Female Characters in Fantasy?

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There’s a debate going on about including more female and non-white characters in fantasy stories. I don’t feel qualified to discuss the non-white character debate yet as I am a.) white and b.) haven’t read the discussions about that as thoroughly as I feel I should in order to discuss it, but I do feel comfortable talking about female characters in fantasy.

Here’s a brief summary. One side says females represent 50% of the human race and stories should reflect that. The other side states that women had limited roles during the time periods most fantasy stories draw from and forcing too many females feels like “shoehorning” them in and ruining a story for the sake of political correctness. The counter to this is that these fantasy worlds are not (usually) direct mirrors of reality and if a country based off 1400s France (or whatever) can have dragons and magic, why can’t it have females in roles they might not have had? Another argument states females had more roles than most fantasy stories today suggest. I haven’t done the historical research for this, but my next point makes the truthfulness of this idea null and void.

To me, it’s a bit sad that people can suspend disbelief about characters portal jumping and talking dragons then can’t do the same about women playing non-traditional roles (i.e. not girlfriend, mother, sister, magical goddess, prostitute , etc . . .) in a story. If there’s magical trees that grow fruit that heals, there can be multiple female soldiers. One is considerably more unrealistic than the other, especially considering there are real female soldiers/store owners/etc . . .

Another issue brought up is that fantasy is mostly read/written by males, so of course most of the characters are male. Most people believe it’s easier to associated with characters more like you, so males more easily identify with male characters. Even better is females can and will read books with male leads and written with males in mind more than males will read books with female leads and written with females in mind, so it’s just safer to fill a book with mostly males as it will appeal to a wider audience in theory.

Let’s have a small exercise. In school, how many books did you read about a main male character? How many books did you read written by women? How many books did you read that even attempted to express a women’s point of view? I’m guessing the only large number is the first one. I don’t think men are incapable of reading books with female leads or many female characters. I think that from a young age we’re taught that men shouldn’t get into anything remotely feminine. But discussing that issue is far beyond the scope of this post and the fantasy genre as a whole.

One other issue, the one I understand the most, is fear. Authors are afraid to write female characters. They’re afraid if she’s too feminine, she’s weak (I personally hate this idea, but that’s a whole other article). Or if she’s too masculine, she’s not feminine enough and the author is saying the only way for a woman to be “strong” is if she acts like a male. They’re afraid to make her captured too many times, afraid to let her mess up, afraid she’ll end up playing into traditional roles and she’ll get torn apart by fans. I understand this fear, especially considering the current discussion on females in the media.

The easiest way to get over this is to have more than one female character. Then, the female character isn’t representing the entire gender. Having one female is like having one non-white person. The writers/writer ends up so worried about keeping them “awesome” and not falling into any traps, they end up boring, perfect characters. Meanwhile, the group of white guys get to be nuanced, quirky, faulted, and all-around more interesting. Why? Because the author doesn’t feel like he’s representing the whole race/gender with one character because there are many of them. For every white male that falls into one or two stereotypes, there are others who do not. The author’s view on non-white and female characters doesn’t hinge on one portrayal, so their portrays get more varied.

I’m not expecting everyone to be George R. R. Martin (say what you will about him, but he has a WIDE range of female characters with incredibly different personalities and perspectives). Fantasy stories don’t all need female leads, but what I’m asking for is that the world feels like women populate it for reasons other than making more people and getting stuck in perilous situations. Two excellent examples are Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicles and Robin Hobb’s the Assassin’s Trilogy. Both of these stories have (incredibly compelling) male leads. But guess what? The money lender Kvothe makes deals with, a character that is usually male, isn’t male. She’s a female, as are a few of Kvothe’s friends at the university, some of the musicians he talks too, the slightly odd girl that lives in the University’s tunnels, and others. Sure, these girls sometimes need rescuing. Sometimes they’re the ones rescuing. Some of them act traditionally feminine. Others less so. All of them are far more interesting than the token female characters in other fantasy books. In Hobb’s series, the sword fighting instructor – female. Is she a major character, no. But she doesn’t have to be. And she’s only one female character in a series that includes a plethora of interesting female characters.

I guess what I’m asking for, what I think might solve this issue in fantasy, isn’t a whole new set of leather-clad warrior women or even more “girly” heroines that save the day using more traditionally feminine means (not that I’d protest either of those), but more women in more roles. Does the bartender the main character stops at always have to be a guy? No. And changing something as simple as the name of the bartender the main character speaks too once from a male to a female name isn’t going to ruin the integrity of a story for the sake of political correctness, nor should she be any scarier to write than the male character they stop by and talk too once. Also, if you make her butch, then the incredibly feminine love interest the male main character has will come under less fire because she’s not saying this is the only way females can be, it’s just one way. Then the female characters in the series act, you know, as varied as male characters get to.

What is your take on this issue? Is it an issue? Sound off below.

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