Tag Archives: religion

The Colour of Characters: Race & Ethnicity in Fantasy

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Picking up from last week, I want to talk a bit more about representation in fiction. For the purposes of disclosure, I should state at the beginning that I am a white Western heterosexual CIS woman, so the only kind of ‘minority’ issues I’ve ever personally encountered are grounded in sexism. But I have friends who’ve had to put up with the stupidity of bigots, I’ve done some research, and I’m capable of empathy. That doesn’t mean I know anything like all the aspects around this subject – if I’ve missed or misunderstood something, please educate me. The only way we can improve is through shared experience.

Reinforce or Resist

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Sign in an Australian pub in March 2014. Spot the stereotyping. And the racism.

I put ‘writing to reinforce or resist’ in the title of the previous blog post but I never really went into what that means. Basically, there exists a stereotype of every different section of society – be that based on colour, country, gender, sexual preference, religion, etc. When you’re writing about a section that isn’t the one you belong to, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of using the stereotype to build your characters. That reinforces the stereotype, perpetuating it in the minds of your audience. Sometimes it’s done out of laziness, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes by design. One of the best ways to ensure the status quo continues is to keep telling people that the minorities are lazy, or criminal, or perverted – some version of undesirable which justifies keeping them down.

When you write a ‘minority’ character (and yes, I’m using those quote marks deliberately because more of the world is, say, Asian than any other racial type combined), you either reinforce that stereotype or you resist it. Reinforcing it is, as I said, either lazy (do better), ignorant (research your story), or deliberate (your politics and mine are going to have serious disagreements). Resist the stereotypes.

Represent

I’m going to quote myself from last week: ‘Non-Western cultures and perspectives still get very limited representation in the English-speaking market, so every writer that uses them is making a strong statement.’ But it’s much bigger than just non-Western. There’s so few POC characters in SFF. There’s even fewer queer characters.

As a writer of mixed descent (half-Chinese, half-white) who was a voracious reader as a child, I never saw myself in the kind of books that I devoured: fantasy and science fiction, adventure and romance… It seemed like readers would rather accept talking dragons than a mixed-race princess… The only solution left for me was to write one. ~ Amy McCulloch, Guardian article

Go reach McCulloch’s full article – it’s not long and she makes some great points, but they all boil down to this: we need greater diversity of character. SFF writers are capable of world-building fantastic and complex societies. Surely we can do better than one skin tone. In fact, it’s essential we do because our audience is certainly more diverse. Anyone who isn’t sure about the importance of representation need only read this account of seeing autism in Guardians of the Galaxy, or this viewer’s response to Diego Luna’s accent in Rogue One, or look back to this photo of a child meeting one of the stars of 2016’s Ghostbusters remake:

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This went viral because it proved an ‘all-girls’ Ghostbuster film was not, in fact, a terrible idea no one would enjoy

We get our rolemodels from the people around us and the material we consume. If that material repeatedly shows us only white men are ghostbusters, or fire fighters, or woodcutters, then we assume no one else is allowed. But if we start to show people outside that narrow parameter getting involved then we give the world billions more who believe they can kick spectral ass.

Just because we write SFF, that doesn’t let us off the hook. We have a responsibility.

Historical Accuracy

The standard excuse for not including diversity in SFF based on real world periods is because it isn’t historically accurate.

  1. Is that an elf riding a dragon over there? I do believe it is. Didn’t see many of them around in 12th Century Germany.
  2. Shut up and read this: Diversity in Historical Fantasy by Mary Robinette Kowal
  3. Or this: Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy by Tor Publishing
  4. Or this: Gender & Sterotyping in Fantasy by Fantasy Faction

Now, there are some people who might say ‘that excuse stopped being used years ago’. I would love for that to be true. I really would. But I have a friend who, not all that long ago, was told she couldn’t be a military general in a LARP game because she’s a woman. This stuff doesn’t go away if we stop talking about it, and it certainly doesn’t stop existing just because you personally don’t see it.

“It’s amazing what you notice when you just look up for 5 minutes and see what’s going on.” – RA Smith, Representation, Whitewashing & Internationalism panel, LonCon 2014

And speaking of history, I’m going to get political. The US is just about to swear in a new president. One who is on record for making incredibly denigrating comments about women, the disabled, foreigners, and religions other than Christianity. As Meryl Streep said at the Golden Globes:

“This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.” – watch the full speech here

It is more vital than ever that we show our readers colourful, varied, socially complex worlds – worlds where ‘different’ doesn’t mean ‘wrong’ – before they start believing anyone who isn’t white, Western, able-bodied, straight and CIS male is less important and can be treated as such.

Don’t reinforce the stereotypes. Resist, research and represent.

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Inspiration & Religion in Fantasy

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imgThe Lions of Al-Rassan5

I read a lot. Obviously. All writers should read as much and as often as possible. I enjoy most books and then walk away, happy that such stories are in the world. Some books – the terrible ones that I read when I have no energy for brainwork – make me feel better about my own chances of success on the basis that, if this author can get work published then I can. A few make me despair over the abuse that people will subject innocent words and paper to. And then, very rarely, there are the diamond books. The lightbulbs that illuminate my mind, chain me down until the last page is turned and then send me running for the keyboard, knowing I can’t compete with them but wanting to try anyway.

I’ve just finished reading The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kaye.  Mr. Knighton has covered this book in several blog posts and I’m not going to repeat his critical analysis here. Instead, I’m going to tell you why it was important to me, and what it means for my own work.

Religion and what it makes people do has always fascinated me. I studied Theology at A-Level, despite being an atheist. Throughout history religion has been behind many of the most momentous actions, leading people to extremes of cruelty and grace, creativity and bloodshed. It fuels our stories and mythologies, music, art, technological development and politics. And, to me, it makes no sense. To quote the wonderfully irreverent film Dogma,

To me it says that following these faiths based on mythological figures ensures the destruction of one’s inner being. Organized religion destroys who we are by inhibiting our actions, by inhibiting our decisions out of fear of some intangible parent figure who shakes a finger at us from thousands of years ago and says, “Do it… do it and I’ll fuckin’ spank you.”

At the same time, before anyone gets up in arms, I have always been quietly and respectfully jealous of those who do have faith. There is something in people that needs to believe and I’ve often felt that those who are able to meet that need, to place such trust in something utterly abstract, are happier for it. It’s a thing I wish I could do and yet don’t understand how it can be done. Hence my fascination.

Corpus is, to some poor extent, an exploration of this. It looks at what faith and religion do to people, the differences between the two, and where it can lead. To explore such themes in the real world is usually highly charged – to do so in a fantasy setting with a made-up religion allows people to be less emotional about it. In my opinion this is one of the strengths of the fantasy genre. The Lions of Al-Rassan is about the growing tension between the faiths of the Kindath, the Asharite and the Jaddite. Or, as Gavriel Kaye makes minimal attempt to disguise, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Unlike most fantasy stories, there’s absolutely no indication of whether the faiths are founded in fact. There are no Greek-myth-type gods moving behind the scenes, vindicating the belief of their followers. This is politics and fanaticism, pure and simple. It is human will, not divine, which moves the pieces and it’s wonderfully written.

In Corpus, the protagonist is a believer who is confronted with the fact that her faith is based on a number of lies. She has to work through the ramifications of that, both for her own understanding of herself and for the way society has developed as a result of those lies, and what it might mean if they were exposed. She has to choose, first between faith and religion, and then between faith and social responsibility. But I forgot something crucial, because it is something I lack. The understanding that faith drives people to move mountains, and other illogical things. I have written the trappings of religion – the temples, the music, the liturgy – but I haven’t written the heart. Thanks to Al-Rassan, I have some newly illuminated work to do.