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.

Listmaking: Epic Fantasy with Protagonists &/or Settings of Color/Non-White

On Twitter @afrolicious asked: Any suggestions for epic fantasy books with Brown folx driving the action?

People threw out a few suggestions but I thought it would be worthwhile to ask if anyone knows of a list that has already been compiled. I am SURE there is one but I am evidently not googling well enough to find it this morning, pre-caffeine.

Regardless, I thought, why not mention some suggestions here.

There is a very extensive YA Protagonists of Color/Non-White compiled by Rachel Brown here but it is specifically for YA (Young Adult) novels, not adult epic fantasy. She also references a similar list for MG (middle grade) on Stacy Whitman’s blog. Marie Brennan has a Multicultural Fantasy list on her blog. And OF COURSE (ETA) Medeivalpoc on tumblr.

What epic fantasy novels/series can you name that are

1) reasonably epic (how to define epic I leave up to you)

2) include one or more (if in an ensemble cast) protagonists of color/non-white “driving the action”

3) the setting can be anything, of course, although I’m personally interested in how the protagonist interacts with the setting: Is the protagonist an insider, an outsider, or somewhere in between? And, of course, how the setting interacts with the protagonist.

Titles welcome. If you also want to add a brief (brief!) description of why protagonist and/or setting fit the question that would be cool but definitely not necessary.


ETA: Have had to close comments on WordPress site due to issues with spam

How Much Sex Is Too Much Sex In Your SFF?

Many of you read the Extras chapter for COLD FIRE, which was not in the book because it is not written from Cat’s first person point of view but rather Andevai’s third person point of view. Some wished the chapter had been included in the book; some were happy that it was available but not in the book; some did not read it at all because they do not like to read the explicit sexytimes.

I mention this because I’m about 83,000 words into a a new epic fantasy novel (projected to become another trilogy). I am writing this one in third person multiple points of view.

Writing in first person for me means I have to adhere to the sensibilities of my narrator. If s/he would talk explicitly about sex, then I can; if s/he would not, then I can’t even if it is germane to the plot.

Writing in multiple third allows more leeway along several axes.

Even if I’m writing in tight third (where the text only sees, mentions, and notices that which the pov sees, mentions, and notices), the narrative still sits one step outside the pov, and that space gives me room to make decisions about what to describe that I don’t have in first person where the narrator would either mention something or would not.

Furthermore, writing with multiple povs means different characters will necessarily be written with different sensibilities. In fact one of the great things about multiple third is its ability to supply diverse views of related events and characters.

In The Spiritwalker Trilogy I was constrained in writing about sex by what the narrator, Cat, would say. [By the way, there is a reason the Spiritwalker books are narrated in first person; it’s not an arbitrary choice or a “flavor”. But you have to read the whole thing to understand what I mean by saying that.]

In the new book I’m not limited (in that particular sense) by first person. I’m writing in several different points of view, and a number of the characters have sex, like people do sometimes (or even often). I have leeway. I can be vague and allusive, or I can be absolutely as explicit as I want to be.

Hence my question:

How much sex do you like in your sff?

I need to specify an important clarification: I am speaking of consensual sex. This question is not intended to devolve into a discussion of representations of rape in epic fantasy because I have previously talked about that here and here and because I’m more interested in how consensual sex is depicted.

And it is a curious thing, is it not, that many readers seem more comfortable reading about non consensual sex than consensual sex as if non consensual sex is properly dramatic and consensual sex is not?

But again there was a great discussion of that specific issue in this post earlier this year.

So, how much sex DO you like in your SFF?

Should epic fantasy should be pristinely free of sexual feelings or reference? Are vague foreplay and kissing all right as long as the curtain is drawn early and often? Is explicit sexual description acceptable as long as it is only described when it absolutely matters to the plot? Or are sexytimes always welcome, regardless? Or something else entirely which you will note in the comments?

Tell me what you think, people. After all, presumably you may end up reading these scenes and lamenting that they have too much or too little sex in them. Speak!

The Shame of Self Aggrandizement (Spiritwalker Monday 18)

In a post dated January 2012 that consisted of an update and several links to reviews of Cold Magic and Cold Fire (here on WordPress and mirrored on Live Journal):
I wrote:

There’s a part of me that feels it is wrong for me to link to positive mentions of my work like the ones above, as if I am thereby somehow self aggrandizing or bragging or trying to act like I’m better than others or something. This is some of the baggage I carry from growing up as a girl in the 60s and 70s. I’m not quite sure from whence it stems, and I can certainly only speak to my own experience. Partly, it seemed to me that girls were meant to do well but never excel more than boys and certainly if they did excel weren’t ever to say anything of it because it was unseemly and boastful and something one ought to be ashamed of. In fact, there is a little piece of my psyche that feels ashamed (yes: ashamed!) when I read a [really positive and praising] review.


In the comments on Live Journal, lostrack621 wrote this in reply:

You nailed it right on the head; but I would go as far as to say that it’s not just related to the time you were growing up. I feel the same way, too, and I’m an ’80s child. I’m a member of the Association for Women in Science and there was an article recently about how one of the big issues and problems with women in science today (and arguably other fields) is that we are taught that bragging and taking ownership and simply being darn proud of our work is somehow “bad” and frowned upon. Part of it probably comes from the ’50s and ’60s, but the big issue is WHY is this belief persisting and what can be done to stop it. Every month there’s a new blurb about how to become more productive, well-known, etc etc because for some reason, we women are STILL behind the men. I mean, JEEZE LOUISE, we do these amazing things and there is no reason to feel bad about tooting our horns about it but for some crazy reason we do. So, I don’t know how we – collectively as amazing women – can break down these barriers other than doing what we’re best at and keep doing what we know is working for us. :: shrug :: I’ve come to the point where I just keep my head down and slog through (speaking of, I should get back to my work….)


First of all, I don’t want to suggest that ONLY women get this message because I know of men who get it, or who feel it, also.

“Simply being proud of our own work:” Amazing how contentious that can be. How difficult to own, as if it is shameful to say “I love this project” or “I really nailed this.” That can expand to discussing one’s own work in appropriate contexts, as if one ought to just produce the work and then never mention it again because that would be immodest or self aggrandizing. [I am not talking about situations where people push their project, work, or title into every conversation, but note that I feel obliged to make that caveat, as if I am sure that even by discussing this someone out there will be thinking that I am saying too much or that they once sat on a panel with a person whose every answer/statement was a reference to his/her own book, as if that is equivalent, related, the inevitable end of any mention substantive or brief of one’s own work.]

What is this? How many of you feel it? Where does the pressure come from?

I have felt undercut at odd times from unexpected places, and I often wonder if “we” even know we are doing it, if we judge praise or discussion of praise more harshly and if there is a gender–or race or ethnicity–component in how we do so. Is there praise that is never questioned and success that is deemed always “appropriate?” While other success is always suspect?

How about your own personal experience? Do you, like lostrack621, feel that “taking ownership” is frowned on in your field, for you? For others?


Strength (Spiritwalker Monday 19)

There are a lot of ways to write about strength.

As a writer I can get frustrated when a characteristic I mean to be understood as strong is interpreted by a reader as weak, even though I comprehend that every reader will bring a different interpretation to the table. Also, and more importantly, I get frustrated when I see myself as a writer falling into the trap of stereotyping “strength” and “weakness” in ways I don’t like and which I think are negative but which I revert to if I don’t stop and think past received assumptions about people and gender.

What do we mean when we say “a strong male character” or “a strong female character”?

What about “a strong character?” How does that come into play without it being tied to gender or sex?

And what do I mean by “we,” anyway? What about cultural and historical differences in how strength is defined?

What is strength?

There are so many ways to define strength in terms of the human personality and human characteristics and how it relates to what is valued in any given society at a particular moment in that society’s development or decline. What defines strength now may in twenty years or a thousand years be seen as a sign of potential weakness, while something I define as weak may be seen as strong elsewhere.

Actual physical feats of strength range from a simple measure like weight-lifting to a more complex measure like physical endurance. As a woman I have been told more times than I care to count that men will always rule human civilization because they are physically stronger by what I call the weight-lifting measure, an opinion that oddly leaves out humanity’s crucially advantageous traits of dexterity, adaptability, creativity, intelligence, and persistence. And what about endurance? In some ways, endurance is the greatest test of strength.

Is strength a way to tear things down or to build things up? In the Bible, Samson famously does both, although it is important that while his strength is commonly defined as physical in fact, as a Nazirite, it is his spiritual strength that has nurtured his physical strength.

Sometimes it seems like portrayals of strength in the (heavily USA-based) media I see around me are getting choked through narrowing definitions. I say that in part because I think mainstream US media is going through one of its cyclical restricting modes, while meanwhile in the global gestalt a new creative energy and vision is expanding with increasing vigor.

Part of that is because views about strength, like views about anything, go through fashions: the strong silent cowboy becomes the blustering self absorbed Rambo; the man too honest and righteous to break the law becomes the man who breaks the law to make things right; the calm moderate in-control man becomes the angry passionate man while meanwhile in many societies being unable to contain or control anger is seen as a flaw rather than as a sign of strength.

During the writing of Cold Steel I had a series of email exchanges with Michelle Sagara about definitions of and assumptions about masculinity in our culture.

I was concerned that a particular character might not be seen by some readers as a “strong male character” because he does not display several of what are typically (although not exclusively) seen in today’s media/fiction as “strong male” characteristics. This isn’t an exclusive or finite list, but two of the characteristics I identify as seeming to me to be stereotypical today as approved markers of masculinity are the “man as soldier” (or warrior) which is related to but not exactly the same as the man who uses violence (and kills) to righteously solve problems. I still also see elements of a type I call “the masterful man,” the man who won’t take no for an answer, who knows what he wants perhaps better than you do, who pushes until he gets what he wants. This is a form of what is often called “the alpha male” but by no means the only example of the type. All three of these types seem to me important in an imperial context: That is, an empire tells stories about itself to justify the empire, and some of those stories naturally will include valorizing war and soldiering, violence, knowing better than others, and the idea of exceptionalism, that the empire is destined to rule and/or somehow favored by god, chance, Fate, or destiny.

Leave aside for the moment the larger and related question of what exactly we mean when we say male, female, man, woman, and so on ( I’m no gender essentialist regardless). And for the moment I’m speaking about my experience primarily but not exclusively with American English-language media and fiction.

If strength is defined in limited ways, then human character is not only limited but harmed by being forced to adhere to increasingly smaller sets of perceived value. When certain characteristics got locked in as strong and others ignored, or derided as weak, it creates a restrictive view of humanity.

Crucially, for writers, narrow definitions of what constitutes a strong man or a strong woman can affect how people read and view those characters. Some readers will reject a character as strong because that character does not adhere to stereotypes of “strong.”

For instance strength can be expressed through patience, and patience is a characteristic that both men and women have. But if patience is not seen as a masculine characteristic, then a male character in a fictional story characterized as patient may or may not be seen as a strong man. For example, the film Witness contrasts Harrison Ford’s world weary and violent cop with Alexander Gudonov’s non-violent, patient, quiet Amish farmer (it finds both men ultimately positive as role models but I note that the story revolves around Ford’s cop).

If male characters can’t be seen as strong except when martial or angry or violent or masterful in the sense of being forceful, then think how harmful that becomes to our understanding of what it means to be a man and the cultural creation of role models for boys to grow into. Think of how harmful it is for women.

And what about women? What is a strong woman? One who kicks ass and can fight “as well as a man”?

As many have pointed out before me, if women only get to be strong insofar as they look and behave like men, then that does not uplift women.

If characteristics long defined as “feminine” are automatically derided as “weak” or undervalued and dismissed as “girly,” then those attitudes affect all children as they grow into adulthood just as restrictive attitudes about boys affect all children likewise.

I love stories and characters that celebrate diverse ways to be strong.

In Grace Lin’s Where the Mountains Meet the Moon, Minli is stubborn and determined. And she listens.

Oree, in N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms, has a clear and powerful sense of herself that makes her strong.

In Michelle Sagara’s Silence, the main character Emma is caring and loyal to her friends and to others. I tend to find compassion a sign of strength, and it appeals greatly to me in characters.

In Cold Fire, I deliberately had Andevai court Cat not with manly arrogant alpha-ness but with patience and food.

While Nevyn in Katharine Kerr’s Deverry sequence does fit the acceptable mode of the “mysterious and wise old man with magical powers” character, he himself is strong because he uses his mind, is often kind and patient, and because he fulfills a very long burden of service to make up for a wrong he caused. That’s strength.

The sisters in Aliette de Bodard’s story “Immersion” are strong by being smart, observant, thoughtful, and (again) determined. Their radicalism is quiet, necessary, in some ways tentative, and within its small orbit it is effective.

Strong female characters in Danish tv shows like Forbrydelsen, Matador, and The Eagle work well for me because they are portrayed as competent, intelligent, no-nonsense, pragmatic, efficient, compassionate, caring, and steadfast.

Of course every reader brings their own view of strength to the table.

What portrayals of strength (from any fiction) have you liked that did not fit with classically stereotypical kickass or martial or alpha-manly definitions of strength? Do you think that SFF and YA, for example, are pushing the boundaries of what is seen as strong or are more likely to fall back into more standard modes of “strength expression”? Are all characters given equal chance to be seen as strong, or are some given more limited roles than others?

I have no definitive answers. I’m just asking questions here.

Two Quick Questions re: (Spiritwalker Monday 31.1)

A quick additional post today to ask you all a question. Two questions, actually.


1. I’m finishing up my read-through of the copy-edited manuscript (the copy editor did a very good job overall). I’ll be sending it back to Orbit in a week and therefore will be making any final changes to the manuscript in the new few days.

In COLD FIRE I included an Author’s Note in the front matter of the book that briefly touches on the basic world-setting of the Spiritwalker Trilogy, lists the days of the week and the cross-quarter days used by Cat in order to clear up any calendrical confusion, and talks a little bit about the creole used in Expedition.

For COLD STEEL I’m cutting the discussion of the creole (although I will be writing a post about it that I will also post in the Extras portion of this site discussing the Antilles creole  of my alternate Earth).

Technically, because of the way the layout works, I have a little bit of space remaining in the Author’s Note (because of what I have cut). I don’t have to add anything, but I can add another paragraph or two if need be.

So I wanted to know if you had any specific (world-setting and thus non-spoiler type) question you wish was answered in the Author’s Note that will be found at the front of the book, a short paragraph or two that can be read before starting the novel.



2. I have a number of weeks to fill in for the forthcoming Spiritwalker Mondays. A few posts are complete or almost complete and I have as well a list of posts/excerpts I would like to write. Plus a short story or two.

But let me ask you: Is there a particular question about the Spiritwalker trilogy you would like to ask me? If so, do so here, and I will answer it as one of the Monday posts.

On that same vein, as a reader of these Monday posts, are you most interested in posts that directly relate to the Spiritwalker books or are you also interested in more general posts about writing and worldbuilding that may only tangentially reference the Spiritwalker books, such as the one I posted today?

I appreciate your input.

2012 Blog Goals: A Survey

This is in the nature of an experiment with a cool new utility called Urtak, a simple but elegant survey mechanism.

I’m currently thinking about what sort of things I might want to do with this blog for 2012, when I hope to do a lot of fiction writing and back it up with other material as well.

The questions come in a Yes/No/Don’t Care format. I’ve posted some basic ones and I already have a couple more I may add. Best of all, readers can suggest questions which I can then add (or not). Also, please feel to comment as per the usual way if you have any thoughts either on things you would like to see on this blog in 2012 or on using a survey to ask questions in general.

Here we go:

2012 Kate Elliott Blog Goals