Like science fiction, fantasy is supposed to be a fictional space that explores the possibilities for humanity, which includes everyone. But unfortunately, and for too long, fantasy has been best described in the same terms as a 1950s shop sign from the American south: “Whites only.” As to why that is, I couldn’t tell you definitively, but from where I’m sitting, it seems to have everything to do with a type of literary “white flight,” a method of self-segregation even in imaginary worlds. That’s got to stop, and fortunately, there’s been movement to stop it: with the works of Octavia Butler, for example, and a crop of newer writers like N.K. Jemisin and Daniel José Older, the spirit of inclusiveness has gotten stronger. However, there’s still much of fantasy that is relegated to outmoded ways of representing non-white people and cultures.
In 2016 and beyond, it’s more and more imperative for creators to become aware of their own biases when creating fantasy worlds and characters. It’s also imperative to know where your own limitations are in creating these characters. Some of the reason there’s such a homogeneous look to fantasy is that there are too many people unwilling to get out of their comfort zone. When whiteness is set up as the default—and a seemingly lucrative default at that, considering how the fantasy publishing/creation industry itself is largely white—what impetus is there for someone to get out of their comfort zone?
This perpetuating cycle of white supremacy as a lucrative industry is where a lot of great fantasy ideas die. But this cycle also presents an opportunity that fantasy is just now coming to terms with. If fantasy (and to a greater extent, science fiction) is about presenting a world of change and immense possibility, then why has fantasy become so limited? If fantasy is supposed to be a genre that reflects a positive view of humanity, a view that includes inclusiveness, then why is inclusiveness so hard to find in imaginary worlds? Why does the same view get repeated over and over again? All these questions point to one solution: create worlds in which greater inclusiveness exists.
I’ve recently had the pleasure of being a part of this inclusive movement in fantasy. I’ve worked with table top card game company Wizards of the Coast to help bring a new Magic: The Gathering character to life. Kaya, Ghost Assassin, is the creation of Magic creative writer Kelly Digges, and I was brought on as a consultant. The need for a consultant, as Magic has stated itself in their official Tumblr post, was directly in response to the dissatisfaction many black people, black women in particular, have when it comes to representation in the fantasy genre. Magic was in the midst of creating their first black woman Planeswalker to add to their current cast of Planeswalkers (beings who can “walk” or teleport to other worlds—called “planes” in the Magic universe), and they didn’t want to repeat the mistakes others have made when representing black women in fantasy. Also, by their own admission, their current staff demographics couldn’t properly address issues facing black women. (They do state that they are working on broadening their team’s demographics and indeed, this presents another topic: the fact that more people of color should be hired by entertainment and media companies.)
From this experience, I’ve learned that there are several steps creators can take when it comes to creating characters that happen to be outside of their race, culture, or other background. These tips can be used not just for gaming, but for creating movies, television shows, comic books and anything else that will need a wide range of characters.
The first requirement is to have an appetite to learn, as well as a healthy expectation of being corrected. That comfort zone I mentioned above has a wall of fear protecting it. That fear comes from the unknown, the fear of being checked, the fear of being told “you’re wrong about this.” So instead of facing that fear, too many people ignore it, say things like, “Well, this is my world, anyways,” and go on about their business. True, that fantasy world is the world of the creator. But the investigation can’t end there; if your world is a world in which only certain characters are treated as well-rounded human beings and others are treated as filler, then you need to examine not only your imaginary world, but how you view reality as well. Our worldview colors our imagination, and if your imagination is as segregated as your worldview, then you need to work on your perceptions.
Kaya’s development as a fully-realized character came about due to a willingness to learn and listen. I gave many notes on a lot of things. I probably gave an over-abundance of notes in some instances. But all of what I said has, so far, been thoughtfully applied. I’ve read about several instances of companies and studios asking for outside help, then deciding to go with their own ideas because they somehow felt they knew better. Every time, this resulted in anger from the fanbase. Listening to the experiences of others creates much more well-rounded, truer-to-life characters that resonate better with fans. In fact, these characters can often teach fans something they don’t otherwise know.
Second, when you create a character, regardless of their race, treat them just like you would the “default.” In other words, if you create a white character that’s got flaws, special abilities, heroic qualities and the like, then don’t make your non-white character “the bad one” or “the hypersexual one” or “the sassy one” or “the smart one.” Don’t rely on tired tropes to define your non-white characters. I think I can speak for most non-white people when I say we’re beyond tired of that. Non-white characters aren’t supposed to be used just as props for other characters or as bargaining chips for fans: “We gave you this [insert race here] character: Now can you shut up?” That’s not going to work.
Third, if you know without a doubt that you need help defining your non-white character, it would behoove you to ask for help. Of course, this is assuming that you are ready to hear some differing opinions, beyond what you believe you know about a race or culture. The trickiest part of all of this is to approach someone without the impression that you are labeling them as the definitive spokesperson for their race. The best way to do this is to come into the conversation having done your own research beforehand. Before writing anything for Kaya, I was welcomed into the Magic fold knowing that Kelly had done prior research into what the characterization pitfalls were for black women characters. This made me feel like (1) I didn’t have to educate as much (because as we all know, Google is out there and it’s best to learn for yourself before you ask someone else) and (2) there was a definite baseline from which we could work. We both understood where Kaya was at that point in the development stage, and that prior knowledge led to better questions from Kelly, prompting better answers from me.
The throughline of this is that creators must have a willingness to learn. You have to learn all the time. The moment you feel overly comfortable is the moment you could fall back on stereotyping or create a trope-filled character. This type of vigilance is demanding, and that’s when the ease of the comfort zone comes calling. But the comfort zone allows for no type of growth. The comfort zone is where great stories go to die. As a creator, if you can stay out of the comfort zone and immerse yourself in the multicultural world that is our reality, you can create some very special and meaningful characters that speak to all of your fans.
Monique Jones is an entertainment blogger and founder of JUST ADD COLOR, a multicultural pop culture site. Jones has acted as a consultant for Magic: The Gathering and is the founder of the upcoming MoniqueJonesConsulting.com, an online consulting business geared towards entertainment creators who are developing characters of color.