When I was ten, I read Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons.
This book rocked my world. It subverted the fairy tales and Disney movies I was familiar with. It turned a princess into a protagonist with intelligence, ability, and agency. Cimorene does everything! She saves the prince, she stops the evil wizards, she makes sure her (female!) dragon-employer becomes king (yes, king). And when she does need help or advice, she gets it from other female characters.
At the time, I did not know I was looking for depictions of capable, complex women — I was only ten. But I spent the next decade mostly dissatisfied with my media consumption without knowing why, and the decade after that knowing exactly why.
Where the hell are the women?
Sure, there’s frequently a woman around, but she’s the only one, the girlfriend, the token. The ladies of Dragonlance are usually doled out one to a group. They are always less interesting or capable than their male companions, and take on a narrow set of roles; healer, diplomat, Strong Female Character who is captured or dead or otherwise incapacitated for the final battle. The same holds true for much of A Song of Ice and Fire, The Belgariad, what little of the Xanth series I’ve read…
In essence, there is a hell of a lot more Sigourney Weaver from Ghostbusters than Sigourney Weaver from Alien. And I’ve never seen another story-driving group of women like Cimorene, Kazul, and Alianora from Dealing with Dragons.
I see story-driving groups of men all the time in books and movies. Duos like Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. The Three (or four) Musketeers. The Fellowship of the Ring, the pirate crew in Treasure Island, the Lost Boys of Neverland, the Knights of the Round Table, Robin Hood and his Merry Men — where outside of the Amazons of Themyscira (or brothels) do you ever see groups of all women like that?
Admittedly, I can think of a few disparate examples. A Game of You, the fifth collection of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman comic, is dominated by five ladies (six if you count the Cuckoo). The story is about them, pushed forward by them…and yet their actions culminate in the summoning of the titular Sandman, who proceeds to save the day.
This is typical. Even when women get to take center stage in speculative fiction (and even when the writer is as excellent and self-aware as Neil Gaiman), their actions usually revolve around a man.
So what should writers do to fight tokenism and the ubiquity of male-centric story-telling? Well, you’ll notice I mentioned Ghostbusters. If you haven’t heard, a reboot of that excellent franchise is in the works — one that will star four lady Ghostbusters instead of four dude Ghostbusters. I don’t know whether this movie will be good or not, but the concept is spot on. It is the solution to our problem. We’ve been trained by our media to think of male as “normal”, and so it’s no wonder that many writers start with a male character and fill in around him as our world-building and story-building progresses.
But we don’t have to. We can put a little more effort into it, and change that “everyman” into a woman.
Or why not make your characters brown? Most of the people in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books are brown, including the main character Ged, but that’s really unusual in speculative fiction. On TV there’s Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, and Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori books are set in a world that resembles feudal Japan…and that’s about it, unless you go foreign or reach for straight historical fiction.
Gay and bi characters are a little more common, and I even see a trans character now and again, but the sexually diverse are frequently relegated to stereotyped sidekick. Fat characters are treated similarly. And you won’t find too many handicapped or chronically ill characters either.
Yes, you can center your action-heavy fantasy around a disabled character (and not screw it up like George RR Martin did with Tyrion)! Go watch Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood if you don’t believe me.
Yet fantasy is all about metaphor. Does sexual diversity have to be explored using actual gay people, or can you infer a pro-gay stance by using straight vampires (as the True Blood TV series attempts)? Didn’t Tolkein explore racial diversity with his humans, elves, and dwarves, even without including a variety of skin-tones in his good guys?
Yeah, I guess. But in True Blood Lafayette was standing right there, just being gay and doing a much better job of supporting gay rights than the “God hates fangs!” stuff. And all the dark-skinned bad guys in Lord of the Rings — orcs and Haradrim alike — really undermine the message of racial harmony. Diversity in fiction is not accomplished by characters soapboxing about differing factions getting along, but by mere representation. Have a gay character, have a brown character, and they don’t have to go on and on about civil rights to normalize being gay or being brown.
There’s nothing wrong with using vampires to explores sexuality, or humans and elves to explore race (heck, I do a bit of both). But if you want to write about diversity, include some real diversity.
There is nothing limiting the diversity of your cast but your imagination. There is nothing stopping you from re-casting or re-plotting your work-in-progress so that it becomes more inclusive.
The real world is diverse. Your fantasy world should be too.