Monday 16 November 2015


People from particular racial groups (along with people owning particular sexual preferences or gender identities etc) want to see their experiences reflected in fantasy. It's something I don't really have to think about as a reader since white/straight/male is the fantasy default.

My question regards what that representation entails.

'Famously' Ursula Le Guin's main character in the Earthsea trilogy is a person of colour (often described by a white skinned point-of-view character as dark skinned and (I think) possessed of a reddish skin tone) that was white-washed in the TV series, much to the author's annoyance.

I also noted that that character was effectively white-washed on the cover of the book I've owned since I was a child:

By catching him mid-illusion with white companions (I'm not sure they were white either) his skin colour is dodged.

This of course still goes on. Rick Riordan had to battle his Russian publishers after the first printing of his recent book went out with the black character made white on it!

Anyway. My question concerns the level and type of representation.

It's sparked by the discovery that in the Low Town trilogy by Daniel Polansky (an under-appreciated gem) the main character, the Warden, is in fact of mixed race.

I had assumed throughout that the Warden was the 'default' race for the city he lived in - the same race as the majority of the patrons in the bar he owns. I hadn't given a lot of thought to what that race was, but if pressed I would have guessed 'white' since the city contained ethnic groups noted for black and Asian skin tones (IIRC) and he wasn't a part of those groups.

Now it turns out that I wasn't being particularly unobservant on this point. In books 1 and 2 his race isn't mentioned at all. In book 3 it's mentioned in one off-hand line.

So my question is - is this what diversity means? The Warden's race was such a 'non-deal' that it wasn't mentioned for two books. What if it wasn't mentioned for 3 books and Polansky just told someone afterward in an interview?

JK Rowling told the world after the event that Dumbledore is gay. There was no need to mention it in the books - it didn't come up. So ... after reading seven books with gay Dumbledore and no mention of it ... do gay people feel represented?

If Tolkien rose from the grave for 60 seconds to mention that, by the way, Gandalf is black ... would that be delivering diversity?

Or does diversity mean seeing black people's experience (in itself a vastly diverse thing) represented in fantasy - and the fantasy world needs real-world racism imported so the reader sees that particular aspect of black people's experience?

In my trilogy, The Red Queen's War, the main character is of mixed race. It's not mentioned very often - though he does meet someone in the frozen north who mocks and intimidates him over his 'dirty' skin. In the trilogy I'm writing at the moment, Red Sister, the world is reduced to an equatorial corridor hemmed in by advancing ice. All races are mixed and have been for thousands of years. There are many skin tones and it's of no more note or interest than hair and eye colour. Does a person of colour reading that feel represented - or does the failure to connect with the prejudice of the real world mean that they don't feel represented?

I don't know. I'm asking.

I'm not writing these books to promote diversity or represent anyone - the worlds and characters are just the way they are - just how the pieces of my imagination and logic meshed together on these particular occasions. But the question interests me.

There's a comments section below - share your thoughts?


  1. Diversity, for me, boils down to there being a spectrum of works and protagonists and characters out there, so that readers of all stripes can more easily find people to identify with, and see themselves in.

    In an earlier age, where almost all of the protagonists were white and male, people like me had no lack of models, heroes, avatars and people to identify with. People who were not white, male, and straight can of course identify with these white males...but there is a barrier there, and it was an implicit message that the future, or worlds that never were, were for white males. They are the ones who count.

    So more books with more viewpoints and more kinds of characters give more kinds of people a stake, and a chance to feel themselves part of a world more easily. Tokenism is worse than no diversity at all, and Dumbledore's revelation seems like a lazy ex post facto that doesn't reconcile with the rest of the books.

    On the other hand, only writing to a narrow set of character types is self-limiting, to authors and to readers. Doubly so if its cried as "realistic" (this is how the whole Medieval POC stuff comes up--the Middle Ages were not the white male fest that people insist is "historically accurate" and thus fantasy based on that mold must therefore be all white male protagonists.

    But its tough for people who are white and male to engage with this, because we're inside the bubble. We ARE the default in SF and fantasy and reaching beyond that as creators, and readers, is difficult. But worthwhile.

  2. It is always really nice for me to see non-generic-white characters in books, because I can identify with them more. I'm a third culture kid, half American, half Chinese, and raised in the Philippines, but I find myself cheering on all characters who share some of my experiences, no matter the race/ethnicity. So long as the "diversity" is in moderation. Once I feel like an author is trying to hit me over the head with the fact THE CHARACTER IS ASIAN I actually lose interest in the character and respect for the author. Okay, I get it, they aren't white. But that doesn't mean they are abnormal, or need to be reminded of their "Asian-ness" in order to function. There is a balance, I think, and some authors do achieve it well.

  3. This may not be entirely what you're looking for but to me diversity doesn't necessarily mean seeing seeing something from the experience of a non-White but I always like to see different races, colours mentioned in a story. Unfortunately at times, they are mentioned in a negative light which isn't ideal but then it's the authors choice I guess.

    One matter I differ with many friends on is that being a Pakistani Muslim, we shouldn't expect "white" authors to write about our experiences. We need to contribute to the market and write about our own experiences since we know them best. I am hoping to write a story in which different races get a mention in a fair manner.

    Diversity is acknowledging the existence of various races and colours in the world we live in and also adding that to a fantasy world we create.

    Hope that was of benefit.

    1. "We need to contribute to the market and write about our own experiences since we know them best."
      Excellent commentary and I echo your sentiment about loving to read the mention of non "default" people in stories.

      I feel the same way you do about black characters and experiences, we (black authors) should be contributing our stories beyond the pockets that we have traditionally occupied (non-fiction, street literature, literary works) and add some diversity to genre fiction.

  4. I'd find it a tiny bit oppressive if writers were required to add diversity to their books. SF was very white male right from the beginning, lots of fantasy is written by white males or females so that's the voice/outlook that they'll use. All I require of writers is that there's a rattling good yarn. I'd probably enjoy fantasy/SF by black or Chinese writers if I happened on it, but I wouldn't seek it out unless someone FANTASTIC burst on the scene.

    1. Sorry if I miseead, but this seems to imply that average white books are better than all but FANTASTIC minority writers, or that such writers don't already exist. Diversity isn't something I'm saying we "require" of anyone, but as a reader and consumer of books I am not really interested in stories that don't reflect the amazing diversity of the world I live in. Otherwise the yarn doesn't really rattle me.

  5. I think the first fantasies I came across which specifically dealt with questions of race and sexuality were the Nerewhon series by Samuel R Delaney, As such, they were something of a revelation and definitely made me think about a broader social perspective when I wanted to create a world of my own. I have found that it is only possible for me to write about, or empathise with, things which directly relate to my own experience. I consciously wanted to write about questions of identity and race, and relations and conflicts between populations. Not to put across a particular message, but because it was a key dynamic I could not ignore. I would suggest that issues of alienation and otherness are central to much of fantasy fiction, and are a key part of it's appeal.

  6. Oops. Should have been Neveryon instead of Nerewhon. Sorry.

  7. These are great questions. I've wondered about some of the same things. Is a colorful cast of characters in a book, where the fantasy culture does not reflect the same social racisms as the real world, equal "representation"? I read a blog article by a man from Korea who talked about growing up and never seeing protagonists in movies or on TV who looked like him.
    I’m female and grew up with men cast as the protagonist in the books I enjoyed. Female characters were secondary, and the casts for many books are fine examples of the Smurfette Principe.
    I have a good friend who is a buyer for a major department store. This past year she was at a major movie studio to negotiate character licensing for super hero and star wars apparel. The artists presenting had nothing for girls or women’s apparel. The studio itself did not see girls or women as part of the merchandise fan base for their movies. These things were eventually created, but it was merchants who informed the creators of the demand. Studies of movies in Hollywood have already proven that films with a strong female plot line will gross 30% more profit at the box office, but the supply of such films is still not being met by the demand.
    I think there is a difference between someone of a certain race or gender being cast in the starring role, and a story that captures the experiences of someone from a different race or gender.
    For example my friend, a very prolific reader, will read every book she can find with a cast that reminds her of herself or her family. Recently she read and was disappointed by a book set in her native country. The protagonist was the same nationality as my friend. However the protagonist was US born and had an American viewpoint that read as very disparaging of her native country. So even though the skin color reflected her heritage, the book didn’t reflect the characters diversity or have an authentic feel to the experience portrayed.
    I get the desire to see a protagonist in books and media who looks like you. It’s a social validation that all the things the hero does, are also things a person who looks like you can do.

  8. Racial minority here. As a writer, I worry about racial representation a little, but I tell myself not to, because as a reader, I've never paid much mind to it. To me, just because a character is described by their color of skin (pale, dark, olive, brown, what have you) doesn't automatically make that character part of any real-world race. This doesn't entirely apply in post-apocalyptic fantasy, but the sentiment is the same.

    When race goes entirely unmentioned, I don't particularly default to caucasian -- even if I did, that would be on me, not the writer. It might be a little jarring to discover my visual image of a character was completely wrong, but that applies to every physical trait, not just skin color.

  9. Sidestepping the question a bit, I'd love to see more people of diverse backgrounds writing and publishing fantasy with flavors influenced by their cultural backgrounds, for example a Latin author having witches engaging in brujeria, etc. Saladin Ahmed comes to mind, though the constant chest-banging on Twitter about various social ills is kind of annoying in his case.

  10. I think, as others have said, diversity has to come in large part from creating opportunities in publishing for different voices to be heard. Which isn't to disparage your engagement with the question, at all. But … I dunno, I'm a straight white female and I write queer characters and non-white characters, because that's just how the worlds of my imagination are, but I guess I'm very aware that I'm still writing from my perspective. With the best will in the world, I'm constrained by the biases I don't know I have. And so I think one of the best ways to achieve true diversity and representation is to seek out greater diversity in authors.

  11. I've wondered this as well... Really, what is better, describing the characters or leaving them sort of "blank" for readers to infer what they look like from their imaginations, thereby being sort of fair and inclusive?

    I feel weird describing a secondary character's skintone because suddenly I'm thinking "Well, I didn't do this earlier, am I making it look like there's only one (insert skin color/ethnic background here) person in this whole universe?"

    I suppose, as with everything, moderation is key. Let's not overkill and thump skin-color descriptions over our reader's heads all the time, but let's not be completely vanilla about it either.

  12. What is representation? In my opinion, there are a couple of levels of answers to this question. First level is worldbuilding - does the world within its internal rules, reflect a realistic projection of the demographics of the real world? In other words, does it make sense that Star Fleet has no Indian personnel? On this level, a fairly superficial representation is sufficient, along the lines of mentioning the Ensign Patel is assigned to that job and nothing else.
    If I spend a lot of time with that character, however, I would expect that there would be something more than a name or physical description for the character to feel representative. Harry Potter has characters with minority names and the pronouncement on Dumbledore, but we never see them do anything relevant to that identity.
    It makes more sense to talk about representation in stories set in the real world or near future. In Wizard of Earthsea, the whole society is so different, it doesn't really make any difference what race the character nominally is.

  13. Good questions, but I believe one has to add another angle to them. The white and cis-dominance has been going on for such a long time and with such strength that it's largely the default in the eye of the reader. So JK Rowling can't claim diversity after the fact with saying Dumbledore is gay; Dumbledore has to be gay in the books.

    For myself, the questions of seeing people-who-look-like-X and people-who-have-issues-like-X are largely orthogonal, especially in sf or fantasy. I don't expect or demand that, say, a black person in fantasy will face the same prejudice and problems that blak people do in the real world. At the same time, representation should go deeper than skin deep (pun intended): having and showing any person who has to face strong prejudice or issues due to the group he or she is associated with should also be viewed as both representation and realism.

  14. As a fan of your writing, I wish you would not hop on this diversity bandwagon. Fantasy is a European literary genre, and while there's nothing inherently wrong with including non-white races in a story, if it is done in submission to the PC brigade it will undermine the authenticity of the writing. Face it Mark, most of your readership is white and we want to read 'within the genre' to a degree, where the characters are relatable on a personal and historical level.

    1. My thoughts also. You can try your best to shove PC-characters down the throats of your reader base until they can't stomach it any more but I don't recommend it.

  15. I think its great to see the diversity. I think that if, in a story, it doesn't come up then it doesn't come up however if it does then its great to be included. It didn't come up in any of the Harry Potter's that Dumbledore was gay but when JK Rowling was asked the question she answered it how she saw it when she created her world. I don't want authors to push the diversity envelope as a pc thing but that being said I enjoy reading books with diverse characters/ lands/ religions etc...
    I appreciated that in Peter V Brett's The Skull Throne he had a lesbian couple, there wasn't a big deal made about in and it didn't greatly impact the storyline, but I did think it was awesome to read anyway. Did I geel represented, no not really, more like acknowledged I guess.
    In my opinion its great to see more diversity in fantasy, why not honestly? It happens in real life, we are out here so its nice to see in the stories I read too.
    That's one of the main reasons i love 'grimdark' so much, life is gritty, brutal and unkind and I appreciate that authenticity in the books i read, i find it more relatable, same for having diverse genders, sexualities, race etc etc...

  16. I can't claim to speak from personal experience, being white and male, but the general consensus among members of minority groups that I'm aware of is that it would be awfully dull if every story that included people like them focused on those people being oppressed in some way. Representation isn't about tackling real world social issues, it's just about a person being able to look in a book and see people who are, even superficially, like them.

    The thing about race in fantasy is that in a secondary world which lacks our real world historical context, it is literally just skin deep. But that doesn't mean the representation is any less valuable. At the end of the day, diversity is actually pretty easy. Just look at a character and say 'do they need to be white?' or 'what if I made them gay?' People who want diversity aren't pushing for quotas or anything so artificial, only for authors to ask themselves questions like those, regardless of what the answers they end up with.

  17. Interesting that you mention the whitewashed covers of the Earthsea books, since your Red Queen's War books seem to have the same problem. If your main character is mixed-race, then why is there a white guy on the cover of Prince of Fools and The Liar's Key? I'm sure your input into the cover was minimal, but . . . why do you think your publisher chose to whitewash your main character? What was your reaction when you saw what they had done?

  18. So we want to make Barsoom, Middle-Earth and star ships more realistic? Think about that one.

    My first thought would be not to write about them in the first place.

  19. If you don't have a tri-sexual, handicap,anamorphic blasian-marsupial, whom doesn't recognize gender/species/age as a protagonist, then you are a privileged cis-male Sick Puppy oppressor stuck in the past.

  20. I find the total whiteness of fantasy oppressive. That's why I wrote a serial fantasy novel with diverse characters. It's called Waycaller and Episode 2 is out now and FREE for the next two days!!

  21. As a gay white male, I'm not sure that "representation" is what would entice me to read a certain novel. If there is a story about a straight male, and there's a minor gay character, I feel acknowledged, but don't think that the representation made the novel better or worse for me. I would be interested in reading a book involving a gay male protagonist, but for some reason I feel like I would expect a lot out of that novel. The idea "okay you went there, so make it good. Make it damn good" comes to mind. I'd want excellent prose, witty humour, engrossing romance and heart-wrenching sorrow. And I'd want straight men to read it and feel the exact same way. Maybe I should to endeavor to write such a tale...Needless to say I would be very disappointed with a mediocre novel about a gay character.

  22. Interesting topic, Mark, and I regret seeing it so late. As a black male I will weigh in on what diversity and my wish for it was as a young reader (since being older and a lot more cynical has changed my ask quite a bit). Black and brown faces were what I looked for and not the "black experience". Being that I read so many books, I didn't need the prejudice of my life reflected in fantasy (where I loved to escape) since I got that from Non-fiction books like Manchild in The Promised Land and authors like Donald Goines.

    In Fantasy and Science Fiction, simply having a character that looks like me somewhere in the story went a really long way. Piers Anthony was one of the few fantasy authors I knew that dared to break past the "Default" when I was a kid, but I can't recall many others.

  23. Diversity means the presence of more than one kind of person and experience. Not everyone is defined by their experiences with racism (if they even have any) and therefore racism (or homophobia) should not be the way to present diversity as far as being inclusive is concerned. That isn't diversity, it's stereotyping. I don't think these terms are interchangeable. Rather than synonymize diversity with racism, because stereotypes are easy, I think the best way to have one's work be inclusive is to include cultural experiences, rather than racial ones. Looking at how people see themselves and their lives (culturally and subculturally) rather than how they are seen and defined from the outside and treated as a result (with prejudice and discrimination) is the best way to present diversity in a positive, refreshing light, rather than with typical, tragic cliches :)

  24. In fantasy, seeing people of different color has to be important. If every one is described looking like Arnold from Conan the Barbarian, I think the world created suffers. Cultural differences should also be shown, but since it is fantasy, black people can rule a snowy north while Asian looking people can caravan across deserts. white folks need not even exist or could be a backwards people lacking language and living in a jungle. the only thing that hurts diversity in fantasy (aside from its non-existence much of the time) is pushing people of color into stereotypical roles or having them fight against issues that exist in the real world without explaining what the issues are in the fictional world the characters actually exist in. If racism exists in the made up world, the reader needs to know why, who and how that racism affects the world and characters.

  25. Well... It is fantasy, where people want escape from real world. Personally, i can do without a reflection of real-world in fantasy novels (Real-world is harsh and dull. It sucks!) I never even focused on the aspect that the protagonist in Earthsea was a person of color. It wouldn't have mattered if he was white, coz there is no significant impact of his color in the story.

    Yet i like diversity in fantasy where the race/sex/religion/preferences have a significant impact on the story or it offers a different prospective. Like in "Alif-the unseen", the story/behavior of the protagonist is affected by his race/color. I like diversity in fantasy where it changes the story if the character was otherwise. (Like the way Nuban was frowned upon in "Prince of Thorns'. In that case the race of the person has some effect in the story. It wouldn't be the same if the Nuban were white.)

    Not because i want the real-world experience, but because i need variety. I need something other that countless heroic white teens on an epic adventure journey. I would love to read about an old man past 60's whose body is no longer as supportive of his spirits as it used to be, whose spirits struggles with the limits of his body and yet he fights the good fight. I wish a transsexual protagonist in a novel who doesn't fit in either gender classes and yet he/she transgresses the expectations and inspires both genders by his/her actions. I would love to read about a disabled person beating the crap out of bad guys. (Daredevil reference).

  26. I'm writing a book that has a main character who is a white, middle class woman. Quite a few secondary characters are of diverse ethnicity and one who uses a wheelchair. I didn't plan this to include diversity, I did it because that's how the story came together. It makes sense to me that way. My main hesitation, though, is will I as a white author, be able to respectfully represent the experience of people in modern day Sydney with Asian, African and indigenous heritage? While people may object to or be offended by my characters running through suburbia slaying creatures of the night, their thoughts are really invalid because it's my story. But when an indigenous character starts talking about how her people interacted with the things that go bump in the night pre-colonisation, am I appropriating culture that I have no right to? Or am I being inclusive? I don't know. I'm going to try and write this story, one day it may be published, some people may like it, some people will not. But it's the story I'm telling right now. No answers, just more questions.

  27. I don't think writing is necessarily about representation. Interesting characters reflect aspects of the human condition with flaws that they ultimately fall victim to or overcome. Diversity isn't inherently connected to that, nor is being able to say "THAT CHARACTER IS ME" (though it can be if that's what your story is about.) If diversity isn't baked into the character though, and it's just a detail/descriptor that's fine. Just don't make it more than it is. It can be some nice garnish or serve some light world building. Where it starts feeling forced is specifically when you try to cross the line into the weird territory of trying to emulate the experience from a worldview you don't really have to make some hamfisted "_____ISM IS BAD" statement awkwardly out of nowhere and then never bring it up again.

  28. When people try, it's good enough for me.

    One could go too far one way or the other. It doesn't matter. To me, it's enough that this discussion exists, and that it gets people thinking.

    There's always the fear or concern that--say, a white author writing about a person of colour won't "get" it. I don't personally think that's a problem. If the writer creates a stereotypical or cardboard cut-out society, that's a quality issue. The author could just as easily have made the mistake sticking in elves or dwarves.

    People of colour, obviously, have a better chance of representing themselves. Obviously, books with Asian fantasy settings would probably feel a lot more authentic when written from the point of view of someone raised in such surroundings. To me, the bigger issue is this: how effective is a genre dominated by white people at encouraging young writers of colour to write from their point of view?

    I remember a comment someone made a few years ago that stuck with me: "Filipinos don't write epic fantasy." It was irritating to hear, especially since I'm Filipino and I write epic fantasy. Of course, I'm the only one I know who does it, but why don't more? There's nothing particularly special about me--I grew up in the Philippines (in lower middle class society, i.e. living in the slums but not exactly starving) and have been writing *before* I moved to the west. There's plenty of Filipinos with access to better education and opportunities than I did. What's troubling about that comment is that it was possibly made by another Filipino. Self-flagellation at its finest.

    I guess the point I'm trying to make here is that more diversity is good. There'll be good representations, there'll be bad representations. Bad representations encourage others to make something better.