Some thoughts on gender in fantasy

19th November 2015

The other night at a Bristolcon Fringe reading, I mentioned that I’d jotted down a few thoughts on gender in fantasy in relation to my own book and was encouraged to share them on here. So:

My debut novel Starborn features a female protagonist, but it didn’t always, and I’ve been asked several times why I decided to make the gender switch away from epic fantasy’s traditional male lead. That tradition was chiefly the reason why Kyndra was Kyndren in the first place. When I wrote the first draft of Starborn some years ago, I was subconsciously responding to a well-established practice to write from the male perspective. As an impressionable teenager, my favourite epic fantasy authors were predominantly male and used male leads – Eddings, Goodkind, Brooks, Jordan, Tolkien, Feist, even Hobb to name but a few – so the choice to use a young male protagonist came more from a knee-jerk reaction than from any considered decision.

When I finally realised that, there was no reason at all to stick with a male lead, and I found the whole process of switching gender both fascinating and liberating. I’d never taken time to reflect on the inherent challenge of being a woman writing a man – I’d just worked intuitively. But as he gradually became she, I began to realise how much I’d restricted myself in terms of character. So saying, the first thing I discovered is that young men and women don’t behave so differently when their lives are in danger. Everything reverts to base instinct – your character is a living thing fighting to stay alive. The real differences are social and manifest in the ways men and women relate to each other. The scenes I spent a lot of time reworking were never action sequences, but the ordinary, everyday landscape of human interaction. Tapping into all the subtle social and sexual subtext was the real challenge. And it’s a challenge I’m still tackling in subsequent books.

When I came to look at the story, there were so many little things that had to change: from the etiquette of sitting behind a male stranger on a horse to the verbal and physical mechanics of bullying. Writing the latter was a revealing experience. When a young man confronts another young man and the abuse goes beyond the verbal, the situation frequently degenerates into a physical struggle. If it’s a young man confronting a young woman, however, I feel an extra level is added in the form of a sexual threat. Even if that threat is unrealised, it’s nevertheless there and, in my opinion, the situation becomes darker for it.

Perhaps that ties in with the most surprising (and worrying) discovery I made during the process of switching gender. It wasn’t until I read the book back that I realised I’d been harder on my female protagonist when it came to scenes of actual violence or battle. Description was more graphic, Kyndra’s tormentors more unfeeling and the wounds she sustained were worse than when she was a man. Perhaps that means I better understand the limits of female endurance. Or perhaps I’ve been subconsciously influenced by something much darker, by cultures and attitudes both within fiction and without that perpetrate violence against women. I’ve not yet found a satisfactory answer, but it’s something I’ve resolved to keep in mind when discussing approaches to gender and my own perception of the sexes.

There are a lot of tropes in fantasy – they all but comprise the genre – and some of them pertain directly to gender. Although Starborn remains traditional, even derivative, in its structure and storyline, I wanted to work in a little subversion here and there. For example, I have a romantic triangle with a man at its centre instead of the usual woman. It’s quite tiring to see book after book using a male-female-male grouping, the danger being that the men begin to define the woman, and her choices in the grander scheme of things are influenced by this primeval fight for her attentions. I wanted to give my central male character the sort of agency that a woman in his position sometimes lacks. He’s certainly the most intuitive of the three, a healer rather than a fighter and, while he represents something different for both women, his purpose in the story isn’t governed by their opposition.

Another situation I wanted to avoid was having an impressionable young woman being manipulated, borderline sexually, by an older man – a gender trope that crops up a little too frequently in fantasy. There was no reason not to have a young man, made vulnerable by pride and naivety, taken advantage of by an older man in a position of authority.

Generally you don’t notice such gender stereotypes as the above until you actively start to look for them…and then you discover them everywhere. Sometimes it’s disturbingly easy to fall into assumptions about gender. Historically speaking, there are certain professions or stereotypes that we subconsciously identity as male, and there have been moments where I’ve automatically written ‘he’ and later wondered why not ‘she’. I suppose it depends on the world you’re trying to construct, but unless it’s a deliberately patriarchal one such as Westeros, there’s no reason to recreate our own institutions of gender on the page. This decision led to my having female soldiers, female guards, a female engineer – in short placing women in traditionally male occupations and positions of power, as well as looking closely at their relationships and social interactions, both with other women and with men. Cue Bechdel test, which can reveal some serious and alarming truths about women and their role in fiction.

Two additional characters in Starborn had to switch gender as a result of my he becoming a she, in order to achieve a healthy male/female balance. But the change didn’t demand that the core plot be altered and neither did it affect the set-up for the sequel. Even so, I think the book is undoubtedly stronger. I feel it’s written with greater confidence, the action is more immediate and the tension between my heroine and the people she encounters is both subtler and more exciting. Which all stems, I suppose, from my intrinsic identification as female.

There are a lot of writers working to redesign the genre in terms of gender stereotyping. The following not only have great female characters in their books but also explore different kinds of relationships and come highly recommended from me. Links are to my reviews.

Jen Williams: The Copper Promise and The Iron Ghost

Rebecca Levene: Smiler’s Fair and The Hunter’s Kind

Neil Gaiman & Chris Riddell: The Sleeper and the Spindle

Genevieve Cogman: The Invisible Library

Seth Dickinson, The Traitor

Laura Lam (Lam’s Pantomime and Shadowplay are essential reads – her protagonist was the first transgender character I’d encountered in any genre and I think she’s done a brilliant and vastly important job in giving Micah a voice).

I’ve a whole list of other books on my TBR pile, but I’d like to know what you consider great fantasy that challenges gender and relationship stereotypes.

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  • theresponsibleone

    That is very interesting. I’d been thinking over something with Starborn quite a lot, and this context sort of solves it for me.
    I had a nagging feeling when reading it that Kyndra might be a bit “Mary Sue”, or perhaps used to be in an earlier draft before more of her flaws were worked in. But I was undecided because I wasn’t sure if I’d be forgiving the same tropes in a male character. Was I hanging the “Mary Sue” construct on Kyndra because of my existing assumed prejudices? In any event, fantasy is often about wish fulfilment, and women deserve that wish fulfilment as much as men!
    Knowing that Kyndra was originally drafted as male leads me to the conclusion that I was tending to be more dismissive of non gendered fantasy tropes more because it was a female character. That’s a useful thing for me to be aware of, and I think I probably need to re-read the book again and have more of a think.

    • Gosh, hope she doesn’t come across as a Mary Sue, I’d hate that! But thinking about it, she was perhaps more of one when she was a man. Insofar as inserting author into character goes, Kyndra is not the char I most identify with. Actually she was much (and is) harder to write than say Brégenne (who is a lot like me). Kyndra’s personality didn’t change hugely between genders, but since she’s the main protagonist, there’s a lot of pressure to make her sympathetic and accessible while not losing some of her less desirable traits.

      • theresponsibleone

        There’s a risk of being seen as a Mary Sue the moment you tie in to the “only one” kind of tropes. I certainly felt Kyndra wasn’t, even before this blog post – she has clear and identifiable flaws, isn’t perfect, and that’s very clearly deliberate by the author / you.

        If anything, reading Starborn, which is not the sort of book I’d usually pick up, has made think about assumptions and stereotypes I might have been subconsciously holding. I’ve even gone so far as to do some research about how the ‘Mary Sue’ concept is being unfairly applied and used to silence and put down perfectly good writing and writers.

        Big epic fantasy uses tropes. You use them – very well, and in an entertaining and creative way. You’ve got nothing to worry about in terms of how Kyndra comes across. The problem came from the reader and wider society – you’ve helped fix the former, although I think we’ve got a way to go on the latter…

        • Fantasy is a genre of tropes as you say, and I think that’s no bad thing – it’s what made me fall in love with it in the first place. The chosen one trope in all its forms is the most prevalent of all and features to some extent in every fantasy book I’ve read. I suppose it’s about finding a way to subvert/reinvent it without sacrificing the familiarity people have come to know and love.

  • redahaq

    One of best friend’s mother crossed out some of the male character names from books she gave her daughters to read and replaced them with female ones. I’ve always loved the anecdote. And it is sort of what you did but, y’know, more thoughtfully.

  • Msconduct

    Thanks for a very interesting post. As well as the obvious (and important) feminist issues involved with this topic which you ably cover, on a sheer reading enjoyment level I’m profoundly bored by male-dominated fantasy, especially when the women in it occupy stereotypical roles supporting the male characters. I will be seeking out Starborn and the other works you mention as well.

    There are a lot of tropes in fantasy – they all but comprise the genre

    I wish this weren’t the case, especially the last part, but I’m sure you’re right. Endless recycling of these are, as well as the male domination of fantasy, why I start far more fantasy than I finish.

    • Thanks! I hope it doesn’t disappoint. In many ways it’s still a response to all the (male dominated) traditional fantasy I read as a teenager, just hopefully with fewer *wince* moments. I agree with you about the endless recycling and don’t read half as many epic fantasy tomes these days since that’s where most of the obvious gender tropes crop up. In themselves tropes aren’t necessarily bad – there’s great ones in fantasy too, but our general failure to reinvigorate them for a modern audience has become tiring.