Monday, November 18, 2013

Diversity in Fictional Worlds - how I handle it.

Yesterday I read a terrific article by Mary Robinette Kowal about diversity in historical fantasy, entitled "Don't blame the homogeneity of your novel on historical accuracy. That's your choice, as an author." I highly recommend you click through and read it as well.

I've written posts about diversity here as well, most recently "My part (and your part?) in Diversity in SFF," which itself contains links to a couple of great posts by Aliette de Bodard and Carrie Cuinn on the subject. One of the things I did in that article was talk about how populations of any variety are naturally diverse, and portraying diversity in such contexts is more authentic than not doing so.

I thought I would take this opportunity here to do two things. First, to look at the diversity of characters in my own fiction, and second, to talk about how I handled diversity in my Varin world, because it was an interesting challenge.

First, characters in my own published (or soon-to-be-published) fiction. When I tried to do a survey, I found it difficult to count characters, because I didn't know whether just to count the protagonists, to count focal characters, or to count all characters! Since these are short stories, they don't have huge populations. I decided to look at focal characters. The drawback here is that I may be missing patterns in minor characters, but it's still instructive.

  • "Let the Word Take Me" had featured two white males (Arthur and David Linden), a white female (Monroe) and an alien female (Allayo).
  • "Cold Words" featured an alien who was a member of an oppressed minority on his planet (Rulii), the king on that planet (Majesty), and two humans, a man of African descent (Parker), and a woman of Japanese descent (Hada).
  • "At Cross Purposes" featured a white female (Lynn Gable) and her companions, a white male (Kenneth), a Korean male (Sung), and another white female (Doris Grabko), while the aliens (ChkaaTsee) were a male and female of the dominant phenotype. 
  • "The Liars" featured a white male (Adrian Preston) and a female of Chinese descent (Qing), a female of African descent (Alam) and a female alien who was disabled and a persecuted minority on her planet (Óp).
  • "Smoke and Feathers," out now, was set in modern Japan, and featured two Japanese schoolboys (Tenjiro, Ryuuji) and their grandmother (Baba).
  • "Lady Sakura's Letters," forthcoming, is set in Heian Japan, and features a woman of the Japanese imperial court (Lady Sakura), the Captain who betrayed her, and a male spirit.
  • "Mind Locker," forthcoming, features a mixed-race female (Hub Girl), a white female (The Locker), a white male (Mister Questions), an Asian person of indeterminate gender (The Pit Boss), an Indian male (Fixer Singh), and a male of African descent (Fisher).

Total characters: 30
Ratio of male/female humans: 6/5
Ratio of male/female aliens: 4/3
Ratio of white/nonwhite humans: 9/14
Ratio of dominant/non-dominant aliens: 4/2
Ratio of able to disabled characters, including aliens: 23/1
Representation of non-cis-heterosexual characters: 1

I did better than I had feared. I don't have much representation of disability, however, and I don't have much representation of the possible variations in sexuality. I think this is in part because these are short stories that do not have sexuality issues in their focus. Disability was a minor aspect of "The Liars," but something that would definitely be worth looking at in another story. I feel strongly that the issues surrounding diversity make for incredibly compelling stories.

In general, I would expect to see more axes of diversity in novels, because they are larger and encompass far more of the worlds that they feature. I'm pleased to say that I have deliberately touched on issues of gender, disability and sexuality in For Love, For Power. The biggest challenge in the Varin world is the question of white versus nonwhite, and because of a conversation I had on the subject this morning, I thought I would explain how I have approached it.

Varin is a world where it would be really easy to make everyone white. It is an isolated continent, not directly connected with diverse source populations. Its population is small and thus highly inbred. Also, all the cities are underground. The major social divisions there are caste-based rather than racial. Furthermore, I designed it with quite a lot of cultural resemblance to Europe, because I wanted it to feel very familiar to American or European readers, so I could then bring into question a lot of those familiar assumptions.

Long ago, I realized that Varin did have source populations, however. These source populations are from another area of the planet that they live on, and they are in fact diverse. The people of Varin live where they live because they were persecuted for religious reasons and fled. When they fled, they took members of their religion from many different countries with them. That means they have racial diversity, but it also means that the nation they established was started with the explicit goal of unity on the basis of religious culture. The population was also quite small, and thus has had a lot of interbreeding over the course of its thousand-year history. This actually makes some basic racial diversity very helpful for the overall health of the population.

So, what does that mean for the current population of Varin and its phenotypes? Basically it means that in the cities, skin color is pretty muted most of the time. However, there are different hair colors and types, and there are different skin colors - but these mostly range from pale to light brown, which the Varini call "gold."

It is very important that there not be any major correspondence between caste and skin color, so I try to be very careful about distributing skin color in various places. The only exception to this is the nobility, because they are an inbred group within an inbred group, and tend toward reddish hair. There are still gold-skinned nobles, though.

The other thing that makes skin color more interesting -and more specifically Varin - is that there is one single caste group, the laborer caste, who actually spend time on the surface, hunting or farming. There, caste does align with skin color. However, rather than aligning with phenotype, it aligns with "brightness." The skin variations that would be muted and less than evident among people who never leave the cavern cities become very evident, so some laborers are freckled and others are dark-skinned.  The primary impression these skin colors leave on a Varini who sees them is that they are a sign of courage, because venturing onto the surface is fraught with danger, and these people have survived it. One of the characters specifically identifies brown skin in a member of the soldier caste as a sign of ambition, because this woman was clearly guarding farmers before she became a member of the Eminence's personal guard.

All this is to say that secondary worlds deserve as much attention to diversity as our own - and I also agree with Mary Robinette Kowal that historical fiction deserves as much attention to diversity as modern. Some may argue that this is merely political correctness, but I don't think so at all. This is the way the world has always worked, and furthermore, it is such a source of richness for your world, and your fiction in general, that neglecting it would be a terrible missed opportunity.

It's something to think about.



  1. Nice article, and an interesting breakdown. I've just been involved in a conversation with some fellow writers about this issue. Unfortunately, many will dismiss the intentional inclusion of people of differing races (and especially different sexual or gender orientations) as being PC unless "The plot requires it."

    Honestly, I think the "you're just doing it to be PC" argument is often hiding the genuine discomfort some people still have with diversity.

    1. E.L., thanks for your comment. I agree with you about the PC argument; it's currently used most often as a shield against engagement in these issues, which can be very uncomfortable and difficult. As for the notion of whether the plot requires it, I always advocate for exploring one's plot to the fullest, because not taking up these issues makes for lost opportunities. Taking advantage of those opportunities, however, can be amazing.

  2. I read somewhere once (sorry, don't have a reference) that the Indian caste system was based at least partially on skin color, as the higher castes had lighter skin than the lower castes. Do you know if there's any truth to this?

    I'm curious why you say it's important that there not be a correspondence between caste and skin color (other than the exception mentioned). Do you mean it's important to the book for some specific reason?

    1. R.E., that's very interesting. I don't know the answer, since my caste system is based on the Japanese feudal caste system rather than the Indian caste system. I must go do some research!

      The caste system in Varin cannot correspond with skin color because historically it was implemented for reasons that had essentially nothing to do with national origin (which was already many generations in the past by that time). It's just one of those areas where I want my fictional world to go against real-world expectation. Which is to say that yes, it is important to the book in a couple of ways.

  3. Truthfully, you don't need to have a story be about disability to have a disabled character in it. The disability can simply be a part of that character and just a different perspective. I think too many people get hung up on the disability being a major piece of the plot instead of simply making it part of the character. A story about a blind character does not mean she is being stalked by a killer who thinks she saw him, or a story about a character in a wheelchair does not need to be about that person "dealing with it."

    And since a friend who is blind mentions this, if you do write about a blind character, don't have that character "feel the face" to see. Blind people don't really do that. I'm guessing one blind person did it, and Hollywood latched on it as fact for all.

    1. Linda, indeed. You are entirely correct, and thank you for the myth-busting. I will certainly be thinking about these issues going forward (fortunately, I do know that a couple of my newer stories have disabled characters in them, of both plot-central and non-plot-central varieties).