The literacy problem
In my personal writing, writing that isn’t fanfiction, I generally write high fantasy more than any other genre. High fantasy is usually based in a pseudo-medieval setting, with none of the luxuries of the 21st Century. In particular, there is often a very distinctive class structure, with the nobles and royalty having wealth and status while the lower classes have to work in pretty horrible conditions.
These are historical accuracies which fantasy writers are adhering to when trying to emulate true medieval society. However, there is one feature of such societies which is often treated very inaccurately when it comes to characters of a lower class and status: literacy.
Historically, being literate in medieval society was the preserve of the higher classes. It is extremely unlikely that characters from small villages would have been able to read and write. Yet in works of fantasy, characters who shouldn’t be able to read and write often can, and there is little backstory to why they have this skill.
I will offer two examples which I have noticed. First, in the Once Upon a Time episode, White Out, David’s mother Ruth gives Anna a piece of paper with Rumpelstiltskin’s name on it, for she is too afraid to say his name out loud. When I first watched this episode, one of my first thoughts was how Ruth – a farmer in a distinctly high fantasy pseudo-medieval world – would be able to write.
Second, an example which has often been picked up in the Merlin fandom. All of the characters can seemingly read and write, even those who probably shouldn’t be able to. This is kind of glossed over in the show itself, but fanfiction writers often pick up on it. I have read many fanfictions which question how Merlin can read and write, and one where it stated outright that Gwen isn’t literate, even though it’s never discussed in the show. In a society such as the one which is portrayed in Merlin, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why these characters should be literate – or, at least, have the same level of literacy as royalty.
I myself have fallen foul of this problem. When writing the first book of The Eternal War Trilogy, I was adamant that Feidlimid – a tavern girl who has lived her entire life in a small village in a war-torn pseudo-medieval country – wouldn’t be able to read and write beyond simple markings necessary for economics and the monetary running of her father’s business. Yet when I was nearly finished with the first draft, I slipped up, and Feidlimid read something from a book. This was to keep the plot moving forward, and to introduce some exposition about a character who had just been introduced, but it didn’t fit in with Feidlimid’s character. There is no reason that she should have been able to read that book.
I think that the main reason that characters who, had they been living in historical medieval societies, shouldn’t have been able to read and write are suddenly literate with little or no explanation is due to convenience. It’s just easier to have literate characters than not.
One exception I can think of is Larten Crepsley in the Saga of Darren Shan. His illiteracy is an important character feature, but it doesn’t actually come up that much. There isn’t much need for him to be able to read and write, especially with the literate Darren around, and so it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. There are no obstacles that are put in the way in terms of the plot that cannot be overcome simply because Mr Crepsley is illiterate.
I think issues of literacy need to be taken more seriously when it comes to fantasy. Where a character who has no reason to be literate can read and write, there needs to be given a backstory to where they picked up those skills. And where there is a character who is illiterate, it needs to have some kind of bearing on the plot. It cannot simply be something that is noted about a character and never discussed again. Fantasy in particular needs to pay more attention to such issues, since the settings of works of fantasy are more likely to have higher levels of illiteracy among its characters than, say, sci-fi or realism.