Increasing the number of women in my writing

Earlier this year I made a decision. I am going to dramatically increase the number of women in my stories. At least in my shorter works.

Do I have a lack of women in my writing? I wouldn’t say so. Previously, I’ve made an effort to write stories of equal representation and opportunity. I’ve had men, women, and nonbinary characters, and neither has oppressed the others.

So why, then, do I want to increase the number of women in my stories?

There are a few reasons.

Catalyst for this decision was reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. The series is lauded as one of the best examples in the fantasy genre when it comes to representation of women. This praise is mainly (or even solely) directed at the main character, Vin. And yes, she is well-rounded, three-dimensional, complex; she has an agenda, a character arc, and she kicks arse. She’s a great character and good female representation in science fiction and fantasy.

But that’s also where it more or less stops. I realised after finishing the three books that I could name about five or six female characters. This is a 2000 page epic trilogy with hundreds of characters, named and unnamed, and my guess is, the total number of women is below 30. All the other characters — thieves, noblemen, soldiers, clergymen, politicians, rebels — are all men. There is a large number of magic users, and all but three of them are men and boys. Boys! There are insecure teenage boys hanging around and being trained in their magic craft, but no girls or women. Except Vin. Who is naturally very special and only survives among all these men because she’s so special.

Oh, sorry, I forgot: there are those two other women, as well, but they’re only present for a short time in the first book. By the time I had finished the third book, I didn’t even remember their names.

Yet this book is held up as an example of how to write women.

I’d like to say it’s more an example of how to write one woman.

People read these books and others — some with even less female representation — and don’t reflect much upon the gender disparity. I even recall a time when I read books like The Lord of the Rings without even really noticing the lack of women. I learnt from an early age to identify with the men.

I also learnt to despise the women, who did not get to go on adventures or save the world. If my alternatives were: a) being a frightened girl (princess or otherwise) who needed rescuing, or b) being a brave warrior who killed the dark lord — well, I’d rather be the man.

Anyone with any kind of respect for women as a gender should realise there is something deeply unsound about those types of questions, even — or especially — reshaped into easily digestible bits of storytelling.

The problem is, we still, to this day, tell our daughters they will be the ones needing rescuing from cages, towers, brothels, and so on. Or they will even be dying in dark forests, alleys, and motel rooms. They will never be the one to defeat the monster. No matter how hard they try, they will be limited by what’s (not) between their legs.

Unless, of course, they become “not like the other girls”. Like Vin. In which case, the lesson is still “don’t be a girl”. Being born a girl is bad. Growing up a girl is worse. Apparently. So just try not to be a girl.

Another reason I will write more female characters is this:

How would men react if gender representation suddenly switched? If every man in every book in the world suddenly became a woman, and vice versa?

Can you imagine the outrage?

As women, we are told to write male characters because “boys only read about boys, but girls read everything”. And to a frighteningly high degree, that’s true of grown men and women, too.

As women, we are told to use male pseudonyms or gender neutral initials, because “many boys and men don’t like to read books by a woman author”. So we pretend to be men so as not to lose half our potential audience. Why sabotage your success as an author by admitting to being the wrong gender, right?

Well, my decision is this:

If there are boys and men out there who don’t read books written by women, or books about women, then I don’t want them as my readers. I won’t write under a male pseudonym. And I’m aware that by writing mainly female characters, and the odd nonbinary, I may scare away a large portion of my readers.

Men, of course, but possibly also women who disagree with my political stance. But I’m not here to make big money; I’m here to have fun. My principles are more important than the size of my readership. (Which at the moment consists of approximately five people, so I guess I don’t have much to lose.)

There is a third reason, too. And it’s a personal one.

We’re all so used to reading stories where any random character is always male, while any female character always serves a specifically female purpose. Either she’s a mother, or a girl in distress, or maybe a witch. She’s never just a traveller, a merchant, an innocent bystander. Unless, of course, she’s also the main character’s romantic interest, which is also a specifically female purpose. (Heteronormativity, anyone?)

So what would it be like to read story after story with only female and nonbinary characters, and just the occasional token male? Would it affect our reading experience? Our opinion of those stories? Our prejudice against female characters? 

I want to find out.

And since there are so many stories out there already with a large cast of male characters, I think I can safely put a few small weights on the other pan without accidentally creating a society-wide, tyrannical matriarchy in the process.

Nordic folklore

As you might know, if you have read my introduction, I am a Swedish writer. I also have family in neighbouring Norway, and have grown up with the lore of both countries.

For most people writing fantasy, fantastical creatures are part of the genre. We have orcs and dragons and goblins. But as any veteran fantasy reader knows, repeating the same patterns soon gets old. As fantasy writers, we want to think outside these old, tired tropes and create something new; something that hasn’t been done before. One way of doing that is going back to our roots and scrutinising what was there before we came along.

Tolkien famously came up with his own take on elves and the dwarves — figures that have been present in one shape or another in many European folklore traditions. He made the elves beautiful and the dwarves wide-shouldered and bearded. J.K. Rowling took the legends of witches and wizards and brought them into the 20th century. She discarded Tolkien’s idea about tall, ethereal elves and went back to the old tales about shy and gnarly little creatures.

Patrick Rothfuss explored the old Celtic myths about fairies and put his own spin on the Fae realm, its inhabitants and laws of nature. Naomi Novik, of Lithuanian and Polish descent, drew on her grandmother’s tales from Eastern Europe to create her own interpretation of the Baba Jaga legend, cursed forests and powerful wizards in her book Uprooted.

Näcken

Näcken, Ernst Josephson,
1905

As a teenager, I realised I had grown up with remarkably few books about the brothers Grimm’s German fairy tales, and all the more books about the legends and superstition of the old days of Sweden and Norway. Thus, I have a whole bottomless, cultural well of creatures and tales most of the English-speaking world has never heard of. I could write endless interpretations and twists of these old stories and the creatures in them.

But the question is: Do I want to?

How do you translate the names of these legendary beings into English without losing their identity? Näcken (The Nix) is a male figure, usually seen sitting naked in waterfalls playing the fiddle till your heart breaks.

Tradition says women (presumably straight ones) are prone to falling in love with him, while men (also presumably straight individuals) desire to learn his musical skills. Both genders lose their heads and fall prey to the supernatural predator. But the name, Näcken, holds so much more than the translation can convey. To be ‘näck’ translates to being in the nude. ‘Näcken’ is both a name and a descriptor.

Näcken can shape-shift, too, and transform into a horse. Some people state he’s white as snow; others say he’s black as night. Regardless, his name in this shape is Bäckahästen. It means ‘Brook Horse’, but the name ‘Bäckahästen’ also has sounds in common with the name ‘Näcken’, which always seemed important to me as a child. Using the names ‘The Nix’ and ‘The Brook Horse’ just doesn’t pack the same punch.

Furthermore, we have creatures like the alv or alf (elf), but also the älva, sharing the same etymological root but referring to vastly different creatures. The alv was male — a smallish, mischievous trickster — while the älva was a female fae-like being, half transparent and usually only seen in groups, dancing in mist.

Norwegian lore has Kvernknarren, which translates to ‘The Mill Creak’ — and yes, that is ‘creak’ as in making a creaky sound. The Mill Creak was a large creature living in the millwheel, making funny creaking noises and trying to trick small children to fall into its maws.

Troll

Askeladden and the Troll,
Theodor Kittelsen

Norway is a country of coastlines, fjords and islands. They have plenty of tales related to the sea. One of the most famous sea monsters is Draugen, who is an undead human-like figure with rotting strips of meat hanging from his exposed bones.

According to the old tales, he would sometimes show up in storms — either in a boat with torn sails or in half a boat. His appearance would be a premonition of death. In some stories, he would even rise from the depths to pull fishermen off their boats. These poor men would never be seen again. ‘Draug’ is the modern Icelandic word for ‘ghost’, but in Old Norse, ‘draugr’ could mean any kind of undead person — often in their physical body, intact or decayed.

Perhaps the most famous creature from the Scandinavian folklore is, of course, the troll. Tall or small, smart or dumb, human-like or monster-like; they come in all flavours depending on the story. The one we’re most familiar with is the mountain troll: large and dumb and with moss for hair, it turns to stone if the sun’s rays touch it.

I do, however, also like the types of trolls who look almost exactly like humans and live in mountain halls almost exactly like human dwellings. They are found in tales such as those about bytingar — troll children exchanged for human ones so that the troll mother could raise a human child instead of a troll child, granting her status and power in the troll society. The troll raised among humans, on the other hand, would often grow up to be a vile person, quick to anger and harbouring ill will towards both humans and beasts.

These characters and more are rich sources of inspiration and ideas. That is, if I decide I do want to write them.