Fantasy Gender Defaults

Next week I’m leading a 2 hour workshop at Sirens Studio, the 2 day pre-Sirens Conference workshop. AND I NEED YOUR HELP!

(if you can get yourself to Denver next week you can buy a membership at the door for Sirens Conference, Oct 8 – 11–Rae Carson, Yoon Ha Lee, and myself are Guests of Honor.)

Here’s the description of the workshop:


“It all happened TO her, not BECAUSE of her:” Writing Past Defaults.

We all carry societal baggage about gender roles into our writing. That’s inevitable. In this workshop intensive, Kate will analyze how authors (including herself!) who are consciously attempting to expand and center roles for women may unconsciously undermine their female characters by sliding sideways into stereotyped personalities or behaviors and work. Often, male characters act within the plot while women characters—even as the central figures—may be given reactive roles. We’ll discuss typical fantasy gender defaults, ways in which authors who may seem to be subverting them aren’t always, and how to turn around these insidious messages to more fully write women characters as they really are, and have been, in the world.



Here’s where YOU come in. Yes, YOU!

I’m hoping all you well-read readers can come up with examples of girl/women characters in (preferably well known) fantasy novels who

fit typical gender defaults and why

and ALSO examples who

seem to subvert gender defaults but when examined closely actually fall into some default-ish behaviors or character elements (and why)

and examples who

actually subvert gender defaults (and why)

I welcome any other comments on the subject as well. Thank you in advance, crowd-sourcing friends and colleagues! I can only do so much reading research and I want to cast through as many examples as possible.

10 thoughts on “Fantasy Gender Defaults

  1. Laurie Marks’s Elemental Logic series is full of women who genuinely subvert gender stereotypes. Her women are leaders, soldiers, spies, villains, heroines, intuitives, makers, fighters, who shape history as well as endure it. If you’ve never read these books, you have to. They’re mind-bending–genuinely about human beings rather than societally-constructed “men” and “women.” OK, I’m particularly fond of the Fire Blood prescient Zanja, who is a hinge of history, but all Laurie’s women are remarkable. And the first one (Fire Logic) was written more than20 years ago.

  2. Delia, can you expand a little on why you describe Zanja as a “hinge of history”? I’ve only read Fire Logic, and it was when it came out, so the details are vague.

  3. (It’s 2 am for me, so apologies if this is disjointed!)

    Is the Dragonriders of Pern series close enough to fantasy? If so, Lessa seems to subvert the tropes, by figuring out where the puzzle of the other missing Weyrs went in the very first book, but actually ends up falling into a few (many) of the tropes female characters get shoved into when you look at her across the entire series.
    * She could have been Lady of her own Hold, answering to nobody but herself, but ends up gambling she’ll Impress a dragon and bond to it telepathically…even though it’s not a sure thing and dragonriders are known to Search pretty women who aren’t suitable for dragonriding just to fill the Weyr with pretty women.
    * When she does become Weyrwoman, this is said to be the more prestigious position as there’s only one on the entire planet at this point in time, but her actual duties are essentially stewarding/accounting/etc. That is, maintaining the private household for the entire Weyr, while the man whose dragon has sex with hers (and could in theory actually be a teenager, or rousted in half a year for another new face) is the public face of the Weyr, dealing with Lords and (later) other Weyrs to solve problems. So a man with NO experience leading a Weyr, or a man who’s little more than a kid, could actually end up handling a lot of things of political import out of the blue for the Weyr due to the dragon-sex-based selection process of electing a Weyrleader, while Lessa, who will be in her position as Weyrwoman for decades, counts beans. He’s also the one leading thread-fighting. In fact, her dragon can’t even fight thread by breathing flame, because it’ll sterilize her, which will be the end of the dragons as her queen dragon is the last one left, literally tying her worth as a dragonrider, and her rank as Weyrwoman, to the fertility of her dragon. While she does teach her dragon to fly (which is against tradition), and equips her dragon with mechanical equipment to fight thread (also against tradition as it puts her dragon in danger), the male dragonrider, F’lar, is implied to always be the one actually leading the fighting against thread…even though Lessa’s ability to speak to all dragons would make it more practical for her to be doing this instead of bouncing telepathic commands from dragon to dragon. The series never really shows her leading the fight against thread, or being good or innovative at aerial tactics, or training other dragonriders. Those military-like things are left to the male characters to truly excel at. Her dragon is there to make babies.
    * She’s supposed to be a strong character by being outspoken, but ends up quite shrewish with how she deals with others. Yet, male characters in the same series are portrayed as both strong and balanced/kind. If she leads by anything, it almost seems by fear of her temper. But male characters in the same series don’t need to be feared to lead. They might be competent, or likable, or respected.
    * She is characterized as manipulative emotionally/secretive if she doesn’t get what she wants…characteristics commonly ascribed to females.
    * She is characterized as unable to get along with female characters that aren’t excessively maternal/motherly (Manora) or submissive (Brekke).
    * She’s not known to have any close female (human) friends.
    * Later in the series, she has a very closed, stubborn mind, while the men generally stay somewhat more open-minded and intelligent (at least if they’re major characters). Avoiding Lessa’s wrath requires great diplomacy, or sexy charisma (example: Robinton, F’lar), or great secrecy (avoiding her notice).

    Lessa actually strikes me as the trope of the Evil Queen archetype being flipped around and portrayed as a heroic character…but she’s never allowed much growth as a character and her flaws tend to be ones commonly given to women. On the other hand, she’s also not a Perfect, Beautiful, Kind Saint either, so she does manage to avoid that trope by a mile. But her personality, her rank, and her actions in the series are severely limited by certain tropes about females being played out.

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  5. Sometimes the better done examples of going against defaults are actually in the secondary characters. The main character often becomes an exception to every rule, but the ladies who have a significant presence, but are one step removed, are where deep character writing can shine. For instance, in Jane Linskold’s Firekeeper Saga, Sapphire gets to be ambitious and astute politically, lead a squad of soldiers (not as mere inspiration, but as a leader involved in deciding tactics), and she doesn’t have to be evil to do it (although her mother is). Even when she gets married and starts a family, she is shown as someone who continues to be actively and intelligently involved in her political and military role. In the same series, Elise also is shown as being involved and competent in matters of trade and politics. She takes on slightly more traditional (to our world) tasks sometimes, such as serving as a nurse during conflict, rather than fighting, but when she tasks herself with becoming more active instead of re-active, it’s portrayed as a matter of maturing into an adult role vs. childhood, not one of being feminine vs. masculine.

    An example of physical “action” vs. an “active” character in the sense we’re talking about here might be Unclean Spirits vs. The Dragon’s Path. Same author (Daniel Abraham, aka MLN Hanover), different sub-genres. In Unclean Spirits, Jayne is in fights and chases with all kinds of weapons and magic flying around, but mostly because she’s been dropped in the middle of something and has to react to decisions other people have made. She has the surface of an active woman, but she’s still largely defined by who she is to the various men around her. By contrast, Cithrin, despite also being dropped into a situation where she’s over her head, takes much more control over her own future. And she does it almost entirely with pen, paper, and persuasion while riding in carts and sitting behind desks. Cithrin feels more active and interesting because she is making deliberate choices, whereas Jayne doesn’t seem to take that step as often. Note: it’s been a while since I read both of these, there may be exceptions to the behavior I remember, but those are the main impressions I was left with for both characters.

    Seanan McGuire’s October Day series has several types of example too. Toby starts very passive, never even re-acting until she has to, let alone taking an active role in things. However, it’s because she’s traumatized, and isn’t presented as a normal or desirable feminine trait. As the series continues, she digs her way out of the passiveness, and while she still can be re-active, she gets much better at taking control of choices when she can. The area with the tipping point that takes her into active living is where a lot of people who didn’t like the character in the first book say that the series “gets good”. (I liked it all myself). It also subverts the tropes where many female characters interact only with males, or only with females. She has friendships, family relations, rivalries and hatreds with both male and female characters, in relatively even numbers. And there are lots of varied and complex female characters who vary between helpful, dangerous, mysterious, companions, family, enemies. Many are more than one thing, sometimes within the same story. Amandine, The Luidaeg, Evening Winterrose, May, Luna, even Rayseline gets layers.

  6. Yes! This is just what I was looking for. I loved Lessa when I read the books 30 years ago. Now, I often wince while still understanding why she was important for her time.

  7. seem to subvert gender defaults but when examined closely actually fall into some default-ish behaviors or character elements (and why)

    My suggestions include Karou from Daughter of Smoke and Bone. She is badass in some ways but also is ready to give up everything for a man. As Madrigal, she readily sacrifices her sister without acknowledging why her sister might be angry, and as Karou, some slut-shaming happens in the novels and thinking of other women as “hussy.”

    actually subvert gender defaults (and why)

    I think both Hanna in Bleeding Violet and Skybright in Serpentine do this. Hanna’s had enough of what other people think, so she decides to embrace her weirdness, enjoys sex and violence, and changes the world in her own way. Skybright, on the other hand, knows her role in the world (a handmaiden to a rich merchant’s daughter), but finds a way to take action (and a lover!) while saving her mistress and discovering her own demon nature.

    Neither of these books shame the characters for liking sex or being feminine, nor do they force them to put domesticity or a man before anything else. They are encouraged to find their own path, and they do.

  8. Barbara Hambly has a good track record of women who are active movers – without necessarily subverting their expected roles within the society, either. The Time of the Dark series – it’s Joanna’s Earth-Prime scholarship that solves the mystery of the Dark and allows them to finally resolve the problem. Dragonsbane – it’s Jenny (?) who ends up connecting with the dragons, not her legendary husband. The “James Asher” vampire novels rely just as much on his wife Lydia, who combines Victorian delicacy with a mind like a steel trap.

  9. Hermione Granger from Harry Potter strikes me as less subversive rhan she appears. Smart and hardworking, but she explicitly says none of that is as important as Harry’s good traits. Her movement to free the house elves is mocked and fails (at least partly due to her ineptness at actually listening to the elves and her peculiar failure to research the magic behind their binding). She spends an inordinate amount of the last three books cringing when Harry yells or being jealous if Ron shows interest in other girls, rarely talks to other girls except to denigrate them, and is finally reduce to packing the boys clean underwear for the camping trip from hell because they are now so used to her doing the scutwork that they don’t even think to prepare for a quest. She might as well be a combination maid/google/ego-stroking device. Which is a shame, because she has such potential to be a heroine in her own right.

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