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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.