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Author Topic: Races in fantasy?  (Read 3876 times)

Offline bookish_fantasy

Races in fantasy?
« on: May 10, 2015, 10:22:35 PM »
hello everyone! :)

I am currently working on the first book in a trilogy. In this book, there are two branches of humanity - the mortals and the magia. "Mortals", obviously, have a shorter lifespan and are closer to the humanity we have today. "Magia" used to practice magic, and have a lot of lore, including dragons. Once upon a time, when magic was still prevalent, the magia could live for nearly a thousand years, but now that the magic is gone, there isn't a big difference in the amount of years they have.

The magia occupied the heavily forested and woody lands to the south, while the mortals occupied the coastal region towards the north. Due to this, the magia have darker features - skin, eyes, hair - and the mortals have lighter features.

when the mortals caught wind of the magia's magical practices, several wars broke out, long and bloody, between the two. Over time, the magia was forced into the Deep South, their magic taken away, and disappeared from history almost entirely.

The first book in the series, the heroine mainly interacts with mortals (the heroine is a mixture of mortal and magia). However, in the second book, I am planning on delving deeper into the magia, their cultures, maybe taking a bit out of real-life Chinese and Indian and Arabic legends. As the heroine is mixed-race, she is concerned about both sides of the culture, and ultimately she will realize they're not so different after all.

I know race is a rather touchy subject in fantasy, among other things. However, I look back and see so many problematic depictions of it. The Orcs and all-white elves in Tolkien, for example. ( I absolutely love LOTR, so I'm not trying to hate on him AT ALL. I'm just saying that one can tell the books are aging.) if I take this stereotype and twist it, to show that there are shades of gray in every situation…do you think people would be able to see past the skin color and look instead to the message?

Wow. This turned out to be a novel on its own. Sorry, and thank you in advance for any information! <3
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Offline Yora

Re: Races in fantasy?
« Reply #1 on: May 10, 2015, 11:02:57 PM »
Is there any reason the magic people have dark skin and the mortal people light skin? Since apparently they come from the same distantancestors, it is probably likely that you want to say something by adding this difference. Otherwise they could look the same. What is your intention in making them look different?

You didn't say anything about the culture of the mortal people, but the magic people appear to be based on "something exotic". I could see that being taken as insensitive by some people. Presumedly European is normal and Asian culture is special and mystical. While that seems like a positive portrayal, it is still reducing the culturb of actual people down to a simple stereotype. In practice that has very often led to such cultures not being treated respectfully but as something exotic and entertaining. Even if you stay clear of doing that, it might still provoke instinctive rejection of the story.

My general advice on this subject is to not base any fictional culture on a real world culture. Taking elements from different cultures to create something new, but creating Fantasy-Arabs or Fantasy-Chinese is something that rarely ends pretty if you're not writing from inside that culture. When you make your own culture and history into a Fantasy version, you are aware of what things are representative of the culture, what wrong stereotypes people have about that culture, how those affect people of that culture and what makes these people feel insulted. If you want to make a fantasy culture that pretty much is a copy of a real world culture, only do it with your own.
If you just make up something, be clear about it that you are just making something up and you are not trying to copy a specific culture.

Yes, Tolkien based his human and hobbit cultures on real world cultures, but that was because he wrote his stories with the idea that they could be the ancient mythic past of our world. We don't need to make our fantasy cultures Fantay-Vikings and Fantasy-Samurai, snd so on. And even Tolkien was smart enough to base his fictional cultures on different periods of his own country and culture. When someone thinks his Hobbits are a ridiculous stereotype of rural England, the only accusation against him is that he is creating an unrealistic utopia that suits his own quirky taste. Nobody would accuse him of believing that English people really are that way. If I were to write a story about Maharajas, Yogis, and Rakshasa, and ot turns out to be a total cliche, people wouldn't be nearly as forgiving. And rightfully so.

I say just stay away from all those troubles by simply making up your own cultures and don't draw any obvious parallels toreal world cultures. If that seems too daunting, an easy shortcut is to pick two or three very different cultures and blend them together. It will seem quite coherent and consistent, but will be almost unrecognizable. I've seen Japanese Viking-Elves and it worked really well.
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Offline cupiscent

Re: Races in fantasy?
« Reply #2 on: May 10, 2015, 11:05:04 PM »
Shades of grey in the depictions of varied races of humans is an awesome thing, and I'm always keen to see more of it in fantasy fiction. The one thing that strikes me as potentially problematic about the way you've laid our your races here, however, is that white and (I'm assuming) European-derived humans are coded as normal, or our starting assumption of humanity, and the darker Magia are "exotic" and "other". I understand that this is just a summary, and it's definitely possible to avoid this too much in the way you write the story, but it's something to bear in mind. You may also want to be careful that your heroine isn't saving the Magia through her "Mortal" heritage or external knowledge, which starts to have uncomfortable "white saviour" overtones.

I'll also note: I assume by north and south, you mean further from the equator and closer to the equator? As an Australian, "north" to me means warmer and sunnier, so I was having trouble for a moment with the northern folk being pale and the southern folk dark. :)

Offline Rostum

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Re: Races in fantasy?
« Reply #3 on: May 10, 2015, 11:14:33 PM »
I have read over your post 5 times in a row and feel you may be over thinking this issue. Race is usually a touchy subject because people define differences rather than see people as people. If you are worried about being defined as racist by your fantasy races then either you need to think about why that is and rewrite appropriately, or define your own arguments as to why this is not the case. Humanity determined by skin colour is definately going to cause a problem.

If you are unhappy about defining differences between your two races then do you need to do so?

Tolkien was wrote Lord of the rings only a hundred years after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. He was a devout Catholic at a time when you were discriminated against for being so. His wife certainly lost her social circle on her conversion to Catholicism. The only reference to race I can find is from a letter he wrote about apartheid where he stated "The treatment of colour nearly always horrifies anyone going out from Britain." 
While I am aware that there are many arguments made about the inherent racism of his work made 40 years after it was written to the present I see no evidence to support any deliberate portrayal of a particular race of people in his fantasy races. Beyond those you have stated and feel LOTR etc. were considerably less racist than most of Enid Blytons children’s stories of the same era.

Offline bookish_fantasy

Re: Races in fantasy?
« Reply #4 on: May 11, 2015, 01:18:46 AM »
Thank you so much for your replies! :) (this might turn into another novel. If it does, I apologize.)

@cupiscent, yes, I am talking about closer/further to the equator. Sorry for not clearing that up. :)

I can definitely see what all of you mean, especially about the European culture being considered the norm, and how that would be problematic. the magia's magic came from a tree, which they were bound to at birth. This was the way they kept their lifespan longer, how they practiced magic, etc, etc. You could learn magic without being bound to a tree, but it was a long and arduous practice. SO, when the mortals find the magia, they were angry and got impatient, so they began to burn and cut down many of the trees, robbing the magia of their magic. Elaina, a half-mortal, half-magia, bound the remaining magic to a book, so it couldn't be abused or completely destroyed. Then the book went missing, and the magia were driven to a mountain range in the south, and disappeared from mortal history. Now, the magia might live to 150, if that, and only legends of magic remain. They really aren't that different from the mortals at that point in time.
The only reason I'd say race is important to the story is because the heroine has the exact same genetic combination as Elaina, so it is rumored she might be the one to unbind the magic. If she does this, the magic would be open to anybody, not only the magia, if they are patient enough to learn it.

Of course there is going to be a bigger, overarching conflict, but if the foundation of the world is problematic no one is going to stay that long. So, how would you handle this? What would you do to make the European culture not the "norm"? I was thinking maybe adding some type of mythical beast to their everyday life.? And i think I might scrap the idea of adding specific different cultures to the magia - I can definitely see where that would be problematic.

Thank you so much for any information you might give me, and thank you again for what you already have given me! :)
« Last Edit: May 11, 2015, 01:21:54 AM by bookish_fantasy »
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Offline Roxxsmom

Re: Races in fantasy?
« Reply #5 on: May 11, 2015, 01:26:59 AM »
There's no reason both of these fantasy races couldn't have a variety of skin colors and features, just as our own species does. I'd honestly find it more believable if they were.

There's no reason at all why a fantasy society should look just like medieval northern Europe (for that matter, even medieval, northern Europe wasn't completely devoid of people who weren't white). But if you don't want your readers to imagine everyone as white, you have to establish that the characters aren't early on in the story, because of the issue with the presumed unmarked state http://www.strangehorizons.com/2015/20150427/2chngdurhamsperring-a.shtml (a white male somewhere in his thirties) in fiction.I think more stories where dark-skinned characters and people who look like races other than European are neutral or normal would be a good thing.

« Last Edit: May 11, 2015, 01:51:35 AM by Roxxsmom »

Offline Roxxsmom

Re: Races in fantasy?
« Reply #6 on: May 11, 2015, 01:28:30 AM »
Deleted for duplication.
« Last Edit: May 11, 2015, 01:51:20 AM by Roxxsmom »

Offline bookish_fantasy

Re: Races in fantasy?
« Reply #7 on: May 11, 2015, 01:42:43 AM »
Okay so, what if instead of being reliant on the race, I made the magia be identifiable by another feature - say they all had some shade of violet eyes, or something like that, and the "mortals" are a mix of all types of ethnicities. Would that be any better, do you think?

Thank you all! :)
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Offline Nora

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Re: Races in fantasy?
« Reply #8 on: May 11, 2015, 02:09:25 AM »
The only reason I'd say race is important to the story is because the heroine has the exact same genetic combination as Elaina, so it is rumored she might be the one to unbind the magic. If she does this, the magic would be open to anybody, not only the magia, if they are patient enough to learn it.

Careful with that. I know you're just expressing yourself in a forum right now, but I'd like to point out just in case that unless your mortals and magia engage in highly advanced genetic manipulation, your heroine cannot have "the exact same genetic combination" as anyone but herself. Having a mortal parent and a magia parent don't grant the same genetic combination. Gosh, having the two same parents doesn't even do that, or else all sisters and brothers born to the same parents would be identical twins to the last strand of DNA.
What you mean, I believe, is the same heritage. The same proportions of magia/mortal.

How rare is interbreeding in your book? Many people in our world are attracted to other people of darker/lighter skin colour, often as a quality in itself. So why not more often between magia and humans? Especially if the magia are exotic and mysterious. Deuce, mortal women couldn't resist such men.
I think there are many ways of making your two races different without limiting yourself at skin colour. It'd be wise in any case, if only because I see no natural reason for your mortal humans to come only in one shade of white. If they've been around your globe long enough, any mortal having lived long in the equatorial areas should be darker of skin.
They could be extremely similar, only little things telling them apart, or they could have some weird features, helping mortals to hate them, ect.

If you want to see inter-racial hate and struggle for peace laid out in a good YA book, read Seraphina. In a world where dragons can fold themselves into the shape of humans, and have been only recently at peace with mankind, Seraphina is the daughter of a dragon and human father.
In human form, some specific features distinguish humans from dragons, but mostly they're too hard to tell apart, leading to dragons having to wear bells - like a jew's star - and only some scholars are "exempted from the bell".

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Offline Lady Ty

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Re: Races in fantasy?
« Reply #9 on: May 11, 2015, 02:29:04 AM »

Of course there is going to be a bigger, overarching conflict, but if the foundation of the world is problematic no one is going to stay that long. So, how would you handle this? What would you do to make the European culture not the "norm"? I was thinking maybe adding some type of mythical beast to their everyday life.? And i think I might scrap the idea of adding specific different cultures to the magia - I can definitely see where that would be problematic.

Thank you so much for any information you might give me, and thank you again for what you already have given me! :)


Hi @bookish_fantasy, I like the basic premise of your book and some of the ideas you have. Like @Roxxsmumm I believe making your races equally mixed and diverse could work well.

It would resolve any cultural discrimination issues and give you the opportunity to introduce any number of different magic - Middle East, Oriental, African, American Indian -whatever you wanted. Your way of life may reflect some medieval background and way of life in practical terms, but this is your fantasy realm, with its own history.  You can introduce any kind of multicultural population,( think London or NewYork), with your own imaginary races and  indicate this by some early reference such as "The marketplace bustled with people of every colour and size,from the provinces of .. " OK, you're a writer and I'm not but guess you get the idea. :D

Thereafter you would not even need to know the physical attribute of your characters for a while, until you drop in  some casual reference later that gives an indication - it is the nature of their magic that differentiates them not any personal attributes. Each character would be Mage or citizen, pure and simple, and not identified by his race or culture.

I personally enjoy having a small surprise about a character later on, there are a few times I have assumed someone was male and suddenly '..she said' drops in.  There is an  interesting book that actually uses a most unusual twist as its basic storyline -check out   We Are Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.


« Last Edit: May 11, 2015, 07:57:53 AM by Lady Ty »
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Offline Raptori

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Re: Races in fantasy?
« Reply #10 on: May 11, 2015, 07:41:52 AM »
Personally I don't really like races in fantasy - I just don't see the point.

In your book, what advantage is there to using the concept of "race" when you could just have two (or more) nations (or regions) instead? That way, instead of making the racial issue inherent to the fabric of your world, it'd be more an issue of prejudice and artificial divisions.

You could still make it so that one nation has magic while the others do not, and that the influence of magic makes them live longer or changes them in some way, and that the other nations hate them - basically everything you've got so far would still work, but you'd skip out a lot of the issues and generally have a more nuanced world imo. You could also have multiple "southern" countries but only one or two who uses magic, for contrast and conflict.

Also, I agree with @Nora regarding the genetic combination thing, but I'd go even further. An example that your comment reminded me of was Jupiter Ascending - one thing that I really disliked about it (one among many) was that the entire story hinged upon the main character being genetically identical to some dead person. All through the film, it pissed me off - anyone with any knowledge of genetics (i.e. the royal people in that film would surely know this) would know that having the same genes would make you a twin rather than a reincarnation, so the whole setup was utterly ridiculous to me. Of course, you could work it into the story (the people knowing genetics, and knowing they're twins or have the exact same mix of races or whatever), but it would still bother me that so much was down to genetics.

Genetics are a small sliver of what makes each person who they are, cultural differences are caused by growing up inside different cultures, not by genetics.
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Offline ultamentkiller

Re: Races in fantasy?
« Reply #11 on: May 11, 2015, 12:54:25 PM »
So, I'm going to go against the tide here. I think that, not including the genetics issues, the magic race being of a different color is a brilliant idea. People talk about how some might view this as racist and white saviors and things like that. But, wouldn't that also be considered racist as well? When a person reads your story, if they're so focused on the races that they can't get focused on the main plot, I think that says more about them than it does about you. I'm going to use Peter V. Brett as an example here. Lots of people get so mad over him over the Krasian culture because it mimics the arabic culture in a lot of ways. Ok, so it does. Why does it matter? It may mimic, but they're not actually arabic. They're a made up culture. Some people put the book down over this, while others love it. I fall into the latter category.
So, in the end, do what you feel is right. If you think there are advantages to having another race, and in later books exploring their culture from the inside so we can understand why they do certain things, do it. You're the writer. The story makes sense in your head.
On a side note, despite some people being mad about Krasians, The Skull Throne made number 5 on the New Yourk Times Bestseller list. That proves that race, even though people are crazy sensetive about it, isn't as big of a deal as it's made out to be.

Offline Nora

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Re: Races in fantasy?
« Reply #12 on: May 11, 2015, 03:47:50 PM »
So, I'm going to go against the tide here. I think that, not including the genetics issues, the magic race being of a different color is a brilliant idea. People talk about how some might view this as racist and white saviors and things like that. But, wouldn't that also be considered racist as well? When a person reads your story, if they're so focused on the races that they can't get focused on the main plot, I think that says more about them than it does about you. I'm going to use Peter V. Brett as an example here. Lots of people get so mad over him over the Krasian culture because it mimics the arabic culture in a lot of ways. Ok, so it does. Why does it matter? It may mimic, but they're not actually arabic. They're a made up culture. Some people put the book down over this, while others love it. I fall into the latter category.
So, in the end, do what you feel is right. If you think there are advantages to having another race, and in later books exploring their culture from the inside so we can understand why they do certain things, do it. You're the writer. The story makes sense in your head.
On a side note, despite some people being mad about Krasians, The Skull Throne made number 5 on the New Yourk Times Bestseller list. That proves that race, even though people are crazy sensetive about it, isn't as big of a deal as it's made out to be.

I don't know if my being french, of mixed origins (I'm in decreasing order, french, algerian, spanish, lebanese, russian mongrel!) used to live in multicultural capitals, or anything else, but I honest to god don't give a rat's ass about politics and races in fantasy books.
I mean, in our world different types of people got advantages over other types (sometimes amongst the same cultures) and skin colour appears in those differences often. Anyone can get a very sound, non-racist explanation of the world-wide history of civilisations by Jared Diamond, Germs, guns and steel.
So why not in Fantasy!?

But that is what gets me truly! If you want a realistic world with a realistic pre-history and human migrations, with equatorial regions and a yellow star like ours, ect, ect, then why on earth would only one type of people be of one skin colour?
In a fantasy world were mortal humans evolved and sprawled around, living alongside another race, what prevents your mortals from spreading across the world and getting different skin colour?
Having an all white race and an all black race is illogical because it doesn't hold up for anyone having had a mild interest in science and evolution.

This being said, your mages aren't like other humans. They could always have dark skin, and the way to distinguish from normal mortals could be eye colour, as you said, maybe always purple, or maybe slanted irises? Or ash coloured hair, or totally hairless, ect. Some sort of distinguishing feature beyond skin colour, would make the whole race-related worry totally moot.
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Offline Francis Knight

Re: Races in fantasy?
« Reply #13 on: May 11, 2015, 11:42:29 PM »
I am planning on delving deeper into the magia, their cultures, maybe taking a bit out of real-life Chinese and Indian and Arabic legends.
This is the part that concerns me

Taking inspiration from? Sure

Culturally appropriating

Not so cool

Using US/UK inspiration has very few problems -- of you don't like one representation, there are a hundred others to choose from, a whole range of them


But here. US/Uk. how many representations are there are say Indonesian stories. Indian stories, Chinese stories, Taiwan stores? Very few (here anyway) so any representation gets taken as "aha, how it is" and unless you are rally very conversant with the culture...

You may end up perpetuating a cliche stereotype


What you think of as "hey cool things to add to my novel!" are actually parts of people's real lives and, given there are not many representations of them in western fantasy, they may care very much about how those representations happen. If say the UK got mentioned once every 1000 Hollywood movies, I expect I'd be even more pissed that we seem to be reduced to "tea swilling polite people" Luckily for Brits there are plenty of movies/novels that do not pander to that, that offset it.


Many other cultures do not have that luxury. The get to be "The Other" and that is it


 I'm not saying don't do it. I am saying do it with care and sensitivity.

PS auto correct is a bugger
« Last Edit: May 11, 2015, 11:48:33 PM by Francis Knight »
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Offline K.S. Crooks

Re: Races in fantasy?
« Reply #14 on: May 23, 2015, 02:00:56 PM »
Go for it. Too many people confuse skin colour with culture. A person from Sweden is different than a person from Switzerland or Poland. There features may be similar, but their cultures are very different. You are writing a story where the characters have different skin colour, their cultures seem different than any on earth. Even if you take some aspects of different human cultures, which really would be impossible not to, you are still creating your own unique mix that only represents your story. Human's skin colour is based on various shades of brown. You could make your characters skin pigment based on a different colour and still have the various shades.
I agree with you with the point that many stories have all their elves, dwarves and other fantasy creatures all one colour, but keep in mind when and where some of these stories were written. The characters appearances are of what the writers were familiar. Today in North America we are used to seeing people of all different colours, in 1800 or 1900 Europe not as much. If a person wants to read stories with characters of different characteristic, they need to look outside of one region in the world.
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