The Battle for Diversity in High Fantasy Fiction

George R.R. Martin’s latest book is rekindling backlash over its lack of POC characters. Why do popular fantasy series struggle with diversity?

Adaptations Book Culture Bookish Trends Fandom On Writing Pop Culture TV & Movies

George R.R. Martin has released the first volume of The Rise of the Dragon: An Illustrated History of the Targaryen Dynasty. The book is being boycotted by fans, however, alongside complaints about the lack of inclusivity within the universe, specifically in the House of the Dragon cast. One of Martin’s coauthors, Linda Antonsson, defends herself against allegations of racism, telling Variety that to force non-white actors into these roles would completely overthrow the series’ lore. With “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” receiving flack online for doing just that, the issue of ethnic diversity in fantasy has become a heated conflict across pop culture.

Today we’ll explore how the concept of race is defined in High Fantasy fiction, as well as common pitfalls authors face when building a diverse world. Considering arguments made for and against Martin’s lack of POC characters, what does this mean for the future of fantasy?

How High Fantasy Deals with “Race”

Perhaps the most paramount component when defining high fantasy is the setting. The world must be separated from our reality, with recognizable concepts such as society and religion, but otherwise is completely identified by its fictional features. Historically, this aspect of fantasy has been utilized to discuss parallel topics in real life. When it comes to race, the fantastical parallel reaches its peak. The different creatures inhabiting the world are meant to further enrich the world’s lore by imitating how real cultures develop. 

As a fan of pop culture, what does a society of elves look like to you? How about dwarves? These fictional societies are defined by how they differentiate both from each other and as well as from humanity.

IMAGE VIA WARNERMEDIA

Diversity in High Fantasy

Whether unconscious or purposeful on the part of the author, fantasy races often resemble real-life ethnicity with acute specificity. These real-life influences can take the form of damaging racial caricatures, wherein one culture or race is personified by the author’s internalized stereotypes.

Take Star Wars, for instance, the predominant piece of science fiction fantasy. It has seen some of the worst and best ethnic representation in popular fiction, due to the fact that there are over 45 years worth of content for it. Some of the aliens’ designs have been heavily scrutinized as resembling antiquated stereotypes.

IMAGE VIA DISNEY, LUCASFILM LTD.

The Elder Scrolls franchise is another story with an extensive universe and world that many different races inhabit. Its lore plays around with the effect economics, tradition and genealogy have on race relations. There are, however, some issues with how these cultures are personified, such as with the “Khajiit”. These catlike humanoids come from a desert land, speak in mystic riddles with thick accents, and are often characterized as thieves and liars.  

IMAGE VIA THE ELDER SCROLLS: LEGENDS

It can be argued that the parallel between these fictional races and real-world stereotypes is merely consequential, but the similarities become alarming when they are most often associated with nonhuman characters. While TES encourages roleplaying as a diverse array of races, stories tend to fix the foreign species as the antagonist while a human is the hero. A relatable protagonist is essential and yet said protagonists remain predominantly white even in worlds containing ethnic diversity.

Can High Fantasy Fiction Evolve?

In the case of George R.R. Martin’s universe, both the fans and the writers are hyper-aware of any racial diversity that doesn’t fit into the lore. Game of Thrones presents a fantasy society influenced heavily by Medieval Britain through an Angelo-centric lens. The biased representation of that history, unfortunately, colors how the non-white cultures are written: either barbaric and senseless or weak and in need of salvation. The “token” main characters of color are either given lackluster arcs or are otherwise shelved to prioritize the white protagonist’s story.

IMAGE VIA GAME OF THRONES/HBO

The source-accurate genetic isolation has led to heavy criticism following each release of content. Other properties such as Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings have made increased efforts to prioritize representation over traditional archetypes of the genre. But the now constant controversy over diversity in high fantasy shows the glaring issue of prioritizing predominantly-white cultural influences.

Stay up the date on the latest House of the Dragon news with Bookstr!

There’s plenty of high fantasy with rich lore derived from other histories and cultures. These creators have not only made great strides to develop a magic system that melds well with the setting.  They’ve also done enough research to know how this fictional society would mingle with the world around it, creating a living lore that’s more accurate to history in its meshing of global influences. Pictured below is the webcomic Kill Six Billion Demons by Tom Parkinson Morgan. The magic system in this webcomic’s fantasy world is influenced by a hybrid of multiple spiritualities.

IMAGE VIA KILLSIXBILLIONDEMONS.COM

Changing How We Look at Fantasy

Pop culture elevates medieval fantasy stories because they remain the most profitable. The familiar concepts of magic, nature, and society have saturated fiction since white authors have dominated the space for so long. 

Book culture is inundated with fantasy stories that all draw from this same general concept, and in working from that well-established lore, are liable to lack proper diversity. In order to alter how fantasy is written, these creators need to elevate other models of magic code and story-building while expanding on the genre as we know it. This benefits everyone who adores high fantasy and wants meaningful representation within the genre.

FEATURED IMAGE VIA HBO