Writers are advised to push for that third, fourth, or fifth idea to find something complex, surprising, and original. While this is typically advice for improving plot, I think it can—and should—be applied to improving a story’s diversity. Not only will this make a story more grounded, but it will also make a story more appealing to audiences that are traditionally overlooked in fantasy.
After all, when it comes to fictional worlds, writers are gods. If we’re going to spend who knows how much time worldbuilding, why stop with simplistic, unrealistic ideas? Not only does increasing a story’s diversity make it more honest and grounded in reality, but it can also make a story appealing to audiences that are traditionally overlooked in fantasy.
But why stop there? If you’re going to build an original world, why not create a world that completely changes how its various populations deal with gender, race, standards of physical beauty, sexuality, identity, power, or prejudice? I think fantasy—all fiction, really—is at its best when it finds a new way to explore real world issues, emotions, and themes. By increasing diversity of characters and viewpoints, writers can address those issues, emotions, and themes from multiple angles and make stories far more complex, and nuanced. I can’t help but think this will create a resonance with readers that lodges a story deep within their minds and hearts.
And just to clarify, there doesn’t need to be any judgment about the issues in doing so. In other words, I’m not arguing for straight up message fiction or including diversity as a means of quota-fulfillment.
Diverse Fantasy Is Better Fantasy
Every time I hear someone say, “That’s the way it was back then,” it’s hard not to hear, “Meh, good enough.” Thankfully, I’m not the only one. Stories are becoming increasingly diverse, and prizes are rewarding diversity.
Fantasy is built upon a sense of wonder. Amaze me, shock me, transport me to a new world. Please don’t make me settle for “good enough.”