Equality in Worldbuilding

One of the things I’ve always loved about fantasy is the way that it enables us to envision a world better than our own. When I was little these worlds were better because they had magic spells and invisibility cloaks, but as I’ve gotten older, while I still love the magic of fantasy, I also love the way secondary worlds aren’t bound by the same injustices and prejudices as our own. A heroine in a fantasy world can be judged on her skill, not her beauty, reminding the reader that we should treat the women in our lives similarly. If we cannot imagine an equal society, we cannot strive to create one in reality, but if we can imagine it in fiction, we’re one step closer towards it being a reality.

And so I knew, when I created the society my WIP is set in, that it would feature equality between men and women, and I quickly realised that if men and women are equal, then relationships of any gender configuration are likewise equal, because so much of homophobia is rooted in patriarchal gender essentialism. I’ve done a lot of thinking about what such a gender-equal world would look like, such as how women would be addressed and where surnames come from (spoiler: not the father/husband).

The other day, it struck me quite suddenly that this world is not as equal as I believe. I use he/she pronouns for all my characters, who are all cisgender. Where, you may ask, are the transgender or non-binary characters? The sad, embarrassing fact is that it never occurred to me to write them. I panicked. Here I was, trying to represent a gender-equal society when thanks to my own ingrained biases I had overlooked a key aspect of gender equality. How could I fix this? I can’t pretend to have a gender-equal society without delving into the lives of transgender and non-binary people in this world, but clearly I have ingrained biases about gender identity, and my friends are all cisgender, so how can I possibly sensitively and respectfully write a transgender character?

The fact is I can’t, and quite frankly I shouldn’t try, because transgender readers deserve better than that; they deserve to see themselves represented fairly and respectfully in fantasy (and all genres) by writers who know what they’re talking about. Yes, I have a responsibility to learn about their experiences and challenges, but because it makes me a decent human being, not to prop up my own worldbuilding.

It was arrogant of me to presume I was even capable of writing a perfectly equal society, when I come from a place of so much privilege. Yes, I’m a woman, but I’m heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, white and middle-class, and all of those privileges mean I have unexamined biases and am ignorant of my own ignorance.

I’ve been trying to create a perfectly equal world, but I am a product of this unequal society I live in and my own privileged background. There are a lot of social justice issues I simply don’t know enough about to sensitively portray people from these backgrounds in my writing. This doesn’t mean I shouldn’t learn – I unreservedly should – but it does mean I should think twice about my own worldbuilding. I’m not creating a perfectly equal world. I’m creating a world that’s more equal than the one we live in, and I hope that in fifty years’ time people will pick up my book and snark at how backwards people were in the early 21st century.

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10 thoughts on “Equality in Worldbuilding

    1. Aww, thanks 🙂

      It’s funny; it doesn’t *feel* like I’ve thought particularly deeply about it, because there are so many things I’ve overlooked, but then again the reason I imagined this world this way is because I was so fed up of fantasy stories that seemed to default to patriarchal. Don’t get me wrong, I think there is definitely a place for patriarchy in fantasy, not least because it allows us to explore biases and limitations that actually exist in our own world, but I don’t like it when the author doesn’t explore the implications and just seems to have not thought about it. So maybe I have thought about it a lot 😉

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  1. I imagine it would be impossible to write a book with a “perfect” world. The biases and prejudices really are too deeply ingrained within us that we don’t even notice the subtler ones. I have a tentative post written up about a difference in the way male and female characters are written, and writing the post made me think about it harder and realize just how much I too am affected by the stereotypes and bias taught to us and how it affects how I feel when I read about different gendered characters. I don’t really know where I’m going with this lol, but I get what you’re saying. Creating a better world in your book is the best thing you can do, and, as you said, over time society will continue to change 🙂

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  2. The fact that you’re delving into this so deeply is fantastic in and of itself. After all, many authors don’t give it any thought at all. I think you’re right that the best you can do is write a world that’s better than the one we live in, realizing that you can’t possibly accurately represent everyone simply because of your own worldview. You don’t have to be perfect, though, so don’t be so hard on yourself!

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    1. Aww, thanks 🙂

      I think it’s easy for me to feel like I’m not doing “enough” when I notice the things I haven’t thought about, so I appreciate being reminded that I’m actually doing the best I can and no one does this stuff perfectly; the important thing is to try and to improve.

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  3. What you’re attempting is undoubtedly difficult, but not impossible. It’s certainly commendable.

    In the few attempts I’ve seen at eliminating the dichotic structure of gender in fiction, the authors struggled with the pronouns the most. Some resorted to using “it” which seems to dehumanize individuals in my opinion. I think the easiest solution is to refer to characters by name instead of by pronouns, but I see how that could become redundant. I read suggestions in a forum that state to come up with a new pronoun. I don’t know how I feel about that. I also think eliminating pronouns entirely would make it a difficult read. Since we use pronouns to indicate sex more than gender (because gender and sexual orientation are typically assumed by one’s sex unless one’s behavior contradicts that), I don’t know why it has to be such an issue, unless the person is of ambiguous sex, in which case I could see just calling the character by name.

    I don’t think you should shy away from including transgendered characters. Your version might not be perfect (impossible), but it is obvious that you understand the issue enough to convey it to others accurately. I think including transgendered characters is a great idea because there are still many people who don’t even know what that means–they confuse the term with transsexual or think that all transgendered people are homosexual, which isn’t true.

    I like fiction where characters break gender expectations. I think it helps us see that a man with feminity isn’t necessarily gay, and a woman with masculine qualities isn’t necessarily a lesbian. To create a truly equal world, gender conventions would have to be shattered. However, readers still need to be able to relate to it somehow. To remove gender altogether would seem foreign. At least some characters would have to retain masculine and/or feminine qualities.

    Sorry, I think I’m babbling. I’ll stop. Great post!

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    1. Thank you for such a thoughtful reply!

      I appreciate your thoughts on pronouns. It’s also gotten me thinking about gender as a construct in a more equal world. Would pronouns be less loaded/gendered, perhaps? It would perhaps be less insulting to accidentally call a man “she”, for instance, because being compared to women isn’t demeaning.

      Anyway, you’ve given me some things to think about 🙂

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