Last week, fantasy author Mark Lawrence had a moment of reflection on his blog to celebrate getting 30,000 ratings for his book, Prince of Thorns, on Goodreads. And although Lawrence takes time to tell us about all the praise his debut received, the bulk of his post focuses on criticizing those darn feminist reviewers for pointing out that his series is kind of lacking in female characters. Now, I'm not one of those reviewers. I've never read his series, and this apparent lack of female characters suggests that it wouldn't be my cup of tea anyway. But there's something incredibly distasteful in "celebrating" a milestone in a book's success by flippantly quoting reviewers who point out the lack of an engaging female presence in the book, as though to say "haha, look how wrong you were." Not about the lack of an engaging female presence, I'm assuming, but about the idea that a book needs female characters to be successful.
First of all, this isn't exactly a surprising coup on the author's part. People point out the lack of female characters in popular fantasy series precisely because so many fantasy series succeed without including female characters. The Fellowship of the Ring is, after all, a group that is meant to represent all of Middle Earth, and is made up of nine male characters. And Mark Lawrence's arguments for why these critics are wrong really strongly demonstrate the problems that are still inherent in the fantasy genre when it comes to women.
Lawrence argues that it's unreasonable to demands "major roles for female characters in every book, no matter what it's about, no matter what the scope, or the length of the book." He points out that his novel is only 1/5th as long as A Dance with Dragons - about 85,000 words, aka the length of a typical novel, if not quite a fantasy tome. It's told from a single point of view over a period of three weeks, the majority spent in the wild with a "band of murdering thugs." He simply couldn't shoe-horn female characters in there.
So. A novel has to be 422,000 words long before it has space for a female character to do anything important or interesting. Male protagonists must go through more than three weeks of their story before they encounter female characters who have significant roles in their story. And women are definitely never part of bands of murdering thugs. Sure, there's no sign of any kind of population issues in these fantasy novels. There's assumedly an equal number of men and women. But the men never seem to encounter them, at least not doing anything interesting.
Make no mistake, a lack of engaging female characters is a choice, albeit sometimes an unconscious one. It's a choice to have a whole band of murdering thugs be male. It's a choice to have the chief antagonist be male. It's a choice to give all positions of authority to men, and to make men the ones who significantly challenge or help the protagonist along the way. Nowhere is this more true than fantasy, where things like "historical accuracy" and "societal expectations" don't apply. No matter how much a book's world borrows from medieval history, it is a world built entirely from scratch that can have any rules or societal structure the author pleases. If women are left out of that structure, if they have nothing interesting to do... that is very much the author's choice, whether the author sees it or not.
And Mark Lawrence clearly made that choice and defends it. He suggests wanting female characters in a story is an issue of taste, like wanting your books to contain "plucky young wizards" or "Machiavellian politics." But having women do interesting things in your novel is not the same as including a certain plot trope or tone or approaching the story from a particular angle. The fact that Lawrence thinks of the inclusion of female characters as a similar choice, a similar niche preference, is really indicative of the problem of sexism in fantasy as a whole. Women are not one of the elements in a writer's bucket of plot points and tropes. They're people, just like men, and they should appear as easily in a story as men do.
This isn't to say that authors can't explore a misogynistic or patriarchal society in fantasy. But that choice should be made for a reason, and if you don't have any female characters around to react to that society and accept or struggle against it, that choice has done nothing for the novel except make it appear lazy, a fantasy trapped in our own world.
And yes, sometimes stories necessitate a lack of female characters. A good example would be Castaway, where the male protagonist's only friend for most of the movie is a volleyball. But make no mistake. If a novel is about a character interacting with a group or with society in some way, rather than a story of isolation, then there is no need to "shoe horn" women in. They should already be there, and their absence is either suggests a failure of imagination, or a failure to care. Both are pretty significant failings for any novelist to have.