Do books HAVE to have female characters?

Locke-Lamora-UK

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.