Lately, it seems I've seen a number of contemporary fantasy authors catching heat for misrepresenting a specific ethnic or minority group. J.K. Rowling is perhaps the most prominent example: people were very unhappy about her use of the Navajo skinwalker stories. Since my old notes for my next novel project included skinwalkers, this one particularly caught my attention. (For myself, I've decided to work the concept from a different angle. The way magic works and entered my setting - via public consciousness and imagination - makes this more appropriate, ultimately.)
One thing stands out to me in these missteps and their criticisms, however, and I'm always a little surprised by it, because it's one of the things that, as a secondary fantasy writer, you learn early on: no culture is monolithic. People show cultural tendencies along a spectrum; mutations, one-offs, misfits are an intrinsic part of every group. To assert that a trait is always true of a group seems to be an inevitable railroad to inaccuracy and oversimplification.
Of course, now the perverse in me wants to point out that there are probably exceptions to that, too. In a secondary world, you can "cheat" by making a trait constant through supernatural means.
Fellow fantasy writer Nyki Blatchley said something in one of his blog posts a while back that really stuck with me. I'm going to paraphrase it mercilessly here. Imagine you have two neighboring kingdoms, and each kingdom has a string of border villages. It's very likely that a person in one of these border villages will have more in common with their neighbor across the border than they do with a person in their capital city.
We humans may draw lines and apply labels, but life itself has little regard for borders. It's analog, not digital: a continuous sliding scale rather than an orderly sequence of distinct numbers.
It applies to science, too:
When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is
possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is
impossible, he is very probably wrong. – Arthur C Clarke
But that's getting a bit far afield from the original premise. I think we writers instinctively see this diversity and search for that exception to the rule: how many stories are written about the character who doesn't fit in? Yet when talking about cultures beyond our own, we reach for the imprint of the familiar. It's worth keeping in mind: no group is as homogeneous as it might look from the outside.