This is the first of possibly many discussions of female authors and characters in the fantasy genre and fiction at large.
One of the points I touched upon in my recent interview was the issue of female writers in fantasy. I didn’t really get to discuss it in detail at the time, but it’s something that’s always on my mind when I’m writing, as a matter of course, and especially since I tend to gravitate towards creating male characters doing manly things like beating the crap out of each other with pointy objects, saving the world from the peril of evil, or withholding their feelings in a misguidedly noble and slightly irritating manner (I’m looking at you, Lerien).
As I mentioned in my discussion, I find it much easier to write male characters (to be expanded upon in a later article). Part of it, like I said, is the fact that it’s simply easier to write guys doing interesting things freely without appearing grossly anachronistic in a pre-women’s lib world. As much as I like the spunky heroine character, when drawn well, it so often veers into a hyper-self-aware, totally liberated, 21st century woman in a world that suddenly loses its authenticity as she finds little to no social resistance when gallivanting across the land on her quest to do whatever it is she’s doing.
Now, it’s fine if you’re going to craft a society where that’s acceptable – more power to ya – but authors so often try to have it both ways: they want everyone to tell Spunky Heroine that she can’t do what she wants, because that provides the (somewhat overused) tension, but they don’t bother following through with the fact that in reality, Spunky Heroines are often brutally and irreversibly thwarted for daring to be spunky in the first place, because otherwise you’ll have a very short and depressing book.
I suppose being trained as a historian, and being interested in and knowledgeable about social issues in the pre-industrial age gives me a certain perspective on the matter. I believe that you can create any world you want, when writing fantasy, but the ones that ring truest to the reader are the ones with the relatability of gritty, historical realism. Since many traditional epic fantasy worlds are based at least partly on the culture of medieval Europe, that means there’s a certain expectation for women’s behavior, and for men’s behavior towards them, that doesn’t lend itself very well to the Spunky Heroine succeeding in vanquishing her foes.
Were there powerful, educated, shrewd, ruthless women in our real history? Of course there were. Are their stories compelling enough to be inspirations for authors? Absolutely. We’ve had our warrior queens and political masterminds, schemers and murderesses and noble patrons. They’re fascinating, and they should be remembered and explored.
But if you look closely at their lives, from Cleopatra to Boadicea to Catherine the Great, you see that they primarily work within and/or manipulate the confines of a woman’s place in society, but they always, always fall victim to the prevailing social norms. They can’t transcend it in a modern way (or what we like to think is the modern way), even when they do seem to buck the overly simplified trend of “man rules, woman obeys”, because the world is ultimately a prison made of other people, and there’s only one real way out.
And I think that’s where it gets difficult, as a fantasy writer – or at least one with a mind towards history. On one hand, there’s a certain expectation by the reader that must be fulfilled. Whether you want the Spunky Heroine, the Damsel in Distress, the Wicked Queen, or the Sweet Wife/Mother, there are rules to be obeyed in a genre built nearly entirely upon archetypes to begin with. It’s immensely difficult in any type of fiction to make an interesting, original character that doesn’t fall under an umbrella like that. The best fantasy authors use those rules to their advantage instead of trying to break them just for the sake of trying to be different.
But – and this might be controversial – I’m going to say that it’s doubly difficult, as a female writer. I think that when a reader sees a woman’s name on the cover of a book, they start reading through a certain lens that can be unfair to the author. I’ve faced skepticism about my ability to write male-centric stories, especially military fiction, being a girl whose only experience of the topic, admittedly, is what I’ve read by (exclusively male) historians and authors of historical fiction. I’ve gotten that weird look when I say, “yeah, I write fantasy”, until I add, “but there are no vampires or floofy angels or dancing faeries” and the expression changes to one of still-slightly-disbelieving relief.
Do male authors get that look? I’m not sure – you tell me. All I know is that it happens all the time, and it’s really annoying. Fantasy is not a genre that garners a lot of respect in the real world to begin with, and that doesn’t make it any easier.
Do I particularly care? No, not really. I like to think my work stands on its own merits, but it does make me understand the urge for female writers to use male pen names, just to avoid the problem entirely. That will only perpetuate the problem, of course, but that’s another issue all together.
As I mentioned above, I think I’ll be returning to this subject in the future, especially as I navigate through the plot of my current project, which is, at its core, centered around familial relations and the emotional cost of love, which can be handled in a variety of ways. I find the place of women as writers a fascinating topic to explore, and I’m very interested in hearing your opinions on the matter. Feel free to comment, although please remember that civility is an equal-opportunity employer.