Maybe TV and film still need to catch up, but new fantasy novels, especially YA fantasy, have really impressed me lately with the way characters of diverse backgrounds have taken center stage. Off the top of my head, I’m thinking of The Bone Witch, Labyrinth Lost, The Diabolic, The Imposter Queen, and Iron Cast.
You can make arguments about these books, say their protagonists are “too special” or that these books aren’t diverse enough or whatever, but these books impressed me. They are all books that really didn’t exist and maybe could not have existed when I was young. I want to start this conversation by saying there are authors out there who are doing a great job of sharing diverse stories. Not only do they deserve a pat on the back, but I bring this up, because this is truly how I learn to write about almost anything. I reflect on what other writers have done, learn it, and bring it to my own writing.
Example #1 from YA Fantasy
So let’s talk about some cool books that are already out there. First, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco. This book first caught my eye because it is a YA fantasy book that is set somewhere other than faux-medieval England. With this book, you get “geisha-esque girl fighters and strategists” and “undead gigantic demonic beasts” to quote the author. It’s really, really cool. And while the story is great, again and again, I found myself reading for the world it was set in. It’s so beautifully described, immersive, and well thought-out. It’s heavy-inspired by Japan. I know practically nothing about Japanese history so I’m not going to tell you it’s inspired by the Edo period or anything like that. That leads me to another way diversity is brought into this book – characters challenge their gender roles.
The protagonist Tea is a witch, or necromancer (like how cool is that???), or otherwise known as a “dark asha.” She discovers her new talents when she raises her brother Fox from the grave. After that, she is whisked away to begin her training to become a full asha and take over the job of the last dark asha, keeping these undead, gigantic monster from wreaking havoc. So, it’s definitely a fantasy novel. We’ve got witches and monsters, brothers back from the dead – so much fun.
Now back to diversity in this book: Once Tea begins training, she enters this school of geisha-like training. On top of being this beast-fighting necromancer, she’s also supposed to be an entertainer and learn how to navigate the murky and treacherous waters of politics. Also, in this world, only girls can be witches, boys must be soldiers. With these crazy cut-and-dry roles, without ruining too much of the book, we get to see some pushback from the characters, which is awesome.
So, what about this example is working? The big thing, I think, is that story comes first. First and foremost, this is a high-fantasy novel and its plot is definitely high-fantasy. (Magic? Check. Monsters? Check.) It is essentially a really fun book to read and definitely important for any book. Reading is a form of entertainment. When you decide to write a book with diversity so much on your mind and having that as your goal, it’s easy to lose sight of story.
Example #2 from YA Fantasy
The next thing is less about diversity and more about writers trying to write with diversity. The Bone Witch has kind of a lot of side characters, but all side-characters are relevant to the plot and exploring the asha-culture within this world. Other examples like Labyrinth Lost, have even fewer characters. While there are a lot of ways to explore diversity, fight the tendency to just keep adding new characters. Adding new characters to talk about diversity is the easiest way to make a story feel clunky or disorganized. It might work for episodic mediums like TV shows, where a few episodes might touch on something the show never previously included. Adding new characters for diversity can often make it feel like you’re jamming diversity into a story that doesn’t naturally lend itself to that. This is not necessarily a universal truth, but like I said, a tendency.
Now, I mentioned Labyrinth Lost. Let’s talk about this example. I did not love this book the way I did The Bone Witch, but I think it does some really interesting things worth talking about. Like for instance, it’s about one girl, Alex, in a family of witches or “brujahs,” learning to come to terms with her own magical abilities. She casts a spell meant to get rid of her abilities but instead it makes her entire family vanish. As a result, she ventures off into this wild wonderland, Los Lagos, to rescue her family.
So, what was great in this book? The entire thing is heavily inspired by Latin American folklore, history, and tradition. The early chapters about the family dynamics, traditions, and magic were such a delight. There is cultural diversity in a way that is so integral to this book.
Beyond that, as the story unfolds, we learn that Alex is bisexual – one more way that this story includes diversity. She gets caught in a love-triangle and has to decide between a boy and a girl. Alex herself is still figuring out her own sexuality throughout the novel, and ultimately, this acts as a well-contained subplot.
Part of the question asked was about making a character “too special.” I want to say that there’s no such thing, but also, I’ve read enough to know that’s not true. “Special” is not necessarily related to diversity at all. A banjo-playing cryptozoologist with a pet ferret can also be considered “too special”. Often when a character feels “too special” it is because they aren’t developed enough to feel like a believable person. They are a conglomeration of labels instead of a “real” person. If you can make a character feel like a real, believable person, you can get away with a lot more.
So let’s look at my example: the banjo-playing cryptozoologist. He does not feel real to us by any means because this is a bunch of random labels piled together. We don’t actually see this guy. That matters. The more we see him, the more we can get to know him. We might find out he has a love of bluegrass from a childhood in Mississippi. Maybe he’s part of a bluegrass band or wishes he could be and that is why he took up the banjo. We’re getting to know him better already.
He’s also a cryptozoologist. While there could be any number of reasons that he is a cryptozoologist, let’s not get into it. There might be one reason, there might be hundreds. It doesn’t matter. Instead, let’s see what his day looks like. He’s on an expedition through the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. He’s taking notes on a tape recorder. He’s interviewing a scared camper who may or may not have seen Bigfoot last night. He becomes more real in process of getting to know him. He’s already more than just the short labels we assigned him. He’s less “special” already. Sure, he’s eccentric, but in following him around, the reader learns he’s not all that different from anyone else.
Additional examples I have not read but have been recommended to me:
- Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older
- Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee
- All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater
- Legend by Marie Lu
- Kindred by Octavia E. Butler