Writing Gender in Fantasy
I have been reading fantasy novels for as long as I’ve been able to read and in the vast majority of those novels, the protagonist was male. This is actually a pattern that is true for all genres that I read – note that I don’t tend to read romance, which has a much higher occurrence of female protagonists.
In Ashael Rising, I did not set out to write a female protagonist because of this – the book is based on a dream and Ashael is very loosely based on the role that I played in the dream and so she is female because I am female. However, it occurred to me after I had started that I had the opportunity to do something different. With a few notable exceptions, the women I have encountered in fantasy novels tend to come in broad stereotypes – the damsel in distress and the warrior in a dress being the most common in my experience.
I knew that I wanted to write a real woman. Ashael is strong because she knows the right thing to do and does it, not because she can wield a weapon. There is romance in her life but she is complete without it and it is not her first priority. She does not wait for a man to save her but is perfectly capable of saving herself. Like so many women, she gives to the point of self-sacrifice but she does this from a place of love, not out of a lack of self-worth.
I realised that one character, one woman, would make no difference if she was surrounded only by men. Ashael Rising has several significant female characters. Bhearra, Ashael’s mentor, is perhaps my favourite. She is the oldest person in the community – so old that she has lost track of her age. The healer and spiritual leader of the community, she is vibrant and tireless, rising before dawn and working long after many others have settled down for the night. Long widowed, she has an occasional lover. Although she has her flaws, which I can’t say much about, Bhearra is the type of woman I aspire to be.
Rana, Ashael’s best friend, is co-leader of the community with her mate, Joren. Rana has a nurturing soul and mothers everyone, cooking for others and making sure they are well-clothed. She is also a skilled hunter, often providing meat for them all. She supports the weight of her community and makes sure to know what’s happening in the lives of the people she cares for.
Alayne, close friend of Ashael and Rana, is heavily pregnant when we meet her but that doesn’t stop her flirting with Iwan. After her son is born, she happily co-parents with her mate, Gethyn, while still joining hunting and foraging groups. Alayne is brave, volunteering for a task that could result in her death.
Then there are the females of other races that we are only introduced to in Ashael Rising. Merelle of the Zanthar, a scheming manipulator and adulterer, happy to play every political game available to her in order to gain power.
Tchalikila of the Agnikant, a sorceress who knows more about Ashael’s past than our heroine does herself.
One of the things that was very important to me in writing these women was that they owned their bodies and their sexuality. For too long, women have been portrayed as play things for men to enjoy. Now, I do not actually have any sex scenes in the book but there are clear references to that facet of human relationships. Bhearra has a “friend with benefits”, Rana is happily mated in every way and Merelle is aggressive, taking what she wants. As for Ashael, well *spoilers*.
Having created these strong, rounded women, I needed to give them a society that they could thrive in, one built around respect and equality of all people, a utopia of sorts. That was more difficult than I expected. I found myself slipping into the familiar – having a man dismiss something as female intuition, defaulting to having women carry out all of the caring duties and food preparation etc. It took a conscious effort to remove these things. In doing so, I thought about the boxes that we shove men into and how restrictive traditional gender roles are for them too.
I started to think about how men are so often portrayed as stoic, unemotional, power hungry. Writing characters like that would be no fairer to men than the damsel-in-distress is to women. I started to think about how masculine stereotypes can be harmful to men and what I might be able to do to counter those stereotypes.
Here, in the UK, men are often put under pressure to show no emotion, to ‘man up’ and pretend that they do not have feelings so I decided to show the men in my book in all their emotional glory. Iwan experiences fear both for himself and for his mother. We also get to see him falling in love. Joren shares his doubts with Rana, admitting that he does not know how to lead the community through this crisis. He gratefully accepts her support. Colm worries about his mate and misses her when he they are separated.
What began as an intention to write realistic, well-rounded female characters led to an exploration of gender, how it is shaped and expressed in our society and how it could be in a culture where people are encouraged to be the truest version of themselves regardless of their gender. I hope that in this book I have been created characters capable of standing as role models for both young women and young men.