A Writing Journey

Browse your bookshelf for a moment. How many of the fantasy books there have male leads? Almost all of them? That’s what I thought. Where are the female protagonists?

I didn’t get into fantasy until I started reading books by Tamora Pierce. She was the first fantasy author I found in my young years that was not afraid to give us a strong, female lead (and one that was still incredibly realistic). I don’t think I’ve ever read a single fantasy book written by a male author that had a strong female lead and, in unhappy truth, most female fantasy authors write male leads too. I have nothing against male leads. My favorite book trilogy is the Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb (a woman) and the main character is a boy/man. I’m just saying that we need more well-written female protagonists.

Examples of well-written female protagonists:

-Alissa in Dawn Cook’s Truth series. In these four books, Alissa sets off to become a keeper (basically a sorcerer) and discovers that she has the key to defeating the bad guy. She isn’t afraid to be cunning – namely by making the villain think that her male companion is the sorcerer – and she fights back when her friends are threatened.

-Magiere and Wynn from the Noble Dead Saga by Barb and JC Hendee. These two female characters are as different as can be, and yet they are both characters that I love. Magiere is the (stereotypical) “warrior-chick” (a sexist term and character type) that won’t let anyone in, but as the series progresses she develops and becomes a much more well-rounded, interesting character. Even more interesting is Wynn, who isn’t introduced right away. She is a scholar, and she is by far my favorite character of the series because she shows that the “strong female lead” doesn’t have to be the sorceress or the warrior.

-Mel in Sherwood Smith’s Crown Duel. Sure, she’s a teenager that is presumptuous and takes stupid risks, but what teenager isn’t? Mel is determined to defend a Covenant that the king wants to break, and she isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty to do it. She’s loud and her assumptions get her into trouble, but she’s also normal. She gets scared, she makes mistakes, and she learns that she isn’t always right.

Those are a few of my favorite female protagonists. In addition, the heroines of Tamora Pierce’s novels are some of my favorite, especially for younger audiences.

I avoid calling these female protagonists “strong” not because they aren’t (for sure, they are the strongest) but because of the connotation that goes along with “strong.” Too frequently, a “strong female character” is really just a (pardon my language) bitchy character. She doesn’t have any strength, she just yells at everyone around her. A temper doesn’t make your female protagonist strong, neither does lack of feeling. And seriously, I hate it when a female protagonist starts out as unfeeling and grows to care or let someone in – to me that screams that the only thing women are good for is to find romance. Seriously, that kind of subplot only drowns out the primary plot. (As I have said before, I am sure that there are examples that prove me wrong, I am painting in broad brushstrokes.)

On that note, I’d like to share something. A friend of mine recently asked “Does having a female protagonist automatically mean the story will have romance in it?” My gut reaction was NO, because obviously that is the answer. I’ve thought about it. While I stand by my answer that having a female protagonist doesn’t mean the story has to have romance, it is important to look at the reasons my friend thought this.

Female protagonists tend to deal with romance, it is true. But that may be because women authors focus more on life issues rather than warfare and “manly” things. (I could be wrong, of course.) In addition, men who write a female character in might only have her there as a love interest or a plot initiator. (Again, I am sure there are books that counter this assumption, and by no means am I saying that male writers do this on purpose – it is culturally reinforced in the United States and many other places around the world.) In addition, many female readers are young adults and they crave the romantic aspect. Perhaps many authors just go with it, since they know it sells.

But here is the issue. Female characters are dehumanized by authors – and not just male authors. I’ve done it, I’m sure all of you have. My latest rewrite of Quest for Salvation involves giving my main character back her agency. I took it away without even realizing it, and the story has suffered for it. She became reactive rather than proactive. That won’t work.

To me, it’s all the worse when a male author dehumanizes the female characters. When they are only tools or props or scenery, I want to vomit. It’s sexism, plain and simple.

So here’s the thing. Next time you’re itching to pick up a pen and write that next novel, think about your protagonist. Think long and hard. What message are we sending readers?

Take care, fellow travelers.

P.S. Maybe you’re wondering why I didn’t include Katniss from The Hunger Games. Simple reason: that’s sci-fi and not fantasy. If we were talking sci-fi, I’d have a few more names to add to the list. Also, the second “related article” is excellent. Please read it.

Comments on: "Reclaiming Fantasy Part 7, Hero or Heroine" (8)

  1. […] Reclaiming Fantasy Part 7, Hero or Heroine (emilyramos.wordpress.com) […]

  2. Reblogged this on Flaming Colours and commented:
    A very thoughtprovoking article on female characters in fantasy settings. Love it, Emily!

  3. Wow, your article struck a nerve with me. I know that Ilean towards male protagonists. And I often wonder why. Perhaps because indeed most examples of female protagonists basically don’t appeal to me. I hate those needy types and yes, Ihate the bitchy ones too. To my mind, using female qualities to write believable female characters is rarely done. Why kick ass and browbeat every other character. There must be better female tactics to lead to better results. To write them down, we need to recognise them in the first place, and then have the guts to use them convincingly. I hope that one day my confidence will be high enough to do just that. Again, thanks for great article.

    • You have found the exact problem: we aren’t generally taught to recognize positive female characteristics. You’re right that we need to recognize them in order to write good, convincing female characters.
      It takes practice to do, so my suggestion to you is to try. And even if the character isn’t quite right in the first draft, that’s what rewriting is for.
      I’m glad that this article spoke to you.
      Take care.

  4. Great read. I am using female POVs as vital characters, and like you I think “strong” female characters should be those with roles that add strong individual value to the world around them, just as women have in the real world. It is silly that this is still not done regularly in the genre.
    However, I believe I can add some insight into your questions. As a male, most, maybe even all of my core role models, my childhood heroes if you will, are male. That goes for fictional or real people. The same idea goes for women too, I think. It is true that the available fantasy heroes out there are predominantly male, as you’ve said, and that is the pressing issue. However I believe even if that was not the case, the first point I made would not change. As a writer, I am given the choice in creating my main character, and a male is simply the clear choice. It is just what I Want to do, and individually as a writer that has more precedent than what I might think the genre needs. I believe all issues of sexism lie in the structure of the writing and publishing world itself where women are misrepresented, not at all in the notion of male writers selecting male characters, or vice-versa.
    There are plenty of women that have greatly impacted my life. I take from my observances and try to create female characters that have better roles than the typical ones we see in fantasy. I do the best I can, however, I can only truly comprehend their roles from a male perspective, because well, I am not a woman. To have a lead female with the predominant role and to delve into her mind, her motivations, her wants and needs, I can’t begin to think how difficult that would be.

    • You have an excellent point. As you say, your main role models are male and that does make sense: we as people are taught to value the contributions and achievements of our own gender. Another great point that you make is how women are misrepresented in the publishing world. My question, then, is why do so many women write male protagonists. You say that it would be difficult for you to delve into a female protagonist’s mind, but it is just as difficult for a female writer to delve into male protagonist’s minds – and yet they do it. I think this could be because male publishers would be unlikely to publish books with female leads (which spirals back to misrepresentation in publishing) and so female writers “give in” and write male leads. Though as I said, I have nothing against male leads, but it bothers me that female roles are so undervalued.

      • Very true. There is a vicious cycle that occurs in the industry, and it will take a lot of time and attention to change the way it works. And while it is difficult to go deep into the opposite gender’s mind in writing for characters, you are right, it can definitely be done, and really well. After all, fictional characters, no matter how in depth they are written, are still relatively less complicated than real people. I was a little strong on my point. I guess we can each just try and do our own part by doing it the right way, here and now.

        • I didn’t think you were too strong on your point. I like some healthy discussion. 🙂 And you’re right, it will take a lot of work to change the industry and maybe the best way to change it is simply by bringing awareness to the issue and writing characters (female and male) that are complex and intriguing.

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