Backstories: Why Black Characters In Fantasy Need Them

A commenter with the supremely awesome nom de plume Rom, Spaceknight (I’m going to be Magnus, Robot Fighter in comment sections from here on) left an interesting question in the comments of my Dragon Age: Inquisitioning While Black post:

I think African flavored fantasy is cool, and I have no problem with it at all and enjoy it (Imaro rules, Spears of the Dawn is one of my favorite tabletop RPGs, etc) but one thing that’s kinda always bugged me is why can’t people in Medieval styled fantasy just be black without absolutely having to have some kind of backstory about how they’re from fantasy Kush or Mali or something?

First off, Rom, thanks for asking this question in a way that doesn’t offend, unlike the other guy who commented on that post. (Yep. I’m petty.) I’ll attempt to answer this question here to the best of my ability.

So, we want to unpack why characters who appear phenotypically similar to modern day members of the African Diaspora (i’ll stick to “black people” for the remainder of the post) are required to have back stories or character histories in Medieval-Styled fantasy. I think I can sum this up pretty tidily, but first, let’s talk about “Medieval styled fantasy”.

We hear the “Medieval Europe” excuse used by lots of fan-bigots to justify why people of color totally can’t exist in large numbers in most epic fantasy/sword and sorcery. Despite plenty of people knocking down this idea of Medieval Europe as a lily-white wonderland, fan-bigots like to stick to this excuse–even the authors of Medieval Europe styled works fall back on it. For the sake of clarity, let’s make a declarative: ALL of Medieval Europe was extremely diverse, and not just along racial or ethnic lines.

That said, we are talking about Fantasy fiction here. Let’s remember, there’s nothing stopping authors and creators from building a world full of dragons and castles, and filling it with folks who resemble Hmong people, or Mayans, or ancient Tartars.

Even though those particular ethnic groups weren’t addressed in the question, I’ll attempt to be inclusive of all groups that are routinely erased from Fantasy fiction in my answer (and I’ll stick with Fantasy in particular because the question asked about it).

First off, I believe that characters in Fantasy literature who happen to appear similar to black people deserve backstories, especially in “Medieval European” flavored white wonderlands. In fact, in these stories, backstories and character histories are ESPECIALLY necessary and valuable.

All too often, I read fantasy fiction with black characters that come seemingly out of nowhere. A prime example of this for me, from recent memory, is Yulwei from Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy. Yulwei, a powerful mage, hails from that mystical place that so many black people in fantasy call home: THE SOUTH. It’s not on a map, so you can’t really find out where in ‘the south’ (also called “the southern lands”) he’s from. He has no family, no culture really that the reader is able to discern. He only exists to push the plot or a certain character forward when necessary, and then disappear. You can only barely call Yulwei a character, since he doesn’t really occupy any significant space in the novel outside of his Magical Negro duties.

This is the reason why we have to tell where black characters–and all characters, really–come from in fantasy fiction. Characters without back stories, homelands, and cultures are often disappointingly flat. And black people who read enough fantasy are all too aware of this character trope. Authors shove one or two black people into their work, give them a magical faraway homeland like The Summer Islands or Far Harad, and then never show the homeland or the people or any of the culture outside of those exotic outliers. For folks who are always the cultural and racial norm in these stories, that’s cool–people who look like them get titles and kingdoms. Readers who aren’t in the the group that’s often pandered to by these authors have to deal with characters who lack family, culture, and homeland. In book after book after book.

Additionally, what’s a good reason for not talking about the homelands of black characters, all characters of color, really, in lily white wonderland fantasy? It’s not like it’s impossible. Authors of these books will research the exact method in which a halberd to the gut will cause a soldier to bleed out, and will even go so far as to see how that halberd would fare against a character wearing a coat of chainmail. Why not put a similar amount of research into making a character a rounder, more believable version? Why not put a similar amount of research into Ghanaian, Maori, or Chinese Muslim culture to make sure that the bits and pieces that are pulled into a character are significant and true? All characters deserve to have their culture and homeland influence their character makeup, not just the white ones.

The bigger question is, why do so many people think that these flattened characters are acceptable? Rom, you said that the inclusion of back stories for African characters in Medieval Europe styled fantasy “bugs” you. I’d like for you to consider: why, exactly, does it bug you? Do you study precolonial African culture, and you’re sick of hearing about it day in and day out? Have you encountered loads of black characters with well fleshed out back stories and interesting cultures in the mega-popular works of epic fantasy? Because I sure haven’t. You said that you enjoyed Imaro; if a character who resembled someone of East Asian descent popped up in Nyumbani, wouldn’t you want to know a little bit about where that character came from, what their culture was like, and how that culture informed their skills, abilities, and personality? Or would you–would we–take a stereotypical stoic samurai themed warrior as normal for that group, and keep on reading?

The “why can’t they just be black without being…you know…black all over everything” smacks of “I’m not racist, I just don’t see color” line of thought. It erases the very real ways that these characters might be perceived by others in the book, and how they will be perceived by readers. I don’t know you, Rom, so I can’t say that you subscribe to that ideology. I’d like to think that you don’t. But I also really want you, and other folks who might read this and have a similar view, to think about why you feel the inclusion of history and culture of a group of people in a story bothers you the way it does, when none of you–none of us–have a problem reading about all the different father-ancestors of a fake Viking king.

Did I miss anything? Anyone have any better reasons, or a more well thought out argument? Sound off in the comments!


21 thoughts on “Backstories: Why Black Characters In Fantasy Need Them

  1. Back stories for black characters aren’t just lacking in fantasy they are lacking in space fantasy’s like Mace Windu and Lando Calressian. As much as black characters need them I don’t know if I will like the way the white writers may write them.

    • Jeff, the book “Shatterpoint” by Matthew Stover gives all sorts of backstory for Mace Windu. The entire book is about him returning to his homeworld (which is basically just Planet Africa, but every planet in Star Wars is one-note) to save his apprentice. It’s been a while since I read it, but I did enjoy it. Definitely worth a read if you are looking for Mace Windu backstory.

  2. The entire time I read this I kept thinking about Nasuada and her father in the Aragon series. It had its flaws but I did enjoy them. When I read them the first time years ago, I remember being tickled that there were black characters included who were not slaves and downtrodden. But on subsequent readings and discussions I wanted to know, just where did this lone black man and his daughter come from and where are the rest of the colored folk?
    I recognize that it doesn’t matter much to people who are among the chosen always there euro folk, but for us brown folks, this Muslim, this woman, I am hungry for good representation in my games and movies and books. Anything less kinda pisses me off.

  3. I feel like the complaint is more about the large, cultural hub trade cities that we see in so much medieval-ish fantasy–to borrow from Dragon Age: Kirkwall, Val Royeaux, Denerim, etc. These are settings that should have people from all races represented in the world without explanation. Kirkwall has been a major multicultural city for /centuries,/ it makes no sense for the only black people there to be recent transplants from Rivain (the token “black people” nation, ugh). There should be black families that have lived there for generations, without question. People who if clueless white folk asked “no, but where are you REALLY from?” would give them A Look and reply “HERE, you dope.”

    Non-white characters should have robust, fleshed-out backstories, but some of them need to not be “I come from the rarely-mentioned and never-seen Place Where We Keep The Black People So White Readers/Players Don’t Have To See As Many Of Them.” No matter how detailed you make that place, it’s still othering.

  4. When I write, I need to know my characters very well. I need to know where they come from, why they’re in the story and in the moment, what they want, what they fear, what they like, what they don’t like, why they will live, or why they will die. Not all of this makes it into the story, but these details inform me, as the writer. In turn, I hope they inform the reader, and make my short stories a rich experience.

    As a reader, I want to be informed as I read. I want to know the characters. I want to have at least a glimmer of an idea of why they have been dropped into a story or a novel, and why they’re making the choices they do. I don’t need to know the whole story, but I don’t want to read about cardboard cutouts.Backstory helps to inform a character’s choices.

    I saw something, recently, along the lines of what Jeff above is getting at. Someone posted a screenshot on Twitter from a Star Wars comic book showing Han Solo has a black wife, and it’s supposed to be canon. I’m sure it will be explained how he met her and how they got married (I will be really disappointed if she’s Lando Calrissian’s sister; get more creative than that), but I would love to know her backstory. And Lando’s. And Mace Windu’s.

  5. The reason I said it bothered me – and it applies to all non-whites – was because it doesn’t need to be explained for white characters. They’re just viewed as the norm in these stories. Black people can’t just be there, they have to be from the vague jungle lands and Asians have to be from Samuraiville, and often they’re just used as window dressing. Often their homelands are lifted right out of a History 101 textbook from 1973, with a dragon added in, and don’t exist for any reason than to generate the protagonist’s Minority Friend, and because the author really likes katanas or scimitars. It was a complaint about THE SOUTH that you speak of, essentially. The inclusion of history and culture absolutely doesn’t bother me – the poor execution as an afterthought and the insistence that anyone who’s not white must explain what they’re doing in these lands does.

    However, if this can be viewed as a request for the negation of the backstory of PoC characters,well… I certainly didn’t mean it that way. (But of course, intent isn’t magic) I think diversity is important, and fantasy certainly should have a wide variety of locations based on all sorts of places in the real world, and people that both live there and come from there, and of course it can be part of such a character’s back story. I was more lamenting how sometimes it seems like no matter what, in the average fantasy, everyone who isn’t white is by default cast as out of place. Thanks for the compliment on my username, by the way.

    • Rom,

      Ah, i *completely* misunderstood what you were asking, then. I read your question as “why do these characters need backstories” and not, “why do these characters’ backstories rountinely suck?” I apologize.

      That said, and taking your clarification into consideration, I would present this post as a guide to the writers/creators of video games and fantasy fiction. In order to make thoughtfully constructed worlds and cultures for non-default people, it takes research, care, and willingness to do the right thing. And, maybe I’m being naive, but I don’t think that developers are unwilling to do these things. I think that they’re just lazy and comfortable and scared of the “backlash” from the standard group of rabble-rousers.

  6. My main question is primarily with what you asked Rom at the end – “Why does it make you uncomfortable” and wouldn’t part of it be exactly what you said in the post originally – if Medieval Europe is racially diverse and this fantasy world is racially diverse – why do these characters need to be from anywhere. To me, saying every Black person is from “The South/The Southern Isles/Far Harad” would indicate that there is no way these people can be found in FantasyEurope – they simply don’t exist there. At least, that was my first interpretation of the question (obviously different from Rom’s comment above) – Why do they have to be from some far away (whether as most books do and not ever mention that land again or even if the book does explore it). That’s certainly why I’ve always disliked “So and so is from this country to the south so they look different and they’re the only one because no one else leaves that country to the South”.

  7. Thank you for posting this! I’m writing non-white characters in a novel, but I’m so stuck on how to get everything right – assumedly because I’m white and most fantasy novels I’ve read are about this Euro-historical warped idea of lily-whiteness. I’m trying to get as much info and views on writing about black/brown/Asian characters as I can.

    Mostly, do I melt my black characters into the same spaces the Euro-centric fantasy idea encompasses (like a black woman knight)?, or should I give them a totally different mythology to exist in, somehow connected to the beliefs and histories of a real world black culture? Both, I think, is the answer. A reflection of how our world works (ie. some Chinese are born in China, and some are born in Europe, and whether those born in Europe seek any connection to their ethnic/historical origins would be a personal choice). Skin colour doesn’t determine a culture or a history – Jamaicans and Nigerians, for example, have different cultures and histories; so I think I should write a made-up world the same way, with culture not equating to skin colour, and people existing as individuals with their own personal ideas on the matter.

    Anyway, clearly what we REALLY need is non-white fantasy authors. Tons of them. The fact that I have no certain idea how to write non-white fantasy characters is telling in and of itself.

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  11. Excellent points in this blog. I know I’m late to the party but still wanted to add my two cents. Dawn of Wonder by baby author Jonathan Renshaw has a black female supporting character with reasonable depth. She is not a “magic negro” neither is the protagonist, she is treated like a normal sub character. Further, she is also decently advanced for a female period (being neither a man in a dress nor a damsel in distress).

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  14. Okay so first off: Thank you! This post was a great read and very thought provoking.

    Secondly, I know this post is pretty old and I’m late to the party. Sorry.

    Third. I’ve been agonizing about this problem for awhile. I have ‘cultural hub’ we’ll call it, that is populated mainly by people of color, I included it and a character from that area migrated with his mother to the area the novel takes place in. This was all set up and I was getting into his character and then I read a post (of course I can’t find it now) by a black author that complained heavily about the way ‘blacks’ were characterized by white authors.

    He even noted that he valued the attempt but without even realizing it, almost every character with dark skin was either an extreme caricature or just a really tan white person. This made me start looking at my dark skinned character, who I’d put into the main story because I just wanted an excuse to include more tidbits of the culture of the ‘black cultural hub’. Now I agonize about everything he says, all his mannerisms, and even his dress and grooming habits. (He wears his hair long in braided dreads with beads in it because that’s how his mother wore it.)

    Earlier in the comments, Marsha mentioned that she has no idea how to write a black character /being/ black and I totally agree. So much so that I’m almost literally terrified of writing him. He was never intended to be a ‘token black person’ but more and more I’m beginning to see that, unless I write him /right/ that is what my readers will see.

    Does anyone have any thoughts, suggestions, advice for this hang-up I’ve given myself?

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