Yet More on Female Characters in Fantasy

While I was off enjoying my winter break, the conversation on female characters in fantasy rumbled on. Lots of perspectives were expressed, Mark Lawrence weighed in again on Reddit, and Robin Hobb even expressed her opinions on Facebook. (Robin Hobb!!) Her Facebook post is here, but as its fairly short, I'm going to quote the whole thing below:

Hm. Elsewhere on Facebook and Twitter today, I encountered a discussion about female characters in books. Some felt that every story must have some female characters in it. Others said there were stories in which there were no female characters and they worked just fine. There was no mention that I could find of whether or not it would be okay to write a story with no male characters.

But it has me pondering this. How important is your gender to you? Is it the most important thing about you? If you met someone online in a situation in which a screen name is all that can be seen, do you first introduce yourself by announcing your gender? Or would you say "I'm a writer" or "I'm a Libertarian" or "My favorite color is yellow" or "I was adopted at birth." If you must define yourself by sorting yourself into a box, is gender the first one you choose?

If it is, why?

I do not feel that gender defines a person any more than height does. Or shoe size. It's one facet of a character. One. And I personally believe it is unlikely to be the most important thing about you.

If I were writing a story about you, would it be essential that I mentioned your gender? Your age? Your 'race'? (A word that is mostly worthless in biological terms.) Your religion? Or would the story be about something you did, or felt, or caused?

Here's the story of my day:

Today I skipped breakfast, worked on a book, chopped some blackberry vines that were blocking my stream, teased my dog, made a turkey sandwich with mayo, sprouts, and cranberry sauce on sourdough bread, drank a pot of coffee by myself, ate more Panettone than I should have. I spent more time on Twitter and Facebook than I should have, talking to friends I know mostly as pixels on a screen. Tonight I will write more words, work on a jigsaw puzzle and venture deeper into Red Country. I will share my half of the bed with a dog and a large cat.

None of that depended on my gender.

I've begun to feel that any time I put anyone into any sorting box, I've lessened them by defining them in a very limited way. I do not think my readers are so limited as to say, 'Well, there was no 33 year old blond left-handed short dyslexic people in this story, so I had no one to identify with." I don't think we read stories to read about people who are exactly like us. I think we read to step into a different skin and experience a tale as that character. So I've been an old black tailor and a princess on a glass mountain and a hawk and a mighty thewed barbarian warrior.

So if I write a story about three characters, I acknowledge no requirement to make one female, or one a different color or one older or one of (choose a random classification.) I'm going to allow in the characters that make the story the most compelling tale I can imagine and follow them.

I hope you'll come with me.

First of all, let me be clear: no one is asking that every single book follow an arbitrary quota or required ratio of male characters to female characters, or of characters of different ethnicities. As people have pointed out, that would make no sense -- how would a book about an all boys' school, or an all girls' school, fit that quota? Can a book set in Japan have the same racial diversity as a book set in the US? Obviously, the diversity of the cast depends on the setting of the book and, to some extent, the story that you want to tell. However, readers and writers are asking for realistic diversity, and for balance across the fantasy genre as a whole.

I'm reading Name of the Wind right now, and I'm loving it. But I'm 70 tiny-font pages into the story, and the only female character who's had a line so far is the protagonist's mother. The protagonist, his apprentice, the famed Chronicler he's speaking to, the travellers we encounter, the regulars at the inn, the town officials, the arcanist who teaches the protagonist... every one of them is male. And although the writing is fantastic, it is slightly odd that I've met at least 20 characters so far, and the only one who was female had to be female, because she was the protagonist's mother. Significant female characters may appear later in the book, and I hope they do, but so far the world feels male by default. And the fact that this is standard across the fantasy genre is a problem.

Robin Hobb comments that no one has been discussing whether it would be all right to have a book without any male characters. I think that answer is both "yes" and "no," but the question itself is irrelevant and missing the point of the conversation. Yes, it would be OK to have a book without male characters if the book were in a setting where no guys would logically show up. No, it would not be OK if male characters were routinely forgotten in fantasy, or if it would seem unnatural for there to be no men at all -- just like with female characters. But in my experience, the question is entirely theoretical. Imagine a book where in 70 pages, we meet the protagonist, their apprentice, a Chronicler, many travellers and customers at an inn, town officials, an arcanist... and every single one of them was female. Imagine a group of nine travelling companions, meant to represent all of a world, who are all female. Imagine a group of fourteen travelling companions, who meet many people on their adventure, and every single person named or encountered is a woman.

It sounds laughable just to write it. And why? Women are, after all, over 50% of the population. Why does it seem natural to never meet a woman on an adventure, and ridiculous to imagine never meeting a man, when the book is set in a fantasy world that can make its own rules? That's why people talk about including more female characters, but not more male characters. Female characters rarely if ever dominate fantasy novels. Male characters dominate so many fantasy novels that the lack of women feels entirely natural, despite the fact that it doesn't make any sense.

Hobb, however, suggests that this discrepancy is OK, because gender and race don't really matter when defining a character. They don't have any more impact on who a character is, or how we can relate to them, than a character's hair color or left-handedness. And yes, gender and race shouldn't define characters. But gender and race do matter, in our world at least. People can decide that they don't define themselves by their gender or their race, but society as a whole will continue to do so. Studies have suggested that representation in stories and in media can have a huge impact on a person's self esteem, and also on how they're perceived by others. More representation means less stereotyping and more understanding in real life. "I don't think we read stories to read about people exactly like us," Hobb says, and we don't. But sometimes people need to read stories about people similar to themselves, to help themselves get through difficult times, to inspire them, to give them role models and tell them that "yes, some people will say you are lesser, but look how wrong they are. Look at all you could do."

And yes, fiction is about stepping into other people's shoes, but right now those shoes are almost exclusively the shoes of white men. Why are women and minorities expected to suck it up and always take the leap of putting themselves into the mind of someone of a different race or gender, while white male readers see themselves reflected in book after book? Surely, if fiction is about stepping into other people's shoes, that's an argument for more diversity, not for maintaining the fantasy status quo. Female readers should have the same opportunities as male readers -- not to completely dominate a story to the point of ridiculousness, but to see their gender exist, to be important, to be protagonists and antagonists and helpers and random customers in inns. And male readers should be able to step into their shoes and see female characters in those roles.

To be honest, I don't understand why this is an unreasonable or restrictive request. If books are meant to tell the truth, as CS Lewis advised, then this is far more truthful than an all-male world. If books are meant to show readers different worlds and perspective, then more diversity is important. And if the idea of thinking about the balance of male and female characters, and the reasons for that breakdown, seems too onerous or like it breaks the "flow" and freedom of writing, then writers should remember that they are responsible for every word they publish, and that "flow" has nothing to do with a process that, by its very nature, requires a lot of rethinking and rewriting. There is no "flow" of opening a word document, typing until you're done and sending off to the printers. There is always editing. And if writers can edit to take out the dud chapters, or tighten the story, or add or take away characters or subplots, they can edit to have female characters appear in the world.

Because if gender and race aren't important in defining characters, then surely they can be easily changed to more accurately reflect reality. Right?