Race, Fantasy Literature, and Political Correctness (part III)

I had another thought on this topic since the last post, so I’m extending the series to three parts. Basically, it deals with the difficulty concerning a strictly politically correct approach to race and the fact that any piece of literature will deal with a finite number of major characters. And by finite, I mean small.


Much literature consists of a protagonist and an antagonist and a variable number of supporting characters. In more recent years, we have seen the rise of multiple major characters. One of my favorite examples is the Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson. There are probably close to a dozen major characters in the series, maybe even more. However, that was a series spanning fourteen books and probably around 10,000 pages, giving the authors plenty of room to flesh out all the characters. Anyway, my point is that unless you intend to write a behemoth of similar magnitude, you will probably be limited to a handful of major characters in your story. Let’s say five.


How many races are there on planet Earth? There’s African, Caucasian, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, American Indian, and, I’m sure, a good many more. If we are going to take political correctness to its anal extreme, we should have representatives from every race among our main characters. But, clearly, that is impossible. There are too many races involved. We only have five characters and the incomplete list of races above has already reached six. We didn’t even include pygmies or Aborigines, and who knows who else.


Still, despite my harping, political correctness has (or at least did have) a point. Back in the 1950’s or so, most of the movies in the U.S. featured almost entirely white casts. And, I think if you take such in the aggregate that can be a problem. I’m sure it leads to a kind of psychological apartheid (as well as a more literal societal apartheid), particularly when there are large segments of the population who are not represented in the movies at all (i.e. blacks, American Indians, etc…). However, I think nowadays, we are so preoccupied with race and “diversity” we are going off in the other direction, insisting on diversity where it might actually do a disservice to the story in question. I must object when political correctness is used to justify an inconsistency with historical truth, such as in the movie “Thor” of my first post on the subject (not sure “truth” is the right word there, but I think you get my point—the gods of Asgard should have been white for historical reasons, not mixed for politically correct ones). Anyway, I think we have reached the point where, on an individual basis, we can set aside politically correct concerns and just tell good stories. There may be times when an all black or all white cast may be called for, and I don’t think the artist should be penalized for such. The needs of the story should determine the characters involved, not the latest trend in contemporary politics or literary groupthink.

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About atoasttodragons

The author, Matthew D. Ryan, lives in northern New York on the shores of Lake Champlain, one of the largest lakes in the continental United States, famous for the Battle of Plattsburgh and the ever-elusive Lake Champlain Monster, a beastie more commonly referred to as Champy. Matthew has studied philosophy, mathematics, and computer science in the academic world. He has earned a black belt in martial arts.

6 responses to “Race, Fantasy Literature, and Political Correctness (part III)”

  1. Alex says :

    I can understand some of the rage over Heimdallr, as he’s described as the “whitest” of the gods.

    On another note, I once heard Friends described as a science fiction depicting a future in which there wasn’t a single black person in New York City.

    • atoasttodragons says :

      I don’t think I’d classify it as rage … More like mild irritation. I mean, I didn’t even notice it the first time through. As for Friends … Yeah, that about sums it up.

  2. debyfredericks says :

    I would point out that we all feel comfortable writing about people who look like us. So if we’re white, naturally we imagine our characters as white. Black writers naturally imagine their charactes are black, Latino writers as Latino, and so forth.

    That said, it doesn’t hurt anybody to stretch their imaginations and think about the experiences and cultures of people who DON’T look exactly alike. I did that with my first two novels, The Magister’s Mask and The Necromancer’s Bones. It was fun to put myself in the skin of a very conservative yet independant Island woman.

    If you think about it, the Thor movie said Asgardians are actually not humans, but aliens from another dimension… thus, there might have been more than one “black” person or some other ethnic grop, instead of the token Heimdall. Or, for that matter, the one black extra in Mos Eisley who was so commented on in the first Star Wars.

    White people are no longer the majority in the United States. For white writers to insist that everyone in our stories be white? That is a fantasy indeed.

    • atoasttodragons says :

      Wasn’t insisting that all characters be white at all times. That would be silly and then some. Only saying that sometimes the needs of the story may on occasion require non-PC characteristics. Insisting on being PC all the time can sometimes hurt the story. Like in the case of “Thor.” Yeah, they were aliens, but you still have a body of Earth lore that doesn’t quite agree.

      • debyfredericks says :

        Well, it is Hollywood. They have their own ideas about what the story should be, always. Faithfulness to the source material is just a nice bonus. This is something we writers have to think seriously about before we sell film rights.

        Anyway, if as viewers we let that sort of variance bother us, we’ll never have any fun at the movies. (The Hobbit, anyone?)

      • atoasttodragons says :

        I suppose. But sometimes I like to nitpick.

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