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Diversity in secondary world fantasy

There’s been a lot of debate in genre circles recently about diversity in fantasy – hell, I was on a panel about this very topic at AltFiction last year. It’s a very broad field, however, so I want to focus on one area that’s been on my mind for a while. Note that I’m writing this article from the perspective of a white Westerner; I’m very much in favour of a diversity of voices in SFF, but by definition that’s not an issue I can address in my own fiction.

Epic fantasy gets a lot of stick for being conservative in its worldbuilding: of cleaving to white, Western, European-inspired settings. And there’s a lot of truth in that. OK, so it’s hardly surprising, given that the acknowledged grandfather of the genre was a professor of medieval languages at Oxford University. But there’s a lot more to the world—and to human experience—than the culture of one small corner of it during a brief historical period.

By the way, I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with being inspired by the history and literature of your own culture; if I did, I wouldn’t have written a trilogy of novels set during the age of England’s greatest literary figure, William Shakespeare. Night’s Masque is alternate history set in our world, but there are plenty of examples of secondary world fantasy that, like Tolkien’s work, draw heavily on European history: a particularly famous one is A Song of Ice and Fire, which is based on the War of the Roses. I’m currently reading The Thousand Names by Django Wexler, which is clearly inspired by historical military fiction such as Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels, and thus the good guys are predominantly white and male (or in one case a cross-dressing woman). There’s a lot of pleasure to be had in writing what is in a sense “history fan-fiction” 🙂

The problem is that too many Western authors use European-based settings uncritically, as an unthinking default. They create yet another white, misogynistic, xenophobic culture because “that’s the way things were in those days”, ignoring a whole bunch of issues. For starters, that’s not necessarily the way things were. Medieval culture lasted a thousand years and spanned a continent; it wasn’t homogeneous, and the stuff you were taught in school omits a lot of surprising facts. Did you know for example that in the early Christian world, men could marry other men? That in 15th century England, women of the landed classes were expected to run their husbands’ estates, even leading the defence against attacks by rival knights and their private armies? I’ve had people tell me that my Elizabethan characters couldn’t possibly be blasé about homosexuality, when there’s ample historical evidence that sodomy was endemic in male-dominated Renaissance culture.

Statue of kickass medieval heroine Jeanne Hachette (photo: Marc Roussel, Wikimedia Commons)
Statue of kickass medieval heroine Jeanne Hachette (photo: Marc Roussel, Wikimedia Commons)

And then of course there’s the fact that FANTASY WORLDS ARE MADE UP and we can therefore do whatever the hell we like with them! I’m not saying that every secondary world has to be a multicultural feminist utopia, but I’d like to see more writers put as much effort into worldbuilding their cultures as they do into their magic systems or the fucking heraldry of a hundred minor aristocrats. Ahem. Where was I?

Maybe it’s because I started my genre career as an avid SF reader, but it seems to me that there are as many possibilities for exploring the human condition in a fantasy setting as there are in SF. I did this a little in Night’s Masque, where I created a sentient species, the skraylings, that were based not on folklore but on biological and anthropological principles. The result was a culture very alien to my Elizabethan characters but consistent and, I hope, believable.

In my new project I’m taking the worldbuilding a step further, into secondary world fantasy, because that gives me more control over the human cultures. Yes, they take a good dollop of inspiration from European history at various periods, because that’s what I know and love. And yes, there will be hot guys with swords/crossbows/whatever at the heart of the action, because that’s what gets my creative juices flowing. But those guys won’t necessarily be white, or straight, or abled.

The thing is, this is my world, which means I’m free to make changes that simply wouldn’t work in a historical setting. I can give women a more equitable social status, make sexual orientation a non-issue, create a broader racial mix than would be seen in most pre-modern cultures; whatever makes the setting more pleasing to me—and more inclusive for my readers. It won’t be a utopia by any means—there are inequities of power in any society—but I don’t see why I should harp on the same old prejudices that dog our world. I want my writing to be fun, and misogyny, racism and homophobia are the polar opposite of that.

A brief aside on race in fantasy. In real-world settings you can rely on reader knowledge to fill in the details. Mention that a character is Chinese or Japanese and the reader will mentally add straight black hair and epicanthic folds (unless you say otherwise). Conveying race in a secondary world fantasy is a more delicate business, especially if you’re not filling it with close analogues of real-world cultures. And what about creating racial characteristics not found on Earth, e.g. different skin tones or combinations of colouring? So far in my work I’ve tended not to describe characters’ appearance in great detail, so this is an issue I’m going to be wrestling with in my new series.

Anyway, I guess my point is that you don’t have to throw away all the cool toys that you love—swords, castles, dragons, whatever—to write diverse, inclusive fantasy; a fondness for familiar tropes is no excuse for perpetuating hurtful stereotypes. The joy of fantasy is in stretching our imaginations, so why limit ourselves?


Brian Turner

If I may suggest, the problem is simply one of bad writing.

Most “fantasy” has almost nothing to do with the mediaeval period. There are wenches, taverns, and swords. And that’s usually it. And these do not make a world mediaeval.

Let’s be clear – most of these worlds are nothing more than film sets on which the writer imprints their own modern sensibilities. It’s one of the reasons I get really frustrated with much of the fantasy genre: the world building is paper thin, there’s little realism, and no attention to detail. And every protagonist thinks like a late 20th century liberally educated westerner.

So, just to be awkward, I don’t actually accept the argument that anyone is writing about an historical cultural heritage. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of fantasy authors I’ve read who have attempted to use any of our heritage, and Anne, you’re one of them. 🙂

Instead I think we’re looking at a culture of modernism which looks back on mediaeval imagery. It’s a modern cultural construct that has nothing to do with the historical, and is endemically western simply because it is a market developed in the west for consumption in the west.

There’s plenty of room for diversity to be played out more, but as above, it will be the author’s personal biases that determine their world in most instances. It’s hard to find many writers who can attempt to challange their biases – or else already have a broad-minded enough world view to be able to write about diversity in a compelling way.

Just IMHO. 🙂

Paul (@princejvstin)

Even “Western” influenced Secondary World Fantasy can and should, as you point out, more diversity. Its a failure of imagination, and a reinforcement of biases and things as they are that so many, don’t.

That’s changing, but its slow and doesn’t happen unless readers and writers want it to happen.

Traci Loudin

Awesome post. I wanted to add on to Brian Turner’s comment by saying that the way many modern historical fantasy writers tend to write about the medieval period (consciously? unconsciously?) would be better likened to steampunk than to historical fiction.

That is, the writer tosses in the “cool” aspects of the culture (or the parts they find fun) with little research. Thus you get the swords and wenches and “the way things used to be” feel, which tends to be nostalgic for a past that never really existed in the first place.

That, I think, is where a lot of the sexism comes from. “It was a time when men were men and women were women and no one gave a thought to homosexuality! Right?” Uh, no.

BTW, I found your blog through a G+ post, so I hope you make your way back to that platform soon. 🙂


Thanks, Traci! Good point about plundering history for the “cool stuff” – so many writers take their base material at second or third or tenth hand, instead of doing what Tolkien did and going back to the primary sources.

As for G+, I keep meaning to get involved but I only have so much time, and I can’t seem to get my head round the iOS app. Maybe I’ll give it another go!


Several difficulties face a writer who wants to make a secondary world more diverse, and wants specifically to work against current stereotypes of race, sex, political parties, etc., and these operate in both science fiction and fantasy, with some specifics for each genre.

Many readers (including critics of the genre) do not recognize diversity because they are so sure it’s not there. Remember the news about the movie of Hunger Games, when it turned out that a lot of readers had not realized there was a Black girl in the book (despite the very clear description), and some were angry that she was Black in the movie? That happens to a lot of writers and their books. Readers will recognize a person of color depicted as having the same social status and difficulties as persons of color now–when given an ethnic name, set in a familiar subculture–but they may not recognize persons of color depicted as fully integrated into a secondary world that has no connection to our history. They are used to white characters in those roles and read right over the physical description of skin color and other possibly identifying physical features. The visual media can force that awareness; writers–if they push too hard on physical description–can knock someone out of the secondary world altogether.

Another difficulty arises from reader ignorance of history. As you rightly said, “medieval” is not the same thing for hundreds of years, and much of what is taught below the university specialist level is simply wrong. But that’s also true of both ancient and post-medieval history–so non-history majors (and many history majors who specialize in American history only) simply do not have the knowledge to know whether the setting is anywhere close to accurate…let alone a reasonably extrapolation of a historical place/time or another culture in a secondary world. I know writers with solid credentials in history who’ve been criticized for “mistakes” that were not in fact mistakes…the critic was ignorant.

Getting the concept of “thought experiment” fiction across is also a hard sell. SF/F is a place where we can experiment with changing the rules. But the less flexible readers have trouble with this (“But that’s not what happened!” “True, but this is ALTERNATE history, not history. It’s a thought experiment.”) We are not writing historical novels, when we set fantasy stories in pre-gunpowder or pre-industrial societies. Those who do write historical novels work differently–and the two are not comparable. Science fiction future societies do not have to be like ours, and within one book (one planet, a group of planets) can have as much diversity (or more) as we see on this planet. Wealthy cultures, impoverished cultures, cultures that value technology and those that do not, cultures that are misogynistic and those that aren’t, and so on. Physical diversity need not divide the way it has here; religious diversity need not divide the way it has here, “stability” and “innovation/change” need not divide the way it has here. Books need not treat the issues and agendas of our day as if they were inevitable and the only proper topic of fiction. Fiction is, as you said, fiction–we get to make stuff up and that’s OK.

I wish more readers would look for–and recognize–the diversity that’s already there–recognize the writers who provide it–and then continue to show their appreciation as they ask for even more. Some of the most ambitious and interesting books I’ve read in the past 25 years did not fare particularly well in the market–SF books rooted in cultural anthropology or deeply researched history, for instance. Some did (C.J. Cherryh’s, for instance) but many others–by such writers as Sheila Finch (her Lingster books), Susan Shwartz, Julie Czernada, just to name a few–did not.


Hi Elizabeth!

You make a lot of good points. If I harped on about the Middle Ages, it’s only because that’s the traditional setting for epic/secondary world fantasy, although thankfully other eras are getting a look-in these days. Even if we set aside steampunk as a sub-genre in its own right, the early modern and early Industrial Revolution periods are putting their stamp on epic fantasy, from Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie to recent debuts by Brian McClellan and Django Wexler.

Re some readers not noticing PoC in books, I don’t really see this as a serious issue unless the cover has been whitewashed; non-white readers will notice, I’m sure, and appreciate the writer’s intent. As for the rest… Whatever we write, readers will bring their own preconceptions and often ignore what’s on the page.

V.A. Marchi

Research, Research, Research. The only way to create diversity is realizing there is another way to do things. If we have limited experience (either in our personal lives or vicarious lives) our fiction, our viewpoints – even if fantastical – will be equally limited. Sometimes so limited we can’t accept reality as factual!

I appreciated Brian Turner’s comment on putting our “modern sensibilities” on our stories. This particularly bugs me to no end when supposedly writing another culture – especially when it’s judgmental! (So Please don’t throw in “token” person of another race without some thought.)

The only way to step away from this (though I don’t think we can fully avoid it) is to become acquainted with how people truly used to think – or still think in other parts of the world. It’s ironic, but true originality comes from learning more about others. Unfortunately research takes time and effort and is not everyone’s favorite activity, which is why we at times see ideas that are a bit regurgitated.

Very slightly in their defense, one study found that we enjoy a book/movie more when we know the ending, so it could be said even repetitive fiction has its place.