Woman in Fantasy

The portrayal of women in the media has been a very prominent topic recently. These discussions are taking place across many fields and topics, but due to my sphere of interests I’ve found a lot being said when it comes to women in ‘geek’ culture.

When it comes to what are traditionally considered the “geekier”’ genres of Fantasy and Sci-Fi, woman have traditionally had a hard time of it. While there are definitely stand outs within these mediums, women have never been fairly catered to, being shown as only stereotypes and/or sex objects. Both genres understandably suffered from the era in which they grew. I’m not looking to make excuses for or dissect the social opinions of the times, but the early to mid 20th century was a time in which women were not seen as having the prominent role that they do today, and media and literature reflected this.

Media reflects its creators, and those creators were of their time. Tolkien famously created no interesting female characters in his work. Half of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books are unfilmable today due to the casual but specific racism they contain. Stan Lee may well have helped revive the comic book industry in the ’60s, but if you can find a single woman in any of his writing that isn’t a two dimensional stereotype then I’m impressed. EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman series specifically had male Lensmen, as only male minds had the complexity to cope with the technology.

It became a self replicating cycle. You aim a genre at boys, so only boys read them, so you only aim them at boys, so only boys read them, and on and on ad infinitum.

Now with this new thrust of feminism back into our social conscious, it is slowly become less and less acceptable to let this cycle continue. The whole point about Fantasy and Science-Fiction is that you can create any world you want. Sometimes based on earth or a pseudo-earth, and sometimes complete original worlds in which the only social norms are what the author creates.

But while Science-Fiction has it slightly easier – the whole futurist aspect allows you to move away from traditional gender roles – I feel that Fantasy has it slightly harder. While it is true that Fantasy is often set in a fictional world, it looks back in a way other genres don’t. While not a sweeping truth, as a rule Fantasy worlds tend to be more primitive, harking back to medieval or at least pre-industrial times. While not direct analogues of the real world, these historical influences must inevitably bring to mind times when women were not equal.

I’m not saying you can’t write strong, interesting female characters in Fantasy. That would be a massive falsehood considering how many have done so. But in the same way many have not, and recently enough.

David Gemmell’s Legend was written in 1984, and yet has only one female character. And while starting off seemingly strong and independent, she quickly falls in love and marries the protagonist. From this point in the book she simply becomes motivation for the male protagonist, as well as a reason for him to rise to authority (by inheriting her father’s titles).

You can see where the author was coming from with this character. He set the story in a primitive earth analogue when women would not have been warriors or held their own titles, and this story focuses on war and battle. And yet that is no excuse for such lazy writing. She seems to have some character in the beginning, but them quickly becomes a vapid piece of motivation for the male protagonist. Even in the mid ’80s I would have expected better.

A better example of the themes Gemmell used would be George R. R. Martins’ Song of Ice and Fire series. Again this is a real world analogue setting with a culture where women are expected to be demure and have their own socially defined roles. But he then created interesting, strong female characters within that culture. He didn’t break the culture, or simply stick in females who were ‘different’ for the sake of it, but worked within what he had created and simply used those characters to show different aspects of that world. And this was only 7 years after the publication of Legend. That’s not a whole lot of time.

I’m not saying that you cannot write a society where the genders are imbalanced, but you cannot simply do that to avoid female characters. There is plenty of good Fantasy fiction out there using the ‘traditional’ cultural roles for the genders as a basis, but good writers will use that. It is a great way to create conflict within the story.

Much of the discussion about the lack of female characters in literature and television is that fact that there really needs to be no difference between the genders unless the story requires it. A famous example of this is Ripley from the Alien movie franchise. The character is often cited as a great example of a strong female role model character, but the fact is all of the characters in that movie were written with no gender in mind. It was later decided to cast the role as female, but the creation of the character had already been done. They made more of the gender/mother aspects in the sequels, but in the original the gender did not matter, and we have a classic character who just happens to be female.

So like everything else when it comes to writing, the answer behind it all is do not become lazy. In society today there is no excuse or reason for poorly written, or omitted, female characters. If you want to write in a world with clearly defined social roles, play with that and create interesting characters within that world. And if in your world a character’s gender doesn’t matter, don’t just make them all male by default. That’s just rubbish.

But remember this rule affects male characters just as much. If you’re lazy in any aspect of your work, it will reflect on the overall quality. Think about it, and write interesting characters that drive the story forward.

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3 thoughts on “Woman in Fantasy

  1. It is indeed surprising how few good, strong and above all role-breaking female characters there are, even in modern fantasy. I have read good attempts, but as yet no real successful fantasy books that do.

    • Have you ever tried Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series? The main character across the original trilogy is Vin, who I’ve always considered a very good example of a strong female character.

      Though I will agree that it’s rarer to see them in fantasy.

      • I have read the series but found it disappointing. Vin, I agree, is portrayed as a strong female character but whether she’s role-breaking? Because the last book in the series was a struggle to get through, my perception may be coloured.

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