Saturday, May 16, 2009

Setting: The Color Question

Yesterday I read this post about people of color in fantasy/sci fi on my friend Aaron's blog. It deals specifically with the case of Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea books and how the main characters were changed from people of color to a bunch of white folks in a poorly adapted mini-series.

The names of most of the characters and places in the Green Kingdoms in my Illyria setting were taken from aboriginal or Maori names and words. Some of those names sound Celtic, while others don't. I imagine a number are versions of Anglic names. Whatever the case, I liked them, and it seems fitting to make the residents of Illyria not be white.

As things currently stand, my Trolls are based on Neanderthals, so they're pale-skinned and fair haired (tending to red-heads) according to the latest research on the topic.

My Elves are darker-skinned, like the inhabitants of the southern portions of the Indian sub-continent.

Most of the residents of the Green Kingdoms have light brown, caramel or mocha-latte colored skin like the people of Cortado in the Old World from whom they are descended. They turn darker with more sun exposure.

In the Western Forest of Illyria one finds lighter-skinned humans, descended from their Old World ancestors called the Night Walkers. In the frozen North one finds dark-skinned human colonists from Samar, the Northern Empire of the Old World.

The Great Wolves are gray, while the Hents tend to have deep brown fur and the Selkies range from dark-gray to black.

Now, back in the Old World I have three more cultures whose dominant skin colors I haven't determined. There's an Eastern Empire, there's the Divine Hierarchy folk who worship the so-called Gods Above in the South, and there are the people of the Awakened Cities.

The easy thing to do would be to make the Eastern Empire residents "yellow skinned," the Hierarchicals black-skinned, and the Awakened Cities folk Asiatic as well. But those cultures are not exact cognates for Chinese or African or Arabic societies.

Now that I think about it, there's another option I find interesting, which involves playing with the geography of the Old World and our western European/North American preconceptions about cardinal directions and latitude.

What if the Northern lands lie closer to the equator and the Southern lands are colder? The Western lands could stay pretty much the same. At first blush I like this idea, inverting certain concepts. It's simple but simple often works.

So in this case, the inhabitants of Samar in the Old World would be dark-skinned. I like that, as I had the Guilds there slotted for wielding sympathetic magic of a very sophisticated nature--some overtones of voodoo but with a more mechanistic/technological feel. So they are similar and different from stereotypes that readers might jump to.

I'd still make the original Night Walker-descended Old World settlers of Illyria and the Green Valley be paler in complexion than the northlanders (in part because they deal with death and night), but now the Frost Land colonists from Samar would be black.

The inhabitants of the southern lands would not be part of the Dragon Realms, but would instead worship the djinn/angel like beings known as the Gods Above. I like that association as well.

Then in the Eastern Empire the inhabitants will be predominantly reddish-brown or coppery in skin tone. So will the rivals who split off from them, the geomancers who created the Awakened Cities.

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