We’ve discussed relatable characters in previous blogs, but today I’d like to take a look into another aspect of characters being relatable: representation. A character’s anxiety, impatience, penchant for bad jokes, or strained relationship with family members can make us see parts of ourselves in the character. But what about characters who look like us?
A book cover is the first thing we see. Who is on the cover? I remember my first foray into the fantasy section of the bookstore. The covers in the 90s featured so many He-Man-looking men. Was this section of the bookstore not for me? Was fantasy not written for me? What about the fairy tales, unicorns, and dragons I’d so loved? I couldn’t place these feelings then, but one of the first books I selected was one of the few with a woman on the cover. Perhaps this was a book for me. I ended up reading a lot of this author, not realizing his portrayals of women were problematic. I was only ten. But I ended up reading his works well into high school, as many of his books starred women. I also read a lot of Brian Jacques’s Redwall series. I loved Mariel, Mara the Badger, and my absolute favorite, Hon Rosie the Hare. I even discovered Mercedes Lackey.
As I got older, I migrated to the romance section, and specifically selected romance of the fantasy variety. These books reliably featured women and were written by women. I didn’t think much about my reading tastes at the time. One of my favorite characters was Joyous Fiona MacQuarrie in Jill Barnett’s Bewitching. Here was a woman who was clumsy, laughed, and struggled. The book begins with our witchy protagonist getting a spell wrong. The incantation ended with the words “bell more,” and a moment later, she crashed through the top of the Duke of Belmore’s coach. In the romance section, I didn’t struggle to find authors with female protagonists. Eventually, I stopped drifting over to the fantasy section.
I’ve noticed that now I rarely watch anything with all male leads. It wasn’t a conscious decision; I just don’t enjoy them. Okay, okay, Supernatural is an exception. Sam and Dean are glorious. (I’ll stop myself now before I go into a tangent on that.)
But though society progresses and characters other than white men are given starring roles, some fight to keep fantasy the realm of the white male. I am an avid gamer. I play WoW, and occasionally lurk on the forums. The expansion, Battle for Azeroth, features quite a few women as leaders of their realms. The forums have had quite a few threads with players calling this “pandering.” In a world where men and women are powerful, it’s “pandering” for the game to center on some of the women? Women make up half the population. So, should this half be largely ignored? Some seem to think so. The forums are an interesting place, where the fans of one of the most popular MMORPGs congregate behind the masks of their in-game avatars. And fans of fantasy MMOs obviously tend to be fans of the fantasy genre.
There have been more than a few threads on the forums where people have asked for darker skin tones for humans. Many of the requests have been met with derision. One person in such a thread writes, “Azeroth is very heavily based on medieval europe, or rather it was when warcraft was first formed. It was easy for them to invent the continent of Azeroth to account for where white humans come from when first creating the game from nothing. Now we have a fully fleshed out world where we have visited and explored basically every continent. We cannot as easily invent a new human nation now to account for the addition of black characters” (Hazzulu).
Someone else chides the original poster with, “Where do you draw the line? If blizz gives into one group then every group has to be represented and thats impossible. Stop with the identity politics in a fictitious game and enjoy the product blizzard produces” (Hayhey). (As an aside, why can these people not figure out capital letters?)
Another person obtusely asks, “Why do you feel that there needs to be representation in a fantasy game?” (Shadowfoxxy). And yet another person chimes in with, “Look its a game. Just like movies. We are here to relax and have fun. To destress from real life. No one is going to enjoy having social politics thrown at them in their free time activity.Pushing sjw agendas through media forms is not what we play games for. So stop it.If you want more character customization then I’m all for more creative freedom. But you are actually just pushing an agenda. Again stop it. Leave peoples fun fantasy games/shows alone” (Kakurine). In…whatever that was, the poster concludes with “Leave peoples fun fantasy games/shows alone.” The subtext is there: “Don’t include others in a world that’s created for me and people like me. My fantasy world includes only these people.” There are many such threads, all with similar responses. This is just one of the most recent ones.
And don’t even get these people started on LGBT characters. Here’s another forum example: “And please explain to me why having black or LGBT NPC characters would make the story better? It would take extra time and money to make up an extra story line just so some character can explain their gay. Would it make slyvanas less of an evil character if she liked women?”
I’m very much given the impression of a lot of people who don’t want to share their beloved fantasy worlds with others. Why not? It’s always wonderful to connect with others over shared interests. Yet, others seem to want to play gatekeepers. If you aren’t a man, you can often expect to be met with something like, “Oh, yeah? If you’re a fan of x, name y obscure fact, and z insignificant detail.” Simply put, fantasy is for anyone who loves to dream.
Writers can always do better to include people. That’s something I can work on, too. I don’t want people to pick up my work and feel it isn’t for them. (Okay, maybe it isn’t for the posters I’ve quoted above. But I don’t think any book is made for them, considering their writing and empathy abilities are underdeveloped.) And it isn’t a sales thing. It’s a “knowing how shitty it is to feel like a genre you love isn’t for you” reason. That desire for representation led ten-year-old me to pick up Piers Anthony books.
One last point. Writing encourages empathy by allowing the reader to see the world from others’ perspectives. Are people so loathe to see the perspectives of others different from them? Or do they not want others to empathize with people different from them? I’ve tried answering this question of “Why?” and none of the answers are flattering.
Hayhey, “What exactly is wrong with asking for representation in WoW?” Blizzard forums, 19 March, 2019. https://us.forums.blizzard.com/en/wow/t/what-exactly-is-wrong-about-asking-for-representation-in-wow/129124/127
Hazzulu, “What exactly is wrong with asking for representation in WoW?” Blizzard forums, 19 March, 2019. https://us.forums.blizzard.com/en/wow/t/what-exactly-is-wrong-about-asking-for-representation-in-wow/129124/127
Kakurine, “What exactly is wrong with asking for representation in WoW?” Blizzard forums, 19 March, 2019. https://us.forums.blizzard.com/en/wow/t/what-exactly-is-wrong-about-asking-for-representation-in-wow/129124/127
Shadowfoxxy, “What exactly is wrong with asking for representation in WoW?” Blizzard forums, 19 March, 2019. https://us.forums.blizzard.com/en/wow/t/what-exactly-is-wrong-about-asking-for-representation-in-wow/129124/127