Elves Are Not Diversity

(Note: While I work to get some wind under my sails here, I’m going to repost some writing essays from my old blog and Tumblr. This is one of the former, first published in 2015.)

In working on my own fantasy world-building, I’ve spent a lot of time reading complaints readers have had about other writers’ work. One of those complaints is clear enough: a lack a diversity. The stereotypical fantasy story is a straight white male power fantasy, something set in a knockoff Medieval Europe (or a knockoff Middle-earth or, worst of all, a knockoff Forgotten Realms) where everyone, especially the hero, is white and gender roles and sexuality owe more to the Victorians than the actual Middle Ages. Writers have questioned and subverted these ideas for a while now — I’m fond of Michael Moorcock, whose most famous character Elric was a direct subversion of Conan and similar heroes — but it’s only recently become popular, if still controversial, to create more diverse fantasy stories.

But another complaint is in response to writers who hear criticisms of the lack of diversity and try to do something about it without quite understanding the point (or who possibly just want to shoehorn the work they were doing anyway into the “diverse” label): non-human characters do not count as “diversity”.

This is not a strawman. From an agent I follow on Twitter, who was posting as she went through her queries:

This is something people genuinely think, that they bill as diversity in their queries to agents. But to understand why it’s wrong, you first have to understand why diversity in fiction matters.

Including characters of a variety of races and sexes and sexualities and gender identities serves two functions: It gives people who are like those characters someone to relate to, and it gives people who are not like those characters a way to empathize with someone different from them. White heterosexual cisgender men have had an abundance of the former, and those who are not them have had more than enough opportunities to do the latter. And while the latter can make for good escapist fiction — I love a good non-human PoV — if a character doesn’t fulfill the former, it doesn’t help people who rarely see themselves represented in fiction.

And that is the point of the cries for diversity in genre fiction. It’s not because people want to read about and relate to werewolves and fairies — though they may also want that, unrelatedly — it’s because they want to read about themselves. So while it may be interesting, it’s not what people are looking for when they talk about diversity.

Now, the problems that arise when non-humans are used as a metaphor for a group of humans? That’s whole ‘nother blog post.