On Eurocentricity in Fantasy Fiction

I admit it — I am Eurocentric, but I am trying to evolve. My racial heritage is Scots-British-Irish with a dash of German. There is some tenuous documentary evidence of Cherokee and possibly African blood, but if it’s there, it has been greatly diluted. And it was introduced so long ago that it’s not visibly part of my physical, social or emotional heritage.

Because I have lived my life in a Eurocentric part of the world, I make assumptions when I read. If a character is not identified otherwise, I tend to assume that the character looks like me. So when I include people of color (POC) in my stories, I feel compelled to let the reader know, lest they make the same assumptions that I do.

For instance, a character in The Wizard Heir is introduced this way:

A solid, athletic-looking black student answered, clad only in swimming trunks. An amulet hung from a chain around his neck, a stylized Hand of Fatimah. Protection against the evil eye.

After the book was published, I received an email from the white father of a biracial son. After some kind words about my books, he said this:

I noticed a couple of times that you mentioned that a particular character or other was black. The issue is that when you introduce other characters, you generally don’t mention their races, and the assumption one makes is that they are European (white).

In other words, without meaning to, I was implying that white was the norm. Ack!

And yet — I write from an intimate third-person point of view, meaning that even the narrative is in the voice of the viewpoint character, reflecting the world as seen through his eyes. Since my viewpoint character was white, he would be likely to note race when meeting a person of color, but not when meeting a person of his own race.

Is that any excuse?

Another thorny issue is the question of whether an author of European extraction can speak to the experience of people of color.

It’s complicated, isn’t it? I can’t find the source of this saying, but I see it everywhere: “When you’re white, you don’t think about it. When you’re black, you never forget it.”

There are other ways authors can identify diverse characters beyond flat-out telling (e.g., Joe was African-American). We can hint through the use of ethnic names (Peter Wong, Rhoda Birnbaum, Parvati Singh.) We can suggest diversity through physical description (Harriet’s skin was the color of bitter-brewed tea, Jason’s face was porcelain pale; Joe struggled to tug a comb through his nappy hair) and the reactions of other characters (e.g., “don’t trust him—he’s a mixed blood.”) But it can be challenging to be even-handed about it.

Or we can say nothing at all about race, omit physical descriptions, and allow readers to create their own character images based on their world view. Readers do that anyway. Recently a reader put together a “dream cast” for a Seven Realms movie and posted it on YouTube. Despite my diverse cast of characters, every actor she chose was white.

One of the advantages of writing high fantasy is that it can be a safe place to address social/cultural/gender/racial issues. Somehow the conflicts are less fraught because none of us live there and so none of us have the need to defend/dismantle the status quo.

I want the people in my books to reflect the diversity in the world at large, including people of color, strong characters of both genders, gay and straight people. Yes, it’s fantasy, but believable fantasy is always based on real life. In fact, much of the conflict in my high fantasy series is driven by racial and cultural clashes.

The Demon King, The Exiled Queen, and The Gray Wolf Throne are set in The Seven Realms, a racially and culturally diverse collection of states that have been warring with each other for a thousand years.

The Queendom of the Fells houses three squabbling tribes: light-skinned valefolk, who come from the relatively flat and fertile valley between the mountains; the brown-skinned upland clans; and the primarily fair-haired, blue-eyed wizards who invaded from the Northern Islands centuries ago. Valefolk and wizards have intermarried over the years, but clan and wizards have been forbidden to intermarry because of their interdependent yet antagonistic relationship.

The clans exert considerable power over wizards, because they are flashcrafters—they make the magical tools that wizards need for spellcasting. They also control much of the trade in and out of the Fells.

Many wizards and flatlanders are openly biased against the native clans, calling them “copperheads” and accusing them of baby stealing and blood sacrifice. In self-defense, the clans have fielded an elite class of warriors known as the Demonai, who defend the uplands against wizard threats.

One of my viewpoint characters is Raisa ana’Marianna, the heir to the Gray Wolf throne of the Fells. She is of mixed race, the product of a political marriage between a flatland queen and clan royalty. She more closely resembles her father’s people, being copper-skinned, with black hair and green eyes.

In my physical descriptions of Raisa, I mention her burnt-sugar skin and black hair and the fact that she can pass for clan. Others characters take note of it as well, sometimes responding negatively to her race. The clans, however, embrace Raisa because they see a chance to put one of their own on the throne after thousands of years of rule by outsiders.

Race is not the focus of the story, but it does drive some of the political conflicts that propel the story forward.

Another viewpoint character, Han Alister, fits the stereotypical wizard profile — he is blond haired and blue eyed and white-skinned. Have I been even-handed in my physical descriptions of Han? Do I mention his porcelain skin as often as I do Raisa’s coppery complexion?

I don’t know. To focus in on these issues throws author and reader totally out of the story. But I’m trying to write inclusively. I would like to be part of the solution, and not part of the problem.

For further reading

  • In an interview on The Brown Bookshelf, children’s author Christine Taylor-Butler notes the need for mainstream fiction with multicultural characters, and the importance of mentoring authors who are POC: “At some point, we’re going to have to move past the point where we stick children of color in books only when the source of the conflict is their race…We need to make multicultural literature a celebration of life and eliminate stereotypes.”
  • Bookseller Elizabeth Bluemle made a similar point in her post on Publisher’s Weekly entitled, “Where is our Ramona Quimby—Black and Pretty.”
  • Elizabeth’s Shelftalker blog has posted a list of mainstream books featuring POC. You’ll find it here.
  • Jessica at On a Pale Star has posted links to list of diverse science fiction and fantasy.
  • And Cindy Pon launched a discussion of diversity in current speculative fiction on The Enchanted Inkpot.
  • Laura Atkins on issues of race in publishing.

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.diversityinya.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/cindawilliamschima.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Bestselling YA author Cinda Williams Chima grew up with kick-butt Barbies. She began writing romance novels in junior high school. She authored the Heir Chronicles contemporary fantasy series (The Warrior Heir, The Wizard Heir, and The Dragon Heir,) and the Seven Realms high fantasy series (The Demon King, The Exiled Queen and The Gray Wolf Throne. Chima’s books have been named Booksense and Indie Next picks, an IRA Young Adult Choice, an ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults, a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age, to the Kirkus Best YA list, and the VOYA Editors’ Choice, Best Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, and Perfect Tens lists. There are more books to come in both series. Find Chima online at www.cindachima.com or http://cindachima.blogspot.com/.[/author_info] [/author]

10 thoughts on “On Eurocentricity in Fantasy Fiction

  1. i’m such a huge fan of your seven realms
    series, cinda. and it’s fascinating to
    read about your struggles and process to include
    more diversity in your fantasy world. kudos!

  2. Cinda, thanks for writing this. I enjoyed the Heir books and am just starting on your other series.

    I realize that it’s easier than I thought to defer to the Eurocentric in fantasy; I had written 3/5ths of a novel without much in terms of character description, and then I realized my readers were assuming the characters were of the dominant culture… so, I started over. I don’t want to make a big issue about color (or degrees of color – I read people doing that one, and just cringe), but I do now have a folder with about thirty different ways to say brown in a way that a.) doesn’t relate to food and b.) is hopefully not weird or demeaning.

    It’s a challenge, but it’s worth the effort – and thank you for all the effort you’ve put into it, on behalf of other readers who’ve enjoyed your work!

  3. Great article and links. Thank you for making me think about how often skin color is mentioned and how that may reflect on worldviews and norms.

  4. This was very interesting to read and I think as more writers struggle to create diversity in their writing we’ll have more honest conversations such as this. I really liked when you said “Race is not the focus of the story, but it does drive some of the political conflicts that propel the story forward.”

  5. Excellent story. I’ve noticed myself reading characters that are explicitly not white as white. It annoys me that I do it so naturally and I’ve been trying to read physical descriptions more closely.

  6. When I began writing fiction over a decade ago, I admit that I generally wrote about “white” characters. However, I would make sure I wrote about the differences of their hair, eye color, eye shape, height, weight, and even the tone of their skin. Just because I wrote about three girls with red hair did not mean they all had the same shade of red, Just because my main characters were all of the same race did not mean they all had the same skin complexion. Some had extremely fair skin, some were bronzed, some turned a reddish tint in the sun because of their Native descendants.It is very true that even whites do not have the same complexion.

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