Hi, I’ve been considering starting a book in the fantasy genre. I really wanted to give some Native American representation in it, since it's something that I rarely see. However, this story wouldn't take place in America, it would be in a completely different world (though one loosely based off of earth in the 14 hundreds ish?) This is similar to your mixing cultures post, but I wanted to know: is there a good way to give Native American representation in stories that aren’t historical fiction?
Representing PoC in Fantasy When Their Country/Continent Doesn’t Exist
The core of this question is something we’ve gotten across a few different ethnicities, and it basically boils down to: “how can I let my readers know these people are from a certain place without calling them by this certain place?” Aka, how can I let people know somebody is Chinese if I can’t call them Chinese, or, in your case, some Native American nation without having a North America.
Notes on Language
As I have said multipletimes, there is no such thing as “Native American culture”. It’s an umbrella term. Even if you are doing fantasy you need to pick a nation and/or confederacy.
How do you code somebody as European?
This sounds like a very silly question, but consider it seriously.
How do you?
They probably live in huts or castles; there are lords and kings and knights; they eat stew and bread and drumsticks; they celebrate the winter solstice as a major holiday/new year; women wear dresses while men wear pants; there are pubs and farms and lots of wheat; the weather is snowy in winter and warm in summer.
Now swap all those components out for whatever people you’re thinking about.
Iroquois? They live in longhouses; there is a confederacy and democracy and lots of warriors from multiple nations; they eat corn, beans, and squash (those three considered sacred and grown together), with fish and wild game; they wear mostly leather garments with furs in winter; there are nights by the fire and cities and the rituals will change by the nation (remember the Iroquois were a confederacy made up of five or six tribes, depending on period); the weather is again snowy in winter and warm in summer.
Chinese? They harvest rice; there is an emperor appointed by the gods and scholars everywhere; they use a lunar calendar and have a New Year in spring; their trade ships are huge and their resources are plenty; they live in wood structures with paper walls or mud brick; they use jade and ivory for talismans; their culture is hugely varied depending on the province; their weather is mostly tropical, with monsoons instead of snow on lowlands, but their mountains do get chilly.
You get the gist.
Break down what it is that makes a world read as European (let’s be honest, usually English and Germanic) to you, then swap out the parts with the appropriate places in another culture.
Research, research, research. Google is your friend. Ask it the questions for “what did the Cree eat” and “how did Ottoman government work.” These are your basics. This is what you’ll use to figure out the building blocks of culture.
You’ll also want to research their climate. As I say in How To Blend Cultures, culture comes from climate. If you don’t have the climate, animals, plants, and weather down, it’ll ring false.
Start to build the humans and how they interact with others. How are the trade relations? What are the internal attitudes about the culture— how do they see outsiders? How do outsiders see them? Are there power imbalances? How about greed and desire to take over?
This is where you need to do even more research on how different groups interacted with others. Native American stories are oftentimes painful to read, and I would strongly suggest to not take a colonizer route for a fantasy novel.
This does, however, mean you might not be researching how Natives saw Europeans— you’ll be researching how they saw neighbours.
You’ll also want to look up the social rules to get a sense for how they interacted with each other, just for character building purposes.
Sensitivity readers everywhere! You’ll really want to get somebody from the nation to read over the story to make sure you’ve gotten things right— it’s probably preferable to get somebody when you’re still in the concept stage, because a lot of glaring errors can be missed and it’s best to catch them before you start writing them.
Making mistakes is 100% not a huge moral failing. Researching cultures without much information on them is hard. So long as you understand the corrections aren’t a reflection on your character, just chalk them up to ignorance (how often do most writers get basic medical, weapon, or animal knowledge wrong? Extremely often).
This is where you really get into the meat of creating people. You’ve built their culture and environment into your worldbuilding, so now you have the tools you need to create characters who feel like part of the culture.
You’ll really want to keep in mind that every culture has a variety of people. While your research will say people roughly behave in a certain way, people are people and break cultural rules all the time. Their background will influence what rules they break and how they relate to the world, but there will be no one person who follows every cultural rule down to the letter.
More sensitivity readers! See step 4 for notes.
Rewrite— and trust me, you will need to. Writing is rewriting.
Repeat steps seven and eight until story is done.
I’ll be honest— you’re probably going to need a certain amount of either goodwill (if you’re lucky enough to make friends within the group you’re trying to represent— but seriously, please do not make friends with us for the sole purpose of using us as sensitivity readers. It’s not nice) and/or money to get to publishing level.
The good part is the first three steps are free, and these first three steps are what will allow you to hurt others less when you approach. While you’ll still likely make mistakes, you’ll make a few less (and hopefully no glaring ones, but it can/does happen) so long as you do your due diligence in making sure you at least try to understand the basics.
And once you feel like you’ve understood the basics… dive down even deeper because chances are you’re about to reach a tipping point for realizing how little you know.
People will always find you did something wrong. You will never get culture 100% accurate— not even people who were born and raised in it will, because as I said in step five: cultures have a huge variety of people in them, so everyone will interact with it differently. But you can work your hardest to capture one experience, make it as accurate as possible, and learn more for next time.
Every programming course should include a lesson that teaches everybody that when they post a programming problem online and no one answers, to post their own damn solution so we don’t end up with 4 Google results and no clue how to solve the problem.
A term I’d always found intriguing, mostly because it’s such an unusual word. It’s a concept from mathematics and computer science but can be applied more generally—not that it often is. Basically, it’s an operation that, no matter how many times you do it, you’ll still get the same result, at least without doing other operations in between. A classic example would be view_your_bank_balance being idempotent, and withdraw_1000 not being idempotent.
Writing Harry Potter fanfic without reinforcing unconscious antisemitism when you write goblins or Snape
Hi, I have a question about writing fanfic of source material with questionable/ offensive aspects. I’m writing Harry Potter fanfic and am unsure how best to deal with antisemitic undertones in both the goblins and in Snape (esp his physical appearance). I’m not jewish.
I tried researching goblins in general, and the approach I came up with so far is to remove the connection of the harry potter goblins with gold/ gringotts. In my fic they have other jobs, professions and roles besides that, and humans work alongside them in the bank. I got rid of negative descriptions like “swarthy”, untrustworthy etc, and while not really going indepth (they’re not the focus) hinted at them having their own culture not revolving around gold or treasure, but with their own traditional clothing and art.
I wonder if this is a good approach, if there are other things to be aware of or pitfalls to avoid. I’m not trying to portray goblin culture to resemble jewish culture in any way btw, but will rather have human jewish characters.
The second thing I’m struggling with is Snape. I don’t think Rowling intended either him or the goblins this way, but he comes across as a negative jewish stereotype and I feel unsure of how to change this. Since he is such a central character, I feel less like I can completely disregard canon or make him unrecognizable. I also don’t feel like just changing his physical appearance would help at all? Doing that might only reinforce the idea that there’s something ‘wrong’ with his features. So far the only thing I could come up with is not to portray features like his hooked nose or oily hair in a negative way or as a sign of bad personality traits. I’m honestly at a loss though. – Sorry this got so long!
First of all, for anyone who isn’t aware of what OP is talking about, it’s not that JKR deliberately set out to poke us in the eye with her money-babysitting goblins and hook-nosed Snape. It’s built into English folklore this way, so much so that she most likely didn’t realize why her knee-jerk idea for what those characters should look like was informed by centuries-old garbage. So I’m not blaming her, and this is a warning that you don’t have to be deliberately racist to accidentally perpetuate harmful tropes.
Moving on to the answer:
>> the approach I came up with so far is to remove the connection of the harry potter goblins with gold/ gringotts. In my fic they have other jobs, professions and roles besides that, and humans work alongside them in the bank
I have a question for you. Why was it easier to create entirely new goblin canon than distance them from Jewishness ? I mean, I don’t know about you, but even if goblins are upstanding citizens who save puppies and help old ladies cross the street on the daily, always do the dishes after every meal, and never misgender their friends, the word ‘goblin’ is not something commonly thought of as beautiful or heroic. It’s a GOBLIN. So if this were me I’d move in a “goblins are not Jews” direction instead of trying to turn them into ugly little heroes. (This is advice specifically for gentiles, by the way. I know several Jewish fans who like to try to reclaim, for example, Tolkien dwarves. It can be very validating–from within. And for people who aren’t me. :P )
Ways to distance goblins from Jewishness and anti-semitic tropes in general:
First of all, fix the noses. We as a society decided that having your nose turn down at the end makes someone monstrous and unhuman. Can we not? That’s just silly. So give the goblins either all kinds of noses including snub noses and pointy noses and uninteresting noses, or give them something totally inhuman like a Pinocchio nose.
If they follow polytheism in any way that’ll help drive them away from Jewishness. A goblin pantheon, etc.
Having human Jews in the story is the best way to make it clear your goblins aren’t Jews, IMO. Especially if they have the same “meh” reaction to them that the gentile human characters do.
I mean, trying to make them independently cool is not a bad goal, I’m just saying that it doesn’t necessarily make them seem less Jewish because let’s face it, tiny and ugly is one of the negative tropes about us even when we’re awesome and I just plain don’t want to feel ugly when I wake up in the morning!
>> will rather have human jewish characters.
By the way, if this seems like way too much work – if you leave goblins out of your fanfic entirely the fact that JKR uses them won’t make your fanfic antisemitic. Does that make sense? Like, yes, the source material is problematic, but it’s also okay to completely ignore the goblins entirely within the scope of your fic. Unless you really need them there for plot reasons.
>> Since he is such a central character, I feel less like I can completely disregard canon or make him unrecognizable. I also don’t feel like just changing his physical appearance would help at all? Doing that might only reinforce the idea that there’s something ‘wrong’ with his features. So far the only thing I could come up with is not to portray features like his hooked nose or oily hair in a negative way or as a sign of bad personality traits. I’m honestly at a loss though.
The Snape answer is easier.
Don’t talk about those particular physical features. Does anyone reading HP fanfic not already know what Severus Snape looks like? There really isn’t a reason to mention his nose in a fanfic.
If you also show him being his usual douchecanoe self to Jewish students in addition to all the gentile MC’s, that would be cool–and another thing you could do is have him deliberately go out of his way to be a douche to a Jewish student in an antisemitic way like, if a muggle from a more observant background is ooked out about having to touch pig parts for a spell he could make fun of her and she could defend herself or one of the others could reassure her she’s okay and he’s just an ass to everyone. I mean that would make it super obvious he’s not us. But you don’t really have to do that.