As humans living in the twenty-first century, I’d like to think we’ve come a long way towards achieving equality between the sexes and rejecting established notions of gender. But is it far enough? After all, we’re still having these debates, highlighting prejudice, challenging ourselves to ‘think outside the box’. If gender equality truly existed, there’d be no need to stage this conversation.
In fiction, men write women and women write men on a regular basis, some more or less successfully. Both genders ought to be able to relate to each other at the very least on an intuitive level without resorting to dangerous and unhealthy stereotypes. But, as Emma Newman recently discussed, there are still male readers who are hesitant to pick up a book authored by a woman, or featuring a female protagonist.
Why is that? Personally, I’ve never had a problem reading a book written from a male perspective; in fact the majority of epic fantasy I read growing up featured male protagonists. Why then are some readers unable or unwilling to relate to women?
There’s no doubt that gender stereotypes can ground us in the familiar. Authors sometimes use them as a recognisable point of reference in an unfamiliar world. Employed tactfully, stereotypes can layer a work of fiction, much as subtext adds layers to a seemingly simple exchange. Stereotypes can also be subverted, reinvented, or shattered depending on authorial purpose. What they shouldn’t do is serve as reason and end in themselves. This leads to lazy writing, to regurgitation of overused tropes, even to unrealistic and harmful representations of gender. And it’s not only women on the receiving end.
Stereotypes harm men too. As authors, we strive for originality, but also for a broader understanding of the human condition. This includes understanding each other - and on all levels, from the physical to the social to the existential.
Episode 3 of Breaking the Glass Slipper discusses writing characters of the opposite sex, the process and the pitfalls, where authors sometimes go wrong, and, of course, where they go right. Below we’ve each listed a couple of our favourite examples of men writing women and women writing men. Don’t miss Episode 5 where we talk to author Ben Peek about the way he approached creating a compelling female protagonist in his novel, The Godless.
Keeping with the theme of writing characters of the opposite gender, each of us has picked a favourite female character written by a man and a male character written by a woman.
Princess Leia, Star Wars, created by George Lucas
I realise I’m going into films here, but Leia was such an important role model to me as a kid, and even today, that I had to list her. I’m always amazed that Lucas developed the character. For someone whose dialogue is so clunky and inelegant, to have been the creative force behind such a badass female character is an incredible feat. Leia is practical and pragmatic, strategically minded in military matters, a fighter, a lover, a friend, a sister… she is the woman who taught me to never apologise for who I am.
Fitz, Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
Fitz is real. He is. You can’t tell me otherwise. Hobb is one of the greatest SFF writers of our time, hands down, and her ability to make characters in fantastical stories feel so completely real is at the centre of her skill. What I particularly love about Fitz is that he is flawed in realistically human ways. He has internal contradictions that are also somehow consistent for his character. As a protagonist for a fantasy trilogy, it is also refreshing to have a fairly ordinary character who is not ‘special’ serve as the focal narrative thread.
I really struggled to pick a single important male character written by a female. I had options that ranged from Edward in Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen to Professor Snape from the Harry Potter books by JK Rowling, or President Snow in the Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins.
But in the end, I couldn’t think of a character I’m more fond of than Nevin. He is a young lord who causes the deaths of two innocent and vows that he will not rest until everything is set right. The gods take him at his word, and grant him immortality to enable him to do just that. Rather than a blessing, it’s a curse: he has to wait for generations until the spirits of those he wronged are reincarnated at which point he has to try his best to fix things. I love him because yes, he did wrong, but he didn’t let it lie, and through his trials and waiting, he grows wise, kind and patient. Plus those he’s wronged aren’t particularly saint-like when they’re born again! To my mind, Kerr built a fantastic world and populated it with engaging characters, but it’s Nevin that I remember the best and will for a long time.
Jennet, The Whitby Trilogy, by Robin Jarvis
I found one of my favourite female characters early on in my reading. When I was about 12 years old, I was introduced to a novel called The Whitby Witches. It’s a horror novel, but written for children, and far more emotionally involved than the Goosebumps or Point Horror series that I also read at that time.
Even today, I re-read the Whitby series regularly and my copy is very tattered! Jennet is the long-suffering big sister of Ben, a child who can see ghosts and sense magic. Like Megan in her choice of Fitz, Jennet particularly appealed to me because she wasn’t special in a “chosen one” sort of way. She was sensible, grounded, and often embarrassed by her brother. She was pro-active too. I’m an only child, but reading about Jennet’s experiences, I could really understand what it was like to have a sibling. Jarvis really spoke to me as a girl of a similar age to Jennet; he involved her in situations and relationships which mirrored those in my own life, and today she remains one of my favourite female characters.
We first meet Thorn Bathu clubbing a boy in the balls with the rim of her shield. The moment you pause will be the moment you die, her father has taught her, and Thorn takes his message to heart. She’s a born warrior in a society where women are traditionally the keepers of their husband’s household. Despised by the master-at-arms, Thorn is determined to become the best. She’s stubborn, fiercely independent, courageous and utterly compelling. She makes stupid decisions as often as she makes wise ones and grows as a character throughout the novel, eventually returning to her home to become the queen’s Chosen Shield.
Abercrombie brilliantly juxtaposes her with Brand, a young man who’s built to kill, but lacks the will for it. Each exhibits their own kind of heroism, and the series is a multi layered exploration of gender and societal expectation that’s so refreshing in a young adult fantasy.
Will Ladislaw, Middlemarch by George Eliot
‘He seems to me a kind of Shelley,’ says Mr Brooke and from that moment I fell in love with the charismatic Ladislaw: painter, writer, political activist, in pursuit of the ideal. And one of the most ardent idealists in Middlemarch is Dorothea, married to the desiccated Casaubon.
Eliot is a consummate intellectual, a keen observer of ordinary human life; Ladislaw isn’t only a brilliant character in and of himself, but his coming to Middlemarch is like a pebble dropped in a pond. His energy, youth, creativity and new ideas ripple out into the community with unpredictable results. Set in an era on the cusp of liberal reform, when the age-old entitlement of class finally begins to be challenged, Ladislaw is a harbinger of the modern man.
What are some of your favourite examples of authors who create compelling characters of the opposite sex? Be sure to share yours with us in the comments!
Hosted by Megan Leigh, Charlotte Bond and Lucy Hounsom, Breaking the Glass Slipper is a bi-monthly podcast (publishing every other Thursday) focusing on women in genre. We're available on SoundCloud and many other podcasting platforms.