Commentary

Why “Historical Accuracy” Isn’t a Reason to Exclude Diversity

Finn, Rey, and Rose from Episode 8.

It's unrealistic for women to be space wizards!

Whenever an argument starts about some big-name show lacking diversity or having too much bigotry, you can be sure to hear the refrain that it’s all in service of historical accuracy. It might not be pleasant, the argument goes, or agree with modern sensibilities, but that’s how it was back then, and there’s nothing to be done about it.

As someone who critiques media for a living, I run into this argument all the time. I see it from the darkest depths of YouTube to the comments section of this very blog. Some people use the argument as a smoke screen to hide the fact that they simply don’t want diverse stories, whereas others genuinely think that history requires stories to be full of bigotry. Either way, the argument is wrong, and here’s why.

Most Stories Aren’t Historical

Daenerys reaching for her dragon. Very historical imagery right here.

There’s no easy way to say this, but Westeros isn’t a real place. Neither is Middle-earth or wherever the heck Wheel of Time takes place.* These are all fantasy worlds with their own geography, climate, resource distribution, and past events. None of them share a history with the real world.

Applying historical accuracy to non-historical settings doesn’t make sense. History is an infinitely complex, ever-changing beast that is extremely sensitive to context. It’s nearly impossible to point at a single factor and say it caused a single event. Did the American Revolution happen because of British taxes? Sort of, but it also happened because King George III was an unstable ruler who inflamed an already tense situation. Would the revolution still have succeeded if King George had kept his head? It’s really hard to say.

That’s just the tiniest taste of how many factors influence history. What if the Seven Years’ War had ended in a French victory? What if Native Americans had been resistant to European diseases? You can stretch these what-if questions out to infinity, and that’s just with scenarios that can play out on Earth as we know it. What if the Atlantic Ocean were smaller and Britain could more easily send reinforcement to the colonies? What if Europe were situated next to Mongolia instead of on the Atlantic coast?

You can apply these questions at every level of history. Can you have Victorian fashion trends without a global empire to support them? Would Japan have become an expansionist power in WWII if the country hadn’t been unified against Mongol invasions in the late 1200s? Changing even one significant factor can have ripples across history.

Now imagine you’re changing more than one thing. Imagine you’re changing the world’s entire geography and probably adding some magic and non-human races for good measure. Standard high-fantasy worldbuilding procedure. The idea that these fictional societies would be bound by real world history is laughable. The same thing happens when you take the real world and add magic to it or even create a fictional university of eldritch horrors in New England. The rules have changed; you are no longer bound by what happened in real life.

Diversity Is Historically Accurate

Gus from Psych. Best line in all of TV.

We’ve gone through how weird it is to insist on historical accuracy for a non-historical setting, but what if you are doing a historical story? Maybe this story has no speculative elements, or those elements are minimal, or they’ve only just appeared. Surely such a setting would need to take up the burden of historical accuracy, ruling out any diversity. That’s just the tough cookies of real life!

Unfortunately for anyone who thinks that way, real life is not going to cooperate. History is a diverse place, because humanity is a diverse species. Even if we limit ourselves specifically to Europe, we see centuries of intermixing and cultural exchange. The Roman Empire alone shuffled countless people around the Mediterranean, and those people didn’t just pack up and go back when the empire fell. After the Romans, Islamic and Mongol expansion sent people from across Asia and North Africa deep into Medieval Europe.

Outside of Europe, the situation is even more interesting. China exchanged people and goods with the Indian subcontinent and beyond. Arab traders crossed the deserts of North Africa to reach the fabled wealth of Mali. DNA analysis now indicates Polynesians reached South America long before any Europeans did.

That’s a lot of racial diversity, but race isn’t the only factor to consider. Women are often relegated to secondary roles in fiction, and the practice is then justified by saying history was just a sexist place. To be fair, history is rife with extreme misogyny, but it is also full of women doing things and having free will. Sometimes these women defied the misogyny of their culture; sometimes their culture just wasn’t as misogynistic as we’d expect it to be. You may have heard of Cheng I Sao, the most successful pirate in history, but did you know that when she took over her dead husband’s pirate fleet, no one objected? Wives taking over their husband’s business was simply an accepted practice in her culture.

History is also full of queer folk, even if they aren’t celebrated the way they should be. Most of us know how gay men have been widely accepted at various times, but the rest of the LGBTQIA+ spectrum is represented as well, even if words didn’t exist to describe them. A number of historical figures described as cross-dressers were probably trans, and people who don’t care for sex at all aren’t new either.

It only takes a little imagination to find diversity in a historical setting. While the halls of power are often filled with only the most dominant group,* one only needs to venture a little further afield to find thriving communities of diversity.

Accuracy Is the First Casualty of a Good Story

Frodo's Mithril shirt. Sorry, Frodo, that spear would have crushed your chest even with the Mithril.

Okay, so let’s say your story has some very specific requirements that absolutely rule out anyone except people from the most dominant group. Maybe you’re telling a story about 1800s British MPs who are excited to have sex with their wives. That sounds a little silly to me, but let’s accept for the sake of argument that such a premise exists: one in which there can be no diversity without breaking historical accuracy.

Then break it. Storytellers break accuracy all the time in the service of their craft, so why should historical accuracy be the exception? If we treated biological accuracy as inviolable, most protagonists wouldn’t survive their first action scene. If we worshiped at the altar of physical accuracy, human spaceflight would be impractical and gunfights would mostly consist of hiding behind cover.

Stories can never be 100% accurate to real life, because real life doesn’t make for a good story. Real life rarely has a satisfying payoff, people don’t learn lessons from their hardships,* and success has more to do with random chance than with skill or talent. Every story massages the rules of reality a little, both physical and social.

This is true no matter how dark and gritty a story is, no matter how many times the narrator says, “This isn’t a story, this is real life,” and swears not to use any storytelling tropes. More often than not, those stories are even less accurate than normal. On the rare occasion when a storyteller does manage to craft a story that conforms perfectly to the laws of probability, no one wants to read it. Such stories feel random and unsatisfying, unworthy of our valuable time.

Considering how easily we accept breaks in other kinds of accuracy, it’s a bad look to draw the line specifically at including diverse characters. Adding insult to injury, storytellers break historical accuracy all the time, including in stories where historical accuracy is being used to exclude diversity or justify bigotry. If someone is very upset that a hero in the Trojan Wars has been cast as a black man, but doesn’t mind that the soldiers are using iron weapons,* that suggests they have ulterior motives.

Accuracy Is a Means, Not an Ends

A post for Black Panther WAKANDA FOREVER!

So where does this leave historical accuracy? Is it a meaningless concept, and should we just do whatever we want with no rules or restrictions? Not at all. The key lies not in throwing historical accuracy out with the bigotry but in understanding what historical accuracy is for.

Historical accuracy, like all kinds of accuracy, is a tool for improving your story. Audiences like being swept up in a living, breathing world, and historical accuracy will help you do that. If you set a story in World War One, knowing the limitations of messenger pigeons will make the setting more immersive. Similarly, being able to accurately describe the sights and smells of Edo in 1534 will help transport the audience into a world that is not their own.

Accuracy is also useful for giving the story dramatic weight. If your protagonist is cut by a sword, and you accurately describe the lengthy, painful recovery process, your audience will know that swords are to be taken seriously. The next fight your hero gets into will feel dramatic and dangerous because the audience doesn’t want them to be stabbed again.

As a tool, historical accuracy should be used to improve a story, not make it worse. In the vast majority of cases, diverse stories are better than homogeneous stories. Not only do diverse stories provide a breath of fresh air for audiences, but they give important representation to marginalized audiences. Diverse stories also help normalize the existence of people outside the dominant group. For all that, diversity costs a story almost nothing. The only people put off by a diverse story are the ones you didn’t want in your audience anyway.

A storyteller who uses historical accuracy as an excuse not to include diversity is like a carpenter who won’t ever put their hammer away. The hammer is an important tool of woodworking, but if you keep hitting the wood until it cracks, then the hammer isn’t doing its job. Employ historical accuracy when it benefits your story, but don’t get so devoted to it that you make the story worse.

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    Great article, Oren.

    As someone who knows a lot about the history of Europe, on account of living there and studying it for a while, I’m often surprised people think that POC were not a thing in Europe. The Romans conquered quite a bit of it and most soldiers in the Roman army were either mercenaries or they were from colonies themselves. Soldiers from Northern Africa were no rarity, as a matter of fact, the Sybian archers had a very good reputation among the Romans. The Vikings, on the other hand, travelled a lot, first plundering and later on trading. It’s not unlikely they would have brought back people from other places with them every now and then (or left their genes there).

    And with all the people wandering back and forth on the Eurasian continent, there’s nobody in Europe who doesn’t have some genes from far away in their DNA.

  2. GeniusLemur

    As an example of “Diversity Is Historically Accurate,” do you want to put cowboys in your story? You know old-west, cattle-driving, all-American cowboys? Historically, at least 15% of them should be black, and another 15% should be Hispanic. And that’s the minimum: a lot of historical estimates are a lot higher.

  3. Alice

    Regarding the first point, could it be argued that bigotry is accurate due to human nature?
    For instance, I’m currently writing a story set in a society based on traditional Himalayan life, but I want it to be considerably more egalitarian. When worldbuilding, I felt I had to do tons of research into why certain forms of bigotry exist to explain why they’ve never appeared in this society. Given that things like gender roles (to my knowledge) have existed to some extent in every culture in every time period, it seems like you’d need a very unusual circumstance to have it never exist in a given culture.

    If this is the case, can it be argued that a bigotry-free society is unrealistic (which is what I think most people mean by ‘inaccurate’) unless the world has been specifically and bizarrely built in a way that could prevent it?

    I’m not sure if this point has anything to do with historical accuracy or if it’s part of a different argument entirely, but it crossed my mind when I read this.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      The exact causes of bigotry and gender roles (the two are not necessarily the same thing) are extremely complex, so it’s often hard to say exactly what causes them and how they’d be different under different circumstances.

      That said, some cultures are more egalitarian than others, and if you really want to you can look up some factors that would reduce the prevalence of gender roles. One such factor in real life is there being more women around. When a society has more women then men, women gain opportunities they would otherwise be denied. You can also add fantasy elements and use those as factors. In a society with magic, sexism would be less prevalent simply because it’s hard to oppress women who can shoot fire out of their hands.

      Or, you can simply file this under a type of realism that is bent in order to make the story work, as I talk about in the 3rd section. We do that all the time for other factors, so I don’t recommend choosing gender roles as the hill to die on.

    • Cay Reet

      It’s true that most cultures have gender roles, but the gender roles themselves can be very different. If you look, for example, at Native American cultures, you will find many which did not subscribe to ‘men’s work’ and ‘women’s work,’ but, essentially, to ‘everyone does what they do best.’ There are also cultures in which the gender roles as we often understand them are reversed (matriachy vs patriarchy). In addition, with a culture you build yourself, it is your decision how to split up the world between men and women. You don’t have to restrict women to housework and childbirth. You don’t have to make a very strict cut between both. The only gender roles which don’t change is who fathers and who bears children, because those are genetic. Everything else is, more or less, up to circumstances and past situations.

      I’ve found that gender roles seem to be more strict in cultures which went to war a lot, because they often have a strict divide between the soldier (most men) and the rest of the group (women, children, old people). On the other hand, nomadic societies often have little divide between genders, because everyone in the group is needed.

      Bigotry does exist everywhere but one question for your story is how much it influences everyone. Are there some people who put their bigotry up high, forcing, because of their own power, everyone to go along with it? Is it institutionalized and basically taught to children from the beginning? Is it something personal and you only encounter it every now and then with someone? There are examples in history for all of this (and, probably, on our planet as it is at the moment, too).

    • Dave L

      Perhaps the society had been bigoted in the past, but a new teaching, religion, philosophy, or some such has taught them to be more open-minded, (possibly after a terrible war almost wiped them out). Now they teach their children to be egalitarian, warn of the dangers of bigotry, ostracize racists, etc.

      The exact method and degree would depend on your story, of course. As for realism, many people (including me) hope that our society as a whole is heading this way, so your culture is just ahead of the curve

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      The other thing I should have mentioned is that it’s not against any rules for your fictional society to have gender roles, the issue is when those gender roles are used as an excuse not to include women in major story roles.

      • Kathy E Ferguson

        The more I study a particular period of history (the anarchist movement from 1870 – 1940), the more I see the truth of Oren’s 2nd point – history itself is full of diversity. Standard accounts of the anarchist movement have claimed that it included few women (other than the famous Emma Goldman and Voltairine de Cleyre) but I have found over 1000 women who played important roles in and around that movement. Sometimes the problem is in defining what counts as the movement: histories have often focused on a few writers whose ideas have stayed in print, while overlooking out-of-print writings. Other histories have overlooked orators, editors, teachers, and organizers, who were often women and whose work was fundamental to the successes of the movement. So, if you are mining an historical epoch for material, and you only find one “kind” of person, dig deeper and chances are good that there will be a range of fascinating stories that are less often told.

  4. Alex McGilvery

    Good article, I think a few people may slowly be getting the message. Encouraging people to read diversely will help too. East Asian Sci-Fi Fantasy is fascinating, and speculative fiction coming out of Africa is powerful stuff. The thing I missed in the article is the diversity around functioning in society, or what we’d call mental health. People in fantasy living with mental health issues are most often relegated to the margins or assigned roles of ‘crazy old man/woman’, prophet, villain and so on. What about people on various points of the autism spectrum?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Mental health in spec fic, particularly fantasy, is certainly something that requires more attention, and you’re right that sterotyping mentally ill people as “crazy” is a huge problem, both in real life and in fiction. I didn’t specifically address that in this post because frankly, I’m not very knowledgeable on the subject and didn’t want to give a bad message by mistake. We do have two posts on the subject of disability in spec fic, Five Signs Your Story Is Ableist and Four Tips for Depicting Disabled Characters, and it’s a subject we hope to have more material for in the future.

      • Alex McGilvery

        Oren, those are both good articles which start the discussion on mental health. You’re going in the right direction. A great deal of what you say about disability works the same way for mental health. I expect it would for people on the Autism spectrum too.

        I have lived with mine or other people’s mental health struggles for 30 years, so if you want to chat about how it may or may not work in a story I’d love to kick some ideas around with you.

    • Dave L

      Ferrett Steinmetz:
      I’m In A Kickstarter For Compassionate Fantasy Stories About Mentally Ill Characters! Check It Out.

      http://www.theferrett.com/ferrettworks/2018/05/im-in-a-kickstarter-for-compassionate-fantasy-stories-about-mentally-ill-characters-check-it-out/

  5. Jotunn

    Okay, diversity in movies is absolutely cool and I don’t know anyone who would be against it, but why the historical genre? As a history enthusiast myself, I just cannot seem to agree with most of your statements. A historical accuracy is a casualty? (Just look at Vikings TV show and see how horrible it is!) Breaking accuracy just for the sake of having a more racially diverse cast? Oh, man…

    quote: “That sounds a little silly to me, but let’s accept for the sake of argument that such a premise exists: one in which there can be no diversity without breaking historical accuracy. Then break it.“

    “Diverse stories also help normalize the existence of people outside the dominant group. For all that, diversity costs a story almost nothing.”

    “Not only do diverse stories provide a breath of fresh air for audiences, but they give important representation to marginalized audiences.”

    I see your point. But why would there be an African Scotsman among Scottish freedom fighters who fight along William Wallace against the English opression in the 13th century? Don’t you see how utterly silly this this is? It’s almost an insult to the minority, as if it needed a representant in places where there is NO NEED for them to be represented! If I’m a “native” European, I don’t expect “native” Europeans to be in a historical movie about China. And I also don’t think someone who has a different skin color than me would think differently.

    Let’s flip the coin. Imagine you’re watching a historical movie about Zulu warriors who are fighting against some foreign conquerors and there among them would be a white Zulu warrior, just for the sake of diversity? Or an Asian among a movie about American natives? It doesn’t work like that, does it?

    In the past, we had historical movies, where people of different races were played by white actors. Whitewashing – and it’s just as bad as its current trend – (insert-colour)washing. It’s not the solution to the bigger problem that we have in our society. It only dilutes the history.

    quote: “The only people put off by a diverse story are the ones you didn’t want in your audience anyway.”

    No, no, no. Not everyone who doesn’t agree with you is a racist, you know? The people put off by a “diverse story” (historical story) where it should not be racially diverse are also the ones that value a truthful depiction of the history and dislike to look at the past through rose-colored glasses. The past was cruel, crazy, immoral, horrible and racist. We should not pretend like it never was, no! Instead we should accept it and learn from it.

    • SunlessNick

      Mediaeval writers included black people in their own work, so the idea didn’t seem silly to people with first hand experience of those times.

      • Cay Reet

        Starting with the Romans who had both slaves and mercenaries from all of the Mediterranean (including the northern coast of Africa), there have been POC everywhere in Europe. Later trends, like slavery in Europe (‘moors’ were highly fashionable for a while), the Huns wandering back and forth several times, the Osman Empire getting as far as Constantinople in the east and Spain in the west … sure, there never were people who are ‘not white’ in Europe in the past. Not to mention all the people from Africa and Asia who were part of the British Empire and thus came to England…

    • Worldwalker

      I think there are actually two separate issues here:

      One is the historical nature of the piece in question.

      The closer something is to a specific aspect of history — say, the Horatio Hornblower books — the closer it needs to hew, in all respects, to what is known about that part of history. British ships during the Napoleonic wars were crewed by white, lower-class British men, and commanded by white, upper-class British men. The class thing was not totally inflexible — there were a handful of what would be called “mustangs” today, and the occasional “gentleman ranker” as it were among the crew. But the “men” part was invariable, the “white” part was virtually invariable among the officers (I’m unaware of any exceptions, but it’s not really my area of expertise) and probably close to that among the crews, and the “British” was at least very strong among the crews and again, almost invariable among the officers. “Horatio Hornblower and the Lady Gunner” couldn’t happen. Not as a historical novel. It would be as out of place as giving the ships diesel engines and radios.

      As you diverge from that history — for example, something set “among Vikings” instead of “specifically on Lief Erikson’s voyage to North America” — you get more freedom to change things. While the former, in its most strict sense, would be a fictionalization of actual events — everything really took place exactly as written, and the writer is only filling in the specific dialog and descriptions, so it must hew precisely to real history — the latter is using the historical period as a background, but writing about people who didn’t make it into the history books. The prominence of the setting or characters is also important. We know exactly who Elizabeth I’s prominent courtiers were, but we don’t know who Baron Someguy’s advisors were. So there’s more flexibility to make anyone we want to tell the story about show up in Baron Someguy’s presence than Elizabeth’s. Plus, of course, there’s the speculative aspect: What if….. What if there was a [fill in atypical person here] doing this thing? What if Elizabeth’s spymaster was named Jane instead of Thomas? It wouldn’t have been impossible — Elizabeth herself, and her rule, proved that! — and it could have interesting repercussions. Someone needs to write that story, by the way — I want to read it!

      Another aspect is the reality versus fantasy axis.

      Simply put, the less closely you stick to reality, the more freedom you have to write about anyone you want. Iron swords in the siege of Troy are a perfect example; if you’re going to lift the Trojan War out of the Bronze Age and relocate it somewhere in the future of where it was, you’re moving into the realm of fantasy. The more you change, the more you CAN change. If there are dragons in your story, all the rules are out the window!

      Also, regarding “historical accuracy,” there is a danger of taking the ideals or standards of the period and confusing them for the reality. For example, in the 19-th century US, women were meek, quiet homemakers, right? Yeah … they were supposed to be … except some disguised themselves and enlisted in the army during the Civil War, and were only found out when they were wounded or killed. The ideal of a proper aristocratic lady of the Middle Ages does not account for Eleanor of Aquitaine. What (and who) people were “supposed” to be does not always square with who they really were. Even real historical ones. If real-world history can produce a Jeanne d’Arc, fiction can do at least as well.

      This whole discussion brings to mind a very badly written RPG with the equally bad title of “Fantasy Wargaming.” Female characters were restricted to the roles of either prostitute or nun because, according to the authors, “historical accuracy.” In a game where magic worked and monsters were real, female adventurers were unthinkable. In a world modeled on the one where Eleanor of Aquitaine and Jeanne d’Arc were real, not to mention every woman who ran her own business — many because they inherited their husband’s, but some in their own right — women still couldn’t be adventurers. In a game where ADVENTURERS existed in the first place, if we want to really skewer historical accuracy — society of the time had no place for “murder hobos” — they still couldn’t be female, because “that’s how it was” … even though there is ample historical proof that, in fact, that’s how it wasn’t.

      That’s the thing that really peeves me.

      Mind you, the opposite also peeves me: a character jammed into a story where they do not fit, and have no organic role, just one that was bent around them, because the author feels they “need” to have one of every possible demographic type, like they’re checking boxes on a form or fulfilling some sort of quota. That’s insulting to me, and it breaks the story. A story about the rise of Tokugawa Ieyasu should have Japanese people in it, because it’s a story about 16-th century Japanese, not modern Americans. Jamming an American woman in there because “diversity” would be ridiculous. I don’t need to have “someone who looks like me” in everything — the only person who looks like me, really, is the one I see in the mirror every morning!

      Authors rarely extrapolate all the consequences of their decisions, especially as a story moves closer to fantasy. There was a memorable online game, a memorable failure, called Shadowbane. The devs created a world with medieval trappings — walled cities, and armor, and swords — and expected that the players’ behavior would conform to the medieval pattern — they expected form to enforce function. But then they gave us cloaking devices, and phasars, and transporters, and jetpacks … oh, they didn’t CALL them that, they were invisibility spells, and elemental blasts, and summons, and flight spells … and we acted, well, like a bunch of people from Star Trek, not from medieval Canterbury. Walled cities are useless when your invaders can turn invisible, fly over the wall, hide in a building, and start the summon chain.

      Your typical tabletop fantasy game is the same way. Take D&D: the “continual light” spell, to be exact. It produces light as bright as a lantern FOREVER, and according to the 1stEd DMG I have here, costs 500 gp. I’m sure someone who wanted twenty or thirty of them cast could negotiate a greatly reduced rate with a local temple with a suitable cleric on staff. And you now have an operation that can run 24/7. Being able to continue production all night suddenly makes the acquisition of equipment — looms, let’s say — more cost-effective. We’ve just invented factories. We’ve invented shift work. We’ve invented something approaching modern industry. Add a source of power (perhaps a fire elemental powering a steam boiler?) and you’ve got the industrial revolution. This is the potential, of course; it might be more or less actualized. But thanks to that one third-level cleric spell, the world is *NOT* the historical Middle Ages or anything like it. Or another one: teleport. The trade in rare and valuable commodities, such as spices, incense resins, precious metals and gems, etc., has always driven exploration. (Columbus, you remember, was trying to find a faster way to China) But with teleport, your ship or caravan only needs to go somewhere once; after that, the wizard who was a passenger (or disguised as a crewman) just teleports there and back every day, with a backpack full of pepper.

      So the minute you change your technology, you’re changing your world. When you change the world, you change everything, and you can put anyone you want there, anywhere you want to. THAT is when some adherence to “historical accuracy” really starts to look like bigotry instead.

      Take, say, “Fantasy Wargaming.” Magic works? But female characters are impossible? Yeah, that’s less about reality, and more about bigotry. (I may be mis-remembering that the rules strongly suggested that players be required to play characters of their own sex) And it didn’t have to be that way.

      How about if magic only worked FOR WOMEN? Having it only work for women makes as much sense as having it work at all. So you’ve got your monster-bashing men and monster-zapping women. What, a male player wants to play a wizard? Then he can play a female character, just the same as a female player in the game as written was expected to play a male character. It’s fantasy; you can do that.

      Trying to conflate divergence from strict history (fantasy, stories in historical settings but not about historical individuals, etc.) with specific real history does a disservice to both. And it leaves a lot of people (including very real ones) out.

      • Jotunn

        I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t quite follow.

        What does history have to do with fantasy? How can any fantasy be “historically accurate” if it’s not history, but fantasy?

        • Worldwalker

          What does history have to do with fantasy?

          Simple: A lot of fantasy is to a greater or lesser degree trying to use some aspect of real-world history for its background and setting. Most people have a rough, if incomplete (and sometimes fundamentally awful) idea of how things “were” at some point in history. This enables a writer (whether of books, movie scripts, RPG settings, or whatever) to have certain default conditions where things are as the readers expect them: water, for example, is expected to run downhill. For anything not otherwise specified (oh, water runs uphill on alternate Tuesdays) the setting is generally expected by the readers to resemble the real world — and, given the low-tech nature of most fantasy worlds, that tends to mean (especially for the less-imaginative writers) some analog of a particular bit of real-world history.

          Fantasy can diverge more or less from whatever history (or mashed-up history) it has under the hood.

          For example, if you were to write a story about an otherwise undistinguished knight — let’s call him Bernard, for no particular reason — during the Third Crusade who happened to come into possession of a magical sword, the fact that swords like that could exist might be the only overt difference between that setting and the real world. All the events of the Third Crusade (at least up until Bernard does something with that sword, the people who were and weren’t there, etc., would be those of the actual history. Bernard, too, would be a product of his time and place. He would think, believe, and act very much like anyone else with the same background he has: let’s say the third son of a minor noble, with no wealth except what he can win in battle. It would break the story if he was also, for example, a vocal proponent of democracy, unless we are given some background for it (maybe he somehow spent part of his life in Iceland?) just like it would break it if water started running uphill for no reason. Bernard’s mindset is as much a part of the setting — because it is so close to real-world history — as his horse is.

          On the other hand, it’s also possible that things could differ greatly from reality. Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar, for example, while it wears a superficial medieval skin, has a great number of points of difference. Active (and interfering) gods, for instance. Supernatural creatures of all sorts. Magic, in several forms. Since it has diverged so far from the real world, and real history, anything the writer wants is possible. If the writer wants to construct a society where men and women are equal, where a lizard can be a wizard, where same-sex pairings are unremarkable, and so forth, that’s possible there, because there’s no “real” world it’s taken from. (though the water still seems to run downhill)

          And there are all sorts of points in between. The closer a story is to real history, the more it has to follow all the models of real history, not just some; conversely, the further away it steps from that history, the more freedom the author has to change the world around any which way. Gods manifesting in public? Cats that are reincarnated priests? Talking things that look like wolves and have three sexes? If you don’t have to match up with reality, you can do all of that.

          But if what you’re writing is actual historical fact, Elizabeth I’s spymaster was Francis Walshingham, not Eleanor Walshingham, and you can’t change him. Eleanor doesn’t seem to have appeared much in history, so you could send her somewhere else (probably somewhere obscure) and have her do interesting things, but she couldn’t be Elizabeth’s spymaster; we know who that was, and it was her brother. Even though Elizabeth herself (not to mention HER problematic sister) provided an example of women not fitting the conventions of the time, we know who those women were — not only did their very difference make them distinctive, but we have plenty of records of who notable people were. If it’s history, we can’t just go and stick someone who didn’t actually exist in there. THAT would make it fantasy instead.

          I think we’re mostly talking along the same lines, just with different details.

          Real-world history was not nice. Very much the opposite, in fact. When we change that, what we have is no longer entirely anchored in the real world, any more than it is if magic works or water runs uphill. When that happens, you can leave reality as far behind as you like to make things the way you want for your story. But if you’re going to stick with actual history, or what *could* have happened, it necessarily has to involve the people who were really there, the things they really did … and the kind of people they really were. Even if they’re not the kind of people we wish we were.

          • Worldwalker

            s/sister/cousin/

            It’s 2 am.

      • American Charioteer

        I think what you are describing is similar to John Searle’s “Principle of minimal departure.” An audience will assume that the world in your story is similar to what they are familiar with (the real world, their genre expectations, and their ideas about history) except for where the story explicitly states otherwise.

        • Worldwalker

          That sounds exactly right; I’m going to have to look into it.

          It’s always complicated by the part about “their ideas about history.”

          For example, “everyone knows” that Romans wore togas all the time, knights in the Middle Ages not only wore full plate but it was so heavy they had to be hoisted onto their horses, ancient Athens was a democratic utopia, Egyptian hieroglyphs were pictographic (and the pyramids were hollow, to store grain in!), cowboys all looked and acted like John Wayne, spices were used to hide the taste of spoiled meat, and there was a man named Christopher Columbus, who discovered mainland North America.

          So, all too often, not only does a writer have to make clear the departures of their semi-historical fiction from real history, they even have to make clear the departures of real history from what the reader thinks it was. The people here have probably read sources like the Paston letters, or essays like Poul Anderson’s “On Thud and Blunder,” but all too many of our readers haven’t. As Josh Billings said, “The trouble with most folks isn’t their ignorance. It’s knowin’ so many things that ain’t so.” We have people who have never seen a primary source in their life telling other people, and them others, like a giant game of “telephone,” how things “really” were. Or weren’t. Hence some of the misconceptions that we have to overcome — from what people did for a living to what colors their skins were — for just about everything that the reader can’t see out their window. And possibly some that they can.

          P.S.

          For those who don’t know: free Roman citizens wore togas on formal occasions; plate only came in near the end of the Middle Ages and weighed less than a modern soldier’s “battle rattle,” not to mention the weight being better distributed; life in ancient Athens was terrible unless you were a freeborn, native Athenian, adult man, which wasn’t very many people; hieroglyphs were weird, simultaneously alphabetic and syllabic, and could even, in rare cases, actually be pictographic (there was a marker for “take this symbol literally”); cowboys were mentioned above (and those numbers may be low); meat wasn’t spoiled — the people who could afford spices also had fresher meat than we do; and the explorer’s name was Cristoforo Colombo, and he never got closer to North America than Cuba.

    • StyxD

      I hope it won’t be taken the wrong way, but I share a lot of Jotunn’s misgivings.

      I think the accuracy argument really doesn’t apply to fantastic or alternate history worlds – after all, they’re the way they are because the author made them so.

      But I think there it’s possible to make diversity in a historical setting look like filling a quota without giving thought to the setting and circumstances.

      One thing that bums me with this approach is a jump from history being indeed more diverse than is commonly thought, to diversity existing everywhere equally, all the time, in all forms. I’ve seen people claim that because there were people of colour in medieval Spain, then of course they also must have settled in a far away, landlocked Central European province and it’s racist not to include them there.

      I mean, it’s an opinion one can have, but the argument doesn’t seem sincere.

      Or if the story is set in Japan during the closed state period – how would one include other ethnicities there without it looking phony?

      I also think it’s important not to sugar-coat history. There are still places on Earth that are overwhelmingly single-ethnicity, and it also happens that these places sometimes also still struggle with xenophobia. Setting a story there and putting a lot of diverse people in just because… well, I think it does the opposite of what historical literature should be doing, and also does nothing for the people of colour actually living nowadays in these places.

      Another thing that I find jarring is that many people seem to be of opinion that the ideal state of historical diversity is when every place on Earth is depicted as a melting pot of different people – namely, every place is like modern USA.

      It not only ignores that different ethnic diversities existed in different places, but also makes the setting seem artificial.

      Unless a pre-technological civilization has magical teleportation, most individual people aren’t going to move around all that much. It’s not impossible to have the protagonist of a story be a black person in medieval Viking village, but the question of why he got there is pretty important. Answering with “well, of course they live there” isn’t really satisfying.

      Well, that’s just my opinion. I think the question to ask is, what role does the historical setting fulfil in the story. If it’s just flavour backdrop for adventures, then it’s commendable to make it more inclusive, even if it would stretch believability. But if certain historical facets are crucial to the story that is being told… well, I just don’t think that making historical reality seem more inclusive and tolerant than it really was, just because that’s what people would like to see, is not doing anyone any favours.

      • Worldwalker

        “Another thing that I find jarring is that many people seem to be of opinion that the ideal state of historical diversity is when every place on Earth is depicted as a melting pot of different people – namely, every place is like modern USA.”

        I think that’s true of a lot of things, not just diversity of characters.

        All too often, it seems that the author thinks that everything not only is but always has been exactly like the 21st century USA. Well, people might wave swords around a lot, and maybe use some attempt at Elizabethan English that would make a linguist cry, but it’s still downtown Peoria. This particularly comes out in the attitudes of characters. They seem to be not even people of the modern day, but some idealized version of what we think people *should* act and feel like. They have inclusive, tolerant, egalitarian beliefs that a lot of modern-day Americans don’t share, let alone anyone in, say, 12th-century France.

        “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Just as a story set in a foreign country needs to be true to the reality of that country — it would be ridiculous to write as though, say, a farmer in Egypt is identical in thought and belief to his counterpart in Iowa — a story set in the past needs to be true to the reality of that time. That requires knowing a great deal about the time in question. Again, one wouldn’t write a story about a farmer in Egypt without doing some research to find out what the climate of Egypt is like, what crops are grown there, and particularly what the culture that our farmer is immersed in is like. The same is true of the past. Ancient Rome was cosmopolitan (just look at where some of the emperors came from); ancient Greece was insular. A black person who might not raise eyebrows in Rome — probably just a provincial auxiliary who earned citizenship in the legions, you know — would be excluded in Greece; nobody who wasn’t born in your particular city-state is even quite human, after all, and that guy certainly isn’t from around here. Medieval Spain and medieval Germany could have been on two separate planets for all the similarities they had, and England had little in common with either of them. And yet the same people who would research the details of that modern Egyptian farmer can’t be arsed to know that — let alone how! — those lands differed from each other (or from today!) a thousand years ago.

        It doesn’t make a story better if we write it as though everyone then was just like everyone now (or what we wish everyone now would be like; full disclosure: I live in South Carolina) any more than it makes it better if we give them airplanes and telephones.

        And you know something? I don’t read a story to see someone like me looking back at me. My mirror can take care of that quite nicely. I read it to experience something that *isn’t* my everyday life, the world and the people I see around me. I can get that for free; it’s called “real life.” When I read something, wither it’s about 3rd-century Rome or 21st-century Cairo, it should be about what that place is or was really like, not what we wish it could have been like, if it had existed in the days of the Machine.

    • Gothic90

      For an actually historically accurate show, it would need extensive research and would almost surely become a documentary. Many authors give up historical accuracy to give the show more entertainment value, as the article says. A big controversy recently is on female soldiers in new Battlefield games, but FPS games are horribly historically inaccurate to begin with.

      > But why would there be an African Scotsman among Scottish freedom fighters who fight along William Wallace against the English oppression in the 13th century?

      If the show aims to be historically accurate – which would push the show towards the style of a documentary, then yes that would be a problem. Problem is, most non-documentary entertainment pieces, of all forms, on Scottish freedom fighters are extremely inaccurate to begin with – not to mention they would hardly fit the description of freedom fighters. Many took inspiration from movie Braveheart, which is probably the worst piece to start with: Scots wear plaid that hadn’t been invented until like 500 years later, Wallace was at least a small time noble, the title “Braveheart” doesn’t belong to him, Edward II was too brave for his own good rather than a coward, so on and so forth.

      > Or an Asian among a movie about American natives? It doesn
      t work like that, does it?

      Consider these two groups sometimes have quite similar skin color, somewhat similar facial structures, and even similarities in language, the biggest thing to separate one group from the other would be their clothing. Native Americans aren’t all tribals (unless it is a movie about their life before first contact with Europeans) even though most American shows paint them that way. Yes, it would be strange if a Chinese is there with traditional Qing dynasty fashion style, but you could hardly tell the difference if a Chinese wears American style clothing in the show and is made clear that he is a visitor.

      • Jotunn

        Are you saying that we can’t have an entertaining historically accurate movie? As if the entertainment and educational value were incompatible. That’s why I wrote this comment in the first place. A historically accurate movie can be both entertaining and educational and, at the same time, doesn’t need to be a documentary one.

        You’ve mentioned the new Battlefield game. From what can be seen in the trailer, it looks more like fantasy than real past, so to criticise it for having women fighters (while there are all those silly explosions and prosthetic arms and I don’t know what else) is nonsense. (Also, there are cases of women fighters, they just weren’t part of conventional forces and Battlefield mostly deals with conventional army. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong.)

        To your paragraph about Scottish independence: So because we have fewer facts about that period than let’s say Roman Empire, does it mean we can assume Africans were present among the freedom fighters? (I called them “freedom fighters” because the conflict’s name is “First War of Scottish Independence.”)

        I agree that Braveheart is full of inaccuracies. Can’t argue with that. I just don’t understand how it justifies continuing with the trend of having historical inaccuracies in historical movies.

        My whole point was to counter the premise of the article above which states:
        If “there can be no diversity without breaking historical accuracy. Then break it.”
        No. Let’s NOT do that! Let’s not break historical accuracy in historical fiction. We should not force diversity where it’s not factual, just as we should not clad vikings in leather biker gear/give vikings horned helmets/give Saracens absurd swords/ and this one is my “favourite” – depict medieval battles like mindless 1vs1 brawls (Braveheart) – it serves no purpose! It only misinforms us all! And breaks immersion for those who know better.

        • Cay Reet

          Yet there really are people who argue that the treatment of women as basically possessions to be used is okay in fantasy novels which take their cues from European middle ages, because ‘that’s how the middle ages were’ – which is bullshit. Women were allowed to have possessions of their own. They were allowed to lead workshops. They were even sometimes ruling or co-ruling countries. They usually were not really more of a possession than the men (let’s also not forget that Europe had its own kind of slavery at that time).

          And, yes, Battlefield is nothing but fantasy, which is precisely the point: it’s nothing but fantasy created so players can do their multiplayer battles in style, but some people claim that it’s ‘historically inaccurate’ to have female player characters (or POC player characters) in a game which, very, very loosely, is based on WWII – a war which saw female soldiers on the battlefield as well as POC soldiers.

          People are using the ‘historical accuracy’ excuse to actually deny any kind of diversity in cast – such as people who were furious about a WOC Guinivere in the (more or less) recent “Merlin” TV series – despite the fact that at that time (relatively shortly after the Romans left Britain), there were POC who were descendants of Roman soldiers and women from the area. Guinivere isn’t any less realistic than Merlin’s and Morgaine’s abilities to use magic, it’s even more realistic.

          Yes, a historically correct movie can be fun – but how historically correct? Are you going to invent a person who didn’t really exist? Is that still historically accurate? Are you going to use a historical figure? Then which of the many texts about them which were written over time are you going to use for reference? Only the newest? And if you’re using a historical figure, how are you going to work around the many things not known about them? Ignore them? Invent them? We know relatively little about the lives of the regular people during most times of the past, on account of them just being ‘regular’ and nobody special. So how are you going to portrait those?

          • Jotunn

            (I’ve just googled Merlin TV show’s trailer. One can clearly tell it’s 100% fantasy and has nothing to do with history. People who could ever criticise such show for having a black actress playing Guinivere are clearly a bunch of loud and silly people.
            My problem with the show is that they didn’ even try to depict how the Sub-Roman Britain might have looked. Instead they went for this medievalish setting. Not my cup of tea.)

            I’ve noticed a lot of people here in the comments attack the idea of “historical accuracy.” The main argument is that “There are people who bash fantasy stories for being historically inaccurate.” I have not yet encountered such people on the internet, but if they do exist, they must be a tiny and loud minority.

            So, let’s address the elephant in the room: I am of the opinion, that historical accuracy clearly cannot be applied to high fantasy genre; only to historical fiction! Historical accuracy isn’t something we should be afraid of. It isn’t a tool for racists to create non-inclusive, offensive and misogynist stories. The PURPOSE of historical accuracy (in accessible media like movies/games) is to inform and educate us about the specific historical period. Sometimes, a depiction of that which happened in the past might be uncomfortable for some viewers. Well, it is only natural, for such was the history. It wasn’t pretty, and we, in any case, should not pretend like it never was! Instead, we could show the realities of it, so the people can compare it with today’s world, and perhaps, find some value in what we’ve achieved as the mankind. (That is the feeling I get when I read wikipedia.)

            If the historical fiction doesn’t strive for historically accurate stories, we are left with absurd and grotesque depictions of the past that serve no educational purpose and, even worse, misinform us. I already gave examples. (I apologize I’m repeating myself.)

            There is nothing wrong with creating a new story, set in the olden times, with a fictitious character. It is not historically inaccurate to depict a fictitious Moorish traveler who came to England in 12th century. (Robin Hood, 1991, by the way, I like the way how that movie handled it.) Such traveler could definitely arrive for a visit (just like Ahmad ibn Fadlan, the medieval traveler). If we do not have facts on our side, we can make use of something authentic. There’s no problem with that.

            My last point is this: I study Norwegian literature. In the second part of the 19th century, there was this new wave of authors who, as a response to idealistic romanticism, began depicting the grim reality and hypocrisy of the society (H. Ibsen, A. Skram). The things they mostly wrote about were: gender inequality, unfair treatment of women, difficult conditions, infidelity in men vs women, etc. Their aim was to depict the real problems, so the society can be aware of them and begin working on them. Can you guess what was the response from the public?
            …A shock! They considered these works to be offensive, inappropriate, unnecessary and needlessly provocative. And yet, in the end, it did help the society. Norway is now one of the most equal societies in the world. And those works are still relevant even today.

            This new trend of censuring bad, ugly things in hopes to avoid offending anyone remind me of the norwegian public.

          • Cay Reet

            One main problem for me is not ‘they bash fantasy for being historically inaccurate,’ but they use history as an excuse for not showing more nuanced characters outside of the ‘white male hero’ category. You will rarely find female characters in historical fiction which are not delegated to ‘victim’ or ‘love interest,’ which denies the fact that women have played a much bigger role in past societies than just that. You will rarely find stories which have a hero who is neither white nor male (or just not white or not male), even though medieval Europe did have people of colour and most novels in a historical setting are not striving for perfect accuracy in other terms (such as the bad hygiene).

      • RVCBard

        It’s funny that people mention a Qing dynasty character living among Native Americans, since that’s exactly what happened in “Once Upon A Time in China and America” (starring Jet Li).

  6. Someone random

    “As a tool, historical accuracy should be used to improve a story, not make it worse. In the vast majority of cases, diverse stories are better than homogeneous stories. Not only do diverse stories provide a breath of fresh air for audiences, but they give important representation to marginalized audiences. Diverse stories also help normalize the existence of people outside the dominant group. For all that, diversity costs a story almost nothing. The only people put off by a diverse story are the ones you didn’t want in your audience anyway.”

    My only concern is how it seems critics like yourself seem to want every story to cater to as many people as possible. If someone would like to write a story about the struggle of a poor farmer in Norway around the liberation from Sweden and the writing of the constitution in 1881, including minority characters wouldn’t make sense. It doesn’t serve a purpose. Furthermore, stories, movies and games that tries to cater to the largest audience possible often turn out bland and uninteresting, regardless of if it’s diverse or not. Books that focus on a spesific issue or who tries to tell about the struggles of spesific groups tend to be a lot more interesting, despite not having a general appeal.

    Artists should be free to make the stories they want to make, the power the audience has is to choose if they bother watcing, reading or playing it. I’d much rather read a genuine story over a story written spesificly to cater to certain groups, even groups I identify with. I don’t expect every movie, every book or every video game to cater to my interests or my political views, my biggest problem with some of todays critics is their entitlement.

    • Worldwalker

      Exactly.

      I’d much rather read that story of 1881 Norway than some bland, genericized story with with every checkbox properly ticked, and no different from a thousand others like it.

    • Cay Reet

      A simple question you can ask yourself as a writer in such a case is: will a diverse cast hurt the story I have to tell or improve it? It’s not illogical that there will be no POC in a small Norwegian village – but there will be women and we know women in Scandinavia were used to standing up for themselves. So will you include an opinionated woman in the cast? Perhaps even one who can handle weapons and does not at some point get fridged or, as I’d like to call it from now on, Brunhildaed (meaning once she becomes part of a love affair, she mysteriously loses all her abilities and turns into a little damsel for the hero to rescue)? Or will there just be the generic white ‘chosen one’ dude and his mates who save the day?

      My problem is the opposite to yours: I find few stories I find interesting, because a horrible lot of those I can get my hands on are horribly bland when it comes to characters and do the same type of hero over and over again. Why? Because people don’t take the chance, they write their regular hero guy, because those stories sell. They don’t take a risk and write another type of hero.

      • SunlessNick

        On the other hand few people would bat an eye at “Individual is captured in war/raiding, brought back to captors’ homeland as a prisoner or slave, wins their freedom via some signficant service, and becomes an important person in the local area” if the individual was white and the homeland, say, Turkey.

        Or pre-Colonial America, for an example that does feature a Norse white guy in a Native American tribe.

        The Norse raided (ie were Vikings) and took or bought slaves. And they respected honour, courage, and general badassery, which makes their society a good environment for that kind of story to play out.

        • Cay Reet

          There’s always that option, too, yes. If you write it right, you can almost always justify that one person of a completely different ethnicity living with a group.

          I often wonder why people so readily accept the ‘white guy living in an area where there were none at the time’ thingy (like in Last Samurai or The Wall), but not the ‘African guy living in a Norse village’ thingy. The Vikings did indeed plunder (and later on trade) everywhere they could reach with their ships, which was a lot of places (including the Mediterranean). And they would respect a slave who proved his (or her, we know by now that there were women warriors among the Vikings) courage and honour in a tight corner and set him (or her) free and make him (or her) a real member of their village.

  7. SunlessNick

    my biggest problem with some of todays critics is their entitlement.

    Do you extend this to include the people who howled in rage over a black Guinevere in the recent Merlin series (despite the presence of black people in late- and immediately-post-Roman Britain being undeniable fact)?

    • SunlessNick

      (Meant to be a reply to Someone random)

    • Cay Reet

      My guess is the answer is ‘no.’ Although it should be ‘yes.’

    • Michael

      I can’t speak for “random”, but yes, having the same objections it does indeed extend to things such as that. Even worse is the Star Wars, which aren’t of course set in a real place at all. The fact so many humans are white there was skewed to begin with.

  8. Kieran Mahon

    As to your comment if the revolution would have succeeded if King George kept his head, I vehemently disagree. If King George had kept his head, it would NOT have succeeded. There were several smart British officials in various places in both governments who could have put the kibosh on the whole thing if they hadn’t all been unintentionally pushed out of the way by the less competent people…the British captain during the Boston Massacre, for example. He was actually desperately trying to tell his troops NOT to fire, knowing the effect it would have. Unfortunately, since there was a confused crowd asking about a fire, angry protesters egging the soldiers to fire, and the commander saying don’t fire, fire was the loudest word, and so a soldier fired, assuming that it was the actual order. Then there was Edmund Burke, a member of Parliament who actually tried to REPEAL the tax on tea, tried to get the government to reconcile with the colonies, warning them that things could get ugly, and believed it was better to have peace with America so Britain could continue receiving money from the colonies. He proposed SIX resolutions to end the conflict. And to top it all off, there was an actual PRIME MINISTER, William Pitt, who also tried for reconciliation. Had ANY of these three men been listened to, or obeyed, we’d still be part of Britain.

    • Dave L

      Barbara Tuchman discusses this in The March of Folly

  9. Sonia

    I have to agree with most people here. Yes, the world was often more diverse than you think, so if you find evidence of the existence of minority groups in your historical setting and you can include characters (or even make one of them your MC), go for it. If nothing else, it will open up a whole new world to play in, as often these groups have their own subculture (if enough of them live in one place) or will provide new opportunities for conflict to make your characters’ lives more miserable.
    But if other ethnic groups are extremely rare, don’t push it. You can try and find diversity in other ways – religious affiliation, sexual orientation, philosophy – that don’t jar as much with your historical setting (remember that in some cultures, trans or homosexual men and women were accepted, while in others they were demonised).
    In fantasy and sci-fi, though – think if there’s a way your setting could promoted diversity. Does your starship captain really need to be a white dude? Or can she be a Philippino woman? What about your sword-swinger? We tend to write ourselves – as a white gal I tend to write about white people, but – I don’t have to, do I? So maybe I should take another look at my story ideas and see where my characters really come from.

    • Worldwalker

      ” We tend to write ourselves – as a white gal I tend to write about white people, but – I don’t have to, do I?”

      I wouldn’t think so, but there seems to be a school of thought that only people of a particular category can write about people of that category. That is, men shouldn’t try to write female characters, white people shouldn’t try to write black characters, straight people shouldn’t try to write gay characters, and so on.

      Which, when you combine it with the concept that every piece of fiction needs to have a representative of every type of person, logically means that nobody can write anything!

      And again, this eventually comes down to the only person who is exactly like a given writer in all respects is … that writer. Aside from autobiographies and memoirs, there will always be differences, some of them very major, between a writer and their characters. The real question is whether some of those differences are insurmountable, and if so which ones they are.

      I collect early 20th-century boys’ series books. (think Tom Swift) They were written quickly, to a formula, as work-for-hire, and frequently cheaply as well. As a consequence, nearly every character in there is a stereotype, sometimes every single character including Our Hero. Aside from the collection of stereotypes to pick from for the central ensemble (most books feature 2-6 boys, frequently members of a club), there are national stereotypes (because a lot of these were written in the WWI era, Germans come in for special negative attention), racial stereotypes, economic stereotypes … frankly, except maybe for Don Sturdy’s freaking annoying maid, you could probably swap any of them with a similar character from another series entirely and never notice the difference.

      That’s where the real problem comes in: Characters who are written like these, a bunch of walking, talking stereotypes with no individuality whatsoever. It’s easy to see in those old boys’ books because the stereotypes are SO broad. A German, for example, no matter how long he has lived in the US, is invariably loyal to the Kaiser, speaks with a thick accent, is irredeemably evil, and is somewhere between a bit dense and too stupid to tie his own shoes without orders. Every last one of them. But when the focus is on WHAT the character is instead of WHO the character is, this happens.

      Too many writers seem to have a similar stable of stereotypes they trot out and use, more subtle than those, but no less stereotypical. They’re “the black one,” not a computer programmer who happens to be black; “the gay one,” not a store owner who happens to be gay. The most prominent way in which they differ from the writer becomes the most important thing about them, when from a story standpoint, it may very well be the least important. Unless you’re writing a book about the racial politics of the tech industry, and the inner struggles of that particular character, what’s important to the story is that he’s a computer programmer. He does programmer things. He solves programmer problems. He writes bad code that ignores the velociraptors breeding. Whatever. But his role in the story is as a programmer, not a Token Black Guy(TM).

      What I’m saying is that whatever character you’re writing should be a real person, with the recognition that they’re as different from everyone else in their particular demographic as you are from everyone in your own. Treat your characters with respect, whether they’re the hero or the villain. Also, I think we’ve become too obsessed with figuring out every detail of our characters’ backgrounds. (I blame those long lists of questions, and those books that recommend answering all of them before you start writing) That’s working backwards: writing up all the details of a character and then determining how he acts, instead of determining how he acts and, if it’s important, making a note to yourself about why.

      IMO, the story comes first. The characters are developed to fit the needs of the story, instead of the story being the outcome of the predetermined details about the characters.

      But then again, I’m not a writer. Not of fiction, anyway.

      • Cay Reet

        As a fiction writer, I can say that having a background figured out for every main character can be important (I actually keep notes on mine). It’s not ‘outcome of the predeterminated details about the character,’ it’s rather the other way around.

        A character will act more believably, if their actions come from their background, because then they remain consistent and the reader will not be surprised at sudden OOC moments. A full character, one which will not be interchangeable, is a character which you as the author know so well you can say what they’ll do in a specific situation. I know how Jane will react when she’s facing a problem. I can tell how Steven will react (pretty similarly, but that’s the point about them as an agent/handler team). Inez, another main character I’m writing, will react completely differently, because she has a different background and training.

        That is where the details of a character’s background are important for the author. Whether all of them need to be in the books is another question. But the author needs to know them and they will bleed into the stories at some point. Sometimes, the past of a character plays a role in the plot. Inez first adventure, for instance, is based on the past of her foster father Tom.

  10. uschi

    Great Article! It definitely left me wanting to include more diversity in my writing.

    As I am writing in the Science Fiction genre (specifically, the not-too-distant future Earth) rather than Fantasy, I hope my question is not too off-topic, but I would like to ask you: how do I avoid diversity feeling forced? If I make the crew of my spaceship a wide range of ethnicities, will it feel like I am just ticking boxes, breaking immersion?
    On the other hand, I want to avoid going into much detail on the origin of each character, partly because that does not really influence the story, partly because of my belief that it should not matter where you come from, but what you make of yourself. How do I best balance these two things?

    • Worldwalker

      One thing I think a lot of writers overdo is feeling compelled to describe every character, however minor. If Fred is the navigator, unless he becomes important to the story in some other way — or, rather exactly what Fred looks like becomes important — do we need to know that he’s 6’3″ tall, has brown skin and hair dyed a shocking shade of green?

      Aside from minimizing the infodumps and not confusing the reader with a cast of characters that makes them start taking notes, this has another huge advantage: It leaves room for a description of Fred later on when you need him to be something in particular. Maybe you never have a reason to describe him — so don’t. The readers will fill in what they think Fred looks like. Worry about what Fred *acts* like, because that’s what drives the story. We know Fred’s the navigator. That’s what’s important about him. And if you leave the physical description blank, when you realize you need Fred to have blue hair, for some reason, you’ll be glad you didn’t describe it as green on page 5.

      • uschi

        I totally agree! When I am reading I usually do not picture characters in detail, so I guess I don’t tend to describe them myself much, although it seems that there are people who really like to have a visual of character’s appearances.

        But this raises the problem, if I don’t describe people much, will that lead to a lack of diversity just because white readers then tend to picture everyone as white? Will readers of other origins then assume all characters with no clear description are white (due to precedent in other works of fiction) and feel excluded, or assume black/latino/Filipino/etc characters depending on their own ethnicity?

        • Worldwalker

          If a character is a blank slate (blank mannequin?), then the reader is free to imagine any appearance for it they want. This allows people who need to see a reflection of themselves in a story to enjoy it to do so, and doesn’t matter to the people who don’t.

          I’m probably a bit out toward the end of the curve here, but I tend to imagine characters as vaguely people-shaped entities, with no distinguishing features, unless and until the author says otherwise. Even then I’ll probably forget it unless it’s relevant to the story in some way; if neither Fred’s height, skin color, or choice of hair dye comes into play in some way, he’ll go back to being a vague blob again 30 seconds after I read that description. I literally do not imagine them looking like me, or not like me, or any other way. There’s no mental slot for “appearance,” especially not one that has to be filled in the instant a character is introduced.

          Now, if Fred ducks every time he goes through a doorway as if he’s expecting to bang his head, his height would be relevant. Maybe he lived with the alien Neila for a while, and none of them is over 5′ tall, so their 6′ doorways were just fine for them, and 3″ too short for him, and he banged his head a lot. Now Fred’s height is a part of the story — if he was 3’6″ instead of 6’3″, he wouldn’t have been whacking his head all the time, and wouldn’t have that particular behavioral quirk now.

          That said, if something is going to come up in the future — our starship crew needs someone to spend a couple of weeks with the Neila for some reason, though it doesn’t particularly matter which crew member it is, if someone volunteers because “I’m only 4′ tall, I won’t keep whacking my head like Fred did,” you’d better have established in advance that the character is exceptional; otherwise it’s little different from a deus ex machina where Wesley just so happens to know how to fix the whatchamacallit, despite no prior mention of thingamajigg engineering training. The converse of Chekov’s rule that if you show a shotgun on the wall in the first act, it has to have gone off by the third, is that if a shotgun goes off in the third act, it had better have been shown somewhere in the first or second. So if some physical characteristic of a character is going to matter, it should be worked in well in advance of when it matters. But if not? Let the readers imagine the characters however they like. (or, in my case, not at all)

          • Cay Reet

            Personally, I want to know what a character looks like, but that is taste, I guess.

            I agree that a blank character which isn’t described much can be used by every reader to insert themselves into a story, but it also includes the danger that if the story is at some point adapted for a visual medium, the character will be default, which unfortunately is still white. If the author takes a stand and makes their ethnicity and overall looks part of the book, chances for whitewashing still exist, but are much smaller.

            Sexual orientation may only play a role if it’s part of the plot, for instance, but by showing gay characters outside of the traditional coding, the coding is broken up and gay characters become more ‘normal’ to people. So the question is why not to include information on that, even if it’s not relevant to the plot. For many plots, the gender of the character is not all that relevant (romance side plots usually would also work if the genders were switched), but you normally get told whether the main character is a man or a woman. Why is that? Because we expect to know at least as much. Is it too much to demand that the author also takes a stand on basic ethnicity or sexual orientation (the latter would also prevent something like turning up years after the last book of a series was published and say ‘character X is gay, by the way’)?

            Not everything has to be described in detail … although I personally love details, but I like less blank characters much more than blank ones.

          • uschi

            Thank you both so much for this discussion! It is very helpful to hear how other people’s imagination works and how much detail they require. (Worldwalker, I like how you used the word “entities” as this is exactly how I would call what goes on in my mind!)

            As I am more of a planner, I hope to be able to avoid any sudden never-before-mentioned characteristics, but that is a good point to look out for.

            Cay Reet, you are absolutely right, and even though you didn’t say it, I think I get the message that non-description is basically a cop-out. Appealing to an audience that has a problem with diversity is definitely not something I want to do (totally agree with the article there).

            I suppose I just have to come up with ways to include mentions of a person’s ethinicity/sexual orientation/bodily appearance/etc in an organic way, where it has at least some bearing on a story (or even just a scene) to not make it feel too contrived while still adding colour to my blank slates and avoiding whitewashing in visual adaptations (totally getting ahead of myself there though).

          • uschi

            (somehow my reply did not get published, so this is my 2nd try…)

            Worldwalker and Cay Reet, thank you both for this discussion! It is so helpful to hear what goes on in other people’s heads while reading and how much detail they require.

            I hope to avoid any suddenly appearing characteristics by planning, but it is a good point to keep in mind also while editing.

            Cay Reet, I think you may be suggesting that non-description can be (ab)used as a cop-out. I totally agree, and I definitely do not want to (appear to) appeal to an audience that is adverse to diversity, or open the door to whitewashing.

            So I will try to find ways to highlight character’s diverse features (appearance or otherwise) in a way that makes them relevant, at least in some scenes within a story. Worldwalker’s example is very helpful. Thanks for the inspiration!

          • Cay Reet

            uschi, it’s not a cop-out as a such, but I feel that at least the author should have some idea of who their main characters are – and in this case, it’s not hard to drop some kind of description over time. It’s not necessary to do it all at once, but you can inject things like height (short, average, tall), build, hair and skin colour, and other details over time. You can take that to extremes by using signature descriptions, giving your character a few things which make it easy for a reader to spot them (Brother Bones, whose pulp stories I went through recently, is defined by his black fedora and coat and his porcelain skull mask, mention that together with a tall guy and you know it’s him). Signature descriptions are a much more extreme version of dropping some hints on a character’s looks, of course.

            I just think that there are characters out there who, perhaps, were not conceived as the ‘standard straight, white male/female’ they have become in latter versions (TV, movie, comic etc.). If the author had at some point pointed out how they looked in their mind, that would have been much easier to ignore and someone would have screamed ‘whitewashing’ at some point.

    • StyxD

      I have some suggestions. Though they are just my silly ideas, so take them with a grain of salt.

      I don’t know if it’s feasible in your story, but maybe use some names for characters that come from their ethnicity? It would immediately suggest to the reader that the character may be non-white without stopping the action to describe them.

      It’s not a perfect solution (name doesn’t always correlate to ethnicity, of course), but it seems to me a fast way to get out the message that the cast is diverse. After presenting that point, the reader will also hopefully not assume that all non-described characters are white.

      Some other ideas to consider: don’t try to include ALL the diversity within the main cast, spread it around the supporting cast too. And try to have more than one person from each group you’re portraying. It immediately makes things less tokenistic and more like an environment that just is that way.

      • Jotunn

        Exactly.

        I can give an example that I mentioned in this debate a few times:
        movie Robin Hood, 1991

        Morgan Freeman was playing a Moorish traveler, Azeem, who came to England with Robin Hood as his companion. That is absolutely okay and not in conflict with historical accuracy.

  11. Tizzy

    Very well explained post. It always baffles me when there is an uproar about a black actor playing a character when there has been white-washing in films and TV for years and everyone accepted that until relatively recently. So many people got their knickers in a twist about Noma Dumezweni playing Hermione in The Cursed Child, even when it’s never specifically mentioned in the books that she is white. Even it was, who cares? Her ‘whiteness’ has nothing to do with the plot! If you can accept wizards, animagi and horcruxes then you can surely accept a black Hemione.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Glad you enjoyed it! So far the best part for me has been the split between two groups of angry commenters.

      Group One: Claims it’s a straw man to bring up fantasy here because no one is using historical accuracy as an argument against diversity in fantasy.

      Group Two: Uses historical accuracy as an argument against diversity in fantasy.

      • Jotunn

        Oren, you say “the split between two groups of angry commenters.” See, I’ve skimmed through the whole comment section both on facebook and here on mythcreants several times, yet I didn’t find anyone who would support the fabled “Group Two.”

        The most people who criticised your article, including me, agree with you when it comes to diversity and fantasy or other fiction genres. What I don’t understand is why you exaggerate this. You hyperbolise even now, when you say “the split between two groups of angry commenters.”

        I wonder, what two groups?

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          You must have missed the guy insisting that Lord of the Rings should be all white because it’s supposed to be based off World War One. I did have to delete a number of more blatant comments because they were blatantly racist, so that’s part of why you’re not seeing as many. My personal favorite was the guy arguing that Middle-earth was supposed to be based off “our world’ (he never clarified what he meant by that) before the last ice age which is why it couldn’t have black people in it. I really wish I’d screen capped that before I deleted it.

          If you really want to see people making the historical argument for fantasy, look up the arguments around rape in Game of Thrones, just to start.

          • Jotunn

            Sorry, I didn’t know that. It’s a bit surprising for me, though. Some people never cease to amaze me.

            I’m afraid there’s this huge misunderstanding what “historical accuracy” truly stands for. It can’t and shouldn’t be, in any circumstances, applied to high fantasy. Because fantasy is not history.

            On the other hand, fantasy might be inspired by real history, like Game of Thrones, which is built on the darkest moments of our medieval ages. I think, those people who justify rape in GoT are not saying “it is historically accurate to depict a rape in a fantasy tv show”, but instead trying to present an idea (now, bear with me, please) that in our own medieval ages, rape (along with war, murder, torture) unfortunately occured more often than today due to many factors. Therefore, in a gritty fantasy world of Westeros, which is inspired precisely by those darkest moments, where people are murdered, tortured, and castrated on a daily basis, rape is not so out of place.

            (This is not my opinion. I understand both opinions, but that rape scene in season 4 was absolutely uneccessary and screwed with Jamie’s character.) What I was trying to say is that: Please, understand, this had nothing, I repeat, nothing, to do with historical accuracy or history or reality. Instead of bashing historical accuracy in general, we should focus on the people who misuse it as an argument in places where it cannot be applied.

  12. Nikita

    I agree with this article in general, but there are two thongs I want to point out about it.

    1.) I think there are some situations in which including diversity doesn’t make sense for historical accuracy. What if I’m writing a book about the South in the 1950’s when races were segregated? What if I’m writing a book about a small village in Germany on a mountain? What if I’m writing a story about the Tudors, who were real people and whose race I couldn’t change because they were all white in real life? I think for some of these situations, adding diversity would not make sense at all.
    2. The second thing is that I don’t necessarily think that diversity has to work in such a way where every demogrpahic is represented in every piece of media. Although I do encourage this, I’m also okay with a movie having only male main characters if there are an equal amount of movies with only female characters. This can apply to any piece of media. One of the problems with diversity is that there aren’t movies that feature mainly minority characters.

    So then make a movie about the Tudors where everyone is white, but also make movies about other historical events i other cultures. All these people existed, like you said, so tell their stories!

    All of this being said I do agree with you that this argument is used too much, and your poitns do apply to a lot of cases. Like Game of Thrones acting like they HAVE to treat the female characters terribly because “people were sexist back then”.

    • Cay Reet

      As for your examples: Diversity doesn’t just include various ethnicities. Make a story about the South of the US where you have opinionated women who stand their ground. Make a story about a German mountain village (it would be Bavarian, most likely), where you have a gay character who eventually gets accepted for what they are (and, by the way, medieval Europe had the occasional POC and Bavaria at one point was under Roman rule and they had soldiers from North Africa in their army). And if you make a story about the Tudors, not a non-fiction book, you can add a POC as a member of the entourage without destroying everything (even though the Tudors themselves definitely were white). There’s always the ‘rogue traveller’ option, because some people did actually travel far.

      No, diversity doesn’t mean including people from all over the globe in every story. It does, however, mean including different types of people in your stories, not just the defaults. It includes going against the usual stereotypes (such as the effeminate gay or the damsel in distress). And it means not blindly claiming ‘it’s historically accurate’ when it actually isn’t and a few minutes of googling would have shown you so.

    • Rakka

      I think you have too narrow idea of “including diversity” if those are examples where you couldn’t fit diversity… If you’re writing about 1950s in the USA, you will still be writing about a world where people who are not white, cisgender, heterosexual, ablebodied masculine men exist. Even if you for some reason want a cast with only main characters who fit that mold, there will be other humans in the world and the _narration_ definitely should notice them. Not every story needs to include every demographic or every character should break the mold of their background demographic, but there’s no reason to cite location or time as reason for “historical accuracy” – typically all you need is to just shift the camera a little, to show those other people who also populate world.

      Or, what Cay Reet said.

  13. Bubbles

    Yet again, it seems that some (not all!) of the commentators have better ideas on this subject than the article itself. I don’t mean to insult the writers of the blog, but I have noticed this pattern in a lot of articles, in which it states some things (especially unrealistic things) as an absolute but some commentators, when answering critics, give a more nuanced view. So, this article states that even in the rare situation in which diversity wouldn’t be realistic (an actual historical setting where there weren’t many kinds of people) historical fiction writers should still have diversity. The argument is that realism can be broken in other circumstances, so it can also be broken here.

    However, if the story is actual historical fiction, then I believe it should, well, be historically accurate, in the sense that though some characters may have been created from the author’s imagination, plausible deniability applies so that current research can’t technically disprove their existence and actions. For example, a story of a single fictional soldier just fighting in Alexander the Great’s army would be historical fiction, as, unless there’s something I don’t know, because you couldn’t disprove that soldier’s existence. If, say, the story was about that soldier playing the most important role in the conquest of the Persian Empire, I would consider it alternate history instead. I also don’t think that creators should be banned from writing historical fiction, so then realism, including in diversity, should apply.

    I mentioned alternate history, and I agree that it allows for more differences. However, there is still a scale of plausibility, as some things are more unlikely than others to ever have happened. (So, the soldier example I mentioned above could be considered unrealistic!) It’s very unlikely that any change, except perhaps something as extreme as aliens landing, could, say, get women to be treated as full equals to men in medieval times within a year. There are still limits on realistic diversity, although fewer than those in my definition of “historical fiction.”

    What about something like, say, high fantasy? As the article mentions, magic can change a lot of things, compared to our world. However, what it changes mostly depends on the kind of magic system in your world. Lower-powered magic will probably change less than higher-powered magic, for instance. Again, I believe authors should have the freedom to write almost any kind of magic they want, but it is possible that certain systems may limit how much diversity can be in your world. I will give a potential example below. (And no, it’s not about race or gender-based magic.) I’m splitting this up because this comment is really long, and although I believe all of it is important, I’m not sure what the limit of one comment’s length is.

    • Bubbles

      Disclaimers: I put this argument up in the comments section of a different article on this website, but no one responded to it. Also, it is not my own argument, as I read it in a different website. However, I have not found any counterarguments for it so far: if you have any criticisms, please let me know.

      The argument goes that in hunter-gatherer society, men and women had different roles, but they were considered to be of equal importance. However, agriculture developed, and while it led to a food surplus and therefore the possibility of settled civilization, it was, in some ways, less healthy, and led to increased infant mortality. Women then needed to have more children to compensate for all of those who died, but then they had less time to learn useful trades than men did. This caused them to be less valued than men across all civilizations, until modern technology reduced infant mortality rates and allowed women more time for themselves.

      IF you agree with this argument, then having an egalitarian or matriarchal premodern society, even in fantasy, would be logically impossible unless: the members weren’t human and had different biology, magic allowed for reduced infant mortality rates (although it could be argued that “sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology,” so it would actually be a kind of modern society), or magic allowed for enough food for a civilization without agriculture (some people have argued that civilizations can exist without agriculture even without magic, but it doesn’t seem that any examples exist in real life. Except maybe for some Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest due to abundant seafood, but even their settlements weren’t that big, and it was a very specific situation). Not every magic system or world will have these factors. Again, many (though not all) fantasy worlds don’t have such factors, and I don’t think writers should be forced to include them, as I mentioned in the “Five Anachronisms that Fantasy Needs” article.

      Now, this argument may not be correct, and although I haven’t found any criticism of it yet, I’m looking for counterarguments. You could also say that it isn’t about diversity specifically (even in places where women are subordinate, there are generally still problems, although it may affect diversity in a story that focuses on those in power.) However, there are somewhat similar arguments relating to say, racial discrimination (it really is human nature to fear the “other,” who could be competition for resources, and that only starts to go away when modern technology makes resources plentiful), and discrimination against LGBT people (they will always be a minority because for the human species to survive in the evolutionary process, the majority have to be heterosexual and interested in reproduction, and minorities are generally discriminated against due to fear of the “other”), and so on. Seriously, again, I do not necessarily believe in those things! However, I cannot fully disbelieve in such arguments either until actual evidence countering them is presented.

      Note: NONE of this means that diversity is a bad thing. It should be included whenever it is realistic to do so, and in most circumstances, as mentioned above, it IS realistic. I can also understand a call for more writers to write about such settings where diversity is realistic, because it can benefit people. The problem I have is with absolute statements that diversity is more important than realism (if “realism” means logical possibility), or that some logically possible scenarios should always be forbidden to write about.

      Also, I will deal with the examples the article mentioned of biological plausibility and action scenes, and physical plausibility and space travel and gunfights. For action scenes, interesting real-life action scenes (such as in war) are often depicted. You can base your work on them, or have magic or technology in your world (such as very good healing) that will allow the protagonist to survive. For space travel, make your story about, say, what the autonomous drones encounter in deep space, or about those who travel to and settle other planets when technology has advanced enough for them to do so. Either that, or create magic that allows for interesting space travel – and I believe that science fantasy can work. (For example, the magic allows for faster-than-light travel and toughens the body to withstand the dangers – but it depends on the proximity of intelligent minds, so you can’t just send a mindless drone for safe exploration. I’m actually thinking of doing something like that in my own story. However, I’m not sure whether there’s a logically possible way of creating new laws of physics so the FTL works without time travel – I think there is, based on some things I read, including those by actual physicists, but I’m still doing research). For gunfights, follow the advice for action scenes above. I’m almost certain you can justify these things in a logical way and still have an interesting story, or not have them at all and still have an interesting story, so they fail as arguments for including diversity even when it is unrealistic.

      • Cay Reet

        Hunter-gatherer societies: some scientists today say that most likely those societies (like quite some Native American tribes even at the time when the first settlers arrived) split hunting and gathering not alond gender lines, but ability. Young women would go out hunting, if they had the necessary ability, just as men with injuries or older men would go out gathering. So even there, you don’t necessarily have a gender divide. As it was proven recently that female warriors did exist among the Vikings (and female warriors among wandering tribes have also always existed).

        Matriarchy: there are matriachies on Earth, so they do exist among humans. There might have been more in the past. History seems to show that the more war-like a society is, the higher the status of men, because they are more likely to become soldiers. Ruling and raising children at the same time is possible. Leaving children to a nurse-maid was normal for women in higher society for a long time, so actual care for children isn’t necessarily the mother’s work. Childbirth puts a strain on women, that much is true, but it doesn’t necessarily take them out of politics or economy.

        Agriculture is much more egalitarian than some people think. In farmer societies, women and men work together, there’s no clear divide. All hands are needed during preparing the fields, sowing, and harvesting.

        It’s true that the majority of people will always be straight, bisexual, or pansexual, because otherwise we would not propagete enough. But a lot of old societies (again, look at the Native Americans until the settlers came, but there have been others as well) didn’t mind homosexuality the least. They considered it normal. It’s mostly the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Chrisitanity, Islam) which condemn it, because they only allow sex for propagation and homosexuals will never have it for that reason. But that is a social construct, as every religion. Considering that about 1500 species on earth show homosexuality, it’s really quite normal.

        Racial discrimination might be normal until a society starts to travel and trade in larger quantities, because the ‘smaller’ the world gets through regular travel, the less ‘other’ people from other areas are. A lot of the racial problems we still see today come from colonisation of two continents (Africa and America) and using the ‘they are a different type of people and they can’t be trusted to do well for themselves, because they’re just savages who need to be taught better’ to justify taking land and resources from the people living there. Yes, humans tend to be xenophobic, but they also make good use of that when greed sets in. So in a fantasy setting with different sentient species, how much of a difference would skin colour still make?

        The problem is that all the reasons you list above are also used by people who just are lazy about it and don’t even want to do research. Our understanding of history is changing regularly, but they just double down on ‘women were submissive and didn’t leave the house much,’ ‘there never were people from different races in Europe before WWII,’ and ‘homosexuality is basically a new thing and nobody would ever talked about that before.’

        You don’t always have to include everything which this world has to offer in humans, but you shouldn’t just put up the regular group of straight, white dudes for everything. That is, essentially, what this article is about. Don’t use history as an excuse for not being more diverse in your cast, especially if real history will quickly prove your argument wrong.

        • Bubbles

          Thank you! I do wish there was more diversity. I hope you don’t see my comments as an excuse, because I didn’t intend it that way at all. I’m really sorry if that’s the impression you got. If so, I’ll try to improve the style of my comments next time.

          I must repeat: the arguments I mentioned are NOT something I necessarily believe in! I was looking for counterarguments, and it seems you have provided them. I just have a few questions: Which real life, agricultural human civilizations were matriarchies or egalitarian? I have heard that across history, women were always in a subordinate role. Specific counterexamples would be helpful. Same for those without racism or homophobia.

          I agree that diversity should be included whenever possible – and that most, maybe almost all of the time, it is possible. My comments weren’t aimed at diversity in and of itself – they were meant more to criticize the idea that some things are more important than logical possibility in stories. I agree, maybe I gave the wrong impression. I’ll try to improve next time I write a comment.

          • Cay Reet

            You did point out that you read those arguments online and don’t necessarily share them, so it’s clear that while you mention them and they are worth looking at – if only to counter them -, it’s not your opinion as a such.

            Of course, there’s always the logic of the story and you shouldn’t break the logic just to cram something in. But often, making a cast a little more diverse doesn’t mean completely going against the inherent logic of the story or the setting you’ve chosen. You don’t have to put a person from a different ethnicity into a story, if you can’t find a logical way to do it, but you can add a woman who isn’t just there as a trophy for the hero, but has her own opinions, abillities, and agenda. That’s also more diverse than just the group of white guys. Or you can add someone who isn’t heterosexual. You could have someone with a disability in your story, if you think you can write them adequately (especially in the past, physical disabilities were neither rare nor considered special). But only having straight, white dudes in your story, because that is how the past was – that surely isn’t historically accurate.

      • StyxD

        If you’re looking for counterarguments, I can provide some.

        “Women then needed to have more children to compensate for all of those who died, but then they had less time to learn useful trades than men did. This caused them to be less valued than men across all civilizations”

        This makes some huge leaps of logic. Why would taking care of the children automatically result in women being less valued? One could argue that it’s the most crucial work for a civilization’s survival, ensuring that there are well-off children to carry it on. And why would women then all decide to give up their (supposed in this story) pre-agricultural freedom to do something they aren’t to be going to be valued for?

        And even if agricultural lifestyle is less healthy for an individual, on the overall agriculture resulted in there being *more* humans around, massively so. If the problem for women was caused by having to have more children, why not have only slightly more children and keep their lifestyle rather than leading to a population explosion that (supposedly) made their lives even worse?

        As you see, this story falls apart quite fast.

        Now, consider a counter story:

        Agriculture leads to population growth.
        More population needs more land to thrive. It needs to expand, and so do its agricultural neighbours. First big scale wars start to be waged.
        Which pre-technological civilization is going to have an easiest time conquering neighbours? The one with a lot of warriors.
        To have a steady supply of warriors (that die in wars) you need a lot more children.
        The best way to have more children is to limit women’s options so that they can only birth and take care of children for the sake of the tribe/state.
        Alternative cultures (like matriarchal ones) are then conquered and destroyed by the warmongering cultures.
        Pretty much every modern civilization is descended from one of such warlike culture.

        Matriarchal cultures that survive to this day (I read about them, but I admit it was a long time ago and I forgot the examples) are small and live in secluded areas, like islands. So this observation gels pretty well with the above story. And also with Cay’s remark that generally the status of men rises (and the status of women worsens) the more war-like a culture is.

        I’m not saying that this story is certainly true either. But food for thought.

        What this model means for our hypothetical fantasy world is that it’s certainly possible to have non-patriarchal cultures if said culture is hidden or just good at defending against bigger numbers and doesn’t crave conquest themselves. Incidentally, introduction of battle magic (you know, the most common kind of magic in fiction because everyone loves some fireworks) will almost certainly lead to more egalitarian societies, not only because women can be mages, but also because it makes tactics using a large number of warriors less relevant.

        As for other issues:

        Racial discrimination: It depends on what you mean by “racial”. Modern concept of racism arose as a post-hoc justification of Atlantic slavery and colonial exploitation. Obviously, people are generally xenophobic by nature, but it was sliced in very different ways across cultures. For example, Romans were very expansionist and considered other cultures barbaric (and Greeks before them), but were also fairly egalitarian and allowed people from all ethnicities to adopt Roman citizenship. It was a form of xenophobia, but not quite based on ethnicity.

        LGBT discrimination: there were cultures that didn’t have it, like Cay mentioned. I’ll add that it seems to *also* be strongly correlated with how warlike a culture is (or was in its history). It’s probably because such culture really needs to crack down on sexual behaviours of its people, so that there’s just one approved way: be heterosexual and have a lot of children.

        • Bubbles

          Those are also some quite interesting ideas, and you’re right that they very well may or may not be true. I would say that a lot of the stuff discussed in regards to human society and evolution is very difficult to prove and is frequently a just-so story. So perhaps, unless/until we somehow gain more insight into how it all happened, it will be hard to criticize many fictional societies and histories as “impossible.” Of course, magic, as mentioned, opens up even more possibilities.

          That said, when you talk about matriarchal/egalitarian premodern human civilizations, I’m still not sure whether they exist at all, as I haven’t even been able to find a single name of one. Also, I’ve heard of discrimination towards women in cultures around the world (yes, it is sometimes lower than what people often think it is, but it generally still does exist to some degree). Of course, what I alone have managed to find doesn’t mean much, as maybe I’m just missing something. I know you said you couldn’t remember the names of the matriarchal civilizations, so I’m just saying this to see if someone will post any names. I’ll also be doing my own research on the topic as well.

          About the other forms of discrimination you mentioned: it does seem that racism, at least in the common modern-day sense, hasn’t existed in every society. I believe some degree of xenophobia is omnipresent, and this is due to evolutionary reasons, but as you pointed out, the degree can vary based on culture and circumstances and isn’t always based on skin color.

          About homophobia, I believe there have been arguments that the Greeks, although well-known for allowing and even idealizing (male) homosexuality, had their own kind of homophobia in that they disliked the partner who “acted like a woman” in the relationship, although I’m not sure how true that is. I’ve heard about other LGBT friendly societies, specifically some Native American tribes, but I haven’t heard much about exactly how that played out and how similar it would be to modern-day progressive ideals. (I’m not necessarily saying that all Western progressives always have the best way of doing things, however).

          I suppose a lot of this ties into some even bigger questions. Is there a connection between technological advancement and social progress and if so, how strong is it? How much of history in general is fixed and how much of it will be different? I understand what Cay Reet meant when he said that a lot of this reasoning has been used as a mere excuse by people who just didn’t like diversity. However, as I’ve stated before, I believe there is a difference between inexperienced writers (such as me), for whom writing about some difficult and sensitive topics may not be a good idea, and experienced, sensitive writers, who should generally be allowed to write anything that’s logically possible. As I’ve previously stated, I also believe that you usually don’t need to break logical possibility (which is what I mean by realism) to have something in your story; often, just adding some kind of magic or technology will suffice. (I suppose you can get into questions of which magic or technology is logically possible and which is inherently self-contradictory, however). Therefore, it may actually be a good idea, for various reasons, for the inexperienced creator to do things more similarly to those in our world until feeling comfortable with making things more different.

          In the things I’m currently working on right now, either there is high technology or magic that is similar to high technology, or it’s very short so I don’t have to create much detail about the setting itself. That’s what I’m comfortable with currently. I can also understand encouraging more people to write about diverse settings. My problem, as I have stated before, is with blanket statements that NO writer, no matter how experienced and sensitive, should EVER write about a non-diverse setting, even if they have to break logical possibility to keep this rule.

          • Cay Reet

            From the way I have read this article, it’s not about nobody ever writing about a non-diverse setting. It’s about not making the choice just out of laziness. A lot of people use historical accuracy as a blanket statement to excuse not even having one female character who is more than a trophy or a window dressing by saying ‘that’s how it was.’ It’s about wondering if you can include diversity in your story. If the story hinges on not being diverse, then you obviously can’t have diversity. A lot of stories, however, might actually profit from a more diverse cast, because it often opens the door for more different actions, too. I know it’s always difficult to write characters who are not like you, but part of being a writer is being capable of putting yourself into the mind and life of someone you are not. To do your research, talk to people who are part of a specific ethnicity or other minority, and use that.

            If you use a historical setting, you should research it, no matter how short or long the story is. And you should ask yourself how much we do not know about history. You can check sites like ‘Rejected Princesses’ for historical women (the artist also does mythical figures, but usually makes that clear from the beginning of an entry) who have forged their path in history, but often are barely recognized by mainstream historical publications (especially if they also happen not to be white). We have little knowledge about the life of the average person in history, because for most of the time, they weren’t literal and left no traces – and nobody was interested in writing about the life of a simple peasant. That is bad for historians, but gives writers a bit of freedom.

            If you do sci-fi or fantasy, you need to do quite a bit more of world creation than for a story set in our world. However, you are also pretty free, especially in fantasy. If you do alternate history, you are more restricted, although with theories like the Butterfly effect (a smallest difference can create enormous changes), you can essentially also throw everything you don’t like out of the window when you change part of history. For sci-fi, generally, the more people travel and the more different ethnicities on a planet merge, the less xenophobia for the own species will exist (xenophobia can also be shifted from looks to specific jobs, belief-systems, or other things you can ‘sort’ people by until there’s another species to mistrust). If there are lots of alien species around, humans will probably not have that many predjudices against other humans (same goes for fantasy setting with other intelligent species such as elves or dwarves).

            As some examples for the shift in xenophobia: The newest entry of the Deus Ex franchise, for instance, puts up predjudice against enhanced people (people with cybernetics). The Black Widower stories (not sure where to find them right now, because I’m not sure whether the author now professionally published them), are set in a future where humans have partially evolved and the ‘supes’ (who have psionic powers) look down on normal humans and ‘ghosts’ (who are in-between with no recognized type of psionic power). Not that said widower (who is a vampire/incubus hybrid) gives much thought about that.

            As far as matricarchy is concerned: some smaller cultures still practice it today. Matriarchy starts with matrilineal societies (meaning the family line is defined by the female bloodline, not by the male one, as it is in western societies). Matriachy can mean women control trade or agriculture or handicrafts (what is most important for economy in that society), it’s not always about all women ruling all men (that seems to be more of a fear men have who are aware of the atrocities committed by patriarchies and think a matriachy has to be all of that just the other way around). The mythical Amazons are an extreme example of a matriarchy, but they didn’t exist and they wouldn’t have worked as a society for long, either. As a patriachy can sometimes have a female ruler (some kingdoms are currently or in future ruled by queens right now), a matriarchy can also have a male ruler and still be based around the female bloodline or give women more influence on the whole or control over an important aspect of society.

            Nomad societies usually do not have clear gender roles, because it makes no sense in the small family clans where everyone has to do what they do best (and, ideally, most people can do most jobs in a pinch). And because women also learn how to fight when you have nothing more stable than a tent or something similar to flee into. So in a nomad society, you can easily show men and women as equals without having to twist reality too much.

            And, just as a little detail (and I admit I chose the pen name Cay Reet partially for its ambiguity), I’m actually a woman, despite having been granted a ‘sir’ by the owners of this blog (who also took me for a guy then).

  14. Cay Reet

    Currently comments take a while to post. May have something to do with that data protection update, because of the EU’s new laws.

  15. Nobody Special

    I think this zeal for inclusion is a little excessive. Take movies for example. If you allow film to be considered stories anyway. I watch whole catalogs of films containing not one single solitary actor that resembles me in any way, shape or form.

    I don’t feel excluded by the lack of white folk in my Thai or Chinese or Japanese films. I don’t feel diminished because they’re all speaking in languages I only catch a word of now and again.

    I’d watch films, and have, from virtually any country as long as they manage to produce something I find entertaining. That is my sole goal, my only purpose. To be entertained. Not to test the adherence to some arbitrary standard of social justice.

    And what possible difference does it make if the actress playing Guinivere is a “WOC”. Merlin is scarcely a documentary. That’s like complaining that Idris Elba plays Heimdal. Who cares? He’s an awesome actor.

    If you want to see women and men treated equally you should watch Kung-Fu movies. They tend to be as egalitarian as you can hope for.

    • Cay Reet

      Unfortunately, for most people access to movies and TV series mostly means stories made in Hollywood (and, to a much smaller degree, the UK or other European countries). And Hollywood still rather whitewashes a character which has been non-white in the source material than the other way around (Heimdal and Guinivere are exceptions, not the rule). Afterwards, such whitewashing and not being inclusive at all is often excused with ‘historical accuracy’ – claiming that at that time there only were straight white men in power, women were just window dressing, no single POC in sight, and gays non-existent. See other comments here for easy reference. And as long as every Hollywood hero you see on the big screen is a straight white man, there will not be representation for quite a large group of the populace (worldwide, more than 50% of the populace are female and the vast majority isn’t white).

      Sure, if you watch Asian movies, you stand a big chance of only seeing POC in them (you might get a ‘token white’ every now and then), but Asian movies aren’t shown in the West as often as western movies are shown in Asia (China is considered the biggest market of Hollywood outside of the US, but not the other way around). It’s not about saying ‘there’s no egalitarian movies and no movies with mostly POC in the world,’ but saying western authors and studios make no attempt to include anything out of the narrow margin of ‘standard’ (white, more often than not male, usually heterosexual) in an important role in their stories. And for that, they use ‘historical accuracy’ as an excuse – even if they work with societies very loosely based on the past, usually the European middle ages.

  16. JLW

    I’m typically not a commenter, but I’m going to wade into this discussion against my better judgement.

    I’ll start with the most incendiary comment first. If when you read an article like this, your first response is to write 1,000 words about how diversity doesn’t really make sense in your specific story, the types of stories you like to read and/or write, or even the types of stories you like to hear referenced in passing on the internet, and then end that comment with a “but I think diversity is great,” you might want to re-examine how “great” you think diversity is.

    Second, the whole point of this article is that fiction, yes, even historical fiction, based on the operative word “fiction,” is all made up. So, yes you can write a novel about the Trojan War and iron weapons or a medieval Scottish story starring the Black Scotsman, because it’s all made up. You might have to do some extra work to make this world believable in today’s society, but that’s true anyway. If you’ve ever read a book with a talking animal and enjoyed it, then you’re familiar with this process gone right. Another point of the article is that hiding behind historical accuracy is a cop out (my words, obviously not Oren’s). If you want to write or read an all White, cisgendered, male novel, then just own that. Don’t hide behind “historical accuracy” when the reality is you just didn’t feel like it. If you’re worried that the reality that you didn’t feel like it might cause you or others to think you might be bigoted in some way, then take some time to evaluate whether your values and actions align and spare the rest of us all that defensiveness.

    Next, at no point did Oren suggest that every story needs a person of color in it just because. Frankly, as a person of color who reads, I have little interest in characters created solely for the purpose of filling some sort of imaginary diversity quota. Mostly because those characters tend to be cliche and offensive. Oren’s essential point was that because you’re making everything up anyway, why not consider adding a different type of character. To use someone’s early example, if you’re writing a piece of historical fiction about the Scottish Highlands of the past, it doesn’t have to have a Black guy, because diversity, if that doesn’t fit. It could have a gay Scotsman, or a female Scotswoman whose major character attribute is more involved than having married a man at some point, or a Scotsman with a disability who’s struggling to find his place in a more able-centric society. That’s if you want to write a story that centers inclusion as a theme.

    To that last point, I think that something that was implicit in Oren’s essay, but not explicitly stated is that stories that feature diverse characters don’t need to be about diversity. Take Finn in Star Wars. Spare me the “I hate the new Star Wars,” that’s not the point. Finn’s arc has nothing to do with the fact that he’s Black, he just happens to be. That creates a character that little Black children can look at and feel connected to, so great, among others who think that he’s cool or smart or whatever people think about Finn. Also, it cost the story nothing, Finn could have easily been White, Latino, Pakistani, transgender, and/or in a wheelchair. It would have been the same because his arc doesn’t involve examining what it’s like to be a someone with an identity of difference in space. It involves what it’s like to be a person (guy, in this case) who traditionally tries to prioritize the survival of himself and the people close to him learning to care about a larger population (the Rebel Alliance) as a whole and act on their behalf, sometimes in direct opposition to his personal safety.

    Theme matters. If your novel is about three lesbian Black women who isolated themselves from society in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, then great, bask in the realness. (If you like that idea, you can have it. Let me know when you’re done, I’ll probably read it). It probably wouldn’t make a ton of sense for you to stick a straight White guy into the story just because. If your story is questioning whether evil exists and if so, how do we know, then that could look like anyone, regardless of where or when the story is set, because fiction is about creating something new.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Where’s my applause GIF when I need it? Very well said, JLW. If people won’t listen to me, I hope they listen to you.

      • JLW

        Thanks Oren, it’s probably already clear, but I really enjoyed your article.

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