Where Are All the Minorities?

Author photo of Lane Heymont.By Lane Heymont

I grew up reading classic literature, contemporary literature, philosophy, scientific books, and fantasy. A lot of fantasy. I must have read a thousand fantasy novels in my days, if not more. For the most part they all ignored my existence, or rather, represented only the existence of one culture: Western Europe, so much to the point that it was a running gag among my friends.

I remember saying, “So you’re telling me in a world of ogres, orcs, dragons, and hobbits, there’s no black people?”

To this day, the only people of color I’ve seen in a fantasy – taking place on a secondary world – is the Dragonlance series, and frankly, only one or two characters make appearances if I remember correctly. Neither of the characters could be considered the protagonist.

I have a major issue with this. Why? Because, when I read, and more importantly, write, I like to feel this magical, wondrous sense called “reality”. This is of the utmost importance, despite the notion of “suspension of disbelief” which is so critical to enjoying the fantasy genre; I have to somehow identify with it.

Cover image of The Freedman and the Pharaoh's Staff by Lane Heymont.While writing The Freedman and the Pharaoh’s Staff, my debut novel about the relationship between racism and a myriad of people – black and white – I faced a lot of criticism, rather, warnings from beta readers when I explained I was writing from the perspective of an African-American character. Ironically, the only people who objected were white people. However, it made me wonder if their protests were me writing about black characters, or from that point of view. Basically, having a minority/person of color protagonist was their issue.

On one level I can appreciate the trepidation some white or non-minority authors might feel, but to give in to that worry is to commit robbery. You rob the readers of a chance to see a fantasy novel based in reality where not only white characters are presented as heroes. You rob people of the chance to read about someone “who looks like them.”

I’ll repeat that: who looks like them. I’ve heard those words said a lot when it comes to the fantasy genre. A number of friends, who happen to people of color, have often said as a child they wondered why there were no heroes who looked like them. The appearance is less the issue, and more the feeling of being ignored. That’s a horrible feeling.

Why exactly are people of color so underrepresented in fantasy? There’s this concept of the Other, a prominent notion in continental philosophy, which is the idea that something unfamiliar to us, something outside our “known world” is different. By nature, humankind fears what is different – at best, misunderstands what is different.

Psychologically, this affects every interaction we have, or even think, in relation to the Other. So, it’s safe to say for white writers who may have limited experiences or relationships with those outside their race might consider writing from a minority perspective the Other.

The Freedman and the Pharaoh’s Staff relies heavily on the idea of the Other. Ku Klux Klan characters hate, attempt to enslave, and even murder African-American characters because, at its base, they are the Other. Narce, the most hateful and morally despicable character in my novel, is fuelled by hatred based on fear and ignorance. Sure, he’s evil, but despite his horribleness he’s still a human who functions as defined by human psychology.

So, it feels like white authors have an easier time, or are more comfortable, writing from the perspective of dragons, ghosts, elves, Minotaurs, and other non-humans than another human being. Seems ironically odd, don’t you think? And the writing suffers for it, as does the cause.

Stories, even fantasy stories and those that require the suspension of disbelief, need to be grounded in reality. What’s interesting in the real world is the myriad of human cultures, not ogres or hobbits or lizard people. Not to say lizard people should be compared with a real world culture, and frankly, I am not a fan of how many authors base a non-human race on a real world culture. That’s the definition of a culture thief.

Writing The Freedman and the Pharaoh’s Staff was invigorating and refreshing as a fantasy reader, because the genre had started to frustrate me. How many times can you read about dwarves, ghosts, fairys, and the like, without having them converge into this amorphous blob? Sure, one author’s vampire is different than another’s, but vampires are vampires.

As a reader I wanted something different and as a writer I needed something different. At the time I began The Freedman and the Pharaoh’s Staff I was enrolled in an African-American Literature class. It inspired me, and I ran with the story of Jeb – a former slave and freedman, and his brother-in-law Crispus who must defend their town from the Klan.

As soon as I put my finger to the keyboard I knew where I was going. Magic? Of course, it’s a fantasy, but like in all good stories, the system of magic needs to be consistent and make sense. I chose Voodoo magic because it’s one of the most defined systems, since it’s a religion interlaced with real laws of magic. It works if you believe it.

So my plea with authors is to provide us with more minority protagonists—strong, honourable, realistic characters and there will be no issue. Overcome your anxiety of offending people by writing from a place of honesty and most importantly, respect.

Lane Heymont was born in Pennsylvania. He earned a BA in Liberal Arts with a focus on literature and history. He also holds a double minor in psychology and business. After college, Lane turned his focus back to writing. He has several short stories published, one of which was recommended for a 2012 Bram Stoker Award. The Freedman and the Pharaoh’s staff is his debut novel from Sunbury Press.

9 thoughts on “Where Are All the Minorities?”

  1. Thanks for the great post Lane. I agree with you completely in regards to people of colour being under-represented in fantasy. Of the hundreds of fantasy books/series I have read, only two come to mind in a positive way. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea and Steven Erikson’s Malazan books (please comment on those I have forgotten or missed out). I remember the furore when a publisher released an edition of A Wizard of Earthsea with Ged/Sparrowhawk pictured as white on the cover, which anybody who has read the book will know he is not (and this was probably done for commercial reasons which support your beta reader comments). And in the Malazan books you have Quick Ben and Kalam, both major characters and both black, as are many others in the vast cast. But these are exceptions to the norm (but I’m happy to say that both are in the top 10, which shows that it can be done – readers are able to cope with non-white lead characters).

    The first time I remember being upset by racial stereotyping in fantasy was when reading the Narnia novels. The Calormans still make me shake my head.

    On Fantasy Book Review I actively look for books to review that feature non-Western style lead characters, so if you have a book of this type, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

    One area in which fantasy has improved considerably in recent times is the role of women, where it is now increasingly common for the major characters to be female. Let’s hope that in the near future the same can be said for people of colour in fantasy books.

    I would like to put together a special section on fantasy books that represent minorities in a positive way. Please, please leave suggestions below and I will begin to get them read and reviewed.

    Lee @ Fantasy Book Review

  2. Hi Lee,

    First, thanks for having me on! I remember Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses, which was a fascinating read, It flips the power roles between Europe and Africa. Due to some Pangea issues, Africa has advances much more quickly than Europe as was the opposite of our world.

    It’s also interesting you mentioned the cover of A Wizard of Earthsea, because the same sort of thing happened with The Hunger Games movie. Apparently, in the books the character Rue was described as “dark-skinned” and was portrayed by an African-American actor. Fan went ballistic and on racist tirades all over the internet and twitter. They demanded she should have been white. It was really, really disturbing how people reacted to it.

    With Urban Fantasy, women have skyrocketed as protagonists, and I love it! We do need to see more people of color/minority protagonists. A gay protagonist, outside the erotica niche, would be great, too!

    As for books, Noughts and Crosses is written by Malorie Blackman, who I believe is English. Other than that book, which I strongly suggest, I’m not too familiar with British authors.

    Thanks again!

    Lane

  3. There is definitely something to be said about epic fantasy, the heroic white male lead, and the stereotyping of other cultures. I don’t think it is intentional misrepresentation, but ignorance and the anglo-medieval genesis of epic fantasy are not exactly great excuses any more. From my perspective, stories can and are starting to be told with more balance, and for me balance is a key component.

    I wouldn’t be so dismissive over the use of ogres, hobbits, dragons, trolls, or any number of creatures that are used with the fantasy domain. When done well they too provide diversity in stories. The Goblin Corps by Ari Marmell and The Aeons’ Gate by Sam Sykes are just two examples that do this very well.

    Also, and I know this is not the intention of the post, but if you are going to write the Other, don’t make sound like you are doing it as a favour to ‘minorities’. Honesty and respect are definitely important aspects, but that should apply regardless of how you choose to define your characters. Write the Other because it makes sense in the context of the story you want to tell.

    If you are looking for some good books that explore cultures that are not anglo-medieval based, try The Inheritance Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin or Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed.

  4. Generally I agree with you. As you said there aren’t many minorities in Fantasy books (African-American, women, or homosexual characters). However, I strongly believe that things are changing. The Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord of the Rings were series of books written in the beginning to middle 20th century. The ideas of the times are of course reflected in these books. However, recent fantasy books, written by the likes of Trudi Canavan, Robin Hobb and Steven Erikson are examples of books were various minorities are portrayed equally. Since society is changing and evolving, so will the books written.

  5. I hate to knock you, but books that want to preach at me are not books I will ever buy. Great characters like Quick Ben and Kalam deal with problems thrown at them, they don’t whine about racism. You could say that Merry and Pippin experienced racism, but if they complained about it and tried to teach the reader a lesson they would be just a poor excuse for a character.

    Honestly write what you want to write, if you are superbly talented you can throw in a plethora of non Western Europe cultures and people (Lions of Al-rassan, Under Heaven, Crescent Moon, Malazan, The Engineer series) (Note: I havent read NK Jemisin yet so I can’t comment on that).

    If you aren’t superbly talented, it will not work. 95% of your audience is of Western European (White/Hispanic/Middle Eastern) or Asian culture. Anything dealing with the American thought pattern of slavery means nothing outside of the USA. (1964 Civil Rights Act means nothing overseas).

    So you can rant about how most authors write Western Euro (which really covers Eastern Europe to, most Russian and Balkan Fantasy Artists are still children of Tolkien) fantasy, but it is a business, and most of your potential readers want to read a great story they relate to. And most of them don’t relate to what you are selling.

    Think of it as opening an ethnic Restaurant. (Aka not Burgers)
    The big 3 are Italian, Chinese, and Mexican.
    Everyone will know what they are.
    If you have skill you can get away with Japanese, Thai, Indian, French, Greek, or Middle Eastern. At least people will know what they are.

    If you want to go against the grain and open something unique, (Scandinavian, Polish, Belgian, Senegalese, Ethiopian, Afghan) Then even if you are talented you may still fail.

    Now for the brutally honest part. If someone who doesn’t know a culture (cough Daylight War) writes it, he will probably butcher it badly. Your “motives” you ascribe to your villain are so terribly drab that I wouldn’t read your book if you paid me. Great villains (see: Dagger and Coin for a superbly written racist villain) are a lot deeper than “He is a racist and doesn’t like change” I can pick up a newspaper and find a bad guy with similar motives. 99% of the authors that you think ignore race do not. Because they use “magical races” as stand ins, they break out of the duology of the White/Black race relations in the USA.

    The whole article is really condescending. It is different than NK Jemisin, who from what I’ve read on her blog, has a new story to tell, a different perspective, a different mythology not just characters with different skin colors. If you wrote back characters with the same condescension that you wrote this article maybe they were trying to save you from yourself.

    I hope I am not being to harsh, but when you preach at people they won’t want to read your books. There is just nothing I see here other than someone who somehow thinks he is morally superior to the genre he writes.

  6. This is something that has always irked me and it really shouldn’t be seen as “preaching”, in my opinion. Having a mix of races that actually reflects the population isn’t being progressive, pious or sensitive; I think it just gives a sense of realism. I admit that it doesn’t always (or even usually) apply to sci-fi and epic fantasy as those genres typically have races and species living in segregation, but if you’re reading urban fantasy or young adult fiction set somewhere like London or New York, then it’s totally far-fetched to have the bulk of characters interact with people of the same race.

    One epic fantasy off the top of my head that genuinely turns this upside down is Gem: The Season of Prophecy by Victoria Leeman. It has gods and goddesses from multiple ancient mythologies fighting or working together, the Britannicus Empire are involved, and the major characters are African tribesmen. I’m sure there are many others, but I really do love reading about the relationships between the Greek, Roman, Irish, Japanese etc gods because it is a breath of fresh air!

  7. By adding blacks and whites into a book all you’re going to get is people either whining about racism or praising the book for nothing other than ‘it has black people in it’. If you’ve got a book set in a temperate region, which most fantasy books I’ve ever read are, you’re not going to have black people. Even in the real world before, multiculturalism was forced upon everyone, there were very few blacks about in temperate regions. To believe that black people are in 1-1 correspondence with whites in such an environment and ‘non-faux-futuristic’ setting would be quite the suspension of disbelief.

    Take for example a fantasy novel centred around an army, would you claim it is bizarre that there are few women around? Is it ignorance or sexism that there are few women around? No, it’s just centred in a place where women wouldn’t be in that setting.

    I agree fully with Mark, there’s far to much “force black people into places so people think I’m not racist or that I’m fighting oppression” in everything now a days, hopefully the phase will pass.

  8. Good day, Lane. I would just like to say, that I completely agree with the lack of black people in the world of high fantasy. As a black author, I recently released the first book of my series (Chosen: The Path of Heroes), which features a black teenage boy as the main protagonist. I felt that I had never read a huge fantasy adventure that had black people upfront, and that inspired me to create the series. I actually have some of everyone in the series playing major parts: black, white, Asian, middle-eastern, and Native American-influenced people. It’s been slow getting the ball turning and getting what I believe is a great fantasy story out there for all ages to read, but I’m adamantly working on it, as well as writing the second book. Thanks for your post. It’s inspiring to know I’m not the only one who feels the world of fantasy needs to see not not only more black people but other races too.

    And let me say that I do agree with Mike, popping black people into a fantasy environment just to make a quota or show a point does nothing if the story is redundant or not very good. The world of high fantasy stemmed from people who are white, so it’s natural that a lot of fantasy written today and back then is centered around people/entities/beings with pale skin. The point I’m making is that as a black writer and lover of fantasy, I just think it would be cool to see something other than the usual norm in fantasy stories. I can guarantee you that in today’s society, there are certainly children of all races who would like to see and identify with kids in fantasy stories that look like them. My fiance, who’s white, and many friends and family of various colors, ages, backgrounds, etc. have read my first book and enjoyed it immensely. None of them seemed to care either way that the story featured some black main characters, as long as the story was good. That’s the point I believe Mike was making. Write what you know and feel, and leave the rest to the readers.

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