Writing Fantasy Gender Stereotypes – Part One: Your Heroine is Too Beautiful
I’m not trying to open a can of worms here—I’ll say that right off the bat. I acknowledge that this topic is enormous, complex, and encompasses both a dearth of fantasy literature and gender theory, and I admit I am not an expert on either by any means.
I am, however, a female who loves to read and write fantasy, and who is increasingly concerned with the portrayal of women in fantasy (today I’m talking about literature in particular). While it’s true that females have a greater role in fantasy novels these days than in previous decades, I think we still have a long way to go before the character of the “strong woman” becomes more than a man in sexy woman’s clothing (or, in other cases, a sex object with a “masculine” attitude). And to be fair, I don’t think the issue is strictly limited to the portrayal of women—I think fantasy writers often venture into gender stereotyping with the depiction of men, too.
Since this discussion is broad, and undoubtedly many readers have opinions of their own on the subject, I’d like to try and narrow today’s discussion of gender stereotypes in fantasy to visual stereotyping of female heroines/main characters. And while these issues do arise in already-published works, I’m mainly addressing new or developing fantasy authors in this series. It’s my hope that an open and honest discussion of the stereotypes that inexperienced or beginning fantasy authors bring to writing characters—oftentimes, I believe, unconscious of doing so—will help to create better rounded characters in fantasy fiction overall.
The Visual Stereotype
Long blond or red hair? Blue or green eyes? Thin but fit? Flawless, white skin? Symmetrical features? Maybe even some (*ahem*) form-fitting armor or leather? Is she holding a big sword or other disproportionately large magical object?
She likely has very feminine features, is obviously a woman (if you know what I mean), and is considered (at bare minimum) attractive by conventional Western social standards. Your hero takes one look at her and can’t believe how beautiful she is. The people around her comment on her beauty, the narrator describes her appearance in detail, and we may be persuaded to believe that—regardless of just how incredibly gorgeous she is—she has no idea.
She’s female. She knows.
And while I’m not ready to fully dive into looking at the stereotypical female villain, I’m betting the very thought of one brings to mind black hair and sharp features. Still thin. Still beautiful. This time, dangerous.
Am I getting close?
I don’t need to draw a diagram to point out the issue here: Why must all fantasy-novel females be the epitome of beauty?
Consider the amount of women you meet on a day-to-day basis. Many of them are undoubtedly attractive, some perhaps not conventionally so, and very few would measure up to the supermodel status afforded females in fantasy literature. And yet, many of these women—were a person to get to know them, who they are and what they’ve accomplished—may become beautiful by virtue of their personalities.
It’s hard to move past the instant attraction trope, because the hero and heroine need chemistry. Even in epic fantasy, chemistry between characters can drive the plot forward, complicate motivations, and cause much-needed conflict. But why not allow the male hero to find out who the individual is first, before making a declaration of the heroine’s virtue or goodness that otherwise appears solely defined by her level of attractiveness?
Creating females in fantasy who are defined by their attractiveness, loved by everyone, and given rewards and appreciation seemingly based on nothing beyond how lovely they are is a sure way to set your story up for two things:
1. Alienation of your female readers.
2. Shallow, one-dimensional characterization reflected in the plot.
Alienating Female Readers
Why would your female main character’s hotness alienate your female readers? Consider what draws readers to the characters they love, the one thing that brings them back time and time again: Being relatable.
Women today spend enough time trying to fight the standard of beauty thrown at them by mass media. This isn’t a secret. You’re probably sick of hearing the message of “real beauty,” even if you agree fully with what’s being said. However, it’s one thing to say you agree with how horrible these unrealistic expectations are and how they’re ruining our daughters, and quite another thing to turn around and write a blond, blue-eyed, thin, flawlessly beautiful heroine into your story.
Readers can’t relate to that. Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with bettering oneself—to aspire to be healthier or to wear makeup to cover a flaw or enhance natural beauty is, arguably, normal. It’s not unusual to want fuller lips, bigger breasts, and smaller thighs. The difference between a real woman and a stereotypical fantasy female, however, is that real women acknowledge their flaws…and actually have those flaws in the first place.
Most women like strong, attractive women too. We like to live vicariously through their experiences, to allow them to be strong and attractive for us when we can’t. But what women don’t like, what pushes them away, is the female whose physical appearance defines her to the point where everyone in the novel wants her, wants to be with her, and rewards her based solely on that appearance—not her achievements or who she really is. That’s not relatable. That’s not worthy of aspiration or admiration.
Shallow, One-Dimensional Characterization
Women and men are more than their gender. They’re more than how they look. If you’re writing a female main character in your fantasy novel and thinking of her as a female warrior, or female mage, or female royalty…you’re limiting yourself. You’re limited your ability to develop a fully rounded character. Why? Because people are more than their gender.
To characterize a woman (or a man), a seasoned writer will stop thinking in terms of “I need a female warrior here, she’s a strong fighter in a world that looks down on strong women” and start thinking “I need a character to fill this role…maybe a warrior…dealing with post-traumatic stress, possible allergy to horses…who is also a woman”. See the difference?
One approach develops the character first: A complex, structured individual who also happens to be a woman. The other approach forces the role to fit around the gender. To avoid shallow, one-dimensional characterization, the writer must think of the woman as a person first, her gender second.
Then, allow the physical appearance to realistically reflect the status, background, and history of that individual.
Writing Gender in Fantasy: What Now?
We’ve barely scratched the surface of this topic, and every time I sat down to make notes for this article, I came away with more I wanted to say. While the stereotype of hyper-attractive, overtly sexual objects of desire is certainly a prevalent issue for many new fantasy writers, I’d venture to say that an even more important stereotype to be challenged is that of the “strong woman,” also known as the “woman who acts like a man.”
Next month, we’ll take a look at some of the stereotype issues that arise when beginning fantasy writers attempt to write women from a male point of view. But I’m not letting the ladies off the hook—I also want to give time to a discussion of male visual stereotypes and “feminized” men in new fantasy.
What can you do until then? Grab that manuscript, and find your flawless heroine or other female main character. Think about how she’s described in terms of her physical appearance, and how the other characters view her. Do they focus only on her appearance, or do they praise her inner qualities or achievements just as often, if not more?
Step away from the gender stereotype, and bring her alive as a real, complex, flawed, and fascinating person.
You can read part two of this series, Writing the Opposite Gender, here.
This article was originally published on October 10, 2011.