Knowledge is Key: Questions to ask yourself as a creator

I’ve been thinking… When you (as a creator, especially white ones) decide to add diversity to your cast…

First, gold star.

Second, here’s some question that may help make sure you don’t make as much a mess of it as you might. (I can’t gaurentee these are fool proof; they’re just a logical procedure I think makes sense and I hope will be helpful. Additionally, it’s what I try to do in my writing, though this isn’t limited to writing.)

  1. Do I know anything about the culture or identity I want to include?
  2. NO: time to do research. Look into the general overall overview and then narrow it down. (I’ll get to this later.) The point is don’t make anyone or anything without any preliminary footwork.
  3. YES: okay, now ask:
  4. Where did my knowledge come from? How is it expressed?
    1. For example, my earliest knowledge of Rroma stems from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Which doesn’t tell me diddly. Well, it tells me that they’re discriminated against and people superstitiously associate them with witchcraft and fortune-telling. But it’s not really a reliable place to start because Disney is not a source of culture integrity. They’re good storytellers, sometimes, but they’re not what I would call experts on authentic diversity and representation.
  5. Next ask: is it from a generalized probably Western media probably produced by white people?
  6. if YES: time to do research.
  7. if NO: ask: is it’s from an actual point of view from someone in the culture or identity?
  8. if YES: consider how or if* you can get in contact with them once you have specific questions. Which means you’ve still got research. (You’re not escaping it, you know.)
  9. if NO: find a source that is and contrast both sources. Also: research.

So what’s the first research thing to do? Learn about the historical context, especially if we’re talking culture. But I hear you saying: my creative project is fantasy! Good for you; you still need to know the historical context of the culture inspiring your fantasy culture.

For example, in my writing I have a culture partially influenced by the Han Dynasty (I generally prefer older history. The closest I get to modern history is the 18th Century.) This gives focus. Also, looking into the surrounding periods  can be useful for developing cultural exchange in your fantasy world. Specifically in my case, it’s the Han Dynasty + Hui people and Indonesia (still need to research this more). In my writing it makes sense that these fantasy cultures have mingled (human migration, declining empire, spreading religion). That’s key. You’ve got to understand historical context to create it.

Also, it’s important to recognize details. For example, I have a kingdom strongly influence by the Kingdom of Mali (because I’ve thought it was awesome since high school). Which means a focus on Western Africa, especially countries in historical Mali (like the Mandinka people and culture). But a character (a prince actually) of this kingdom has a mother derived from South Africa (this is still hazy and I still need to dig into the details and research).

Not only is historical context (e.g. Roman Empire is different from the Roman Republic) valuable and necessary, but so is recognizing a geographical region. Diversity of environment is an important factor, at least in my writing, because it will have effects on how your culture adapts and has developed in the historical context of your world. (Also, geography is awesome. I majored in for a while in college.)

The point is that recognizing when and where your inspiration comes from is a good step in focusing your research. And ensuring that your world’s cultures have concrete details that are diverse and distinct.

Additionally, you don’t have to follow history like a blueprint, but you need to understand it. If you’re putting the Roman Republic after the Roman Empire, you’ve got to understand both so it makes organic sense in your world. Understanding is key.

*not every person is necessarily approachable or at your immediate service. Recognize that different people have different needs and should be respected and approached (or not approached) in a way that is respectful and conscientious to the your source.

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