Depictions of female characters in fantasy: a rant

“What’s one thing you’d like to see improved in the way women are depicted in fantasy?”

It’s a pretty great question and one I ran into on Twitter the other day.[1]

There were a lot of great answers:

  • Power being shown in ways that are different to physical strength
  • Less focus on romantic relationships, or a broader spectrum of interest in romantic relationships
  • Less focus on physical size, appearance and sexualisation in general
  • A bigger range of roles

I had two thoughts straight away:

  1. The female character being exceptional for being good at something – that girls can’t normally do what she can do
  2. A lack of diversity in the wider cast – a lack of background characters who are female, or a lack of background characters who are not in traditionally female roles.

This thinking, being asked to put the idea in as many words, stuck with me for the whole day and a good portion of the morning after. Being asked to put my frustrations about how women are depicted in fiction into as many words – into 140 characters – crystallised the ideas for me. And I wanted to rant about it.

I have a blog for exactly these sorts of thoughts. The ones that bug me for days.

Female characters being good at something is exceptional

If your female character can do something “as good as the boys” or “no girl has ever been able to do that”, rather than that being empowering or a sign that you’ve created a strong female character[2] you’ve actually reinforced the idea that female characters can’t do what the males in that world do as standard.

It assumes that female characters can’t, shouldn’t, or otherwise are excluded from the activity. It makes the character who can an exception rather than the rule, and that isn’t ideal. It’s telling female readers that they have to be special or unique in order to do what the character is doing. That being the hero of the story or driving your own story is for some female characters, and then only if they’re able to do things that other women can’t do and if they are as good as or better than the men at something (which men in-world are all allowed to do, with a wider range of acceptable skill levels).

I’d argue part of the universal appeal of Harry Potter and particularly its female fanbase is that there was so much gender neutrality in the world. Witches and Wizards were both learning the same things, equally qualified to do anything they showed aptitude for or interest in and able to go off in whatever direction into the world they chose. Don’t make your female lead the only female in your world who can do that! Let your female readers buy-in, too.

I want to see more female characters being good at a range of things as default. There’s nothing wrong with having a protagonist being the chosen one or better than everyone else or otherwise special – fantasy narratives are built on this trope and it’s not inherently evil. It’s just evil if the only way for a female character to be included in the interesting stuff happening in the world is because she’s special/better than others/otherwise distinguishing herself from others of her gender in this regard and therefore allowed to be included. Her inclusion should be default and her special-ness or exceptional-ness should be notable for its own sake, not because it raises her up to an acceptable male standard of something.

A lack of diversity in the wider cast[3]

I also think it’s important to see women in a variety of roles in a world, not just the standard gender roles of maids/cooks/wives/washing women/bar wenches etc. I want to see females in as many varied roles as we see male characters in. I want it to be an expectation in the worlds I build that any role can be done by any person with inclination or ability. I want my readers to experience that as standard from top to bottom and allow my female characters as much range of expression and opportunity to exist as male characters do.

For example: if a female character is the only one we see doing Important Stuff and the rest are male? Fail. Big fail. Again, it sets up as standard expectation that men are allowed to be in those decision-making, running things roles and that our female character is an exception in being there. That’s not the sort of world-building I can get behind. I want to see a range of female characters in addition to main cast in a range of roles, just like we see male characters. I want them making decisions, and living their lives.

If you’ve gone to the trouble to think that a female main character is important and it’s important that she’s strong and well-rounded, think about where she may have come from and what world is around her that supports her actions. Because if you’re setting her up as the only strong, capable woman in the village you may as well not have bothered. Make her one of many.

One of my favourite scenes in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, was when the X-Wings were prepping for take-off from the Resistance base. In the background there was a lot of actors running around and doing things to make the scene feel real and full. There were people guiding the X-Wings in, there were people refuelling or working on the X-Wings, there were people carrying things.

And those people? Those background people? A lot of them were women.

I want to see those women. Show me the woman refuelling the X-Wing and I’ll believe your female pilots are there as a standard thing in the world and not just ticking a box for a producer. Show me that in that universe I could do whatever I wanted, just like guys have always been able to dream about.

One strong female character in a world isn’t enough. Let your female characters be examples of what is possible for people in your fantasy world. Make it seem like it’s normal for her to be doing that – don’t question her, don’t make her prove how she’s different or why she can when it’s normally not allowed. Make it normal, make it pervasive. You’ll end up with much better worlds, representation, and characterisation.

In short: don’t set up your world to contradict her existence.


[1] There was also a follow-up discussion about what people want to see more of from female warriors in fantasy. Check out #femalesinfantasy

[2] Strong Female Character (TM)

[3] For those playing at home, Scott Lynch has a lot to say on the subject of background characters and I’ve found it valuable to consider for my writing. You can read it here.


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