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Getting Women

No, not that, you foul-minded lot. I’m talking about the concept of male writers creating believable female characters (please excuse the simple binary gender in this post).

I don’t want to go on about good reviews (okay, yes I do, of course I do), but I was particularly chuffed with this write-up at the Book Smugglers, especially one of their last paragraphs.

One last word. I cannot finish this review without mentioning the female characters. After the recent fiasco with … where females characters were basically walking talking vaginas at the beck and call of the protagonist, it is great to see an author who gets it. The female characters here are women on their own right, never in relation to other characters. They are distinctive, diverse and interesting. From Beami, to Eir, Rika and Artemisia all of them play a huge rule in the book (although they have less scenes than I wished them to have) and in fact, I would go as far as to say that when the time comes (OMG huge awesome battle in the end), the women totally saved the day and look: without having to use their vaginas. Kudos to Mark Charan Newton.

I’ll be up front: seeing accusations of women being treated poorly in genre books made me reflect deeply on how I write women in my own work. Legendary texts such as Gene Wolfe’s New Sun books are frequently highlighted for a vicious streak of misogyny, and there have been several reviews of other books recently that have picked up on the subject. When backed up and well-argued, this can only be a good thing.

Why? Because it makes writers (and readers) think.

I don’t want to get all sanctimonious here. I wondered, quite simply, am I writing women well enough, without resorting to the crudely-packaged fetish-extremes of the leather-clad-ZOMG kick-ass babe? Do I actually get women? Whether or not I did previously (it was too late to worry about that) it was certainly on my mind during the writing of City of Ruin. It’s why I was absolutely delighted to get such a reaction from the Book Smugglers, who frequently take incriminating writers down to Chinatown. I had thought about my portrayal of women long and hard. I wanted to improve at this area, and the results were noticed, which makes me happy.

All of us are shaped by our cultures, of course, but we can see just how misogyny exists in both brazen and subtle ways. “Mums go to Iceland”, anyone? The same could be said for racism. A lot of people read books, and lot of people absorb what writers put into pages, so surely writers – irrespective of their cultures/gender – have a vague responsibility to consider matters of equality?

Writers are not perfect (despite how we would like to convince you otherwise…) and I’ve certainly got areas where I want to improve. There is so much to take into consideration when writing a book that often we will fail on many fronts. But it is up to reviewers to point out where we go wrong with matters of equality – be it racefail or genderfail – because, as I said, it makes writers think.

These things have to start somewhere, right?

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

36 replies on “Getting Women”

You have to admit though, that due to the usual “era/period” of fantasy, women aren’t usually equal in society to the men, and, more often than not, are wenches or whores or some such.

I don’t know how comfortable I am with the concept of “getting women.” Before anyone crucifies me for that, let me clarify my position.

The idea, it seems, in “getting” women would suggest that women conform to a universal type that dictates their characters. It’s been my opinion (my own) that when women are written in a dissatisfying way it’s because they’re written as women first and characters second.

I’ll expound if requested, but my head is throbbing right now and we’re treading delicate ground.

I have to agree with Sam’s first post. You can really tell when I writer creates a character who happens to be female, as compared to when the writer decides he needs a character that is female… If that made sense.

And while I agree with the “making new societies”, it is still difficult for a lot of people to separate “fantasy” from “medievil”. Thankfully, a lot of newer fantasy is doing so though.

I’m curious, Mark. Did you consciously write your female characters the way you did, or did they just turn out that way?

By that, I mean did you sit down and very deliberately design them so they didn’t fall into stereotypes or categories, etc etc?

To use a more concrete example – the lead character in my book Empire State is a big black guy. I didn’t particularly intend him to be a big black guy, but that’s how he appeared to me. Likewise, I have female lead/main characters in my other books, including miners, scientists, marines and engineers (ie, possibly male-dominated roles) simply because that’s who they are. I didn’t think, oh, I need two female characters here and one male character here, and so on. I’ve found I really don’t have much control over characters – they appear as they are and they do what they want.

I hope that my 2 female protagonists (an 82 year old and a clumsy, slightly unconventional 19 year old with big glasses) go some way to breaking away from ‘female tropes’. They are not ‘walking vaginas’ nor ‘men with boobs’ but as Sam says characters in their own right. I’m hoping I’ve imbued them with a sense of femininity without turning it into farce and having them discuss shoes all the time. I’m shallow, but not *that* shallow. Oh and they kick absolute ass!

Interesting post.

If I don’t react to a character of the other genre than the writer, I think the writer has “got it”. Haven’t read City of Ruin yet, but I had no problem with your female characters. I’ve had female friends with many of their characteristics.

Being male, I have of course reacted more to male characters written by female authors. And I think male authors are better at avoiding stereotypes in their female characters than women authors are in their male characters. Of course this has to do with the fact that male authors run the risk of being called sexist if they do something that’s perceived as wrong. -But that unfairness is perhaps another debate…

I think the comments above have it right. Characters are people first, gender second. Write them as people not types and they should automatically be non-cliched. I agree with the idea of consciously examining your own preconceptions and ignorances to make your writing better and more interesting – though the idea of consciously writing a ‘woman’ character seems odd to me. There isn’t really all that much difference between men and women. Different societal constraints, different expectations perhaps … but we’re all pretty much the same underneath all that. No mystique.

To quote “As Good as It Gets”,

“How do you write women so well?”
“I think of a man, and I take away reason, and accountability.”

I don’t see it as a problem limited to male authors, myself. I’ve picked up enough of my girlfriend’s preferred reading material (romance, historical romance, paranormal romance, etc) to see that the majority of women writers create female characters that are just as wooden, one-dimensional and ultimately misrepresentational of their gender. You’d struggle to defend post-Narcissus in Chains Anita Blake or Bella Swan as great examples of women in fiction on the basis they were written by a woman.

While there’s not going to be a sea-change in the representation of women in literature as a whole – simply because masses of people continue to buy awful books – at least it’s nice to know that a few people are taking the time to think of all their characters, and not just the women, as something more than MacGuffins to keep the plot going.

On a side note, I have to give you kudos for the “Mum’s gone to Iceland” slogan, made all the more ironic considering Iceland’s comparatively progressive stance on women’s rights. 😀

Living in Norway I haven’t seen any “Mum’s gone to Iceland slogan”. But since the female Icelandic Prime Minister married her girlfriend two weeks ago that should be a slogan for gay rights 😀

Another great post, Mark. Thanks for linking to my review.

I would like to reply to some of the comments here, but please bear in mind that I am not a writer nor do I ever plan on being one. My comment will come from a reader/reviewer point of view.

“You have to admit though, that due to the usual “era/period” of fantasy, women aren’t usually equal in society to the men, and, more often than not, are wenches or whores or some such.”

First of all, the “some such” really did not go down well with me. It sounds dismissive and I am pretty sure this is not what the commenter intended to come across as, but it serves perfectly to mirror what Mark tried to say in his post. You have to THINK about what you write.I believe that writing can be a conscious effort without losing creativity, freedom etc.

In that sense, I can never understand when a writer says that they don’t have much control over what they are writing: what do you mean by that? Surely characters do not exist in a vacuum. They are YOUR creation, coming from inside your head. Whenever I hear this, from a reader’s point of view, I just hear an excuse for not taking responsibility by taking into consideration matters as gender and race. Does it sound harsh? Possibly. Do I expect a lot from writers and that is not fair because we are all humans? Probably. I just don’t know how to read in any other way. And do you know? This is a learning curve as well, I am not the reader I used to be three years ago, two years ago, one year ago. It is because of posts such as this, and the genderfail and racefail issues that I am much more of a conscious reader. I don’t think it is too much to expect the same conscious effort from writers, is it?

Second, there WERE women in all times and periods who did not exactly fit the status quo. There are several accounts of women who ran breweries in medieval times, who had to take over running castles, etc. They were not ALL wenches or whores, you know. In any case, aren’t we talking Fantasy here? You can do whatever you want with your female characters and heck, getting a female character to BE much more than what she is supposed to be in her society sounds like awesome conflict to me. That also means, of course that your female character can be a whore if that is who your CHARACTER is (and not you know, because the character is a woman and a whore is all she can be). I believe this is what Sam is trying to say too, right?

Female characters (note Sam, the use of the term, in its full splendour) in fantasy need not be relegated solely to either the brothel or the barroom.

Simply because a story is set in a writer’s version of “Ye Olde Society,” does not automatically forestall it having a complex, gender mixed ensemble. Many of the ideas we hold about stark gender inequality are the product of the recent past – and our popular reinterpretation of it. History, the real stuff anyway, is ultimately more complex. There is ample evidence for both matriarchal structures, powerful religious sisterhoods (admittedly, pre-Christian for the most part but not-exclusively), and a flowering of female influence in a range of societies across the typical pan-Western European, pre-industrial landscape.

You can find dynamic women outside the “typical” negative medieval viewpoint in the pre-Albegensian Crusade Languedoc, during the bloody Wars of Religion which set Europe alight, and of course farther back, in such divers societies as developed in Crete, Gaul, and even among the Romans and Etruscans – the latter who despite having very strong misogynistic elements, possessed powerful independent women who held on to their vital roles in society.

The spread of popular monotheism in the form of the Judeao-Christian-Islamic religions form an arguably less favourable period. The vital but male-warrior dominated barbarians which took up its banners as the old empires of the region fell before their advance, both the germanic and arab expansions which followed were not exactly the high watermark of female empowerment – this is true. Up to a point. Unfortunately, we often look to these periods to form our ideas about the societies that characters *must* be drawn from, no matter that these represent an incomplete view of the period – and as if there was some sort of fantasy commandment that states “thou shall have no girls in thine bitching adventuring club.” Even if we admit to a bias in power lying definitively with the populations of free males in much of post-Roman Western Europe, how many fantasy novels are written to be strictly historical fiction?

If it is fantasy, with your own secondary world, then there seems even less need to potentially limit yourself to having the lasses only draw the drinks and turn back the covers. Dig deeper. After all, half your potential readership out there doesn’t have a pair of testicles. It seems foolish not to remember this. Even such writers as Robert E. Howard – who will never be accused of being a feminist by either armed camp, penned some vibrant female characters in his time who were capable of more than just swooning when his brooding, black-haired Cimmerian entered the room. And there is of course C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry of the same period. Considering the time period she was written in, she’s a wonderful character.

Personally, I have a harder time with the whole element of every-day people risking their lives to do the foolhardy, dangerous things most protagonists need to accomplish in order to move the story along. They’re often too quick to shoulder a sword and set off whistling over the edge of the precipice with hardly a ripple in the fabric of their wider lives and socities. I suppose this is why orphan farm boys whose ma and pa get done by the baddies, their pet cow crossbowed, and their fly spotted hovel burnt to the ground in some yokel backwater, so often serve as our starting point. But I don’t see why both sexes may not equally apply.

Where are the books about the adventures of orphan milkmaids out to avenge bessie? Come on people, pull up a three-legged stool and get to work.


Pretty much, Ana.

To elaborate, though, what a writer means when he says he doesn’t have that much control over his writing is that the characters take on lives of their own and do their own thing, regardless of what we might want to happen.

Basically, it boils down to the author writing something involving a character and then pausing and asking: “Is this really what he would do?” It might be easier to swallow if he goes for Option A, it might be more appropriate to the times if he goes for Option B, but in the end, if his motives and his personality dictate that he goes for Option C, that’s what he does.

This is basically a choice for both the reader and the writer. There are readers out there who will look at Option C and say: “You know, I really don’t want to read this anymore.” That’s fine. There are authors who say: “Some people won’t like Option C, but there it is.”

That said, though, this is absolutely, positively NOT carte blanche for the author to write absolutely every offensive, ridiculous or just ignorant thing he can and expect to roll his shoulders and go “welp, out of my hands, can’t get mad about that.”

Ideally, a good author makes it clear when Option C is the character’s path, not his own.

That’s a great explanation Sam. Just to add some more about character – the way I see it is that if a character is well-formed and if the story works, that character will essentially take up a life of their own inside the writer’s head. I think that makes sense too – we’re just a collection of thoughts and ideas ourselves, so if a character is real enough there is no reason why they shouldn’t start thinking, so to speak, for themselves.

This is why outlining a book can be a problem for some people, because you can spend days working out a chapter-by-chapter breakdown, only for your main character to do something unexpected in chapter 4 and throw the rest of the book off.

I do hear it a lot from non-writers: what do you mean, your hero did something unexpected? You’re the writer, you’re in control! Well, yes and no, as Sam as illustrated above. Stephen King said he wrote ‘Salem’s Lot because he wanted to find out what would happen if vampires arrived in rural New England. I mentioned that to a non-writer friend, and they were all: What do you mean, he wanted to find out what happened? He wrote it! Surely he knew what would happen? Actually, the answer is not necessarily so.

That can be applied to individual characters too – I had a main character appear halfway through a book, and while I had her plot and personality all worked out and outlined up to the end of the book, as it happened she was quite different when she arrived. She was supposed to be fast-talking and brash, but it turned out she was really pretty cold and aloof. I was completely surprised by her attitudes and actions (me, the writer who created her), but later on in the book I found out why she was how she was (and different to how I had imagined her), and it made perfect sense.

But I digress. Going back to the subject of this blog post, that’s why I asked Mark about his thought-processes regarding female characters. How much of their characters were deliberate and how much was the characters coming to life in the writer’s head and doing their own thing.

I’m with Sam. To me, good characters have an almost abstract gender. Also agree with Andrew that the issue of “getting women” is just as present with female writers. Quotation marks because this kind of issue makes me fret if I “get men”. Then I realize nobody gives a crimp if I’d choose to portray men like big lumbering destroyers of all or fat lazy dumbasses who like beer, as long as they are well-rounded characters that fit the story. Nobody whines about stereotypical heroes as a “male issue”, only as bad craftsmanship of the author (flat, 2D character)

E. M. Edwards said: “half your potential readership out there doesn’t have a pair of testicles”.
Now, I don’t have a pair (though I’ve heard it whispered they may simply not have dropped from the 4th or 5th or whatever dimension they’re hiding), and I get what you’re trying to say, but my first reaction is: is he saying the testicle-free have *different* needs? What am I, some kind of spaz?

Do I need more strong and well-rounded female characters in my fiction?
Not really (with inner voice uttering a slightly panicked “Ack!”). If the characters are written well, I don’t care what sex they are and what sex they are having and what world they live in and certainly not how the male/female relationship is.
Besides, turning the talking vaginas and men with breasts into packaged deals of solely strong, intelligent, caring and whatever else “good” stereotypical traits, might appease some warriors of the female cause, but I sincerely doubt its real value to emancipation.
It might be a good idea for a genre though: FEF! Female Emancipation Fiction, with its own rules, market share and shelve space, as for Dark Romance and so on. Just to keep the bad writing penned down in a category.

As to the milkmaid suggestion: the stable boy is inherent to the mould of the fantasy quest story. If you break free from it by using a milkmaid, you’ll have to make clear why and make sure the story remains interesting and believable. And trust me, there’s a million ways to get it wrong, starting with whether you choose to have a 12 year old run-away raped or not at the first run-in with big bad men.
Conclusion: ever wonder what happens if all the smart, pretty and strong girls leave their burnt down villages? Well, the surviving villagers rebuild, and are left with the ugly female idiots that grow up to become serving wenches in the taverns the male heroes later visit.

Lots of comments. And what Ana says is pretty much spot on for most of what I would reply with.

To Adam’s question: “Did you consciously write your female characters the way you did, or did they just turn out that way?” Both. Ware the sub-conscience, for it’s likely to betray prejudice. I consciously thought: I want to write a fair female character, one who does not have to rely on her vagina to get through the story. As far as I’m concerned, that’s essential. I deliberately set out for her to be as self-sufficient as the male characters. I deliberately set out to examine any bias I might have had, in the hope of ironing that out and grow as a writer. Is that bad? You decide…

Rachel: Not sure this was generally all about ‘consciously writing a woman’ more that the women I was writing should exist on their own terms, and not be there ONLY to move the plot forward for the men. Which is different than forcing them through the plot instead of acting organically, which I think Sam was on about.

Andrew / Anna – yeah, poorly written characters is one thing, but misandry is just as bad. Thing is (and I noticed this when I read The Forgotten Beasts of Eld) I thought to myself: you notice when the male characters are positively loathed; think how bad it much be for women who read fantasy to have their sex reduced to plot points.

I have to take issue with Anna’s bizarre final paragraphs. The rest of her comment is equally stupid but these ones are exacerbated by the fact that although she uses them to reply to Eric she complete fails to take his point that gender roles are not as static as some are assuming them to be in the real world, never mind in the unlimited world of fiction.

As to the milkmaid suggestion: the stable boy is inherent to the mould of the fantasy quest story.

For what possible meaning of the word “inherent” is this true? It might be familar, comfortable and well-established but that is hardly the same thing.

If you break free from it by using a milkmaid, you’ll have to make clear why and make sure the story remains interesting and believable.

Why do you have to make clear why? It is the author’s perogative to write what they want. There is a such stunning artistic conservativism behind this statement that I can barely comprehend it.

And trust me, there’s a million ways to get it wrong, starting with whether you choose to have a 12 year old run-away raped or not at the first run-in with big bad men.

I don’t think it is actually a natural law that 12 year old girls must automatically be raped and 12 year old boys must not. It is the author’s decision whether a character gets raped and the author’s responsibility to deal with the aftermath of this.

As for her supposed conclusion, what is there to say but: WTF?

@Mark – double posted, can you please delete/ignore the one above?

@Anna – see below.

My point about testicles (and yes, all that testosterone surging around can make for different impulses – few of them terribly helpful in most cases I admit, but as far as I know none have anything to do with coordination – so let us if we can, leave that for another post) is that there are lots of female readers out there who enjoy reading about fantasy adventures, so why should we make all those having them principally male?

To play devils advocate to my own assertion, the genre as a whole doesn’t of course. I can think of quite a few female fantasy characters who serve both roles (and nary a tray of pewter mugs in sight) admirably. Regretfully, a lot of these have been the product of female authors, though as others have noted, this is changing.

As for the milkmaid, why not? Why is a peach-fuzz faced stable hand inherent to the mould? Even if that was true, shouldn’t we challenge and break with such preconceptions? In fact, milkmaids and their like are just as hoary (no pun intended) a part of the fable/fairy tale tradition; they go all the way back to ancient Greece and beyond – just like their male companions.

On a tangentially related aside, I love how discussion of these things can spark off ideas. I’m happy to say I’m now 1,300 words into my very first story about a milkmaid and her companions: a baker, a washerwoman, a tapster, a seamstress, a carpenter, and a burgheress, the last with a bloody scrap of cloth in her white knuckled hand. Untied by loss and joined together on the most unlikely of missions – they are, The Unlikely Ones. Against them are set scheming wizards, cruel princes, blackhearted mercenaries, mad monks and paranoid prelates – but who is to say in the end, that these former, lowly inhabitants of ruined Breck-on-the-Eeld, won’t have their own? Each one I’m glad to say, simply stepped forth nearly fully formed and clad in their sex, out of the burning ruins of their ravaged town. What fun and you heard it here first.

And finally, back to the original point in a nice wide wobbly ellipse: it behooves writers of genre fiction, especially male ones I feel (my opinion; need not be yours) to be mindful of the gender imbalance fantasy fiction has at times displayed. Mindful – not slavishly bound to independently righting it.

I love writing complexity (or so I hope) into my stories. For me, it’s a simple and easy choice: diversity breeds complexity and a balance of sexes and proclivities can help bring the same to the figures which populate my fiction. Obviously not independent of actually making them complex, interesting characters. Keeping an eye on the question of gender (and sexuality) shouldn’t get in the way of creative thinking, but then a pursuit of the latter should never be held up as an excuse for a lack of investment in the former.


One last thing:

I didn’t get a chance in my previous posts to ask a question I have, open to anyone really. I’d love some opinions from both writers and readers here:

How hard do you think is it for male/female authors to write female/male characters (strikethrough the gender based adjectives of your choice in the line above) – correctly? And what exactly, does that mean?

Should it really be that mysterious a process? Are we always in the dark about the opposite sex? We live with and around each other on a daily basis (with rare exception), most of us have grown up knowing both sexes, and nearly all of us have read works of literature which contain both, written by both.

Yes, I’m not, nor am I likely ever to become, a woman. But the same applies for all of the following: wizard, assassin, elf, dragon, general, king, goblin, innkeeper, giant rat, nobleman, blacksmith, beggar, god (well, in my own mind I suppose), thief, sentient tree, explorer, etc., etc.. Does this mean I can’t create believable characters of this sort, full stop? And before someone screams that gender doesn’t equate profession – the point I’m trying to make is that we write about a lot of things that we are not, or know only as much about as we can uncover or imagine through the power of our minds. People like to tell things about themselves. So we really have no shortage of chances to hear from others who do know more, what it is like for example to be a male or female in a particular society/time period (where records of such still exist). The rest I suppose, we make up.

I’m fine with that. After all, no two males or females (or I suppose bisexual hermaphroditic sentient tree-frogs) are exactly alike. What am I under onus then, to get?

Before you think I’m being snide, I assure you, I ask this in earnest. I do wonder at times and personally question if I can portray the complexities of a gender I only know second hand. But then I remember all of the above. Outside of the realm of my skull – it’s *all* second hand. That’s the step that makes it fiction. You’ve got to give it the best educated guess you’re can and hope that some of the time, you get it reasonably right – or at least right for your story and your readers.

While we may get tired of beautiful female assassins with a hot bod and a flair for hanging upside down while firing a full sized repeating crossbow – they are not really any more silly than all the muscle bound, handsome, impossibly skilled swordsmen/mages/male chosen ones lumbering about in the same fare bedding every tavern wench and princess in sight. This isn’t even a question of female writers not getting male characters either. Most of the time, fantasy authors of both sexes are often equally guilty of writing fantastical and let’s face, unrealistic characters by the page-load. If there is a problem with that, is it truly one of mistakingly sketching gender by those who are of another, or just the more general malaise of a lack of realism and well rounded characters that affects the genre?

I’ve even seen some comments on other sites, decrying the move towards darker, grittier, more realistic fantasy simply because of the loss of that utterly fantastical element. Each their own, I suppose.

Food for thought. And I’m looking forward to your answers.


How hard is it to write a woman? I’m not sure, I’ve never written a character whose primary motivation was “woman.”

To write a woman “correctly” implies that there is a criteria for things that women do. This implies that every woman does the same thing as every other woman. We both know this is false.

You can have a female character be concerned with her femininity, for example. You can have a female character be concerned with child-rearing. But if you’re writing these as things that females do, rather than what the character does, you’re doing it wrong.

@Martin: in the unlimited world of fiction, it’s certainly the author’s prerogative to write whatever he or she wants. But in the marketable world of fiction, s/he’ll have to know what to name the child. And once the child is named, s/he’ll have to know where, why and how it diverges from the genre or subgenre.
Which, BTW, is where “inherent” comes into play. There’s no fixed set of rules what is or what isn’t a certain genre, only a bunch of elements that by consensus (market’s, not author’s) “exist essentially or permanently” in said genre. Elements that are familiar and well established *stick* to a “definition” of a genre (ah, gotta love good old Latin).
With this I certainly did not want to imply an author can’t colour outside the lines, only that the usual and sound advice to beginning authors is: know the genre your writing in before you do. Besides, it helps to know what label to put in the flipping query.
Furthermore, I deliberately left the choice about the rape open (“whether”). I believe it’s perfectly possible to have a good, enjoyable quest starting off with a runaway girl that doesn’t get raped. Rape doesn’t even have to come near the character. There’s other ways to toughen up a chick, and I’d even prefer to see the other ways, since there so much that can go wrong with having your character, male or female, raped (in character development and examples that are set).
Point is: in good writing it doesn’t matter whether she is or isn’t, since the female character is a person first, a woman second. Even if it’s a suffragette.
Whatever you do as a woman, there’s always two measures, two weights.

@Eric: I think the gender imbalance is well enough on its way of getting evened out just because there are more female authors. Not sure whether we need the “help” of male authors to shorten the distance. That sort of smacks of good old affirmative action, something I’ve an ambivalent attitude towards. The idea that an art would need it flat-out makes me cringe (getting spooked here by the phantom of 50% of shelf-space in bookstores reserved for female authors, and as a reader losing out on excellent writing by male authors). And, not saying man aren’t allowed to write female characters. Simply, to me gender don’t matter. Not of the author and of the character(s).
If you can’t help but notice that the female characters are all bubbleheads, I feel it’s probably because of bad character development, and then it seems to me the priority issue is bad writing and not genderfail.
What’s more: if a not particularly gifted male author writes a story filled with underdeveloped male characters, he’ll be criticized for bad writing. If he writes a crappy story with underdeveloped females, he’ll be criticised as a misogynist. The discrimination goes even deeper: I’m pretty sure that if I, a woman, were to write a story featuring flimsy male characters, I’d be criticised for bad writing, and not as a man-hater. I’d probably have to work really hard to earn that particular badge. There’s simply no justice in this world.

Eric, my answer to your question is pretty much what I was trying to say in my previous comment (however poorly worded). It is something I have thought about quite a bit (most of my main characters tend to be male) and the answer I’ve come to for myself is that there is no mystery – we’re all people first and foremost. Be emphatic, sympathetic … try really, really hard to get inside their head, don’t be lazy … and as you say – that’s no different to what you’d do for writing any character who isn’t you. It shouldn’t matter what gender the character is, so long as you can put yourself in their shoes. Don’t limit yourself by thinking ‘this is a woman, therefore I must be conscious of x, y and z’, or to me, anyway, surely that will constrict you somehow, make it ring false? As Sam says there is no universal ‘womanness’ which all female characters should possess and all male characters lack.

I could never understand how those who say that New Sun is misogynistic could also infer that Wolfe himself is a misogynist. The way I see it, Severian is the (fictional) writer/narrator of New Sun. Wolfe writes from Severian’s point of view, so the voice includes his, Severian’s, personality and attitudes, not Gene Wolfe’s. And there are many places where Severian and Wolfe are completely different, but Wolfe never changes this practice throughout the text. Never does Severian become a mouthpiece for Wolfe’s ideals, etc. So, call the fictional character Severian a misogynist, but not Wolfe.

Martin: You don’t have to agree with Ana’s review or even her response here, but calling her review “stupid” is uncalled for.

A reader picks and chooses the books they read and for someone to read a book and take the time to pen a review, which may take hours, should be treated with more respect than your very childish response.

The thread that grows and grows…

Well let me feed the monster by saying thanks to all those who replied (oh wait – this isn’t even my own blog, so thank you most of all thread-starter, shite-stirrer extraordinaire – Mark Newton).

Of course the hint was in the devil’s (or devils’ if you like a nice polytheistic feel) advocate remark:

Sam, Anna, Rachel – That is exactly what I wanted to get at. Writing good characters may be hard – but writing good female characters shouldn’t be any harder than any other kind that isn’t exactly modeled on the writer themselves.

Sometimes I think this is why all of Stephen King’s characters these days are writers – he’s lost the ability to actually make that jump outside his own skin, and why Bret Easton Ellis doesn’t even bother to write any main characters who aren’t Bret Easton Ellis – or his brother-from-another-mother, Jay McInerney.

Seriously though, gender (writing outside your own) really shouldn’t matter much in the hands of a skilled writer. It’s just a shame that our expectations have been lowered to the point where having more well-rounded (in nearly the exact opposite of the literal sense) female characters in a fantasy book is anything to talk about.


Aaron – an interesting point there. At what stage does the author have to take responsibilities for the character he or she creates, do you think? As in, if misogyny can be found throughout the entire text (albeit seen through one set of eyes), is it too simple to place the blame with the character? (I’m playing devil’s advocate here, of course. I suspect the answers are bound with how one sees authors’ relationships with their texts.)

Eric: I merely deal the cards. 🙂 But on your last sentence, given the track record of the genre, I think there’s something worth celebrating these days. That it generates a debate speaks volumes about our community.

What a fascinating thread! My two pence worth as a reader are that it is disappointing when reading fantasy which has a limited imagination as to what female characters do (in the mundane) or can become (in the heroic tradition). The issue is when a character is defined by the author’s perception of their gender role. One of my favourite authors is Charles De Lint, who mostly has female protagonists, and he does that better than male protagonists in my view. I don’t know why but his women are more vivid, engaging and realised than his male characters. A good writer writes well from many perspectives I guess.

However, I do think that gender identity probably should have some impact on choices made by characters, so I don’t totally agree with some of the views expressed if I have them right, that it’s of no consquence, male or female- it’s only about character. I think gender/sexual orientation/race, all personal characteristics have some impact on identity and choices, and therefore add that complexity which Eric mentions. Ignoring or overlooking these characteristics in characters present in the book just makes for uncomfortable reading. That’s what I think.

I think the main thing I got out of the comments here is that many more people are writing about milkmaids than I would ever have guessed. JV

The farm-boy narrative is a classic male fantasy of advancement & power (and therefore inherently classist as well as sexist, because it reinforces both structural inequalities). I’m not sure offhand where it started, but Star Wars bears a lot of the blame.

I’d certainly be much more interested in reading about a milkmaid in the same situation, rather than Yet Another Farm Boy. I’m trying to think now of novels with female characters following the same Humble Beginnings career path – I’ve come up with two by Mercedes Lackey (The Lark and the Wren, and Arrows of the Queen), Holly Lisle’s Fire in the Mist, and Bujold’s Sharing Knife books. None written by men so far. Anyone?

Not you too Jeff! Say it ain’t so.

I’m trying to carve out a name for myself as the foremost emergent writer in the sub-sub-genre of the New Milky Weird.

Give a starting author a break, people.

The Unlikely Ones (which is a twist on the plot of Aeschylus’ Eumenides for you literary types – with a liberal does of speculative weirdness and yes, milky goodness in between all the mud, blood, and killing) is going to put milkmaid driven speculative fiction, squarely on the fantasy map.

Let a cow and its maid have their day. That’s all I ask.


After all, no two males or females (or I suppose bisexual hermaphroditic sentient tree-frogs) are exactly alike. What am I under onus then, to get?

That no two males or females are exactly alike. A lot of authors don’t quite get this, and all their women are essentially interchangeable, or maybe can all be assigned to either the “madonna” or “whore” roles.

if a not particularly gifted male author writes a story filled with underdeveloped male characters, he’ll be criticized for bad writing. If he writes a crappy story with underdeveloped females, he’ll be criticised as a misogynist.

There are few stories – particularly novels – which are populated only by one gender. Most have both male characters and female characters, and readers can compare how they’re portrayed. If all the characters are underdeveloped then we’re obviously talking bad writing. But if the male characters are well-rounded and the female characters are cardboard then I reserve the right to be Suspicious.

(If the female characters are well-rounded and the male characters are cardboard then I’d probably have Suspicions too. But for some reason this just doesn’t seem to happen nearly as often.)

Daniel, back in comment #1, said:

“You have to admit though, that due to the usual “era/period” of fantasy, women aren’t usually equal in society to the men, and, more often than not, are wenches or whores or some such.”

This is a wrongheaded comment in several ways, some of which have already been discussed in this thread, but I have a couple of additional points.

Firstly – and this is contra both you and, later in the thread, Anna – women are only not ‘equal’ to men in such fantasy settings because writers choose to write their stories and their settings that way. It’s fantasy; so long as your world is internally consistent, there’s no more reason for all your women characters to be whores than there is for all your men characters to be whores. Imagination: that’s what we read for.

Secondly, even if all your women (or all your men) *are* whores in your particular world, it doesn’t follow that they all must share the same two-dimensional personality and the same storylines. What the post that Mark quotes is arguing is not that there is some eternal essence of Woman to ‘get’ – as Sam @ 2 rather straw-man-ishly suggests – but that it makes a refreshing change to read a book that treats its women characters as individuals, with their own character traits and their own reasons for doing what they do, which are separate from the needs or plot of the male character(s).

Finally, the picture you paint in your comment leads me into another disagreement – this time with the recurrent argument that female characters should be characters who just happen to be female. This sounds fine, superficially, but it rather ignores what should be a big part of any character’s life and identity, and thus his/her/its responses to any given plot situation. A person’s gender is – like their race, or their culture, or their occupation, or whatever – an important filter through which he or she experiences the world. Not least because assumptions in the world around them re. gender affect how the world treats them: e.g., if this *is* a society where all women are whores or wenches, any female character who wants an adventuring career (or loves to read, or has a knack with numbers, or develops a talent for magic) will face very different challenges than a male character in the same world with the same abilities and aspirations would.

Being a (stereotyped) woman should not be the sum total of who a female character is and what role she plays in events, but it shouldn’t be entirely disregarded.

In the end, it’s all grist for the mill of Story, right?

I didn’t mean that gender has no consequence to a character, but that personality (winning or not, so not *what* kind of personality, but that there *is* a personality at all) matters, and in that way, she could as well have been a man since her gender at that level is abstract. Whatever her personality, she will be well written with her own likes and dislikes, and if she’s a lead character and thus gets plenty of exposure I’d probably be able to invent a short interview with her (not even considering if it’s the type of woman I’d actually want to interview).

Of course if there’s comparison possible you can have suspicions or not. But if there’s only either male *or* female characters? I stand by my point that there’s a bias out there that is not always against us poor discriminated-against women.

As for fully fleshed out female main characters in fantasy, the first that spring to mind are also from female authors (Mary Gentle’s Ash, plenty of women from Tanith Lee, and of course, Elizabeth Moon’s Paks is as milkmaidy in origin as they come). Zelazny’s women are, you know, women, though in supportive and not main roles and not quite that type of fantasy.

I never said the fantasy writer had no choice in the way women are presented. Only that in a fantasy genre mainly given form in the ’30s it’s only naturally that you see social relations reflected from that age still, since as the genre grows into what it is by emulating those times/lifestyles all over again and thus a certain view of things is part of its mainstream. Why does Conan always gets mentioned in discussions of the value and role of the female, and nobody gets even slightly annoyed that female hobbitses only seem to cook, clean and produce more hobbitses all day? Both books are products of their time. Over time the genre and social relationships within grow and change and get explored in all directions and possibilities: great! But does it mean I should take as much, or less, or more, offence with the women Elric beds as opposed to those that Conan beds? My point was: in good writing you’ll never pose the question since in good writing whatever the role of the female (main character or supporting, princess or whore), it will be a natural fit for the world and the story. Thinking about the issue might lead to better writing, and that is a good thing. But good writing does not explicitly need a thought on the issue, social relations should not get updated to our current norms simply cuz. As you say, imagination is why we read, but you have to take into account that it may lead to worlds of equality between the sexes, or worlds where women are more than men, or worlds where women are considered less than men. It’s not the equality between the sexes that’s important, but the quality of the writing.

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