The Spider by Leo Carew – Spoiler Free Review
 

The Spider

Spoiler Free Review

 
METAL WORLD – Role-playing Game Review
 

Role-playing Game Review

 
Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence
 

Grey Sister

Review

 

THE FANTASY FEMINIST: PART 3

I have two apologies to make to Fantasy Faction readers. First, I apologize for my last article. I sort of phoned that one in. I realized it after I re-read it. It was definitely not up to my usual standards. Second, I apologize for not submitting an article last week. While I hate to sound like I’m making excuses, you can blame both problems on my insane summer schedule. I have four kids, ages 7 to 13, home for the summer, and things get a little . . . um, hectic? Yeah, hectic. So I dropped the ball on both posts. I am truly, truly sorry.

Second, I have an announcement, of sorts. In an effort to realign my priorities, time, and schedule (and hopefully balance my life a bit), I’m going to post here every two weeks instead of every week. Hopefully, that will mean 1) articles of a slightly higher quality, 2) a little more sanity and balance in my weekly schedule, and 3) more time to work on my own projects. If you ever just desperately need to see what’s happening in my life on the off weeks, however, you can certainly visit me at my own blog, www.modicumoftalent.com.

Now onto this week’s topic . . .

I started this series by talking about writing female warriors and how I thought that was becoming a stereotype of its own. The original question on Twitter, however, was how to write strong female characters who are not warriors. I intended to get back to that and didn’t, so now I’m going to actually look at that question and offer a few suggestions and hints about how I think you can write a strong, non-warrior female character.

  • Narrow the scope. One of the hallmarks of a strong character is agency—the ability to act on the world and drive the plot. One way to give a character agency is to narrow the scope of the story or scene. It’s a lot harder to give a character agency when she is one of a dozen major characters. Consider dropping a few characters and narrowing the expanse of story to allow your female character more opportunities to push the action forward. You can also do this on a smaller scale with scenes—narrow the scope of the scene until just a couple of essential characters are the ones doing the acting, and then allow your female character to be the one who pushes things forward in that scene. This is actually a great way to create a strong minor character, and if you make that character a woman or girl, then you’ll show that you have a more well-rounded cast of non-stereotypes.
  • Develop your female character’s voice by listening to other women. This one may be more directed at the guys, but I think the same could be true of women who try to write good male characters. Spend some time with the opposite gender. Really listen. Find some people who have a distinctive voice and think about how to recreate a similar voice on the page. In general, shameless eavesdropping will go a long way toward helping you write better dialogue and find distinct character voices. And focusing on how women communicate—the inflections they tend to use, the way they interact with others verbally, hand gestures, body language—can help you figure out how to give your characters unique, authentic voices.
  • Remember that we are not solely defined by occupations or roles. “Warrior” is only a piece of a character. So is “mom,” “queen,” “priestess,” etc. So rather than fixate on the particular role of the character, think about what aspect of that strength you’re trying to convey. How can you communicate that aspect of character in some other fashion? A “warrior” might be someone who has a strong sense of justice and right and wrong. Can you put a woman with that trait in some other role?
  • Consider the hallmarks of personal strength. Certainly, “strength” isn’t always about physical capabilities or showing off an “I don’t care what anyone thinks” attitude. In fact, a lot of times, the “I don’t care” attitude can indicate that a person is actually deeply insecure and hiding behind an attitude. So think about some other ways you can show strength:
    • Ability to forgive
    • Personal fortitude—the resolve to not be swayed from closely held beliefs
    • Integrity, especially when forsaking it would be beneficial
    • Pursuit of excellence despite setbacks
    • Compassion when being compassionate comes with a significant personal cost

Those are just a few things off the top of my head. None of those aspects of strength are gender- or role-specific. A warrior can have those traits just as easily as a priest(ess), parent, diplomat, assassin, lawyer, royal, or merchant. Is it possible to put your character in a different role and still have her display those hallmarks of strength? Then you’ve probably created a fairly strong character no matter what her actual role is.

  • Make her the protagonist. Of her own story, that is. Even if your female character only has a minor role in your story, look at her part of it through her eyes. How does she act on her own part of the story? What does she see that you didn’t see as the “omniscient” creator? Get inside her head and behind her eyes. Her responses will be a lot more genuine if you make her the protagonist of her story.

It should be fairly obvious that any and all of these tips can work for creating male characters, too. In fact, isn’t that sort of the point—that characters are just people (human, elven, fae, whatever), despite gender differences? Creating a strong character starts with character, not gender.

In two weeks, I want to look at creating male characters who can contribute to genuine feminist goals—namely, gender equality and basic human rights. Because men, even if you’re nervous about creating female characters, you can still write good fantasy that encourages gender equality and mutual respect.

 

Share

11 Comments

  1. Avatar Ev Bishop says:

    Great post, thank you. My friends and I were just discussing how sexist so much published fantasy is–and how sometimes it might just be unintentional and/or bad writing (though that doesn’t make it any less frustrating). You give insightful, practical ways for all writers to improve their craft.

    “It should be fairly obvious that any and all of these tips can work for creating male characters, too. In fact, isn’t that sort of the point—that characters are just people (human, elven, fae, whatever), despite gender differences? Creating a strong character starts with character, not gender.”

    Exactly! And yes, it should be obvious, but apparently some writers don’t understand this …

    🙂 Happy writing to you.

    • Thank you, Ev. Honestly, I think a lot of the sexism is completely unintentional. And in my interactions with men in the comments of these recent blog posts, I get the impression that a lot of male authors are sort of afraid of coming across as sexist. They seem a little bit afraid of writing women characters because they don’t want to be seen as sexist. I find that sad.

      Thank you for your comment!

  2. Thanks for this, Amy. I’m new to Fantasy Faction so went back to catch up with the other two articles in your series first. Thanks for your valuable insights.

    I enjoy writing strong women who aren’t warriors. I’m surrounded by them in real life (my wife and three daughters – and I’m no shrinking violet either so contests of will can get very interesting in our house) and often enjoy writing a strong woman more than a strong man.

    I nearly came a cropper with my most recent female character, mind, when I made her too strong for some readers. My editor warned me I could lose readers for the entire series if they took against her in the first book. I hope they’ll give the second book a chance though, because I love her and she grows throughout the series more than any of the other characters. Interestingly, from the reviews it was mostly women who disliked her, while men seemed more prepared to accept her. Or maybe blokes just didn’t bother voicing their dislike. I guess I’ll find out next year if people are willing to take the journey with her. 🙂

    • David, I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the articles. For me, character growth is a HUGE plus, and if you can show that a character changes, I think that indicates a particularly valuable human strength. It takes a very strong person to admit weaknesses and pursue growth. And really, that’s a very particular kind of agency as well–an internal one, perhaps, but valuable nonetheless.

      Best of luck with your character and your books!

  3. Avatar Jen Bresnick says:

    I totally agree, especially with the part about making the character the protagonist in her own story. It’s hard to balance creating a strong woman with personal agency with the typical medieval-inspired, pre-feminist society that you get in many fantasies. Too independent and she’ll seem out of place, but too repressed and she’ll be boring and fail to resonate with a modern audience. I guess that’s why we often fall into the “make her a warrior” trap: it’s easier to remove the woman from the female sphere all together than try to make her work within the confines of a realistic society.

    • Jen, yes, I think you’re absolutely right. But I also think that our view of the medieval world might be a bit colored by literature and history books, because honestly, women have always had some kind of agency in small, significant ways, even if it was just within their own families. I think maybe honing in on some of those small, significant ways can help us make the characters the protagonists of their own stories. Just as an example–maybe we need more female merchants. Women have always “worked the family business,” so to speak. And by the same token, I doubt that all medieval men relegated ALL childcare to their wives. Surely some of them occasionally changed a diaper or took a toddler out to the field to give mom a break!

      Thank you for your comment!

  4. Avatar dragonlady says:

    Great article! I think what really bothers me in fantasy is that too often, women are shuffled into stereotypical roles (Amy mentioned the four most common ones above: warrior, mom, royalty, or priestess). So frustrating! Women fall into so many more diverse roles in real life. Break that mold and you’ll have a strong female character.

    2nd thought I had: I don’t think ‘strong’ always has to equal ‘good’. In general, I think of a strong character (male or female) as a character who takes action to get what they want (even if their desires are selfish or evil). This has nothing to do with the warrior role – a woman can do that in any role.

    • Dragonlady (coolest name ever, by the way), I totally agree with you on “strong” not always meaning “good.” In a lot of ways, an evil character pretty much HAS to be strong in order to be any kind of force for “good” to overcome. Evil must have agency of some kind.

      Great comment!

  5. Avatar Quillet says:

    First: I love reading your articles, and even your “phoned-in” article was damn good.

    Second: Do whatever you need to do in order to produce work you’re proud of. I support that, and I doubt I’m the only one. 🙂

    Third: Agency for women characters, yes yes yes! It can’t be stated often enough. Even in a pseudo-medieval world, female characters should be able to affect their world and their own lives. Your suggestion to make women the protagonists of their own stories is excellent too. If every character has her/his own ideas, desires, agenda, etc., then they come across as rounded people, not just cardboard cut-outs pushed around by events. And women don’t need to be warriors for that! (Semi-relevant fact: that whole damsel-in-distress nonsense is a Victorian invention, and does *not* reflect real medieval women any more than the knight-in-shining-armour reflects real medieval warriors.)

    • Aw, thank you, Quillet–you’re very kind! 🙂 I think your “semi-relevant” fact is actually VERY relevant–and I think a lot of what we “know” about the medieval world is highly influenced by the literature of the era and dry historical facts. Just because women did not necessarily have the same legal rights as men does not mean that they were all treated as chattel or chained to homesteads raising babies. There have always been strong, independent women with agency functioning in the world. We just need to highlight them more in our literature. 🙂

  6. Avatar Jen Leigh says:

    I’ve almost finished my novel and have let my writing group, close friends and family read a little as I progress. I’ve found that sexism and stereotypes are carried by readers as well as authors. For example, my main character is a female with a love interest. She ends up getting married at a young age, 14-16. So far, my readers are appalled at this, because given a choice, a girl would never submit to a man, especially at such a young age. They all think that a young adult character should never consider marriage until the age of 18 (a modern notion to be sure). I have pointed out that during the time period I’m attempting to capture, women were often promised at birth and delivered to their husbands around age 12. A certain king of France, as a adult, married a child bride when she was 12. History says he waited to consummate the marriage until she was 17ish, but not all men waited. Not fair, but fact nonetheless. I’ve also asked my readers if it is so believable, in young adult novels, that a child of 13 sets out to ‘save the (fill in the blank, farm, town, world), then why is it so unbelievable to have that same, mature child know what she wants and commit to a life long relationship? The only answer I get is that it’s two different things. I guess children in fantasy should be limited in the decisions they make. As an author I find these limits stifling.

    Likewise, I’ve had readers take issue with my bad guy. He takes the protagonist and touches her somewhat inappropriately. This is young adult so it isn’t over the top, but he is the bad guy and it didn’t ring true that he would kidnap a young girl just to toss a few snide remarks her way until she’s saved or saves herself. I’m told in fantasy you can create worlds and make up your own rules, but it seems like fantasy has boxed in females, bad guys and heros and even if an author is willing to step outside that box they are quickly pushed back by the reader.

    I’ve stuck to my guns so far. I want a bad guy who thinks of little but himself and his own pleasure or comforts. Not someone that talks about the bad things he’s done or will do, but one who is known by deeds. I also want a protagonist who knows what she wants, and while she gives in to pressure from friends and family by marrying, she does it because she’s young, in love and insecure about keeping the boy interested. As a previous young girl, I remember times when I thought I would die if I didn’t spend the rest of my life with some boy. I was wrong, but the intense feelings were there, if fleeting. And despite sticking to my guns, writing the character as she’s presented herself to me, I still have a niggling worry that in the end readers are going to want the stereotype instead.

Leave a Comment