You know, lots of people have written about women in the fantasy genre. Most probably better than I can. But I’m going to give it a go anyways.
Fantasy has a problem with women.
The grandfatherly books that defined the fantasy genre, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, 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 who are so much as seen in the book (other than a few townspeople mentioned in passing).
The Lord of the Rings does slightly better by having Eowyn and, unforgettably, Galadriel, but no one else of agency. No women in the fellowship. The story’s protagonist is either Frodo or Aragorn, depending on your point of view.
Of these women, much of Eowyn’s character development happens through Aragorn’s rejection of her affection, and the growth of her love for Faramir instead. (Realize I said development—she has more character than this, but this is the great change that happens to her as a character).
Arwen says almost nothing, and does nothing for the story except marry Aragorn at the end. She is, quite literally, the prize he earns for winning. There is also 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, in that it at least includes women. However, let’s be honest: most of them kind of suck. Three of them are completely obsessed and in love with the main character, and this seems to be their predominant character trait. And I stopped reading this series in the middle of book five or six (I can’t remember) after being subjected to several hundred pages of not much action, but a lot of bickering between three girls who were consumed by vapid 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.” (I swear, Jordan mentioned his strong hands far more often than Meyer ever talked about Edward Cullen’s “amber eyes” and “perfect alabaster skin,” for which she is endlessly maligned.)
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 her love for him more than duty, but Richard did the same to her.
Still, women were poorly represented 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 Chronicle doesn’t do great in this regard. It’s 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, and yes, we can find strength in Denna and hail her as a deep, complex character. But her counterpart, Kvothe, is pure male power fantasy. Who, reading that book, doesn’t want to be like Kvothe? He’s incredible. I’d kill to walk in his shoes, for just one day.
There’s nothing wrong, nothing whatsoever, with this power fantasy. It’s everywhere. To decry it is to decry the fantasy genre as a whole, and most of fiction besides. But why is it that we get this power fantasy in Kvothe, but see it in no female characters?
Besides Denna, we have Felurian as the only other female character of much note. 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 sex object, and she is in the story entirely for the benefit of Kvothe.
(And at this point, I’d love to remind anyone reading that we can love things while still being critical of them. I love the Kingkiller Chronicles. A lot. I love them more than you. There, I said it. And yet, this bugs me).
A Song of Ice and Fire (and for you TV-watchers, that’s the book series that the Game of Thrones TV show is based on) probably does the best job of female representation. You’ve got your Cersei, a truly terrible woman who yet has an undying love for her children. A sexual fantasy of many, yes, but a woman who uses that to her advantage.
Cersei alone 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, especially after Jamie…well, spoilers.
But that’s not all. You’ve got your Margaery Tyrell. 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?), your Shae, and a host of others.
Game of Thrones is, unfortunately, quite rapey. The show MUCH more so than the books. But in terms of sheer representation, and depths and complexity of personality, women make a very strong showing.
Still, that’s one series out of what could be the five biggest fantasy series. And among the rest of the genre, the representation ratio is probably worse.
So it’s safe to say the genre has a problem.
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, and 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.”
I’d like to ask, “In WHAT times?”
Here is a map of Westeros:
You know what I do not see on that map?
Earth has never looked like this. Westeros is not the planet we live on. Neither is Middle-earth, nor any of the other worlds in which our favorite fantasy series take place.
“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 we think readers would really, truly struggle with the concept of 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?
Let’s say you do have to adhere to patriarchal standards of Earth’s past (which, let’s be clear: you don’t). Does that mean we still can’t create characters who are interesting in their own right, even if they’re unequal in society’s eyes?
(Also it’s worth noting here that Earth’s past has neither been as patriarchal nor as whitewashed as people desperately want to believe. Women have been around forever. They’ve had agency and done great things forever. People of color have been in Europe and around the world forever. Them’s just the facts, even if this point is a little beyond the scope of this article.)
We shouldn’t limit ourselves to warriors and 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.
The barest attempt an author could make at balancing the scales would be to have at least as many women in their books as men. I’ve always had a 50/50 rule in my fantasy novels. 50% of my characters with speaking roles are women. And 50% of my protagonists (across all my books) are women.
Some might cry (and I mean that in the “tears” sense, not the “speaking loudly” sense) that this rings false, that it’s casting characters to fill a quota. Or they’d argue that, in some stories, it’s just not realistic to have a bunch of women in the story.
I’d say to those guys (because they would be guys) that if you’re writing fantasy, it’s already unrealistic. A departure from reality is inherent in the name of the genre.
But not only is the “reality” argument incorrect—it’s blatantly false. Biologically speaking, half the people in a given human society will be women.
Utterly ignoring the presence of women, as Tolkien did in The Hobbit, or relegating them to a few, tiny, unimportant roles, as many fantasy authors do, is a far greater departure from reality.
If you’re writing a World War II historical novel set entirely in the trenches in Germany, yes, it’s more realistic to have a majority, or even an exclusivity, of male characters. That’s not the case in virtually all fantasy.
I see two ways to improve women in fiction and in fantasy. One method (Martin’s method in A Song of Ice and Fire) gives us a world where yes, women are generally considered subservient to men. But they’re allowed to be more than that. They have their own dreams and desires and goals and obstacles. In short, they’re people.
The other way we can improve fantasy is to just…have women be equal.
In science fiction, we can just put people in space. A space opera book set 2,000 years in the future doesn’t need to explain how we got off Earth, what technological breakthrough put man out among the stars. We call the engine a “warp drive” and that’s that.
In horror, we don’t need to explain why ghosts are real. They’re real because, there they are. The characters can see them.
What does it say about us that any author who creates a gender-equal society must explain WHY women in fantasy stand on equal ground with men?
We, the authors, create these worlds. 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. (If you can’t imagine this, you’ve got a pretty piss-poor imagination and probably shouldn’t be a writer).
Speculative fiction is just that: “What if the world were THIS way?” We do it with technology and magic all the time. Why not gender politics?
Does this mean that these women must be perfect? That they must always win, and must have no obstacles? That we must put them up on some pedestal to show how amazing and perfect they are in every way?
Those would be pretty boring stories. Let them have flaws—terrible ones. Let them have fears. Let them be cowardly. Let them be strong, some on the inside, some on the outside. Let them be queens and warriors and barkeeps and merchants and sailors.
Let them be people.
Or write your books the other way. Where society forces women into a “lesser” role. Just be warned: you’re not doing anything new, fresh or exciting. And if your book stagnates, and you never find your audience, don’t claim you’re some genius who just hasn’t been recognized yet.
The truth is, you might just have been a little lazy when you wrote your book, and made it too much like all the other ones that have come before.
And certainly don’t make the mistake of leaving women out of your stories entirely. That, too, is old old old-hat. (Almost as much as the term “old-hat” itself.)
Whether you create a world somewhat like our own, but where women are full, complex individuals, or whether you imagine a society that never adopted the bullshit idea that they weren’t—please, let’s all of us stop imagining that women in fantasy must be treated the way they’ve always been treated.
The genre is changing. I think it needs to change faster. And it will only change if writers put it in their books, and if readers actively seek them out.
I have a part to play in that change. So do you.
Edit: Since this article was first published, numerous people have pointed out that I’m erasing many women fantasy authors and their works (which often feature female protagonists and characters of depth). I absolutely did, but that’s because those authors are the subject of another subject entirely, which is traditional publishing’s gender discrimination. That article is forthcoming when I can put my research together effectively.