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Thursday, April 4, 2019

Representation: Bringing Realism to Fantasy


When creating a fantasy world, it's easy to get lost dreaming up new cultures, dangerous terrain, and cute (or terrifying) creatures. But are you forgetting anyone?  ♦ 
Minority representation has become a hot button topic in the writing world, especially within the last few years. Young adult fiction saw the publication of several successful novels with minority main characters like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, both of which were adapted for the big screen last year. In both novels, the protagonist’s identity takes center stage as part of the conflict—something they must accept, redefine, or share with others as part of their journey.
  Narratives where the main character’s identity drives the plot are a great way to start conversations about marginalized identities. Reading allows us to explore different lives, and the more unique perspectives we get to read the more comfortable we’ll be around different people. Telling the stories of LGBT characters, characters of color, disabled characters, and more shows readers with those same identities that they’re valued and normalizes diversity to readers who are used to being well-represented.
   But genres like fantasy don’t usually address YA issues like coming of age or discovering one’s “true self” in the face of adversity. So where do diverse characters fit in when the story isn’t about their identity? Do we really need diverse characters in a made-up world?
    In short, yes. Here’s why I think so.


Reason #1: A realistic background makes for a believable and immersive story.

The paradox of fantasy is that the more realistic the world, the more immersive and believable it becomes. I don’t mean every fantasy novel has to take place on Earth, in this time period, or even include humans. But fantasy that accurately mimics the richness and depth of reality is easy to read, believe, and imagine.
   Variation is a natural part of our existence. Chances are, your circles of friends, coworkers, or classmates include people that are different from you. People in your community may have different values, identities, and life experiences. A fantasy world with only blonde, blue-eyed, white people who are all cisgender, straight, able-bodied, a-bit-taller-than-average, and wildly attractive can feel so unlike real life that their magical quest might as well not exist. If a reader cannot connect with any of your characters for lack of realism, there isn’t much point in reading about them. A world without variety is not a relatable world, and thus not an ineffective fantasy realm.


#2: Diversity makes fantasy world-building memorable.

World-building is a wonderful opportunity to let your creative mind run wild; you can make anything you want. What if people lived among dragons, worshipped hundreds of different saints, and were still healing from war? That’s the premise for Rachel Hartman’s country, Goredd, in her novel Seraphina. What if there were four Londons across four different dimensions that only specially gifted magic users could travel between? That’s the premise for V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic series. But these basic premises aren’t what make these worlds memorable.
   In V.E. Schwab’s series, she introduces the Faroans—sleek, elegant people who set jewels into their dark skin in culturally significant patterns. Her main characters include a cheeky bisexual prince and a bold genderfluid thief. In Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina, she writes about several distinct cultures across one continent, a polyamorous relationship, and one character uses a pun in Hartman’s constructed language to come out as a trans woman.
  These details make the stories what they are and bring it to life. Even if you haven’t read these stories, you can see that diverse characters work just fine in vastly different worlds than our own. Not only can world-building be incredibly fun, but it can also help you think about ways to integrate characters from many walks of life.


#3: Your readers will thank you.

Think of your own reading experience. Are you used to reading about characters like yourself going on adventures, and do you normally feel included or invited when you read fantasy novels? If your answer is yes, then minority representation is a great way to ensure your readers feel equally invited. If your answer is no, then minority representation could give your readers what you missed out on. My favorite books were always the ones that described how I felt when I didn’t know how to do so myself. They gave me comfort and showed me that I’m not alone.
   If anyone of any race, gender identity, sexuality, level of ability, or socioeconomic class can see a part of themselves in your imagined world, then your work shows them they are worth writing stories about. Approaching your own fantasy realm with the curiosity and hopefulness of a potential reader can help you seek out ways to show diverse characters in your work. Writing with respect and the intent to take your reader on a memorable journey will show through your writing.
  The fantasy genre only benefits from the inclusion of diverse characters if they are written well and given the respect they deserve. Here are a few do’s and don’ts to keep in mind when creating your own fantasy work.


  DO: Make diverse characters more than their identity.
  DON'T: Ignore what makes them different.

A character’s identity isn’t a personality trait—it affects how they move through society and how they are interpreted by others. It’s important to remember the ways a character’s identity affects them and how others may view them because of it, but it is not all that they are. At the same time, pretending the identity isn’t there or that it doesn’t influence the character at all is unrealistic and defeats the point of having diverse characters in the first place. When J. K. Rowling announced that her Harry Potter character, Albus Dumbledore, was gay, many readers in the LGBT community were upset and confused. Where was the evidence for that in the books? It’s a disservice to your readers not to write your characters honestly and acknowledge their differences.
   When you create your fantasy world, you might want to ask yourself: What racial groups exist in this society? What religion do most people practice? What religion do some people practice? How are disabled people treated in this society? Is there access to healthcare? Is this society a democracy, a monarchy, or something else? What is this culture’s attitude towards sexuality, gender, marriage, and dating? Questions like these can help you decide how identities and society operate in your work.


  DO: Acknowledge differences, prejudice, and conflict.
  DON'T: Reduce your characters to targets.

What would Harry Potter be without muggles, magical laws, or the Ministry of Magic? What does it say about this fantasy culture that a wizard born to muggle parents is called a “mudblood” by a privileged few? What if Harry had gone to an all-boys school, the Weasleys were rich, or Harry was treated like a king by his aunt and uncle? It would be a completely different story. Being aware of the complex politics, prejudices, and differences in your fantasy world makes it more realistic and speaks to the experiences of minority groups.
  However, things get sticky when you start writing about an experience you aren’t familiar with. You can use issues like discrimination in your story skillfully to portray a message, but if it doesn’t serve your plot or your minority characters are only objects of prejudice, consider scaling it back. Representation is about respecting your characters as complex people, and people are not defined by their persecution.


  DO: Research the communities you portray.
  DON'T: Assume you know what it’s like.

Nothing is more valuable than honest feedback when it comes to representation. You’d be surprised how many people are willing to work with you to ensure you do your job right. If you have questions, consider finding an expert on the subject, someone who lived through a similar event, or an outspoken advocate and reach out politely for their perspective. One of the greatest things about the internet is how accessible information has become. If you’re reading this right now, you have an incredible machine at your fingertips, ready to answer your questions in a matter of seconds. Utilize your resources, ask questions, and find the answers. Assuming you know what it’s like to be, feel, and live like someone else could set you up for disaster if you write a character based on old stereotypes. Always try to check your work thoroughly.
  Diversity has an important place in fantasy. Even when your plot doesn’t focus on identity, writing characters in minority groups makes your work immersive, memorable, and open to all.

  • About the Author
    Aislyn Gilbert is a junior Creative Writing major at Miami University and loves her job tutoring writers through the Howe Center for Writing Excellence. When she’s not working or studying, you can find her snowboarding, writing poetry, or reading in her local library.

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