Do books HAVE to have female characters?

I’ve been in a bit of a quandary this week.

A couple of days ago, I finally started reading Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, after literally years of encouragement from friends and the fantasy-reading world at large. So far, everything I’ve been told about the book is true. The writing is skilful, the characters and world intriguing, the story compelling. Normally, entering a new fantasy world is a slog for me, but The Lies of Locke Lamora pulled me right in.

There’s only one problem. 50 pages in, there’s not a female character in sight.

Sure, female characters exist in this world. I think one was mentioned in passing somewhere. But all the characters that we’ve met so far have been male. And my suspicious googling suggests that that isn’t going to change, with the only important female character being an object of longing who never appears “on screen.” Numerous reviews mention how great it is to see a world populated with influential female characters on equal footing with men, but does it really count if none of them play any role in the story?

Here’s the thing. Beyond this all-too-common misstep in fantasy fiction, The Lies of Locke Lamora is proving to be a good read. But I know I’ll get more and more frustrated at how male it all is, and the question that nags me is — is that OK? Is it OK to put down a book because none of the characters share a gender with you?

The obvious answer is “yes.” Yes, of course it’s OK. Firstly, because you can choose to read or not read a book for any reason you like. We have to select from the abundance of potentially enjoyable books somehow. But also because this shouldn’t even be an issue. Women are 50% of the population. Unless the story takes place in a prison, a boy’s boarding school, or a world where all the women are dead and the men are trying to cope with the inevitable end of the human race, women should exist. And not just as names and background characters and love interests who never appear. As characters who influence the story. As peopleAnd this should almost count double in fantasy. If one of the key tricks of a good fantasy book is suspension of disbelief, it seems to be a major misstep to present us with worlds where apparently women don’t really appear. Who, after all, can truly believe in that?

But despite these obvious points, and despite the fact that I’m a feminist blogger who writes about female characters all the time, the question has been nagging at me. It’s so ingrained into our society that female characters are extra or niche, and that asking for them is asking too much, that the very act of questioning the lack of them feels overdemanding. A lack of imagination. A refusal to read books without characters who aren’t “like me.” Somehow, it feels wrong of me to abandon a book merely because it lacks female characters. After all, I read books by female authors and about female characters all the time. Why shouldn’t I pick up a book about male characters for a change?

Except, of course, even books that are all about female characters feature male characters too. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book whose characters are 100% women, or even 100% women and their love interests. It simply doesn’t happen, because of course men exist. Of course they have impact on events and play significant roles in other people’s lives. Of course you couldn’t write a book, even a book set in an entirely different world, without them. But when it’s the reverse? Well, then you can’t expect women to be shoehorned in everywhere. Why would they even be around? It’s a fantasy world. It’s about criminals. You’re being unreasonable expecting women to be there. You’re asking too much.

It’s nonsense, but it’s incredibly pervasive, to the point that a part of me insists that if I put down a book because of a lack of female characters, even if I know I therefore won’t enjoy it, that’ll mean I’m not a “serious reader” or a “serious writer” or simply don’t understand books. And that’s not a nice feeling to have.

But in the end, why give time and brainspace to a novel that doesn’t give time or space for your half of the population? I’m still not decided whether I’m going to try and finish the book (or even read halfway). But I’d love to occasionally read some hyped fantasy that isn’t YA or written by George RR Martin, and have female characters show up too. So far, my experiences haven’t been good.

23 comments on “Do books HAVE to have female characters?

  • Lucy , Direct link to comment

    I know what you mean about feeling like you’re being ‘over demanding’, but the thing is, that’s all part of the problem, as you point out. I’ve never heard of this book before, but a bit of googling plus your comments here make it sound pretty awesome, with so many elements that I’d just eat up in a novel (the whole fantasy set in an alternate medieval Venice? Omigod yes please). But the thing is…I don’t want to read it if there aren’t any significant female characters. It actually makes me incredibly angry that it DOESN’T have significant female characters, that a book can be written and lauded and considered part of ‘mainstream fantasy’, and refuse to represent 50% of the population as though we’re completely irrelevant and unnecessary…which terrifyingly, is kind of true anyway because otherwise books like this wouldn’t exist. And sure, maybe people would say that we are being unimaginative by not wanting to read about people ‘like us’, but to be honest, by this point I am just so freaking tired of this being acceptable and unquestioned by people. And it makes me sad that a book like this that sounds so ostensibly awesome is basically ruined by ITS lack of imagination.

    By the way, this comment probably sounds like I’m shouting at you and I’m really not, I completely agree with you! Ugh, it just makes me so so frustrated, and think I really have to get on with writing my own kickass-lady-centric fantasy novel that I’ve been procrastinating over for ages…eek.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      Thank you, you totally nailed what I was feeling but couldn’t figure out how to say. Everything about the book feels so imaginative and wonderful, yet for all its fantastical elements, it couldn’t imagine female characters in its main cast? It’s an assumption based on the first 50 pages, and other people’s comments here suggest that it might be wrong in the long run, but it does seem a general rule for even the best fantasy novels, and it’s SO frustrating.

      Ooo, do write it! We need more lady-centric fantasy around here. 🙂

  • Petra , Direct link to comment

    I don’t want to post any spoilers, but please keep reading. It gets better. Lynch is by no means perfect, but he’s definitely conscious of issues with gender representation and he makes an effort to do better.

    Link: http://naye.dreamwidth.org/936367.html — a writeup by somebody who went to an event with him. Fairly far down they write: “Okay, so as everyone who has read The Lies of Locke Lamora know, it’s different from a lot of other fantasy because not every single background character is a “he”. And how this happened is that Scott was happily writing along, and then it seems he just suddenly looked at his manuscript and realized that he’d defaulted every single random character to male and went Sjklghjks “I’m being an asshole!” (his words, not mine). To fix the fact that he’d been an asshole, he then went back and consequently changed half the background dudes to ladies, and all of a sudden his book totally stands out because of how equal the world is. Even though – again in his own words – The Lies of Locke Lamora is the most masculine of his books, and one that only barely passes the Bechdel test.”

    I can’t promise you’ll love it, but I’d really love to read your thoughts if you finish it (and the next two)! I’ve found a lot of food for thought here since I found your blog a few months ago, so thank you for that. 🙂

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      That’s really interesting, and I have to respect him for responding like that. I think it’s an easy trap for a writer to fall into, especially a male writer. If all the other novels are like that, it just seems like part of the default fantasy world, and you probably do have to make a special effort to escape it. You’ve definitely intrigued me to read more! The one problem with fantasy series is how darn *long* they are, and as they often start off slow (at least to me… my brain always seems to have trouble getting into new fantasy worlds!), it’s often a struggle to figure out whether slogging through the beginning is going to be worth it. But everyone is saying “yes,” so I’m going to persevere, with Book 1 at least! 🙂 (And write about it when I’m done — thanks so much for saying you’d love to read my thoughts. It really means a lot to me!)

  • M.C , Direct link to comment

    I think there’s nothing wrong with having a book/show/film that is 100% about men. The only problem is: those kind of stories bore me. No matter how clever the plot, how well written, how beautifull the cinematography,… Stories that lack at least 1 prominent female character (who doesn’t get killed off) can’t pull me in. I liked them as a kid, but the older I get the more I long for stories that are front and center about a female protagonist. I suppose that’s one of the reasons why I’m in my 20s and love reading YA novels – because those are the ones where you get your female rebels, warriors, sorcerers, food tasters,…
    I couldn’t even make myself watch The Hobbit because of all the testosteron.

    The writing of ASoIaF is absolutely brilliant, but I still prefer Kristen Britain’s Green Rider saga that is like a high-fantasy version of ASoIaF but 80% of the books are from the POV of women.

    btw: I think Jim C Hines Princess Series counts as being 99% about women. All the heroes are women, so are the villains, and even the important love interests are women. Not everyone in the series is gay, mind you. We have 3 heroes: Danielle, Snow and Talia. Danielle is married to a man, Snow has lots of ONS with men, but the only hero who gets an on-page love story is Talia who is gay. Actually Talia even gets 3 love stories: her first girlfriend, her great unrequitted love, and the woman she finally ends up with.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      I’m exactly the same. I read a lot of YA because I can pretty much guarantee there’s going to be a female protagonist, or at least important female characters, and it’s always jarring when I move beyond that and find that women are often kind of *missing*. I think I’ve seen the Green Rider saga shelved as YA before — maybe the female protagonists have something to do with it. I’ll have to add it to my reading list!

      Is Jim C Hines the author who tried to recreate women’s poses on fantasy covers? I should definitely check out his stuff. Ahh, there are always so many good books to read — which is one reason I was reluctant to continue with the epic tome of Locke Lamora and potentially be disappointed, when I could use the time to read something that actually has women in it!

      • M.C , Direct link to comment

        You’ve seen Green Rider shelved as YA? That’s really strange. Maybe they thought main heroine in her 20s = YA, but that’s so… they obviously didn’t read the books. Maybe book 1 could barely count as YA, since it closely follows our young heroine and contains not that much violence and sex (though it gets pretty intense at some times).
        Still, as soon as you reach book 2 it becomes obvious that this is not YA. We get more and more older POV characters, the plot has some light moments, but mostly it’s pretty dark (and gets darker with every book), graphic violence and a pretty graphic rape scene (woman on man btw).
        The wole series is basically about this spoiled merchant’s daughter, who lived a typical YA fantasy heroine life, until she was called into service as one of the King’s messengers. And then her whole world starts crumbling down around her. All she wants is to go home, but she gets caught up in a war she never wanted to be part of, suffers greatly in her duty and and has to watch her friends die. ‘She gets caught up in court politics where she is worth nothing because she’s not a noble, but everybody tries to use her. And then there’s this magical component that draws her deeper and deeper into darkness and insanity.
        Ugh, I could talk for hours about how much I love GR. If you like ASoIaF and wish it was more female centric, then you should definitely check out GR. Also the setting is more female-friendly, we have female Riders, female soldiers, female singers, the future queen, rich prostitutes who build a shelter for homeless kids, the big female villain…

        Yes, Jim C Hines is the one who recreated those poses *g* I haven’t read anything by him except for the Princess Series (starting with The Stepsister’s Scheme), which is awesome and gets even more awesome with every book. The last one – The Snow Queen’s Shadow – is one of my all time favourite books.

        • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

          YA and adult fiction seem to get mixed up a lot in the UK… a lot of YA contemporary novels end up in adult fiction, but then some adult fantasy ends up in YA. It’s all very weird.

          GR sounds SO GOOD! Thanks for the rec — I’m going to have to hunt down the first book now.

  • Existential Crisis Factory , Direct link to comment

    I completely agree with you in general, but I would actually suggest sticking it out with this *particular* book. The Lies of Locke Lamora is an excellent novel, and the next two books in the series are, in my opinion, even better–probably because they are actually full of great female characters. They aren’t without their problems, but definitely worth it if you can make it through the first book.

    I’d also say that there’s definitely a place for stories about men and men’s relationships with each other, just as there is a place for stories about women and their relationships with each other. I’m seldom interested anymore in books that are primarily about men, but if I do pick something like that up, I’m less concerned with there being 50% women in the story than I am with the WAYS that women exist in the story. I don’t want to read anymore about 15 dudes going on a quest together in a world where they don’t even meet a woman (like, say, the Hobbit), but I don’t mind sometimes reading a book that is primarily about two men in which they meet and interact with women who are interesting and diverse characters in their own right (The Lies of Locke Lamora is this sort of book, or at least this sort of series). I feel like there’s a big difference between creating a fantasy world in which women don’t exist and creating a rich and diverse fantasy world and telling a story that happens to focus on two men.

    Also, if you want grown-up fantasy with great women characters, I’d highly suggest reading the work of Catherynne M. Valente, N.K. Jemisin, and Nnedi Okorafor. It really is too bad that so much fantasy by and for women gets shuffled off to the YA section, but there are some great newer authors to be found if you don’t mind looking.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      That’s a very good point. I think it only becomes a problem as the main cast grows. Two male protagonists is fine, as long as there are women in the world around them (who doesn’t just exist for the guys’ angst or whatever), but if all the POV characters of A Song of Ice and Fire were male, that’d be incredibly problematic. And of course there’s the problem that fantasy novels are so LONG — the promise of cool characters turning up halfway through can be a problem when it’s 300 pages away! But I’ve definitely been convinced to continue with Locke Lamora. The writing is very good otherwise, and I’m intrigued to see what has gripped everyone else!

      And thanks for the book recs! I’d vowed to work through some of the books already on my shelf before I bought any more, but I’m really eager to check these out!

  • Bryan , Direct link to comment

    Like stated before, please keep reding or you’ll miss something really important. Trust the series as a whole (as far as it’s been published)
    I can’t add more or any Lamora reader will hate me. Please, give it a chance.
    I’m just the last of readers, but bear with Locke. He’s a good guy after all.

      • Bryan , Direct link to comment

        I heaved in relief to this answer. Hope to hear more from you at the end of the adventure.
        Let me take the opportunity to thank you for your articles, it’s always a pleasure to come to feministfiction. I don’t usually leave comments, but this time I felt the need to, due to the energy Locke had on my esperience as a reader. Though silent, be sure you have a loyal reader.

        • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

          Thank you so much! I’m really looking forward to seeing where Locke Lamora takes me now — everyone seems SO enthusiastic about it. 🙂

  • tinyorc , Direct link to comment

    I don’t think there would be anything wrong with having a book that are 100% entirely about men if we lived in a gender neutral world where there are also lots of mainstream hyped-up novels that are 100% entirely about women and the majority of mainstream genre fiction is pretty evenly split between women and men in active, story-driving roles.

    But, as you point out, this is not the world we live in.

    It’s funny, whenever I read a blog post or an article calling for better representation of women (or PoC or queer folk) in Pop Culture of Choice, someone inevitably pops up to be like “But you can’t just randomly make characters female or black or whatever! That would be so FORCED. There has to be a REASON.”

    But to me, it seems pretty goddamned forced to create a world with no visible women. In this day and age, if your story is going to be completely male-centric, you better have a pretty goddamned solid narrative reason for it. Otherwise, it’s just pure laziness.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      Yes, exactly! Shouldn’t the fact that people who aren’t white male *exist* be reason enough for diverse characters? If you say you have to have a “reason” for diversity, you’re setting yourself up to only have stereotypical or two-dimensional female or non-white characters… because the most convincing “reason” would probably be the need for a character to play a stereotypical role.

      • Existential Crisis Factory , Direct link to comment

        Ugh. This, exactly.

        And writers who act as if they just can’t possibly be expected to write about someone who isn’t what they consider “normal.” As if women or POC are some kind of incomprehensible aliens that it’s just so hard to write them “right.” This is especially absurd in a fantasy world where writers don’t really have to explore any real world issues like racism or sexism. They can literally just fantasize about a world where women and POC are treated the same as everyone else and avoid a lot of those issues (and goodness knows, we not white dudes folk wouldn’t mind that fantasy, either).

  • Ametra , Direct link to comment

    I understand what you are saying about the lack of female characters, but women do it as, well. Create a story where men are in the background or niche. It does happen, not as often. Now men end to this more often, because it is how they view the world. That is the problem, how they view the world. Or wish to view the world. I have read a few stories by an author who writes beautiful, and though her world is set in a fantasy realm, it is often uncomfortable to read. Not because there are not women, but that the women like me and men in general are not found. They move in shadow are not there, have little to no voice. I enjoy the stories enough and have seen a bit of maturity in the author’s writing to hope that this will change. Back on topic, it is all in view point our versus theirs.

  • mark , Direct link to comment

    I love the Lies of Locke Lamora. Its a great read and I never noticed the lack of female characters. Looking back, I think there is one supporting female character with a small role in the first novel and the ex girlfriend that is only mentioned. Its like Ocean’s 11 without the Julia Roberts character. It would make sense for there to be more female characters in the Lies of Locke Lamora though since the gentlemen bastards are a group of con men. Having women in their group would’ve allowed them more range in their cons.

    Does a novel have to have female/male characters? No so long as it still manages to be entertaining. Like Orange is the new black would still work without the Jason Biggs character (he can be the boyfriend who is occasionally mentioned or seen in a flashback).

  • Matthew Brown , Direct link to comment

    “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book whose characters are 100% women”

    I can think of one that maybe I shouldn’t mention since it’s my own work. Porcelain Society takes place in a fantasy world there are literally no males at all. I did not write an entirely female work for sake of making a point. I did it only because that’s what the story was.

    If I write or read any story that is centrally or even entirely male, it won’t bother me greatly. I notice a lot of commenters here suggesting that you continue reading The Lies of Locke Lamora. I couldn’t say one way or the other because I haven’t read it myself. I have read The Hobbit though, and I have always loved and I will always love it. Some people might set my viewpoint aside for that, I know. The Hobbit isn’t usually considered a mature piece of work. It was singled out by other commenters here though, so I’ll defend it. If the story doesn’t appeal to you, that’s fine. Don’t be too concerned with the fact that a troop of adventurers are entirely male. I’ve read plenty of times now, usually from women, that token female characters are worse than no female characters at all. I agree with that entirely.

    It doesn’t matter that some books are so heavily masculine. If the story is that good, then a lack of female or male characters is incidental. Equality in the workplace, equality in government, these are conversations. Equality in fiction? I’m not concerned. Or at least I’m not terribly concerned. If I have any complaint at all, I won’t level it at any one specific work. Instead, I’ll notice the truth of the generalization that vast amounts of novels lack female characters. Because I tend to view fiction one piece at a time, it’s only an annoyance to me, not a serious issue.

  • Nick , Direct link to comment

    Yes, keep reading the books. Here’s actually a quote from Scott Lynch responding to a commenter concerning a character you’ll meet in book 2, “I’m not beholden to the confirmation of your prejudices; to be perfectly frank, the prospect of confining the female characters in my story to placid, helpless secondary places in the narrative is so ******* boring that I would rather not write at all.”

  • Emily , Direct link to comment

    To be honest, it depends on the book. In ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’, most male characters are painted as weak or bad, none are particularly significant.. however I think this is an interesting book, not just because its a feminist statement but because it is a significant aspect of the plot development, and shows female interaction. So if a book has few or no female characters, I dont particularly care, because it may be presenting a different message, that is portrayed only between specific groups of people within the novel. I dont particularly see gender in a novel unless it serves a purpose, and I engage and identify with any gender protagonist. I <3 the hobbit because I love fantasy, and if I want to write a book about only women, then everyone has the freedom to write about whoever they want.

What do you think?

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