Friday, 26 February 2010

Female Characters in Fantasy Literature

Recently I have both read an interesting topic on the role of female characters in fantasy literature, and had a couple of discussions with a friend concerning whether female characters are portrayed ‘realistically’. I want to jot down some thoughts on this – I do not have a feminist agenda, but it is a subject that interests me, and I would invite you to share in a discussion on the subject.

When looking back over fantasy literature, including the original fairytales that most modern fantasy is descended from, it is clear that women started very much in the damsel in distress role. Women were relegated to the sidelines, waiting for a man in shining armour to rescue them from the jaws of dragons. Realistic? Maybe for the time in which these tales were written. After all, for every Eleanor of Aquitaine (seriously, if you do not know of this celebrated Queen of England, I would invite you to read some of the amazing tales of her life), there was a submissive noblewoman whose role in life was to please her man. Even back then, though, there were certain female characters in fiction that became more than a bit part in these stories: Morgan le Fay is often represented as a powerful woman in her own right.

Since the early days of fantasy fiction, we have seen an ever-increasing number of female protagonists – in fact, the whole realm of urban fantasy is now populated by sassy heroines! But how many of these women are portrayed in a realistic light? And who is to judge realistic? Can such a sweeping generalisation ever be applied to the many different female characters who now stride through fantasy fiction?

Let’s open the floor with a comment found on the SFF World forums made by Kat G (I sincerely hope she doesn’t mind me taking her words!): “And actual women would be what exactly? Never bitchy? Never bossy? Never whiny? Someone who's tough when it's acceptable, like in a fight, but not with a guy? You like certain kinds of women, but those aren't the real women and the rest are fake. The range of kinds of women characters and female behaviors readers accept and are interested in tend to still be much narrower than the range of kinds of male characters, because readers are often uncomfortable with women acting in certain ways, especially nagging, worrying, anger, rudeness, cruelty, selfishness, aggressive behavior -- all things that women quite frequently do, but which society says proper women don't do or don't show, and certainly don't do with a male. And unfortunately, in SFF, this is particularly still a problem, and one that needs to be challenged sometimes, not coddled.

The quote above resonated with me. It does strike me that there are few examples of women realistically portrayed in fantasy – I would love you to disagree with me! I see the female characters in David Eddings’ work: collectively smug and condescending towards their menfolk. I see the female characters in Laurell K Hamilton’s work: almost too-kick-arse, wanting to be better than the men. I see the female characters in The Wheel of Time: seriously, did Robert Jordan not speak to any women? At all?

I say few examples because there are some decently-written female characters around. GRRM portrays women with all their foibles – nagging, tempers, fear for their men, incapability. Somehow they have some of the worst characteristics yet remain interesting and, above all, real.

One suggestion made in the same discussion is that strong women are automatically portrayed as bitchy and/or ruthless, with few redeeming characteristics; that unless they have this approach to life, they are not deemed to be as strong as their male counterparts.

Another thought put forward is that female characters are currently put in a box marked “ultra-positive, nice, spunky heroines”, because this is how people want to read their women. And then the writers are criticized for producing bland, uninteresting clich├ęs of women. Those female writers who seem especially guilty of this are then condemned for not producing good, gritty fiction such as the Abercrombie’s of this world.

Lastly, I want to consider the idea of Mary Sue characters (this is defined as being a female character without flaws, who is often considered a wish fulfillment fantasy of the author who created them). There are a number of examples I can provide for this (Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake character is too easy to target here!), but I shall go with Ayla from Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear and subsequent novels in the Earth’s Children series. We (or at least I!) read with incredulous disbelief as Ayla single-handedly developed horse-riding, spear throwing, using flint to create fire, taming animals for pets, sewing up wounds, and many more. All this as well as being unbelievably beautiful and generally talented at everything she turns her hand to. Men rarely suffer in the same way from being presented as Gary Stus, which seems to lend them a greater realism.

In conclusion, I would say that we cannot apply a sweeping generalization and say that all female characters suffer from a lack of realism in fantasy literature – but I would state that women are struggling in comparison to their male counterparts. I would welcome your thoughts – please leave a comment!


  1. While I agree with a lot of your comments, I have to point out the following: women and men are often products of the society that they grow up in. Not always, of course, and there are going to be exceptions everywhere you look, but it is one thing to be taken into account. Since most traditional fantasy novels have echoes of our own past, it's not too far a leap to have women be put back into the subservient role again, or at least not as much or a starring role as men tend to be in.

    That doesn't make such things right, by modern standards, and since we're reading these stories in a modern age, that is something authors have to be aware of when writing characters of both genres.

    But here's what I've seen sometimes in fan discussions of women in fantasy. Female fans especially want the women to be just as kick-ass as the men... but with limitations. They want kick-ass but still feminine, and if the female character doesn't show some form of classic feminitiy, they get accused of being too butch, too much like a man with breasts that the author wrote for the sake of appealing to a few more female readers. Some readers seem to want hard and soft in the same package, presented at exactly the same moment, and that's no easy trick to pull off.

    On the flip side, if somebody tried to write a man as being more emotional and in touch with his feelings, the way a lot of women want, authors also get accused of writing a woman with a penis, just to appeal to a few more fans. Sometimes it seems there's no middle ground.

    In contemporary fantasy, strong women have an easy role to play because they're part of our society, and our society right now loves strong women (for the most part; we're at least more vocal about it). In traditional fantasy or fantasy showing vastly different cultures, my expectations of the females don't hinge on my modern interpretations of what a woman should be, but rather get put in context with the society presented. I love to see exceptions if they're done well and not just done because fans cry out for a woman who can test her blade against any three men and come out on top when societally she's never held anything more pointy than a sewing needle.

    Have women be strong and have a reason behind it. Show that they're sometimes the exception rather than the rule, and it makes them look even stronger. By today's standards, the women who fought to vote in US elections were really tame in their methods and actions, but for the culture and context, they were revolutionary.

    And I think that some people need to keep in mind that even today there are women whos goals in life are to settle down and have a big family and produce some awesome needlework. Everything decried as now being what women should not be still applies to some.

    Which is why I come full circle and say that especially I agree with your comment that there's no one great rule to be applied to all women.

    Wow, I didn't realise I was going to say so much to say so little!

  2. Oh, interesting! And yes, I entirely agree that female characters in most fantasy are struggling. We have it on good authority that Robert Jordan was married to a woman - presumably the same one that appears in his books.

    Have you read Bujold's Chalion books? The second, Paladin of Souls, has a middle-aged woman as the protagonist, and is just generally wonderful. Juliet McKenna's Einarinn books (starting with Gambler's Luck), Elizabeth Moon's Deed of Paksenarrion, and some of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover books (and including at least some of the posthumously ghostwritten ones - I recommend Exile's Song) also qualify.

    Ones written by men are rarer, but Hugh Cook's The Women and the Warlords has a good female protagonist, and definitely passes the Bechdel Test, and Steven Erikson's books have a lot of smart, tough, and occasionally dangerously flawed women.

  3. I'll have more to comment later, but I've been frustrated by this topic for years. I get annoyed with the way women are written. Most of the time I either don't like or don't believe the characters. I never seem to have this problem with male characters. There are some that don't resonate with me, but overall I find the majority of male characters believable. It could be naivete, but I simply don't understand why writing women is more difficult than writing men.

    I'm currently writing my first novel, an epic fantasy. Whether it will ever get published is a separate issue, however, the fun thing for me has been creating characters that I find believable within the created world. If my book is ever published, I'm not sure what the reader response would be. I'm not writing any of the women the way most fantasy handles female characters, but for me, they are more realistic for the changes I'm making.

  4. I am just so glad to find someone who agrees with me about David Eddings and Jean M Auel :)

  5. Thanks for all your comments, I really appreciate you taking the time and it seems as though other people are as interested in this topic as I am.

    T&T - you make an excellent point. I did not even consider the fact that plenty of our fantasy is set in faux medieval Europe - hence women would, of course, have lesser roles than the men.

    I think we can all agree that the issues of writing a realistic female character seem to be greater than writing a realistic male character.

    Would love to hear about male characters that you feel are completely unrealistic, just to turn the tables!

    Sam - I have read Chalion and McKenna, and I would agree that these are two instances where authors have created a decent portrayal of women without resorting to cliched fantasy tropes.

    Christa - good luck with your novel! I hope you stay happy with the way you are portraying your female characters :-)

    And RuntMcRory - I think you'll find there are plenty of people who agree on both those authors *wink*. In fact, would like to hear from people who think I was harsh in my descriptions!

  6. I think that the key here is the word 'fantasy' (though in this case I think it carries through much of fiction). In many ways writers write what they know, but they also write things the way they wish they were. And this reflects the way that women (and men too for that matter) are portrayed in fantasy whether written by men or women.

    In urban fantasy, which is largely written by women. We see tough, independent women who make mistakes but overcome them, who are at times an emotional wreck but persevere through it, who eventually make the intelligent decision. And in the end they physically kick the shit out of something that scares the shit out of them. An along the way there is often some sort of hot sex with a guy who understands them. Now I'm a guy and no expert, but this seems to be a lot of what women want in life and these books just present an exaggerated, fantastic version of it.

    We see it in some fantasy books as well (largely those written by women).

    The same generally holds true of men writing women. Take Robert Jordan (who is both rightly and wrongly criticized for his portrayal women in my opinion). He's from the American South and was of the baby-boomer generation. Women there are traditionally the surface extraordinarily kind and rather subservient to men. They adhere to the society role very closely. But behind doors they are strong, forceful and live a world societal politicking that most men never see or understand. This is what he knows - so in many ways he sort of reverses this role and then replaces the part where women say only kind things (whether they mean them or not) and has the women say what they think regardless of how kind isn't. That an odd sort of thing that he want to see. I think the result is very often misunderstood (not surprisingly most loudly by males between say 16 and 25 years old). It has its own sort of flaws, but I find it a fascinating view into both Jordan and the traditional role of women in the South.

    I'm always wary of male (or female for that matter) writers who constantly write women as secondary characters who need to be rescued by the big strong guy who knows all. Too often this seems to reflect the way the writer wishes it were (even if only on subconscious level).

    Ok, I've rambled on a bit too long now.

  7. Hi
    I'm a member of sffworld too, and had extensive discussions with Scott Bakker about one of the main characters in the prince of nothing series, Esmenet, as I had very strong views on her development. I found that although she fulfilled many stereotypes, her character grew into a multi-faceted, thoughtful portrayal of womanhood (including motherhood), and I railed at Scott for some of the plot driven choices she made. He took it on the chin though!
    I'd be interested in the views of other readers?

  8. I LOVE the way people seem to be questioning fantasy literature recently! I wrote a post on Racism in Fantasy some time ago (, and I have for years now had a list on my blog of "Heroines That Don't Annoy Me" because in general (not just in fantasy), I think female characters are often written in an aggravating and unrealistic manner.

    I also don't like the way people excuse fantasy by saying that it is other-worldly or set in a feudal past. I understand this, but I also think that in the past, there were women who fought their constraints, or who were very powerful and influential even with those constraints. And just because women lived in Medieval Europe, that doesn't mean they didn't have personality or opinions.

    I know Abercrombie's work doesn't have very many females in it at all, but I like both main female characters in his First Law trilogy. I also think Katsa in Graceling is a strong female character who, though she does sometimes seem quite perfect, really struggles with whether to give up her freedom or give up her love. I also think Terry Pratchett has a lot of female characters that are believable and likable.

  9. That's such an interesting question that my university actually offers a subject on it - Fantastical Women. I'll be doing it next year so I'll let you know then what professors think is the answer!

  10. I second Neth. Fiction is always the reflection of the writer's inner world and a result of his upbringing and social surrounding, as well as his or hers wish/intentions/desires. Women and men are as diverse as the writers, who write the stories. There is so singular truth about women or men for that matter. What you consider false is somebody else's version of the truth and vice versa.

    It is good that you raise these questions, but the topic is quite complicated and ranges into several branches and subgenres, which does not allow for a definite answer.

  11. robert jordan wrot prity true in my opinion becous he has many tipes of woman and men and men can for the most part acsept other men but women are more picky of other women