hi! when it comes to world building, what would do you do when you have something that affects the whole world but is problematic for a specific subset of people? for instance a virus that turns people into vampirism: would you say its better to find an alternate way for Muslim characters not to drink blood and say so explicitly, have them be immune to it, remove Muslim characters altogether so you don't face that problem, or smth else? thanks!
Vampires, Virus that affects whole world, & how Muslim [and Jewish] people factor into that
In the case of Muslims, it is tricky. Blood is absolutely forbidden. In extreme situations in which there is no other thing to eat, it becomes permissible, but only for survival reasons, which in this case does not apply. There is the possibility that you give your vampires a few things they may feed in, not just blood; for example, a chemical substance that would kill any ordinary being, or even oil, if you prefer a thick liquid.
The other complicated concept is vampirism. Now, death has a huge significance in Islam; death and the dead are sacred. There is no coming back from it; and the classical vampire is a, basically, living dead. In the story I am writing, I have creatures that are similar in almost every aspect to vampires, but since there is this point, I erased the part that they are living dead and just made up a different process for people to become vampire.
Also, since living forever is, in Islam, one of Allah’s attributes, it can’t be a thing for any other living being. This, unless you give them an expiring date. And I mean – we believe that many Prophets, and subsequently, the people coexisting in their times, lived a lot of years. For example, Prophet Noah lived 900 years. And the life span of djinns (unseen creatures) is also much longer than that of humans. Your Muslim vampires can live 500 years if you want, just give an expiring date.
After all this, I am in no authority to tell you what to do with your story, but in this situation, you can choose between removing your Muslim characters (which would be sad since there is almost no representation in that sub-genre) or make them have a different process of turning vampire, being “vegan” vampires and having an expiring date.
[Mod team note, we wanted to add a Jewish POV since its relevant here too]
From a Jewish perspective (since we also can't consume blood), this is a sticky one. On the one hand, it can be frustrating to be constantly left out of post-apocalyptic fiction, or sci-fi, fantasy, historical fiction... literature, romance... really all of it. On the other hand, consumption of blood is forbidden religiously, often avoided culturally, and particularly tricky when you consider the long, violent history of blood-libel accusations (and the murders they often bring).
Covering this, at least for Jewish people, would require an incredibly delicate approach, and with the world's history with blood libel it probably would be inadvisable to try to tackle this as an outsider. Finding a way for us to not drink blood might be able to work, but you will want to be sure you don't step on other tropes to do it (government control, theft, being non-human etc), and get sensitivity readers during, and after writing.
ask published oct 2021
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All sentiment is right; because sentiment has a reference to nothing beyond itself, and is always real, wherever a man is conscious of it. But all determinations of the understanding are not right; because they have a reference to something beyond themselves, to wit, real matter of fact; and are not always conformable to that standard.
David Hume, Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary
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The photoshop on that belly is kind of scary all on its own.
(Ad for The Lycan King's Mate by Bridget Marie)
I’m not entirely sure if this fits your criteria, but I had to show this trainwreck to someone.
(Ad for Readict App, VitalTek Inc.)
I know this isn't completely on topic... but somehow I got two different submissions that are oddly similar and also deeply uncomfortable with really weird photoshop on the pregnant belly.
I still can't believe there's more than one of these ads... it's like they're... breedi... okay I can't finish the joke. I'm so sorry.
Text for Screenreaders:
First image text:
What do you think, Ava?"
I jerk my head up from the palm of my hand where I had been staring out the dining room window in a daze. I look over at the twin sister who is holding up two napkins that look identical to me.
"Uh...the one on the right?"
My sister makes a face. "Really? Hmmm. I don't know... See More
Click To Read on :finger gun emoji: <The Lycan King's Mate> Install Now
Second image text:
"Mate," he growls out and pulls me closer
"Tate, be careful, she is pregnant," Eeva warns
"Don't be so possessive," I state boldly, glaring at him.
"I can, and I will. You are mine." He retorts with an amused expression on his face.
"I belong to no one."
"Tell me, whose pups you are carrying."
Now would Tate knowing that I was forced to be a breeder and pregnant with another wolf's pups?"
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A+ example of how the media manipulates people for clicks and anger engagement.
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Things with no gay/queer rep can be progressive and groundbreaking actually and need to be part of the discussion of representation in media
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Trying dark academia hairstyles on my kinky hair
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Friendly reminder that bi, pan, trans, aro, and ace people in relationships with someone of a different gender aren't less queer than people in relationships with someone of the same gender, and they aren't bad representation or "less good" in any way
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If people wrote about other conditions like they do about autism:
(in short, we’re sick and tired of being treated like infants who are shallow and incapable of basic comprehension. we aren’t your circus animals to parade around and cluck at. don’t think we’re “too stupid” to know what you’re doing. we know exactly what you’re doing. stop infantilizing us. you’re the ones who are really acting like babies.)
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Golden Globe Winner Daniel Kaluuya
Golden Globe Winner John Boyega
Golden Globe Winner Andra Day
Two Time Golden Globe Winner “Soul”
Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s the night of Black and Gold
Golden Globe Winner, Chadwick Boseman
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For a long, large part of my life, being queer in a media landscape--finding queerness in a media landscape--has meant theft.
I'm a Fandom Old, somehow, these days, older than most and younger than some, in that way that's grown associated with grumpy crotchetyness and shotguns on porches and back in my day, we had to wade through our Yahoo Groups mailing lists uphill both ways, boring and irrelevant anecdotes from Back In Those Days when homophobia clearly worked differently than it does now, probably because we weren't trying hard enough. I've seen a lot of stories through the years. I've read a lot of fanfic. (More days than not, for the past twenty years. I've read a lot of fanfic.)
When people my age start groaning and sighing at conversations about representation and queerbaiting, when we roll our eyes and drag all the old war stories out again in the face of AO3 is terrible and Not Good Enough, so often what we say is: you Young Folks Today have no idea how hard, how scary, how limiting it was to be queer anywhere Back In Those Days. Including online, maybe especially online, including in a media landscape that hated us so much more than any one you've ever known. And that is true. Always and everywhere, again and again, it's true, we remember, it's true.
We don't talk so much about the joy of it.
Online fan spaces were my very first queer communities, ever. I was thirteen, I was fourteen, I was fifteen--I was a lonely, over-precocious "gifted kid" two years too young for my grade level in an all-girls' Catholic school in the suburbs--I lived in a world where gay people were a rumor and an insult and a news story about murder. I was straight, of course, obviously, because real people were straight and anyway I was weird enough already--I couldn't be two things strange, couldn't be gay too, but--well, I could read the stories. I could feel things about that. I would have those stories to help me, a few years later, when I knew I couldn't call myself straight any more.
And those stories were theft. There was never any doubt about that. We wrote disclaimers at the top of every fic, with the specter of Anne Rice's lawyers around every corner. We hid in back-corners of the internet, places you could only find through a link from a link from a link on somebody else's recs page, being grateful for the tiny single-fandom archives when you found them, grateful for the webrings where they existed. It was theft, all of it, the stories about characters we did not own, the videotaped episodes on your best friend's VHS player, one single episode pulled off of Limewire over the course of three days.
It was theft, we knew, to even try and find ourselves in these stories to begin with. How many fics did I read in those days about two men who'd always been straight, except for each other, in this one case, when love was stronger than sexual orientation? We stole our characters away from the heterosexual lives they were destined to have. We stole them away from writers and producers and TV networks who work overtime to shower them in Babes of the Week, to pretend that queerness was never even an option. This wasn't given to us. This wasn't meant for us. This wasn't ours to have, ever, ever in the first place. But we took it anyway.
And oh, my friends, it was glorious.
We took it. We stole. And again and again, for years and years and years, we turned that theft into an art. We looked for every opening, every crack in every sidewalk where a little sprout of queerness might grow, and we claimed it for our own and we grew whole gardens. We grew so sly and so skilled with it, learning to spot the hints of oh, this could be slashy in every new show and movie to come our way. Do you see how they left these character dynamics here, unattended on the table? How ripe they are for the pocketing. Here, I'll help you carry them. We'll make off with these so-called straight boys, and we only have to look back if somebody sets out another scene we want for our own.
We were thieves, all of us, and that was fine and that was fair, because to exist as queer in the world was theft to begin with. Stolen time, stolen moments--grand larceny of the institution of marriage, breaking and entering to rob my mother's hopes for grandchildren. Every shoplifted glance at the wrong person in the locker room (and it didn't matter if we never peeked, never dared, they called us out on it anyway). Every character in every fic whose queerness became a crime against this ex-wife, that new love interest. Every time we dared steal ourselves away from the good straight partners we didn't want to date.
And: we built ourselves a den, we thieves, wallpapered in stolen images and filled to the brim with all the words we'd written ourselves. We built ourselves a home, and we filled it with joy. Every vid and art and fic, every ship, every squee. Over and over, every straight boy protagonist who abandoned all womankind for just this one exception with his straight boy protagonist partner found gay orgasms and true love at the end.
Over and over, we said: this isn't ours, this isn't meant to be ours, you did not give this to us--but we are taking it anyway. We will burglarize you for building blocks and build ourselves a palace. These stories and this place in the world is not for us, but we exist, and you can't stop us. It's ours now, full of color and noise, a thousand peoples' ideas mosaic'ed together in celebration. We made this, and it will never be just yours again. You won't ever truly get it back, no matter how many lawyers you send, not completely. We keep what we steal.
Things shifted over time, of course. That's good. That's to be celebrated. Nobody should have to steal to survive. It should not be a crime, should not feel like a crime, to find yourself and your space in the world.
There were always content creators who could slip a little wink in when they laid out their wares, oh what's this over here, silly me leaving this unattended where anybody could grab it, of course there might be more over by the side door if you come around the alleyway (but if anybody asks, you didn't get this from ME). We all watched Xena marry Gabrielle, in body language and between the lines. We sat around and traded theories and rumors about whether the people writing Due South knew what they were doing when they sent their buddy cops off into the frozen north alone together at the end of the show, if they'd done it on purpose, if they knew. But over the years, slowly, thankfully, the winks became less sly.
A teenage boy put his hand on another teenage boy's hand and said, you move me, and they kissed on network TV, in a prime-time show, on FOX, and the world didn't burn down. Here and there, where they wanted to, where they could without getting caught by their bosses and managers, content creators stopped subtly nudging people around the back door and started saying, "Here. This is on offer here too, on purpose. You get to have this, too."
And of course, of course that came with a whole host of problems too. Slide around to the back door but you didn't get this from me turned into it's an item on our special menu, totally legit, you've just got to ask because the boss throws a fit if we put it out front. Shopkeepers and content creators started advertising on the sly, come buy your fix here!, hiding the fine print that says you still have to take what you've purchased home and rebuild it with your semi-legal IKEA hacks. Maybe they'll consider listing that Destiel or Sterek as a full-service menu item next year. Is that Crowley/Aziraphale the real thing or is it lite?
And those problems are real and the conversations are worth having, and it's absolutely fair to be frustrated that you can't find the ship you want on sale in anything like your color and size in a vast media landscape packed full of discount hetships and fast-fashion m/f. It's fair to be angry. It's fair to be frustrated. Queerbait is a word that exists for a reason.
There's a part of me that hurts, though, every time the topic comes up. It's a confusing, bad-mannered part of me, but it's still very real. And it's not because I'm fawning for crumbs, trying to be the Good, Non-Threatening Gay. It's not that I'm scared and traumatized by the thought of what might happen if we dare raise our voices and ask for attention. (Well. Not mostly. I'll always remember being quiet and scared and fifteen, but it's been a long two decades since then. I know how to ask for a hell of a lot more now.)
It's because I remember that cozy, plush-wallpapered den of joyful thieves. I remember you keep what you steal.
Every single time--every time--when a story I love sets a couple of characters out on a low, unguarded table, perfectly placed to be pilfered on the sly and taken home and smushed together like a couple of dolls, my very first thought is always, always joy. Always, that instinct says, yay! Says, this is ours now. As soon as I go home and crawl into that pillow-fort den, my instincts say, I will surely find people already at work combing through spoils and finding new ways to combine them, new ways to make them our own. I know there's fic for that. I've already seen fic for that, and I wasn't really interested last time, but the new store display's got my brain churning, and I can't wait to see what the crew back at the hideout does with this.
Every time, that's where my brain goes. And oh, when I realize the display's put out on purpose, that somebody snuck in a legitimate special menu item, when the proprietor gives me the nod and wink and says, you don't have to come around the side, I know it's not much but here--there is so much joy and relief and hope in me from that! Oh, what we can make with these beautiful building blocks. Oh what a story we can craft from the pieces. Oh, the things we can cobble together. Look at that, this one's a little skimpy on parts but we can supplement it, this one's got a whole outline we can fill in however we want. This one technically comes semi-preassembled, and that's boring as shit and a pain to take back apart, but that's fine, we'll manage. We're artists and thieves. I bet someone's pulling out the AU saw to cut it to pieces already.
And then I get back to our den, which has moved addresses a dozen times over the years and mostly hangs out on Tumblr now (and the roof leaks and the landlord's sketchy as fuck but at least they don't charge rent, and we've made worse places our own). And I show up, ready for joy--ready for a dozen other people who saw that low-hanging fruit on that unguarded table, who got the nod and wink about the special menu item, who're ready to get so excited about this newest haul. Did you see what we picked up? The theft was so easy, practically begging to be stolen. The last owner was an idiot with no idea what to do with it. The last owner knew exactly what it could become, bless their heart, under a craftsman with more time on their hands, so they looked away on purpose at just the right time to let me take it home. I show up every time ready for our space, the place that fed me on joy and self-confidence when I was fifteen and starving. The place that taught me, yes, we are thieves, because it is RIGHT to take what we need, and the beautiful things we create are their own justification. We are thieves, and that's wonderful, because nothing is handed to us and that means we get to build our own palaces. We get to keep everything we steal.
I go home, and even knowing the world is different, my instincts and heart are waiting for that. And I walk in the door, and I look at my dash, and I glance over at twitter, and--
And people are angry, again. Angry at the slim pickings from the hidden special menu. So, so tired and angry, at once again having to steal.
And they're right to be! Sometimes (often, maybe) I think they're angry at the wrong people--more angry with the shopkeeper who offers the bite-sized sampler platter of side characters or sneaks their queer content in on the special menu than the ones who don't include it at all. But it's not wrong to be mad that Disney's once again advertising their First Gay Character only to find out it's a tiny sprinkle of a one-line extra on an otherwise straight sundae. It's not wrong to be furious at the world because you've spent your whole life needing to be a thief to survive. It's far from wrong. I'm angry about it too.
But this was my den of thieves, my chop shop, my makerspace. Growing up in fandom, I learned to pick the locks on stories and crack the safes of subtext at the very same time I learned to create. They were the same thing, the same art. We are thieves, my heart says, we are thieves, and that's what makes us better than the people we steal from. We deconstruct every time we create. We build better things out of the pieces.
And people are angry that the pre-fab materials are too hard to find, the pickings too slim, the items on sale too limited? Yes, of course they are, of course they should be--but my heart. Oh, my heart. Every single time, just a little bit, it breaks.
Of course the stories are terrible (they have always been terrible). Of course they are, but we are thieves. We steal the best parts and cobble them back together and what we make is better than it was before. The craftsman's eye that cases a story for weak points, for blank spaces, for anywhere we can fit a crowbar and pry apart this casing--that's skill and art and joy. Of course we shouldn't have to, of course we shouldn't have to, but I still love it. I still want it, crave it. I still thrill every time I see it, a story with hairline cracks that we can work open with clever hands to let the queer in.
That used to be cause for celebration, around here. I ask him to go back to the ruins of Aeor with me, two men together alone on an expedition in the frozen north, it feels like a gift. And I understand why some people take it as an insult. I understand not good enough. I understand how something can feel like a few drops of water to someone dying of thirst, like a slap in the face. If it was so easy to sneak it hidden onto the special menu, to place it on the unguarded side table for someone else to run off to, why not let it sit out front and center in the first place? I know it's frustrating. It should be. We should fight. We should always fight. I know why.
But my heart, oh, my heart. My heart only knows what it's been taught. My heart sees, this thing right here, the proprietor left it there for you with a nod and a wink because they Get It. It's not put together yet, but it's better that way anyway. It's so full of pieces to pull apart and reassemble. I bet they've got a whole mosaic wall going up at home already. We can bring it home and make it OURS, more than it was ever theirs, forget half of what it came from and grow a new garden in what remains.
And I go home to find anger, and my heart breaks instead.
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When asked what characters I identify with I have to admit the answer is “Pretty much none”
I don’t need to be able to identify with a character to enjoy them or the story but as an intersex person I never really see myself reflected in media. I can’t fully identify with the female or male experience on a very physical level.
When I was a child I was valued more for my strength than anything else by the other kids, and sex ed was very confusing because I experienced a mix of the things that were supposed to happen to boys and girls and was then told by the teacher that what I was experiencing was physically impossible so I had to be misunderstanding my own body.
Female characters seemed so foreign to me, even when written by women. Other than being looked down on for being a woman I couldn’t recognise a lot of their struggles and worries. I tended to identify more with male characters because the way they looked, behaved and experienced the world was more in line with myself despite me not actually wanting to be a man. I did however not share the male characters’ sexual interest in women so I found myself identifying more with gay male characters which explains a lot.
So I’d say the characters I identify the closest with are either men as written by women or very masculine female characters. And by that I don’t mean this
They are all extremely cool and I love them but other than a workout routine their masculinity is mostly in their attitude.
I identify much more with these characters
Their masculinity is a very physical thing. They’re built differently and inhabit a grey zone between sexes, not just between genders. That’s what make them more relatable to me. Having to deal with not being physically able to fit the expectations set for them and having to make the best of it.
I think the first time I ever felt represented in anything was back before I even knew I was intersex. I found a comic in the public library about a realistically intersex pirate who didn’t really see himself as any gender but kinda felt more like a man. Despite having an intersex body that was more masculine than my own I still felt like this was me. This writer got me.
I sometimes joke that I belong to the forgotten third cis gender: non binary intersex 😜
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Okay y’all time to share what kinds of disabled rep you’d like to see more of! I’ll start:
Disabled characters falling in love
Families not seeing their disabled child as something to apologize for and getting defensive when other people apologize on their behalf
Mobility aids!! (Including service animals)
The character’s disability being more than a personality trait but less than a burden
Character arcs that involve accepting their disabilities rather than finding ways to fix them
Accessible environments and tools to accommodate characters in their everyday life!!!
Disabled characters being able to hold their own
All the characters standing up to the ableists and giving them what they deserve (they can get their foot rolled over by a wheelchair. As a treat)
Cool ways disabilities are incorporated into fantasy/sci-fi genres!!
The other characters asking disabled friend if they want help instead of assuming they need it
Let! Them! Have! Hyperfixations!
Disabled characters facing and overcoming challenges without their disability being undervalued
Disabled characters saving the day
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My relationship with the idea of Bad Media Representation, particularly for bisexual male characters, is always a bit fraught because, like:
On the one hand, I’m keenly aware of how these tropes have been and continue to be used to demonise bisexual men in the popular consciousness, and I can absolutely tell when a particular piece of media’s writer is using them because they have a shitty attitude about bi dudes.
On the other hand, I can literally go down a list of Bad Representation Tropes for bisexual men and be like “oh, I relate to that one”, “that one’s totally me”, “that one’s not me, but it’s kind of hot”, “I literally did that in high school”, etc.
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Avoiding ambiguous brown without cultural coding
How should I, a white person, avoid making characters fall into the vaguely brown stereotype in my fantasy books? I’m against coding cultures into this book, as I’m really trying to create a unique world (ironically by studying a lot of different cultures). By doing this though, am I doomed to remove characters from cultural context, or leave people wandering in vague color shades? Especially since some of my characters would fall into various indigenous ethnicities, but share nothing cultural
In an interesting way, I think the Star Wars novels kind of do an okay job about it (of course, others might differ, in which case I defer to them, but in my opinion they pull off something similar). For context, it all takes place in a galaxy where absolutely none of Earth’s cultures are present, but there are still human beings that are Latine-coded, Black-coded, etc, and they accomplish this through very simple descriptions of character appearances. For example, there was a Black-coded woman and her description ran something along the lines of “She had dark, rich brown skin and her hair was curled tightly, pulled back into a bun. She hated the moist heat of the swamp planet, but she had to admit her hair never looked better.” Through that, the audience understands that she’s most likely Black-coded (dark skin+tight curls), but they avoid cultural points (also the little detail of humid heat being great for curls is just a cute lil extra IMO, that’s something I hear people with 3- or 4-type hair saying a lot).
The pitfall here is that, since there’s no cultures analogous to what we have here in our world, each reader will have different interpretations of what each character might identify as ethnically. Who someone might headcanon as Korean, another might headcanon as Chinese, etc. That’s something you have to figure out for yourself if you’re okay with having--just that vague sense of ‘ah, this person must be from this vague region of the world’--or if you want to be more explicit.
So… to expand on the point Sophia put out that it’s up to the reader to determine what race somebody “really” is and how that’s a problem.
One of my best friends is mixed Japanese/white. Thanks to genetic roulette, they get approached by various Indigenous peoples asking what nation they’re from, because they look really Indigenous.
I’m mixed Mohawk/Mi’kmaq/white. Thanks to genetic roulette, nobody can tell where I’m from and I’ve gotten everything from West Asian, North Indian, and Great Lakes Native (basically, anywhere that golden-tanned skin + dark hair + no monolid is considered normative, I could pass for there)
My mom, meanwhile, looks very, very Mexican, despite being the same mixes as me at a higher percentage Native; she tans more pink/red and tans darker than I do. She also has a totally different face shape than I do.
Aka, there are dozens upon dozens of groups that look interchangeable, and the only thing that separates us is our culture.
When you’re dealing with more “obvious” features like type 4 hair, monolids, very dark skin, very pale skin, and those stereotypical things, yeah, you can usually peg down a general region. You’re basically only going to have Black people with kinky, delicate hair (but, are they African, Australian Indigenous, or Black Native? Because Australian Aboriginals are also very dark skinned and have a similar hair texture; Black Natives sometimes inherit the level 4 hair texture). You’re basically only going to have Northern settled peoples with white skin (barring albinism/vitiligo) but are they Norwegian or Sami?
What happens to all the people who are ambiguous in real life?
The trope has a basis in reality. Humans would like to think that a certain set of features = obviously from this place, but as soon as you expand your sample size beyond models, movie stars, and idealized art, you find that people look really different and you absolutely cannot rely on this logic.
It’s even a known fact among the modelling industry that anyone vaguely not-white who looks like they could maybe belong to any other group of brown people is put in for casting calls for that group, even if they’re not part of that group. It’s messed up, but it happens all the time. A Latine person could be put in as Arab, and an Ojibwe person can be put in as Filipino.
Culture is the thing that separates these people in real life. So as soon as you take that culture away, you’ve essentially lost any representation you could get. You’ll get diversity, yes, but it will not be representation.
Sure, you perhaps gain some representation as people look at parts of their culture that might be incorporated (maybe by accident, maybe on purpose) and say “hey, that’s us!”
But you’ve also strewn infighting by having perhaps multiple groups be able to say the same thing, and these multiple groups could very well share a lot of phenotypic traits, so suddenly you’ve represented nobody because you haven’t put anything solid that would sway the needle one way or the other.
If you start to assume too much that features = obviously this person is from x part of the world, then you really ignore a whole lot of human migration, diffusion, and people who just lived in really similar biomes so their physical features, skin tone, and hair type ended up being the same just purely because that had the best chance of surviving the region, or had no reason to change.
Diversity exists because of the environment. Skin tone, hair type, jaw shape, etc exist because of the food available, how it was grown/gathered (horticulture and “hunter-gathering” vs agriculture), the way food was eaten, the amount of sunlight, and the vitamins available in diet. This happened over tens of thousands of years.
But also, certain environments produced very similar coping strategies. There are only so many ways to survive a very hot desert, so unless you’ve really messed with the natural world in fantasy, you’re going to end up pulling from earth’s coping strategies for the very hot desert. Which means you could end up being kinda hurtful towards desert peoples who see their clothing and food growing ways used, with people who look like them because skin tone is environmental, but hardly anything else about their culture was taken.
Especially for Indigenous peoples, culture and land protection is what makes us Indigenous. How are you going to show us in your work unless you dig into our cultural principles (land protection) at the very least? Nothing about our facial features or skin tone are particularly unique to us, and assuming they are is how you get caricatures. There are Black Natives* to white Natives to mixed cultures with European and Indigenous practices (Metis) and everything in between. And that’s just North America’s range.
This isn’t even counting how there are Indigenous people everywhere, so when you say “Indigenous” do you mean the Mohawk? The San? Mbororo? Ainu? Sami? Samoan? There are literally thousands of groups that are primarily separated from the dominant group because of their way of life and maybe some subtle phenotyping. But primarily, they are separated by their culture.
I would suggest, at the very least, to have some degree of basic cultural beliefs to help differentiate groups of brown people who would otherwise be interchangeable. Land stewardship and using every part of the natural world for Indigenous groups, for example. You can’t really find Indigenous groups without that, so if it was missing I would raise an eyebrow.
Distinct foodstuffs and diets are another way to differentiate and code; you know that this group that uses chickpeas, sorghum, barley, and wheat is probably from West Asia, and that group that eats rice at every meal is probably somewhere from East Asia. Food is a very fast way to differentiate between groups, because even far-reaching staples are fairly different across cultures.
You don’t have to 1 to 1 code a culture. But for actually differentiating between people, you’re going to need more than one point of reference beyond looks. Food, nomad status (as in, settled vs nomadic vs hybrid), basic religious practices (monotheist vs pantheist), and broad-reaching cultural attitudes (collectivism vs individualism, who you’re expected to be collectivist with) are all points that help break apart these groups and let them know you see them.
It’s important to note that even if you do fantasy, it’s read in the real world. It’s read by humans, who are pattern recognizing machines. We will see patterns. Niki points out ways to try and avoid this patterning below, but it’s going to happen regardless.
It’s up to you what you actually want, out of not overtly coding anyone.
~ Mod Lesya
*Black Natives and cultural practice is a fraught topic (mostly because of slave-owning tribes) that is mostly summed up as: Black Natives are often barred from tribal participation because anti-Blackness is rife within North American Indigenous communities, but they have been tending the land just as much as if not more than their former enslavers; as such, they are members of the cultures/nations and should be recognized. They have been part of the land as North American Indigenous peoples for centuries, at this point, and the fact there is still enough anti-Blackness in Native communities that Reservation Dogs used nothing but Black caricature is… a problem to say the least.
This isn’t counting mixed Black/Natives who had their Native parent/grandparent cast out for marrying someone Black, who were raised in cultural practices without community ties because of anti-Blackness, who should also be recognized. If it’s valid to mix white culture with North American practices, it’s valid to mix Black culture (Black American and/or African Indigenous) with North American practices.
Do you want diversity or do you want representation?
Lesya raises a very important point that I encourage you to really think about. Why do you want to have diversity in your fantasy worldbuilding? Is it because you want your readers to feel seen and represented? Or is it because you want your fantasy world to feel well-rounded and realistic? These are two different motivations, which will require different approaches.
If you want representation, then go back and reread Lesya’s answer. Representation that’s only skin-deep isn’t really representation, and won’t help your readers feel seen. If, however, you want diversity for diversity’s sake--because diversity is realistic, and because it’s simply good writing to include it--then I have some more thoughts to offer.
In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with creating a fantasy world that has fictional diversity that doesn’t directly parallel real-life groups and cultures, as long as you’re aware that that’s what you’re doing. This is arguably very common in high fantasy, though the effectiveness with which it’s executed varies wildly from author to author. N. K. Jemisin describes what she did for the Broken Earth trilogy in this blog post.
Unless you’re working with a very small subsection of the world (and even then--everything’s connected), diversity is natural, because people will be living in different geographical areas that each have their own climate, fauna and flora, which will shape both their physical appearance and their way of life. Thinking about the physical environment is a good starting point for figuring out what your population groups will look like and how they’ll behave.
But as Lesya pointed out, it’s very easy, when doing this, to inadvertently re-create elements of coding that will remind your readers of real-world groups, even if that wasn’t your intent. If that happens, you’ll have two options:
1) Very deliberately alter the coding to make it clear that you’re not trying to represent a certain real-world group (in the post I linked above, Jemisin talks about what she did to avoid appropriating Maori culture), or
2) Embrace it and go the representation route after all, which will entail a lot of research and care to make sure your coding makes sense, is respectful, and doesn’t reinforce harmful stereotypes.
Assuming you’re going with option 1, there are still more issues to be mindful of. We said before that representation that doesn’t include culture isn’t really representation. Here’s the thing: This is also true of fictional diversity. Even if your fantasy cultures are entirely created from scratch, they still need to exist, and be distinct and thoughtfully portrayed, in order for your world to feel well-rounded and realistic.
Diversity is more than physical appearance
As Lesya demonstrated, physical appearance alone isn’t enough to make groups of people distinct from another. In order to avoid the “ambiguous brown” trope you’re worried about, you will need to give your different groups of people distinct cultures.
There might be some cases where it would make sense for an entire fantasy world to have a single, homogenous culture, within which people of various ethnic backgrounds exist, resulting in a variety of physical appearances but everyone sharing the same culture. But if you’re planning to do this, you need to give a lot of thought to why things came to be this way. If an entire world is made up of a single culture, that usually indicates something very traumatic happened on a large scale. Maybe an apocalypse, or massive amounts of forced assimiliation or genocide. I don’t recommend going that route unless you’re willing to grapple with all the trauma that entails, and all the potentially problematic implications. You’re much better off populating your world with a diversity of cultures. They don’t need to be coded based on real-world cultures, but they need to exist.
In my opinion, the main issue with “ambiguous brown” characters is that it makes it seem we’re all interchangeable. In real life, we're not. Make sure that's the case in your fantasy world, too. Craft your population groups so they're distinct, each with their own history, culture, language, and traditions. Your worldbuilding needs to be deep enough to counteract the absence of parallels to real-life cultures. We need to be able to look at it and say, "okay, this is not representing me specifically, but it's also not lumping me in with everyone else that vaguely looks like me."
And don't make the mistake of thinking one skin tone = one group. That's not true in real life, and it shouldn't be in fantasy either. Using skin color and a handful of stereotypical features as shorthand for ethnicity or culture is not only shallow worldbuilding, it also feeds into the racist pseudoscience that sorts people into four or five neat color-coded boxes and collapses the world's diversity into a handful of supposedly biologically determined races. If you're creating cultures from scratch, this is your chance to challenge those ideas and populate your cultures with people who don't all look the same. Within a single group, you can have characters with a variety of skin tones, hair texture, eye color, height and build, etc. Because this is what happens in the real world. Some groups include a lot more diversity than others, but variation exists everywhere.
This will partly depend on how interconnected your world is, and how much interaction exists between your various groups. More interaction and exchange tends to lead to a wider range of physical characteristics within each group, and it also results in similar features being found in multiple groups. Think about how that might play out in your fantasy world, and make sure you're being as specific as possible with your fictional cultures so that you don't have to rely on physical appearance alone to distinguish your population groups from one another.
- Mod Niki
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no because that puts Gatsby's whole quest for wealth and the 'perfect' wife, his anger at not receiving an inheritance from his mentor, the whole white supremacy rant which Tom Buchanan goes off on, not to mention Daisy’s hesitance to marrying Gatsby and how no one actually mourns him when he gets murdered, and the Buchanans can just walk away without consequences... IT ALL MAKES SO MUCH MORE SENSE
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hi friendly reminder that from six of crows main characters:
3 out of 7 are poc
4 out of 7 are lgbtq+
2 are recovering from addictions
2 out of 3 couples are interracial
there are all kinds of disabilities (learning disabilities, physical disabilities, mental disorders, an adhd coded character)
we have a cishet white man raised in a racist, sexist environment unlearning his bigotry and actively trying to be better and help the people he used to hate
we have a fat girl who's still hot and confident in her body
I love it so much
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Trying more academia hairstyles on my kinky hair
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A (Non-Exhaustive) List of (Red-ish) Flags In Writing
Particularly when writing people with a marginalized identity that you don't hold, it can be hard to tell what is an issue if you're not familiar with it. Research should be your main reference point, but sometimes you need to go with your instincts.
Here is a very non-exhaustive list of things that should flag to you that you need to take another look at it and do some more research:
Is a person/culture/group presented as "backwards", irrational, un-modern, or uniformly aggressive?
Am I using coded language (e.g. thug, slut, slow) to describe a character?
Am I associating sexual habits or preferences with a certain race, religion, gender, or class?
Am I dismissing or making light of devestating historical events that appear or are referenced in the story?
Am I prioritizing the rehabilitation of individuals or groups who commited violence, particularly at the expense of those who experienced that violence?
Are my characters, particularly my marginalized characters, embodying stereotypes with no other characteristics?
Do my marginalized characters exist simply so I can say I have included marginalized characters?
Am I applying every marginalization to one character so that I don't have to "deal with it" in other characters?
Do marginalizations, particularly disabilities, only appear when convenient?
Do marginalized characters, particularly Characters of Color, exist only to guide or care for white characters?
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