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 — they’re 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.
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 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 of course 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 dragon — well, I’d rather be the warrior, even if he was a man.
Anyone with any kind of respect for women as a gender should realise there is something deeply unsound about those types of choices, 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, y’know?
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.
Among those would be a lot of men, of course, but possibly also a good number of 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.)
We’re all so used to reading stories where any random character is always male, while any female character 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.
A couple of years or so ago I read a book that made me both uncomfortable and angry. I read it because so many people loved the book, the series, the author. One of the reasons I haven’t yet completely let go of my anger is that people online still pour out their love. Maybe one reader out of a hundred sees the book the same way I see it.
This anger and discomfort is the reason I’m not going to do a proper review of the book. Besides, too much time has passed and the story isn’t fresh in my mind anymore.
The book in question is The Painted Man (in the US: The Warded Man) by Peter V. Brett. It’s the first book in the Demon Cycles series.
My discomfort started with how he portrayed one of the POV characters, the girl Leesha. She is one out of three protagonists. The other two are boys.
The boys are pretty well fleshed-out characters, even though none of the POV characters act rationally (I’ll come back to that later). But Leesha is strangely flat and almost incoherent.
A third of the time she acts like a stuck-up school girl who is also the teacher’s pet, a third of the time she acts like a mother figure with an ocean of patience, and the remaining third of the time she rebels against everything and everyone.
Now, I wouldn’t actually object to this type of sudden changes in a teenager’s personality, if only we saw proper reasons for them. But we don’t.
Her rebelling isn’t built up with enough frustration and pent-up anger. The incident that supposedly causes her to turn against every single person in her whole village comes across as stupid and blown out of proportion: a boy she’s had a crush on gets into her bed. They don’t have sex but he says they did. The villagers’ reaction to this lie, which they take for truth, is strange and stupid and more appropriate for a small community’s treatment of an outsider, than the judgement such a community would pass on one of their own. Blood, water, thickness, you know.
All three POV characters share these unmotivated behaviours. The older boy, Arlen, runs away from his father and his village and into demon-infested, unfamiliar woods, just because his mother died.
Okay, sure, there was a little more to it, but not enough. Any real eleven-year-old boy with any kind of self-preservation instinct would turn back and go home once the demons started showing up.
Even if his father did not rescue his dying mother from demons.
But the author needed the characters to go this way and do these things, so they did, like puppets on strings. Fantasy isn’t known for being a character-driven genre, but this is plain awful.
Still, this wasn’t what provoked the anger in me. Bad characterisation is bad, but I usually shrug and move on to something (hopefully) better.
What made me angry about this book was … well, this:
(Content warning: sexual violence.)
At the age of 26, Leesha is still a stuck-up teacher’s pet, and still a patient mother figure healing everyone because she’s such a good person. She is a virgin, too, because she’s still traumatised after that boy’s lie when she was 13. Either that, or she has ‘saved herself’ for the ‘perfect husband’. It doesn’t matter. To each, their own, and I’m not gonna judge her decisions; only the author’s awful character-building.
Anyway. When travelling back to her old home village after 13 years away, she is robbed and raped by three outlaws.
And the very next day she has consensual sex with a scary, intimidating stranger who hardly speaks with anyone, is rude whenever he does speak, is covered from head to toe in mysterious tattoos, and strangles demons with bare hands!
Now, the reader knows who the tattooed stranger is. He’s Arlen, the same boy who ran away from his father and didn’t return even though demons tried to eat him.
The reader might even like this stupid boy with no sense of self-preservation, who has now grown up to be a bad-tempered demon-strangler. Which, I assume, is the reason the author can get away with this absolutely awful scene.
But Leesha doesn’t know who Arlen is.
And more importantly, Leesha has just been raped and left to die in the woods.
Leesha must be suffering from some serious trauma after this violent first exposure to anything involving men’s private parts and their invasion of her body. Leesha should react like any rape victim and fear men, physical touch, and people in general, to the point where she starts crying every time someone or something spooks her. Which should be often.
What Leesha should definitely not do, as a violated person suffering fresh sexual trauma and probably injuries ‘down there’, is willingly have sex with a complete stranger in the same cold, wet woods where she got raped.
Most women understand this. Even those of us who are lucky enough never to have gone through this trauma usually understand it on some level.
It baffles me that there are men out there, like this Peter bloke, who don’t. That there are people out there, men and women, who love Peter’s book and have no issues with this scene.
It scares me.
Because if rape is treated like a mere slap on the butt or, at the worst, a fist to the face, people aren’t going to understand what an immense violation it actually is, how it taints your sense of self, your self-respect, your confidence, the connection between your body and your sense of self. Even your integrity and self-control.
People aren’t going to understand why consent is so very, very important.
No, I mean it. Seriously. If you don’t want to have to touch upon all that shit — the shame, the fear, the self-loathing, the trust issues, the flashbacks, the PTSD, the broken shards of a human soul which hide inside that violated body — then you really shouldn’t write about rape.
It’s as simple as that.