Diversity in Fantasy Worldbuilding

by Neha, Grade 9

Fantasy is one of my favorite genres ever, and one of the reasons for that is the exceptionally strong world building that fantasy authors excel at. Fantasy worlds often take great amounts of detail to portray, because they’re purposefully unrealistic and the audience often needs more careful explanation to be able to understand the author’s creations. When writing fantasy, worldbuilding goes far beyond just describing geographical features and landscapes. It’s also important to think about the populations that inhabit each region, the social norms, the power structures, the politics, and much more. At first glance, it can seem like fantasy worlds are completely separate from anything we experience in our own lives, and that there is no mirroring of real life whatsoever, but upon deeper analysis, we can sometimes see clear reflections of our own societies. Sometimes these reflections are positive, sometimes they’re neutral, and sometimes they’re negative and stereotypical. There are several beloved books known by many that I’m not quite sure people have noticed the stereotypical views in, and I think they should be looked at deeper. 

An example of a book series that perpetuates such stereotypes is the Lord of the Rings series. Whether it was intentional or not by author JRR Tolkien to write the series through such lenses or not, the fact of the matter is that there are aspects of the series that do in fact create harmful and pointed imagery. Even being a fan of the series and most of the worldbuilding, it’s hard to ignore some of the subtle underlying themes in these books. There are an abundance of major characters in the series: Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Gandalf, Legolas, Aragorn, Arwen, Gimli, and many more. But every single character I just mentioned was portrayed as white in both the novels and the movie adaptations. It’s also clearly implied that the society in which most of the main characters live in is inspired by European areas of our own world. Even though there are so many characters and ethnic groups in the Lord of the Rings, the only groups that are portrayed as non-white are “evil” ones like the Orcs and the Uruk-hai, or groups that are less relevant to the story and certainly aren’t the heroes. 

The Lord of the Rings

A second example of worldbuilding that furthers stereotypes is that of the beloved series of Harry Potter. Harry Potter is a series that many kids read without a second thought, not realizing a lot of the racist and sexist language and character development used by author JK Rowling. Characters like Fleur Delacour and Lavender Brown have both been criticized by fans. For instance, Fleur Delacour was a character that showed up in book four and then a couple more times throughout the later books of the series. Her first appearance was as a student from the school Beauxbatons, one of the rivals of Hogwarts. She was entered in the Triwizard tournament along with three other competitors, all of whom were males. Author Rowling purposefully made the choice for Fleur Delacour to be a quiet, conventionally beautiful young lady who ended up placing last in the Triwizard Tournament, not being able to complete all of her tasks. There wasn’t really a reason why it was important to the plot to place the only female last, but Rowling still did. 

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Another female character that Rowling portrayed in a negative way on purpose is that of Lavender Brown. Lavender was pretty much a side character for most of the series, and she only became a focus of the series during the brief time that she dated Ron Weasley. During this period of time, Lavender didn’t really have any other interests, hobbies, or skills other than hanging out with Ron, and she was portrayed as completely obsessed with him, which could be interpreted as Rowling’s view of females in relationships. Although there are a handful of strong female characters in the series, like Hermione Granger, there are also issues in the way she is portrayed, such as her description in the books as “ugly”, implying that females can’t be both smart AND beautiful, that they have to be one or the other. 

Sexism isn’t the only issue in the Harry Potter book series. There are also several subtle racist ideals in addition. Cho Chang is an East Asian character in the series, and there are several stereotypes about her that are displayed. She is often shown as submissive and kind, not ever sticking up for herself or making achievements other than in her love life. She is also placed in the Ravenclaw house, known for being smart and brainy, which is a common stereotype of Asian women. Another example is the black character Dean Thomas, one of Harry’s roommates at Hogwarts. Throughout Harry’s years at Hogwarts school, he has stayed with the same four roommates: Ron Weasley, Neville Longbottom, Seamus Finnigan, and Dean Thomas. Dean Thomas is the only one of color out of the five, and the rest are white. He also just happens to have some of the least character development of the bunch, which upset many fans. 

We can see that even though we may have deeply enjoyed both of these book series, after inspection it seems that there is way more than meets the eye that we need to acknowledge. Even though fantastical worlds usually seem completely detached from reality, it is important to remember that the worlds and their authors might not be as perfect as they seem on the outside.