Four Tips for Diversity in Fantasy

Say hello to Shana Mlawski! Shana is the author of HAMMER OF WITCHES (which is out today!), and she has graciously agreed to stop by Rich in Color and give us some advice.

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Ever hear this before? “Diversity in fiction is nice and all, but you can’t expect there to be diversity in [insert popular work of fantasy fiction here]! That book is set in a world inspired by medieval Europe! Of course everyone is a white Anglo-Saxon Christian!”

If you’ve somehow avoided hearing this opinion before, start talking diversity with Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings fans on the Internet. Odds are, it’ll come up.

I’m here to assure you that fantasy stories can be diverse, even if they’re set in medieval Europe or some fantastical facsimile thereof. Here are four simple ways you can do it:

1. Set it in Southern or Eastern Europe.

It seems that, in many people’s minds, “medieval Europe” means “medieval England,” or maybe—maybe—Viking-era Scandinavia. (Thanks, History Channel!) But there are other countries in Europe, if I recall correctly. I happen to know a lot about medieval Spain, so I’ll start there. For more than a half-century, much of the area that is now known as Spain was ruled by various Moorish caliphs and emirs. It was probably the most technologically-advanced and best-educated region in Europe at the time. That’s why it’s now considered a major part of the so-called Islamic Golden Age. Why not build a fantasy world based on that culture instead of the done-to-death Monty Python and the Holy Grail medieval English mudhole? I’d read it.

You can also consider basing your setting on Eastern Europe. Let’s see more Romani fantasies. Byzantine fantasies. Polish fantasies. (Our friend Copernicus was from Poland, you know.) Take a page out of Bryce Moore’s book and go Slovak. What I’m saying is, there are plenty of non-English countries out there waiting to be populated with wizards and monsters.

2. Or, sure, set it in England (or France or Italy)!

Even though these countries were not incredibly diverse in the Middle Ages, not everyone there was a white Anglo-Saxon Christian. There were Jews. There were Africans. (Where do you think Shakespeare got the idea for Othello from?) There were pagans. In Basque Country, there were Basques. If you’re going to write a medieval European fantasy, do a little research into all of the racial and ethnic groups in medieval Europe at the time. It’ll make your world much richer.

3. Remember that racial and ethnic diversity aren’t the only kinds of diversity there are.

Readers now remember, thanks to Game of Thrones and Jepp, Who Defied the Stars, that some people in the Middle Ages were born with dwarfism. There were many people with physical and mental disabilities in the Middle Ages, especially due to disease (and in the case of royalty, sometimes inbreeding). There were gay people in medieval Europe—some historians even say there was a form of gay marriage in some parts. There were genderqueer people in Europe in the Classical Era, and we can assume they didn’t all disappear when the Middle Ages came around. There were some really, really poor people in medieval Europe, even if many works of fiction ignore them. There were slaves, too. According to the Domesday Book about 10% of the English population in the late 1000s were slaves. I’m sure you get my point. There was more diversity in medieval Europe than you might think.

4. Just add some diversity, will ya?

If you’re writing a fantasy book set in a fantasy world, why not put just add some diversity to make things more interesting? You’re building a setting where there’s magic or elves or some other unbelievable thing. You expect readers to accept that, but you don’t think they’ll accept a person of a different race or sexuality? I think I’m going to start calling this the “Black Vulcan* Problem,” after that silly situation back in the day when some Star Trek fans bristled at Tuvok’s skin color. To those fans, pointy-eared aliens were perfectly believable, but dark skin was (if you will) beyond the pale. Yeesh, people. Yeesh.

Of course, all of the above advice must go with the obvious caveat: don’t just add diversity without doing the research. But if you do, I guarantee your fantasy world will be much more interesting than it would be otherwise, and it might actually be more historically-realistic, too.

*The Federation kind, not the Superfriends kind
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Don’t forget to follow Shana on Twitter! You can also read Crystal’s review of HAMMER OF WITCHES or put in a last-minute entry for our ORLEANS giveaway. The giveaway ends tonight at midnight EST, so be fast!

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4 Comments on “Four Tips for Diversity in Fantasy
  1. I’ll be adding this article onto my next article round-up!

    A few months ago, I read a rant on diversity in medieval fantasy and how many people thought that Europe in the middle ages were monochrome, and that women didn’t play a major role. I guess it’s partly because of the traditional demographics of who records history.

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