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Race in different cultures

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Memorhi, Aug 13, 2019.

  1. Memorhi

    Memorhi New Member

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    Hi all,

    When reading a fantasy novel, how important is race in different cultures to you? When I started writing my fantasy novel when I was a child, I imagined different cultures in the different realms, but race was never a consideration. As in, I could have a multitude of different races all born and living in the same region - it didn't matter if they were black, white, asian etc.

    Now that I want to get back into writing (I've been on a 10 year hiatus!), does this clash of ethnicity within a region or culture make for an unbelievable storyline? Many of my main protagonists are different races, I just wonder whether it affects a readers interest if the race is not specific to a region.

    And if so, if I have a region that resembles China for instance, would you expect the characters to be named accordingly? Because I can quite easily adjust races to specific regions, but for characters who I have had in my mind for 15+ years who have very fantasy like names i.e. 'Asheara', I would now really struggle to rename her 'Shao Li' because she has been Asheara in my mind for so long.

    tl;dr - I know fantasy is what you make it, but to create an immersive novel, how important is the accuracy of ethnicity in different cultures? And should names reflect the race or region?

    Many thanks for your opinions!
     
    Last edited: Aug 13, 2019
  2. Aldarion

    Aldarion Minstrel

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    MemorhiMemorhi Depends on the time. In a sci-fi or modern setting, no problem. But having multiple races coexisting on a massive scale in a medieval-style setting completely shatters my suspension of disbelief: during that time, even "cosmopolitan" cities only had small groups of minorities from what could be considered "immediate neighbourhood" - which is to say, different cultures but usually same race. In Constantinople, you would find Romans, Bulgarians, Jews, some Arabs due to sea trade - but no Chinese, or blacks. And Constantinople was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world at the time (mostly due to its status as a massive port and a trade center - you want to go to China? You go through Constantinople. Want to go to Russia? You go through Constantinople at least 50% of the time). For a regular city however, you would really only get one ethnicity, unless city happened to be in a border area.
     
  3. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    In my view, this only makes sense if you're writing historical fiction (including historical fantasy). In that case, you will be bound to a degree by what occurred in the real world, or at least have some duty to the reader to explain when things diverge. If you're writing in an entirely made-up world, none of this applies. There's no reason whatsoever that you can't have a completely invented fantasy world with a medieval level of technology and a mixture of races. The author could come up with any number of explanations for it, or even choose not to explain it and just present the world as it is. If out of all the things going on in a fantasy novel that's the breaking point of suspension of disbelief for a reader, than that's just not the right reader for that work.
     
  4. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I think it depends a lot on the details. There are a lot of stories that use diverse communities and don't follow through on explaining the racial history. I personally feel it would be better to explain it because there's more to race than skin color and that depth gets left out. You have diverse characters, but how well are you exploring them?

    If you have a character who feels Chinese, and a country that feels Chinese, then people are going to assume there's a connection. But at the same time, plenty of Chinese people and people from other parts of the world have names which match the culture they live in. People are sometimes third, fourth, fifth generation in their new country and have few if any cultural ties to their ancestry. A lot of this will easily go unquestioned.
     
  5. Aldarion

    Aldarion Minstrel

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    Actually, it depends on technology - specifically, transportation technology - of the setting, and also on social structure and economics. Medieval society has neither technological nor economic foundation for generating massively multicultural / multiracial societies. Even short-range migrations are unusual, except if you count armies. When long-distance migrations do happen, they are massive, and done by usually warrior, nomadic societies - who conquer (usually much larger) sedentary hosts, and eventually assimilate themselves. But these migrations are rare, and are usually seen as cataclysmic events by settled peoples who happen to be in their path.

    The only way to have a mixture of races is to make races not a biological adaptation to environmental conditions, but rather something completely random - a consequence of different types of magic, maybe. In that example, you could have blue-skinned water magic users in one village, and yellow-skinned lightning magic users in a village few kilometers away.
     
  6. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

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    I'm not sure that I fully agree with this.
    A recent study of [9?] people from the Mary Rose [elizabethan warship that sank] found that 4 came from North Africa or Iberia and one came from the British Isle but had North African heritage. Granted we probably didn't have 20-30% of a town or city coming from a single separate location/culture but there were probably more than we know about.
    Yes Magic does make thing a lot easier.
     
  7. Aldarion

    Aldarion Minstrel

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    That does not really disprove my point. Ships are not really good representation of a general society, because they would often hire (or gang-press) crewmembers in any port they came to.
     
  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I agree with CupofJoeCupofJoe. There was more diversity and more mobility in medieval Europe than is commonly assumed, both individually and in groups. But that's a side issue.

    I'm a bit confused by the OP, who uses race, color, and culture somewhat interchangeably. Let's take naming first. This one's easy to delineate, but can be hard to implement. Basically, you want to use names as one guide to different cultures. So you'll want internal consistency and external diversity. It's probably worth your while to decide on two or five main cultures and come up with naming schemes for each. Since this is fantasy, it really doesn't matter what they sound like. I think most fantasy readers are comfortable with naming schemes that sound Slavic or Arabic or Japanese or whatever, without us presuming the author means the characters actually are Slavic or Arabic or Japanese. It's an acceptable convention. I, for one, will take that over a relentless barrage of punctuation.

    The OP also asks if it's ok to have beings of many different colors all living in the same region or culture. Not a problem for me, though I would immediately expect color to also indicate culture. That is, unless the author established that his version of humans--or whatever creatures we're dealing with here--just naturally came in different colors. That is, that color didn't matter. But if color does matter, then I would want to see that implemented in a way that made cultural sense. I'd immediately be sensitized to racial issues and wonder whether that's what the book is about, and if not, then I'd wonder why the author made such a point of color.

    Moreover, color doesn't necessarily mean race or even culture. Fairness of skin (or darkness of skin) might be nothing more than an attribute of beauty. So might richness of voice, color or length of hair, breadth of beard, color of eye, or any number of other physical attributes. But *color* of skin has strong cultural reverberations for the reader, and not in Western society only. The author who brings that onto stage had better handle it well or risk having the audience react to the mishandling more than to the story.
     
  9. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Whenever someone says "the only way" you can do something is X, or that you "have" to do Y, they're usually wrong. This is no exception. One way you could do it, for example, is through a lost colony backstory where you have a diverse founding group of sufficient size who, through catastrophe or some other means, are driven back to a medieval level of technology. This kind of lost colony trope isn't uncommon in fantasy. If you're worried interbreeding would destroy the diversity, you could address that as well.

    Also--we're talking about fantasy here, and even in a setting with a medieval level of technology there may be magical means of transportation available that eliminate barriers to movement, and if your story is set in a commercial hub where powerful people around the world find it important to be represented, then even if magic is fairly limited in terms of access by common people you could have a diverse city for your story.

    It's just a matter of expanding possibilities when you're sitting down to create your world. There's no reason to be hemmed in by false notions of what is possible. The author just has to make the world internally consistent--with that very broad boundary you can do just about anything.
     
  10. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    To be totally honest I'm still really confused when it comes to race and diversity at different points in history. People talk about merchants and travelers, but wouldn't they stick tightly to their trade routes? I don't have a clear sense of how often you'd see second or third generation immigrants apart from the large conquests mentioned above. But I'm not well studied on the topic.

    Fantasy stories come in different levels of historical realism. And it's not remotely difficult to break the historical trends. Even just picking up the prevalence and distribution of refugees, given enough time, will create diverse cities. Three generations ago there was an influx from country A. Five generations ago it was country B. Twenty years ago it was country C. Today it's country D.
     
  11. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    So, the first thing to consider is what constituted the "other" in traditional society. We moderns, and especially we Americans, tend to focus immediately on appearance and especially on color, but humans are endlessly inventive when in comes to drawing a line between us and them. So, in medieval Europe, crucial factors included language, dress, customs, food, and more. The concept of race is both ancient and modern, with the word itself shifting with the centuries. A Navarrese, for example, would have considered a Frisian to be profoundly foreign, but because they were both Christian, they were the same when faced with a pagan Lithuanian or a Muslim.

    Some examples might help. In Novgorod (a town in modern Russia), all the German merchants were required to live in a kontor, where they lived according to their own laws. Commit an offense within the kontor and you were tried according to German law. Commit an offense physically outside the kontor and you were tried according to Novgorod law (the city wasn't part of Russia at the time). Heck, in Rodez in France, the town itself was divided into two jurisdictions, one belonging to the bishop and one to the duke. Or was it a count? Anyway, there's a good book about a murder that seemed to cross the boundary.

    In other words, there were many degrees and variations on "otherness" that make our race relations seem simplistic by comparison.

    As for mobility, there was a great deal of it. I'm thinking of the Siebenbuergen in Romania--seven towns populated not by Romanians but by Saxons. There's the whole German expansion eastward into Pomerania and Prussia, but at the same time there was the persistence of native tribes in Germany such as the Wends, who continued to have a Wendish prince right up to World War One. Plenty of people were on the move. Consider drovers who brought their herds of livestock to distant markets. Consider sailors who roamed for hundreds of miles. Even knights might travel fair distances--I'm thinking here of the career of William the Marshal, who worked the tourney circuit in his youth. Or troubadors. Or young men on their Wanderjahr as journeymen. Not to mention pilgrims on the move everywhere, or the knights who hounded off to eastern Europe on the annual crusades into Lithuania. Mobility not only wasn't rare, it wasn't even unusual.

    The borderlands of Europe, where physical mobility was perhaps greatest, were a fascinating place. There was a prof at UVA, whose name I cannot recover now, who taught a whole course on the topic.
     
  12. Aldarion

    Aldarion Minstrel

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    I was talking about fundamentally medieval settings. Of course, if you have "regressed technology" situation, or "pseudo-modern, but with magic except tech" situation, then you have much more freedom. But in a medieval setting, you simply do not get regular large-scale migrations. Merchants may come and go, yes, but they are a fairly minor part of society - and most trade happens on major waterways. Just take a look at language: in a larger country, person from one part of country may not be able to understand a person from different part of that country. Croatia is a fairly small country, yet we have three mutually-almost-unintelligible dialects - and that is today. Medieval France was even worse; you could as well say that they had distinct languages as that they had distinct dialects:
    Old French - Wikipedia
    Guernsey Patois - A Language Apart - guernseydonkey.com
    [​IMG]
     
  13. Yora

    Yora Sage

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    What do you even mean by race? As a German I don't really know what that concept is supposed to describe.

    It sounds like there's more to it than skin color.
     
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  14. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    I think it’s all wide open, the fantasy world can do whatever the author can make work. And what works will depend on different readers. Like so many things, there is no definitive answer.
     
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  15. In fantasy, sci-fi or dystopian it really is up to the author and their imagination.

    You'll never please everyone. Someone who holds to historical accuracy as their base for creating a world will not find the idea believable but many won't give it a second thought. A world written around mass relocation, say in the event of a cataclysm or fleeing from a world wide military threat or tyranny, would find reasons for many different people/races/cultures to have come to coexist in one place.

    Though diversity of race may not be prominently represented in the following example, the immigration to America set up east coast cities that had areas known as (just from the city I grew up in) Polish Hill, Germantown, Scotch Bottom, Little Italy etc and in these areas, there are still social clubs ( the Swiss Hall, Croatian Club, etc) and festival days at parks celebrating those countries of origin to this day. Churches/temples can show this diversity as well. You can still here the various languages spoken in those areas. Little Italy in Boston's old north end is a prime example. When I last visited, (admitting this to have been 20 years ago) there were signs in every shopped restaurant in Italian and you could see laundry hanging between apartment buildings on laundry lines with people yelling across the space between talking to each other in nothing but Italian. It felt like another world to me. So some of the cultural markers would likely still exist even hundreds of years later. This is true all over the world.

    Having a land with a history of some sort of migration or reason to put those folk together in the first place, even if it happened 1000 years in the past before your story takes place, is fine. And a simple reference to it through a setting or dialogue is all you need to put that point across if it isn't integral to your overall story.
     
  16. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    skip.knoxskip.knox, that's a fascinating post, thank you for sharing. I'm already wondering how I can do more to add diverse micro-regions like those to my story, although I already have a couple.

    Even though we talk about race and diversity, what's often at stake is actually representation. If I'm writing for a general US audience, that means we're looking at 12% blacks, 17% Hispanic/Latinos, and smaller numbers of Asians and Muslims. So two questions:

    1) Beginning with strict historical realism, how common would these groups be in different parts of Europe?

    2) And what are the most believable and easy-on-the-story ways to relax strict realism and increase the prominence of these groups in a European setting?
     
  17. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    That's true. And you have to look at the nature of the underlying work as well. Some fantasy works aren't meant to adhere to notions of realism whereas others are. Reader reactions can depend on the type of story and how the author sets up the story world. And of course on the reader.

    In fantasy, the default when it comes to an author asking "Can I do X?" ought to be YES. The follow up should be "So long as you can make it work."
     
  18. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I don't really want to argue this, but for others who might read this thread I'll add a bit, just to indicate variety.

    Pressgangs are post-medieval.
    Venetian ships pretty much only had Venetian sailors, though they did draw from elsewhere in their (late medieval) empire.
    Farmers in Pomerania regularly spent a few months working the herring fleets.
    The Bay salt fleet that ran from the Hansa ports to the Bay of Biscay and back were mostly local boys. Local to the Hansa, that is.
    I don't think Vikings did a lot of hiring.
    Catalan crossbowmen were famous and were hired out by whomever could afford them. But they served as units, rather like Swiss pikemen did.
     
  19. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    A couple of factors are getting a bit jumbled here. The OP spoke only of having lots of different ethnic groups in the same place. There's more ways that can happen other than massive migration. Some of the examples I cited--medieval examples, because that's the only area where I feel confident--were large scale but were not migrations. They were what we today would call colonization, though it's perhaps a little closer to the opening of the American West, complete with real estate dealers. There are other examples that were wholesale relocations of peoples--in the thousands, not the millions.

    If we stay strictly to migrations as the anthropologists would define them, then yeah, not much of that. Vikings. Magyars. Avars. Movements of Slavic tribes in the early MA. Most of the migrations were early MA. But populations move in more ways that migratory ways, so I think there's still room to consider the original question.
     
  20. Ban

    Ban Sir Laserface Article Team

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    I come away from reading this thread with the belief that people conflate race and culture in some of the initial positions and replies, and I feel it should be said that this is not accurate for most of us. In certain countries and places, the US for example, race has developed into a fault line along which culture develops, and as a result it may make sense to think of one race to belong to a culture, but this is not the international norm. A chinese person might be from a variety of ethnicities, and still be fully and entirely chinese. So too can and will other people in other places. At times such cultures can corrolate with ethnicity, but it is not the norm, nor is it an inherent element of the culture in question. I know it's not badly intentioned, and I might read more into it than necessary, but I don't like it when this template of aligning culture and race as one is applied to the world at large. Apologies if I
    misunderstand what has been said.

    Edit: That being said it makes sense to divide your world geographically along ethnicities as this is simply what happens when different people develop in different places. But I think it is reductionist to align these cultures along pre-established modern notions of 'race'.
     
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