Writing Believable Women in Fantasy
Updated: Aug 1, 2019
I thought about another Aurora’s Ramblings this week, but there’s a more pressing matter to discuss. Many times, men approach me and insist, “I just don’t know how to write women.” I can’t help but wonder why. Surely they know some and associate with them on a relatively regular basis. Is there a certain way they think all women are supposed to behave? If so, that just confuses me, and I wonder how much of a role modern American culture has to play.
I’ve grown up hearing men say “Oh, let’s have a good night and leave the women at home.” What’s the implication there? That women are incapable of fun? Okay, maybe they’ve read a lot of Robert Jordan. (In those stories, whenever there is fun happening, the women show up to ruin it. Yeah, I made it through the first several books of Wheel of Time before I chucked the book against the wall. No, I’m not exaggerating.) Of course, Jordan isn’t the only one guilty of this. There’s this belief that women are always practical, serious, and responsible. In other words, they always want to mother everyone. Dude, I can’t even handle a houseplant. No, I don’t want to mother anything or anyone.
Then there’s this “Women are confusing” belief that makes little sense. No, we speak in words, just like you do. But it’s repeated so often that people really do believe it. Me: “Hey, I really don’t like camping. There’s a severe lack of furniture, WiFi, and air conditioning.” Man: “Why don’t you like camping? Women are confusing.” Or when you tell them you’re not interested and exactly why, and they claim you’re confusing? Argh! I have this running theory that some say this because the rejection hurts their ego. It’s easier to be confused than simply understand the person isn’t interested. (Note: I’ve downloaded a free cuneiform app. Now, any time a male friend insists women are confusing, I message him in strings of ancient symbols. I have no idea what it means. Chances are, he won’t either. Shall I reject men in cuneiform? At least there’ll be a legit reason to be confused.)
I think the problem is that men feel they need to write women as the mother figure or as confusing people who make little sense. They often portray them getting upset for little reason (like Nynaeve beating the gleeman in the first Wheel of Time novel). Just…write them as people. Sure, you can have a character who is volatile or motherly, or both, but don’t make every single woman behave this way. Give one a gambling problem. Give another a wicked sense of humor. Make some responsible, some irresponsible, just vary them, and write them as human beings instead of stereotypes.
I truly hate the stereotypes. I’ve heard many people insist, “It’s fiction. People know it isn’t real.” No. Stop right there. Presumably people know they aren’t going to find a mermaid in their swimming pool one day, or bump into a unicorn at the bus stop. But the roles of women, the ideals of relationships portrayed in fiction? Yes, they make an impression on us. Our fairy tales teach us beauty is prized and women who aren’t extravagantly beautiful or considered unattractive do not get the happily-ever-after. Men have to be emotionless and always strong. These are so-called “universal truths” (re: society’s beliefs) that worm their way into fiction and shape our world views from the time we are very young. The ideals are there in every misogynistic joke, or remark that someone is “leavin’ th’ ole lady home. Dun’t wan’ th’ ball ‘n’ chain. Hurr hurr.” It’s there in every newspaper comment that’s about a woman’s looks, when the article has nothing to do with that. (Just to name a few egregious examples: A woman was accused of a rather bad crime, and most of the comments lamented her unattractiveness. Because, you know, that’s the real crime; she was unattractive to the men reading the article. And on another article featuring a high-school-age girl playing field hockey, a man asked something like “Is this an ad for a horror movie?”)
I’ll admit, I’m a nerd. I spend some time roleplaying in MMOs. It’s a relaxed form of writing. I don’t need to edit and agonize. I can just enjoy it and hope no one screenshots my typos. Yet, I’ve realized I don’t enjoy many of the women characters people create. Many times, they just aren’t interesting. They are often fairy tale perfect, as in meek, always looking out for others, rarely opinionated, and annoyingly responsible and motherly. I get it; Many MMORPG fans enjoy reading fantasy. And these kinds of women pop up a lot in fantasy. (Let me tell you about the times roleplaying with a character named after the Robert Jordan heroine I hate most. No, never mind. I won’t. You can imagine how that went.) But perfect just is not realistic. Perfect is gross. It perpetuates harmful ideals that carry over to the real world in forms of verbal abuse, physical abuse, eating disorders…women saying “No, I’m not interested” and men using at as an excuse to be “confused” and keep pressuring or worse.
You aren’t only selling a story when you write. You’re selling a world view and ideas. You have the ability to make others question their beliefs, or perpetuate existing ones. That is a marvelous power to have. People often believe that authors are smart, because they’ve written books. I know I did as a child and even as a teenager. I filled my head with some harmful material as I trusted these authors. I didn’t believe centaurs existed, but I did internalize that a woman’s value was in her looks. (Yes, I read A Spell for Chameleon and many other novels by said author when I was in grade school and high school. And this is just one example.) People might read your words and think “Huh, never thought of it like that.” Or, they can think, “Wow, even this author knows that all women are nagging harpies. Cool!” My point is to use your power wisely. (Also, please don’t inspire and validate the gross people in newspaper comment sections.)
I have an entire MFA thesis statement on this topic, so I can ramble. Perhaps one day I’ll publish it here.