A Diversity of Diversity

So yesterday I wrote a post about “unusual” sicknesses and I mentioned that I totally plan to have a lot of racial diversity in a story with a gigantic freaking cast – which as a side note is not the one I’m working on right now. And in mentioning the racial diversity in that I was going to be creating races for the story, I mentioned people with wings. This is what I wanna talk about.

It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine in fantasy, you see. It’s highly common to have your races: Human, Elf, Dwarf, etc. and bam, there you go! It’s already been picked apart that the human race tends to be like, maybe a couple countries, and they’re white default – heck, I’m white and think of white as the default character race because yeah, if I think of just some random default human it’s going to look more like me, and the default white thing still bothers me, something I’m trying to change for myself* – and that’s not what I’m here about. Although that is stupid. I’m here about the second half of that.

If it doesn’t make sense for the humans to be all one race, why does it make sense for the dwarves and elves to be?

I have people with wings. They’re called “archeons”. And they’re not a single race.

bird_diversity_wikicommons

They’re also not as diverse as they could be because I can’t handle that many birds.

They all have feather wings, and some of them are white. Some are black. Some are exotic tropic colors. Some are red. The diversity of birds gives me a lot to work with.

I don’t exactly have elves in the saga – I use the word “elf” as slang for half-human half-sidhe. However, I do have two more naturally magical than humans peoples, the fey and the sidhe (which here I’m pronouncing as “sith” rather than “she” due to my love of Final Fantasy and THEIR use of the word sith) who of course aren’t one single set of races either. Fey have brilliantly, solidly colored skin. Emerald. Obsidian. Crimson. They also have really shiny eyes. Telling their races apart is as easy as telling one crayon apart from another in a basic pack. The sidhe don’t have particularly colorful or variegated skin; it’s mostly all a washed-out seafoam color. Telling their races apart is more subtle, like how human races have more than just skin color that makes them a little different. Bone structure is the main physical tell, but without a keen eye for it, any character is going to have to go off of culture. Which will make them look all the same to someone who doesn’t know.

I do have one race that is your typical fantasy race, all one people, no variation – which is because members of it come about due to falling under a curse. Course this same group of people, the Kleachers, continue to grow in numbers until way, way, way later…they start dividing up. They’re technically all the same race still, physiologically, because friggun magic is determining their DNA, not evolution or whatever, but cultures change, language warps, and a couple millenia after the main story, there are different Kleacher…clans, at least, if we don’t want them to be called a different race due to the fact that, technically, they’re not.

kleachers_by_kauhana

Look, some really, REALLY old art from like, idk, middle school! Geez, have I never been able to have a scanner that didn’t make a picture blurry somewhere?

Sometimes you do see at least a stab at different kinds of elves or dwarves. Wizards of the Coast did, and Blizzard, to name a couple giant freaking franchises. I mean, some people recognize that maybe, just maybe, if on Earth we have one species – humans – and they come in like a billion different color variations (which considering skin, hair, and eye variations alone might not be a huge exaggeration) – then maybe other species ought to, as well.

Honestly I think it’s the language we use that’s the problem. We say “human race” and then we say, like if we’re starting up a DnD campaign, “What race do you want to be?” to mean, “Do you want to be human, elf, half-elf, half-orc, halfing…?” rather than, “What species do you want to be?”

These are different species. Not races. I don’t think there’s much anyone can really do about how we talk about it because it’s pretty embedded and for the most part no one’s really going to see it as a problem – I mean, I’d still say I have a bunch of different races in my stories to mean species because that’s how we talk. I’m not really advocating we change the way we talk about it, but maybe just be a little aware.

Because ultimately, having an entire species of any sentient being also be the same race is bland and weird. In a way it’s not like this issue isn’t ever addressed either – though usually I see people talk about it in Sci-Fi, not fantasy, since you have an entire planet of one unified country apparently of one unified people who are the same species-race. Which is definitely weirder. There are ways to make a unified country-planet work, but to just assume, especially with things like alien attacks…

firefly-to-make-landmark-return-to-netflix

Yeah, unified planets here is kind of a big background plot thing so I have no complaints. EXCEPT FOR THE USUAL COMPLAINT.

And I mean, sure, maybe there is only one nation of elves or dwarves and then it would make sense for there to also be only one race. But if that’s the case on a planet where there is more than one human race, I still think that’s weird without an adequate explanation. Why are there so many humans that they split off and over an incredibly long period of time grew up in places that were different enough they looked different from each other but there’s only one group of dwarves? If you have all nations of dwarves live underground so they all look similar, like pale with huge eyes or no eyes (huh, there’s an interesting thought) that could also make sense, but while I’m not a biologist or anything, I still feel like they’d be different somehow.

Anyway I know it’s a ton more work – I mean, trust me, I know, the folder on races alone in my Scrivener file for my Saga is friggun gigantic and it’s ridiculous – but it can also be a lot of fun and just as I think it’s useful to think of elements of mortality people usually forget in character crafting – like, say, hypothyroidism – I think that giving your non-human races actual races is useful. I mean, story element possibilities aside, you can make non-humans more or less Other-y with race.

*And as for that whole default white thing, turns out it’s actually REALLY easy to fix if you just ask yourself what race every character is when you make them, rather than assume anything. What can help you get into the mindset is by determining that when you describe hair and eye color, you go ahead and throw in one more color of skin, even if they’re white. There’s just as much a reason for a fantasy world MC to be any other race as there is for them to be white (assuming that race isn’t an object in the plot; if it is, then obvs what race they are is very important). Hence the MC of the story I’m working on isn’t actually white. He’s a made-up race that, skin-tone wise, is probably closest to Semitic. Here’s a sprite I made of him:

12226938_10206670269186747_7892989243500238025_n

Talzien have reddish eyes, reddish hair, and tan skin.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a white MC or even an all-white cast (especially if your story IS an Earth story and it takes place in a white-dominated country. Bugs the crap out of me that people whine about all-white casts in white-dominated country settings) but thinking of white as a default race IS a problem. And adding a splash of color is fun. You don’t have to make a big deal about your character’s not white race in the story. I don’t.

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About Rii the Wordsmith

An aspiring author, artist, avid consumer of storytelling medium, gamer, psychologist (insomuch as one with her bachelor's is a psychologist), wife, mother, DM, Christian, a friend to many, and, most importantly, an evil overlord.
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6 Responses to A Diversity of Diversity

  1. One of the concepts I’m playing with in my rewrite is eliminating as much mention of skin color as possible. I want to see if I can build characters that could be anyone. I’m not sure it’ll work, but it’s worth a shot.

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    • That’s a completely valid decision, if that’s your goal. Since imo, the bigger part of race is culture, that’s where it’ll be hard, no?

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      • Absolutely. How have you done thus far with creating diverse cultures (versus characters)?

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        • My saga is on hold right now so I’ve not been working hugely on it for writing. However, my husband and I are also working on a tabletop system and creating cultures for the races in the manner of this post has been interesting, since usually tabletop systems are the prime perpetrators of the singular “elf” or “dwarf” race.
          When we make characters in the framework we’ve created, whether for actually testing the game or just roleplaying to hash out the background story, having a framework already in place lends itself to easier character creation, without really seeming to limit things. The sidhe (in this world) are short-lived and fast-paced. But you want a laid-back sidhe? Yeah, you can still do that. The dwarves are matriarchal. But you want a strong, independent dwarf who don’t need no woman? Yeah, still possible.
          Creating the culture is just making a narrative on a wider scale, telling the story of a whole people instead of just one, and it’s just as much fun as regular character creation.

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    • Caroline says:

      Malinda Lo did this to some extent in her Cinderella retelling ASH. In her mind, the characters resembled earth-Asian, but she didn’t describe them in any particular way. Unfortunately, as people so often do, most people defaulted to “white” when they imagined the characters. Personally I find that specificity and striking description, not vagueness, make characters more vivid and memorable.

      Liked by 1 person

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