Earth-Modern Race in Fantasy: The Balance No One Talks About and the Quest for “Nobody Cares”

After my last article, it’s become essential to talk about something I’ve considered for a long time. My last article, of course, was all about the uncanny in fantasy—the strange balance there has to be between elements that are familiar and unfamiliar (on a scale skewed by theme and tone).

However, there’s a particular topic that’s always stuck out as… the most unwieldy of all of the possible things you could weigh on the uncanny scale. Race. And no, not inhuman races in fantasy; we’re not talking half-orcs and dwarves here. We’re talking about modern-Earth races—Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic, African American, etc.

Aaaaand immediately…

Disclaimer 1: I fully understand that this is immediately a sensitive topic. Not just because race is always a touchy topic, but because I’m also going to discuss very general writing trends. So whether it’s because I accidentally say something that bothers a particular group (I really can’t see how I would) or because I implied that major writing trends should change, all I can say is, didn’t mean to offend anyone—promise.

Disclaimer 2: As always, all of this is written by someone who is not published and does not claim any official expertise on the topic of writing fantasy. These are just the thoughts of an amateur who writes fantasy on a daily basis. What follows is intended to inspire thought, not to stand as indisputable fact.

Disclaimer 3: Finally, more so than any other article, this one focuses pretty exclusively on a particular kind of fantasy story—ones set in completely fictional worlds (so, once again, not modern-Earth settings or modern-Earth analogues). So, if you don’t write fantasy, this article probably won’t be useful for you.

Still here?  Good. Let’s get to it.

Race in Modern Media

A weird thing happened to me the other day. I was playing Saints Row III with a friend. We got to a point where we had to fight an important boss character named Kia, who I liked. I thought it kind of sucked that we had to kill her instead of her commanding officer, but I have to admit that I was kind of biased in that regard; I decided that I liked her at the exact moment when I realized Kia was a lot like one of my own characters—she was tough, she was a soldier, and she was African American.

And as we fought her, something clicked in my head. She was African American. It wasn’t shocking or weird; no, the facet of it that was interesting—what made me smile—was realizing that she was African American and I’d completely missed that. It didn’t stand out that she was, and that was kind of beautiful. Not because I wouldn’t want her to stand out because of her heritage or something—this has nothing to do with her characterization. What this has everything to do with is the world I live in.

Because I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s. And back then, the only reason why Kia wouldn’t have stood out in a game or movie is that she wouldn’t have been in it at all.

If she was in it, she would’ve stuck out like a sore thumb. Because she would’ve been the very first character to die.

I don’t want to get into 80’s and 90’s movie trends, but the old adage? That the black guy always dies first? Pretty true. There were obviously cases where it wasn’t, but I remember going to see movies when I was young, seeing a black guy walk onto the screen and thinking, “Well… He’s not going to make it,” and being correct about 80% of the time. It was typical enough of a phenomenon that Deep Blue Sea ultimately made more waves not because it was a monster movie that had intelligent sharks, but because it was the first movie where, despite all expectations, the black guy didn’t die. I still remember watching the ending. The pretty love interest jumped into the water with science murder shark and it was like realizing where the final piece of a puzzle fit. “Oh. Male protagonist jumps into the water, gets her to safety, then LL Cool J jumps in or falls into the water and—oh my fuckin’ God that shark just ate her!” By horror movie standards, it was a perfect way to catch us off guard (cat in the closet’s got nothing on the last moments of Deep Blue Sea), and it made the final, cathartic scene—with LL Cool J and… the… other guy rejoicing that they survived—all the more awesome.

Disclaimer 4: I’m not a crazy Deep Blue Sea fan.

So, in contrast, having Kia play such an important role in Saints Row III made me smile. It made me think of Sir Hammerlock, Coach and Rochelle, and all of the other African American characters that have featured in video games without it being “a thing” in any way.

And it made me wonder where race, in general, fit in the fantasy genre.

Race in Fantasy

To be honest, that was not the first time I wondered about the topic. This will also not be the first time I’ve discussed it.

I forgot who I talked to about it—it was a long time ago—but I remember giving someone a brief description of one of my main characters. As I recall, I summed her up by saying, “She’s basically and blatantly Hispanic.” The person I said that to scoffed. Or… gave a frustrated grunt is more like it. “I kind of hate when race pops up in fantasy.” That devolved pretty quickly into a debate over why it was a problem. I don’t remember the details, but I remember what I came away from that conversation with:

A) Some people won’t like it if you inject race into a fantasy story.

B) In some cases, ethnicity and race totally don’t make much sense in fantasy.

C) In other cases, they absolutely do.

A)

In general, there’s an enduring silence about ethnicity in the fantasy genre. In part, it’s because “race” applies to something completely different when we use it in the same sentence as “fantasy.” But, as can happen with all intellectual properties, there’s also a severe reluctance to let an agenda dictate any facet of the experience; people don’t want race (or rather, race as it is in our society) to play an important role in their stories for the same reason they wouldn’t want the plot to focus on a political struggle that screams Republican VS Democrat; people read fantasy to get away from reality for a while and, logically, they don’t want to be force fed reality’s most complicated topics when they’re supposed to be riding rainbow unicorns into the crystal sunset… or whatever. You get it.

So, ultimately, this also winds up being a question of the uncanny scale; race winds up being too Earth-modern and pulls the reader out of their escapist fantasy experience.

The result is a staunch belief that race doesn’t belong. That person I spoke to actually told me that my Hispanic character would just scream “Hispanic” and that it wouldn’t fit. But, as a Puerto Rican, I’ve looked out at the expanse of the fantasy genre—at full movies without so much as a single tan face—and I couldn’t help thinking, “So… I don’t fit?” Does the need to stay away from agendas and hold a neutral position on the uncanny scale mean that a Hispanic character just wouldn’t fit at all?

The answer, if we consider all of these questions with our themes and settings, becomes a clear and totally helpful “yes and no.”

B)

At first, I wasn’t having those opinions about my Hispanic character at all; there were already wildly ethnic fantasy stories out there (Camorr of Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora stands out as a pretty clear, highly ethnic analogue of Italy—at least it seemed to [I’m so sorry if I’m wrong]—and Krasia from Peter V. Brett’s The Warded Man has a clear eastern influence).

But, as with every other aspect of a story, the idea of human race has to be weighed on the uncanny scale in relation to theme and setting.

The end result for me: no, it doesn’t make sense that my Hispanic character uses Earth-modern Spanish. Because, really, she isn’t Hispanic—she’s supposed to be a race that I made up and using Spanish words in relation to her is just… cheap, it’s a disservice to her, my world, and my story. In short, I was thinking of her as “my Hispanic character,” and that wasn’t good. I was absolutely wedging an agenda into my world where it didn’t belong.

And I was missing the point that some fantasy settings truly don’t support a variety of human races. If we dial the uncanny scale back to a distance where whiskey doesn’t make sense, then we also dial back everything else, including the progress of migration and expansion. We get fantasy story maps that are clearly focused on a single nation, water expanding all around them with the occasional grayed-out, indistinct land mass at its edge. We get the rare, ethnic character from a nation the protagonists have never heard of, and all of that absolutely makes sense.

C)

But at the same time, it also absolutely makes sense that Etalen (formerly “my Hispanic character”) is ethnic. She still has tanned skin and is still part of a culture that’s drastically different from my other characters’ and it’s absolutely fine and makes sense the same way that a lack of racial variety might be acceptable in another fantasy series—because the theme and setting support it.

Just as a fantasy setting can exist with no tanned skinned characters at all, the Aiel can absolutely be waiting outside the frame of the story. If one were so inclined, they could write a story completely focused on the Aiel and not include a single wetlander (if you haven’t read any Wheel of Time, I apologize for all of these references that aren’t helping you at all). And ultimately, I could also have Etalen, because my fantasy world, Ashaiden, is an island where races from other lands have met and settled. Her not being there at all would be the mistake.

So, in my case, the person I spoke to was both right and wrong. Right because modern Earth-modern agendas are, by definition, Earth-modern, and, unless they’re handled very well, they’ll always stand out and pull readers out of their stories.

But he was also wrong because human race, free of agendas, absolutely fits in fantasy. Really, if you think about it, other races have always been there on the borders of every front matter fantasy map you’ve ever seen–because they would have to be or a basic element of humanity would be missing and a story’s basic human logic would be broken (like a fantasy story where, say, humans are all exactly like us, only they inexplicably don’t breathe).

But why do we still rarely talk about or explore these places? Because there are standards in place that keep us from doing so. The biggest one: the tendency to make a fantasy story set in an (ever-vague) analogue of medieval England. If you’ve ever wondered why everyone has English accents in fantasy movies, this is why; unspoken Anglo-Saxon origin has been a staple in fantasy for ages, to the extent that many of us read our fantasy characters with those accents, even if we don’t intend to. In fact, in most fantasy movies, characters just come standard with those accents even if it doesn’t make sense–particularly as the analogous settings of their stories get progressively less and less similar to medieval England.

Ultimately, the result of following trends like the England-analogue and English accents is what I call the Rue Phenomenon; the event in which a disheartening amount of people raise their voices in alarm when they find that a character in their fantasy novel is black, even though it absolutely makes sense for her to be. It creates an unspoken, accidental grounds for racism. The result is that there’s a black character in a fantasy series, and suddenly, horribly a ton of people protest instead of not caring at all.

The Final Word: A Clear Answer

Ultimately, the answer to whether race fits in fantasy is obviously yes. But elements can always be too modern and unwieldy if you don’t handle them correctly.

Unfortunately, the trend of creating enclosed analogues of medieval England has made the issue of race even more difficult to handle, but the answer, clearly, isn’t to ignore it. I suppose if I can say anything with this article, I want it to be this: if you’re working on a fantasy novel, consider a setting that isn’t a vague analogue of medieval England. Consider a more complex world where a variety of human races is absolutely normal and none of your characters pay that diversity any mind. Create a world where you might not just find a single dark-skinned warrior, but instead another warrior with dark skin.

Seriously, just put in a black, gay gentleman huntsman (I love Sir Hammerlock), as long as it makes sense with your theme and setting.

And help push the standards of our society, if you can, so that in another twenty years, maybe we can just have a black fantasy protagonist and no one will care.

6 thoughts on “Earth-Modern Race in Fantasy: The Balance No One Talks About and the Quest for “Nobody Cares”

  1. I’m glad you wrote about this. Seriously. I’ve written about this with DualShockers for video games, but as much as I don’t try to be “that guy” about race in things, it’s important to me. And you’ve concisely argued all sides of race in fantasy.

    This entire post needs to be shared somewhere. You may remember I was telling you about an alchemist fantasy story I was working on: the protagonist of that story was actually an African woman-analogue, something which had been on my mind for a while because I had just been reading about how Black women are the most misrepresented or criminally underrepresented characters in all of media.

    And besides the disturbingly narrow range of “hood-mommas” and “ghetto girls” seen on TV, there are so many strong Black women in history, and hell, Hispanic, Asian and the rest. And yet, even in fiction, where we can design worlds however we want, they get stuck in those England-analogue towns, and to throw in more than two foreigners at once totally wrecks the illusion.

    And yet, if you look at history, there are tons of images of eras where race was far more mixed than we thought. Hell, half of Medieval history involved “the Saracens;” Rome faced foreign countries all the time; there was actually a real “Afro Samurai” in Japanese history; and there were tons of Asian people in America from 1700s and on.

    And I’ll finish with your “Rue Phenomenon.” That idea is exactly what is wrong with even attempting to build diverse worlds and having so much backlash: needing to convince others. Who often are undereducated. Considering that the book describes Rue and the people of her District as “dark skinned,” not to mention that Katniss and her people were described as “olive skinned,” which they certainly were not in the movie. But applying this to what I just said on history, if people knew what was fact versus what has been depicted in the media for so many decades, it’d be easier for them to accept depictions of diversity in different types of fiction.

    (Another random quick fact: Ninjas weren’t actually known for dressing in all black: black stands out, even in the night. Ninjas were known for wearing different shades of dark blue or dark red brown, because it blends into the darkness and surroundings better, like modern day camouflage. And, even more importantly, they didn’t even wear those much, because they were usually used for infiltration, sabotage and espionage: so usually they dressed like the people they were targeting, to get in and out of situations easily: if someone was assassinated, would you chase the hapless farmer wandering around the fields, or the guy dressed in an all-black outfit?)

    1. Thanks for the read, the repost, and the kind words. It’s awesome to hear that your protagonist is an African-analogue, as you say; I think the sooner we get more examples that go against the set standard (ghetto girls, etc.), we can start the painfully long process of getting to the point where no one cares. Particularly to the point where you can specify in your writing that someone is “dark skinned” and it will be enough that people won’t just read over it (and then be unduly outraged when they find out that a character is dark skinned, tan skinned, had Asian features, etc.).

      My goal (and I should’ve put this in the article): at least get past the point where a Hispanic character, in anything, isn’t either a criminal or the one stereotype will always induce the rage in me–the Latin Lover character (seriously, when they switched Buzz Lightyear’s language to Spanish and he suddenly turned into every other latin lover character that’s ever existed, I almost just stood up in the theater and started Red Lantern rage-vomiting on everyone). Seriously, I sit back and try to think of a Hispanic character in fantasy who isn’t a latin lover, and all I come up with is Inigo Montoya. And I absolutely love Inigo Montoya–in fact, I think anyone would be hard pressed to quote anything from The Princess Bride that wasn’t, “I am Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” But he really is the only one that sticks out to me. It’s preeeeetty sad.

      And yeah, as someone who’s lived with those media depictions for my whole life, I’m not surprised by the case with ninjas. I have to wonder if there’s ever going to be a point where those false depictions are corrected. Considering how massive a backpedal the Rue Phenomenon was in my eyes, I have to assume that if society does get to that point, I won’t be around for it.

  2. So I’m pretty sure that in the past I’ve said that I hated when Race pops up in fantasy books I’m reading. There are a couple of facets to this statement, so let us dive right into this.

    What I really mean with this statement is that I hate when I notice Race (as an issue) in a fantasy story. I think there is a place for Race in fantasy but mainly I read as a means of escapism. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to read stories that coincide with real world issues but it does mean that I want a good fantasy story and not a thinly veiled moral or allegory. I like to leave that for the Fiction/Literature fans out there.

    So how do I want race to fit into fantasy? Maybe I’m being naive but when I think about Sci Fi or Fantasy and I think about Race I assume that the dynamics would just be different from today. The settings are clearly different. I’m not going to assume the characters are free of prejudice but I do assume that in most cases there would be other issues besides race that would bind the characters together. So unless you mention that there are racial tensions in your book I assume that everything is hunky dory and the characters in your book are a varied mix of ethnicity/skin colors and everyone gets along.

    So if you’re going out of your way to hit me in that face that THIS CHARACTER IS NOT WHITE you’ve destroyed my illusion.
    Basically my base assumption is that any character who’s skin color you don’t describe could be white, black, red, tan, blue, etc etc or that your fantasy society achieved pan-ethnicity and everyone is some shade of tan.

    Does that mean that you can’t put race in your story? No! Go for it if you feel like you need it.

    But I want it to either a) be natural or b) make sense.

    Like Louis mentioned in his last post some things will be uncanny in a book and pull you out of a story. If I’m noticing Race in you story, it is probably shattering my illusion, because I think you’re doing it wrong. Unless as previously mentioned, it is a story that is specifically about race.

    I don’t hate fantasy books portraying humans as being different Races. I do hate when they are portrayed as too close to Earth-Modern ethnicities though. How can that character be Latino/Hispanic or African-American or French in a true fantasy setting? Those places don’t exist in your fantasy world, so people can’t have come from those cultures. I do want to see characters that aren’t White in stories, I just don’t want them to be 1)agendas 2)stereotypes/caricatures/tokens 3)thinly veiled analogues for Earth-Modern ethnicities. 4)poor covers for lazy world building or a lack of imagination.

    1) I don’t want your issues to bleed over into the story to the point where it’s slapping me in the face. This goes for race or sexual fantasies or class biases or homophobia or anything else. Sometimes an author may not even know that they’re doing it. An example of this was a Police Procedural television show I’ve been watching recently where I realized about midway through that the bad guys on the show were Black. A lot. Like 85% of the time. This was a problem that made me not want to watch what was otherwise an excellent show.

    2)Louis and I talk about this a lot during the course of our shared entertainment experiences. If you shove a Latino character in your book/game but don’t know anything about the culture or language and just have them speak the 5 words of Spanish you remember from High School Spanish class that is a problem. This is what i mean by caricature. An exaggerated yet simplified portrayal of a racial or ethnic idea. If you put a character in your story from a specific Earth Modern ethnicity and you have no experience with this group of people you can only write this character from what you’ve heard about this group. If the defining characteristic of this person is his or her ethnicity it is going to feel fairly thing. I kind of feel like the Latino Marine from Mass Effect 3 is sort of an example of the caricature problem. I think the writing for ME is pretty good, so even an unfleshed out character is decent. Having said that, in this instance I don’t remember his name, but I do remember him saying “Loco” a lot. If there was more to his character, I don’t remember it.

    Another example that I feel shows up a lot in fantasy is the Black character that is put in the book because you needed someone who practiced Voodoo. This is a problem for me especially if this character is the only character that is mentioned as being non white. It’s a fantasy. Your magic can be whatever you want and performed by whoever you want. You don’t need to put a blatantly Haitian character in your book because you wanted a Voodoo Priest or Priestess. Especially if you never mention race in your story before or after because that means you’ve just thrown a stereotype in your book as a plot device not because you thought your book should have some sort of racial equality. Lastly, if you just tacked a character on or clearly hurriedly changed a characters race because someone pointed out that all of your characters were White.

    3/4)thinly veiled analogues and poor covers for lazy world building.
    Louis mentioned The Lies of Locke Lamora. I love this book quite a bit. Except that as Louis mentioned, this book is basically set in Italy. For me as a reader this doesn’t enhance the book. Analogs bother me for at least 2 reasons. I’ll always be pulled out of the story to think about your world building and how you’ve changed a real world ethnicity to fit your needs and what I think worked and didn’t. I’ll also be pissed when you use that analog culture’s language. This also applies largely to anywhere an author tries to have a character talk in an accent. For me it ruins the experience if i have to try and read something in an accent and then figure out how that accent functions and if there are real world comparisons for me to draw. You can describe your character as having an accent but don’t actually try and write their dialogue phonetically.

    The other reason I start to cringe when you use an analog ethnicity or culture is because I then worry that your fantasy will end up actually being set on the ruins of modern Earth. Which will make me never want to read another book of yours again. Just because it worked in Planet of the Apes as a surprise twist doesn’t mean it will surprise and amuse anyone in your book.

    The Black Opera by Mary Gentle is an awesome fantasy that is actually set in Italy and this fact doesn’t hurt the book at all. It’s designed as a semi-historical fantasy and is set in the real world. Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson is another great example of this. It was originally going to be set in a generic medieval European fantasy setting but the author was convinced to change it to Colonial Boston. This one change made the book stand out more because a fantasy set in Colonial Boston is fairly unique.

    Come up with an original idea for a culture. Barring that use a cliche in a different way or make it a historical fantasy. My biggest problem with the setting in the Lies of Locke Lamora? The fact that the names of places and titles sounded like they were in Italian or a bastardized form of Italian. If he’s changed that one fact it probably wouldn’t have bothered me because the rest of the setting was different enough.

    So who does race well? I think Tamora Pierce and Brent Weeks handle it well. Their books have a healthy mix of races who intermingle without ever making it an issue. Pierce actually handles all sorts of issues well, from race, sexual preference and gender identity to sexuality itself and she handles them all in ways which leave me satisfied that it wasn’t something she tagged onto existing characters but actually designed from the ground up because her fantasy world is a healthy living breathing equal society.

    1. As I always love to say, I agree with your agreeing with me.

      I think the only point I can make here is that recent events have shown that your way of thinking is non-standard, although it should absolutely be standard; there are a lot pf people who not only don’t naturally assume a collection of races in fantasy novels, they prefer to assume that everyone in their novels are white. And as I said, in some cases, that is acceptable, but having enough of those acceptable cases has ultimately resulted in a surprising amount of people being upset about Rue. And, really, that’s not good. So ultimately, I think it is essential for people to put race in–in a way that isn’t invasive and isn’t handled poorly.

      I think it’s important to note the far side of that spectrum: cases where your story is in an Earth setting and you still handle race poorly because you base a character completely around their ethnicity. Seriously, “loco”? Yep. That’ll bring the rage right out of me, it turns out.

      I really, really love your accent point. In part because I’ve been debating on accents with the one character, but I think you’re right. And it’s in part because making up a completely new accent… is kind of like coming up with a completely new color. You can absolutely try, but chances are, your Made-up-istanian Warrior is just going to be like, “Oy! Wotz all dis den!?” Because, you know, you can’t unread Wuthering Heights.

      On The Lies of Locke Lamora, I didn’t know how incredibly close Camorr was to Italy until you told me about it. I feel it’s important to add immediately that my opinions are totally opinions (and clearly The Lies of Locke Lamora is way more popular than anything I’ve ever written and people love it and that makes sense), but yeah Camorr’s extreme similarity to Italy is something I wouldn’t do (now), and something I’d advise anyone else to not do. Clearly, it works, but, clearly, so does making up a location and culture that don’t borrow heavily from one of Earth’s.

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