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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

Tar Pit by Lorenzo SperlongaWhat do you picture in your mind when you think “female fantasy heroine?”

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.

Please.

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?

Erindae Firestrider by GENZOMANConsider 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.

Female warrior Red Sonja by Wiggers123Women 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

Female Warrior by jonathan-rectorWomen 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.

Title image by LordHannu.

This article was originally published on October 10, 2011.

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39 Comments

  1. Cary Caffrey says:

    Great article. And these stereotypes don’t just alienate women. As a male reader I’ve never been able to relate to overly macho, manly, male hero’s either. It just gets ridiculous. It’s probably why I always gravitate to women authors.

    One of my favourite Fantasy novels is still The Ladies of Mandrigyn, by Barbara Hambly, and that’s because of the female protagonist–Starhawk ain’t your typical buxom female stereotype by any means. She’s strong and capable, but hardly pretty in a conventional sense, and she’s largely overlooked by men throughout the book.

    Thanks for article!

  2. AE Marling says:

    This is an important topic for me. I do want to depict women protagonists as strong and confident, without having her chop up hundreds of “evil” people with her claymore to prove it. I hope to write one heroine who uses stunning diplomacy to save the day, and the lead lady in my current story relies on her brilliance, while struggling an internal battle with a debilitating disease.

    As far as beauty, a practical garb would go a long way to making a character believable. Fighting vampires in heels? Really?

  3. Well done article, really hits the nail on the head. The old adage of ‘show, don’t tell’ really applies here, since the actions matter and the appearance doesn’t. I particularly like the line “To avoid shallow, one-dimensional characterization, the writer must think of the woman as a person first, her gender second.” That is exactly the attitude I take when creating any characters, male or female.

  4. Komal Verma says:

    Great and fab article! I couldn’t agree more and will promptly scour my own MS to make sure I’m not committing this mistake subconsciously but this topic is so close to me because one of the easiest ways to turn me off genre or story in general is when the characters are nothing more than appearance through gender or one dimensional.

    Thanks for articulating this so grandly 🙂

  5. Ken says:

    Thank you so much for writing on this topic I have found it to be very eye opening and it has caused me to rethink some of my characters and how I will be portraying them in the novel I am attempting to write.

    I see this information helping me a great deal and can’t thank you enough for this revelation.

  6. Anne Lyle says:

    Amen, sister!

    TBH I can’t remember the last time I read a fantasy with this sort of female character, but maybe that’s because I avoid the kind of book that has them in. I second Cary’s recommendation of “The Ladies of Mandrigyn”, and add Hambly’s vampire book “Those Who Hunt the Night” (aka “Immortal Blood”), which has a very different but also very capable female protagonist.

    The heroine of my own book deliberately isn’t beautiful by the standards of her time, because she has to believably pass as a boy for long periods. At best she looks like the young Uma Thurman in “Robin Hood” (the one that didn’t have Kevin Costner in it) – tall, skinny and awkward 🙂

  7. GUILTY!!! My heroine is too beautiful and I’m a disgrace to my sex! I would change it if I could, because I agree with everything you’ve said. It’s time to shatter the stereotype. Great article.

  8. Minesril says:

    She’s female so therefore knows how pretty she is? No, not always. I have known gorgeous, but awkward young women who have no idea. Love the rest of the article, though.

    • Faith says:

      Minesril, Matthew has it right in his response below to your comment… when writing this, I had in mind those situations where an adult female character receives INCREDULOUS amounts of attention from the males (and females, at that) due to her beauty and is 100% clueless. Over time, she’d get the point and at least have some measure of her physical appearance and how it affects others. Especially if she’s at the age where courtship/dating/marriage comes into play.

      Thanks for your comment!

    • C.D. says:

      There’s a difference between just-growing-into-a-swan (obliviousness is believable) and full adults thronged with adoring onlookers who somehow remain clueless over time. You seem to describe the first, while Faith was rightfully ridiculing the second.

      There may be some difference in the ages involved across different cultures, but to keep the characters and their environments emotionally believable I think it’s important to keep the problem in mind as one works out what to do with characters with extremely distinct appearances (in any respect).

  9. Matthew Brown says:

    It’s a bit of a cliche, Minesril, even though it does happen for real; thus, an author should be cautious about using it even if it’s the truth. It’s safer to go with “quirkily pretty” for that rather than outright, drop-dead gorgeous; most people by adulthood would notice if they got THAT degree of attention.

  10. Nate Grey says:

    I hate all the pretty boy heroes more. Seriously. Twilight author and just about every woman author out there writes about man-heroes who are too good looking. Talk about alienating people. Where did all the books for guys to read go? All the books out there are about love triangles. Look at True Blood. All the men on that show are unrelatable for me. And why must ever heroine have 2,3, or 4 men all lusting for her. It’s bad. I think the can of worms is open now.

    • Xen says:

      I’m a woman and I agree with you. It’s like watching a parade of Ken dolls. No thanks, I’m an adult now. And yes, love triangles are as annoying as heck.

  11. Susan says:

    I’ll be honest. I prefer the woman to be at least “pretty” though she doesn’t have to be gorgeous. One thing that annoys me is when an author writes in an ugly female character and puts her with an amazingly good looking guy. If you are going to downgrade your female character, you need to do the same for the guy or it isn’t believable. At least not to me. I toss the book every time I see that.

    As for body types. I served in the Army for eleven years as a female soldier. If you are going to write in a tough female that can fight well, she will have tone in her body and at least be slim. Not necessarily a perfect size six, but close to that. I saw first hand which body types were out of shape and couldn’t keep up. You’ll never get me to believe someone with no muscle tone and lots of softness is a fighter to be reckoned with. I’ve been to war and know the reality, so does any woman trained to fight. On the other hand, she doesn’t have to have a big chest or curvey hips. That is just adding to the stereotype.

    • C.D. says:

      Note there’s some room for taste.

      Some go for well-groomed well-behaved well-dressed types (the indoor cat), and others for ill-shaven toughs with a cracked front tooth and a habit of spitting (the alley cat).

      Remember the scar-chinned rascal who said, “Who’s scruffy-lookin’?”

    • Xen says:

      Good point with the soldiers. Women who are very athletic might not have such a big breast size. That’s fat, and fat gets burned.

  12. Great article and thanks for the reminders. I can see some elements here that I need to be aware of. At the same time, one of my favorite compliments I’ve received on my book has been that I wrote a strong, believable female lead who isn’t just a dude with breasts. That’s really important to me.

  13. songofsorrow says:

    loved the article. was curious to know what you think of observations about such stereotyping as being an ‘escape-mechanism’. this is a strong argument put forth and is argued both ends – 1. i.e. therefore the book must be rubbish. 2. its a good escape from the drudgeries of life..

    also, i was thinking… the stereotypical female lead in fantasy is portrayed as the PERFECT female not because she’s ‘flawless’ per se, but precisely because of all those ‘flaws’.. she makes mistakes, she feels guilt, she’s too trusting, she has silly fetishes, and like you said, she’s not simply your everyday ‘pretty’ but is stunning, yet apparently is oblivious to it… blah blah… and even if the male hero falls for her strength or wit or intellect, he apparently fell for her the moment he ‘saw’ her…

    what i hate most about supposed ‘strong female characters’ in many fantasy books is the fact that two strong women can never be good friends…

    as for the stereotypical male, am looking forward to the article…

  14. Molikai says:

    I would note that if you look at the standard portrayal of a /male/ in Fantasy, you see pretty much the same phenomenon. (Though I do not subscribe to the typing of hair colour in either case, but there sure seem to be a lot of red-headed Heroes in fantasy). The Hero is invariably either obviously handsome, either physically or through strength of character, or unknowingly handsome (more common) due to appearance AND strength of character.
    So I would not say this is a sex-specifying objection, per se, so much as a universal one with sexual variation.

  15. Fran says:

    Great article, we really do need to cast a long look at what makes a strong female character. The stereotypically beautiful heroines are not only unrealistic in their appearance but in their practicalities – not just talking chainmail bikinis here: when we see polished flawless actresses on the red carpet we may get a twinge of envy, but we know that those women spent hours, if not weeks preparing to look like that. When these women come grunting and sweaty out of the gym, to be papped and ridiculed in magazines, they more resemble the fantasy heroine, only less spattered in gore and filth.

    The best strong female character I came across recently was in Tobias Buckell’s The Executioness – a middle aged mother who becomes a reluctant heroine. And the best male lead that goes against type is Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora – no machismo, no honour, no wenches swooning at his feet – but thoroughly likeable neverless.

  16. […] Questions: Females and PoV's This may be of interest: http://fantasy-faction.com/2011/fant…er-stereotypes My own suspicion here is that you can't win. As with all writing, someone somewhere will always […]

  17. Alezandria says:

    This is really awesome and helped me a lot with some of my work ^_^

    Maybe you should do something about male stereotypes and characterization?

  18. […] Writing Fantasy Gender Stereotypes, Part One: Writing the Opposite Gender […]

  19. […] Writing Fantasy Genre Stereotypes Part One: Your Heroine is Too Beautiful and Part Two: Writing the Opposite Gender […]

  20. […] is 3 of a series on ‘Writing Fantasy Gender Stereotypes’, if you missed part one you can read it here and also, part two […]

  21. […] more lengthy examination of overall stereotypes, as in the Fantasy Faction 3-part series on “Writing Fantasy Gender Sterotypes“. (In part two of the series, there’s an excellent question raised: How can you avoid […]

  22. Vaibhav Panchal says:

    I absolutely disagree that men are only warriors. In fact If a man is a sorcerer he is usually the villain.

  23. Rosalia says:

    This is an excellent article – the only problem is that there isn’t more! I have bookmarked this and will continue to return to it while writing.

    I’d love your view on the age bracket of heroes. Depending on the general target audience, it seems all heroes/heroines are between the ages of 16-25 or 25-28. This always strikes me as strange. A hero/heroine in his/her 30’s, 40’s or 50’s+ would be fascinating – they would have lived through so much, seen so much, survived diseases, possibly had multiple lovers, raised and/or still support kids. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m sick of reading about 20-something year old angst and hormone issues.

    Also, I’d love to read your views on the presence (or lack of) disabled and physically handicapped people in fantasy. GRR Martin is the only writer who pops into mind with his character Bran strapped to the back of Hodor.

    Once again, thanks for this article!

    • C.D. says:

      In the Traveller game, character generation took place across four-year enlistment cycles. By the time you had a character who was a highly skilled badass, the character was also approaching retirement age. Played a lot of guys/gals in 40s and 60s like that.

      I think the young protagonist is attractive because it allows the author to show you a callow youth without the experience that makes victory a lock, and show you how the character grows. At 50 the character has presumably made it, and is biding time fending off interlopers 🙂

  24. Yay!!!! Not guilty!!! I generally create female characters who are relatable. But then again I’m a woman. But although many of my female characters are stand-in, I’ve never felt the desire to make them super-beautiful. Quite the contrary. I do though make my male characters very very very pretty…and they always have some disability. Partly because I cannot stand all that manliness and ableism oozing out of so many novels. Great article!

  25. I’ve deliberately subverted both the “female lead is beautiful” and “strong woman = warrior” tropes, and have received a certain amount of appreciation for it.

    I will say that your article influences me to de-emphasise the beauty of my main character in the book I’m working on at the moment. She doesn’t need to be stunning for the story to work, after all; it’s primarily about her being smart and determined and good-hearted. However, she does need to be attractive, because that, plus an unethical man she meets in ethics class, causes some of her key problems.

  26. Guy Donovan says:

    I agree completely. In my own in-progress trilogy, I have tried to write my female protagonist as a character first and a female second. As a man, I find it better to do it that way for the simple fact that I am not a woman, and to try to write a character as if I was one is only doomed to fail out of personal lack of the subject matter of growing up a girl. I do, however, have quite a bit of experience growing up as a human being. That said, my Cerys is a human being first and a woman (girl) second.

    Is it okay though that I made her pretty? I mean, at least I gave her a rather large nose as she grows up!

    Loved the article!

  27. Xen says:

    I think that most authors don’t take into account the culture they created, and as we know different cultures have different standards of beauty. Some African tribes think that long necks are beautiful, and Spanish culture values a large woman.

    There’s also genetics and occupation. Maybe the heroine’s family is big boned, so she would probably be as well. Does she study most of the time rather than getting outside? She probably won’t have rippling muscle.

    My character is a mage, so she doesn’t have or need an athletic build. She’s on the skinny side, but she’s not drop dead gorgeous (she could try to put more work into her looks, but she doesn’t care).

  28. […] across a very good article this morning that I think is very good for everyone to read, even if you’re not interested in […]

  29. Rosalia says:

    I love the images you’ve chosen as examples as well. Illustrations of female fantasy heroines are almost always like that – tummy, neck, upper arms, cleavage and thighs all bared. No helmet or half helm, hair long and loose, whipping in the breeze. On a battlefield, all of that would most certainly covered, or else the woman is pretty much a goner in less than 3 seconds.

  30. Kathryn says:

    I love this article. I have been worried about making both my hero and heroine (both are protagonists) too “ugly,” based on modern standards in science fiction. They are based on Iriquois and Mongols, respectively, and everything about them says “I am raised to do battle,” including battle scars, sheared hair, bone ornaments, and the like. But, every time I submit a chapter to my writer’s group, I am told that the person is too weird looking, and they are thrown off the story. They aren’t hideous looking, but they are members of their respective countries. They look like everyone else there. But apparently I need to make them stand out in their looks or risk losing my fellow writers’ interests. After reading your post, I feel like I can continue to focus on their abilities and their meaning in the story rather than their outer beauty. I find them quite engaging, because they DO look like everyday people. Thanks again for the post.

  31. […] Faith M. Boughan (Fantasy Faction) with Writing Fantasy Gender Stereotypes, Part One: Your Heroine is Too Beautiful […]

  32. […] This is Part Two of a series on Writing Fantasy Gender Stereotypes. If you missed Part One you can read it here. […]

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