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The Fantasy Feminist: Part 2

I talked last week about what makes a strong character in general, but this week I want to be more specific about the kind of female characters I think we should see more of. I think it’s important to recognize that a female character doesn’t necessarily need magic, a sword, or a perfect (and willing) body to be strong. At the same time, it’s also important to recognize that women are not men and that it’s okay to play up feminine qualities as strengths.

In many ways, science fiction gets women right a lot more often than fantasy does, I think. Perhaps that’s partly because we want to believe that in a more advanced world, gender isn’t such a big stumbling block as it might be in a Medieval or Renaissance setting. But the funny thing is, even in an advanced world, there still seems to be a certain hesitation to give women a fair amount of traditionally feminine traits. It’s as if by admitting that women cry, like nice furniture, or prefer to do the cooking, we’re saying that women are weak, when really, those things can be part of any well-rounded character, male or female, straight or gay, old or young.

By the way, just switching roles a la Zoe and Wash on Firefly does not necessarily make well-rounded or strong characters. It worked for Zoe and Wash, but quite often, I see those couples and think, “oh look—yet another female warrior married to yet another slightly submissive man.” The trope’s been averted and subverted so many times it’s almost a trope of its own. Move on.

So with that in mind, what would I like to see in female fantasy characters?

  • Sidekicks: I’d actually like to see more female sidekicks. You know—actual sidekicks, not potential love interests. A great sidekick-type character was Kaylee on Firefly. The wonderful thing about Kaylee was that even though she was wholesome, sweet, and naïve, the ship kept running because of her mad skills—skills she acquired purely by trial and error and through a natural knack for engineering and mechanics.
  • Atypical body type: Women have as many different body styles as they do personalities. For once, I’d love to read about a full-figured fantasy woman—in other words, a woman with curves all the way down, not just big breasts. And I’d love to see this woman portrayed as beautiful, a la Joan Harris on Mad Men. And you know what else? I’d love to read about a very pretty pear-shaped girl with a flat chest, or a really lovely girl who just happens to have a few burns or scars on her face. Or hey—what about a very plain girl? Why can’t she be a main character? Show us that an atypical body style does not define a character. Male characters in fantasy run the gamut of body styles—why not female characters?
  • Differently abled characters: Even more than just including all figures in our fantasy, what about including more women with disabilities? George R. R. Martin gave us Bran, the crippled boy, and years ago, David Eddings gave us the crippled king of the Algars. What a tremendous opportunity to show a woman with real strength—in a fantasy world, how might this kind of difficulty play out? What could a woman do if she couldn’t travel? What if she were blind, deaf, scarred? What if she had a debilitating illness, like multiple sclerosis? Show us how women deal with these things, because that’s where you tap into real strength.
  • Mothers: I wrote about parents here a while back, but I think it’s worth mentioning again. Fantasy needs more mothers, and not just mothers of adult (or nearly adult) children. Fantasy needs more mothers of small children, because the balancing act of working and doing and raising small children is so precarious that it’s an excellent opportunity to show feminine strength.
  • Women with traits normally associated with men: Any woman in business will tell you that an assertive man is perceived as strong, but an assertive woman is perceived as a bitch. Why not use our fantasy stories to start changing those perceptions? Think about traits normally seen as “positives” for men—assertiveness, analytical thought, a love of sports, whatever it is—and give them to your female characters. But rather than just make them “men with boobs,” show us how those traits are manifested in the feminine. Does the assertive woman have to constantly fight the perception that she’s a bitch? Or maybe she has to really work on her skills as a diplomat to avoid that perception—what does that look like? Now, this woman doesn’t have to be a warrior—she can be an engineer, a scholar, a prime minister, a merchant, or any of a thousand different  occupations. Just because a woman has some personality traits normally associated with men does not mean that she has to be a warrior, nor that she has to be perpetually pissed off.

A final word of advice directed toward the men in the audience: I know it’s really hard to write the other gender, and I know it’s probably especially hard for men to write strong female characters because of the fear of being perceived as sexist. But as a woman, I have to say that I am never offended by a strong, well-rounded female character. Go ahead and let her cry, let her show more compassion than her male counterparts, let her enjoy shopping and jewels and pretty things—those things are totally fine for any character. If you’re in doubt, give your work to at least one female beta reader. I have my husband read everything I write so that he can tell me if I’ve managed to portray men accurately. He’s not afraid to say, “that’s not what a guy would say. That’s what a girl wants a guy to say.” Invaluable advice.

Next week: My favorite fantasy females and how I think they represented the strong feminine

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23 Comments

  1. VictoriaH says:

    Another great article! Particularly the last paragraph. Some male writers create bad stereotypes on purpose, or just really don’t care, but the majority do really want to create good female characters. I know we can scare them a bit with things like this, because they don’t want to get it wrong or appear sexist, but I don’t want to put any men off writing women. I want MORE women 🙂

    Just as long as every woman isn’t portrayed the same – like men, every person is different. If you make them a rounded character then you can’t really go wrong. E.g. there are some situations where I would find something cute, or fun, or endearing, or annoying, in which my friend would have the opposite reaction. It might also be worth noting, though, that if the story only has one real female character amongst a bunch of men, then that’s when people tend to think stereotypically ‘female traits’ are sexist. E.g. it’s ok for a girl to cry or be scared when it makes sense to the story and to the character, but to have a group of adventurers where the only woman among them is always the only hysterical one, probably isn’t a good idea. (And it REALLY isn’t a good idea if being hysterical is her only character trait.)

    • Victoria, I think that’s an excellent point–that the fewer women you have in a story, the more likely they’ll be perceived as stereotypes. If that same group of adventurers were all women, having one hysterical one wouldn’t be sexist so much as just a pain in the butt!

  2. AE Marling says:

    In a panel at BayCon, the panel suggested that being a strong woman meant standing up for what she believed in as well as those she cared for. Interestingly enough, I read an article about positive masculine traits for strong men, and the conclusion was almost identical: accepting personal responsibility plus defending and honoring the family. ( http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/06/masculinity.aspx )

    I too would love to see more funny female sidekicks and mother heroines (such as in Gail Carriger’s ParasolProtectorate). As for me, I have a disabled, triumphant heroine in the works.

    • AE, yay for disabled, triumphant heroines! 🙂

      Your other comment triggered an idea for me–how can the male characters we write actually give a feminist flavor to our work? How can men contribute to gender equality in fantasy? Because this is an important issue and one near and dear to my heart. I also hate that so many men in fantasy are depicted as drunken warmongers who drop their pants in every brothel they find. I may have to explore this idea a bit…. Thanks for sparking the idea!

  3. Nice read! There are a lot of solid points brought up on the break down particular that about mothers, the handicapped. I think a great deal of male authors feel intimidated by the subject matter or are terrified that their attempts at being progressive will be misinterpreted as piling on more weaknesses on female characters.

    It’s refreshing to see this list to say the least. My creed as far as strong women goes regards their priorities in crisis. It isn’t exactly demeaning if a woman complains about a broken nail if said nail was broken while routing ten soldiers. Strong characters address real conflicts first and sweat the little stuff when it’s appropriate. This goes for men AND women. There is a reason bozos that treat women like sex objects when they should be defending themselves die very quick deaths in stories. People quickly forget that.

    In my story I try to tackle the fantasy issue as best as I can. The lancer role is filled by a lady swords woman that is genuinely the ‘muscle’ of the party and is arguably the best sword in the country. Also the magician / lady of destiny is a short and curvy (in the description above’s design) woman.

    • Eric, I think that’s what I’m finding as I discuss this topic with men around the blogosphere–that men are just sort of intimidated by the whole subject and afraid to be perceived as sexist if they even try. I think that’s sad. Male Writers of the World, I’m sorry if we’ve scared you! We just want to be given equal treatment.

  4. Kyla says:

    Great article- I do think too often the debate gets bogged down in ‘typical’ male and female traits rather than just good characters. I like what you said in the previous article about justifing a woman warrior’s strength in battle- this pretty much applies to all a character’s behaviour- it has to be justified by something.
    Fantasy and Sci Fi offer great opportunities to play with and explore our assumptions about gender roles (as well as many other prejudices) but often you see female characters marginalised and stereotyped just because of the pseudo-medieval setting used in lots of fantasy.

    • Kyla, writing fantasy in a Medieval or Renaissance setting does pose some particular problems because of actual history. I think we tend to find ourselves shackled a bit by what really did happen in the past, so we think that just because women couldn’t own property (for instance) in our history, they shouldn’t own property in our fictional world. Of course, there’s no reason this has to be the case–it’s fantasy. We can make up whatever we want as long as it’s consistent. Fantasy can give us the opportunity to explore those conflicts where gender rights come to the fore.

      Or, there’s always the chance to see what happens when women get all the power. My fantasy western series that’s in the works looks at what happens when women have all the power. The female characters have the magic, the money, and the property. It makes for a completely different dynamic from traditional fantasy where the men have the power, but one thing is the same: sometimes they use their power for good and sometimes for evil. That’s just human nature, and it’s not gender-specific.

  5. Jenny says:

    Great article.
    I especially like the idea of differently abled women. I tried to think of a disabled woman in any fantasy I’ve read/watched and can’t. I can think of lots of men though and they tend to be the best characters – Tyrion in Game of Thrones or Glokta in Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, why couldn’t a woman have these strong, leading roles?
    Your last paragraph also struck a cord. It annoys me that so many men seem to be able to successfuly write strong female characters in fantasy and women often fail. It might just be that I’m not reading the right books but it’s very frustrating. Maybe men work very hard not to be sexist whereas women writers just take it all for granted and end up creating a weaker character because of it.

    • Jenny, totally agree with you about some of the best characters being the ones with the most severe physical challenges. Some of those characters could easily be female.

      That’s interesting that you make the distinction between male and female authors. I wonder, too, if we have higher expectations of our female authors? I’ll have to think about that…

  6. Quillet says:

    Another great article!

    I’d also love to see more middle-aged women…basically any female character who’s not the stereotypical young-and-hot, or even the stereotypical old-and-wise. (Like the wonderfully complex, 40-year-old Ista in L.M. Bujold’s PALADIN OF SOULS.)

    • Oh, yes–let’s please explore the age spectrum! I think that’s one of the things I love about Catelyn Stark. I figured out she was probably in her mid-30s in Game of Thrones. She is an extremely strong character–she drives the action in her own storyline, certainly. A few more Queen Elizabeth I-types would be great, don’t you think? Women with power (not necessarily magic, and not necessarily royal) who don’t bend to the way things have always been done and choose to live their lives and wield their power on their terms?

  7. Anne Lyle says:

    Hey, Amy, I’m doing my best to tick all your boxes!

    Hmm, lemme see: Sidekick? Check. (OK, she ends up as love interest, but only after she’s proved her value to the hero as a sidekick.) Atypical body shape? Maybe. Does it count if she’s flat-chested and skinny in a culture that doesn’t see that as desirable? Traits normally associated with men? Check. She designs mechanical stuff and picks locks (her father was a locksmith). She’s not a warrior woman, though she’s portrayed on the new cover with a pistol, because she does use one in the book and it makes for a more dramatic image 🙂

    One thing that annoys me is when male characters are made weak and wimpish in order to contrast more strongly with their female counterpart’s strength. It’s patronising, as if women can’t be really strong otherwise. Call me picky, but I want to see a strong man matched with a strong woman – that’s when the sparks really fly!

    Also, I agree that your fantasy female needs at least some feminine traits. I loved that Kaylee could talk spaceship engines with the guys but also had a weakness for pretty dresses – and her lack of sophistication in that regard was even more endearing.

    • Anne, oh, yes, I TOTALLY agree with you on the weak male character thing! COMPLETELY agree! And I think it’s okay for the strengths to be different kinds of strength as well. One of my favorite couples in fantasy was Polgara and Durnik in Eddings’ Belgariad. Durnik was a man of quiet dignity and strength–the proverbial Noble Blacksmith–but with depth. He was a father figure to Garion, Polgara’s charge. He loved Polgara, but he didn’t say anything about it till she admitted it. There was absolutely nothing weak about Durnik, but he was never the macho, argumentative moron that seems to pass for “strong” these days. The sparks flew because Polgara loved him and wouldn’t admit it.

      And also, that’s precisely why I picked Kaylee as an example–because her love for pretty and frilly things made her feminine and her sweet, naive nature made her so endearing. 🙂

  8. Linda Adams says:

    Great post! I was one of the female soldiers who went to Desert Storm when people were still were wringing their hands about women going to war. We have women who have become soldiers, or police officers, or firefighters; women who are competent at whatever they do; women who are different shapes, sizes, and personalities. Yet, it’s hard to find a book that reflects that.

    The one thing I would like to see is more women characters in fiction. The last three books I read had a cast of 50-100 characters, and only had one minor woman character. It wouldn’t have been that hard to change some of those male characters to women! We also might start getting better characters, if more women characters were present.

    • Linda, first of all, thank you for serving in Desert Storm. I remember all of the hand-wringing back then about women being in war zones. Now, it’s almost a given that there will be women in war zones. Thank you for being a pioneer and for serving your country!

      I think we have women characters in fiction, but most of them are hanging out in other sections of the bookstore–romance, “chick lit,” etc. It’s hard to find them in other genres. It’s kind of strange, really, because the people in publishing say “men don’t read” (which is BS) and then in the same breath say “it’s mostly men who read fantasy and science fiction.” Regarding that last point, I say, “maybe it’s mostly men who read fantasy and science fiction because it’s not very appealing to women… Maybe if we had some better female characters and some male characters who were more heroic, we’d be more interested.” 😉

      • Anne Lyle says:

        I’m not at all convinced that there’s a majority male readership in SFF, at least not when it comes to books – if conventions like Eastercon are anything to go by, the core fanbase is close to a 50-50 split, and if you include paranormal romance, the bias is if anything towards the female. There may be a perception of male majority because the most high profile subgenres, like epic fantasy, have a lot of vocal male fans.

        If there’s an actual male majority, it’s in the non-book media: games, film, comics. Not that there aren’t female fans of all those, but they’re more of a minority.

      • Amy Keeley says:

        “Maybe if we had some better female characters and some male characters who were more heroic, we’d be more interested.”

        This! Oh, so very, this!

        Though I do tend to love a well-rounded villain (I adore the movie version of Loki), I also really enjoy a good, honest hero with some depth, some strength, some *power*. I want to see more of them, especially in genres like paranormal romance.

        That, combined with a wide array of strong female characters? Heaven.

  9. Amy Keeley says:

    Just want to say that this series is getting bookmarked. Looking forward to the next article.

    In the meantime, I’m going to work on a character I’ve had in mind for a while now who has a unique disability. Thank you for reminding me of her.

  10. Becca says:

    A great article! I’m actually contemplating writing about feminism in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fires series for my english literature dissertation and I’m enjoying reading articles such as this. I agree with many of your points and I’m enjoying reading such fantasy where we are seeing strong female characters such as Catelyn in Martin’s series.

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  12. Having watched versions of this conversation for over three decades, I have ZERO sympathy with male writers who fall back on the excuse that “it’s too complicated” to write three-dimensional female characters. And while we’re on that subject, I’d like to see the loathsome locution “strong female character” replaced with its real meaning: “female character written as a human being, not a prop or bit of scenery.”

    If you’re intimidated by the task of writing someone different from yourself, educate yourself. Read books by those people. Yes, boys, that means read books by women, and whitefolks, that means read books by people of color, and monocultural Americans, read books by people from elsewhere on the planet, or even *gasp* from other cultures in your own country.

    If you just sit there whining about how you can’t do it because it’s too hard and you’re afraid of making a mistake, you’re no crafts(wo)man, but a liar and a coward.

  13. Gary says:

    No-one has mentioned Stephen King’s Dark Tower series with Susannah Dean as a sidekick, a woman who is unable to walk and travels in a wheelchair.
    Jasper Fforde’s Bookworld series has a strong female lead, Thursday Next, who uses a gorilla as a babysitter while avoiding assassination attempts by a minotaur.
    The problem is more with the narrower sword and scorcery novels which are as much ‘historical’ novels as they are fantasy.

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