How Fantasy Welcomes Diversity
It’s 2022, but we’re still debating diversity in fantasy—evidenced most recently by the discourse surrounding shows like Rings of Power and House of the Dragon.
If you haven’t heard people yelling about this, you haven’t spent much time on the internet. The refrain is that works like Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire are based on white medieval European history and shouldn’t have diverse casts. This is absurd because in simple terms, we can make fantasy whatever we want it to be.
I’m a fan of both series, but there’s no hard and fast rule that every fantasy story must be based on one finite source or have only one interpretation. Imagine if sci-fi limited itself to portraying one race or way of living! An exciting and encouraging development in the past few years has been the increase in diverse voices and representation. Black female authors like N.K. Jemisin and Octavia Butler have already led the way on diversity in these genres.
The first fantasy novel I wrote was set in 17th century Iceland. Patriarchy, misogyny, and religious homophobia were all themes I spent a lot of time exploring in that story. When I started writing Poison Forest, I wanted something completely new and different, so I steered away from those themes. For one thing, writing in a world steeped in sexism where LGBTQ+ identities and relationships are vilified can become very tedious. I live in that world every day. I was deep in the closet as a bi teen, and I wanted to create a place where queer identity is understood and accepted.
Doing this left room for me to focus on things like character, world-building, political tension, and relationships. The ability to create settings divorced from our own cultural baggage is an advantage in fantasy. An author can portray how egalitarianism might look when well-executed or explore themes of things that don’t work so well in a society.
Although racism isn’t an issue in the Triumvir (the three united countries that make up the world of Poison Forest), and queer and polyamorous relationships are normalized, there was plenty of space to explore the other power structures in play. Famine and poverty are primary problems in Thedra’s home country of Lazul, and across the Triumvir there is control of the underclasses and powered people via wealth and regulation of magic.
There is also the preference shown to magical humans, leading to their privilege over non-powered people. Although they are being trained for positions of power, they are also taken from their families as children, leaving the underclasses with broken, disadvantaged families. It’s this imbalance and poor management of powered people that helps create the villain Rothbart. It is only mentioned in passing, but he was born into poverty and some of his bitterness stems from the preferential treatment of his sister who was born with water-bending powers.
Drawing inspiration from the history of cultures other than feudal Europe is another way to incorporate diversity into storytelling. Since Poison Forest is a retelling of Swan Lake, I incorporated some aspects of Slavic folktales and names into the world and characters. This is done with much more detail in Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Spinning Silver.
We have all of human history from which to find insight, and fantasy is the perfect canvas for creating new worlds or examining our own.