Posted by: kshayes513 | October 21, 2011

Does Your World’s Gender Balance Matter?

Could you write a story or game scenario that had no female characters, or no male characters — by accident, because you just forgot to include the other gender as significant players in your world?

That is apparently what’s happened to the author of the fantasy novel I’m reading. I know women exist in this typically “European medieval” fantasy world,  because they’re mentioned once or twice as village wives and as travelers. But only mentioned. I’ve now reached page 53 of this otherwise well-written first novel, and the author has not yet singled out an individual female for even one sentence of description, let alone giving a woman a name or a line of  dialog.

This book, the first of a series, has received much praise, collected some impressive cover blurbs and a few awards, and already has a fan wiki and other fan sites devoted to it, just a few years after publication. So I wish someone could explain to me how a successful and talented 21st-century fantasy author could be oblivious to the possibility that, in a realistic world, some of the characters would be female? And how could all of his first readers, not to mention his editors, fail to point this out to him?  Even Tolkien, who is often criticized for scarcity of female characters, gives us Bilbo’s remarkable mother in the first pages of The Hobbit and the obnoxious Lobelia in Chapter One of The Lord of the Rings. And he was writing for our grandparents.

I can think of plenty of scenarios that might have only men, or only women- a convent, a submarine, a colony of clones, a battlefield- and I’d have no problem reading a well-written story in any of those settings. But this isn’t one of them. The writer has mentioned that women do live in this traditional rural community. He just hasn’t noticed that they might be people, not merely scenery.

For me, this is a dealbreaker. Not because, as a woman, I’m offended that women seem to be invisible to him (well, yeah, that too, a bit). But because the omission demonstrates such a colossal blind spot in his imagination.  I’d feel the same if an author took for granted that people from different kingdoms all dress the same or speak the same language.   If you as an author and worldbuilder can just forget to think about half the people in your society, how can I possibly trust you to imagine a rich, deep, complex and realistic world?

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Responses

  1. Fair assessment. Nothing breaks a book quicker than a person that hasn’t given true life to his own world – and the people, the characters (important or no) are such a critical part of that.

    If I might be so bold, what book was this?

  2. Wonder if the author’s own world lacks women?

  3. Cynthia – LOL! I thought of that too, as I was reviewing my post.

    Chris – I’m going to hold out on the title a bit longer, because I plan to give the book another chance, and if I do end up finishing it, I’ll probably review it here. Full disclosure, the only reason the book gets a second chance is that one of the blurbs was from Le Guin, and if she didn’t object to his handling of women characters, I have to assume it gets better.
    And I think this is your first comment here. Welcome, and thanks for joining the conversation!

  4. Update: At page 70 of 700+, I’ve decided I’m done with this book. The book is The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfus, the first of a series. And I don’t wish to discourage anyone else from reading it, as I’ve read much, much worse, and I know that many fantasy fans will like it quite well. These are my own issues, to wit:

    The first 60 pages turn out to be just a frame to set up for the hero telling his own story–for the entire rest of the book–of how he came to be such a great and controversial hero. When I got to this point, I had a strong first reaction, and a gradual second one.

    The first was, “Why the heck didn’t you jump right into the first person narrative, instead of making me read through SIXTY pages of what is essentially prologue?” (yes, it’s true, most novels, and especially first novels, should begin in chapter 3)

    The second reaction was that the hero’s first-person narrative voice was, unfortunately, even less interesting than the third person narrative about him. If I’m going to read a 700 page novel, it better have some unusual magic or worldbuilding, and it MUST have a compelling narrative voice.


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