Friday, July 8, 2011

Guest Post: Marion Sipe: Characters of Color in Fantasy

Today, Marion Sipe, author of the recently released Signs of Blood. Here's a little about her book (available at Amazon and Smashwords):

"While investigating her father's murder, Chadri never meant to get involved in politics.  She arrives in Mesaceal with her mentor Nathias and a wild talent for blood magic, but soon finds it won't be enough to stop a brutal attack on her family home.  After befriending a queen who is forced to fight to win her crown, and learning of rumors about the theft of a sleeping god, Chadri is caught up in a web of conflict spanning two nations. Trapped within the tightening threads, she must unravel the secrets surrounding her father's death, or die the same way he did."

Today, though, she's here to talk about characters of color in fantasy.


Characters of Color

Quite honestly, when I created this world I was fairly oblivious to the lack of characters of color in fantasy. Not because I didn't read it, I've devoured fantasy books (and most other kinds) all my life, but like many white people I didn't get it. I was, literally, color blind. I wrote these characters, Chadri and Liral who are both characters of color, because they were from a background where they would be... characters of color. Liral is Devsari and they're a desert people, and Chadri is half-Devsari/half-Bensas. The Bensas once shared the desert with the Devsari, but the Devsari expanded and the Bensas got pushed up into the mountains on the western coast.

I'm white, but I grew up in all different places (mostly around the south), surrounded by people of myriad skin tones and cultures. When I went to write, it was normal to me that people would be varied, that they would come in shades, so that's the way I wrote them.

It was Chadri and Liral who taught me about the lack of characters of color in fiction. Because I was writing them, I looked for other characters like them. And I found shockingly few. There are many whose race or ethnicity or skin color weren't mentioned, but I found I always thought of those characters as 'white.' Books with characters of color as MCs were shelved in a different location than books with white MCs. Seriously. And the horrible thing? Sometimes, they still are. Segregation in literature. Why? If it's a fantasy novel, shouldn't it be in the fantasy section? Does the color of the MCs skin really mean that it should be somewhere else?

I think white writers are afraid to write characters of color. We're afraid of getting it wrong, of being accused of racism. (Let's face it, we're kinda terrified of that word.) But is it any better to ignore the issue? Even laying aside the problem of realism (humans come in a multitude of shades, it's just a fact, look around. Most things come in various shades), there are larger things at play here. Everyone deserves to see themselves reflected in what they read. It's one of the reasons we do read. Books (TV and movies, too) are our experience of our culture. They are how we relate to it, one of the mediums through which our culture's expectations and values are communicated to us.

How many of us read a story and the MC does something awesome, and we grin and think "I would totally do that." or "Yes! Exactly what I would have said." Or what we wished we could say. Or what we want to believe we'd do in that situation. Or any number of other things. Books, movies, TV, these are our ideals. These are the standards to which we hold ourselves (which only makes it sadder when there's no way to "live up" to those standards, or when those standards are twisted into impossible, ridiculous, or unworthy goals). How would you feel if you looked at the TV and couldn't find a face like yours? Think about it. Take a moment and imagine that almost everyone in almost every book, TV show, and movie looked different than you. Not only that, but how would you feel about your culture when it communicated to you ideals that were nothing like your personal experience? How would you feel knowing you weren't reflected there?

I think it's an important issue, especially in secondary world fantasy, in which we get to create the people we're writing about. Writers have the unique opportunity of communicating their world to readers, but at the same time they're communicating their ideals to readers. Our books, in addition to hopefully having an awesome story with awesome characters, say: "This is what I find admirable/worthy/important." What does that make what we leave out?

And yeah, there's a chance that we'll get it wrong. There's a chance that any character I write isn't going to ring true. That's the chance I take when writing. I can limit those risks by doing my research, by widening my own experience of the world, by listening to what people of color have to say on the subject, and by taking just a little time to educate myself on the pitfalls, clichés, and the topics at hand. That doesn't remove the risk of my messing it up. But I take that risk with every character, no matter who they are or what the color their skin, their gender, their class, their sexuality, whatever. But if I don't try, I wind up populating my fictional universes with... well, thousands of clones of me. And seriously, who wants to read that?


Thanks, Marion. As a minority and a long-time fantasy fan, this topic is something I've thought a lot about throughout the years, and it's interested to see it explored by someone else.

Please check out Marion's blog at ( and her book at Amazon or Smashwords.


Marion Sipe said...

Thanks for having me! I'd love to hear your thoughts, if you're inclined to share them!

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