The Elephant in the Room: Race, Sexuality, and Social Mobility in my YA High Dark Fantasy Novel

My post today is about topics I’ve chosen to represent in my high dark fantasy novel. I would love to say this was all my own decision and I was brave enough to write this character on my own. However, a friend challenged me and I’m very glad she did.

The Challenge (this was months ago but the conversation went something like this):

Indian Friend: “… you know, I didn’t have an Indian heroine in fantasy stories when I was a teenager. Could you write one for me?”

Caucasian Me: “I don’t know a lot about your culture, I wouldn’t want to do it injustice.”

Indian Friend: “That’s like saying because I’m Indian I can’t write a white character. I’ll help you research and I’ll beta read. Give it a shot and see what you can do.”

Caucasian Me: *thinks*. “Okay, I’ll give it a shot.”

Weeks later looking at my novel, “Okay, if the main character is Indian I can’t just change her name and physical description. I don’t want to white wash this….”

Lots of conversations with my friend later and the things I changed included: some customs, fashion, naming conventions, character descriptions, actively describing various races throughout the story, and things I probably can’t even remember anymore.

This challenge has been very rewarding and helped me expand my characters in my story and in helping me represent the diversity I want in the story. I always had a multi-cultural world, this just helped give me the confidence to expand it to the main character.

The world tropes I didn’t want in my story:

Here are a few things I actively decided to avoid:

  • Everybody is straight
  • A social norm is being gay has to be hidden
  • Everybody is white or race isn’t mentioned
  • The world is basically medieval England renamed with magic

My main character is an Indian sixteen year old girl who lives at the top of a mountain, socially and economically the worst place to grow up in her community. She dreams of moving down toward the Valley Settlement and up in the social structure.

Although the book is fantasy, I’ve been trying to have Indian culture and fashion significantly influence the country.  I’ve been doing a lot of research and I have a friend coming over today to help explain traditional Indian fashion (South Asia not Native Americans). She and I had many conversations about Indian fashion and today she’s bringing her Sari to explain how it works and the differences. I owe her!

Discussions I wanted in my story:

While writing I’ve been pushing myself to have a high fantasy story that has multi-dimensional characters who deal with many of the same common issues we do:

  • Social mobility
  • Race and Racism: although instead of being based on skin color, it’s based on the long-lived races versus the short-lived races.
  • Having homosexuality and asexuality represented without or with minimal social stigma
    • Part of this is giving me a headache because there are all new tropes I needed to familiarize myself with. I’m happy I did because it’s letting me see the potential pitfalls.
  • Teenagers who don’t always trust that adults know what they’re talking about
    • I was a teenager once! Adults are fallible so I’m trying to show both kinds of adults.

When other people have asked what I’m focusing on or working on in term of cutting edge topics I mention the list above. I was speaking with a woman who is probably in her forties and talking about this. When I mentioned the main character was Indian and the parts of the story which focused on LGBTQIA social norms in the world, she didn’t ask me if I’d researched Indian culture. Instead she focused on whether or not I’d researched LGBTQIA cultures.

The answer to both is yes, I don’t rank one above the other. Both elements influence a core piece of the world but neither are exactly the same as we see them here. There is a history in the real world we must take into account, luckily in Fantasy I create that history.

So, this is what I’ve been doing while working on my novel. What have you been doing to expand you world and enrich the lives of your characters? Do you feel this kind of research and attention to detail is hindering or helpful in your own writing?

I’d be happy to expand on any of these topics if anyone is interested.

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