Looking for women in historically-based fantasy worlds

This post is slightly adapted from a conversation I held with Ken Scholes on (now defunct) Babel Clash in September 2009. I was inspired to dig up the old post from a reference to it made in another September 2009 post by Aliette de Bodard on Female protagonists in historical fantasy, which she had reason to refer to today on Twitter. de Bodard’s post is just as fresh and important today as it was then, as alas this subject comes up with discouraging regularity.

I wanted to talk about how writers can try to find a way out of the assumptions they may be bringing to the table when deciding whether and how much to introduce female characters into fantasy novels whose settings are based on a version of the past. That is, they may be historical fantasy or secondary world fantasy derived from research into our own historical past.

Even in patriarchal societies of the past (and present!), women who might otherwise have been banned by custom or law from partaking in the public life of politics, power, learning, work and so on still had personalities. I can’t emphasize this enough. People–even women!–have personalities regardless of how much or how little political power they have. People can live a quiet life of daily work out of the public eye, and still have personalities. Really! They can still matter to those around them, they can matter to themselves, and they can influence events in orthogonal ways that any self respecting writer can easily dream up.

Furthermore, with a little careful study of history, one discovers that women found ways to accomplish plenty of “things” big and small, personal and political. Maybe they did it behind a screen, or around the corner, or in the back room or in a parlor, or ran the brewery they inherited from a deceased husband, but they did all kinds of stuff that was either never noticed or was elided from historical accounts.  So much of our view of what women “did” in the past is mediated through accounts written by men who either didn’t see women or were so convinced (yes, I’m looking at you, Aristotle, but you are but one among many) that women were an inferior creature that what they wrote was not only biased but selectively blind. Even now, in “modern” day, so much is mediated by our assumptions about what “doing” means and by our prejudices and misconceptions about the past.

In reality, while women in many cultures worldwide had (and have) fewer legal rights as well as often living in constrained or deplorably oppressive circumstances, they still had (and have) minds and hands and hearts. Weird about that. Women have found ways to use their minds and hands and hearts, because people do. They may even have been happy and productive and respected.

In the last few decades, historical scholarship has been expanding the scope of who and what merits examination. Historians have excavated the lives of women so long overlooked and ignored.

Writers writing stories that deal with power politics in the age of palaces would do well, for instance, to check out a book like Servants of the Dynasty:  Palace Women in World History, edited by Anne Walthall.  This cross cultural study of palace women in a number of pre-modern societies worldwide does not sugarcoat or distort the realities of women’s lives, but it also illuminates the many misconceptions people may have about women in such societies and in such specific circumstances, awake within the halls of power.

The scholarship on women in medieval Europe is extensive. I own too many titles to list them here, but one might start with a book like Singlewomen in the European Past: 1250-1800, edited by Judith M. Bennett and Amy M. Froide.

I have fewer non-European studies that specifically deal with women’s history, although I’m expanding my library as I find new (to me) material, books like Women Writing Africa: West Africa and the Sahel, edited by Esi Sutherland-Addy and Aminata Diaw, and Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas by Barbara A. Mann.

This kind of reading will open up possibilities for writers who may be having trouble figuring out where women “fit” into epic/high fantasy, but they’re so very valuable for anyone, really. There are other places to look as well, sources well outside the hierarchical boundaries of academic scholarship.

The key, I suspect, is wanting to open the door.

Guest Post by Helen Lowe on Worldbuilding + a joint giveaway

I would like to welcome fantasy writer Helen Lowe. Her second novel, The Gathering of the Lost, is recently released by Orbit Books, and I’m pleased to be able to highlight Helen, her books, and her thoughts on world building.

Below the guest post you will find a joint giveaway. You need only comment to enter.


Building Fantastic Worlds—“It’s A Mystery”

By Helen Lowe


Over the past few weeks, at various stops on The Gathering of the Lost blog tour, I have discussed a number of facets of the story, including environment, war, romance, history, adventure and writing strong women characters. Yet all these aspects could equally well apply to any writing genre, from contemporary realism to crime to historical fiction. The element that really distinguishes FSF, especially when a story departs from this-world-as-we-know-it, is world building.

But how do compelling and intriguing worlds come about—the ones where arguably the world is as much a character as any of the personalities that appear within the story. Logic suggests there ought to be a formula, one any aspiring world builder can follow so that adding two and two will result in—hey presto—a fantastic world. Right?

Rather than an enthusiastic and positive “yes,” my initial response is more cautious. There are certainly ingredients that distinguish the worlds that have really seized my imagination. For example, an extreme physical environment dominates Ursula Le Guin’s Winter in “The Left Hand of Darkness,” as it does Frank Herbert’s Arrakis (“Dune”) and Robin Hobb’s Rain Wilds (The Live Ships series and now the Rain Wilds Chronicles.) But before we can go “extreme physical environment: check,” we have to consider worlds like Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The landscapes are reasonably diverse, but not extreme, yet Middle Earth has retained its place in our collective imagination for nearly sixty years.

When thinking about what makes the world stand out, I find myself coming back to Tolkien’s layering of myth and history in Middle Earth, which results in a sense of continuity beyond the present adventure. I also return to the strong association of “culture” with each new landscape: hobbits and the Shire; the differing elven cultures of Rivendell, Lothlorien, and Mirkwood; the dwarves of Moria and ents of Fangorn, the human societies of Rohan and those of Gondor. At one level many of these groups comprise separate species, but they are also distinct cultures; the way they both shape their world, and are shaped by it, reflects those distinctions.

Culture plays a vital role in defining Le Guin’s Winter and Hobb’s Rain Wilds, too, as does the historical and legendary continuum on Dune. So—a distinctive or extreme physical setting with a layering of myth and history, and/or culture. Perhaps some building blocks for creating fantastic worlds are emerging here.

But although the latter elements also form part of Catherynne M Valente’s Palimpsest, and to a lesser extent China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun, they pale beside the sheer imaginative creativity of both worlds: the piling of the bizarre onto the weird or downright whacky. Another building block, right—only now the author has to juggle physical extremes with those of the fantastical and it would be very easy to drop any or all of the balls. Easier still if one begins to consider Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland and Looking Glass worlds, which are based around playing cards and chess, or Paolo Bacigalupi’s Thailand where it is the vision of technological and bio-engineered genetic change that defines the world and compels the reader’s attention.

So how do the disparate elements that may—but don’t necessarily all, or always—comprise FSF world building get pulled together to create the worlds that absorb our attention and colonise our imaginations?

My short answer, culled from the film “Shakespeare In Love”, is: “It’s a mystery.” Because the actual answer seems nebulous and probably unsatisfactory—that the essential ingredient is a spark that leaps from the writer’s imagination, to the writing on the page or screen, and from there to the reader. In fact there is no formula able to guarantee that the necessary spark can and will be struck.

In terms of the “how to” employed by different authors, I suspect there are as many approaches as there are writers. Some will plan and design extensively in advance, while others allow the world, like the characters, to evolve as they write. My own world building is a mix of the instantaneous, the unexpected vision of a world or character that leaps into being, followed by the evolutionary—where the world unfolds, a little like a map unrolling, as the characters encounter it.

In terms of The Wall of Night world the first concept began long ago with a vision of a twilit, wind blasted environment garrisoned by keeps illuminated with inner light. Yet as to what lay inside the vast strongholds like the abandoned Old Keep of Winds—that knowledge only came when the storytelling began and the first characters actually went there. The world building evolved through their experiences: what each character saw, heard, smelt, touched—and was also touched by—and tasted, as well as her or his curiosity or need to learn what they did not already know.

Yet surely—you may argue—the world already exists outside the characters’ experience of it, in the author’s mind for example. And to an extent it does, in my case because of that first vision of the Wall of Night. Conversely though, the southern realms of Haarth, which come to the fore in “The Gathering Of The Lost” (The Wall of Night Book Two), and the romance of the road that stretches “from Ij to Ishnapur” evolved through the unfolding story, not via prior planning. Ursula Le Guin, in “Steering the Craft,” talks of the creative process in terms of ‘pulling ideas out of the air’—so perhaps the world of Haarth was there in the ether all along, waiting to be discovered. But after that initial flash of discovery, I had to begin the process of writing in order to explore its realms, cultures and frontiers.

I am forced to conclude that world building does contain an element of mystery. I can check all the boxes—yet still that vital spark may not be there. It occurs to me though, that I do not look on any aspect of storytelling as box checking. So perhaps that is the vital spark: whether manifesting in an instant or evolving over time, the worlds that I pull from the air have colour, texture and depth. In the moment they appear they are real. And although by no means assured, that sense of reality is the key to ensuring a world is also real on the page—and may become real for the reader as well.


Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, and interviewer, and the current Ursula Bethell Writer-in-Residence at the University of Canterbury. She has won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for both Thornspell (Knopf) in 2009, and The Heir of Night (The Wall of Night Book One) in 2011. The Heir of Night has also recently been shortlisted for the Gemmell Morningstar Award. Helen posts every day on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really blog, on the 1st of every month on the Supernatural Underground, and occasionally on SF Signal. You can also follow her on Twitter: @helenl0we. [In the Twitter handle, the 0 is a zero, not an ‘o’]




Everyone who comments will be in the draw to win one of two book packages:

1) A copy of Helen Lowe’s The Heir of Night and a copy (your choice) of either my Spirit Gate (Crossroads 1) or Cold Magic (Spiritwalker 1)

2) A copy of Helen Lowe’s The Gathering of the Lost and a copy (your choice) of either my Shadow Gate (Crossroads 2) or Cold Fire (Spiritwalker 2)

The draw will close on May 1 at 12 midnight (Hawaii time) with the result posted here the next day. The draw to be made by Random Number Integer.

Cold Steel: A Complete Draft

Today I completed a provisional, conditional draft of COLD STEEL.

It completes the Spiritwalker Trilogy.

It’s a first draft in the sense that this is the first complete draft of the book. Many sections are not first draft as they have been written, rewritten, and revised multiple times, but the full shape of the book is now “laid down” — rather, I suppose, as one might set up the frame of a house. Of course, I have a huge amount of revisions and cutting to do, but I cannot express how relieved I am to have gotten this complete draft done and the frame of the plot finally fully in place.

This has been an immensely difficult book to write. In fact, I can now safely place it with THE LAW OF BECOMING in the category of “most difficult first draft” books I’ve ever written.

I’m probably going to write a post about the process & difficulties later, but for the moment I want to thank you guys for the support you have given me (a lot of this went on in email, both my writing friends and my readers). I know you have been cheering for me through a grueling process, and it really has made all the difference.

The narrative of women in fear and pain

My spouse and I started watching Fringe to see if we would like it. The first episode was cool except for the cliched and unnecessary “put the female lead in her underwear” scene. Undressed scenes are what killed my interest in watching the US remake of Nikita with Maggie Q because I could not get past the gratuitous bikini and lingerie scenes in the pilot, which were evidently needed to undercut the fact that she is meant to be a dangerous and out of control assassin and perhaps to attract a male viewership evidently deemed (by the producers and writers) too sexist to be willing to watch a show with a woman lead unless she is undressed for them. I don’t know, maybe some other reason. What I do know is that the plot did not need the undressing for the scenes to work.

But then in the second episode of Fringe they went right for a “serial killer of young attractive women” plot for no reason other than there is evidently something in Hollywood or maybe our culture that gets off on these scenes of young women in poses of sexual passivity being terrified and mutilated and screaming screaming screaming. I had to walk out of the room because not only am I sick of it but it creeps me out.

I’m not creeped out by the knowledge that terrible things happen to young women (and old women, and children and men and all manner of people especially those who are vulnerable and unprotected). I’m outraged and saddened by that knowledge, and I honestly think there is an important and even vital place in our literature (books, film, etc) for strong, fearless depictions of suffering and injustice, so we don’t lose sight of what we must strive to change. The people who suffer must not be silenced because of the discomfort of others who don’t want to be forced to acknowledge, to see, that suffering and injustice exists.

But I *am* creeped out that images and portrayals of young women in positions of sexualized passivity who are in fear and in pain are used over and over again AS ENTERTAINMENT, to give us a thrill, to make our hearts pound.

I remember the time a couple of years ago I went with my daughter, then 20, to a video store (remember those?) to get a movie to watch for the night.

After about five minutes she said, “Mom, I can’t stand to look at all these DVD covers because so many of them show women in poses of fear or pain and it really disturbs me like it is telling me that this is the story I have to internalize about becoming a woman.”
And I realized I had gotten so used to it–had gotten myself used to it–that when I browsed through a video store looking at film posters & DVD covers filled with shocking images of objectified and sexualized women in fear and pain, I just skipped my gaze right over it like it was ordinary and nothing to remark on. I had learned to stop seeing it as much as possible. It had become ordinary and nothing to remark on.

That brought me up short. I had hardened myself to it, and I had just assumed that my daughter would grow up learning to harden herself to it. But she couldn’t, or maybe she didn’t want to. Maybe she thought she shouldn’t have to.

It made me think about how when I write I have to struggle against the idea, sunk down deep inside me, that when I write about women they have to be afraid or they have to be in pain.

Too often when the stories of women in fear and pain are told, we are seeing them in pain, we are being pushed into the perspective not of the woman who is suffering pain but into the perspective of the person inflicting the pain.

We’re constantly being asked to identify with inflicting pain on others.

Of course we are. You don’t just take over the other person’s life and body; you also take their voice, their dreams, their perspective. You take their right to speak and leave them with only the power to suffer, a suffering that can be lifted from them by death or by rescue but always by an agency outside themselves. You take their eyes and turn them into your eyes, your gaze, your way of looking at the world. When such stories are told in this way, they reinforce the perspective of the person who is watching the voiceless have no voice.

But while it is important to say “let’s stop telling those stories then because they exploit women and furthermore perpetuate the view of women as victims whose only role is to suffer fear and pain,” I would go on to suggest that it is not quite that simple. It isn’t binary; it’s not either/or. And furthermore, all stories of women’s fear and pain are not the same because it does make a difference from what perspective we see.

In her memoir Mighty Be Our Powers (written with Carol Mithers), Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Ghobee of Liberia talks about discovering the need to find spaces in which women could tell their stories. Some of the stories she heard were stories that came out of the civil wars  that wracked Liberia, the Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone; others were stories that had to do with untold experiences within families, the kind of thing no one wants to talk about no matter where it happens. She writes:

Each speaker wept with relief when she finished; each spoke the same words: “This is the first time I have ever told this story . . . ”

Does it sound like a small thing that the women I met were able to talk openly? It was not small; it was groundbreaking. . . . Everyone was alone with her pain.

Everyone was alone with her pain.

That line stabs me in the heart. I do not want me, or you, or anyone to be alone with the pain.

Yes, I get angry and creeped out when I see and read stories about women in fear and pain, seen from the outside, looking down on them, inflicting pain on them through the gaze of the story.

I get especially angry when I’m told that these are the only or the most realistic stories, that they trump any other way of looking at the lives of women. Because they don’t.  This perspective looks in only one direction; that makes it an incomplete, biased, subjective, and even warped perspective.

You see, I worry that it is another form of silencing when women’s stories of fear and pain are not given voice when the voice is theirs or when an incident of violence or fear is told from the perspective of the person who undergoes that experience, who must live with it, be changed by it, internalize it, fight against the injury it has done to her, build or continue her life, live defined by herself and not by her injury.

I worry that it is another form of silencing when all such stories are seen as the same without considering from whose perspective they’re being told. It is not a small thing to speak up and to hear stories and voices that have long been silenced.

There are indeed too many stories that fixate on women’s fear and pain, and more than that, in my opinion too often it is the wrong stories that get the attention, the wrong stories that are held up as the right ones, the only ones, the most authentic ones. The truth is usually difficult and complex and often so painful that it is easier to look away. All too often, silence is the ally of the powerful.

So, yes, I will rage against the exploitative portrayals of sexualized violence, of women in fear and pain. But I will also remember the women who never told their story because there was no one to listen.

Shark Punching

I don’t make this stuff up, people.


From the Honolulu Star-Advertiser:


Joshua Holley says he’s not upset that a tiger shark bit him while he surfed Tuesday off the North Shore, and plans to get back int the water as soon as doctors say it’s OK . . .

[He} was paddling back out through a channel to a surf spot called Alligator Rock . . . when he felt an ‘unreal push on the left side of my body. Its whole weight came at me,’ he said of the 8- to 10-foot shark. ‘I could feel the body on me pretty much.’ . . .

After the initial bite the shark came around to the front of [his] board, and in a moment of panic [he] grabbed the shark’s gills with his left hand and punched the shark’s snout twice with his right. Then the shark ‘submerged like a submarine and just disappeared.’


He got 42 stitches in his left foot. The article is here, but you have to sign up to read it.


(Yes, I know where that surf spot is, and yes, we sometimes paddle down that way and even at times jump in the water thereabouts to cool off. It’s their ocean.)

(I originally posted this on Tumblr.)