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-Summer Cherries-'s avatar

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An issue I've taken note of recently is that unless a character's race is explicitly stated or described to the point where all ambiguity is eliminated, the prevailing assumption is that s/he is White. And even then, some folks forget to take down a memo. This matter becomes particularly salient when books with racial minorities hit the big screen:

The Hunger Games: Anyone remember the embarrassing mess that went down with the casting of Rue? Many were apparently not aware that she was a black girl, and an unfortunate number of readers threw fits (that were definitely NOT racist, omg how dare you suggest that, some of my best friends are black~).

The Mortal Instruments: A movie is currently in the works, and it seems that a pivotal character, Magnus Bane, is of Asian descent. An Asian actor (Godfrey Gao) was indeed cast, again to the surprise of several readers (many of whom had dreamcast Adam Lambert, who is definitely not Asian by any stretch of the imagination). If my information is correct, this is a character who was very clearly stated to be Asian.



So, this got me wondering: how do you approach a subject matter as sensitive as this when writing? I'd imagine that if you had a character that was of a particular racial background, you would want that detail to be conveyed to the reader in a manner that is clear and evident (yet not in a repetitive, hammer-to-the-head sort of way that detracts from the story). This is especially pertinent when describing POC characters in a fantasy setting, where we can't signify what a character's real world racial/ethnic equivalent is through preexisting terms (ex. We can't refer to a character who is an analogue of an Indian person as 'Indian' in the story, because India as we know it doesn't exist in fantasy worlds).

Feel free to discuss any of what is written above! C:
Symphony of Magic's avatar

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Simply put, I don't.

As a writer of fantasy, and of creatures who are, by and large, not human, I am not terribly fond of sticking real-world race on them. My Western (which is a race in the stories) character, who happens to be a dragon, is not White, Black, Hispanic, or otherwise. He is Western. Same for my other characters (Northern, Southern, Eastern, Central being the other five "races" outside of species). This has been an issue that has irked me for some time. Unless explicitly stated to be human, in fantasy, I see absolutely no reason to tack on human, real-world races in fantastical races.

This is an entirely different story for normal stories, though I cannot lend my two cents there, as I write fantasy and tend to err away from human characters, except in my current novel. As a reader, I tend to picture them as they're described. If they're described as of x descent, I tend to picture them like that. It's very strange to see it so obsessed over sometimes, as I have never really fussed over the race of characters. I didn't count it as more than a characteristic; it never really downright affected me. So it does feel duly strange to hear such a fuss over characters who are not White being cast as their respective races.

Normal stories, well, then I really would do what I used to do: say their race somewhere in the story, repeat it once or twice more for good measure, and let the readers run with it. That was what I did when I was writing non-fantasy stories, some time ago. I have moved into fantasy, however, in an original world, so I don't really use real races, much less approach them.
-Summer Cherries-'s avatar

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Simply put, I don't.

As a writer of fantasy, and of creatures who are, by and large, not human, I am not terribly fond of sticking real-world race on them. My Western (which is a race in the stories) character, who happens to be a dragon, is not White, Black, Hispanic, or otherwise. He is Western. Same for my other characters (Northern, Southern, Eastern, Central being the other five "races" outside of species). This has been an issue that has irked me for some time. Unless explicitly stated to be human, in fantasy, I see absolutely no reason to tack on human, real-world races in fantastical races.

This is an entirely different story for normal stories, though I cannot lend my two cents there, as I write fantasy and tend to err away from human characters, except in my current novel. As a reader, I tend to picture them as they're described. If they're described as of x descent, I tend to picture them like that. It's very strange to see it so obsessed over sometimes, as I have never really fussed over the race of characters. I didn't count it as more than a characteristic; it never really downright affected me. So it does feel duly strange to hear such a fuss over characters who are not White being cast as their respective races.

Normal stories, well, then I really would do what I used to do: say their race somewhere in the story, repeat it once or twice more for good measure, and let the readers run with it. That was what I did when I was writing non-fantasy stories, some time ago. I have moved into fantasy, however, in an original world, so I don't really use real races, much less approach them.


If the characters aren't human, then the race issue isn't applicable, certainly. But as you said, this is something to think about regarding human characters in fantasy (or stories set in alternative worlds).

I also wish race in stories wasn't something that people had to fuss about, but the fact that so many people are surprised when a character (explicitly described as such or not) turns out to be a POC really goes to show how we as a society have come to view White as the default. I too am guilty of this - I'll be reading a short story when I suddenly catch myself envisioning the main character as a White man/woman, even when there is absolutely nothing to suggest he/she is one.

I'd probably do the same with stories set in the real world. If I want to indicate that someone is Hispanic, I wouldn't have to do much beyond stating that they are Hispanic for people to get it. It starts getting tricky with stories set in original worlds since we can't refer to someone who is an Asian equivalent as Asian because, well, there is no Asia in that universe.
Symphony of Magic's avatar

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-Summer Cherries-

If the characters aren't human, then the race issue isn't applicable, certainly. But as you said, this is something to think about regarding human characters in fantasy (or stories set in alternative worlds).

I also wish race in stories wasn't something that people had to fuss about, but the fact that so many people are surprised when a character (explicitly described as such or not) turns out to be a POC really goes to show how we as a society have come to view White as the default. I too am guilty of this - I'll be reading a short story when I suddenly catch myself envisioning the main character as a White man/woman, even when there is absolutely nothing to suggest he/she is one.

I'd probably do the same with stories set in the real world. If I want to indicate that someone is Hispanic, I wouldn't have to do much beyond stating that they are Hispanic for people to get it. It starts getting tricky with stories set in original worlds since we can't refer to someone who is an Asian equivalent as Asian because, well, there is no Asia in that universe.


Ahh, I see. Perhaps I'm strange, but I never default to any particular race; if it isn't explicitly stated, my mind just conjures up whatever features they've been given and a skin tone that feels 'reasonable' for the character. But then again, I do not often run into this issue, as I tend to read predominantly what I write–that being fantasy.

Unfortunately, I've read a few arguments wherein people considered fantasy races "White" or "Black". And while I admit, there may be similarities here and there, I can't ever envision a race explicitly stated not to be human being confined to a specific race. It drives me absolutely mad.

I have always heard the humans of fantasy worlds lumped into "Black" or "White", when such things don't make much sense for the story, due to them being in other worlds. Race is a massive issue, I've come to think, which saddens me deeply when it comes to stories. Real-world books make sense to have such things, and I've read it done well. Unfortunately, people have started applying this obscene war to things like fantasy. Which makes me want to put my head through my desk several times, but more on that later.

The original world issue has been one of the ones I've struggled with. But, I decided to, pardon my language, say [******** it, it's my world, I shall populate it as I see fit. Since there is no actual region comprable to that of this world, I just use the normal terms for where they are from. Years of research and planning. Features are described here and there to help the reader get a feel for their appearance, since I can't actually say "Caucasian male" or "Asian female".
I_Write_Ivre's avatar

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I stopped caring. If you're not grown up enough to let an Asian guy play a character that can legitimately be Asian, you're not grown up to read most books.

I admit I'm at fault for 'default=white' mentality, but it's more because I feel they haven't been colored in.
-Summer Cherries-'s avatar

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-Summer Cherries-

If the characters aren't human, then the race issue isn't applicable, certainly. But as you said, this is something to think about regarding human characters in fantasy (or stories set in alternative worlds).

I also wish race in stories wasn't something that people had to fuss about, but the fact that so many people are surprised when a character (explicitly described as such or not) turns out to be a POC really goes to show how we as a society have come to view White as the default. I too am guilty of this - I'll be reading a short story when I suddenly catch myself envisioning the main character as a White man/woman, even when there is absolutely nothing to suggest he/she is one.

I'd probably do the same with stories set in the real world. If I want to indicate that someone is Hispanic, I wouldn't have to do much beyond stating that they are Hispanic for people to get it. It starts getting tricky with stories set in original worlds since we can't refer to someone who is an Asian equivalent as Asian because, well, there is no Asia in that universe.


Ahh, I see. Perhaps I'm strange, but I never default to any particular race; if it isn't explicitly stated, my mind just conjures up whatever features they've been given and a skin tone that feels 'reasonable' for the character. But then again, I do not often run into this issue, as I tend to read predominantly what I write–that being fantasy.

Unfortunately, I've read a few arguments wherein people considered fantasy races "White" or "Black". And while I admit, there may be similarities here and there, I can't ever envision a race explicitly stated not to be human being confined to a specific race. It drives me absolutely mad.

I have always heard the humans of fantasy worlds lumped into "Black" or "White", when such things don't make much sense for the story, due to them being in other worlds. Race is a massive issue, I've come to think, which saddens me deeply when it comes to stories. Real-world books make sense to have such things, and I've read it done well. Unfortunately, people have started applying this obscene war to things like fantasy. Which makes me want to put my head through my desk several times, but more on that later.

The original world issue has been one of the ones I've struggled with. But, I decided to, pardon my language, say [******** it, it's my world, I shall populate it as I see fit. Since there is no actual region comprable to that of this world, I just use the normal terms for where they are from. Years of research and planning. Features are described here and there to help the reader get a feel for their appearance, since I can't actually say "Caucasian male" or "Asian female".


Hmm, I personally don't think race issues are necessarily out of place in a fantasy setting. Even if I don't pick up fantasy to read about race wars, fantasy is ultimately born of the human imagination and will frequently reflect elements of our reality. It seems reasonable enough to think that humans of a certain race could have belligerent relations with those of another as they do in real life, magic and dragons notwithstanding.

I'd probably rely heavily on physical descriptors (while being mindful not to cross over into the territory of offensive stereotypes). I could try superimposing the fictional race's approximate geographical location over its real world equivalent's and hope people make the connection ( "her dark hair and eyes suggested she was of Eastern descent" ), but that obviously doesn't work if the fantasy world's terrestrial configuration is completely different from Earth's. Yowza.
the hidden ghost's avatar

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I can't find my copy of The Hunger Games just now, but didn't it explicitly state Rue was black?

People will always find something to b***h about.
-Summer Cherries-'s avatar

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the hidden ghost
I can't find my copy of The Hunger Games just now, but didn't it explicitly state Rue was black?

People will always find something to b***h about.

I think so? At the very least, it was made clear that she had dark skin.

Reading comprehension fail abound, oy. emotion_facepalm
Symphony of Magic's avatar

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-Summer Cherries-

Hmm, I personally don't think race issues are necessarily out of place in a fantasy setting. Even if I don't pick up fantasy to read about race wars, fantasy is ultimately born of the human imagination and will frequently reflect elements of our reality. It seems reasonable enough to think that humans of a certain race could have belligerent relations with those of another as they do in real life, magic and dragons notwithstanding.

I'd probably rely heavily on physical descriptors (while being mindful not to cross over into the territory of offensive stereotypes). I could try superimposing the fictional race's approximate geographical location over its real world equivalent's and hope people make the connection ( "her dark hair and eyes suggested she was of Eastern descent" ), but that obviously doesn't work if the fantasy world's terrestrial configuration is completely different from Earth's. Yowza.


I would agree that race issues do have a place in fantasy… Just not our race issues, unless it's specifically stated to be in our world, during a specific period. Otherwise, I don't much see how our race issues (the entirety of White/Black/Asian) apply to it. But of course, the races of that world are bound to have issues, and that can often make for a very fascianting read. I just don't like seeing real-world race issues in an otherwise entirely original fantasy.

You could try that. I would have to pull out some of my old writing to show you how I did it, which I probably don't have anymore, but I used to give tidbits of information here and there over the course of the story, letting the readers build their own opinions and database as time goes. For example, I would give a little bit about the Western culture and the Western people, letting them get to know the type, all the while building it up.

Then again, I am a bit opinionated on this, and for that, I apologize. I suppose this stems from my fervent readings of other fantasy works at one time, and becoming sorely unhappy with the tidbits about real-world races and real-world race issues in an otherwise original world.
I_Write_Ivre's avatar

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Per Noctem

Then again, I am a bit opinionated on this, and for that, I apologize. I suppose this stems from my fervent readings of other fantasy works at one time, and becoming sorely unhappy with the tidbits about real-world races and real-world race issues in an otherwise original world.


Not that I'm not saying you can't have that opinion or that it's bad, but I've noticed lately that my two favorite authors (okay, one is two co-authors, making three) use real world races in very original fantasy.

As much as Discworld is a parody, it's very much it's own place with it's own people, places, nations, cultures, etc. But it does have real world races (or renamed stand-ins).

The Sovereign Stone trilogy is very much high fantasy and a very unique world. However, after reading, you can easily notice the races are mixes of real-world races. The elves show very Chinese and Japanese cultural traits, the Dwarves resemble nomadic Mongolians, the Pecwae show blatant traits of nomadic natives of the Americas, etc.

Also, I don't see how real-world problems cant't be in fantasy. Sure, there may be a quest for the magic whatchamadoodle, to stop dragons or goblins, but as far back as Tolkein (likely further, but I can't think of an example right now), there were issues of over-industrialization, preserving nature, the affects of war on a society, problems arising due to lack of cultures seeing eye-to-eye, changes in technology, reclaiming a homeland, and disputes over resources.
-Summer Cherries-'s avatar

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-Summer Cherries-

Hmm, I personally don't think race issues are necessarily out of place in a fantasy setting. Even if I don't pick up fantasy to read about race wars, fantasy is ultimately born of the human imagination and will frequently reflect elements of our reality. It seems reasonable enough to think that humans of a certain race could have belligerent relations with those of another as they do in real life, magic and dragons notwithstanding.

I'd probably rely heavily on physical descriptors (while being mindful not to cross over into the territory of offensive stereotypes). I could try superimposing the fictional race's approximate geographical location over its real world equivalent's and hope people make the connection ( "her dark hair and eyes suggested she was of Eastern descent" ), but that obviously doesn't work if the fantasy world's terrestrial configuration is completely different from Earth's. Yowza.


I would agree that race issues do have a place in fantasy… Just not our race issues, unless it's specifically stated to be in our world, during a specific period. Otherwise, I don't much see how our race issues (the entirety of White/Black/Asian) apply to it. But of course, the races of that world are bound to have issues, and that can often make for a very fascianting read. I just don't like seeing real-world race issues in an otherwise entirely original fantasy.

You could try that. I would have to pull out some of my old writing to show you how I did it, which I probably don't have anymore, but I used to give tidbits of information here and there over the course of the story, letting the readers build their own opinions and database as time goes. For example, I would give a little bit about the Western culture and the Western people, letting them get to know the type, all the while building it up.

Then again, I am a bit opinionated on this, and for that, I apologize. I suppose this stems from my fervent readings of other fantasy works at one time, and becoming sorely unhappy with the tidbits about real-world races and real-world race issues in an otherwise original world.


A lot of our race issues are due to in-group mentality and dehumanizing and/or "other-ing" of dissimilar people, which I feel is a universal enough concept to see in a fantastical setting. The author's purpose for penning such a story also needs to be taken into account; if the piece was intended to be an allegory or a social statement of sorts, a discernible connection to real world history would have to exist in some form.

That's an idea. If the fictional race in question shares similar cultural themes and markers with its real world equivalents, the readers can work it out for themselves as they go along with enough hints.

No problem at all! It's good to hear other people's thoughts and opinions. C:
Symphony of Magic's avatar

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I_Write_Ivre
Per Noctem

Then again, I am a bit opinionated on this, and for that, I apologize. I suppose this stems from my fervent readings of other fantasy works at one time, and becoming sorely unhappy with the tidbits about real-world races and real-world race issues in an otherwise original world.


Not that I'm not saying you can't have that opinion or that it's bad, but I've noticed lately that my two favorite authors (okay, one is two co-authors, making three) use real world races in very original fantasy.

As much as Discworld is a parody, it's very much it's own place with it's own people, places, nations, cultures, etc. But it does have real world races (or renamed stand-ins).

The Sovereign Stone trilogy is very much high fantasy and a very unique world. However, after reading, you can easily notice the races are mixes of real-world races. The elves show very Chinese and Japanese cultural traits, the Dwarves resemble nomadic Mongolians, the Pecwae show blatant traits of nomadic natives of the Americas, etc.

Also, I don't see how real-world problems cant't be in fantasy. Sure, there may be a quest for the magic whatchamadoodle, to stop dragons or goblins, but as far back as Tolkein (likely further, but I can't think of an example right now), there were issues of over-industrialization, preserving nature, the affects of war on a society, problems arising due to lack of cultures seeing eye-to-eye, changes in technology, reclaiming a homeland, and disputes over resources.


Oh, no; I must've worded it wrong.

I quite adore realism, especially in stories, and I love more real-world type-problems being in the stories. However, it is when blatant real-world race issues (specifically, things like White versus Black, or X real-world race versus X real-world race) enter the stories that it irks me.

I am well aware of influences; that, I like. Influences are good. But it's not a full-on carbon copy, which is what I mean. Real-world, full-on copies (which I have seen done; not in published books, mind you, I'm only recently coming back to the relative haven of published books) of races and racial issues tend to irk me outside of real-world stories. Fantasy races engaging in issues that could be considered comprable or even directly similar to real-world issues has always fascinated me. Just not the real-world race versus real-world race-type of stuff. I've read a grand number of stories that have included more real issues, and hell, even my own (hopeful) fantasy series has a number of real-world issues in it.

My, I am having trouble wording this today. Forgive me if this makes little to no sense; I may be rambling. It's just that I am not fond of direct real-race versus real-race, rather than influenced-fantasy-race versus influenced-fantasy-race. When it's influenced, but still reads as a fairly original race with a culture that is not the exact same as an existing race, I have no issue. Influences are good, if you ask me. Particularly if they're well researched and have a bit of originality mixed into the combination.

Does that make sense? I might be writing nonsense at this point; if so, you have my apologies.
Sianserais's avatar

Blessed Lunatic

I've actually been a bit concerned about this recently myself. Years ago when I came up with my fantasy races, I just ran with whatever seemed to fit their environment. Now I'm a little concerned that people might see one of them as being a statement on people of African descent, which they never were intended to be. So I tweaked things to say that only the ones who spent a lot of time in the sun were that dark-skinned, and that individuals of the common race could be just as dark, if not more so. But because the group that plays an important role in the story is dark-skinned, I fear that people will make that association anyway.
I'm tempted to completely swap things around, but then it wouldn't feel as logical, and I'm kind of attached to my characters the way they are. neutral
Wait... Bane was Asian? I just always assumed he looked like Dumbledore for some reason. Huh.
-Summer Cherries-
I'd imagine that if you had a character that was of a particular racial background, you would want that detail to be conveyed to the reader in a manner that is clear and evident (yet not in a repetitive, hammer-to-the-head sort of way that detracts from the story).

That's not actually that big of a priority for me. Usually I just let the reader form their own mental images of my characters; I generally don't give a very detailed description of what they look like, and if I do, it's usually because it's something important to the plot.
-Summer Cherries-
This is especially pertinent when describing POC characters in a fantasy setting, where we can't signify what a character's real world racial/ethnic equivalent is through preexisting terms.

My Fantasy words usually closely parallel the "real world". So, I might not be able to tell you that Jehan of Berikstead is from the Holy Roman Empire, but just by the name alone, you can probably work out his ethnic equivalent.
-Summer Cherries-'s avatar

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Sianserais
I've actually been a bit concerned about this recently myself. Years ago when I came up with my fantasy races, I just ran with whatever seemed to fit their environment. Now I'm a little concerned that people might see one of them as being a statement on people of African descent, which they never were intended to be. So I tweaked things to say that only the ones who spent a lot of time in the sun were that dark-skinned, and that individuals of the common race could be just as dark, if not more so. But because the group that plays an important role in the story is dark-skinned, I fear that people will make that association anyway.
I'm tempted to completely swap things around, but then it wouldn't feel as logical, and I'm kind of attached to my characters the way they are. neutral

Hmm, I think the role they play and the context in which they perform said role matters a lot. For instance, if they are a villainous race and are the only group of dark-skinned people in the entire story (that is, there are no similarly dark-skinned races that fulfill positive and/or neutral roles), then people may pick up on that unfortunate implication, even if it wasn't your intention.

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