Introduction

Fantasy and science fiction are where worlds are born and heroes are made. As writers, we have a powerful opportunity to add to the landscape of representation. As a fantasy writer, you can bring diverse voices and experiences to readers, forging a path toward inclusivity within the genre. This article aims to explore the importance of People of Color (POC) representation in fantasy and sci-fi, provide insights on crafting meaningful POC characters, highlight pitfalls to avoid, and offer five examples of books that successfully incorporate POC characters.

Fantasy and sci-fi have long captivated readers with their ability to transport them to fantastical worlds and challenge their perception of reality. However, historically, these genres have often overlooked the representation of diverse communities, including POC. By incorporating POC characters, you can break down barriers, challenge stereotypes, and promote inclusivity within your writing. POC representation enriches narratives, provides fresh perspectives, and empowers readers from all backgrounds to see themselves reflected in the characters and their stories.

How to Write Meaningful POC Characters

All writers should begin by conducting thoughtful research into the cultural backgrounds, experiences, and struggles faced by different POC communities. It is recommended that, no matter what your own background might be, that you engage with diverse voices, listen to personal stories, and approach your characters with empathy, consideration, and respect.

Just as with any character, POC individuals should be multidimensional, with their own unique personalities, motivations, and flaws. Avoid reducing them to stereotypes or tokenistic portrayals. Each character should have a considered reason for why they are who they are. As a writer, try to focus on their individual journeys, the different kinds of challenges they might face, and their growth within the story. Don’t fall into the mistake of creating Mary or Gary Stus. Give them flaws, make them face and overcome limitations, build three-dimensional and true-to-life characters. Characters are one main area in which writers should not be lazy.

It is important to note that real-world racism and xenophobia does not need to be reflected in every story. As writers, we should be careful not to make every POC character's story a tragedy relating to their race. The same principle applies to sexism, religion, and every other topic. Bring some nuance to the conversation where appropriate, treat your characters as something more than the colour of their skin or their gender. Get into the nitty-gritty about who they are, what they want, and where they are going.

POC communities are diverse and multifaceted, comprising a multitude of cultures, ethnicities, and experiences. It is essential to depict this internal diversity within your characters, showcasing their unique identities and avoiding the trap of portraying them as a homogeneous group. Some writers turn POC communities into some kind of hive-mind, with no differences between the individual characters of that community. It's just lazy writing. What writers must realise is that POC characters, just like every person in the real world, is an individual who cannot be reduced to a label. You need to understand them first and foremost as individuals with complex pasts, beliefs, and practices. Reducing them to clichés and stereotypes can lead to tokenism or straight up racism, which is absolutely not what we are trying to achieve.

You can seek feedback from POC individuals, collaboration with other writers, and sensitivity readers to ensure your representation is authentic and respectful. Collaboration and sensitivity readers can provide invaluable insights and help you avoid inadvertent pitfalls.

Stereotypes and Cliches

Don’t use insulting or hackneyed comparisons to describe skin-tones. It is also recommended not to use words related to food, as these have been used in disparaging ways in older works.

Avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes or clichés about POC communities. Characters should not be defined solely by their race or ethnicity, but rather by their individuality and the depth of their experiences.

Respect cultural boundaries and avoid appropriating elements from cultures that are not your own without proper research. Appropriation can be offensive and disrespectful, undermining the authenticity of your characters. This does not mean a white person cannot write about a POC. It simply means that such writing should be approached from a position of respect for history, how the portrayal might be viewed by POC readers, and genuine human empathy.

Beware of falling into the "Magical Negro" trope, which involves using a POC character solely to assist or guide the white protagonist, particularly where the POC character is reduced to a shaman-like role due to their "native attachment to the land". This is a stereotype. POC characters should have their own agency and story arcs, rather than existing solely to support others and being some kind of wise, mythical figure without any other characteristic.

Avoid the white savior complex. Challenge the notion of a white character coming to the rescue of POC characters or communities. Allow POC characters to be heroes in their own right, capable of overcoming challenges and leading their own narratives. Give them the moral ambiguity, depth, resolve, and challenges that any other character might face. Make them real.

Five Examples of Fantasy and Sci-Fi Books Featuring Well-Written POC Characters

Earthsea, created by Ursula Le Guin, stands as a pioneering example of POC representation in fantasy. Le Guin's groundbreaking series features a diverse cast of characters, challenging genre norms and offering rich narratives that resonate with readers of all backgrounds.

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi draws inspiration from West African mythology, presenting a richly diverse cast of characters who undertake a dangerous quest to restore magic to their world.

The Poppy War by RF Kuang is set in a world inspired by Chinese history and mythology. This bloody, dark, immersive fantasy story follows a young girl's journey from poverty to becoming a military prodigy, navigating the horrors of war and political intrigue.

Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse is a post-apocalyptic urban fantasy. Readers are introduced to a fierce Navajo monster hunter who battles supernatural creatures and confronts her own inner demons.

The City of Brass by SA Chakraborty is set in an enchanting world steeped in Middle-Eastern folklore. This novel introduces readers to Nahri, a con artist with hidden magical abilities who becomes entangled in the dangerous politics of djinn society.

The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin is a Hugo Award-winning novel featuring a breathtaking world ravaged by cataclysmic events. POC characters take center stage in this epic tale, exploring themes of power, oppression, and resilience.

Conclusion

I hope that this article inspires you to consider how POC characters can be incorporated into your fantasy story. By embracing the importance of POC representation, crafting meaningful characters, and avoiding common pitfalls, you can contribute to the diversification of the fantasy and sci-fi genres. Your words hold immense power to inspire, empower, and create positive change. As you embark on your writing journey, remember that representation matters and the impact of your work extends far beyond the realms of fiction.


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