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Diverse Fantasy Is Better Fantasy

M'lady by SteenI 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

Separatist Voidmage by Jason RainvillePicture 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.

Maori Pirate Princess by ArtByNathDiversity 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.

Wall of Woe by MuYoung KimAfter 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.

hijab archer by Sergey KondratovichAnd 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.”

Title image by eleathyra.

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Diverse Fantasy Is Better Fantasy, 7.1 out of 10 based on 59 ratings
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28 Comments

  1. Ambarish Sathianathan says:

    Shouldn’t prizes award good writing?

    “Prizes are awarding diversity” does not send a good message.

    • Why does it send a bad message? Diversity *is* good writing. Writing without diversity is boring and should have to work harder to win awards. Simples.

    • Derik says:

      Exactly. Diversity for the sake of diversity is the toxic mindset of mainstream creative culture.

      • Shadowkat says:

        It’s not “for the sake” of diversity. It’s for the sake of it being realistic and a accurate representation. A country of just one type of people is just as unrealistic as anything else in fantasy, except in a way that’s not beneficial to the story. Do flying dragons add to the story? Yeah. Everyone loves dragons. Adds types to those too. Does whitewashing add anything? Nope. Not a single thing.

        Diversity adds. It adds new potential for cultures and bonding between readers and characters. It adds to variation in people. It just..adds.

  2. Ambarish Sathianathan says:

    *reward/rewarding

  3. jonnyboy says:

    For me it comes down to human nature. People will have a problem with anything. Race, sexuality, you name it. Just because it happened it doesn’t mean it was largely approved of. No matter what genre you write, or whatever fantastical ideas populate it, I think the author has to be honest about human nature. I can accept dragons, magic etc. But I can’t except a entirely tolerant and supportive society. However you explain the respective norms of that society, whatever it’s past, somebody will be hateful and disgusted by anything unusual.

    • Shadowkat says:

      That, I agree with. But it doesn’t have to keep these groups out of the picture. Switch up hierarchy, show the alienation, or maybe make it where they aren’t openly hated, but maybe slightly frowned upon?

  4. Plunkie says:

    This article really resonated with me, thank you for writing it. I’ve realised while writing it that I follow all the archetypes when writing and that I should expand outwards. I’m now binning the character profiles I had for my most recent short story and starting again from the ground up. Well done mate

  5. Steven Poore says:

    Excellent article. You make the point extremely well that history is naturally diverse. History shows that humanity isn’t necessarily *tolerant*, but it does prove that humanity is *diverse*.

    • Yora says:

      That sounds like a compelling argument to give as general writing advice to fantasy writers,
      There are many good reasons why a story has homogenous main characters in the main plot, but the world as presented should acknowledge that it’s a big world shared by many peoples who are just as complex and important as the country of the heroes.

      I imagine what mostly frustrates people are worlds that appear to be entirely populated by French, English, and Scandinavian people, who alone are in any way involved in matters of global importance.
      Nothing wrong with having a court consisting only of blonde white people, but when they receive guests from foreign lands, there really is no good reason why those would all look the same as well.

      • Random swede says:

        I wish the notion of Scandinavian people being blonde and blue eyed would die out. Because we’re not. There’s like one fifth or even less that fits the stereotypical image of Scandinavians. I think that there are actually more black scandinavians than the typical blonde bombshell type.

        And the third largest language in my country after Swedish and English is Arabian. So yeah, diversity totally exists but is being overlooked.

  6. Dee says:

    Well said! As speculative fiction authors, we have the ability to do just that – speculate. To indirectly respond to jonnyboy’s comment above – what if there was a society where “usual” was something other than what we see in our present society? What would people be hateful and disgusted about then?

    There is no reason excellent stories shouldn’t include diverse stories. Indeed, as you note, there is reason to believe that stretching ourselves as writers outside the quick, easy, cheap options available to us will make for better stories. And that makes me excited as a reader.

  7. null says:

    But -is- it better?
    When you’re writing about diversity, what kind of question are you answering?

    Does diversity make this story better?
    Or does this story have enough “Diversity Points”?

    • Shadowkat says:

      I believe that was addressed in the article.

      “There’s a reason research makes for better novels.”

      “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.”

      Questions answered. 🙂

      • Random swede says:

        Diversity = more original = more interesting to read. Of course in combination with a good language it’s a real treat.

        It’s not like there’s ever going to be a lack of the default high fantasy with white swordswinging males saving gentle maidens in a fantasy medieval world.

        I believe both kind of stories can co-exist, but after 30 or more years reading the default kind I need more original ideas to keep up interest. So yes please, more diverse sexualities, genders, nongenders, skincolors, nongenders, religions, cultures, nohumans and so on.

    • Derik says:

      Believe me, it’s the latter.

  8. Shadowkat says:

    Something I find strange is of all the articles (and do to my obsessiveness, I’ve gone back to the first), it always seems to be those having to do with diversity that gain the lowest rating. Not sure why, but it makes me smile a bit. Irony maybe? I wonder if we’d get the same results if everyone voting was put in the same room and asked to hold up their score where everyone can see.

    • Shadowkat says:

      They also seem to be the ones most voted on…

      • Yora says:

        I think that’s really the main reason. People are most likely to really consider what they think of it instead of a few casual “Well done. 10 stars.”

        • Shadowkat says:

          True. But I feel like there’s also “oh, another diversity post shoved down our throat. Low rating”.

          Makes me mad.

    • Jennie Ivins Jennie Ivins says:

      I’ve noticed that too. XD

    • Alphonse says:

      Are you saying that fewer would dare to be honest about their opinions about which stories they like or not? That’s not a good thing. One shouldn’t need to hide it in the fear of being judged.

      • Shadowkat says:

        Not what I was saying at all. What I’m saying is, it just seems highly coincidental that it’s always article about a certain subject that gets lower ratings. This article is not horribly written, nor does it make bad points. Just on a controversial subject that people feel soar about sometimes, and so it makes sense. You have to admit it seems a very obvious correlation, especially since this isn’t the only article you can find this occurring on with this site.

  9. Derik says:

    This is essentially just another “if it’s white it’s boring” type argument. I don’t care how “diverse” your story is if your writing sucks.

    Keep politics out of the creative process.

    • Jennie Ivins Jennie Ivins says:

      Being diverse is not political, it’s realistic. There is more than one type of person. If you want to have a believable world, you need to show that in your writing. Unless of course your point is that you want everyone to be the same, in which case I would say you are being very political.

    • Shadowkat says:

      What the above commenter said. I’ll put what I said in another comment.

      “It’s not “for the sake” of diversity. It’s for the sake of it being realistic and a accurate representation. A country of just one type of people is just as unrealistic as anything else in fantasy, except in a way that’s not beneficial to the story. Do flying dragons add to the story? Yeah. Everyone loves dragons. Adds types to those too. Does whitewashing add anything? Nope. Not a single thing.

      Diversity adds. It adds new potential for cultures and bonding between readers and characters. It adds to variation in people. It just..adds.”

  10. Rakbeater says:

    Who cares about diversity in fantasy as long as the story is good? Have diversity or don’t…I don’t care as long as your story is great!

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