by Chantal Boudreau
When someone mentions female characters in fantasy, some stereotypes come to mind. There is the damsel in distress, the plucky princess, the matronly queen or the bawdy tavern wench, just for a few examples. These seem to show up everywhere, unfortunate tropes who sometimes serve as sidekicks and who often give the male hero extra purpose to their cause, but don’t have much purpose in their own right.
Then there’s the flip-side – the “strong female” character: the man-hating amazon, the stoic and noble female warrior who is an exception to the norm, the experienced sorceress or priestess who often proves self-sacrificing. While they may have a prominent role in the story, they tend to be loners and atypical of the women in that particular fantasy culture. Most of the women in the story other than that one outstanding character fall into the traditional medieval female roles: the maids, the gentlewomen, the housewife mother with multiple offspring, perhaps an assistant to some professional or the healer/midwife.
What I enjoy more, but rarely see, is a fantasy society that is counter-culture, where men and women share roles with unbiased equality – where it’s the norm rather than the exception. Considering this is not something we’ve managed to achieve even in our own modern society, it would be nice to find more of that in the fabricated worlds of fiction. There, such a societal scope is an option for its creator rather than what we’re forced to live with in the real world. Why not break with tradition?
How does a writer apply this concept effectively? Lately, I’ve been watching the television show “The 100” that does a fantastic job of this. While it is post-apocalyptic/dystopian science fiction with YA elements rather than fantasy, it is a great example of gender-bias free storytelling. Just as a list of the female characters who aren’t what you would normally find in the average speculative fiction tale, you have the leaders of three of the factions who are female (the leader of the rebellious 100, the leader of the techno-savvy “Sky-People” and the leader of the tribal “Grounders”.) The head of security for the Grounders is a fierce and unyielding warrior woman who is now mentoring one of the 100 women in warrior-training as well. The head of engineering for the Sky People is a woman and their female leader is also a medical doctor. Even the more demure female characters (residing with the Mountain Men) have their moments of bravery.
The leaders make tough decisions too, and sometimes fail, but pick themselves up and move on, coming up with new strategies. At one point, one of these women chooses to kill a man who was once her romantic interest rather than see him tortured before execution as part of a punishment from their allies (he did murder innocents because of a misunderstanding and a mental break – and he was in the wrong.) She doesn’t fall apart after the fact, even though it was a painful and tragic decision for her. You just don’t see that in the average tale that presents women as predominantly soft and emotional. A typical female character would never be able to spare a loved one from torture by killing him, specifically because of their romantic relationship (“I can’t kill him – I love him.”)
Better yet, in “The 100” nobody questions these characters’ competency because they are female. Real people who have experienced life as both man and woman say that for the most part what they’ve found in our society is men are assumed competent until they are proven otherwise whereas women have to prove they are competent before being accepted as such. This unfair set of gender-biased assumptions often carries over into fiction. I’d like to see that change (as I’d like to see it change in the real world.)
I’ve made an effort to use men and women equally in responsible positions in my fantasy stories. The head of a major mercenary guild is a woman, Magic University is headed up by both men and women at various times, the head of the Renegade resistance in Feltrey is a woman, the Jadorans and Templars of Oron are equally men and women, assassins and soldiers as well as wizards. One of my heroes is a middle-aged female retired schoolteacher. A character’s competency has no basis in gender, age or social status. Everyone has their strengths and potential and are recognized for what they bring to the table.
In my fantasy fiction, I choose to not have a woman’s competency challenged just because of her gender. I hope to see this become commonplace in the fantasy I read, maybe inspiring more change in our own society in future.