Science fiction and fantasy have long been genres dominated by white men, both as authors and as the genres’ typical heroes. In recent decades, the number of female authors and heroes has increased dramatically, yet diversity remains an issue to be addressed.
So many excuses have been given for this mis- and under-representation of people of color as heroes in literature: that readers are simply uninterested in following heroes of color, that there are no characters of color out there, that it’s not financially lucrative to publish stories by or about POC, or even that the characters of color that do exist simply aren’t as interesting as white protagonists.
This is one reason why it’s so important to shout out and celebrate the characters and authors who do represent the underrepresented in literature. Because, trust me, there are protagonists of color in literature, they are insanely awesome heroes and heroines, and their stories are riveting.
There is, of course, still a great need for more characters of color, especially in genres like sci-fi and fantasy, where a lot of young people are yearning for heroes that look like them. But let’s take a moment to celebrate some of the great sci-fi and fantasy heroes already making waves in the genre.
1. Ged of A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
Despite the completely whitewashed TV version of Earthsea and despite the book covers deliberately styled to keep his race obscured or ignored in every edition of the book since 1975, the Earthsea series’ lead character Ged is a brown-skinned man. He’s a brown-skinned, immensely powerful, dragon-speaking, world-saving wizard to be exact, and he is easily one of the dopest characters of color in fantasy.
2. Essun of The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
If you’re a sci-fi/fantasy fan and you haven’t read The Fifth Season yet, you should probably get right on that. It’s an amazing book, and the leading lady is a powerful, badass, complex character well worth getting to know. I mean, for real, I might have to dress up as her for my next ComicCon. The woman can basically destroy whole cities with a single thought of anger, and she’s got plenty of reasons to be angry in a world where her people are brutally used and oppressed. But, well, she hasn’t yet.
3. Lauren Olamina of The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
If you want to survive the apocalypse, Lauren Olamina is the woman you want by your side. She might suffer from an illness that makes her feel the pain of anyone she sees, but even in immense amounts of sympathetic pain, she can still take on a horde of drug-crazed, murderous lunatics and save the remnants of the world.
4. Alana of Saga by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples
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Maybe including a comic book character on this list is somewhat cheating, but Saga is such an epic work of fantasy that I couldn’t not include it, and Alana is such an incredible, if flawed (actually largely because she’s so flawed), character that I couldn’t not include her either. She’s a peace-loving ex-soldier with wings and a tiny gun called the Heartbreaker, but more importantly, she’s a mom who quite literally takes on the whole damn universe for her child. Tell me that doesn’t win.
5. Shadow of American Gods by Neil Gaiman
We might not ever get the exact description of Shadow’s origins in American Gods, but all of the confusion and conjecture over his brown skin in the books makes it pretty clear that he isn’t white. In case, you have any lingering doubt, Neil Gaiman himself demanded a mixed-race actor for the TV adaptation, admitting that Shadow is indeed mixed-race. Whatever you hope/believe Shadow’s ethnicity is, he is a pretty awesome sci-fi/fantasy hero. He’s magical and subtly smart, and manages to pretty much single-handedly stop a war and save the old gods from total destruction.
6. Rydra Wong of Babel-17 by Samuel Delany
Linguist, poet, starship captain, and telepath, Rydra Wong is the … uh, quadra-fecta. On top of all that, she also decodes a crazy-making linguistic code being used by her world’s enemies and basically saves her people. So, she’s basically the overachiever of all heroes. Despite the blonde, white-looking woman on the cover, we're gonna go with our gut here and guess that Delany, a boundary-pushing writer, didn't give this character the last name Wong in hopes that readers would imagine she was white. Then again, this is the space-faring future we're talking about here, so we're probably safe assuming she's mixed!
7. Onyesonwu of Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
I mean, her name means “who fears death?” in Igbo. If that weren’t epic enough, she’s also a sorceress born into a warring world by incredible violence. We see her struggling through it, growing more and more powerful, and rising up to defeat her own father who would see her destroyed. It’s not an easy book by far, but it’s a powerful one, and Onyesonwu is as powerful a character.
8. Sierra Santiago of Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older
A tough, smart Puerto Rican woman who rocks her fro with confidence, is proud of her heritage, and creates bold art. Yep, that’s enough to make Sierra Santiago one of the coolest protagonists in sci-fi, but, of course, because it’s sci-fi, the dopeness doesn’t end there. Sierra is also a newbie shadowshaper, endowed with an ancestral power to turn art into magic.
9. Aech of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
If you haven’t read/finished Ready Player One yet, then, well, oops. Now you know. Aech, the main character’s best friend and biggest gaming rival is not the stereotypical white dude you figured he’d be behind all that gamer lingo and “bro”-ing. Nope, he’s actually a she, a Black she, a Black lesbian she from Atlanta … and she’s a badass gamer who helps save the world with her uber-nerdery.
10. Mikasa Ackerman of Attack on Titan by Hajime Isayama
Mikasa might not be the lead character in the massive ensemble cast of the hugely popular series, but she’s the one that’ll have you shaking your head in awe. She’s like the Michonne of Attack On Titan. You know, the one you actually want to put up a poster of. The one you’ll rage-quit the series over if they kill her off. The older (adopted) sister of the hothead Eren, Mikasa is often there to swoop (literally, swoop) in and save the day. Also, after her parents were brutally murdered when she was just a kid, she became the last person of Asian descent within the walled city. She’s a military genius, a top fighter, and rises through the ranks of the army fighting off the big scary giants. Oh, and she’s literally named after a battleship… Seriously, Eren who?
11. Hunter of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Hunter is so damn legendary, everyone she meets in Neverwhere has to ask twice, because they’re in total disbelief that London Below’s greatest fighter is actually joining this little band of misfits. Yet, indeed, it’s her, and without her legendary fighting skills and supernatural calm, Door and Richard Mayhew would have never stood a chance. Also, as we hear from Richard Mayhew several times, she’s completely gorgeous and has beautiful brown skin.
12. Sethe and Beloved of Beloved by Toni Morrison
Beloved might not immediately come to mind as a sci-fi or fantasy novel, but that’s the thing about sci-fi and fantasy written outside of the dominant Eurocentric canon: it looks different than you might be used to. But let’s be real, the intensely creepy, ghostly apparition that is the character Beloved is basically a revenant returned to exact vengeance on the desperate mother who took her life in fear. Between Sethe’s impressive strength in the face of this haunting (and in an era already full of so much terror for Black women) makes her one of the most memorable characters in literature. But there’s not forgetting eerie, scarred Beloved either.
13. Macandal of The Kingdom of This World by Alejo Carpentier
Set during the Haitian Revolution, The Kingdom of This World actually follows the character Ti Noel as Haiti recovers and then falls again under the heavy hand of a brutal regime. But while Ti Noel is the story’s witness and guide, it is Macandal whose spell you’ll fall under. This quiet, one-armed slave organizes a massive rebellion and uses his powers of shapeshifting and communing with the African gods to escape death.
14. Mercy Thompson of Mercy Thompson Series by Patricia Briggs
Her full name is Mercedes Athena Thompson… Mercedes Athena. How dope is that name? Add to that that she’s a mechanic with the ability to shapeshift into a coyote, a gift she gained from her Niitsitapi, or Blackfoot, heritage, and you’ve got a seriously amazing heroine. Of course, as said badass heroine, she naturally finds herself mixed up in all kinds of trouble and does all of the saving and protecting with her awesome Walker abilities.