Everything that I am about to say can be applied to any author, in any genre; but the issues I’m about to discuss I have found to be most prevalent in epic fantasy novels written by male authors.
Are you all sexists, or are you really just not any paying attention to what you’re doing with your female characters?
Epic fantasy is my first love, and that love is being sullied. As a book lover, a book reviewer, and a book editor…I see a lot of books. I’ve noticed themes in many of them, again especially epic fantasies, where the female characters seem put in there for the hell of it; because the author realized, ‘oh hey, I should probably put some girls in here.’ Or just needed those girls for the Relevant Lower Body Parts. Don’t try to fool me. I can tell.
If you have heard of the Bechdel Test, then you know this isn’t just about books but a broader problem with entertainment media. (Although in writing this article, I think I may have found a semi-sexist inherent flaw in the test itself…) For the sake of this article, I’m going to focus on the books. I am creating my own Females in Fantasy Test, which is a little more encompassing.
You must have at least ONE female character who meets the following criteria:
1. She must have a name.
2. She must be alive. (Even though dead characters in the back story can have great strength and impact on the living ones, we need one who is more than inspiration.)
3. Unless every character is a kid, she needs to be a grown up.
4. Her purpose in the book needs to be as more than a sex doll (in the pages JUST so male characters can have sex with her); a chew toy (in the pages JUST so she can be abused/sexually assaulted and/or to be rescued); or a broodmare (in the pages JUST to give birth to your More Important Male Heroes).
5. She needs to have more than a one-dimensional personality of a shrew or a doormat; like all characters, she needs to have good and bad traits and a personality that is her own outside of her relation to your male character/s.
Basically? She has to have a life and a purpose of her own, separate from the men. It is no different than how one should treat women in “real life.” Treat women and female characters like they are their own people.
The Majra Series by J. Simon is a fantastic example of this. The female main character even reflects on the women in stories often just being “rescuable commodities” for the heroes. She refuses to be “just” that, and your characters should too. It’s really not that hard, all you need to do is care as much about the character building of your female characters as you do your male.
Really, how many books have you read where the male characters are just there to be sexed up, or to be abused by women and tossed aside, or just to be “Dad” to the heroine but nothing more?
Both in the world your novel has created, and in the plot over all, your female characters need to be their own people. Is it really that hard? Is it really so difficult to make one character a female who actually is a character? Sometimes there are stories and worlds where it’s on purpose, but most of the time, it just feels like laziness, or anti-women issues. I have seen it in indie and Big 6 alike.
Oh, and let’s not get into history here. Tolkien is no excuse. He was writing from his very male-dominated generation. Writers today have no excuse at all.
I’m really not up on this soapbox to say that every book has to promote some “feminist” agenda. I’m just so tired of reading so many books where the author’s sexism, subtle or overt, and sometimes outright misogyny, is shoved in my face. I’m sorry, but as a woman, that is very grating to the nerves.
I think I’d rather read a book without any female characters at all than one that treats them like so many do.