Thursday, 18 April 2019


WAKE UP AND SMELL THE REAL WORLD: DIVERSITY IN FANTASY (Originally posted here 26/1/2011, now unearthed from the archive and carefully dusted off for your reading pleasure)

This post started out one way, and ended up becoming something else. I sat down with the intention of writing a How To article on the topic of world building, with the bullet points and all that. But as I sketched out my process for coming up with a textured and diverse fantasy world, I began thinking about a discussion I've been having with some writing friends lately, and some really interesting blog posts that I've recently seen from other writers, and instead, it turned into an essay.

So first, I need to make a confession. I'm white, though from a mixed race family. And I can pass as straight, although I'm actually not (which is kind of a complex issue, and not the topic of this post, so I'll move on). And I can usually pass as able bodied - the chronic health conditions from which I suffer are not visible and during 'good' periods I come very close to normal health. I'm not neuro-typical, but again, most of the time I can pass. I'm also cis, which means that my biological sex and gender expression match up to ideals of 'femininity' as accepted by the modern Western world. Therefore, I have what is called privilege (not as much as others, because even though I can pass as straight and able-bodied and neurotypical, I'm not, but again - another topic for another post).

The term 'privilege' encompasses a lot, but for the purposes of this essay it means that when I turn on the TV, go to see a film or pick up a book, the overwhelming number of characters depicted, the overwhelming number of stories told, will be about people who look 'like me'.

For much of my early life, I unconsciously felt that those people were the majority of the world, and that those stories were somehow universal, archetypal, the default.

They are not.

When I slowly began to become aware of this, at first I didn't know what to do about it. It was easy for me to argue that I simply didn't have the experience required to write about people who weren't like me. I'd never walked down the street and seen automatic caution or fear or disgust in someone's eyes just because of how I was born. I'd never experienced racial abuse - although members of my family had, it's just not the same. I'd never had to defend my right to to hold hands with someone I loved, or come up against the assumption that I was a brave little soul or a freak of nature from a complete stranger. My private life, of course, with friends, co-workers, acquaintances and family members, was a different matter. But in essence, when I walk down the street people look at me and see an inoffensive white girl and, unless they are vile misogynist street harassers (with whom I have had my fair share of run ins) let me be.

I've seen this argument a lot, from writers. That they don't have the experience, that they'll get it wrong, that they don't want to offend anyone - and so it's better if they just write about characters like themselves. And I've seen writers who have made that arduous effort to include the odd gay or non-white or not-able bodied character talk about how difficult it is to correctly portray someone who is not like them. And I've seen other writers say that they feel they're being pressured to make 'all their characters' non-white or non-straight or non-able bodied, or you know, not just like them, and it makes them feel restricted and uncomfortable, like their choices are being taken away.

But here's the thing. White people are not the majority of the world. 100% heterosexual people who fit perfectly within modern Western gender binaries are not the majority of the world. Able bodied people are not the majority of the world. We - and I include people like me, who don't actually fit into many of those categories - just think they are because the vast majority of the time, people who are NOT white, and straight, and cis, and able bodied, only show up in the media in token roles. Look, we included a sassy gay boy who can give the heroine advice on clothes (but will never get a meaningful relationship of his own)! Aren't we tolerant? Look! We included a sassy black/Chinese/Indian best friend to give the heroine advice on being true to herself (who may get a relationship but it will only be with someone of the same ethnic group)! Aren't we racially aware! Look, we included a sassy boy in a wheelchair to give the heroine advice on understanding what is important in life (who won't even get to express an interest in a life of his own because after all people in wheelchairs are just there to prove a point)! Aren't we broadminded!

No. I'm afraid you aren't.

Currently, the media is showing a horribly skewed picture of the real world. Fiction writers, with our limitless power to reinvent the world, to hold a mirror up to it or subvert it, are showing a horribly skewed picture of the world. If you are not white, if you are not straight, if you are not physically perfect (and to some extent, if you are one of the slightly more than 50% of the population who is female) you know how it feels to wonder why no one wants to write about people LIKE YOU for a freaking change. Write stories that are unique to your unique experiences and which treat the characters involved like fully developed, complex and evolving people, not just props for the white, straight, able-bodied lead actor/character to lean on.

Why isn't everyone - even the straight white (male) people - bored with straight white (male) characters yet?

The more I force my mind to open, the stranger it seems to me. Straight, cis, white, able bodied people are such a small minority in the real world that when you're attempting to create any kind of a realistic fantasy world it's quite *un*realistic to keep putting characters with those traits in the majority of the major roles. Why would you limit yourself that way?

I mean, that's not to say that writers with blonde hair can never write blonde heroines. It's not to say that straight, cis, white, able bodied people don't deserve to be in books and films, ever. But...come on. With such a startling variety of skin colours, races, ethnicities, cultures, physical traits, sexual and gender identities and preferences available for writers to extrapolate from, I think it's sad that so many writers do unconsciously chose to write books which only feature main characters 'just like them', or even 'just like' all those homogenous white, straight, cis, able bodied people on TV. If nothing else, it's boring.

When I wrote a guest post for another blog which briefly touched on this issue, the response in comments really shocked me (that was before the Mary-Sue thing. After that, I'm not sure I can be shocked anymore).

Some people were defensive, saying that their all-white, all-straight, all-able-bodied casts '...just come to me! I don't decide on their race/sexual orientation/physical status! My character are who they ARE!'

Bull. Sorry, but it's bull. You have nothing to do with how your characters turn out? They just magically appear to you, fully formed? Let me tell you what is magically and mysteriously presenting these all-white, all-straight, all-able-bodied casts to you: your own unexamined prejudice.

I'll let you in on a secret. Those TV-ready casts of white, straight, cis, able-bodied characters 'just present themselves' to me quite often as well. But when it happens, I stop, remember that I'm the author and I'm in charge of the stories I write, and make a decision that it's not good enough. And I go searching for characters who deflect a more realistic and diverse picture of the world.

Other commenters on the post took a 'Pshaw! What do YOU know about it, white girl?' stance. It's harder to argue with that one because I'm very aware that I'm making all these statements from a position of privilege. But at the same time, I'm one of the people who is writing works of fiction and putting stories out into the world, changing it - or shoring up its existing systems and structures of prejudice - even if I don't mean to. So don't I have a responsibility to speak out on this subject? Doesn't everyone, really?

Even though it might sound strange, when we're creating fantasy worlds I think it's vital to look at the real world first. The REAL real world. Overcoming our own unconscious assumptions and prejudices is an ongoing process for all of us - not just the white, straight, able-bodied ones - and no one is going to get it right first time or probably all the time, even if they're truly making an effort. But the first step to changing the world of fiction so that it reflects everyone instead of just a tiny, privileged portion, is to think about it and realise that things DO need to change.

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