Tue
Apr 29 2014 11:00am

Sleeps With Monsters: “It is Very Simple, but in War the Simplest Things Become Very Difficult”

Alice Sheldon James Tiptree Jr

“What makes for the most effective presentation and treatment of female characters in fantasy fiction?”

This is the text, more or less, of a question someone asked me recently. It’s a question for which I’ve been having some difficulty formulating an answer, because to me that’s like asking, What makes for the most effective presentation and treatment of human characters in fantasy fiction? It is a question so broad it has no effective answer, because it essentially asks Well, what are women like? as though that were one whit less dependent on context, and socialisation, and individual experiences of the world than Well, what are Germans like? What are South Africans like? What are Brazilians like? What are Americans like?

And we must complicate the category of “female,” as well. Not all people who are women in their lives were female-assigned at birth, nor are all people born with bodies that are easily assigned within the socially-extant definitions of “male” or “female.” Historically, there are women who have stepped outside their societies’ traditional gender roles, such as the sworn virgins of Albania or women like Hannah Snell. There are societies whose gender roles do not map easily to Western European constructions of gender and gendered behaviour, such as the hunter-gatherer !Kung San of the Southern Kalahari. There are subaltern communities and histories of women, created and maintained by women, who may interpret events and their social worlds differently than the men around them (see, as one classic example in a science fiction story, James Tiptree Jr.’s “The Women Men Don’t See”)—and these communities, histories, and understandings, will vary by class and geography, by cultural background and social context, by religious affiliation and ethnic associations.

There is no one true effective way to write, or to write about, human beings; likewise there isn’t any single true effective way to write about human beings assigned to the class called female. And in a fantasy setting, it is possible to throw out everything you think you know about history, and build new societies rigorously from the ground up—if, that is, you want to.

One of the major contributing factors in poor representations of women in fiction, however, is the denial, suppression, or rendering-invisible of their subjectivity. “Subjectivity,” to quote from Wikipedia’s formulation, “is the condition of being a subject”(emphasis mine); that is to say, of possessing perspectives, experiences, feelings, beliefs, and desires. Subjectivity is a key component of selfhood: the subject acts (or thinks, or feels); the object is acted upon, or thought or felt about.

Often, we talk about subjectivity and agency in the same breath. They are functionally similar in narratives; and agency requires subjectivity; but they are not entirely the same.

“But,” you might say, “these female characters over here think and feel and act; there are thinking verbs and acting verbs and everything: why are you still criticising them?”

Because subjectivity and believable subjectivity are different things, and depend on context. Because there is more than one failure mode for writing characters, and it is entirely possible for a character to have subjectivity and agency both and still play into a collection of stereotypes. Because often the writer thinks that they have given the female characters—sometimes there is only one female character—subjectivity and agency, but they have written the character with subjectivity and agency only so long as those qualities revolve around a male character. Because the world is more complicated that that, and the writer has failed to think things through.

Because a lot of us have seen multiple poor representations of female characters—as witness this conversation on Twitter—from (mostly*) male writers who are often critically well-received and in publishing terms, financially successful, and it gets old and tiring.

*Mostly. Not every bloke is bad at writing women—see, for example, Charles Stross, Max Gladstone, and Scott Lynch, among others -and sometimes women writers also reproduce tired old thoughtless tropes.

To quote Junot Díaz, speaking at Word Up Bookshop in 2012:

“Every time I’m teaching boys to write, I read their women to them, and I’m like, “Yo, you think this is good writing?” These motherfuckers attack each other over cliché lines but they won’t attack each other over these toxic representations of women that they have inherited… their sexist shorthand, they think that is observation. They think that their sexist distortions are insight. And if you’re in a writing program and you say to a guy that their characters are sexist, this guy, it’s like you said they fucking love Hitler. They will fight tooth and nail because they want to preserve this really vicious sexism in the art because that is what they have been taught.”

So, “What makes for the most effective presentation and treatment of female characters in fantasy fiction?”

More empathy. More imagination. Less sexist shorthand.

It’s that simple.

It’s that hard.


Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. Her blog. Her Twitter.

23 comments
paul Hend
1. tugthis
Not to be too defensive but male writers take a partian shot here at the end of an otherwise thoughtful piece. It sounds like it boils down to some male writers write poor female characters. I am sure poor writers of either gender write poor characters.
mutantalbinocrocodile
2. mutantalbinocrocodile
Could there possibly be some specific examples in addition to the Twitter (which is itself general)? This would be a more interesting discussion if there were some quotes. I know you're not shy about ruffling feathers.
Paul Keelan
3. noblehunter
I think its important to emphazie that having more female characters can really help. If nothing else, it's easier to treat them as individuals when you can't rely on their femaleness as a sufficiently distinguishing characteristic. Show the diversity of women (and other under-represented characters) by having actual diversity. Keep adding characters until you run out of stereotypes and start describing people instead. It also helps avoid characters being taken as representative of their entire group.
Fade Manley
4. fadeaccompli
On the matter of women being subjects rather than objects, here's an example of how it can be done well, despite the usual excuses for why it would "naturally" be done poorly: The Goblin Emperor. This is a book in which every society we get a reasonably good look at is sexist; it's told entirely from the point of view of a male character; and in fact, most women are viewed by those around them as primarily defined by who they have married, or might marry, or ways in which they might otherwise be useful to men.

And YET. It is always clear that these women have their own agency and desires, which may involve men, but are not solely about men. (Extremely minor early book spoilers to follow.) The emperor's sister is quick to point out that it is the logical, appropriate choice to marry her off to someone--even someone she doesn't like--for the sake of the empire's stability and the emperor's own political ends. And yet her desire to study the stars is personal and fierce and true to her, even while she is willing to put it aside for political necessity. She shows up in a handful of scenes; she is not a major player in the plot; and yet even as a relatively minor character in the book, she clearly has desires and agency and a sense of self that goes far beyond Being About The Boys.

Because even in a sexist setting, written from a male PoV, it is entirely possible for a female character to clearly be herself. To have agency. To exist for reasons other than being of relevance to some male character. The women in The Goblin Emperor are people, through and through, regardless of what their setting may claim about their limitations or needs or expected proper desires.
mutantalbinocrocodile
5. E. P. Beaumont
For a brief reply to the question of "the poor male writers" taking a Parthian shot at the end: Privilege grants social advantage and literary disadvantage. The view from below is generally far more accurate, as the observer has the motivation of survival.

There are quite a few African-American writers I read for their devastatingly accurate portraits of white characters. Langston Hughes' "Ways of White Folks" had me rolling in laughter, the rueful kind that says "Aw shit, this hasn't changed." Toni Morrison, ditto. Not so much the other way around; in fact more than one white writer's version of Black characters has made me close the book and say, "Oh hell no, this bullshit should not be supported."

There was a time that a male name on the spine of a book was enough to tell me that the female characters therein were there for the convenience of the male protagonist, and a large slice of geekdom still insists that "intelligent woman" is something of an oxymoron. There are certain genres I don't even bother with unless someone alerts me to an exception to the rule. Pseudo-medieval Euro-epic-fantasy doorstoppers, anyone? Not to mention I'm sick to death of literary monarchists. As for grimdark, meh. I spent my early adolescence reading combat memoirs, slave narratives, and survivors' accounts of concentration camps.

Short version: Privileged persons don't pay attention to the less privileged and don't consider them people. Until this changes, they're going to write shit characters that those of us actually IN those demographic categories don't believe.
mutantalbinocrocodile
6. KingofFlames
Okay, maybe that was the wrong question. How about 'what was the most effective presentation of female characters that you, personally, have seen in fantasy fiction?'
Jenny Kristine
7. jennygadget
@tugthis

"I am sure poor writers of either gender write poor characters."

* resists using the phrase "not all men" *

While your statement may be true in the absolute sense, I have yet to read words written by a women which described anyone's breasts (or balls, for that matter) as "untethered." So.

@KingofFlames

I have a question for you:

What is the most effective presentation of human characters that you, personally, have seen in fantasy fiction?

If your own answer to that question does not present you with a satisfactory answer to your own questions, I supect any answer anyone gives you will prove to be rather unenlightening.
Alan Brown
8. AlanBrown
Poor representation of women becomes most clear to me when I revisit some my old favorite books from youth. Many of them don't have many female characters, which can be attributed to the times, as military units, expeditions and ships did not involve a lot of women throughout most of the 20th century. But even when you move beyond the number of women in the stories, when women do appear, it just sets your teeth on edge. Often there is not much to their role except love interest, and any agency they exhibit is used to support their man.
You still see that in fiction, but far less than you did in the past. We still have a way to go, but I am often amazed how far we have come in just my lifetime.
mutantalbinocrocodile
9. KingofFlames
@7 Fair point. How about 'a couple of examples you particularly enjoyed', then? I've been looking for some good female fantasy authors lately, but I haven't found many that I loved (I am in no way implying that they don't exist, I'm just having difficulty finding the right ones). So far, Ursula LeGuin, Robin Hobb, and Janny Wurts have stood out. Trudi Canavan and Karen Miller didn't impress me, Kristen Britain did, so did Carol Berg. I've been working my way down goodreads list of 'strong female fantasy authors', but lots weren't quite what I was looking for. Tamora Pierce was pretty readable. Marion Zimmer Bradley looked interesting enough, but I'm not really interested in historical fiction fantasy. Maria Snyder started out interesting, but Opal got kidnapped like nine times.
mutantalbinocrocodile
10. a1ay
One of the major contributing factors in poor representations of women in fiction, however,

Definitely the right way to approach the question. As a rule, if you are stumped by a question of the form "How do you make X work?" then rephrase it as "How would you break X? OK, let's not do that then".
mutantalbinocrocodile
11. Jaime Moyer
Oh stars...where to start with this?

@2 Specific quotes from published novels? Or quotes from conversations? Either would run to thousands of words and far outrun the space and time Liz has for this column.

Ask almost any woman writer (or reader) for ways that women are protrayed in novels that make us roll our eyes, or fling the book at a wall, and we all have ready answers. That Twitter conversation ran much longer than the bits quoted, with many examples.

It's not a matter of picking and choosing among a few bad portrayals of women characters. Sexist shorthand and women used as little more window dressing are EVERYWHERE. That includes many NYT bestselling fantasy novels.

Rather than write women as people, some men--not all!--tend to fall back on outmoded, tired tropes. Which is just another way of saying sexist shorthand with less outrage. Thus we have an endless parade of damsels in distress, women too stupid to live, women punished for going against male orders/advice, women whose sole purpose in a story is to be rescued or adored...

Took me all of ten seconds to come up with that incomplete list and I wasn't even trying.

I often wonder if these men know any actual women. Do they not have sisters, mothers, wives, grandmothers, daughters, or female friends/co-workers?

By default the answer is yes, they do. That leads me to wonder if they think of the women in their lives as people.

@9 If you're serious about looking for women writing fantasy, head over to Fantasy Cafe. The 2013 list of recommended books written by women is 853 books long. The 2014 list is being compiled and will go up in 2015.
Deana Whitney
12. Braid_Tug
@9, have you tried Lois McMaster Bujold?

I started reading Fantasy with the Dragonlance book by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis. Then moved into WoT by Robert Jordan. So he showed more girls than normal. :-)

Then read David Eddings and thus began seeing the "Mother" and the "Lover" females as the only ones we get to talk to.
So when an author breaks that mold, they are on the right steps. But still need to create more than cardboard characters of both genders.


@5, very good points about privilege.
mutantalbinocrocodile
13. dancing crow
@9 - you do realize that most of what Liz reviews fall into this category?
Liz Bourke
14. hawkwing-lb
dancing crow @13:

I'm just getting the chance to catch up on the comments here, and I didn't like to point that out myself until someone else did... but that's part of what this whole column is about.
paul Hend
15. tugthis
I would like to hear more about this idea of "privilege grants social advantage and literary disadvantage." How would being affluent and well educated be a disadvantage - -unless you suscribe to the tortured writer as more "authentic" myth. I would think a literary disdvantage would be being a bad writer. What is the literary disadvantage of being female. How would one even know without a name on the front of the book what the advantage/disadvantage is of the writer. Is sex the only literary disadvatage?
It sounds like M. Bourke's final admonition is that it is hard to write non-stereotypical characters. Amen. It also sounds like she would like to see more of the kind of writing she likes. Good for her, an advocate of good writing. I think there will always be sexist writing, and poor writing, and racist writing, and poor writing, and classist writing and poor writing. I have faith that the good will rise to the top and the crap will fall to the bottom.
mutantalbinocrocodile
17. Ginger
@15 asked "How would being affluent and well educated be a disadvantage"?

Well, you've just proved our point. Someone who lives in a position of "advantage" has never had to defend their existence, in any way, shape, or orientation. That's privilege. Everyone else suffers by default, in comparison to the privileged.

So here's a clue: if you have to ask why, you're on the wrong side. Start reading more Other Fiction by non-white, non-male, non-hetero, non-cis, non-Christian, non-American writers (pick any three, for starters) and get to know a different world.
mutantalbinocrocodile
18. suppers
Well, I'm sure there are lots of lists, and it depends most on what you like in your fantasy, since there's epic fantasy, military, political, urban etc.

Elizabeth Bear
Tracy Hickman/Margaret Weis, as suggested above
Sarah Zettel
Juliet Marillier (Bridei Chronicles)
Michelle West (Broken Sword)
Kate Elliott (Crown of Stars)
Karen Lowachee
Lauren Beukes
Nalo Hopkinson
Laura Resnick (In Legend Born)
Melanie Rawn (Dragon Prince)
Joanne Bertin (on my to-read)
Sarah Ash

And more. I didn't even include SF. Be specific with your requests.
mutantalbinocrocodile
19. suppers
That was in response to 9, btw.
mutantalbinocrocodile
20. Madame Hardy
@mutantalbinocrocodile : In my opinion, Heinlein was *terrible* at writing women. (Incoming flamewar!) His female characters are projections of male desire, and a very specific kind of male desire. They are sassy, always ready for (and talking about) sex, competent but not challenging to the male characters, and (in one notorious case) untroubled by gang rape.

To head off the usual counterarguments:
1. Yes, but Heinlein Men are unconvincing stereotypes, too. Yes, but the question was "who can't write women well".
2. Heinlein Woman is a portrait of Virginia Heinlein. Let's assume that's true. Saying "one egg-laying mammal exists!" is not an explanation for "Most of the animals in your books are egg-laying."
3. Friday is a construct and isn't bothered by rape in the way that natural-born people would be. Who set up the rules of that construct? Did Heinlein make no authorial choices in the novel, or was he writing a documentary?

I look at the typical Heinlein human female character and I find her emotionally and intellectually alien.
Alan Brown
22. AlanBrown
Heinlein's female characters were often stiff. But he often wrote from a young male's viewpoint (in his juvenile works, for example), and saw the continuation of a culture where young women and men tend to be separated (we are not too many decades from the days when many schools and universities were segragated by gender, for example, and like many others, Heinlein did not see how quickly that would change). And, given that culture, those young men would have looked upon women as objects of desire, and not have a very well rounded view of women and their character and abilities. Being a teenager in the 1960's, I certainly had an attitude toward women that was similar to Heinlein's juvenile novel characters in my youth, although I have matured considerably since my teenage years.
As he began to have more power over his work, however, and was less heavily edited, and as censorship eased over the years, it became clear that Heinlein had some rather odd attitudes about women and sex. And his characters seemed to cling to some of those juvenile attitudes toward women, and the women tended to behave in ways that a juvenile might want a woman to act. So, I would say that, while in his earlier works the attitude toward women is a function of his character viewpoints, his own viewpoint was more obvious in his later works, to the detriment of the tales.
Heinlein was very clearly a product of his time. I say this not to justify the attitudes of the time, as we have made a good deal of progress in the past few decades, but simply to put things in context.
mutantalbinocrocodile
23. KingofFlames
@13

Exactly, so this is the place to ask. I've been reading the column, but the regulars will know the highlights, so I can get a shortcut such as the helpful 18's post.

Specific? I can do that, I just wanted to see if there was any absolutely must read examples that I'd otherwise miss out on. Okay. Female author, Female main character (or multi gendered ensemble), no in-universe discrimination. Preferably not urban or historical fantasy. I really don't mean to be brusque, thanks for everything so far. I've been looking at the goodrads list of 'Strong Female Fantasy novels' up to now, but there was a fair few I ended up disiking.
Brian R
25. Mayhem
@Tugthis
While I hate to feed the trolls, I think the point that was being made is that being white, male, educated and american is not a negative characteristic as such, rather it tends to make you look at the world a certain way.
And unless your life experience is highly unusual, it makes it difficult for you to write well about things that people who are not of that background experience in their daily lives.

The Wire for example is written by a pair of white guys, but it has a pretty good depiction of life in Baltimore because both writers are former cops in the area, so deeply familiar with life there. Most hollywood writers are not capable of such work, which is why it gets raved about so much.

On the other hand, I would be very surprised if say John Ringo was able to write a very good depiction of say, a muslim womans experiences in central Asia leading an uprising against the Posleen. Most of his female characters with agency are simply male characters with bumps on the front.

I could name several dozen straight white american men who have good female lead characters and decent stories. On the other hand I could probably come up with several hundred who are completely incapable of writing a decent female secondary character, let alone a lead. And that only involves transferring the gender of a lead, let alone culture or race.
Brian R
26. Mayhem
And as for the literary disadvantage of being female?
Well, it could even be as simple as the old adage "write what you know". And female leads don't sell as well as male leads, which is partly what this whole column is about.

Lee Modesitt wrote a fantasy series with a strong female protagonist. It won several awards, and by his own admission sold significantly less well than his works with a male protagonist. Given his writing consistency, the quality and story didn't drop, so the main difference has to be the female lead.

@KingOfFlames
Sticking with fantasy and looking at what takes up space in my bookshelf, I'd suggest Jacqueline Carey, Ellizabeth Moon, Mercedes Lackey, Kate Elliot, Isobelle Carmody, Tanya Huff and Melanie Rawn in addition and repetition of those mentioned above.
And I found I rather liked Carrie Vaughn's urban fantasy as something light and fun.

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