I’ve been thinking a lot about worldbuilding lately. A few years ago, I decided that adding a Literature degree to my Classical Archaeology degree might make sense given the way things have shaped up with Westeros.org and myself and Elio co-writing The World of Ice and Fire with GRRM. Once I got to the point of doing my Bachelor paper, the broad strokes of the topic came to me quite easily - I wanted to explore worldbuilding academically since it has always been one of the elements of fantasy that holds the most fascination for me. The end result was a paper on the use of history in A Song of Ice and Fire and how it is such an essential part of the worldbuilding.
During LonCon3, I picked out a number of panels related to worldbuilding and in the end I attended five of them. One, the Worldbuilding Masterclass, was absolutely fabulous from a technical and practical perspective, but the more theoretical panels were quite a mixed bag. There were a lot of Agendas and Issues being aired, and there were near Tumblr-level of concerns about certain -isms. I found that some panelists tended to come across as looking down their noses a bit at fantasy writers who weren’t as “enlightened” as they were, where “enlightened” largely seemed to mean “shares and promotes similar opinions on social and political issues”. I would have liked to see more of a variety of opinions rather than so much mutual back-patting, which seemed particularly common on the all-female panels.
I may attempt some more detailed panel commentary once the concrud has left me entirely, but for now this is more of a long-winded introduction to a brief sigh/rant about one of the common complaints raised against GRRM in particular and fantasy in general since the success of Game of Thrones. Every now and then someone will pipe up and snarkily say “oh, so fantasy writers can conceive of dragons and elves but they can’t imagine black/gay/etc characters in their world?” Yes, I recognize that this is a snarky simplification, but too many people take it at face value and do not consider it any further. And it does need to be considered in more detail, because the fact is that worldbuilding is a lot more complex than that.
Creating a fantasy world is in large parts about finding the right balance between the mimetic and the fantastic and ensuring that the two work together. If you look at what Tolkien does in LotR, for example, he inserts a great amount of mimetic detail to “ground” the story; without this approach, the fantastic elements will not be believable because the author will not have created a sufficiently believable world. I cannot see how anyone, especially not an author, can claim that there’s no difference between inserting mimetic details that aren’t necessarily part of your personal experience of the world and inserting fantastic details. It seems self-evident that it is harder to make up convincing mimetic details than it is to make up convincing fantastic details, in part because the latter piggybacks on the mimetic details and in part because there’s no blueprint for what dragons or elves should be like.
So, yes, I think it makes perfect sense that many authors will write what they know and what they are familiar with when it comes to writing mimetic details such as the ethnic makeup of their cast. That does not mean this is all they can do or all they should do, all I am addressing is that particular, snarky comment that equates mimetic and fantastic detail without considering that they are in fact two different facets of worldbuilding.