Monday, 19 January 2015

Monday Musings: Do fantasy novels need more female characters?

The second book in the Locke Lamora
series, this is full of historically-inaccurate
female piracy. I'm pleased to say that
Lynch has done proper research on
magical poisons and sorcerous explosives
to make up for it.
There's recently been quite a bit of discussion over whether authors should feel obliged to include female characters in their novels, a debate which has largely focused on fantasy/YA, and which is well-summarised at Feminist Fiction. It's especially interesting, and in my view, apt, that fantasy authors have been challenged to defend writing heavily male-dominated novels. Unlike historical fiction, fantasy fiction is bound by fewer established facts, and can largely set up its own world building rules (I am happy to admit that this freedom is not totally complete). This makes presenting a fantasy novel full of men particularly tricky to defend, for a number of reasons:

- Despite their often faux-medieval settings, fantasy novels are, by definition, not historically accurate, and so cannot simply say 'women didn't do X/Y/Z in the fourteenth century' to explain why they have no women drinking in taverns or taking to a bit of piracy on the high seas. I particularly enjoyed the reiteration of this point in the comments section on this article, 'Tangled, Brave and Frozen All Made The Same Critical Mistake', which argues that although all these films do well in presenting two female leads, they are still flawed because the supporting casts are almost entirely male. One commentator tried to argue that there were no women in the background in Tangled because 'These movies all have historical timeframes to consider, and rough-and-tumble women in bars and female soldiers is just not historically accurate.' One brilliant response to this post was: '[I]t is a very strange argument to make that an animated fairy tale can have a horse act like a military commander with dog-like mannerisms, but having a female thug is too unrealistic?'

- Another commonly-used argument is that writers need to have artistic freedom, and so should not be compelled to keep to an arbitrary 'quota' of women in their novels, shoehorning female characters into scenes where they just don't belong. Keeping the first point in mind, it is clear that it is often more artificial to keep female characters out than to put them in. Scott Lynch realised this when writing The Lies of Locke Lamora, and to his credit, not only amped up the number of women in the supporting cast massively but made sure that he had more female central characters in his second novel, Red Seas Under Red Skies. Furthermore, I would argue, it's easy and lazy to slot in default characters to your secondary cast, which for many writers can mean choosing somebody of the same race, gender, sexuality and nationality as themselves (obviously the tendency to do this may decrease as you yourself get further away from the 'norm'). Far from violating artistic freedom, thinking outside the box can challenge you to write better. The same goes for the argument that novels should not simply create characters that the reader can 'identify' with, and so complaints from women and ethnic minorities that they cannot identify with usual heroes should be ignored. While I completely agree that fiction is there to help us walk in other people's shoes, how can white men learn to do this if they never have to?

Bad for so many reasons, but also suffers
from an almost total lack of competent,
interesting women.
These issues have already been widely discussed, but in the rest of this post, I wanted to discuss an aspect of this debate that I haven't seen addressed yet, via a case study of Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind, which I read recently. The Name of the Wind is a truly dreadful novel, but the reasons why have been expertly dissected here, so I won't go through them again. Neither am I going to focus on the few major female characters in the book - I think their portrayal is shallow and sexist, but again, this isn't a post about 'writing female characters in fantasy badly'. Instead, I'll ask again: why are there so few females in the supporting cast of The Name of the Wind? A large portion of this novel deals with our hero, Kvothe, attending wizard school to learn how to be a wizard (terminology borrowed from here again). We are explicitly told that only 1 in 10 of the students at wizard school are women. Why does this have to be the case?

As I was reading The Name Of The Wind, it struck me with greater force than ever before that the inclusion of a working system of magic in your fantasy universe, as long as women and men are equally gifted with magical powers, virtually compels a writer to rethink his or her views on gender roles. At least among the elite, and as long as magic has always existed, does this not mean that women would always have held greater power in society, because the ability to do things has never depended on physical strength? In The Name of the Wind, it could be argued that because being able to use magic effectively requires intensive education, women have been excluded from this tuition in the same way as they have been excluded from traditional educational systems, despite them having nothing to do with physical attributes. But this argument is undermined somewhat because wizard school is such an odd enclave, and because poorer, lower-born students are admitted alongside the rich (the tuition system explicitly allows for this). It's emphasised that wizard school is not a reflection of the society that surrounds it - hence Kvothe's success there, even though he comes to the school as a homeless beggar. So why are we stuck with one in ten female students (only one of whom we meet in the course of the first novel, and she seems to exist solely so she can look attractive while Kvothe rescues her from burning to death)?

There are some fantasy settings where I can believe the exclusion of women from positions of power, if not the exclusion of women from the text. I love A Song of Ice and Fire because GRRM is so clear that although women are formally excluded from ruling in much of Westeros, this does not prevent them from wielding power in all sorts of informal ways (Catelyn, Cersei, Sansa). Of course, he also makes sure that these women are important narrators, rather than sidelining them. Furthermore, magic is derided as weak and superstitious, and it is indicated that the disappearance of dragons from this world has robbed it of much of its supernatural power. GRRM can be forgiven for making Westeros look very much like a patriarchal medieval society because that is what it is. Interestingly, as magic returns to this universe, it's often women who seem to be benefiting from its exploitation (Dany, Melisandre). So this is certainly not to say that you cannot write a fantasy world where men outnumber women in power, education and wealth. It's only to say that one's traditional assumptions should not be taken as default. If anything, they need to be strongly justified, especially in fantasy.


  1. Thanks for writing such an interesting balanced post about this Laura. So much gender bias in fiction emanates from those unconscious assumptions that, when pointed out, put people on the defensive. I hope that when fantasy authors like Mark Lawrence and Patrick Rothfuss stand up for their lack of individualised, multi-faceted female characters with lame excuses that they're actually feeling rather sheepish inside. To some extent I can excuse the first offence, if it's corrected thereafter. The problem really begins for me when writers become entrenched over the issue and begin to intentionally perpetuate it.

    I've recently been slapped around the face with my own gender bias and feel heartily ashamed about it. I oversaw the writing and design of a new 8 page leaflet for the library and archives I work for, and was really pleased with the result. Until I got an email from a customer pointing out that there wasn't a single adult male featured in any of the 10 photos included. I was absolutely appalled at myself! I just hadn't noticed the absence amongst all those female faces.

  2. Thanks for this. I'm a little annoyed with this post now as I keep on thinking of other things I should have said in it - but I think that's the nature of posts about feminism!

    I agree that it's not possible to avoid bias altogether, and the key thing is working to be more self-aware rather than beating yourself up for not being perfect. Your library leaflet is a good example, I'm sure we have all done similar things, perhaps without realising it. (I keep on reading very little fiction by male writers every year, without consciously avoiding them...) This is why I admired Scott Lynch's approach so much - rather than entrenching himself on one 'side' of the debate, he was brave enough to rethink.