Race is a topic discussed in almost every aspect of our lives. Literature is no exception. Today I wanted to talk about some things that I’ve noticed about the fantasy genre in regards to race and ethnicity.
- Looking at the earliest fantasy stories from the pulp writers of the post WWI era, any non-white character is often portrayed as a savage and/or someone of lesser intellect. Having trouble coming up with a bad guy? Simple, plop your protagonist in the jungle and have him/her fighting off black tribesmen who enjoy the taste of human flesh. Want to really raise the stakes? Have that same protagonist save a lily white woman who had been kidnapped from said savages.
Look, I’m not saying you can’t ever make a black-skinned person the bad guy in your story. However, the color of the person’s skin should not be the defining characteristic of your antagonist. Thankfully, authors have overcome the glaring mistakes of those early writers in regards to ethnicities.
- In later fantasy stories, it seemed that to “enhance” a world, authors began creating non-human races rather than using a people that the reader could associate with in the real world. Tolkien’s works were largely responsible for this trend and hundreds of imitators followed afterward with their own variation of elves, dwarves, orcs, and goblins, etc.
Tired of using the same tropes of fantasy, many authors began distancing themselves from Tolkien with more original creations. Oddly enough, the “humans” represented in these stories were still mostly portrayed as white (with some exceptions).
One thing that I’ve always loved about Steven Erikson’s writings is that he created many unique races, but still built a world where the humans were also of varying ethnicities. Erikson even made sure his non-humans varied in skin color. In The Crippled God, one character notes that the only thing different from a Tiste Andi and a Tiste Lioson is skin color. Otherwise, they look identical. Oddly enough, the Andi and Lioson are sworn enemies.
- The above comment on Steven Erikson leads me into the current state of fantasy. In the 1980s, people of color started receiving more prominent roles in stories (though usually as minor characters). This continued to grow and expand as the years past. Especially within the last ten years, it seems that more non-white human characters are being portrayed positively in fantasy stories.
Unfortunately, the one negative to this is that with the exception of a few individuals (like Erikson for example), most non-white human characters are written by non-white authors. I’d like to see this change since we naturally assume that David Anthony Durham would write a black character since he is also black. I’m sure his cultural background has a great deal to do with why he’s written non-white characters. However, I’m also willing to bet that he is aware of the lack of non-white characters in fantasy as well and maybe figures that if a non-white author won’t write about non-white characters, then who will?
I’m the father of a black daughter and it’s important that the books I introduce to her when she’s old enough to read have non-white characters in them.
Bottom line, I’d like to see more white authors consistently include non-white characters in their works. I’m trying to do my part. Are you?