Fantasy - a male preserve?

Discussion in 'Fantasy Authors' started by Sherwood Smith, Sep 3, 2013.

  1. Sherwood Smith

    Sherwood Smith A farm boy with a sword

    As the female half of a fantasy writing partnership (The Vispadjinn by Sherwood H Smith) I am intrigued as to why it seems that mainly males both read and write the fantasy genre. Is it because the books are often action/plot predominant with less emphasis on character/emotions? Are fantasy novels written by female authors different? Can you tell the gender of the author if the name doesn't give it away?
    I always hate to confirm a stereotype but in our partnership my preserve has been mainly to deepen the characters, introduce some empathy etc. I have to admit that although I enjoy reading fantasy(as well as writing it!) I certainly don't read it to the exclusion of all else. That may be because in my other life I'm a teacher so have to read a lot of classic novels.
    I'd be fascinated to get others' views on this.
  2. Sneaky Burrito

    Sneaky Burrito Crazy Cat Lady Staff Member

    I have never actually encountered a fantasy novel where I didn't know the gender of the author going in. I think the experiment could certainly be done -- give a handful of people a manuscript without the author's name attached (couldn't be a finished book, too many clues -- i.e., C.S. Friedman's picture is on the back, so the gender-neutral initials wouldn't help). Have them read it, then get their overall impressions. Alternatively, tell one set that the author is male and tell the other set that the author is female.

    I am less inclined to be emotional about books or to give a crap about relationships, but maybe that's just me. (I'm a woman.) I do think many male authors have trouble writing believable female characters (either they're always pulling their braids or they're basically just men with female appearances). But other male authors do a good job.

    I do mostly read fantasy and the occasional mystery or classic novel. Ah well, I should probably get some work done now, seeing as I'm sitting in my office posting in online forums...
  3. epicfantasyfreak

    epicfantasyfreak Journeyed there and back again

    I've seen lots of female fantasy writers' novels up on the shelves at the library, but there is definitely a larger male presence in the genre, and I personally haven't read many fantasy novels written by women. No reason on my part other than I don't see many of those novels highly recommended - mostly here at bestfantasybooks.

    One thing I know for certain on this issue is that if you like Guy Gavriel Kay, you will almost certainly like Lois McMaster Bujold - and vice versa. I've read her Chalion series and read nearly all of Kay's stuff and their writing styles are very similar. Lois doesn't have as strong of a historical basis as Kay does in most of his novels though. Personally, I love both authors and don't care one bit about either one's sex organs.

    It wouldn't surprise me to learn that a lot of female fantasy writers get pushed into the Romance section by publishers and marketers - perhaps because female writers do write different types of fantasy, more focused on the character's inner struggles, emotions and relationships with other characters. I don't know, I'm just throwing a random thought out there with that one really. Perhaps it's just been shown that female names don't do well when marketed as fantasy so they just get pushed into general fiction or elsewhere - again, don't know, just tossing it out there.

    That would indeed be an interesting experiment, one I'd like to see.

    I'd be interested to learn your (Sneaky) and other (especially female) posters' opinion on who writes women well and who doesn't. Also, specific examples of what you consider to be believable female characters and/or unbelievable female characters would be a nice bonus (no need to mention Jordan here, though technically you already did, I'm sure even the WoT fanatics can agree that didn't go so well). For extra points - what exactly makes a female character believable - what's your checklist?
  4. Sneaky Burrito

    Sneaky Burrito Crazy Cat Lady Staff Member

    I'm going to have to come back to this because I have very little time right now. I actually think some of GRRM's female characters are believable. I see why Cersei and Catelyn Stark are the way they are. Also, someone who doesn't get talked about here, Bradley P. Beaulieu, writes good women -- especially in his first book, The Winds of Khalakovo. But more on this from me later tonight or tomorrow, I've got somewhere I need to get going to!
  5. Amaryllis

    Amaryllis Journeyed there and back again

    Disclaimer: Okay, first of all, I'm not a woman (*the internet gasps in disbelief*), so I obviously can't speak for one. Any of you with those vaunted ladyparts and a real perspective can feel free to correct me here on anything. I'm not trying to bull in on the topic.

    It is, however, something that is very interesting to me. Characters are very important to me, even in fantasy, to the point that I will abandon a book or series straight up if I don't like any of the characters in it, or at least find them intriguing enough to be curious about. I try to study characters, and the way different people write them, what's good, what's bad, etc.

    I think it's a reasonable 'stereotype' that women write characters better than men IN GENERAL, because they are able to empathize better. The empathy is extremely important, moreso (assuming that you're going for a deep character) than coming up with a wicked cool history for the character, or just being a good prose writer. It's kind of a corrolary to this that that women write men better than men write women. I do think this is true (IN GENERAL) as well. But I think both of these assumptions are overblown to a degree, due to prejudices, in the same manner that any American actor who tries one of the UK accents will be slammed mercilessly for it no matter if they do it well or not (compare Forest Whitaker in The Crying Game or Claire Danes from Stardust to Keanu Reeves in Dracula), because it's just a way of being elitist, and that's what people often want to do.

    I absolutely can tell the difference between Guy Gavriel Kay and Lois McMaster Bujold. I haven't read the entire library of either. I've only read The Fionavar Tapestry, The Last Light of the Sun and Tigana by Kay (I haven't read any GGK since Tigana), and I've only read the Chalion books by LMB (largely because that's all that Barnes and Noble ever seems to carry, and I'm lazy about ordering online). Bujold is most definitely up there among my favorite authors, and a huge reason for that is her characters. She doesn't judge them, she doesn't patronize them, and she doesn't drop suggestions as to how you should feel about them (even when they are villains). GGK definitely injects himself into the narrative, definitely has clear biases, and definitely tries to manipulate you. All I can tell from Bujold's writing is that she is probably a fan of regency literature and those old fashioned romance novels. That's very vague. With Kay, I can tell he's trying to appeal to modern standards with his 'liberated' women and that he is almost certainly a malesub kind of guy in his private life. Should I be able to sniff that out of his prose without stalking the dude? For the record here, I'm not trying to say anyone is wrong for liking anybody here, and they do write relatively similar 'off-medieval' fantasy-history pieces, which is probably a pretty small sub-subgenre. This is all in my spiel about characters.

    In going with what Sneaky said, GRRM is also a guy who doesn't patronize his characters (although in the later installments of ASoIaF, I'm getting the impression that he's patronizing his audience). When I got to the part in GoT where Catelyn tells Jon "I wish this had been you instead," I strongly suspected she was being set up to be bad. But no. She leads her own life that is often free of thoughts as to how she could best be evil, which is the status quo of the villain narrative, even in so called gritty 'realistic' fantasy (often dressed up as 'people think I'm evil because [description of completely horrific actions and my flimsy rationale for them], and I'm willing to let them think so, but I'M NOT'). It says something that Catelyn is frequently still seen as a protagonist and 'good guy' despite being almost no different from early-series Cersei except in the side she was on. As such, it doesn't surprise me that GRRM is frequently praised by a lot of female readers.

    On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have Brandon Sanderson, who in general is a great teller of tales, but is absolutely horrible at this. Particularly with women. I'm no woman to be saying this, but dang. His women are either plum indistinguishable from men (which is incidentally the advice you are most likely to get as to how to write them if you go looking), or they are empowered feminists with a fairly narrow ideology who espouse modern ideals to generate reader sympathy. And yeah, 'empowered,' but it's very much a patronizing sort of empowered. The woman is empowered at the good graces of this male author, and boy does this subtext scream at you from between the lines. His other characters get this treatment too, particularly if they are anyone other than the very clear MAIN HERO, but it's particularly gratuitous for his female characters (and his villains).

    As to the skewing of ability to write characters, I do think empathy plays a big part, but I think another huge part of the problem (in that fantasy is both largely male oriented and male dominated) is that there is very little precedent for help on how to write good female characters as a guy. A lady looking to write a good male character can get a lot of tips by reading the sort of novel/series she wishes to write. A guy looking to do the opposite...well, good fucking luck. It's hard to even get the kind of volume of exposure that will teach you, because female characters tend to be kind of bad, even in critically acclaimed series'.
  6. Sherwood Smith

    Sherwood Smith A farm boy with a sword

    Wow, thanks for all those really interesting replies. What is intriguing is that I posted a similar thread on another fantasy forum and got a totally different response! They were adamant that the split was 50/50 and it was only the perception that men dominated this genre. I think there was a suggestion that certain sub-genres of fantasy might be more male dominated.
    I think the points about writing characters is spot on. It's definitely easier for a woman to write a male character(or even write as a male character) than vice versa. look no further than Hilary Mantel's award winning Wolf Hall and Bringing up the Bodies where she gets right inside Thomas Cromwell's head.
    Certainly my writing partner was very clear that it was his own perceived lack of empathy that meant he needed my input for that part of our book.
    I love the idea of a controlled test - there must be a psychology student out there searching for a MSc thesis subject!
  7. AyameMajikku

    AyameMajikku Stood on the wall with Druss

    Well, I don't have any specific examples, but women in media in general tend to get the short end of the stick, I think. It's getting better now, but... There's still a lot of preconceived notions people don't even realize they have. One is likely that women write more of romance, though I think that's because of the empathy thing. And, some of my female friends and I are huge romantics, so we always like seeing a good couple get together on the side of whatever's going on. Even so, the plot comes first--it needs to be good.

    One place I've noticed a huge problem, though, is in the way people take female characters in media. Not any of you (I hope)--I've noticed that you all evaluate characters fairly... but there are many who can only see on the surface and not the hidden depths. I've seen so many female characters hated for... well, being female. Getting the guy, being emotional at times, being too nice, etc. And likewise, I've seen male characters hated for being "too girly".

    I know this derives some from the writing side, but it's possible these preconceived notions in some fans are in some writers as well. After all, we're all only human--and I'm sure they love and hate characters from their favorite novels as well for whatever well thought-out or perhaps silly reasons.

    Oh right, and for what makes a female character believable... I think it's honestly the same as what makes a male character believable--they need depth. Going further than that, though... I wouldn't be able to say. ^^' There are so many different types of females, really... For me, it's something that I feel--it's that empathy thing again. Though, I haven't done many critiques, so it's difficult for me to really narrow down what people are doing wrong with females.
  8. epicfantasyfreak

    epicfantasyfreak Journeyed there and back again

    LMB hasn't written much fantasy anyway, mostly sci-fi. The Spirit Ring was her first, then the Chalion series, and now The Sharing Knife series. Only 8 novels compared to her ridiculous number of sci-fi books. As for Kay trying to manipulate your feelings on various characters, I've never really noticed that, and will be on the lookout for it as I finish up his catalog of books.

    :peeking: - I thought I was clear about it in my first post, but just to clarify, I'm also male and am just getting involved here because, as an aspiring writer, I want to be one of those guys that get their female characters right. Thus, the reason I posted this:
  9. Sneaky Burrito

    Sneaky Burrito Crazy Cat Lady Staff Member

    I think a lot of Sanderson's female characters are, like, the same character. Vin, what's-her-face from Elantris, the two sisters from Warbreaker, etc.

    This makes sense to me. Another thing I would add is that it's important for the character to stay believably within his/her gender role as it's defined for the society that's being written. That's not to say a woman can never fight: again with GRRM, we have Brienne, or maybe even Arya. But they're remarked upon because they're unusual, and they're damned determined to succeed (and maybe, like Brienne, they don't really fit into what would've been the normally-expected social role). In Arya's case, she was helped along by Jon Snow who gave her Needle, her father who hired a swordfighting instructor, etc.

    By contrast, let's say we have a book (not naming any names) set in either a conservative Islamic-style society or in an adaptation of such a society. While the female presence may be lacking from the narrative, it's jarring to see a woman along for the adventure JUST BECAUSE the author thought a female character (or love interest or whatever) was needed.

    I like the Chalion books (and the related one or two set in the same universe), but I read the first couple of Sharing Knife books and thought they were awful. Some mash-up of romance and fantasy, with neither done particularly well. That's one series I stopped buying/reading.
  10. Sherwood Smith

    Sherwood Smith A farm boy with a sword

    Certainly our female characters are not defined by their gender. They are not shown as necessarily more emotional or sympathetic. Many of the women do fight and those who start out timid gain confidence from the others as role models. Their racial identities have more bearing on how aggressive they are. For example one chapter contains a disturbing sexual assault by women on men so we've tried hard not to stereotype.
  11. Danica

    Danica Queen of the boards! Staff Member

    I would add that it is jarring to read female characters acting in an extremely stereotypical ways, offensive portrayal of women (open writing of perceived negative gender attributes) but men do not get the same treatment.

    *cough* Demon Cycle *cough*. One of the female characters is a
    manipulative 'bitch' using sex to get her way (holds real power 'kinda like a fortune teller' but the focus is on her possessive sexualised behaviour).
    One is a badarse warrior
    because she was abused by her father and a strong male helps to make her 'less powerless' (aww poor thing .. but look!! strong male lead helped her to find her inner strength).
    The last one is
    brutally raped and then becomes this lusty women intent on sleeping around with no trauma evident??? (also held in high esteem but focus is on her relationship issues).
    The main male characters forge their own destiny and do what they want despite the warnings and/or manipulations of their 'women'. /sigh

    I love Jim Butcher's Dresden Files but this gets me every time. If you haven't read it, it is set in modern day Chicago, yet you may be interested to find every single women Dresden interacts with is drop dead gorgeous. How odd? I wasn't aware the modern day Chicago was only occupied by leggy women with smooth athletic bodies and beautiful faces. /kill me now.

    This i find depressing, as i think this is what we see most of the time. I (having lady bits) feel as though i mostly read about ...

    1. Medieval settings where women have no power and POVs focus on one aspect of 'having lady bits' (concern for offspring, having sex or being used for sex, being manipulative or whinging at their husband to be 'safe' while they go out and be 'manly'). Is this really all that went on with being a women in medieval times???

    2. Modern day times where females are super hot

    3. Female characters only written for a particular purpose and not well defined

    What i want to see is a more realistic portrayal of females in fantasy novels. There are many facets to being female and i'd like to see that in fantasy novels. There are many books with male leads and not all of them are manly heroic males, there are many different portrayals of men. It's not the sole responsibility of one author and i don't want it to be. All i want to see is that when you write your novel make your female characters realistic for your setting and stop USING creating female character as ways to move your male centred story along or for someone your male character can have sex with or lust over.

    I appreciate female characters with motivations that are realistic and who are multi faceted. I don't think that i too much to ask? is it???

    Also side note, I speak for me and not for women in general.
  12. João Ribeiro

    João Ribeiro Journeyed there and back again

    Yes they are, I suspect the climax of his Cosmere story will be called the League of Extraordinary Ladies:

    Mistborn: Vin
    Alloy of Law: Marasi
    Elantris: Sarene
    Stromlight Archives: Shallan
    Rithmatist: Melody
    Steelheart: I'm thinking Megan is the one for Steelheart

    There is always the plucky somehow ostracized female character in the middle of the action.

    Anyway I don't think it was that much fun being a common woman in the Middle Ages where most fantasy is set on. And by common woman I mean a commoner ;)
  13. Sneaky Burrito

    Sneaky Burrito Crazy Cat Lady Staff Member

    This is why I feel like Sanderson keeps writing the same book over and over again.
  14. João Ribeiro

    João Ribeiro Journeyed there and back again

    I think he is trying to keep a common thread among all his books and also to avoid the male sterotype or an only-male stereotype since there are always male counterparts for those plucky women.

    Either that or I'm just too fond of his books to admit that he has a limitation when it comes to write female parts... damn, it's a bromance
  15. Sneaky Burrito

    Sneaky Burrito Crazy Cat Lady Staff Member

    You know, I have read and enjoyed a lot of his books (didn't care for Warbreaker so much and liked Way of Kings but wasn't blown away by it or anything). But I am just not as big of a fan as other people on this site. Ah well, there wouldn't be anything to discuss if we all liked the same things.
  16. Hikerike

    Hikerike Owns a Ring of Power

    I agree with Sneaky Burrito, GRRM writes women quiet well, other than him i like Shallan from The Way of the kings alot , i'm looking forward to see more of her in Words Of Radiance which is supposed to be more centered around her similarly to how The way of kings was around Kalladin. And Again i think Sneaky makes a good point with Sanderson. His wommen are pretty similar but honestly i'm okay with that because they are still interesting.
    Just finished desert spear and reading Daylight War right now.Danica you are so right!
    I swear it sometimes feels like i'm reading a highschool drama. Rojer likes Leesha , Leesha likes Jardir and Arlen, Arlen likes Renna and Leesha and throw in some random dude that wants to bone Leesha to and we have a nice mix. But it's not all bad since i still find the story interesting :)
    Man the worst female characters are probably from Rober Jordans Wheel of time. Man oh man how i hated almost every single female , they were so god damn annoying and some of them so bad, with the only exception of 2 characters i think.
  17. Amaryllis

    Amaryllis Journeyed there and back again

    That's the thing. I'm pretty sure Brandon Sanderson IS trying to be socially conscious with his female characters. He IS trying to actively avoid having sausage party fantasy where women are just things to rescue from bad stuff. He wants to have female representation in his books, not just because he knows there are female readers and he wants their money too (probably), but because he strikes me as an earnest dude who is trying to be fair because that's the way he wants to be. He probably has researched writing female characters, because 'write them as CHARACTERS, without gender' is the advice you get 90%+ of the time from overly PC forums and resources. So of course he tries to write them as characters, but they end up being basically male characters, who happen to have ladybits, because he himself is a male, and that's how he thinks of characters. Or he falls into the trap of still only giving them one trait, but that trait is 'progressive feminism.'

    That's why he's the example I chose. There are plenty of authors who are just dismissive altogether of the idea of trying to write a genuine female character. Some of them are even talented and highly successful. Robert Jordan (I'm leaving a window for epicfantasyfreak to scold me for calling RJ 'talented' :p ) wasn't interested in writing female characters. He was writing his femdom fantasy into his literary fantasy, because who is gonna stop him?
  18. epicfantasyfreak

    epicfantasyfreak Journeyed there and back again

    How dare you!?! :banghead:
  19. Hand of Fear

    Hand of Fear Journeyed there and back again

    Here's a question on average do you think female authors write better female and male charectors, and male authors ONLY write better male ones ?
  20. Buffy V Slayer

    Buffy V Slayer Knows Who John Uskglass Is

    I think the same thing could be said of Robin Hobb. Interestingly, when I began reading the Farseer trilogy (a long while ago), I had no idea who Robin Hobb was, and so assumed she was a he. This is probably because, as you state, the majority of the most well known fantasy writers are men. However, about halfway through the book, I put it down, got on my computer, and looked Robin Hobb up because I became suspicious at the amazingly well-developed, complex, gray characters. The excellent characterization of Hobb actually tipped me off that I was dealing with a female author. I don't know whether this revelation was uplifting or depressing, as it felt great to be reading such an awesome female fantasy writer, but depressing that the emotional depth made me suspicious that a male fantasy writer could have penned it. I don't know why this phenomenon exists. I find this thread really interesting as I would love to find some examples of male and female writers who blur the lines here.

    Again, Robin Hobb and her characterization of Fitz Chivalry are an excellent example of this.

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