Right. Before I start this off, I want to quote my favorite author, Guy Gavriel Kay, because he says the core principle of what I’m trying to explain here more clearly (and in fewer words) than I can:
“As for the female psyche, I used to be flattered when people said I did convincing female characters, but lately I confess it bemuses me. The implied idea underlying the comment is that it is startling that a man can do plausible women characters. If you push this just a bit, you have to ask how any woman could do a convincing man, how any young writer could do a geriatric, how any of us could do someone not…ourselves. Creating characters is, in a large way, an act of imaginative empathy, and I’m resistant to the idea that there are absolute borders to that. In the end, I’d say that we’re really talking about good or bad writing, rather than male and female, or young and old.”
-The quote is from this interview on Kay’s official website, Bright Weavings.
Aside from alternative history, urban fantasy, and historical fantasies clearly based on something that happened in our world’s history, fantasy is free in theory to create new categories: new relations of races, new skin colors, new species, new gender relations (and new genders altogether if it wants), new sexualities, new classes, new religions, animals represented as human or animal/human hybrids, sentient plants, and on without end. I do think it’s the freest genre in this regard. Even science fiction novels, which can come up with some pretty creative aliens, still need to invest in representing how these aliens are physically possible and a scientific explanation of any abilities they have. With a fantasy world and magic, the need for sheer explanation as explanation is less, and the ability to investigate the societies and portray the relations between different groups greater.
Yet in practice, an awful lot of fantasy novels set in other worlds have primarily white characters, humans, practicing Christian- or Wiccan-based religions. The intelligent animals that appear are usually restricted to the status of loving, supportive, telepathic sidekicks for angsty teenagers. The characters’ concerns and values are remarkably twenty-first century, and few of them are other than heterosexual; the peasants who appear almost always become high-class or turn out to have been royals all along.
So, since “why” is either a question with too many obvious answers or a question too broad to be answered at all, I’m asking instead: what are some ways to change that?
1) Think twice about making white the default skin color.
I am trying, and failing, to remember a fantasy book I read that accepted any color other than white as the default color and described, say, someone tanned with blond hair and brown eyes as “an oddly pale person with blond hair and brown eyes.” However, there are plenty where characters with “black,” “brown,” “red,” “coppery,” “tawny,” “olive,” “yellow,” or “sallow” skin get their skin color described first, even before the hair and eye colors decorated with half a million adjectives. In most fantasy novels (most of my own included), these characters are the outsiders, even if they come from a culture fairly near at hand or have been known to the white characters for years. The author feels the need to emphasize their color and have the white characters stare at them.
I suppose it’s possible this happens because a lot of fantasy authors are white. But still, say you’re writing an other-world fantasy. You don’t have to replicate any of the race relations that take place in our world. Why take up a white society without thought, or create all the humans in the story to be white? Quite aside from perpetuating stereotypes that reflect badly on the work, which I would say not all books do, it sharply limits some of fantasy’s creative potential.
Hah, humans I say. Even the most common fantasy non-human species (elves, dwarves, gnomes, whatever kind of halfling race the author adopts, fairies, and so on) are usually white in skin color. The ones that are most often different, say yellow or gray, are goblins or orcs, and those are bad guys.
There’s always the danger, of course, that writing a character of a different race could be done offensively or ineptly (another reason I think many writers don’t do it). But think about it. For example, if there’s a society that lives in a world totally unlike Earth, that’s, oh, mostly made of elemental fire, are they necessarily going to be white? Or might they be colored like the flames? The most common flames are actually orange, instead of red.
2) Simple reversal of genders sets up traps.
Anyone who’s read a “feminist fantasy” that turns into a message fantasy instead knows this. Just put women on top, go the worst of these books, and everything will be fine. Women are inherently peaceful, so there won’t be any more war. Women are closer to nature, so their rule is good for the environment. Women bear children, so they’re more in touch with “life” (authors rarely define exactly what they mean by this). Women are inherently spiritual (something which makes this atheist woman laugh very hard), so their rule improves society altogether.
Go this way, and it’s virtually impossible to keep from either replicating a society that’s just as oppressive the other way around, or too perfect and pastel to be real—usually the latter. The very reason utopist fantasy is so hard to write is that not a whole hell of a lot of conflict happens in a perfect society. The author has to bring in outside threats instead, usually headed by those nasty patriarchs, and before long you have the traditional Light vs. Dark, Good vs. Evil contest, this time with the added idea that the “right” gender along with the “right” morality is going to win.
Don’t look at me. I have no idea why authors prefer this simplistic stupidity.
Complicate the reversal. Hell, complicate the relationships between genders. Women might be half-free, able to do some things that would be considered “unfeminine” in a medieval society but not yet the equals of men (which is a lot like the case today, really). Women and men might both hold well-defined social roles that are more equal but no less strict than our own older ideas. There might be more subtle controls on either or both genders than we have now. There might be a third sex, or a fourth sex, or people who have characteristics of both sexes at different times in their lives, or sex-shifters. There might be reproduction by a means other than pregnancy. Why not?
The question “Why not?” doesn’t get asked often enough of gender-change, I think.
3) Try presenting nonhumans in some other fashion than as sidekicks or exoticized, dying flowers.
Oftentimes when a typical elf shows up in fantasy, I groan, because I know at least one of these is going to happen:
a) The elf will become the token representative of his race in the rag-tag band trying to save the world.
b) The elf will be one of a number of elves (usually) who exemplify a mysterious, dying, often very Zen-like culture that the human heroes get to gape at for a little while, shed a tear or two over, and then depart.
Sometimes both happen at once.
Once again, there is so much stripping of creative potential that goes along with this. What is the elf in the party thinking? What would the elf culture look like from inside? We don’t know, because an elf viewpoint isn’t the book’s point; it’s to show off the human heroes. A few rants back, I talked about the dangers of stories that are too hero-centered. This is yet another of them. Even when the author manages to infuse the secondary human characters with verve and energy, the non-humans often get turned into stock stereotypes.
Those stereotypes aren’t necessarily negative, of course, but being as pastel as the perfect matriarchal society is no better. Elves who hug trees, won’t kill, don’t remarry, and would never, ever abuse their children are usually shown as having lacks of things that characterize the human societies, not positive attributes of their own. The same thing happens with dwarves, who usually lack warm family homes and any kind of restraint on violence. They’re only mirrors to human societies, and even if the author has her characters lament that the elves are dying or that it’s so, so horrible, what the humans did to them, the focus comes straight back to the single species that makes up the book’s core.
Try conceiving of non-humans, and their societies, as independent entities. Their fates may very well be connected to what the protagonists do or say, but they don’t have to be only a reflection of what the humans really wish they were like or not like. And they don’t have to be reflections of what has come before in fantasy, either. Dig back to the older legends if you want, but also twist them around so that your elves really never have walked the earth before.
And, always, I think it’s fine to invent completely new non-humans and write stories from their viewpoints. It changes the purpose of having them in the book from wide-eyed exploration or worship to having other people out there, other gazes returned, and makes things so much more complicated, and conflicted, and fun to write.
4) Mess about with class relationships.
There seem to be (well, at least) two stereotypes for high, low, and middle classes in most fantasies. It depends on whether the characters are the heroes/are sympathetic to the heroes, or are enemies to be despised.
- Good high-class people (usually nobles and royals) are gracious, noble, witty, inherently good, usually possessed of great magical power and the focus of prophecies if they’re the heroes, and can save the world without batting an eye. They’re also completely open-minded about things like class—while also ruling over peasants and collecting taxes, but never mind, as many fantasy authors seem to say. Bad high-class people are usually fops, have pimples, are too fond of decoration and money, are ambitious to claim places that can’t be theirs, and hate the noble or royal hero for being different.
- Good peasants are honest, hard-working, clean, inherently moral, can do lots of clever things with their hands, somehow got educated like nobles despite everything in their paths, are often the focus of prophecies and have powerful magic, and can save the world without batting an eye. They also usually have royal blood somewhere in the background, which is another “never mind, move along, nothing to see here!” bit of hand-waving. Bad peasants are mean, dirty, deceptive, act as bullies to the cowering terrified peasant heroes and heroines, want their children to be “real” ladies/men, are close-minded and suspicious, and are there for the hero to beat up or lord over.
- Good merchants are shrewd, part of the “resistance” or spy networks for the right people, treat their workers well, and really deserve the money they have. Bad merchants are fat, greedy, wear gold chains, have thick fingers, like to rape people (especially children), and are there mainly to make life a little bit more difficult for the protagonists.
I bet you can think of half a dozen class systems better than this one without trying. Furthermore, I bet you can think of worlds with merchants, nobles, and peasants where the characters could actually be people, not stereotypes, or have social mobility, or rebel and run away, or revolutionize and topple the society.
Those worlds and class systems rarely show up in fantasy, though. And when they do, they’re often foils for the main society again—like the peaceful tribal society with a barter economy that mainly exists to give the hero an opportunity to moralize.
This one seems to be the simple product of a rut. People write pseudo-medieval fantasy that depicts the classes in this way, and every author who follows in that direction draws more and more heavily on stereotypes, rather than research about true medieval societies or other ways of living. Characters get defined not by class but by pseudo-class.
Ask yourself which system best fits your world. Your world, not Fantasy Clone World #4862564. And if you do choose merchants, peasants, and nobles acting out their stereotypical, “destined” class roles, have a really good reason for it. And tell me that reason, please? I can’t think of one.
This would be way too long if I tried to do everything at once. There’s another one coming up instead.