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The Representation of Women in Fantasy: What’s the Problem? – a guest post by author Juliet E McKenna

2011 August 15

Black and white photo headshot of Juliet E McKenna, a caucasian woman with short hair, wearing glasses and a beaded necklace and smilingJuliet E McKenna is a British writer of fantasy fiction, with several published series to her name. She is currently writing her new trilogy, The Hadrumal Crisis, which begins with Dangerous Waters, out now.

Kings and princes, wizards and heroes – isn’t that what fantasy’s all about? Look at the great epics of yore and see Gilgamesh, Achilles, Hector, Odysseus, Aeneas, Beowulf, Arthur, Lancelot, Roland, Siegfried. Look at the development of the fantasy genre and see Conan, Aragorn, Elric, Druss, Belgarion. Such lists are endless – and all male.

But why should this concern us? There are women in these stories; Helen, Hecuba, Penelope, Dido, Lavinia, Guinevere, Morgan le Fay, Isolde, Galadriel, Arwen, Polgara, Ce’Nedra. Their presence offers the necessary balance, and if the characters who drive the plot are predominately male, that’s just a traditional aspect of this genre which does reflect so much history. Before the last few decades, women were subject to male authority for centuries. No one’s saying that women shouldn’t be equal in the real world nowaday, but this is fiction after all. Right?

No, wrong, and for a whole lot of reasons.

Let’s start with the historical basis. Granted, the history read by JRR Tolkien and his generation was all about the great deeds of great (white) men. Such interpretations reflected the Victorian worldview of masculine authority and responsibility. That immediately creates problems. When the importance of great men is taken for granted, that’s where the historian’s focus will be. If women are not deemed important, why bother writing about them except where they impinge on the main subject’s life or deeds? They will inevitably end up absent from the narrative that emerges.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. That was then, and this is now. Since the first emergence of women’s studies as a discipline in the 1960s, a wealth of historical research has explored the role of women in all levels of society. Women’s influence and significance is now apparent, even when they were effectively denied financial and political power by the cultures of their day.

So a fantasy writer can no longer point to a few exceptional women in fantasy narratives, such as Galadriel, and hide behind a claim to reflect historical accuracy because the only significant women in history were exceptions such as Good Queen Bess. Not when I have books on my study shelves about the women who sailed with Nelson’s navy and built his ships in the royal dockyards, about the role of so many women in the scientific developments of the Enlightenment and a whole lot more besides.

cover art for Blood In The Water by Juliet McKenna, with illustration showing a pale, dark haired young woman in a white, red and gold gown, wielding a swordWomen’s roles in all facets of life are now being acknowledged. These women had authority and autonomy. Granted, that was often limited by their wealth, social status and culture, but there is no excuse for women characters in fantasy fiction only ever being passive and reactive. Historically we now know that women were rarely only defined by their relationships with men in the way that so many women characters in fantasy have been. While women can be wives, mothers or lovers, benign or malicious, that is assuredly not all they can be. Fantasy fiction should reflect such current historical research, not attitudes that were outdated fifty years ago.

Because fiction is important. Stories have always been one of the primary means of education and instruction, from the very young on into adulthood. Look at any list of best-sellers for teens and you will see how fantasy fiction dominates. Thankfully, writers like the late Diana Wynne Jones and Philip Pullman have been writing stories for decades encouraging children to explore and debate the worldviews that might be imposed upon them, along with the roles they’re expected to fill and the authority which adults might claim.

So it’s vital that epic fantasies on the ‘adult’ shelves don’t undo all that good work. I really do not want my teenage sons unconsciously absorbing notions of male privilege and entitlement in stories where a woman’s importance is always defined by who she might choose to sleep with, or better yet, save her precious virginity for. Where women who transgress male authority are invariably punished by supposedly indifferent twists of fate. I don’t want my niece and god-daughters reading stories which imply that true happiness lies in meekness, submission and doing the cooking and mending to facilitate so much more valuable male heroics.

Not when so much of today’s baser popular culture looks so indulgently on misogynistic male ‘celebrities’, excusing infidelity or excess at the same time as subjecting women in the public eye to merciless, puritanical scrutiny while extolling the role of Wife And/Or Girlfriend to a rich man as the pinnacle of female achievement. Not when pay gaps and glass ceilings and the Old Boy network are still so insidiously prevalent.

I want all those teenagers to read stories where male and female characters are equally significant in the narrative, all making the best use of their respective talents and abilities, where their gender is only influential when such things as physical strength come into play. Is that realistic or just more fantasy? Perhaps, but another facet of fiction has always been encouraging aspiration.

Thankfully there have long been fantasies with strong female characters taking the initiative to drive plots forward, making their own choices and dealing with men as equals, even when their cultures frown upon it. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books, Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince series and Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels are all notable as such pioneers.

But this is still not enough. Those writers are all women, and research has shown that men and boys’ reading is so often unconsciously biased towards books written by men. The representation of women in fantasy is an issue that should concern all authors. We need a substantial list of male authors to cite after Sir Terry Pratchett, when the question of men writing effective, convincing women comes up.

I want to read those stories myself. But this doesn’t mean I want to read about feisty servant girls who wake up, throw off a lifetime of cultural conditioning along with their blankets and decide it’s time to invent feminism. Any more than I want to read about honest farm boys who discover they’re a lost heir and regain the throne thanks to a great mage’s help, who won’t claim it for himself because he’s a decent chap.

Cover image for Juliet E McKenna's Dangerous Waters, showing a Caucasian looking man with dark hair grimacing and brandishing a sword in his gloved hand. His other hand is in shackles.So somewhat paradoxically, the representation of women in fantasy must still include women leading circumscribed, subordinated lives, to remind all of us reading, male and female, why our grandmothers, mothers and aunts campaigned for the vote and marched for equal rights. To remind us what women’s lives are like today in so much of the world where their human rights are curtailed by culture and poverty. And of course, so many similar arguments apply when we consider the equally problematic question of characters of colour in fantasy fiction.

Doesn’t this all sound so worthy and politically correct? Oh dear, because so often that means just plain dull. The most tedious storybooks which I read to my children were the ones with An Improving Moral Message. Some of the most boring news reports are the ones analysing sexism, racism, any other –ism you care to name. That doesn’t mean these issues aren’t important but it can be such hard work to stop your eyes glazing over…

True, and this is another reason why the representation of women in fantasy fiction is so important, alongside that of other minorities who’ve been historically marginalised and abused. Because epic fantasy fiction, with its traditional high heroics, hair’s breadth escapes, valorous last stands, black-hearted villainy, the tragedy of good men in conflict, and yes, star-crossed lovers here and there, will be read and enjoyed by all sorts of people who would never sit through an earnest documentary or read a lengthy newspaper analysis.

As writers we have the opportunity to enrich our readers’ lives as well as entertaining them. We should take that as seriously as we take the challenge of crafting an enthralling, surprising, rewarding page-turner of a story.

68 Responses leave one →
  1. zoetropic permalink
    August 15, 2011

    This is so true. I’m always annoyed whenever authors/fans cite history as a precedent for limiting their female characters’ positions in novels. I mean, if your world is wide enough to include fucking dragons, then why can’t it be wide enough for women to have more options.

    (On a separate note, are there any specific interviews where Pratchett talks about writing female characters? His are some of my favourite, and a great example of how you can write female characters in a pseudo-historical setting and have them be modern without being “anachronistic”.)

  2. Russell permalink
    August 15, 2011

    Off the top of my head, some male fantasy authors who write reasonably convincing, active female characters: Robert Jordan, Neil Gaiman, Stephen Donaldson, George RR Martin*, China Mieville, Hal Duncan. So it’s not all bad. Additionally, Robin Hobb is a female who writes wonderful fantasy fiction under a male – or androgynous, I suppose – pseudonym that deals with women in a variety of situations and levels of power and autonomy. And I’m sure more boys read JK Rowling than any of those author names put together, though of course we’re all aware of the problems with the Potter books.

    This is a great article that really highlights the issues, so I’m not going out of my way to flame, I just wanted to say that there is a substantial list of male authors who one can name after Sir Terry Pratchett who do write decent female characters. None of them do it perfectly; even Mieville kneels before the damsel in distress stereotype on a few occasions, and Jordan’s gender politics are downright batty, but the will does appear to be there.

    *someone is going to flame me for saying this, but I stand by it!

    • Jenni permalink
      August 15, 2011

      None of them -quite- as good as Pratchett, however…

      • Russell permalink
        August 15, 2011

        Well, firstly, it depends what you’re looking for; people have a lot of requirements for what they think makes a good female character ranging from believability, active versus passive, ability to hold their own with the men, etc, and often these are conflicting. For example, Jordan’s women have a large degree of equality with their male counterparts but sometimes descend into caricatures, and as I mentioned, the gender binary of his fictional world is somewhat messed up, while Martin’s women are eminently believable and often active participants, but never really reach a level of equality in the fictional world.

        Secondly, the author asked for authors who could be named after Pratchett in a list of male fantasy writers who write convincing female characters. Obviously if you’re naming them after Pratchett, there’s a tacit acknowledgement that Pratchett is doing it best, because he’s first. So being as good as Pratchett isn’t necessarily what I was looking for when I listed those authors. However, I would argue that, while Jordan’s characters occasionally become caricatures, Pratchett’s always are; while GRRM never gives his characters equality, Pratchett’s idea of equality is equal and separate; that Pratchett’s magical gender politics are just as messed up as Jordan’s; and that no-one in fantasy fiction writes characters, male or female, as convincing as Neil Gaiman’s.

        But I think the point, aside from getting into “which author is better” is that there is a list of male authors who do – to varying degrees of success – write convincing female characters, which is most assuredly a good thing.

    • wererogue permalink
      August 15, 2011

      No, I’m with you on George RR – his female characters are often perfect examples of “women leading circumscribed, subordinated lives”, but who are fully fleshed out and well-utilized in the narrative.

    • Terri permalink
      August 16, 2011

      I’d add Scott Lynch and Scott Westerfeld to your list too!

    • Michaela permalink
      August 21, 2011

      Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom Trilogy has two amazing main characters who are female.

      In terms of women fantasy writers, at least when it comes to Young Adult fiction, no one can beat Tamora Pierce for me. She so intentionally writes fantasy for young men and women that is Feminist, it was like a breath of fresh air when I was growing up. Buy her first Tortall book for your kids.

      Naomi Kritzer is another female fantasy author I really enjoy, but she’s not well known. Her books are a blend of fantasy and political uprising, and she is awesome.

      When it comes to Tolkien, all I can say is, thank god for Eowyn. “I am no man” was probably the coolest part of the series for me. I know many people think she is a weak or whiny character, but what I see her as is someone dealing with unrequited love and who is also a horse-maiden badass.

      • August 22, 2011

        I agree with the endorsement for Tamora Pierce, and must add how glad I am that I read her books at a young age, and well before I got into other epic fantasy novels. The other young adult author I read quite a bit of, and loved for his characters, was William Sleator. Granted, he wrote science fiction, not sword-and-sorcery, but several of his very strong female characters stand out for me (in particular Lola from House of Stairs).

  3. August 15, 2011

    Agree with you…and certainly there are quite a few women writers whose work (in epic fantasy but also in science fiction) presents a range of women characters from “traditional” (in being wives and mothers and grandmothers) and nontraditional. Given that such books already exist in some quantity, how are we to get them read by those who still resist reading books by, or about, women characters?

    Judging by both audience and speaker comments at a convention this spring, and email received from readers or would-be readers, there’s still quite a bit of resistance to accepting women writers or women protagonists (in either traditional or nontraditional roles.) One man told me at a convention that a story with a woman protagonist “just wouldn’t interest me.” (others in the audience were nodding.) A fellow panelist made the pronouncement that women don’t write epic fantasy. (Um…yes, we do. Though I’ve found pronouncements by women who don’t approve of epic fantasy, as a “patriarchal” form, that women either don’t, or shouldn’t, write it.) Another told me in email that he can stand to read only three women writers (I think I was supposed to be flattered to be one of them) and won’t even try books by other women anymore. A woman at a booksigning told me proudly that her sons would not read books by women or with girl characters–as she was providing their reading material, it was clear that she approved and probably created their attitude.

    If the books aren’t read by both sexes, they won’t be reviewed by both sexes and won’t be nominated for “best of” lists by both sexes. So how do we get books by and about women out of the “wouldn’t interest me” category of those men who don’t read books by or about women? I have a lot of male readers for my epic fantasy and always have–but I’m still not reaching the men who won’t even try, who are sure–without reading–that there’s nothing interesting between the covers. And these are, by and large, the men and boys who need to experience more women characters, not fewer.

    • Kate Elliott permalink
      August 16, 2011


      I’m always surprised to learn I don’t write epic fantasy.

    • September 12, 2011

      Wow, Elizabeth. Every time I come across this ‘I wouldn’t read a book by a female author’ thing I wonder which century I’m living in.

      Because of the attitude towards women who write fantasy I started a series interviewing female fantasy writers. *Waves to Juliet* (I’ve now started including male writers and asking them the same questions on gender).

    • JHG Hendriks permalink
      September 12, 2011

      I’m stunned that anyone would consider female authors to be any less competent than male ones. And to be so brazenly biased against them.

      I’ve found that female authors are no less and no better on average then their male counterparts. Over the last 5 years I think that the books I’ve bought are 50-50 between the genders.

  4. cedunkley permalink
    August 15, 2011

    Elizabeth, that anyone would shut themselves off from a whole slew of stories in the very genre they love to read seems just bizarre to me. They are missing out on some amazing stories and characters.

    Out of curiousity is there any indication that the same thing happens in the other direction?

    • September 24, 2011

      I have known a few women who felt it was a sound feminist position not to read books by men (note: I’m not saying this is a standard feminist position–I’m saying I’ve known a FEW women like this.) However–and just in my own experience–there’s a higher percentage of men-reading-SF/F who don’t read books by women than women-reading-SF/F who don’t read books by men. My samples aren’t big enough to make any firm conclusion. I think there are suggestions that it’s true, in the fewer books by women reviewed…the fewer books by women on “best of” lists…the (to my mind) shallower reviews of women’s books written by male reviewers (different criteria for reviewing)…that sort of thing.

  5. August 16, 2011

    This is a topic close to my heart. Why do so many fantasy books depict a world so close to our own?

    I go on about this at length here: , so won’t repeat myself, just thank you for the interesting post!

    • north5 permalink
      August 16, 2011

      Fantasy and scifi have long been used to reflect and comment upon modern society, so it’s not a surprise that so many reflect today’s gender issues, both conciously and subconciously. They’re also always a product of their time; it’s why I can “forgive” Tolkien’s paucity of women, and Ray Bradbury his various flaws. But we don’t need to forgive such flaws any more.

      I guess today, with feminism still such an ongoing battle, we should expect a wide disparity in how writers cleave to traditional gender roles. But we also have a duty to celebrate and patronise those who’re doing it right! :)

  6. Midas68 permalink
    August 16, 2011

    There are a lot of problems. But before the Tea Pot calls that ole kettle black.
    Why don’t said tea pot start lining up in those book stores and buy fiction that isn’t paranormal romance etc(other sub genres in which men are the minority)

    I guarantee you if Dogs could read and it was found out they Love Fantasy’s about Chefs from New Orleans. You would see a lot of Chefs from New Orleans Books, and consequently see Dogs getting a lot of Publishing Offers.

    Sexist Pigs are bad, But one thing Sexist Pigs like more then laughing at a Fem behind her back(I guess) is MONEY. Spend Money and help this economy. If all the woman bought books, and I mean everyone. then in 5 years the field would be made of of 95% women.

    Men would have to beg and plead for some love.

    Yes Exaggeration, but I never hear how Money is the key to all this, and its the key to EVERYTHING.


    ever heard of it.

    • Havoc permalink
      August 16, 2011

      I believe that’s what we call “the romance novel industry,” which is the least prestigious and most looked down upon of all in the publishing industry. Even though it makes a whole lot of money (I don’t have exact stats, but have heard it cited that romance is the biggest grossing genre), it’s looked down upon because it’s a woman’s industry.

  7. August 16, 2011

    Just so’s you know, I was hoping that people would cite some of the many male authors writing decent female characters in comments here :) I just said ‘Pratchett’ and left that lure dangling… so thank you all for that.

    This business of unconscious male bias to male books in reviewing is definitely an issue that needs addressing – without getting the chaps’ backs up, which can be the tricky bit. I am glad to say that in recent discussions here in the UK, the male reviewers I’ve spoken to have been a)astonished at the numbers b)ready to accept it as an emergent property of a dumb system not a personal attack and c) determined to do better.

    I haven’t come across the ‘won’t read male protagonists’ attitude in the same way that I have (occasionally) come across ‘won’t read books by girlies’ declarations by men who have always stuck me, frankly, as being as dense as teak.

    That said it’s always been women who have told me they don’t read for eg Joe Abercrombie, GRRM, David Gemmell (to pick a few examples at random) on account of not relating to the whole gritty/gory/dispiriting (their word, not mine) end of fantasy. When asked who they do read, they tend to cite Elizabeth Moon, Kate Elliott and female writers in the same mould – so these women are clearly not ducking tough content – but looking for some added factor that they’re not seeing elsewhere. Interesting.

    • August 16, 2011

      T.A. Pratt’s Marla Mason books have a terrific female protagonist and a terrific variety of characters male and female. He is also shelved right after Sir Terry Pratchett in most US bookstores — don’t know if his books are published in the UK.

    • JHG Hendriks permalink
      September 12, 2011

      Just an idea, but could it be that male authors are less able to write female characters, then female authors are at male characters?

      Personally I have a hard time to think like a women, and thus usually avoid doing so, to avoid making myself and the character ridiculous.

      If that is the case with other males, it might be that male author leave out well-fleshed out female characters not out of spite, but out of ability.

  8. Rebecca permalink
    August 16, 2011

    Someone who in my opinion got quite close but not close enough to writing awesome female characters is Jim Butcher in his Codex Alera series. He has some absolutely brilliant women…but I can’t help feeling when reading them that they’re fundamentally often foils to the more prominent male characters. Kitai for example is one of my favourite characters, but she’s often just there to compliment Tavi rather than to be a point of interest in her own right. (I also find Amara to be an epic disappointment but that’s a whole other rant).

    Over the past year or so I’ve been trying to focus on reading fantasy with a female main character. It’s kind of a pain in the arse! I mean I have read some brilliant things, but I’ve also been standing there in the bookshop stamping my foot and grumbling…and earning one or two odd looks (and sympathetic conversations!) from the staff in the process.

    What I find most interesting about the comments discussion however is that the only names being bandied around are men who can write women well. Well having tried to read female-authored fantasy exclusively, I can tell you that there’s a good deal of women who most decidedly don’t write women well, too. How about some names being thrown out for female authors who write kickass female characters too?

    • Rebecca permalink
      August 16, 2011

      Adding for clarity – I know Juliet mentions there being many female authors who write women well, but as this isn’t my personal experience as a reader I’d love to be proven wrong with more examples.

      • Russell permalink
        August 16, 2011

        Robin Hobb. Farseer is a male main character (written exceptionally well by a woman) but Liveship Traders has multiple POV characters of various different gender expressions. If you enjoy Liveship Traders I’d recommend you go back and read the Farseer trilogy (and then finish the trilogy of trilogies) as she is an awesome writer.

      • August 16, 2011

        Kirsten Cashore writes amazing female characters. And Ash by Mary Gentle is deeply complex and amazing and probably the first book I read in which a female warrior is depicted with such inifinite detail. It blew me away.

      • August 16, 2011

        @Rebecca – If we’re stretching the bounds of fantasy towards the urban, Kate Griffin’s ‘Matthew Swift’ novels have a good range of female characters, and a fascinating take on modern magic and London..

    • Terri permalink
      August 16, 2011

      Having read Graceling recently, I’d definitely say Kristin Cashore.

      • August 17, 2011

        Michelle West/Michelle Sagara writes excellent female (and male) characters.

  9. August 16, 2011

    Someone who writes fantastic female characters is Mark Chadbourn. He writes them to be complex, dark individuals that you both love and loathe and identify with. Another author who “gets” girls, is Garth Nix.

    This is a fantastic blogpost with some great comments (and the odd one too) but it breaks my heart that there are readers who refuse to read amazing stories crafted with such detail and across such a great canvas, because it happens to have a female writer / female protagonist.

    All I wish to say is: their loss and I am sad for them to live in such a blinkered world.

    • Thryn permalink
      August 17, 2011

      +1 for Garth Nix. I like most of his female characters better than most of his male ones (especially the Keys to the Kingdom series… the male lead is so lacklustre) and the Old Kingdom series is great and features strong female leads. They’re both heroines and complex, believable characters. Their male companions and love interests are their support, not the other way round, and it’s refreshing for a change.

      His male characters are getting better though, I think.

    • August 17, 2011

      Yeah, there will always be a market for that. But I’m not buying them.

  10. north5 permalink
    August 16, 2011

    Can I give a +1 for Stephen Erikson? His huge, sprawling ‘verse in the Malazan series contains a range of cultures from the shockingly oppressive to the totally liberated, and we’re given complex female characters from all over these backgrounds.

    • August 22, 2011

      Oh god YES. I want all my fantasy-loving friends to read the Malazan books so I can talk about them in great detail.

      On first reading Gardens of the Moon, I had a total shivery-wow feeling when I realised that around half the Bridgeburners were female, and that this was seen as completely unexceptional in the Malazan empire.

      Serious love for Erikson from me.

  11. Terri permalink
    August 16, 2011

    Great post!

    I pretty much gave up on epic fantasy in my teens, but have recently got back into it thanks to Kate Elliott’s books. I’m looking forward to catching up on all the great books that I’ve missed out on while I’ve been avoiding the genre over the last ten years, particularly stuff by women authors.

  12. August 17, 2011

    I like this article. Even though there are more and more novels being published with more diverse characters, this argument still needs to be made and will continue to need to be made for a long time. I do not really care what gender the characters are in a good story. If the characters are not interesting, well-written and believable, the whole story is garbage.

    Some that I’ve read that have great characterization of multiple genders are Ken Scholes’ Psalms of Isaak series, Karl Schroeder’s Sun of Sun series, Julie Czerneda’s Species Imperative series, Jo Graham’s Black Ships and Hand of Isis, Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World and Anthony Huso’s The Last Page. (And of course McKenna, but I think that’s a given.)

  13. August 19, 2011

    Glenda Larke, Jennifer Fallon, Karen Miller, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Katherine Kerr.

  14. August 19, 2011

    Just making a quick stop before heading off to a crime and mystery conference for the weekend – to flag up this piece on about lack of balanced gender representation in the media – Well worth reading.

  15. August 19, 2011

    Just as an FYI – I did a recent blog post on the representation of women in movies, and I went through the IMDB top 250 list to see how many were about women and starred women. Not exhaustive research by any means, but still interesting – the final result was 23 out of 250, and none in the top 20.

    It’s not only that women are represented badly – there’s also a problem of women being represented period, in many different mediums. There is a problem when the majority of the stories being told (and singled out for praise) revolve around the white, male default. Fantasy doesn’t suffer from it as badly as other genres, but it’s still there.

    I suppose all we can do is push back against it, and demand something better.

  16. August 20, 2011

    I don’t believe Barbara Hambly was mentioned in the comments. She certainly should be.

    Excellent article, by the way…

  17. carmen permalink
    August 21, 2011

    I recently read the first two books by newcomer Patrick Rothfuss (Kingslayer Chronicles) and found a couple very sympathetic portrayals of women. Granted, it’s still an epic story of a white man but it’s a good epic story of a white man with a feminist conscience. Also, a cool magic system!

    Not a fantasy writer but Tim Sandlin writes wonderful first person female narrative, especially Sorrow Floats and Western Swing.

  18. Monica permalink
    August 21, 2011

    I can’t believe that Tamora Pierce hasn’t been mentioned, those books introduced me to feminism before I even knew what it was! They also have gay, lesbian and transgender characters , and a whole bunch of kick-ass men and women. She is my favorite author even now that I am in my late 20’s.

  19. Henry permalink
    August 22, 2011

    I think Brandon Sandersons Mistborn is a good example of a series that raises a female character to a level on par of not higher than males while making her the main character.

  20. August 22, 2011

    I think this is an extremely important thing to consider for literature today. I also frequently (well, not too frequently) go on related rants about it with my husband (who generally agrees). I get so tired of the sheer amount of caucasian male “chosen ones.” Even if they aren’t called the chosen one, and just fit the trope, the majority, particularly in movies, are white and male.

    I was raised Caucasian-American (for whatever that’s worth) but I have Cherokee heritage I’m getting in touch with as well. My goals in my stories these days include a reaching out in gender, culture, and ethnicity. Why does Vasquez always have to die?! Seriously, she kicked butt (oh…that’s scifi, not fantasy).

    I remember growing up and always being given stories and books for class reading that starred white males. It drove me nuts, but at least there was the occasional story featuring a girl. Now that I’m older and writing as well, I realize just how little is out there for other ethnicities and cultures and not just females in fantasy. In fact, there is likely more females than non-caucasian main characters.

    Considering my love for learning about all sorts of cultures, I hope to add a bit more of the rainbow with my works.

    I’m glad I found this article. Before, I didn’t think to challenge the basic set up with my stories. I like stories of women finding their power, but I hadn’t yet consciously questioned the idea that the fantasy setting itself should feature more cultures with gender equality from the start (though many of my novel ideas already incorporate gender equality). I think I’ll make a more purposeful effort in strengthening the gender equality factor in applicable stories.

    I’ll still like empowerment stories from the unequal past setting, but we should have more fantasy worlds where gender equality is the norm.

  21. August 22, 2011

    I agree with everyone who says Garth Nix writes good female characters, and Brandon Sanderson and Scott Westerfeld as well. A few women writers who I highly recommend are Gail Carriger, Cherie Priest (she writes in several different styles so if you don’t like one, you can always try another), Alison Croggon (her Pellinore series is truly epic), and Robin McKinley. Yes, some of these are “softer” fantasy ie not epic fantasy, but they are all well written, with great characters.

  22. chrisd permalink
    August 22, 2011

    Interesting article. Based on some of the older, traditional authors that you mentioned, I would have to agree with your assessment of women’s roles in fantasy fiction.

    However, there are a slew of newer authors who give women an important and lead character in their work.

    Jeffrey Overstreet wrote his Auralia Thread series based on an extraordinary woman who was not a shrinking violet nor was she machowoman.

    Another author Carole McDonnell wrote the book Windfollower and the main character is a black woman. It has a quasi-African setting, very unusual for fantasy books. She hasn’t gotten much press, which is to bad. I think it’s a groundbreaking book for fantasy and for feminism.

    Good article. Lots to think about and discuss.

  23. August 22, 2011

    As a writer of Black spec-fic (Sword and Sorcery) I always feel as if the white spec fic world has done a lot of stuff I want to write. But now the white spec-fic world is tired of it. But really, just because white women are tired of seeing themselves saved and tired of seeing their vag*nas worshiped and put on pedestals, should Black women have to not write about those things? In a world where black women have only recently been seen as lower on the beauty scale, and where the white world have not seen us as worthy of holding car doors for us, why can’t I write a story with a black woman being pursued? Heck we were the mules of the world for so long! And back when white feminists were shouting “Ain’t I a woman?” their definition of womanhood didn’t include us. The feminist world at large should not be measured by what white feminists think is old or passe. The white woman’s fictional burden is not really mine, nor will I accept its premises.

    • Line Trasborg permalink
      February 7, 2012

      I think you’re the only one that is really putting forth a strong point here.

      The problem is not how oh so oppressed we white women want to feel but how little diversity is actually present in most modern fantasy litterature.

      The rest of you white women might feel you have a problem when in reality you do not realise what the problem really is. Hint: You are not the center of the world.

  24. JHG Hendriks permalink
    September 12, 2011

    I’m missing Jacqueline Carey, J.V. Jones and Janny Wurts in this thread.

  25. October 10, 2011

    > I really do not want my teenage sons unconsciously absorbing notions of male privilege and entitlement in stories where a woman’s importance is always defined by who she might choose to sleep with, or better yet, save her precious virginity for.

    Agreed! I’ve also seen a dearth of mothers in fantasy — why are all the women single and kid-less? My own novel, NIGHTWORLD, puts a mother front and center as the central POV.


  26. Rachael permalink
    November 28, 2011

    Oh, how I agree with you! When I first started reading voraciously, the first genre I came to was fantasy. I could never quite put my 12 year old mind into that of a man main character. That’s all I found, though. I read all the fantasy in both adult and children that had women as main characters in a couple months after moving to a new state.

    It was really disheartening. I eventually picked up the romance genre because I just couldn’t get into male main characters at that age (and don’t get me started on male “magic wands”.) I never understood why there was so few. There are enough women writers out there getting published. So why are there so few?

    When we do find a good female writer (such as Susan Cooper), the women/girls they write are horrid. Darkness Rising is a good series but I don’t think I can forgive Susan Cooper for making the *one* female character that has any real importance a complete idiot.

    Now all we get is soft core porn in the variety of sparkly vampires and half blooded elven princesses or goddesses. Bleh. But it is nice to know I’m not alone in this sentiment.

  27. May 25, 2012

    I am a Canadian writer of YA fiction. I have written 10 novels of which more than half are supernatural/time slip stories. Right from the beginning of my writing — with the publication of “Who is Frances Rain?” all my main characters are young women.

    I wrote three fantasy novels that were published between 2000 and 2004. “The Watcher’s Quest” trilogy is made up of “The Watcher”, “The Seeker”, and “The Finder” in that order. My character Emma Sweeney is the central character in all three books. She is helped by male and female characters, but she is the one who has the most at stake in the stories and this drives her to be the leader of her motley crew.

    All three books received excellent reviews in Kliatt, Kirkus, School Library Journal, Canadian Materials, Booklist, Voya, Quill and Quire, Children’s Literature, many newspapers such as The National Post and numerous USA and Canadian review sources and each won a number of awards and honours.

    It was suggested at one point in the early stages of writing that I might consider changing Emma to a male character which I dismissed. I get as much mail for male teens as I do female, from this series, possibly because Emma’s closest friend is a strong male character. However, there is no question that Emma is the one who is a central force in this trilogy.

    Here are comments about my books that will give you an idea how they have been received.

    “Strong themes of the necessity of discovering one’s own identity and persisting in the face of danger and defeat dominate this novel.” Canadian Materials

    “…this story will appeal to readers of Franny Billingsley’s The Folk Keeper (Atheneum, 1999) and will entertain fans of the genre. While a familiarity with Celtic myths is not necessary to enjoy the story, those who know the tales will delight in finding fresh interpretations of characters rarely brought to life in children’s literature.” School Library Journal
    “Buffie invents beautifully imagined worlds, exquisite villains and a cast of delightfully improbable quest companions.” Quill and Quire

    “Suddenly, Emma is shuttling between her world and another, where two moons hang in the sky and overheard conspirators discuss a Game, and a Child, in chilling terms. Emma slowly pieces the puzzle together, identifying the Game’s powerful Players, figuring out the Rules, and discovering her role—and Summer’s too. As it turns out, they are both “Pithwitchen,” changelings sent to replace dead human newborns, and Summer is heir to a throne in that other place. From ominous beginning to tense climax, this page-turner, reminiscent in ways both of William Sleator’s Interstellar Pig (1984) and Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s Moorchild (1996), will keep readers guessing—and as the Game ends in a draw, they’ll be set up for sequels, too.” KIRKUS Reviews

    “(There are) games with often outrageous rules, and players with roles hardly known even to themselves. In some ways, It feels like Lewis Carroll with the Queen of Hearts in full control. Like Alice, Emma is confused and distressed, but Buffie shows that Emma and even her family never really escape the rabbit hole. From a world centered on humans in the opening chapter, Buffie skillfully navigates step by step from the solid ground of a world governed by gravity and expected behavior and understanding, to an existence where Emma can’t separate dreams from reality. Taking her fantasy from Norse and Anglo-saxon mythology, Buffie adroitly conjures up this confusing world going back and forth from worldly adventure and fright to supernatural powers.” The National Post

    The way I look at it, a strong female character was simply the only choice for me in all my novels.

  28. Brittany permalink
    April 9, 2015

    I admire your article and strongly agree! I just reread Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, and found it to be a wonderful twist on the traditional hero. It was nice to read a fantasy novel written by a male, where the protagonist is a woman who sets out on a quest, defends herself (against the red bull), and in the end is her own hero!

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