One thing I love about fantasy is that it’s a realm of limitless possibilities. Writers can make their own worlds, and imagination knows no bounds. It’s really inspiring.
Dragons, wizards, dwarfs, naga, magic, djinn, demons, goblins … heroes embarking on epic quests and little people saving the world. You think of it, you can write it.
I really do love it.
But there has been a lingering issue in the genre, one that’s been around for years.
I noticed it as a child.
I thought it would have been fixed by now.
It’s the overemphasis on male protagonists and lack of other genders in the books and worlds we fantasy authors are creating.
I mean, this is 2023, right?
We’ve made huge leaps and bounds in gender progression recently, but still the male dominance seems to be hanging on in fantasy books.
And look, I know we have more female MCs. But where are the other female characters? And characters of other genders? It's not representative of the world we see at all.
In this article, I'll talk specifically about female characters. But someone with more knowledge than me on greater diversity does need to chip in so we can tackle that too.
The world is 49.5% female (check here) but we only have 1 or 2 token females at a time in fantasy books. It’s time to end that.
The dominance of male protagonists
For decades, fantasy literature has been dominated by male protagonists. Especially all the popular stories and favourites.
I mean, we have Frodo Baggins, Bilbo Baggins, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Ender, Rincewind, Rand al’Thor … I could go on.
And while these characters have captivated readers worldwide, myself included (I’m not counting myself out of this), it’s also essential to acknowledge the need for more diverse representation. To get the character list more 50/50 like it is in the real world.
Female characters often find themselves relegated to secondary roles, or not even that. They serve as background characters (even then, only a couple of them), love interests, damsels in distress, and occasionally sidekicks.
And let’s not forget that these worlds often have the majority of characters as male. I’m talking particularly about named characters here, but even then I don’t recall many unnamed females floating around in the background of these stories either.
Not sure about that? Write a list of the characters from a fantasy book nearby. What’s the percentage of females?
The Mary Sue trap
And look, yes, I do know that great efforts have been made to introduce female protagonists. Particularly lately. And there are way more female fantasy writers which is the main reason this is happening.
But there’s also a common pitfall: the ‘Mary Sue’ trope. You know, the flawless girl with an unrealistic set of skills and abilities.
Now, I believe there’s a real reason for this. It’s almost like we feel the need to make the woman larger than life to compete with the male favourites in other books.
Much like how women need to work harder in real life to be noticed and stand alongside men in similar roles, I think the Mary Sue trope came from having to make the female protagonist incredible, larger than life, and so fascinating that she couldn’t be ignored.
I get the need.
But the trouble is that is disconnected them from the reality of readers’ experiences and can be challenging to relate to.
Now don’t get me wrong, I know some women like to self-project onto the incredible female MC for a while as she reads, but then it gets old or can make someone feel down.
What we need are ‘real’ women characters.
And creating a ‘real woman’ character means steering clear of this trap and crafting someone who reflects the complexity of actual women.
The call for authenticity
We’re all wanting authentic female characters in fantasy literature. Just check out the reviews female readers leave on popular books with the stereotypes.
We want our characters multi-dimensional, with strengths and weaknesses like everyday people, hopes and fears, and a wide range of experiences. (‘She was a strong fighter because she was an only daughter and grew up with several older brothers’, I’m looking at you!) Like, really? Is that the only reason people can think of women being good fighters?
Real women come in various shapes, sizes, backgrounds, and personalities.
Look at the women around you.
How many of them do you actually see in fantasy stories?
Chances are, very few.
It’s time fantasy literature acknowledged this diversity and included real women. Everywhere.
Creating authentic female protagonists
It doesn’t have to be hard.
I acknowledge that my reading experience, with the limited female characters and majority males, put my writing head in that stereotypical place to begin with.
We write what we know, right? And so far, we know these stories.
But it’s time to challenge that, break the mold, and write the stories we see in daily life and translate them into fantasy worlds.
When you think about it, it’s easy to create real female characters, including female protagonists.
1. Appearance: Again, look at the women around you. What do people really look like? I feel like all the women I read about in stories look the same. Characters from different stories (or even the same story) blur together. Which, in terms of reading immersion and memorability, isn’t good. Use features from the people around you to inspire those you write about and build variety to reflect the true diversity of women.
2. Complex backstories: Give your female protagonists rich and multifaceted backgrounds. We always hear the same old story. But life isn’t like that. Explore their family dynamics, cultural influences, personal histories. Their personalities and how they handle their backstories too. This depth and difference adds layers to their character and makes them more relatable.
3. Flaws and imperfections: Real women are not perfect, and neither should your female protags. Are your male characters perfect? Nope. So why would the females be? They’re not sex icons. Allow them to make mistakes, face challenges, grow from their experiences. This makes their journeys more compelling to follow. (PS, where are my grey MC femmes? Why are morally grey characters usually males?)
4. Strengths beyond combat: While physical prowess is often essential in fantasy, it’s not the only strength. Often people think to make a ‘strong female character’ they have to make them physically strong. But that’s not the case. How many other ways can you list that people are strong in real life? Beyond strength? Focus on a variety of strengths that go beyond combat skills. Intelligence, leadership, diplomacy, and resilience are just a few I can list. (And now I’m happily daydreaming about Princess Leia. Thank you Star Wars for that diplomatic queen!)
5. Diversity matters: Make sure you represent a wide range of female experiences. Include characters of difference races, sexual orientations, gender identities, and abilities. This ensures that all readers can find someone they identify with. Plus it’ll more likely mirror real life then. A world isn’t just one thing.
6. Agency and independence: Empower your female protags with agency and the ability to drive the plot forward. On their own. Without the help of men. They should be active participants in their own stories, not passive observers. Women can be vicious in going for what they want. Haven’t you seen us?
7. Supportive relationships: This is a big one for me that I just don’t get in fantasy books. Where are the relationships? And not just romance. But, like, real relationships. Showcase meaningful relationships with other characters, both male and female. Healthy friendships (another big one. Why are there rarely good female-female friendships? That’s a post for another day …), mentorships, families, found families, colleagues, partnerships. These all add to a female protagonists characters. Look around you at the people you know. They all have so many different kind of relationships. Even just people you vaguely get on with for the sake of being civil. We’re a social animal. Give your characters their social life. Even in a war, people embrace relationships and people around them, right? Even if it’s a ten minute bonding at the bakery as the characters are stopping in a town for bread and she meets her absolute soul sister in a place she’d never expect and they just talk for what feels like ages until she’s dragged away and has to move on. Where are those sorts of interactions?
8. Romance or not, who cares? And look, this is the big one. I acknowledge people give females relationships. But they only ever seem to be romance. And how often is it with the other MC? The male one? How realistic is it that the main woman of the story will fall for the only other male in that time? We interact with people all the time and don’t fall for them. You can go to work and work on a project with a man without thinking he’s the love of your life. She can go on an adventure with a tired grumpy warrior and think he’s a pain in the ass and then not learn to love him, ya know? They can end the story just comrades, glad it’s over. ‘See you, pal. We did a good job, now I want to hang around someone who remembers to bathe and doesn’t get pissed off over every little thing and blame it on his trauma. You need to heal, and it’s not my job to fix you coz I have my own life I want to get back to and enjoy. Maybe flirt with that bakery chick again.’
And, look. I know I’m not there yet. I’m still guilty of falling into the trap of stereotypes now and then. But these are the things I’ve been listing to myself that I need to actively focus on in my own fantasy works too.
I hope this list helps you when you think of how you can grow the diversity of your characters.
It’ll really level up your writing.
Fantasy literature has the potential to be a catalyst for change in the way society views and values women. After all, in fantasy, you have very few limits. The only limits are your imagination.
Why do you have to write fantasy the same way everyone else does?
Find your own path. Write real people, those around you. Including real women.
By crafting authentic, multidimensional female protagonists who remind us of real women, people we know, authors can break free from the limitations of traditional gender roles and create more inclusive and diverse fantasy worlds.
Worlds people will enjoy more because it’s progressive, real, enjoyable for more people.
It’s time to move beyond the dominance of male MC-focussed stories, or stories with majority male characters, and embrace the rich variety of real women in fantasy tales.
And it’s not just about having female protagonists but also about having well-developed female characters in various roles. More of your character list being women. Real women. Not just the token 1 or 2.
Remember, currently 49.5% of the world is female. Is that accurate of your cast list too?
The power of imagination lies in its ability to both reflect and shape the world we live in, giving people greater immersion into our stories, and it’s time we make these worlds more inclusive and representative of all genders and backgrounds.