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A Lack of Female Characters is Always a Choice

Last week, fantasy author Mark Lawrence had a moment of reflection on his blog to celebrate getting 30,000 ratings for his book, Prince of Thorns, on Goodreads. And although Lawrence takes time to tell us about all the praise his debut received, the bulk of his post focuses on criticizing those darn feminist reviewers for pointing out that his series is kind of lacking in female characters.

Now, I’m not one of those reviewers. I’ve never read his series, and this apparent lack of female characters suggests that it wouldn’t be my cup of tea anyway. But there’s something incredibly distasteful in “celebrating” a milestone in a book’s success by flippantly quoting reviewers who point out the lack of an engaging female presence in the book, as though to say “haha, look how wrong you were.” Not about the lack of an engaging female presence, I’m assuming, but about the idea that a book needs female characters to be successful.

First of all, this isn’t exactly a surprising coup on the author’s part. People point out the lack of female characters in popular fantasy series precisely because so many fantasy series succeed without including female characters. The Fellowship of the Ring is, after all, a group that is meant to represent all of Middle Earth, and is made up of nine male characters. And Mark Lawrence’s arguments for why these critics are wrong really strongly demonstrate the problems that are still inherent in the fantasy genre when it comes to women.

Lawrence argues that it’s unreasonable to demands “major roles for female characters in every book, no matter what it’s about, no matter what the scope, or the length of the book.” He points out that his novel is only 1/5th as long as A Dance with Dragons – about 85,000 words, aka the length of a typical novel, if not quite a fantasy tome. It’s told from a single point of view over a period of three weeks, the majority spent in the wild with a “band of murdering thugs.” He simply couldn’t shoe-horn female characters in there.

So. A novel has to be 422,000 words long before it has space for a female character to do anything important or interesting. Male protagonists must go through more than three weeks of their story before they encounter female characters who have significant roles in their story. And women are definitely never part of bands of murdering thugs. Sure, there’s no sign of any kind of population issues in these fantasy novels. There’s assumedly an equal number of men and women. But the men never seem to encounter them, at least not doing anything interesting.

Make no mistake, a lack of engaging female characters is a choice, albeit sometimes an unconscious one. It’s a choice to have a whole band of murdering thugs be male. It’s a choice to have the chief antagonist be male. It’s a choice to give all positions of authority to men, and to make men the ones who significantly challenge or help the protagonist along the way. Nowhere is this more true than fantasy, where things like “historical accuracy” and “societal expectations” don’t apply. No matter how much a book’s world borrows from medieval history, it is a world built entirely from scratch that can have any rules or societal structure the author pleases. If women are left out of that structure, if they have nothing interesting to do… that is very much the author’s choice, whether the author sees it or not.

And Mark Lawrence clearly made that choice and defends it. He suggests wanting female characters in a story is an issue of taste, like wanting your books to contain “plucky young wizards” or “Machiavellian politics.” But having women do interesting things in your novel is not the same as including a certain plot trope or tone or approaching the story from a particular angle. The fact that Lawrence thinks of the inclusion of female characters as a similar choice, a similar niche preference, is really indicative of the problem of sexism in fantasy as a whole. Women are not one of the elements in a writer’s bucket of plot points and tropes. They’re people, just like men, and they should appear as easily in a story as men do.

This isn’t to say that authors can’t explore a misogynistic or patriarchal society in fantasy. But that choice should be made for a reason, and if you don’t have any female characters around to react to that society and accept or struggle against it, that choice has done nothing for the novel except make it appear lazy, a fantasy trapped in our own world.

And yes, sometimes stories necessitate a lack of female characters. A good example would be Castaway, where the male protagonist’s only friend for most of the movie is a volleyball. But make no mistake. If a novel is about a character interacting with a group or with society in some way, rather than a story of isolation, then there is no need to “shoe horn” women in. They should already be there, and their absence is either suggests a failure of imagination, or a failure to care. Both are pretty significant failings for any novelist to have.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

41 thoughts on “A Lack of Female Characters is Always a Choice

  1. Funny enough, Dritzz D’ourden novels show lots of males. Which makes no sense at all in an evil matriarchy. Even less if you take into account clerical magic in D&D. Why educate a males at all? Why even give birth to them if you consider them useless? You only need one male to get pregnant several women. If you coppy mysoginist societies, but reverse roles, what you would get is really few males, who are there as breddding stuff, with no education, no skills except as pleasure toys and many undead free labor. No need to have living slaves, since they eat and that’s an unnecesary cost… But instead we have Dritzz, his father, Jarlaxe and a handfull of male character competent and with power. Again, that doesn’t make any sense and only happens because the writter is unable to think in a society really dominated by evil women where men are only cattle. Sure, maybe my version is a lof darker than Salvatore’s but real life has shown what happens when one sex despises the other and if you don’t consider what happens in countries like india “evil” but “neutral” then, when you go “evil” things should be a lot worse.

    Same happened with lots od stories were a male author tries to show how terrible a matriarchy would be, they only go half the way. They don’t take into account what would happened if males were fed worse (last to be able to eat in families) when growing up, if they were undereducated, if they have less rights but, also if they face prejudices that means people asume they should take care of many unpaid labor, not take credit for the things they do, not have property rights… Etc. And, of course, even in that kind of fantasy worlds, males are widely represented…

    Now, there’s some stories that do it right. And IMO are scarier because they are well done. But it’s really rare to find books with only woman as characters…

    Anyway, I agree it’s about choice and that it’s internaliced. The post about zombies run gets to the point of that.

    1. I understand your point and I think you are right about the novels of Drizzt, nevertheles I have some arguments:
      In the real world middle ages, many upper class women held considerable power, especially the mother of a boy king or a boy who had inherited land. The female aristocrats were as dangerous as their malecounterparts, so it is not unrealistic that the drow matriarchy allows for powerful males.
      Secondly, I think that drow women keep many men partly so they can pick and chose between whom the want to bed, instead of having a limited selection. And partly because the drow are always fighting and probably need the men in the fighting. To keep few men would be to take the risk of losing all of them if enemies got close enough. The men would have to be replaced, but if other drow had few males that would be either expensive or risky if they attempted to kidnap them. To keep many men is probably the drows way of minimizing the risks.

      1. Well, there’s a difference: biology. Males need females to carry the phoetus until it becomes a baby and, for a long time, they needed a women to feed them. That doesn’t happen the other way around (I should clarify that biology keeps the same).

        Also, drow are evil. Middleage people were brutal, not evil. Not only that, the power female aristocrats held in middle age were dependant on the boy king or other male relatives. And also, you could say usually boys love their mothers.

        Now, turn around. Drows are evil, like power and don’t want to share. They don’t need as many males. Not even to fight because they are priestess. In D&D that means rise the dead and command armies of skeletons zombies, vampires and what not. Completely loyal, able to fight, easily replaceable by your enemies corpses, inmune to mind control (go to hell mindfliers). They don’t eat (which is an advantage in underdark where there’s lack of food). The fact that you asume female drows need male drows to fight comes from OUR world, not theirs.

        Not only female priestess have undead, algo are bigger and stronger than male drow. No point in keeping or educating them. If it’s for pleasure, why male drows? why not more exotic slaves? Drow are supposed to have taste for demons and that kind of thing. And even the one you keep, why not treat them as harems controled by a powerfull priestess who decided who can and cannot use them as a reward?

        For me it’s completely unrealistic that they allow powerfull males. Not only because evil never shares power if it’s not forced to do so, it’s also because biology and magic change everything.

        And an argument you probably haven’t even considered: reverse bias. If you really believe males are inferior to females, that are weaker, less inteligent and useless except breading (or less usefull) why put up with 2 years of pregnancy (elf have different cicles, but enayway 9 months would be a lot) for a “lesser” product? And why waste resources teaching them? They are idiots, so sure they can’t learn magic. And all the arguments that have been used through the centuries to deny education and choices to women. The fact that they are evil makes that there’s even less posibilities for a male to learn and hold power, because at the moment he’s discovered, he’ll be killed and made example. Maybe turn in an undead.

        I think my point is, real world seems more evil to me that the drow priestess and I can’t really see the need for living fighters in a world were you can have skelettons and zombies as cannon foder and golems as “heavy hitters”. Or dragons. Or both…

        Also, never undertand why becoming a lich wasn’t an option or becoming a drider was seen as a punishment. you become more powerfull and half spider! That should be a reward! (At least acording drow point of view) XD

        1. Bias is a relative matter, women have usually worked more and harder than men, but their work wasn’t given the same prestige as the men’s. This work could include taking care of animals or working at the fields, depending on which culture we are talking about. In the past few people received formal education, and the women had most likely as much knowledge of agricultural life as their male counterparts. To the warlike drow, knowing martial skills, including magic, should be like agricultural skills was to real humans.

          Most drow hates other races, which could explain why they prefer sexual companions of their own race above other races. Then there is also the problem I mentioned that if there were few males and they were killed, the females would get difficulties to replace them.

          For the military part I think that living drow have advantages that undead and golems doesn’t. A golem do what you command it to do, most controlled undead seems to be the same. But living agents with free will can take more initiatives on their own, drow appreciate scouts and assassins, but even in battle the ability to take your own initiative is an asset. Cannon fodder and heavy hitters are good, but a fighter who can take tactical decisions can at times be even better.

          I guess that an undead lich can’t enjoy life the same way as the living, since undeath can be used as punishment it is probably a painful existence. I also assume that drow doesn’t want to lose their humanoid forms more than humans.

          1. But the point is that there’s no need of male drow to work at all (or fight) you have undead for that. As I said, if you read any monsters manual, there’s docens of undeads with intelligence that can be used. So they have enough initiative to follow orders as scouts or what their masters need. But can’t betray you.

            As for sexual preferences, acording to the P&P lore, no, Drows are rather into demons and other completely extrange sex. Sure, they only breed with other drow (or more powerfull beings), but they have no problem having sex with whoever they please. Also, with 1 tenth males, they’ll have more than enough. No need for more. Consider this, in D&D you can change someones sex, clone, resucitate or even impregnate someone using magic. The risk you seem to think justifies giving up power, doesn’t really exist in a realm with all that magic.

            I can see why you can’t imagine that male drows aren’t needed for fighting or other powerfull positions, you are so used to our status quo that you can imagine a society where all the positions are held by women while men are minority and just playthings. And it’s an awful evil place. Emphasis on evil.

            And I’d like to add that I see contradiction in “Then there is also the problem I mentioned that if there were few males and they were killed, the females would get difficulties to replace them.” And training someone to fight and sending them to be cannon foder. Either you consider that you have to have “many male drows” son there’s no chance that they are killed. And then it’s better not send them to fight because they are more precius as breeders, and since you won’t send them to fight and, anyway, they are less intelligent, and weaker* (bias at play) why teach them at all? Better lock them up (evil). Or you need warriors with great skills, then better only give birth to females, that are superior (again, bias), abort most males, and have only a few for breeding. Priestess have divination, they could choose wich sex they want. Think India, where parents choose to have male baies because they think women are worhtless. Do you really think that female drow that despises males and are evil would want to give birth to them? think again.

            I get it’s painfull to even think in your sex as so secondary. Well, that’s the whole point about a books like Mark’s. But while it’s usual to see books with no relevant female characters, not even in the most extreme cases (Drow society) you see the complete reverse and you try to justify that males hold power.

            Now, I can see a book with all that premises where an escaped slave who bleong to an harem gets to escape. Then becomes a fugitive, survives mostly because of luck and then start to develop some skills. But most of the plot would be about internaliced misandry, how the surface world makes no sense at all and racism. Or even a male trying to pass as a female. But to me, the discrimination Dritzz faces is almost non existant (not only there’s barely sexism, but also there’s no racism wich makes even less sense…)

          2. Some of your points, that I as male simply doesn’t which to see what you do, isn’t worthy of an answer. Consider this instead:
            There is no blueprint that goes for every patriarchal society. In some patriarchies women have achieved the position of ruling queen and served as the kings stand in, impossible with to much bias. In others they have much more restricted to home. There is no guarantee that a matriarchy means few males kept as harem slaves. I also see no reason for the rivaling drow women to wait for their turn with a breeder, it doesn’t fit with their competitive and agressive behaviour.

    2. Sweet zombie jesus there’s so much wrong with this I don’t know where to start.

      Let’s just start at the start. Men are not useless. Men are inferior in Drow society, but certainly not useless. There is no role acceptable for female drow other than Cleric of Llolth. Males fill every other role in the society.

      Actually, come to think of it, that answers pretty much everything.

      I would also like to point out the six part series released some years ago which followed the path of an adventuring party led by two incredibly forceful drow clerics.

      There is also the Daughter of the Drow trilogy to consider. Or Drizzt’s girlfriend (wife? Are they married yet?) Catti Brie.

      Salvatore, and the Forgotten Realms in general is a poor place to look if you’re looking for a lack of strong female characters.

  2. Nicely written post – you said it all with the title, of course.
    The triumphalist nonsense in his post is certainly enough to show me his fiction isn’t for me.

    But luckily there’s plenty of good stuff out there without needing it.

    1. I would read Mark’s blog post yourself before you make such a decision to avoid a whole genre. I felt like the author perhaps misunderstood, misinterpreted or misrepresented his article.

      The way I read it there were two distinct parts; the first celebrating his milestone, the second defending the number of female characters in ‘Prince of Thorns’. The celebrating and the discussion of his critics’ points were completely separate. “Triumphalist nonsense” is hardly fair if you read Mark’s exact words.

  3. I love fantasy fiction (and sci fi a bit less) but I ALWAYS have to overlook the dearth of female characters. I read these books IN SPITE of the lack of female characters, and I guess that that may be a reason why Mark Lawrence feels so smug – women readers just put up with it!

    I have never read anything by Mark Lawrence, btw.

    1. Yeah, I always hate the argument that “well, these books are successful, so people don’t care! It’s fine!” If you want to read fantasy novels, you just have to deal with it right now, no matter how much it sucks.

  4. Thanks for that post. As a gay man, it can be very difficult for me to connect to a fantasy story where all characters of note are straight and male, so I can imagine that female readers often have the same difficulty.

    I can’t speak to Lawrence’s work–I’ve never read him–but I’m dismayed that instead of directly engaging the criticism in a thoughtful way, he’s basically said there’s no problem. Oh well.

  5. I tried to read the book about a year ago – Christmas afternoon, actually – and couldn’t make it past the first chapter, in which the protagonist rapes and then burns alive two girls. (Lovely reading for the holidays, btw.) I decided to read the reviews before continuing with it, and lo and behold it was one of those one-or-five-star books…and all the one-stars complained about the rapes and general callousness towards any female characters.
    So I wrote a scathing review of the “make the protagonists unlikeable by having him rape someone” approach to characterization, marked as “will not finish”, and then read something else.
    It appears I was right in not getting into the series.

  6. I wrote about this choice on my blog but it was more concerning characters in films, TV, and video games: http://gamedesignaspect.blogspot.com/2014/09/the-choice-for-female-characters.html There had been a recent controversy over the lack of playable female characters in video games Considering female gamers are currently a large portion of the game-playing audience, it’s surprising that there’s even a debate as to the need for a diverse character cast

  7. Agree with the criticism. Write how you want, but stop making excuses. To exclude important female characters is a choice, like everything else is a choice. Admit to it instead.

    I´m not writing about shieldmaidens because they (according to legend) did participate in that particular battle. They did, but the battle is full of male warriors. I write about shieldmaidens because I choose to. Simple as that.

  8. I think women just put up with it. Like even if the world is populated entirely by men, and the women are just playthings, women will still read it.
    Women don’t complain enough, they accept to much, and they put up with too much… Whilst men… basically won’t accept books with female protagonists.
    I am so tired and depressed by it all.

    1. Here’s a suggestion: Why don’t we just stop consuming media, be it film or book, with male protagonists? Just stop. Boycott them. Sooner or later, they’ll have to give us more female protagonists, right?

      1. Or they’ll take it as evidence that female viewers don’t matter / aren’t interested in that stuff.

        1. They already do that with video games, even though roughly half of the buyers are women. They don’t care where the money comes from as long as they get it. My guess is that once they aren’t given women’s money any more, they’ll put a lot more effort into having female MCs.

  9. I can picture Tolkien looking at his map. “Let’s see. I’ve got one woman in Rivendell, one in Lothlorien, one in Rohan…. hmm, I guess I better put one in Hobbiton to wrap up Sam’s story. Okay. Four women. Seems like a lot, but I guess there’s no help for it.

    Now… we need nine undead ringwraiths….”

  10. Everything that goes on a page, put there by the author, is a choice. It’s the author’s story. Period. No other consideration should exist. To consciously decide to add 10% more ethnic characters, or 17.8% more of one gender than another, is something that, to me, is too artificial to an already somewhat artificial endeavor.

    I write. Someone else reads. The end. If it stinks, few people read it. If it’s good, hopefully enough people read it to make somewhat of an impact. However, I believe with all my heart that an author should simply write whatever it is that they desire to write with no other consideration than the process of putting onto the page their creation.

    If a story features a strong social justice theme, that’s because that’s what came out of the author. If I write a story featuring a trans character or Asian character or a nice balance of hetero-normative characters, it’s because when I sat down to write, that’s what flowed out of me.

    1. But any writer knows that writing isn’t just about what “flows” out of your brain. It can be to some extent — the plot twists that surprise even the writer, the characters who do unexpected things, the magic scenes that seem to write themselves — but writing a novel for publication is far more about rewriting. It’s about going over things again and again and thinking about the things you’ve written and fine-tuning them. Editing and analysing your own work isn’t forced or unnatural. It’s the only way to write anything good. So just as the first sentences out of a writer’s brain may be cliched, or too wordy, and need some extra thought later, the make-up of the cast can also be initially flawed and need tweaking in edits. We are used to seeing very few women or ethnic minorities in fiction, especially fantasy fiction, so when we write, we initially tend to recreate those imbalances. Editing to include a more representative range of genders and ethnicities isn’t destroying the creative vision to meet a quota. It’s just part of editing.

  11. I love both Mark Lawrence and his books. He is a master storyteller and a courageous person who has weathered unbelievable personal obstacles to get where he is today. But I’ve lately had to stop reading his blog & Twitter feed. I went to a lot of trouble to discover and work on my own subconscious prejudices, which makes it twice as painful to watch another person (especially someone I otherwise admire) heap scorn on those who disagree with him. If I thought he cared, I’d still be arguing with him. But I save my energy for those areas where I have the slightest influence.

    He will never change, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth talking about. With any luck, discussions like these will make younger people question what we’ve always taken for granted (male is default, white is neutral). In another generation or two, I believe people will no longer be writing novels through the same filter that yesterday’s white men used to write the history books Lawrence and I grew up with and accepted as fact.

  12. The problem with this post is it’s completely undermined by the fact that there are two female characters in The Broken Empire. Both, for what niche they occupy in the plot, kick ass despite the assumed limits of their social positions appropriate to the setting and the world that has been built. Both are recognised for their success by the lead, Jorg.

    The fact that you didn’t read the books before commenting undermines the strength of your response.

    Jorg spent nearly the entirety of the book with a group of cut throat, village burning, violent thugs. To put a woman into that group would not have yielded a Brienne of Tarth but instead a monster of a woman. A woman that, a, would probably have been abused sexually by the men of the group given the setting, and b, would not have been well liked by many readers.

    It should also be pointed out Mark Lawrence wrote The Broken Empire years ago for fun. Not for publishing. Not with an agenda. And not for anyone’s pleasure but his own.

    So his point that the female presence in a book is a matter of preference is entirely correct.

    If a female author had made the same point you would not have made this post.

    Because writing a book is NOT about pleasing the masses or representation. It’s about the pleasure of the writer. Whatever that pleasure may be.

    And I put this to you, with the title ‘A Lack of Female Characters is Always a Choice’, if you came across a book that was predominantly female characters where the male characters did nothing more than the equivalent of standing round chewing grass, would you then make a post saying ‘A Lack of Male Characters is Always a Choice’.

    Also the fact that there are people praising your post and putting down Lawrence who haven’t read his books either. …none of your opinions are valid. Because you’re all talking about books that don’t exist.

    To the people who point out about the reviews that go on about the rape scene and about how they put the book down after that. You’ll also see reviews, and Mark has posted responses to some, about a scene where Jorg’s father, to teach him a brutal lesson, maims and burns the dog.

    Mark has recieved death threats, abusive messages and god knows what else accusing him of crimes against dogs. To the best of my knowledge, whilst bringing up his disabled daughter, he hasn’t found time to kick puppies and drown kittens.

    So if we can’t call the RSPCA on him for written crimes against dogs, surely we can’t say Lawrence is any kind of writer or any kind of man, just because his main characters rapes a woman.

    I would also point out, Cassandra Clare, who wrote The Mortal Instruments, also has a father-brutality-animal scene where Valentine snaps the neck of son Jace’s falcon. But she doesn’t receive cries of outrage, brutality and cruelty.

    Perhaps this is because, in our search for equality, we come down harder on men, and thereby undermine all efforts towards equality.

    Equality is not about bringing other people down, it’s about raising other people up until we’re all equal. Otherwise it’s not equality we’re asking for, it’s communism.

    Now it’s totally fine if you don’t like reading about rape, and maybe Jorg isn’t the character for you. That’s fine. That’s got to be fine, otherwise we live in a world where we’re starting to dictate taste. But if, as a reader, you are able to make choices based on your tastes of what to read, whether it’s hard core sci-fi and fantasy, murder mysteries or an atlas, then writers are free to make the same choices and not be judged for it?

    Also, the very title of this post ‘A Lack of Female Characters is Always a Choice’. How are you defining lack? Less than the male characters? So then the solution is to have 50% male and 50% female? But then where does that leave the trans population? The gender neutral population? Surely the only thought pattern worth promoting is ‘don’t put something in for the sake of it being it, if it’s there, make it have a purpose’ which is the sound basis for all good writing. And this is the point Mark defends. And I can, as a woman who has read all three of The Broken Empire books and enjoyed them, attest to the presence of Katherin and Miana, both of whom, as I think I’ve already said, kick ass. And I remember them prominently. Not to mention Jorg’s mother and a female Necromancer who was very effectively creepy.

    Every character in The Broken Empire undergoes noticeable development and adds to the plot. Everyone does something worth remembering.

    Isn’t that the best definition of equality in writing?

    Even it’s not diversity.

    1. Charlotte,

      Thank you for a reasonable and well thought out response. I just hope people take time to read it, or at least do some investigation of the facts on their own before they jump to conclusions.

    2. As other people have helpfully said, I wasn’t responding to the number of female characters in this series, as I’ve never read it. I was responding to Lawrence’s assertion that it wouldn’t matter if a book didn’t have ANY female characters at all.

      But a few things:

      Does two female characters really count as a significant female presence? It doesn’t matter if they “kick ass” or not. How many male characters are in the book, including secondary characters and background characters? I imagine far more than two, or four, or ten. Can we really say “but look, there are two whole women in this world!” and decide that’s enough?

      You say that any female characters in this band of thugs would be unlikeable. But so what? I assume the male characters in the group are also unlikeable, for you to say this. Why then can’t there be female characters we don’t like either? And if the male characters are terrible thugs and are still likeable, why couldn’t female characters be the same?

      Mark Lawrence may have initially written the book for fun, but it didn’t accidentally end up for sale in bookstores. He didn’t bump into a publisher on the subway, drop the pages of the manuscript, and have the publisher see them and go, “This is genius! I must publish this and I won’t take no for an answer!” At some point, he intended for the book to be published. And writing a book for publication IS about pleasing other readers and not just your own writerly whims — otherwise you would keep the book on your own laptop and never show it to anyone.

      If a female author had made the same point, I would have made this post, albeit with far more dismay.

      I hate the straw man argument of “you’d never make this post if a book lacked male characters.” The point is that women are missing from interesting roles in the vast majority of fantasy novels. The issue isn’t against one book, but the genre as a whole. The genre does not have an undeveloped male character problem. It DOES have an undeveloped female character issue.

      Books without ANY female characters do exist in the fantasy genre. The Hobbit springs immediately to mind.

      I haven’t read all of her books, but Cassandra Clare receives a lot of online hate. A LOT. The idea that male authors receive tons of hate and female authors don’t is as ludicrous as it is demonstrably untrue.

      Equality is about raising other people up. Like, say, allowing female characters to have as much development and presence in fantasy novels as male characters.

      And, as I said, a “lack” of female characters here is meant as literally NONE, as Mark Lawrence suggested in his blog post. But we can also define it as “wow, this world sure is a lot maler than reality, isn’t it?”

      And finally, no. That is not a good definition of equality in writing. That is a definition for good character writing. Equality in writing is applying that concept of good character writing to non-white male characters as well.

      1. ‘Does two female characters really count as a significant female presence? It doesn’t matter if they “kick ass” or not. ‘

        ‘And, as I said, a “lack” of female characters here is meant as literally NONE, as Mark Lawrence suggested in his blog post. But we can also define it as “wow, this world sure is a lot maler than reality, isn’t it?”’

        You’re still not defining what you want. Just that you don’t like what you see. Which is entirely subjective. Deciding what is ‘enough’ is subjective to the reader.

        And you never address Mark’s question of ‘ Does a book covering a day or week on a WWII submarine need a major role for a female character?’

        Of course the argument there is context. And the prevailing counter argument seems to be that fantasy worlds, being entirely in control of the author, are not subject to context and that every author must therefore plug in X percentage of female characters.

        Interestingly, when readers are reading yaoi, boy on boy and deliberately bromance books there is little to no complaint about the lack of female presence. So why is The Hobbit not regarded as a the massive bromance that it is? And that’s completely ignoring the fact that is was written in the 1930s when social structure and regard for women was much lower than it is today and can hardly be called an example of modern fiction.

        Why can’t there be a woman in the band of brothers? Ignoring the fact that in Prince of Fools (a latter trilogy in the same world following a different protagonist) one of the brothers is revealed to have been a woman masquerading as a man. Sure, Lawrence could have changed one of the brothers into an obvious woman.

        Should he have to? No.

        ‘And writing a book for publication IS about pleasing other readers and not just your own writerly whims ‘

        I’m just going to have to agree to disagree with you on this. I would like to be published one day, but I’m not sat here writing stories for a readership, I’m writing them for me. Surely it’s the business of agents, editors and publishers to decide whether a manuscript has a readership to whom they can market?

        This isn’t me trying to pass the blame from writers to the industry. The loop of reader – writer – publisher is a never ending Celtic knot. Where it’s all a chicken and egg scenario.

        But the solution is not to blanket bash all works of fiction written by men or dominated by a male cast. The solution is to change perception.

        ‘I haven’t read all of her books, but Cassandra Clare receives a lot of online hate. A LOT. The idea that male authors receive tons of hate and female authors don’t is as ludicrous as it is demonstrably untrue.’

        Cassie recieves a lot of hate for a lot of reasons. I never said she didn’t recieve any hate. But you have failed to respond to the my specific point making a direct comparison between the response of two father figures on two sons using violent acts on animals where one was written by a male author and one was written by a female author. Where the male author is being assumed to be a monster and the female author is not. Which, to me at least, looks like sexism.

        And this from someone who loves both authors and their works.

        ‘Equality is about raising other people up. Like, say, allowing female characters to have as much development and presence in fantasy novels as male characters.’

        They are allowed. Lawrence has never said they’re not allowed.

        Mark’s Blog: ‘Female characters? Great! Of course literature needs them. ‘Strong’ has always seemed a silly qualification to me. How about ‘well written’? If you write women well, individually and as a whole, then there’s no call for ‘strong’ – you just get ‘women’ who are variously weak, strong, kind, cruel, etc just as men are.’

        In fact, as far as I can see, he agrees with you?

        ‘Equality in writing is applying that concept of good character writing to non-white male characters as well.’

        Which Lawrence has done.

        I can’t even say ‘just apparently not enough for you’ because you haven’t even read the books.

        So if, as you’ve said, we are clearly discussing a purely hypothetical scenario of a story with no girls in it.

        Yes they exist. Lord of the Flies being another.

        In the end, I’m just going to have to agree to disagree with you. Because to me, a book can contain all of one gender. Or all of one race. Or all of one sexuality. Or be a book full of multicoloured non-gender, non-binary, not even vaguely human looking aliens and still be a compelling read.

        Yes there is a negative attitude towards women in fiction. Demonstrably in fantasy and sci0fi and YA. To the women writing it, to the women reading it and the women in the books themselves whether it’s written by a man or woman.

        But the problem is not that writers are writing what they want to write (aka men writing about men) or writing about what they know or what they’ve experiences. The problem is is the perception of women in fiction.

        To which the solution is to encourage women to write, to encourage women to speak, to encourage women to read.

        And to point out when people are making sexist or derogatory remarks about women in fiction, or any other minority. Which is what you have admirably tried to do.

        But I agree with Lawrence’s closing post

        ‘As a footnote – because some people with an axe to grind conflate the contents of one book with the issues concerning the content/direction of the genre as a whole … I will state (though I shouldn’t have to) that there very likely are issues with the representation of females and minorities in fantasy as a whole. There very likely are a disproportionate number of straight white male protagonists in fantasy books. It’s good when we see variety, and the hope that we’ll continue to move toward more diverse fantasy that proportionally represents its readers &/or society is laudable. That still doesn’t mean that ‘this particular book does not contain (enough/the right sort of) female characters’ is a valid criticism of that particular book, other than in the sense that it is the reason you didn’t enjoy it(*).

        (*) I’ll moderate that by agreeing that if you’re covering many points of view and many characters over a decent period in a setting where we would reasonably expect to see a good mix of genders … then, yes, the absence of female characters could be a cause for complaint. Which of course brings us back to my original point – one size does not fit all – such criticisms should be dependent on the particulars of the book in question, not as a tick-box on a check-list prepared independent of any knowledge of said book.’

        I just think you picked the wrong target and misunderstood his post.

  13. The author here admits to not reading Mark’s trilogy and it would be obvious even if they didn’t. The trilogy is full of strong women. The protag marries a strong woman, is in love with another. Even the pope is a woman in Mark’s world.

    Also, there was a woman among the band of brothers. It’s just that it’s not revealed until Prince of Fools that one of the brothers is a woman pretending to be a man.

    I think it would be prudent to read his works before judging them on hearsay. And I’m not sure the author here understood his blog post. Mark has written other blog posts about writing women in fiction that clearly show he’s no misogynist.

    Combine this with the money he raises for charity and the time he spends caring for his disabled daughter and you may find a very different Mark Lawrence than the one written about in this blog post.

    1. I am sure Mark Lawrence is a lovely charitable person, but his disabled daughter has literally nothing to do with this conversation. He made a statement (a statement you don’t need to have read his books to understand — that it would be OK if books had no female characters at all), and I responded to it. The existence of charity work or disabled daughters doesn’t change the nature of that statement.

      I know very little about Mark Lawrence, except that his books have a guy with a hood on the cover, he’s a fantasy author, and he wrote this blog post. I’m not making statements about him as a person or even about his books. Just about the opinions he expressed in that post.

      1. “I know very little about Mark Lawrence, except that his books have a guy with a hood on the cover, he’s a fantasy author, and he wrote this blog post.”

        And therein lies my point. You unintentionally mischaracterize Mark’s post and his attitude in the process simply because you lack the context. The trilogy begins with a group of mostly misogynistic men and is told in first person. But as the main character grows and starts to integrate with society women are featured regularly and with much strength.

        But none of that matters. Your blog post is damaging to Mark’s reputation, and unfairly so. You can see in the comments how people are reading your post and saying they wouldn’t read the trilogy. Because they now have a false impression of how that trilogy plays out. Mark deserves better than this. But he’s used to it now. That’s what his post was emphasizing.

        I’m a feminist. And there are some parts of Prince of Thorns I take issue with. There’s also no doubt that strong women play a central role in the trilogy.

        The feminist who attack Mark’s work have made a big mistake. This is a man who could be a great ally to their cause. Instead he’s being tarred and feathered. I wonder how much of his blog you’ve read? http://mark—lawrence.blogspot.com/2014/05/writing-men-without-tits.html

        1. I really disagree that any context is necessary to understand the statement “But rewind. Let’s say there actually were none. Zero. So what?”

          I can’t comment on the female characters in Prince of Thorns. I CAN comment on the idea that it’d be fine if there wasn’t a single one.

          But I doubt that my post is damaging to his reputation. I’m responding to something that he himself said, linking to what he said so people can see it for themselves, and using it as a jumping off point to discuss a problem with fantasy fiction in general. If we have to read a person’s entire body of work before we can comment on a statement about the need (or lack of a need) for women in fantasy fiction in a single one of their blog posts, then discussion is going to be pretty hard to come by. The idea that I should have read his *entire* blog to comment on one post is even more ridiculous.

          This is not tarring and feathering a feminist ally. This is criticizing someone’s words in their own blog post. They wrote them freely, and I can criticize them freely. I have pretty much no opinion on Mark Lawrence, the human being, or even Mark Lawrence, the author of the Prince of Thorns. This is my opinion on Mark Lawrence’s One Blog Post in December 2014 Where He Said Some Really Questionable Things When Considered In The Context Of The Fantasy Genre As A Whole.

          1. I find it interesting that you omit the part where Lawrence also mentions in his post that he would similarly take issue if a male was arbitrarily put in a story which had an all female cast just for the sake of having a male perspective. I’m curious if you actually read his entire post…

            Yes, we absolutely need more representation of gender AND race in Sci Fi and Fantasy, something which he also states in his post mind you, but he is emphasizing the importance of setting, which is a critique of a white, male dominated society that is in its death throes. Lawrence uses this clichéd setting to make a point about how broken this society actually is.

            1. It is difficult to write about someone’s blog post without reading it first. I’m sure there are people who try, but it seems pretty pointless to me.

              The point is that his hypothetical “I’d protest just as much” scenario doesn’t exist. There isn’t a history of fantasy novels where pretty much every character is female except for the occasional token father or love interest in the background, and where writers claim that it would go against their creative integrity to have any other male characters in the story. We’re not talking about novels where there’s a reason for things being all men, like a novel set in a male prison (and even then, if we flip that scenario, Orange is the New Black still has many significant male characters). We’re talking about novels where the women have mysteriously disappeared. It’s not then putting in female characters unnaturally to have “a female perspective.” It’s putting in female characters because they exist and it’s damn weird to have a society that’s 99% men without it having severe world-building effects.

              But this post is from 2014, so I don’t think we need to go deep into that debate again.

  14. I agree completely with this post. And want to emphasis that writers of both sexes do this. I think the more we talk about it, the more likely all authors will realize, oh, yeah, there’s the other half of the population.

    1. Yes, definitely! People argue that “what about when female authors do the reverse?”, but it’s far more likely that a female writer will forget to include female characters too, because that’s what we’re used to seeing. Fantasy novels typically have an all-male feel, so our default writing approach is to give our own books an all-male feel as well. It can be a difficult thing to escape from, even with conscious effort.

  15. I disagree with the notion that someone must read a book (or heavens help us, a trilogy!) before forming an opinion on that author’s blog posts.

    I will never get to read all the books I want to read before I die*. Nothing anyone can say or do can change this unfortunate fact. And no longer having any teachers to insist otherwise, no author is owed my readership. I read books for my own enjoyment – not as some prerequisite before being allowed to form an opinion on someone else’s blog post!

    *https://what-if.xkcd.com/76/

    1. As a woman who has read the trilogy, read Mark’s post and then read this one it seems, at least to me, that the arguments and POV presented in this blog are circumstantial and not necessarily pertinent to Mark’s blog post, let alone the trilogy in question.

      Having an opinion is great. Being aware of issues is great. But misdirection as a consequence of not being in possession of all the facts leads to assumptions. And there’s that famous old saying of ‘to assume makes an ASS out of U and ME’.

      And now I shall demonstrate by purely using one blog post against the other.

      This blog: ‘ I’ve never read his series, and this apparent lack of female characters suggests that it wouldn’t be my cup of tea anyway. ‘

      Where did she get this apparent lack from?

      Mark’s blog: Before getting further into this let’s first agree that of course Prince of Thorns does have female characters and their role expands in the remainder of the trilogy. But rewind. Let’s say there actually were none. Zero. So what?

      There has also been a failure to define ‘lack’.

      I also put it to you, and anyone else, that if we were presented with a heroine and her band of intrepid lady friends this same blogger would not turn round and question ‘the lack of male characters’. In fact, if anyone brought up the ‘lack of male characters’ they’d probably find themselves buried under a tonne of ‘GIRL DON’T NEED NO MAN’ posts. But apparently men need women to make an interesting story? Of course not. That would be sexist.

      But this blogger is entitled to her taste. We’re not criticizing her for wanting to read about women. However her statement has been picked up by commenters and thus is promoting the idea that The Broken Empire doesn’t have any girls in it. Which would also imply said commenters aren’t actually reading Mark’s post either and are therefore forming a chain of chinese whispers.

      This blog: Lawrence argues that it’s unreasonable to demands “major roles for female characters in every book, no matter what it’s about, no matter what the scope, or the length of the book.”

      This blogger quotes the first half of the statement. But fails to quote the rest.

      Mark’s Blog: Then you lose me. If you replace ‘female’ with ‘male’ in the argument I’ll object just the same. Does a book covering a day or week on a WWII submarine need a major role for a female character?

      A pertinent question that this blog fails to address. Instead she has gone on to focus on this following

      This blog: So. A novel has to be 422,000 words long before it has space for a female character to do anything important or interesting. Male protagonists must go through more than three weeks of their story before they encounter female characters who have significant roles in their story. And women are definitely never part of bands of murdering thugs. Sure, there’s no sign of any kind of population issues in these fantasy novels. There’s assumedly an equal number of men and women. But the men never seem to encounter them, at least not doing anything interesting.

      Marks blog: Prince of Thorns was met (at least in the fish bowl of the blogosphere) by a controversy over the vanishingly small reference to rape it contains.

      Well, just from what’s written in the blog the men clearly encounter some women.

      This blog: If women are left out of that structure, if they have nothing interesting to do… that is very much the author’s choice, whether the author sees it or not.
      And Mark Lawrence clearly made that choice and defends it. He suggests wanting female characters in a story is an issue of taste, like wanting your books to contain “plucky young wizards” or “Machiavellian politics.” But having women do interesting things in your novel is not the same as including a certain plot trope or tone or approaching the story from a particular angle. The fact that Lawrence thinks of the inclusion of female characters as a similar choice, a similar niche preference, is really indicative of the problem of sexism in fantasy as a whole.

      Mark’s blog: Yes, you’re entirely welcome to prefer stories with particular components. And yes, you’re entirely welcome to pick up my books and, on finding that particular component absent, to say ‘I didn’t enjoy this book because it lacked the thing I like’.
      But to criticise the author for not putting in that thing you like, as if it were some kind of fundamental flaw in personality, ethics, or decency … that is, was, and always shall be … crap.

      Here we have Mark pointing out that what you like to read and why you like to read it, is a personal choice.

      Which we can all agree is true.

      Therefore it is true to say, I like reading about women, this book does not contain the kind of women I like reading about, ergo I have not enjoyed this book.

      Ergo wanting to read about female characters is a matter of taste.

      Just as much as reading about male characters. Or plucky young wizards. Or Machiavellian politics.

      Writing about them is a choice. But surely if readers have the right to preference in what they read, don’t writers have preference in what they write?

      But this blogger implies that Mark has made the choice not to have his female characters do anything interesting.

      Here I break character to mention that in the books, Queen Miana blows up an invading army. Princess Katherin teaches herself to walk into people’s dreams and uses that to haunt Jorg for wrongs he did to her.

      This blog: This isn’t to say that authors can’t explore a misogynistic or patriarchal society in fantasy. But that choice should be made for a reason, and if you don’t have any female characters around to react to that society and accept or struggle against it, that choice has done nothing for the novel except make it appear lazy, a fantasy trapped in our own world.

      I’m not going to counter with anything from Mark’s blog because it’s kind of gone off topic. Surely if the point of the example novel in question is to ‘explore a misogynistic or patriarchal society’ and it’s not done by an oppressed party (be it women or otherwise) then how can it be an exploration of a ‘misogynistic or patriarchal society’?

      The Broken Empire trilogy isn’t about tackling a ‘misogynistic or patriarchal society’ so I’m not sure how it’s relevant?

      This blog: But make no mistake. If a novel is about a character interacting with a group or with society in some way, rather than a story of isolation, then there is no need to “shoe horn” women in.

      Mark’s blog: It’s a book told from a single point of view over a period of maybe three weeks, the majority of which is spent in the wilds with a band of murdering thugs. It made no sense when I wrote it to shoe-horn in additional female characters – the demand makes no sense to me now.

      The use of the word additional here was in reference to the fact that Jorg’s mother, Katherin, Miana and the Necromancer were already present. Of the very limited cast that The Broken Empire trilogy encounters there are mentions of women in the areas of society that we see and I’m told that in Prince of Fools, which is set in the same world, it is revealed that one of the band of ‘brothers’ was a woman masquerading as a male.

      Mark’s point is that if he had added in additional characters they wouldn’t have served any purpose. Ergo they would have been shoe-horned in. The point is not that their female. The point is their lack of purpose. However this blog latches onto the female part of the equation. Without knowledge of the books and thereby the context, it might be understandable. But it’s just embarrassing when presented with the presence of kick ass women in the books.

      This blog: They should already be there, and their absence is either suggests a failure of imagination, or a failure to care. Both are pretty significant failings for any novelist to have.

      Mark’s blog: As a footnote – because some people with an axe to grind conflate the contents of one book with the issues concerning the content/direction of the genre as a whole … I will state (though I shouldn’t have to) that there very likely are issues with the representation of females and minorities in fantasy as a whole. There very likely are a disproportionate number of straight white male protagonists in fantasy books. It’s good when we see variety, and the hope that we’ll continue to move toward more diverse fantasy that proportionally represents its readers &/or society is laudable. That still doesn’t mean that ‘this particular book does not contain (enough/the right sort of) female characters’ is a valid criticism of that particular book, other than in the sense that it is the reason you didn’t enjoy it(*).

      (*) I’ll moderate that by agreeing that if you’re covering many points of view and many characters over a decent period in a setting where we would reasonably expect to see a good mix of genders … then, yes, the absence of female characters could be a cause for complaint. Which of course brings us back to my original point – one size does not fit all – such criticisms should be dependent on the particulars of the book in question, not as a tick-box on a check-list prepared independent of any knowledge of said book.

      In conclusion: No you don’t have to have read the books to critically examine Mark’s post.

      But after critically comparing these two blogs, though I agree that there is a disproportionate amount of male characters in the fantasy genre; bias towards men in publishing and in the readership; an overall promoted disparaging attitude towards women writers and female characters in fantasy, I cannot agree that Mark’s post is what this blog makes it out to be.

      Regardless of the fact that there are awesome women in the Broken Empire trilogy.

    2. Thank you. I would never comment on a book series without having read the books, but I think blog posts are fair game, especially when the post doesn’t discuss that book in particular, but a hypothetical version of the book with no female characters at all.

  16. I would agree that a lack of female characters is a choice, but sometimes I think it is a choice that makes sense to the story, in the same way that a lack of male characters can make sense in a story, depending on its circumstances. Women may not appear as frequently in certain fantasy novels, but this may be because the author is basing his world or society on real societies of the past and the issues that they had with race and gender. Making a world akin to our own is how we, or at least I, connect with it best, and I feel that a lot of authors whose female characters are not as numerous or diverse as the males may simply be trying to point out the challenges women would have faced and indeed comment on the obstacles they still face to this day. So I think Mark Lawrence raised a valid point in his blog post, which is that men and women do not necessarily have to appear in equal numbers all the time. The amount can vary, as long as quality remains the same. I happen to think Mark has some excellent female characters, and if they don’t seem as fleshed out as Jorg, not a lot of the males receive as much time either. There is only one central character, and that is Jorg Ancrath. Fuck me but I love him.

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