I am currently reading Brandon Sanderson’s acclaimed The Final Empire, the first book in his Mistborn fantasy series. As a huge lover of fantasy fiction and an aspiring fantasy author for young adults myself, I don’t really understand why it has taken me this long to sit down and open up one of his books. Brandon Sanderson is celebrated as one of the best writers of fantasy fiction of all time… and now that I am reading one of his books I can definitely understand why people keep returning to his magnificent books and writing. This book is an epic, exciting and adventurous read, with wonderful character development and an intricate plot (once I have completed this read, I will be writing a review for it). But it has also left me with an array of thoughts regarding the representation of women in fantasy.
I recently took to Twitter to voice both my concern and growing frustration over the representation of women in fantasy fiction. Reading The Final Empire — no matter how beautifully written the novel is, how the characters develop and the way it the story evolves — has made me realise how bored I have become with how authors are continuing to represent women in fantasy. Women are usually represented as lesser than men, or the property of men, and always seem to lack any agency. These women are identified as only wives or daughters — with no well-written story of their own, but rather a plot device for a man’s story arc — or, my biggest pet peeve, as prostitutes (which always end up being abused and/or killed by men with absolutely no repercussions). And if there are any “strong female characters”, they are definitely not the norm. The author usually only creates one strong female to centre on and they are considered to be the “exception”. They are almost a special snowflake, floating around in a world that despises them.
To me, writing a fantasy novel with no prominent women characters or one special snowflake is just lazy writing. Fantasy novels can be about anything, and authors can create any possible world, with any possible gender norms. That means that if authors can create a plethora of different worlds, why are authors continually writing different versions of the same one? As readers we can easily identify that they are a fantasy take on medieval Europe, most notably medieval Britain. Authors are continuing to create worlds where women are considered less than men, where the same gender stereotypes of our world exist, and where women have little to no agency. To me, this is not being creative, but instead fitting into the long tradition of fantasy novels that have come before it.
It makes me very grateful that we have authors like Kameron Hurley. (There are definitely plenty of others, and I am always looking for new suggestions if you guys have any, but I am using Hurley as an example.) Hurley is, without a doubt, an incredible author. Her books are beyond amazing and her representation of women is simply phenomenal. It is rare that I find an author that challenges me as much as Hurley does. But when I read The Mirror Empire last year (you can read my review here), I actually found the fantasy book to be a wonderful and inspiring piece. It perfectly challenges gender roles and what we consider to be fantasy.
The Mirror Empire has a plethora of strong women in positions of power, and every woman has their own agency. Unlike other fantasy books, there isn’t just one woman character that can fight or has an unlimited amount of power. There are several. And, most importantly, this is not “unrealistic”.
What surprises me the most is that Hurley’s book is actually “surprising” — that the fact that she has so many women characters compared to male characters challenges the norm in our current fantasy fiction. It probably frustrates me a lot more than it should, but it is an issue that desperately needs to be addressed by people like me, by people like you. How many other fantasy books have you read that actually has more female characters than male characters? How many other fantasy books have you read that have most positions of power filled by women? We need to work towards a time where works like The Mirror Empire are not considered to be challenging the norm or surprising.
The question is, why can’t more fantasy authors follow Hurley’s example? I mean, not every single novel has to. I am not about censoring people’s creativity, but rather encouraging others to explore new worlds and new ideas and new types of characters. There are numerous fantasy novels that I thoroughly enjoy where women are represented quite similar to how Sanderson has written The Final Empire. For example, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin is another wonderful example — but even then, Martin writes extraordinary women characters and has them in positions where they can accumulate power. And this is even in a world where women are oppressed because of their gender. But shouldn’t we aspire to have fantasy novels that don’t continually encourage the narrative of a medieval European inspired world that oppressing women?
A lot of fantasy is inspired directly from history — especially western civilisation. Perhaps, some people can make the argument that western history was essentially “men’s history”, but I definitely argue against that idea. I studied history at a university level and before attending those classes I have a very jaded and traditional idea of history. I always thought that women were subservient to men (especially since high school history taught me this), that they possessed very little agency. In some, if not a lot, of cases this is correct. Women struggled, but women also fought. There are numerous areas in history that we can look at and pinpoint strong, capable women. Women who should inspire authors to step outside the box of traditional, medieval European inspired fantasy. Look at the French Revolution. Look at Joan of Arc. And these are only two examples from western civilisation. If you want more examples, or want something new to look at, or want to read about women from all over the globe, please read the wonderful article by Hurley: ‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative. This article was life-changing for me. And I would definitely recommend that everyone reads it.
The main point of this post — as well as my rant on Twitter this morning — was to argue that always writing fantasy like this has become downright lazy and just expected. Fantasy has the real potential to explore so many different issues, so many different cultures, and so many different characters. It can be about anything and everything. Yet, authors continue to write the same story with a few different twists, but the representation of women remains the same. On Twitter, I spoke to a few people after writing my rant, and something very interesting came up:
Alex Harrow is not alone. This is actually something that happened to me when I was planning my current WIP yesterday. I was working on the characters and the thought actually came to me that I was creating too many women characters for my story. I had to pause and actually contemplate what I was thinking: is there really such a thing as too many women characters? I asked myself. Maybe this thinking was spawned from modern day media, which just shows how deeply embedded and ingrained this kind of thinking is. But that doesn’t mean that this kind of thinking is right.
Instead, it means that it is something that desperately needs to be addressed by current authors and aspiring authors like myself. It is like we have this thought that having too many women characters, or too many “warrior” or “strong” or “overly intelligent” women characters, is somewhat unrealistic. But this is fantasy! Nothing, if written well, can be unrealistic. We should strive to be different as writers and we should strive to write something that challenges the norm. That way it becomes the norm.
So, no — there is no such thing as too many women characters. Women are amazing and deserve to be celebrated, they deserve to see themselves in literature appropriately represented. I am growing increasingly tired of reading the same old fantasy that so many authors are feeding us. I will most likely continue reading Brandon Sanderson’s work, I am not boycotting his writing simply because he falls into this narrative, especially since I believe he is a good author. But I am expanding my reading to encompass more authors that work to write fantasy fiction that represents women like Kameron Hurley. That write women as the extraordinary and strong people that they truly are.