The Problem of “Relating,” Part 4

Step 4: Broaden female characters’ sphere of activity.

Two years ago, a discussion thread on Reddit Fantasy raised the question of whether the men in the group would read works by women, and if so, did they notice any difference in style, tone, and/or subject matter from male authored-works. Plenty of posters expressed no problem with female authors or female protagonists, but as I read the responses from those who openly preferred male authors or actively avoided female authors and protagonists, I noticed the same complaint coming up again and again: fantasy by and about women is “too focused on romance.”

More than one issue is at work here. Some posters have suggested that the hostility toward romance is a matter of faulty perception, and point out that romantic plots and subplots appear just as often in books by men as they do in books by women. This may be true, but I wonder where the root of that faulty perception might lie. Some readers who profess hatred for romance can read books by Jim Butcher, Scott Lynch, or Joe Abercrombie and not be bothered by the romantic subplots therein. Do such readers simply expect the worst from a book by a female author? After all, if we don’t think we’ll enjoy a book, we probably won’t.

In previous blog posts I’ve addressed the prejudice against romance and pondered what might be done to rehabilitate its reputation. I’m still convinced that love plots aren’t really the problem; bad love plots are. I acquired a taste for romance early on, partly from growing up watching classic films like It Happened One Night, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, That Hamilton Woman, Random Harvest, and Now Voyager, all of which feature romances in which the characters discover strengths in themselves as a result of their relationships. Even if their endings prove tragic, the lovers in my favorite romantic classic films bring out the best in each other, and I can see clearly why they need each other. This is the kind of romance I love, and the kind I try to write.

Yet I’ve also seen the many ways in which a romantic plot can be botched into eye-rolling unendurability. Too often, particularly in recent fiction and film, such plots seem to have been written on the principle that “love makes you stupid.” Characters become weaker, not stronger, as they fall in love. One, the other, or both lovers involved are such colorless individuals that it’s impossible to fathom what they see in each other. If I’d grown up seeing or reading too many love plots like this, I don’t doubt I would have developed a strong prejudice against romance in general.

We need to look for better and fresher ways to write romance. We need consciously to subvert, or abandon altogether, the genre’s most tired cliches. (The “ordinary girl/ extraordinary guy” trope, particularly when it involves an average high school girl and some type of male supernatural creature, can take a permanent vacation as far as I’m concerned, along with the male hero who is more a paragon of wish-fulfillment perfection than a believable person.) We need to cover the ground with more thoughtful, more credible, and more surprising romantic plots and subplots so that, over time, the hostility toward romance will wear away and both male and female readers will enjoy such stories.

But writing better love plots is only part, and not even the biggest part, of the solution. It won’t alter perceptions if falling in love remains the main thing, or the only thing, that around 80% of female protagonists in fantasy fiction get to do. What’s needed, more than anything else, is a radical expansion of our ideas of what a female protagonist can be and do, and what kinds of stories may be told about her. The possibilities for male leads still range far, far wider than the possibilities for female leads, and writers must work to change this.

Female characters in fantasy fiction tend to fall too often into one of two sharply divided categories. The first is the Damsel whose hopes, plans, and entire being are bound up in her connection with a male character. The second is the Action Girl, the warrior with beaucoup survival and combat skills, whose hopes, plans, and entire being can still end up tied to her connection with a male character or a choice between two suitors. (Suzanne Collins, author of the popular Hunger Games series, apparently had no plans to incorporate a love triangle into her plot, but she was strong-armed into manufacturing one for purposes of sales. That makes me seethe when I think about it, and I wish I could read the series Collins wanted to write.) So, if you’re a woman in fantasy, you can be either the traditional maiden/mother or the non-traditional warrior woman. If your writer is keen to show that female characters’ strength doesn’t have to equate to combat skills, you may get to be a healer (e.g. Sorcha in Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest, Snake in Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake), or maybe even a sympathetic mage.

Yet this still leaves a multitude of callings we see all too rarely. Where are the female artisans — blacksmiths, carpenters, weavers, etc.? Where are the female players and circus performers, tricksters and good-hearted rogues? Where are the female teachers, scholars, and librarians? Where are the female engineers and inventors? (We have seen a few more of these lately, thanks to the rise of steampunk, but still more would be welcome.) Where are the female artists, bards, and storytellers? Surely if we broadened the scope of female characters’ activities, we’d find ways to broaden the range of storylines in which they might be central.

One or two or even thirty exceptional stories aren’t going to turn the tide of perception that “female author + female protagonist = all romance, all the time.” We need both quality and quantity — to do better, and more.

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