Fantasy Women

Fantasy Women

You know, lots of people have written about fantasy women. Most probably better than I can. But I’m going to give it a go anyways.

Fantasy has a problem with women.

THE token (or Tolkien?) books in the fantasy genre (Hobbit and LOTR, of course) are, unfortunately, the worst offenders.

The Hobbit does not have a female character. I don’t mean a female character with a speaking role. I mean there are NO females in the book (at least not explicitly stated, other than “townspeople” and “elves,” which could presumably contain some womenfolk).

The Lord of the Rings does slightly better by having Eowyn and, unforgettably, Galadriel, but no one else of interest. No women in the fellowship. The story’s protagonist is either Frodo or Aragorn. Much of Eowyn’s character development happens in her acceptance of Aragorn’s rejection, and the growth of her love for Faramir instead. Aside from them, there is only Arwen (who says almost nothing and does literally nothing but marry Aragorn) and Ioreth, who gabs on and on in the Houses of Healing, prompting Gandalf to tell her to shut the hell up and get back to work.

It’s tempting to give these books a pass because “it was a different time,” but let’s not. Let’s instead recognize that, regardless of the circumstances, these books set a standard that the genre would have a difficult time breaking free from for decades.

The Wheel of Time series does better — it includes women, at least. However, let’s be honest: most of them kind of suck. We’ve got three of them who are completely obsessed and in love with the main character (this seems to be their predominant character trait). And I stopped reading this series in the middle of book six after being subjected to several hundred pages of not much action, but a lot of bickering between three girls who were stupid, vapid, consumed by trivialities and frankly, totally unsympathetic. Even one of the better Aes Sedai characters, upon meeting a mysterious, tall, handsome swordsman, became infatuated with his body and his “strong hands.”

The Sword of Truth series had Kahlan, who, admittedly, was badass. A great character, a strong character, and less defined by her relationship to Richard than by her desire to lead her kingdom to peace and prosperity. Perhaps at times she valued love more than duty, but so did Richard. Still, women were underrepresented in the series as a whole, with the Mord-Sith being both the best example of other, interesting female characters, and at the same time a pretty transparent appeal to male fantasy with their skintight leather costumes and BDSM-fetish-like group personality.

It breaks my heart to say it, but the Kingkiller Chronicles don’t do great in this regard. My favorite fantasy series of the last little long while, and yet very, very lacking in interesting female characters free from strong observable patriarchal influence. The biggest female character in the series is Denna, whose “patron” beats and whips her to see how far he can go before she leaves and he must coax her back to him. A poignant telling of a physically abusive relationship, but hardly the stuff of female role models (as opposed to, say, Kvothe, who even want to be like). After Denna we have Felurian. I do not need to say more to anyone who has read the series, but in case you haven’t, let’s just say that Felurian is the ultimate male sexual fantasy, put there entirely for the benefit of Kvothe, and leave it at that.

Game of Thrones (or pedantically, the Song of Ice and Fire series) probably does the best job. You’ve got your Cersei, a truly terrible woman made redeemable only by her undying love of her children. A sexual fantasy of many, yes, but a woman who uses that to her advantage. She wouldn’t be enough, but you’ve also got your Brienne, the embodiment of the “I can do anything men can do better.” Possibly the best warrior in Westeros after Jamie…well, spoilers. BUT ON TOP OF THAT you’ve got your Arya who, while suffering from a slow storyline, is yet extremely interesting, driven and well-developed, your Asha Greyjoy, a viable contender for her father’s throne, your Sand Vipers (spoilers?) and a host of other, more minor characters. Good on you, George R. R. Martin, although I wish you didn’t feel the need to increase the already impressive presence of rape between your books and your show.

Still, that’s one series out of five. And among the rest of the genre, the ratio is probably worse.

Fantasy art has a much, much worse track record, which has been getting a lot of attention online. Don’t get me started on female armor like that girl on the right at the top of this post. At least, with the girl on the left, we can imagine she’s wearing something somewhat practical (unfortunately I saw the rest of the photos from that shoot on the stock footage site. She isn’t).

So yes. It’s safe to say the genre has a problem. It’s a debatable point (and probably an important one) whether the problem is bigger in the fantasy genre, or in the world in general. But regardless, it’s a problem.

So why is this? Why don’t we have more stories where the women hold equal footing with men? Where there are as many female characters as male characters, as many INTERESTING female characters as interesting male characters? Why are women often queens, noblewomen, or else hyper-fantasized superwarriors whose main characteristic seems to be how badass they are, despite usually being heavily reliant on a man in a romantic sense?

Why don’t women stand on equal ground with men in fantasy?

You’ll often hear that, “Well, obviously, men and women weren’t treated as equals in those times.”

IN WHAT FUCKING TIMES, BITCH?

Here is a map of Westeros:

Map of WesterosYou know what I do not see on that map?

EARTH.

Earth has never looked like this. Westeros is not Earth. Neither is Middle-Earth, nor any of the other worlds in which our favorite fantasy series take place.

That means that “those times” is necessarily a faulty statement. You’re referring to “Earth times” and saying that OUR PAST is the only past that could ever exist, in any society, anywhere.

We accept without question that these worlds have magic, elves, dragons, creatures of folklore and fairy tale. Do you think readers would really, truly struggle with women who hold an equal role in society with men?

Why are so many fantasy series based on Arthur-like derivatives, and none on Joan of Arc?

Even WITHOUT that in mind, let’s say you do have to adhere to patriarchal standards of Earth’s past. Does that mean we can’t create characters who are interesting in their own right, even if unequal?

Because we shouldn’t limit ourselves to badass warriors. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to manipulative, power-hungry monarchs. We should create more characters who are clever instead of colossal. We have a wealth of smart, quick-witted male protagonists who solve their problems with intelligence and aplomb. Maybe they’re “the chosen one,” too, but they prefer to use their minds rather than wade into battle on the strength of prophecy, burning everyone around them in hellfire.

Harry Potter is a great example. Percy Jackson, to a lesser degree. Ang from Avatar: The Last Airbender, depending on what you call “fantasy.”

This, of course, is one of the things I’m trying to address with my series Nightblade (and, to a lesser extent, the Realm Keepers series).

Nightblade: Episode One, by Garrett RobinsonI’ve always had a 50/50 rule in my stories. 50% of my characters with speaking roles are women. And 50% of my protagonists (across all my books) are women.

But in both of these big fantasy series, I’ve felt the need to feature women protagonists, rather than one man and one woman. Because fantasy seems worse than sci-fi or horror or DEFINITELY young adult at creating compelling, interesting female protagonists.

There are two ways to improve women in fiction and in fantasy. One method (Martin’s method, probably) posits that yes, women are generally considered subservient to their husbands, but allows them to grow beyond that. The rules grow more lax than the real world, or one woman breaks through the “glass ceiling” and makes it easier for the rest of them.

The other method is to just…have women be equal.

In science fiction, we can just put people in space. We don’t need to explain every time how they got there, what technological breakthrough put man out among the stars. We name the engine a “warp drive” and that’s that. In horror, we don’t need to explain why ghosts are real when in the real world, they’re fictional. It’s an assumed part of the story.

What does it say about society that we must explain WHY women in fantasy can stand on equal ground with men?

We are creating these worlds. We are making them up. We are God. We can do whatever we want, and we can imagine a world where what dangles (or doesn’t) between your legs has no effect on your opportunities in life.

Speculative fiction is just that: “What if the world were THIS way?” We do it with technology and magic all the time. Why not women?

Does this mean they can’t wear dresses or gowns? No. Dresses and gowns are not inherently “less.” Makeup is not inherently “less.” Riding sidesaddle is not inherently “less.”

Only societal standards and the way people are treated make them “less.”

So whether you imagine a world somewhat like our own, where women can yet be full, complex individuals with the same goals and dreams as men, or whether you imagine a society that never adopted the bullshit idea that they don’t, please, let’s all of us stop imagining that women in fantasy must be treated one way.

I think it is changing. I think it needs to change faster. It will only change if writers write different books and if readers actively seek them out.

I have a part to play in that change. So do you. Let’s make it happen.

Garrett Robinson

Over 100,000 readers have read and loved Garrett's books, like the fantasy hits Nightblade and Midrealm. He's also a film festival favorite with movies like Unsaid, and a tech guru who posts lots of helpful how-tos for writers and filmmakers over at garrettbrobinson.com.

Latest posts by Garrett Robinson (see all)

20 comments
csmackey77
csmackey77

I agree that the history of women in Fantasy has been terribly sexist at the minimum. Bikini armor? Yuck. My books are fantasy and my rule? Women are equal to men, and are not half naked. By showing women as valuable for more than their cup size I hope to inspire girls everywhere. Www.csmackey.com

HartStMartin
HartStMartin

I am very late to this, but you have said everything I've been telling people for years. I just recently published a trilogy set in a society where sexism has never existed and societal roles are not gender specific. I wanted to create a world where inequality of the sexes was literally unthinkable. So many people, both men and women, are blind to their cultural biases that they can't see that a female hero who is an aberration in her world because she's a female hero and not just because she's a hero is still sexism. Thank you for this great piece which I will share with my Facebook group.

AMJusticeWrites
AMJusticeWrites

I fully agree that there's no reason a fantasy society can't have gender equality. Just because the technology is medieval and even the governments are feudalistic doesn't mean men and women can't have equal roles in that made up society, because, well, it's, um, made up. It need not have any relation to earth history. I also believe that making genders equal in no way undermines dramatic potential. Humans (or elves, dwarves, dragons, etc) are equally capable of fury and patience, betrayal and loyalty, vengeance and mercy regardless of sex.

I do think the balance is shifting toward more equal representation, however. As more women enter the ranks of fantasy authors, a broader palette of female protagonists and supporting casts are appearing.

Garrett Robinson
Garrett Robinson moderator

@AMJusticeWrites Yes, certainly. And I am always tremendously disappointed when I see a massively popular, or simply very good, female author who doesn't create well-developed female characters. *coughcoughTwilightcoughcough*

mcapello
mcapello

Although I agree with most of this, I'd like to say that I think there's a big difference between writing female characters who grow beyond our historical notions of patriarchy, and on the other hand, a fantasy universe that also happens to be a gender-egalitarian Utopia. Both are possible, and both can be done convincingly in the right hands, but I think thelatter is a much steeper challenge.


Imagine a fantasy story that involved human or human-like cultures with a medieval or medieval-like level of technology, yet did not have feudalism, slavery, or any other form of economic exploitation. Every kingdom or state in the story "just happened" to be economically democratic and free from all forms of class hierarchy. Because hey, if you can imagine a better world, why not just write about it?


But I think we'd agree that this would be a very conspicuous feature of that world, even if we accept all the leeway the "ish" gets us (dragons and the like). It wouldn't necessarily be bad, but the reader expecting "medieval Europe plus magic" or "Vikings plus dragons" would probably need to be convinced, and not just because patriarchy is a "bullshit idea": just like economic exploitation, it's a trans-cultural phenomenon pernicious enough to be a part (justifiably, sadly) of almost any preindustrial society, imagined or otherwise. And again, I'm not saying this is or should be a hard rule -- I applaud any writer who tries to break it while telling a good story at the same time -- only that the problem is far deeper than narrow imaginations and bad fantasy art.


(Also, I think you might be a bit too harsh on Rothfuss. It's true that his female characters are pretty shallow and uninspiring, but unless I'm mistaken, he also includes an entire warrior culture that appears to be either matriarchal or at least gender egalitarian. Personally I think you'd be right to say that having strong characters is more important than politically correct worldbuilding, but he should still get credit where it's due.)

Garrett Robinson
Garrett Robinson moderator

@mcapello I see what you mean. But I think it can be done. After all, even today, the eradication of feminism and racism would NOT turn our Earth into a utopia. It would not have turned Earth into a utopia a thousand years ago. We still have economic inequality, famine, plague...you know, the four horsemen of the apocalypse. And in fantasy, you've got EVIL. Fantasy is the easiest genre to put the BIG DARK EVIL in, without too much explanation of the big dark evil.

Harry Potter, for example, exists in a gender-equal society, but is FAR from a utopia after Voldemort comes in and starts wrecking everything in sight. There's still evil, large and small. And that's what the story is about. Harriet Potter could have worked just as well. No one had to explain to us that McGonagall was considered the equivalent of Snape, or Hermione of EVERYONE else in Hogwarts (except Harry, the prophesied one). And yet, even in that society, nearly every major character of significant importance was male. I wouldn't go so far as to call it SLOPPY writing...perhaps just unaware writing. And awareness is such a key factor in all of this.

S Nathan
S Nathan

@Garrett Robinson @mcapello Harry Potter existed in a gender equal society because power was based on strength of magic that comes through a wand, and that has nothing to do with physicality, which is the general excuse for patriarchial societies. A tiny person can be just as powerful, or even more so, than a hulk, like Ginny Weasley using her Bat-Bogey Hex on Crabbe and Goyle. 

But, like you said, Harriet Potter would have worked just as well and a lot of times, we end up creating male characters in key roles by accident. In my own book, The Falcon's Eye, I have a female protagonist in an epic fantasy setting, with all the issues that came with being a woman in a patriarchial society, and ultimately, making one's own choice. It's only later that I realize that I don't have as many female characters as I could, and the ones I have could use a bit more limelight. It worked out, but like you said, unaware writing. 

Trying to learn from my mistakes though. :P

Kayla Halleur
Kayla Halleur

Thank god you mentioned Brienne from GoT - I absolutely ADORE that woman. She is by far the best female character in any fantasy series I've ever read or watched (in my opinion).


I think the last sentence of your post hit it partly on the head: "It will only change if writers write different books and if readers actively seek them out." Yes, I agree that writers need to create different stories that have more dynamic females in their stories, however readers need to seek them out too... and I worry that that may not happen.  I sincerely hope and pray that I am wrong, and that an influx of wonderfully written female characters in yet unknown fantasy novels will become the 'next big thing' ala Harry Potter, etc. If and when that happens, it will say a lot about society from a reader's perspective how those characters are received.


We're getting close, with The Hunger Games trilogy doing so well.  But there's still a long way to go.

Garrett Robinson
Garrett Robinson moderator

@Kayla Halleur Yes, exactly. I think that feminist-minded fantasy buffs could make big, big leaps forward in this area by creating some kind of website, review site, YouTube channel, WHATEVER that worked specifically to highlight excellent fantasy books that did great representations of women. I see too many book reviews that are like, "I loved this book! It was so good! Etc. etc.! Unfortunately it was quite patriarchal." Let's create some kind of place where that last line isn't a footnote, but the main focus of the review.

dmoonfire
dmoonfire

I prefer female protagonists, which was frustrating when my first published book was a male protagonist. But, even there, most of his issues were the fact the female of their group could do everything he wanted to do, only better. But, I also wanted to write a story where the main character is neither the chosen one, an obvious hero, or an alpha male.

dmoonfire
dmoonfire

@Garrett Robinson Between that, Catcher in the Rye, and Lord of the Flies, you pretty much have the underlying concepts in my novel. Because I love How to Train even without the excuse of my little one who refuses to watch the same move more than thirty times... little ones, they have a memory unlike their dad.

Garrett Robinson
Garrett Robinson moderator

@dmoonfire That's great. Diving away from what you might call "serious" fantasy for a moment, I think a story that did this excellently was "How to Train Your Dragon" (which I've only watched a million times because I have kids...I swear). Male main character, but a lot of his angst and inner conflict comes from the fact that the other kids, but mostly Astrid, are considered so much more valuable in the society because of their dragon-slaying abilities.

Carl Sinclair
Carl Sinclair

You do make some good points and yes, fantasy (epic anyway) has mostly treated women like plot pieces to be married, rescued etc for too long.


On your LOTR you forgot "Galadriel" who is one of the most powerful (and influential characters in the books. But yes, there isn't much. The Wheel of Time stuff, well, yes there are some women who fall madly in love with Rand but it's almost by compulsion (prophecy as well) in the cases of Min etc.


I would argue however that there are a lot of very powerful women within that series.


I think the problem is in epic fantasy, more often than now (or at least the bigger known series) they're all written by super geeky men who appear to have never spoken to a woman. 


That being said, I feel that Vin (the MC) from Mistborn (Trilogy) is very much a powerful character and a good representation of women in fantasy. 

Garrett Robinson
Garrett Robinson moderator

@Carl Sinclair Forgetting Galadriel was simply unforgivable. I've fixed that. I don't know what's wrong with me, especially since she's one of the most pivotal characters in all of the Silmarillion, which in many ways is my favorite Tolkien work (based on scope alone).


Mistborn now added to my TBR list...and I'll probably bump it up near the top.

Carl Sinclair
Carl Sinclair

@Garrett Robinson @Carl Sinclair Mistborn will probably be quite up your alley. One of my favourite completed epic fantasy series ever. I think you can even buy it as an ebook bundle (even though it's trad)



Cornishrosie
Cornishrosie

I recently realised that I've done a Tolkien in my wip and have virtually no female characters. They're planned and indeed central to the sequel but not in the first one. Think I need to address this. Just not sure how to. Hmm.

Garrett Robinson
Garrett Robinson moderator

@Cornishrosie If you haven't published already, the solution could be simple. If it works in your world, simply go through your manuscript and change a few characters female. Don't change ANYTHING else about them. I guarantee you will wind up with some super-interesting female characters!


I had a similar realization with Nightblade. After putting so much effort into making Loren an interesting character with as many or more foibles as she had plus points, I went ahead and forgot to put almost any other women in the first episode (10,000 words). Fortunately I realized it quickly, and my favorite characters over the next three episodes are all women as well, and will continue playing an important role for the rest of the first volume and the ensuing series.

Share This