More on Writing Women in SFF

I want to follow up on Marie Brennan’s posts on writing women in fantasy (and science fiction, although it seems to be more of a problem in fantasy than in sf).

In her most recent post, she writes:

I’ve been here before. Reading a book, epic fantasy, relatively new, not bad, but I’ve got a growing feeling that something’s missing. Something like . . . half the world.

Where are the women?

In an earlier post about “writing female characters” she suggested:

Start with people. Start with people in particular circumstances: their culture, their social class, their profession, their family history. Let those be the foundations for their character and actions.

Meanwhile, over at Babel Clash, Ken Scholes and I are discussing this very topic as well.

But the thing I keep coming back to is unexamined assumptions.

Are female characters really that difficult for men to write, or are some men (not all;  and some women, too, for that matter) so mired in assumptions about what women are, or what they want, or what they did in Ye Olden Dayes, or How They Think Differently From Me, that they cannot move forward in writing a character who is a person and who, like a person, has a history, a set of beliefs about the world, and unique ways of interacting with others and with the environment in which she lives.

Assumptions create obstacles.  This is true, of course, of writing about any character who is not exactly like you and your own background:  you may find yourself having to cut through a thicket of assumptions that you weren’t even really aware you had about who and what and why and wherefore and therefore before you can find the actual person who exists beneath the assumptions that You the Writer are bringing to the portrayal.

At times like this it is important to be very cautious in assuming that what you “know” is absolutely right.  For isntance, I have heard the argument made that one can’t really have female characters in epic fantasy because epics are usually about war and are set in patriarchal societies and so . . . and so what?  Women didn’t exist in patriarchal societies?  They had no personalities?  They simply sat on couches and waited for the men to wind them up and then let them run down again?  If a tree falls in a forest and no creature is there to hear it, does it make a sound?  If a woman has no man around to validate that she exists, does she vanish?

With fantasy, often set in a landscape that is meant to some degree to resemble what we believe about our past, I tend to think that an incomplete understanding of history can get in the way of complex portrayals of characters just as it can get in the way of filling out a cast that represents such societies and how they realistically functioned.  In school and popular culture we absorb a lot of stereotypes which we may never think to confront.

What I try to do for myself, and might tentatively suggest for others, is to first identify assumptions and then to challenge them both in our own minds and in our writing.

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  1. 1. Katharine Kerr

    Assumptions about gender get in our way all the time, alas, not just in writing. I’m thinking here of the current controversy about schools being “excessively girl-friendly”, which is based on the dubious assumption that boys and girls are so different that they have completely different ways of learning. This business about “epics are about war and thus not about women” is such another. Did wars not affect women — kill their husbands, kill their children, rape them and their daughters, starve the entire family when the armies swept through? Writers who want to ignore “all that” to focus on the fighting are presenting a very dangerous view of war, IMO.
    Another assumption: women don’t read epic fantasy, men do, and so why “pander” to women readers? I’ve heard that miserable thought expressed by male writers in various online venues over the years, as you have too, no doubt, though they usually try to gussy it up a bit. :-)

  2. 2. al_zorra

    Women and children are primary targets of war, whether as victims of the invasion, booty to be sold as slave or into servitude of whatever form, or the means of humiliation of the conquered males, via rape.

    Not to mention all the others ways war impacts and sweeps of people of the female persuasion.

    It also seems in my reading of wars that women always performed equally strongly in the roles of resistance and as information gatherers. This was so everywhere in the Napoleanic era, and certainly in the American War of Independence and the in the wars of the Haitan Revolution, in our Civil War, and certainly in others as well. Whereever invasion of territory is an object, spies and reconnaisance are essential, and women always played a role.

    The picture lately of how the U.S. Marines of the elite First Recon do it, hey — there are WOMEN in the battalion!

    To say there’s no place in warfare fantasy for women is unrealistic about wars, and is unhistorical.

  3. 3. Eliza Wyatt

    Interestingly enough, I’m not sure that I’ve seen this on as gross a scale as most. Perhaps it’s the sort of books I gravitate to. Or maybe the setting just doesn’t make it convenient for two women to have a real discussion; in a society where men make the decisions, and a story following that sort of thing, there just isn’t room to put it in. Good fantasy gets adult characterization.

    I think that the worst assumptions and obstacles pertaining to a group in writing isn’t directed at women. It’s directed at children.

    Who can think of a novel where the children really felt real? If it included them at all?

  4. 4. Tim of Angle

    So who’s going to be the “official measurer of whether or not you’ve met your quota of women” in books?

    Like Mozart with his notes, an author includes just as many women as he (or she) requires – no more, no less. If you think that insufficient, feel free not to read the book. It’s really that simple.

    I don’t read fiction to have my assumptions challenged; I read fiction to be entertained. If an author can do that and challenge some assumptions (and, of course, which assumptions need to be challenged is in itself an assumption … one that nobody seems willing to challenge), fine. But the story comes first.

  5. 5. Kate Elliott

    Eliza, it’s not clear to me that there is any society in which men make ALL the decisions (that’s a pretty big scope). Even in societies where men control the public sphere and women remain (mostly) in the private sphere, women (or men who are living under constrained circumstances) will find ways to live as full an emotional and intellectual life as they can. Just as anyone will. Children will, too, of course. The idea that women are somehow all automatically stunted personalities in societies in which their lives are constrained by custom or law does not reflect the reality of human personality.

    I do agree that children are underrepresented in fantasy fiction. Have you read Sherwood Smith’s INDA cycle? The story begins when the hero is a child and continues to feature children in important roles through the 4 book sequence.

  6. 6. Kate Elliott

    Tim, I realize that you haven’t read some of my other recent posts (mostly on Babel Clash) on this subject, so you would not have seen the bit where I state that I think writers should, naturally, write what they want to write because, well, you know, that’s what I do.

    To give an example from film, Lawrence of Arabia works just fine for me despite its lack of a single female speaking role. As Lawrence’s story told, as it were, from his point of view as an outsider, and in the specific circumstances in which the film is set, it makes sense. Told from a different point of view I might find the lack of any female characters more problematic.

    Nor do I have any argument with readers who state, right up front, that they prefer reading books with no or few female characters in them. That’s their prerogative. I don’t read books set in universities in which a middle aged tenured male professor has a midlife affair with a young female grad student (or whatever). To each his or her own.

    The quota business is a red herring, as I hope you realize. It has nothing to do with what I’m talking about, which is that writers may be making choices about whose stories fit into, say, epic fantasy, based on erroneous assumptions about how people live and what kinds of lives they lived in the past and whether their individual stories are worth reading about.

    “(and, of course, which assumptions need to be challenged is in itself an assumption … one that nobody seems willing to challenge)”

    Who is this nobody you speak of?

  7. 7. green_knight

    an incomplete understanding of history can get in the way of complex portrayals of characters

    Yes. That.

    I’m a historian, and I *still* catch myself jumping to easy conclusion, to, as it has been called, ‘the history of dead white men and their wars’ – because that is how things have often been presented. You need to dig deeper, you need to *work* to unearth a richer, more rounded picture of reality. Whenever I read a book that makes the same old assumptions about societies (particularly medievaloid) I tend to end up putting it down – it tells me that the writer has not worked to question how such a society would work, and I cannot recall a single example where flimsy worldbuilding went with in-depth characterisation and intricate plotting skills.

  8. 8. Kate Elliott

    “The easy conclusion” is a nice way to put it.

    One thing I note is that many depictions of medievaloid (great word!) societies are really what I also call “Victorian medieval,” with that entire Victorian sensibility and Victorian view backward onto the Middle Ages (speaking of Europe here, but also of the Victorian English view of other cultures).

  9. 9. Arilou

    Are women really that underrepresented in fantasy? To me fantasy has always seemed to be one of the more equal genrés in that respect (Which really doesen’t say there isn’t room for significant improvement! There is!) But fantasy literature (as opposed to say, Superhero comics, or science-fiction) always struck me as a relatively equally-gendered space. (again, relatively)

    I do agree that there is a strange tendency of “othering” women by male authors (which isn’t present at all to the same degree when women write men… I’d suspect it comes back to the old male norm again: Men are normal, and women are somehow “not-men”, and that is what defines them)

    Gender is after all just one more aspect of a person’s background. While in most gendered societies (which is pretty much all human ones at the very least) it is going to have an impact, it is not and should not be a used for “the entire character” whcih too often happens.

    Incidentally, this reminds me of that Bonnie Tyler song…

  10. 10. Tamora Pierce

    >>one can’t really have female characters in epic fantasy because epics are usually about war and are set in patriarchal societies and so . . . and so what? Women didn’t exist in patriarchal societies? They had no personalities?> They simply sat on couches and waited for the men to wind them up

  11. 11. Rachel Heston Davis

    I agree that it’s silly to say “women don’t read epic fantasy so why pander to them”. As I mentioned in the last post on this subject, the young adult fantasy genre is fairly OOZING with female protagonists and female readers. Where do you think those females go when they grow up? Do they pop into another universe where it is impossible to buy books? No, those fantasy-loving young adults grow into fantasy-loving adults, who would most likely be as glad to buy female-centric fantasies as they were ten years ago when they were in high school.

  12. 12. Kate Elliott

    ARilou: which Bonnie Tyler song?

    Rachel, yes, YA is a great boon to all of us, as well as to the readers. When I was that age, the books available to me just didn’t have the rich variety the genres now have. I’m thrilled at this explosion of great stories.

  13. 13. peacerenity

    like some of the other posters, im not really sure where the idea of women being discriminated against in fantasy comes from. especially not in contemporary fantasy: it seems like the MAJORITY of the genre is marketed towards women, from laurell hamilton to charlaine harris to stephanie meyer. epic fantasy maybe, but that may be as simple as the fact that epic fantasy is based on a combination of ancient epics and legends and dungeons and dragons, and both of those generally focused on men. sure, women were just as involved in wars, but usually not in the actual fighting, and thats the part that people usually want to write and read about, even if thats a limited view of what actually happens.

    also, this may be a sexist opinion, but it seems like its easier to have a male protagonist for any type of story. for one thing, female readers generally seem to have an easier time empathizing with a male protagonist than the other way around. second, it’s easier to pigeonhole yourself with a female protagonist in fantasy: for epic fantasy, its easy to slip into “warrior princess” mode and for contemporary fantasy, its easy to end up with the archetypal “kick-butt hardass on the outside, sensitive girl who just wants to be held on the inside”. no doubt, this has more to do with perception than it does with female characters being inherently more limited than male characters, but when you’re dealing with a genre that relies as heavily on archetypes as fantasy, these kind of things are worth considering.

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Author Information

Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott is the author of multiple fantasy and science fiction novels, including the Crown of Stars series and the Novels of the Jaran. She's currently working on Crossroads; the first novel, Spirit Gate, is already out, and Shadow Gate will be published in Spring 2008. Visit site.

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