Monday, January 10, 2011

Cultures in Fantasy Novels

While writing my first fantasy books I have been fully conscious of the fact that the great J.R.R. Tolkien was slammed quite a lot by critics for his fictional cultures being a bit too homogenous. When he did have dark skinned races, they always showed up as dragon fodder in the bad guy's armies.

In my world the tribe that became the Greatlanders and occupies the Known Lands became different from all the others because they welcomed the arrival of a ship from Earth (rather than responding with fear or attacks as other tribes did), so they gained the benefits of what the Earth scientists were willing to teach them (the wheel, stirrups, etc.) while other tribes languished in relative barbarity. Eventually these other tribes banded together and drove the advanced tribe away, which is when they found the sheltered land that they now call the Known Lands.

The problem is that this leaves me with a kingdom that essentially has a single race. I run the risk of having critics roast me the same way they did with Tolkien. I do use the barbarian tribes to the east a bit, but the ones who live nearby are relatively similar to the Gauls and Celts of ancient Europe, so they don't help me a whole lot as far as diversity goes.

In my second book, I have been toying with the idea of including a couple of characters from far to the south, an arid plain where the nomadic tribes are olive skinned and of a very different culture to the Greatlanders. The problem I am having so far is that these characters don't have a natural part within the storyline as it currently exists in my head, so I would have to enlarge and complicate the story to make them fit. I don't think it is a huge issue, as once I start to write them in, the story will naturally change to work with them. But, it does make me wonder about our politically correct atmosphere these days. Have you ever altered a perfectly fine storyline just so you could stave off any potential criticism from the PC police? Have you forced a strong female role into a storyline, or made some characters fit into racial types that aren't your own even if the story didn't need it?

I see a lot of good in making people be considerate of racial and sexual issues, but I admit to some trepidation about overdoing political correctness. If, say, a Mongolian writer wrote a great story about Mongolian society, we would laud him or her and never dream of saying that he or she must include other races in the story, yet if a writer is white then he or she is almost expected to have to do so. This is what has always bugged me about the critics of Tolkien. It seems natural to me that most people are interested in writing about their own cultures. I am certainly most interested in European-type cultures, because my family background is English and German. I have some interest in other world cultures, but they don't resonate much with me when it comes to my writing. I read a book now and then about non-European cultures, but the ones that I really love are always about ancient Rome or England or the Middle Ages in Europe. I don't feel I should have to apologize for being most interested in my own ancestral history.

So, will I use these nomad characters? I think I will, if I can make the story work. If I can't then I will cut them out. What about you, has political correctness ever affected your writing?


  1. Yeah, it's a tricky question. You don't want to perpetuate cultural tunnel vision, but the story has to work.

    As for me, I like the conflicts that come from multiple cultures, so I try to make use of that.

  2. Yeah, Bryan, I am going to get to that, both in my prequels that deal with the enmity that drove the Greatlanders away, and in the future when a generation ship arrives from Earth.

  3. As always, an interesting question Ted. If this is a fictional race of people, why do they all have to look the same? If the Greatlanders mixed with people from earth, then presumably there were a variety of racial backgrounds represented in the earth scientists that would then be represented in subsequent generations of Greatlanders. Or maybe I'm confused.

  4. You have to make sure they work well within the story. The problem with issues like these is that on one hand, we're expected to include black characters or strong women. They can't, however, just be your Token Black Character, clearly there to allow you to say you put one.

    It's a hard balance, and quite frankly I try to ignore all of this when I draft my story. I can't help but think that if we force black characters into our stories for the sake of doing it, even if they are well-embedded into it, we're *still* making two different groups and treating them with different standards.

  5. yeah. i don't think being pc to be pc accomplishes anything. i think that diversity is a beautiful thing- not just ethnic or cultural diversity, but diversity of philosophy, interests, personality, etc. but i don't think we should force ANYTHING into our novels that doesn't come organically into the plot in order to appease people who might misinterpret and attack us. write your story. make it something you can be proud of. then defend it. know who you are and what your story is- then you don't need to be afraid of what others may say.
    (and i'm a total hypocrite because i'm always afraid of what others will think about what i write!!) :)

  6. Considering my first book has vritually no female characters, I'd have to say I ignored the PC police! There's a strong female lead in the sequel, but not because I wanted to be PC - she was part of the original story.

  7. Melissa, the scientists arrived on a joint European scientific venture (it involves another book in the series set in Moscow). They included mostly Russian scientists, but also Icelandic, Bosnian, and Danish. In the colder region of the planet they landed on were Gaulish-style barbarian tribes (and it's not an accident that the scientists landed there), while tribes of 'color' live in the warmer regions of the planet. Since there is no slavery amongst these tribes, there hasn't been as large a mixing of cultures as we saw here on Earth.

  8. Oh, it's tricky. My day job looks at racial disparities, so I work in an environment where I'm VERY aware of my inauthenticity as a minority, no matter how much I care about the issues. I write realistic fiction, and so my racial mix needs to reflect the realities of what I'm writing.

    LEGACY, a recent edit, has a runaway in Portland Oregon who is helped out by a black young man who recognizes her and feels bad for her (she is just 13) so gives her some guidance on where a WHITE runaway ought to go (because it is not where HE would go--this is late 80s Portland and race stuff was a little tense)--she later also meets his grandmother--I tried to be as authentic as I could, but I also asked one of my readers--a Latina, but married to a black man with mixed race kids) to give me a reality check on all my language and stereotypes because the LAST thing I wanted to be was disrespectful.

    That said... There are no planes in your world. I haven't SEEN ships. I think you are fairly safe being relatively homogenous... maybe a character or two who has come from very far away... groups that don't have the means to travel far with great ease and frequency STAY fairly homogenous for a long time. I don't think you ought to mess with the story as you have conceived it unless someone (like an editor) asks you to. I think it is far riskier to... say have one of the Barbarian tribes be a minority race (though these are a very GOOD place to draw out some cultural details that are different--strange foods, or (maybe a superstitious religion?)

  9. My only suggestion would be don't force it, whatever outside pressure you feel means nothing when it comes to telling YOUR story. Just tell it your way, and tell it truthfully and who gives a damn what PC critics think?

    I mean it makes perfect sense to me that in a Fantasy setting cultures would be somewhat homogeneous. I mean yes, technically your story is in the future, but as far as the setting goes (the planet where SHARD takes place) they are sort of technologically way in the past. Cultures didn't mingle a whole lot during that time in our reality, so I don't consider it all that surprising that they might not in yours.

    On the other hand, if you include this tribe, and you make it work with the story and they don't just become cookie cutter enemies, then I can't see it making the tale any worse. More depth is usually better if you can pull it off without resorting to my kind of word counts.

  10. Interesting points, good sir. I am, as a matter of fact, including people of different races in my novel, but that's because it's set in a modern city. It's also a deliberate choice, since I don't want a whitewashed book.

    As for fantasy cultures, the choice is all yours. George R.R. Martin seems to be doing just fine with his mostly-white series.

  11. I wouldn't worry about it, but you could have some traders at a market from a far off land. They would only be aside characters but it would give you some diversity and as long as they don't try and cheat the hero that should suffice. oh, an inkeeper.

  12. Interesting post, Ted. I have to admit that I've never given it much thought. I think it's okay to segregate your races or have a mono-ethnic culture if there's a reason for it, and it plays into the story/world.

  13. I think the people who criticize Tolkien miss an important point. Diversity in Middle Earth was not based on skin color, but arguably deeper differences between dwarves, elves and men. In that context, he addressed issues like bigotry and prejudice -- wasn't that the point of the mutual suspicion between the elves and dwarves?

    In Faearth, the world of my fantasy epic, The Unfinished Song the culture is very primitive -- neolithic rather than medieval -- and the people don't live that far apart. The whole known world consists only of seven tribes. It's unlikely, though not impossible, that they are different skin colors. I wouldn't object if a movie version showed them that way. ;)

    But I never address it because skin color is not an issue to the people involved. They are much more concerned about other "differences" that they perceive between each other. There is plenty of bigotry to go around, but it based on tribe, clan and Chroma, and above all whether one is Imorvae (with many-colored magic) or Morvae (single colored magic). Those are the issues they fight and die over.

    In terms of gender issues, I wanted to portray a matrilineal which was not amazonian, but more like actual matrilineal cultures found on Earth. Descent is traced through the female line, but for the most part, men are warriors and women bake bread. The exception is that female warrior-dancers also participate in war.

    I did worry a bit because my heroine is not a trendy badass-warrior wench. Although she eventually learns to fight, it's only reluctantly. The hero is much more engaged in battle and strategy. Nonetheless, both the heroine and hero have power. I don't think that traditional "feminine" forms of expressing power should be held in contempt just because they are traditionally feminine.

    Tara Maya
    The Unfinished Song: Initiate