Eight Absurdities We Force on Female Characters

Aes Sedai from Wheel of Time Cover Art

You see, the main problem with female characters is they're always doing colorful magic rituals.

Have you ever noticed how many more articles there are about writing female characters than there are about writing male characters? What’s up with that? Are women such strange and unusual creatures that we need an ever-growing number of books and articles to tell us how to write them?

It probably won’t surprise you that the answer is “no.” Women are no more bizarre or unknowable than anyone else. Writers just have to depict them like they depict men, but with feminine pronouns. By setting out to write strange creatures known as “women” instead, storytellers create the very problems they are trying to solve. Sometimes this comes from individual prejudice, sometimes from cultural baggage around gender. Either way, these human-made problems make it seem like women are hard to write, which contributes to underrepresentation of women in fiction. It would be impossible to list all the difficulties storytellers create for themselves, but here are eight of the most common.

1. Lone Representation

Cover art showing Vin from Mistborn. Mistborn has over a dozen major characters, but Vin is the only woman.

When a novel has just one female character and she’s a full-time parent, audiences complain that the novel is saying women shouldn’t have careers. When a novel has just one female character and she’s a badass warrior with no interest in aesthetics, audiences complain that the novel is pushing women to adopt more traditionally masculine traits in order to be taken seriously. What’s going on here? Is there something wrong with women being full-time parents or having traditionally masculine traits?

Of course not. The issue in these cases is not with the characters themselves but with their status as the only woman in a big cast. When a story has only one woman, that woman cannot help but become a stand-in for her gender.* This is a problem storytellers create for themselves by including one woman in their cast, and the solution is simple: include more women.

Adding more women on top of the existing cast isn’t the answer. That usually results in a bloated story with pointless characters. Instead, storytellers need to change their existing cast to include more women – or better yet, include them from the start. This doesn’t mean any depiction of a female character is fair game – some things will be misogynistic no matter how many women a story has – but it does mean that individual female characters won’t be under a microscope.

This advice scales with the size of a story’s cast. A story with a dozen major characters should aim for at least six women unless it has a compelling reason to do otherwise. A smaller story is under less pressure. Audiences are happy to accept a single female character if the story only has one character.

2. Separate Fighting Styles

The main characters of Outlander's TV show adaptation. Outlander has the protagonist use an ineffectual dagger because a 1.5lb sword is deemed too heavy for her.

I used to think it was strange how often I would see people online asking how to realistically write women in fight scenes. I thought, “Simple: pointy end goes into the other fighter.” But then I realized that people were actually confused and that the debates over which killing tools would work as “women’s weapons” are largely spawned by existing stories.

Every time a novel depicts a woman needing to find a special weapon or a film gives women a sexy fighting style, it furthers the idea that the way women fight is inherently different from the way men fight. This is nonsense – the physics of murder don’t change based on gender – but the idea persists.

Storytellers can free themselves from this problem by simply accepting that women in their setting fight the same way men fight. A sword doesn’t particularly care about its wielder’s pronouns. If a storyteller actually wants to know what tactics a physically weaker fighter would employ against a stronger opponent, they can ask that, but it should be decoupled from gender. If that level of detail is important to the setting, then it should be considered any time combatants differ in strength, not just when one of them is female.

3. Enigmatic Decision-Making

A female mage from Wheel of Time Wheel of Time is obsessed with how strange and inscrutable women are. Who knows why they do anything?

Storytellers often display an intense need to differentiate the way women make decisions. Maybe they read an article about statistical differences in the way men and women solve problems, or maybe they just have an inherent bias.* Either way, this line of reasoning usually leads to stories where women seem like a different species.

In reality, most humans make decisions the same way: by considering available information and past experiences, then trying to reach the optimal outcome. It’s a messy process, but it’s fairly universal, at least at the level most fiction operates. Storytellers rarely seem to have this problem with male characters, but introduce a female character and she suddenly needs to make all her choices based on the phases of Saturn.

While some storytellers will try to defend this practice in the name of realism or creating a deeper world,* it actually does the opposite. Constantly calling attention to a character’s gender creates a stilted world full of characters who are difficult to empathize with. Most people in real life don’t actively consider their gender whenever they make a decision.

Authors can save themselves a lot of trouble by simply basing a character’s decisions off of their personal history and experiences. Instead of asking, “How would a woman react to a rampaging dragon?” ask, “How would a noble with a strong education and court upbringing react to a rampaging dragon?” That method creates all the diversity of problem-solving a story needs without making any unintentional statements about gender.

4. “Feistiness”

Kazuma and Ayano from Kaze No Stigma In Kaze No Stigma, Ayano’s violent anger is portrayed over and over again as harmless and endearing.

Stop me if you’ve seen this before: a female character shouts angrily at a man, threatens him, and maybe even injures him, and the other men in the room look at each other knowingly and say some variant of “she’s a feisty one.”

This scene gets played out with minor variations across countless stories, all of which portray a woman’s anger as no big deal. Sometimes this dismissal is just used to infantilize the character; sometimes it’s also used to increase her sex appeal. Whatever its purpose, it’s a strong signal to the audience that this character doesn’t matter. The author doesn’t take the character seriously, so why should the audience? That specter haunts the character for the rest of the story, lowering tension and investment in everything the character does.

Authors rarely portray male characters as feisty. When a male character exhibits such hostile behavior, he is treated like a serious threat to the safety of others. Dismissing and demeaning female characters who behave the same way reinforces the idea that violence by women isn’t a big deal in real life, which can have tragic consequences for people in abusive relationships.

Storytellers who make this mistake do so because they’ve been taught not to take women seriously as threats. Even though most people intellectually know better, it’s hard to get away from the idea that an angry woman is amusing. That’s just something storytellers need to work on if they want their female characters to be taken seriously.

5. Femininity Balancing

Kell and Lila from a Darker Shade of Magic A Darker Shade of Magic makes it clear that Lila isn’t like other girls (who are weak and slutty) but also that she’s traditionally attractive.

Everyone knows that when you write a female character, you’re basically walking a tightrope. If you make them too girly, no one will like them because girliness is bad for reasons. But if she’s too masculine, then she won’t be hot and might even – *gasp* – mess with someone’s concept of gender. So what you presumably need is a character who disdains dresses and the color pink but screams a lot and looks like an underwear model.

If that sounds like a lot of pointless trouble to go to, it is. There isn’t actually anything wrong with embracing traditionally feminine things or with a woman who takes on traditionally masculine traits.* And yet storytellers keep forcing themselves into this balancing act, to the point that “not like other girls” has become a routinely mocked cliche.

So why does this happen? Because authors are letting themselves fall for the cultural catch-22 that devalues anything feminine but also insists women conform to traditional expectations. That’s why so many storytellers try to make their female protagonist seem cool by degrading other women and yet return to the same feminine stereotypes.

The solution is to let a female character present whatever level of femininity or masculinity makes sense for the story, and then to not make a big deal about it. If your character likes armwrestling and DIY construction projects, that’s fine; they can like those things without deriding dresses and nail polish. By the same token, a character who is into dresses and nail polish isn’t inherently bad. Those are just their preferences.

6. Frequent Reminders of Attractiveness

Cover art from Artemis Artemis makes a point of reminding us that Jazz is totally sexy and hot, narrative flow be damned.

Whether through formal instruction or the mean streets of beta reading, most storytellers know that a protagonist shouldn’t spend a huge amount of time thinking about their appearance. It’s jarring for a character to constantly consider how they look, unless they have a good reason to do so like going to a fancy party.

Despite this common understanding, storytellers also have to constantly remind the audience how hot their female characters are, right? At least that seems to be the case, based on how often authors emphasize their female leads’ looks. Of course, this dual need makes writing women much harder, since readers don’t typically appreciate their stories being interrupted with reminders about a character’s sexy bod.

It gets worse! Storytellers also need to put in some token effort to make their female leads relatable, especially in stories aimed at women, but not in any way that would reduce the characters’ attractiveness. This is why we get characters with the “flaw” of being too slender or having hair that’s too red. It makes readers roll their eyes, but authors clearly have no other choice.

But what if there were another way? What if authors could just describe what their character looks like, and then leave it at that unless it was relevant to the story in some way? That would solve the problem, and there’d be no downside. Sounds wild, I know, but this technology has already been cracked for male characters, and very serious scientists in lab coats have assured me it can work just as well for female characters.*

7. Sexual Abstinence

The Fire's Stone cover art The Fire’s Stone is obsessed with whether or not protagonist Chandra has sex because it will weaken her magical powers, maybe?

Storytellers who want to put their female character in a romance face the ultimate conundrum: such relations usually result in the character having sex, but women having sex is bad! It must be, or else why would we have so many slurs and degrading terms for sexually active women?

Some storytellers try to get around this problem by assuring the audience that their characters have been pure and chaste before meeting their current beaus, but that raises the question of why sex was bad before and okay now. Short of making the boyfriend a divine avatar,* there’s really no explanation that will square that circle. Another common tactic is to explain that the female character used to have sex with many partners, but now she’s seen the light and will only have sex with this one dude. Except that just sounds like a downgrade.

If this seems like a headache to you, then you’ll be delighted to know that all the obsession with how much sex a woman has is nothing but misogynistic cultural baggage. Sexual activity has nothing to do with moral value, no matter what gender or lack thereof is involved. So relax: you officially have permission not to comment on how much sex a female character has had before their current relationship. In most stories it’s not relevant, and if by some chance it is, you can save yourself a lot of trouble by mentioning it in nonjudgmental terms.

8. Gendered Magic

Cover art from Gifts. In Gifts, women can pass the genes for magic death rays down to their sons but can’t use the power themselves, for science reasons.

A lot of people hold views about ways in which men and women are just inherently different, and when those people are spec fic storytellers, their views can translate into gender-based magic. Sometimes this is explicit, with characters openly stating that women and men have different magical abilities. Other times the split is more subtle, with female characters only receiving feminine-coded powers like healing and telepathy by sheer coincidence.

No matter how it’s manifested, gendered magic systems earn the story a lot of extra scrutiny. Suddenly, every choice about how magic works seems like a grand statement about gender.* If women are better with fire then men, is that a statement about women being more hot headed? If a system has men gain their magic through long periods of isolation, is it saying that men aren’t fit to be part of a family?

Gendered magic also raises unavoidable questions about people outside the conventional gender binary. In a world where magic discriminates between men and women, what kind of magic does a nonbinary or trans person use? Audiences can’t help but ask these questions because magic represents the physical rules on which a world runs. It’s like crafting a world where E=MC² only holds true when a woman calculates it.

For all that, most gendered magic systems aren’t trying to say anything interesting or insightful about gender. It’s usually something an author does for a bit of added novelty or that they simply add on impulse. That’s not a good enough reason to add such a deep pitfall to the story. The vast majority of stories will do better to leave their magic unaffected by gender.

Speculative fiction would be in a much better place if storytellers would stop making things unnecessarily difficult for themselves, especially when it comes to writing women. So many (mostly male) authors approach the subject as if they’re solving an ancient puzzle, like it requires intensely deep thought to write about a woman slaying a dragon or piloting a space fighter. It doesn’t, and the sooner people realize that, the better.

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  1. SunlessNick

    Good article. I especially like the comparison with E=MC².

  2. Dave L

    >most humans make decisions the same way: by considering available information and past experiences, then trying to reach the optimal outcome.

    You have a much more optimistic view of most people than I do, especially after November 8, 2016

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Look when your available information and past experience is several decades of racist Republican propaganda going all the way back to Nixon’s Southern Strategy, Trump starts to make sense.

  3. Lana

    You do realize that there is nothing wrong with NOT wanting to have sex either, right? Or wanting to wait until you’re with someone that you love or want to marry? Neither promiscuous sex, nor abstinence is a bad thing. So writers can right women either way, as long as they don’t do it in a bad light. You’re no better if you judge those who don’t want to have sex. You might as well be calling them a prude for it. Being the kind of person, male or female, who is abstinent, doesn’t automatically mean that you judge those who are not. It’s just a personal choice. Whatever choice you make about sex should always be respected. There’s nothing wrong with treating sex like something special between partners, or like a brief physical encounter that means nothing.

    • Mike

      As an asexual, I think you’ve missed the point. It’s not about a character who doesn’t want to have sex, it’s about a character who’s not asexual but has inexplicably kept her virginity until her love interest comes around. If the character has no interest in sex before marriage, for example, that needs to be clear in the story.
      If you’re talking about a character who has no interest in sex at all, though, I’ll quote another one of their articles (can’t remember which one right now). Asexuality will still be unusual for most readers, and if a character is asexual, it has to be explicitly said. That is, she has to make it clear she doesn’t have sex because she’s not interested in it.
      The point is that sex is naturally expected to happen when there’s a romantic connection. Not having sex can be explained by a plethora of circumstances (asexuality, religious beliefs, someone’s first relationship) but, all too often, what authors do is make a female character chaste simply because they think she should be “pure,” which is complete nonsense.

      • SunlessNick

        It’s not about a character who doesn’t want to have sex, it’s about a character who’s not asexual but has inexplicably kept her virginity until her love interest comes around.

        The “her” is a thing worth calling out specifically. I can think of exactly one male character who fits this description.

        • Cay Reet

          Yes, female virginity is treated like this extremely rare and important mythical beast which you have to protect under all cirstumstances

      • El Suscriptor Justiciero

        ^ This. There are ways to write an adult character that hasn’t engaged in sex before the story without it feeling like pure bullshit. A demisexual character makes sense; a character that has sexual hangups because they have been raised in an Abrahamic religion makes sense; a character with a history of abuse that makes them scared of intimacy makes sense. A character that is socially inept and has never managed to find a lover makes sense.

        A character that is chaste just because the author believes women are “pure” does NOT make sense.

        • Sam Victors

          Two of my main characters and love interests are demisexual, and they lose their virginity to each other as they grow emotionally close. The story is similar to Outlander, but modeled after the myth of Persephone.

    • American Charioteer

      This subject was discussed at length in another article.

      The summary is that there is nothing wrong with a character who is chaste or asexual or does not have sex for some other reason. What they are talking about is the very common trope where a character abstains from sex until they meet one special person (this character is most often female, but Chris has also cited Edward Cullen). This is implicitly contrasted with “those other girls” who engage in sex more frequently.

      This trope isn’t about abstinence until marriage, either (Edward wasn’t particularly concerned about marrying Bella before having sex). It is about abstinence until you meet that special someone, for the implied reason that if you were to not be a virgin when you meet then you wouldn’t have the same value as a partner.

      • Dave P

        I don’t know. I certainly am not asexual, and I wasn’t particularly religious as a teen and I didn’t have sexual relations until I was married. It just didn’t happen that way for me. It wasn’t a choice so much as just the way that my life unfolded.

    • 3Comrades

      No one does that though, they just find it odd that female characters have over emphasis on when they have or have not had sex.

      Like when a guy has never had sex in media, it’s usually mentioned right before sex, or given as a reason for not having sex, which makes sense (or derided for it, which is sexist against men). But with women they don’t say “she was waiting” or “hadn’t met the right person” but make it sound like a kind of purity.

      Abstinence isn’t the problem. It’s the overconsideration that whether she was abstinent or promiscuous as something that informs anything about her besides a simple choice.

      She can be abstinent or sleep with everybody. But treating her as pure because she was abstinent makes sex seem tainted. The same if she is treated as a better person due to sleeping with less people. It makes a conundrum because when sex does happen it seems corrupting which is opposite (usually) of what the author wishes to convey.

      No one is saying characters shouldn’t be abstinent or judging them for it, but just that it should be treated as a simple personal choice which says relatively little about them as a person. And shouldn’t come up unless important to the current action.

      • peg4x4

        Look,sex for a female sometimes has an aftereffect that she is responsible for for the next 18 or so years. It’s called a child. Birth control is either nonexistent,or dangerous. A woman’s life is threatened whenever she is pregnant. Maybe it’s more sensible not to have sex.

        • Michael Campbell

          \i{Ah, well I’ll see if I can activate sarcasm mode}

        • Michael Campbell

          Basically the position being taken is that the character’s choices should contain its own internal consistency.

          Because; as we all know, characters like people, are always consistent in their decision making processes.

    • Cay Reet

      This is not about slut-shaming anyone or saying everyone should want to have sex. It’s about the only-female trope that someone waits for the ‘right one’ to have sex, unlike all other women around them. If a character believes that sex should wait until they’re married, it’s fine. If a character has lots of one-night stands, it’s fine, too. Context about why someone hasn’t had sex so far (once they’re above a certain age, of course) matters a lot. Some people just aren’t interested. Some people just don’t have the opportunity. Some people don’t have sex before marriage, because they’re highly religious and their religion forbids it. Some people live in a family with five older brothers and a very conservative idea about women and sex and simply have no chance to have any sex until they’re away from home.

      The problem with a lot of female characters is that they are a virgin until they meet the male lead for no apparent reason whatsoever other than ‘she’s not like those other girls who sleep around.’ That is a very bad reason for not having had sex. Especially when it could just as well be ‘she’s so focused on her education that she’s never tried to have a relationship’ or something similar. As mentioned above, there’s a lot of more realistic reasons why someone (male or female) hasn’t had sex before.

    • Passerby

      Kudos for this post. I was going to write this myself. If anything, all those books where the author goes to extra lengths to emphasize that the main heroine never had sex before are offensive against the people who decided to wait or didn’t find the right person yet. Like “50 Shades of Grey” – oh, you’re over 20 and a virgin? Oh my, how wierd, we can’t allow for it to continue!

      • American Charioteer

        50 Shades is the opposite extreme of Twilight. Treating virginity like a disease that needs to be cured is obviously as harmful as suggesting that people who aren’t virgins have reduced romantic value.

        The problem isn’t that these authors don’t have the right idea about when it is best to lose one’s virginity, the problem is that there IS NO ONE ANSWER to when someone should lose their virginity. What Oren is suggesting isn’t that abstinence is inherently good or bad, but that novels should not suggest that a person’s value is in any way tied to their sexual history.

        • Dvärghundspossen

          Even if Christian was like “ugh you’re a virgin, have to do something about that before we start doing the BDSM stuff” at one point in the story, I think the story overall is the SAME tired old trope of Ana being pure and amazing and special because she’s never had sex before. She had never even MASTURBATED before (like seriously WTF?)! Then after she meets her one true penis (sorry, one true love) she starts to orgasm away like crazy, without any period whatsoever of having to get to know her body and what she likes etc.

      • Cay Reet

        It’s actually more about using the virginity as a ‘she (rarely he) waited until the RIGHT PERSON came along, unlike all other girls (rarely guys).’ It’s about that ‘unlike all other girls’ part much more than about the ‘no sex so far’ part. Our society is horribly fixated on how and when girls have the first sex in their lives and there’s still that myth that the first time is something special and should only be with a very specific partner. If it’s phrased as ‘the chance never arose before’ or ‘just no interest so far,’ it’s a completely different thing. From the bit of 50 Shades I’ve looked at, I’m not surprised that Ana had no sex before, though.

      • Nikita

        I think the idea is that women often get tied down to some kind of explanation as to why they did or did not try to have sex. I personally would like to see more characters who are more conservative in this area, but I don’t think offending people like that is the point. In many novels, especially in romance, the female character’s sexuality is often widely discussed, as if it was some sort of virtue. In reality, the trope mentioned above often acts like the woman’s sex life is completely tied to the male main character. If she didn’t have sex before him, there should be an actual reason, not just because she hasn’t met the “right one”. That makes it seem like her entire sexuality is focused on the man. If someone wants their female character to be sexually inexperienced, it should be for a reason that affects real people, such as religion, or lack of opportunity. Not because this particular guy has come into her life.

    • Marc Vun Kannon

      I like that line from Clueless: “You’ve seen how picky I am about my shoes and they only go on my feet.”

    • Sam

      The point here is that women can have as much or as little sex as they want. But it doesn’t need to be stated or focused on unless it’s important to the plot. If it’s not important to the plot, you don’t need to focus on this. If your character ha’s a good reason to have sex or not have sex and it’s important to the plot, that’s fine. Take Song of the Lioness for example. Is stated why she didn’t want sex. It was important to the plot a part of it was her trying to figure out where she fit in a “man’s world”. But it wasn’t really stated UNTIL it became important. This isn’t saying no sex or lots of sex is bad. It’s stating, if it’s not important it doesn’t need to be stated, as stating it feels like you’re making some comment about how women should live.

  4. 3Comrades

    I have seen a good gendered magic system. In it, the main character is a man wielding feminine magic. He has trouble doing so because no one will teach him. He even uses a sword to channel it which everyone says is too masculine to work, that if he can channel femininity it must be feminine as possible.

    Another character was a woman channeling male magic, and completely dedicated to her goals stating male magic suited it better even while generally being derided.

    The book did well at going about gender roles and how it corners our actions. It makes it clear everyone can use both types of magic but gendered magic exists because of cultural pressure. I think it managed very well.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’m curious what book this is.

      • Cay Reet

        Me, too. Sounds interesting.

      • Sophie the Jedi Knight

        This isn’t the book 3Comrades was talking about, but I just read this great graphic novel called The Witch Boy about a society where girls are witches and boys are shapeshifters, but male Aster wants to be a witch. It’s fabulously done with gendered magic.

      • Marc Vun Kannon

        Sounds like The Door into Fire.

  5. American Charioteer

    Addressing #1 (lone representation) goes a long way towards solving #5 (balance of femininity). If you have plenty of female characters then you won’t have to worry about how feminine any of them are, because each one will be an individual instead of a stand-in for her gender. ATLA is a good example of this, having one girl who was compassionate and gentle and another who was aggressive and forthright among the core characters.

    • N

      I agree: all the characters in ATLA are very well written, but the women especially get much more nuance and diversity than is usual even in “serious” adult media. (And this is without going into how powerful they are shown to be even compared to the men.)

      • American Charioteer

        I did greatly prefer Katara to Toph for this reason. Though both were very powerful benders, Toph’s relies on her power for everything. Her entire character is shaped around her need to be tough.
        She helps Aang is by helping him become tougher.
        She gets out of her greatest peril (being captured in a metal box) is by finding a way to become even more powerful.

        On the other hand, Katara’s compassion is shown as her greatest strength. My favorite episode was The Puppetmaster, where we see what Katara would be if she had power but lost her compassion.
        She helps Aang is by keeping him grounded and centered on what really matters.
        She gets out of her greatest peril (nearly being killed by Azula) when she is saved by Zuko, who may never have switched sides if she hadn’t shown compassion to him in the crystal caves.

        • SunlessNick

          Katara also gets out of a cage by running on the spot for a while, making herself sweat and then using the sweat for her water magic. She’s powerful, but she wins with her head.

        • N

          I agree that Katara uses her head and her heart in addition to her bending – she is certainly one of the most nuanced characters in a strong ensemble. However, I personally felt that Toph relying on her bending for everything is (at least partly) a reaction to being coddled and stifled for her disability. Her outward reactions are built around appearing tough (e.g. she was delighted about her portrayal in the play in season 3) even when she feels vulnerable (e.g. her idea that pairing up with Zuko right before the finale would help her understand herself and/or change her life for the better). It could also be a function of how young she is – I think she’s the youngest, except Aang (who has had to take the shortcut to maturity). In the care of Iroh-like adults who knew how to coax kindness out of her, she might have had more scope for turning out like Katara.

  6. Leon

    On the gendered fighting styles thing, you’re spot on. The way you fight depends entirely on your strengths and weaknesses in comparison to your opponent. And men and women are build differently.
    Look at MMA where female fighters use their legs more in grappling. And these are fighters, if the characters in your book have a back ground in gymnastics or something else that will similarly distort the body, the differences will be even more obvious.
    The idea of male / female fighting styles is clearly just plain stupid, but a female fighter is going to favor different techniques than a male fighter.
    If anybody is interested in depicting combat I would recommend learning about MMA and Shaolin kung fu.

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, it stands to reason that a very strong character would favour fighting styles which allow for them to make use of their strength, whereas another character might prefer styles that rely more on agility or precision. That has nothing to do with gender, but rather with build and training. There can be female characters who are very strong and male characters who are built a lot more slight and will favour other techniques instead.

      • leon

        Yes, but you’re talking about outliers (unless your talking about a female professional soldier punching down on some poor conscripts in the third world).
        In role playing games strength is just one number that covers any situation where a character has to test their strength, but in real life there’s a lot more to it. Agility and speed come from strength, and precision only lasts as long as your strength lasts. My reasoning on the subject is extrapolated from what I have seen in real fighters; On the same level, the vast majority of women do not have the same upper body strength as men, so why would a woman risk breaking her hand on a strong fighters face, when she can far more easily break his ribs with her feet – a woman I actually know.
        I did say that gendered fighting styles are stupid. I’m not saying that there are gendered techniques. I’m only saying that a fighter is going to exploit their strengths.

      • Leon

        Sorry, that was a bit long winded. Basically a punch is a punch and a kick is a kick no matter who you are, but women are built differently from men. So there are subtle differences in the way they fight (And I’m talking real world fighting here, not sexy spy thigh grapelling and flying/simultaneous-opposite-direction/nose-bones-into-the-brain punching).
        I take my opponent to the ground because I’m short and have very weak shoulders and legs, but I am very good at grapelling and applying submission holds. I can dodge punches well enough to close with most opponents, but I knew a girl who would have a better than average chance of breaking my chest with her foot if I tried that. Because her upper body strength can’t match most men her first instinct is to back up to effective range and kick, when most men will rely on their arms? There’s no reason a man couldn’t fight like this but in most situations a man would do better to develop upper body strength (there are no Taekwondo fighters in MMA that I am aware of).
        How do you fight?

        • Cay Reet

          I’m actually agreeing with you, you know. Women will favour different fighting styles than men, but it stands to reason that not all men will favour the same fighting still and nor will all women. So giving every member of a team their own fighting style makes sense (unless we’re talking about a soldier unit here which will all have received the same training), but it shouldn’t be a ‘women can’t fight as well as men and can’t use the same weapons because they’re women.’

          • Leon

            Of course. But in his article Oren insists that strength comes down to a single number (ie, 50 str points), and how a that the way these points afe distributed through the body is irrelevant.
            He also doesn’t mention that a sword fight with rapiers would require the same kind of strength as an arm wresteling match.

    • kelly arthur

      Sorry, I have to disagree. Female biology is different. Upper body strength is generally less than male, & muscle mass is distributed differently. A fighting style for a woman that emphasizes kicks or leg traps (not unlike the Widow in “Avengers”) does make sense. So would something like _aikido_ or _hapkido_, where strength is less critical. She need not be less lethal (surely we wouldn’t say Segal is) for that.

  7. 3Comtades

    It has been a long time. I more remembered it because everyone was super LGBT and the series ended with a mass marriage of all the characters, which was a bit odd.

    It was a co-author with Diane Duane I think.

  8. Cay Reet

    I would like to add “Girl Reporter” (which I’m just rereading for the umpteenth time) to the list of books which do well with representation (women, but also more). I’m not rereading it just because of representation, though, but because it’s well-written and very funny. The representation just ices the cake for me.

    The book has five female characters with a lot of screentime: Friday Valentina, her mother Tina Valentine, the superheroes Solar II and Astra IV, and the partially retired supervillain Megadethra.
    Friday is a millennial girl running a vlog about superheroes (a big topic in her reality) and studies media. She’s well aware of her privileges as a white girl from a wealthy family. She’s also the POV character and describes herself as bisexual, but tending more towards women. She loves dying her hair in all different colours.
    Tina Valentina, the original Girl Reporter of that realitiy’s Australia, is a journalist, businesswoman, and single mother who has build her own wealth and is still a no-holds journalist at the age of 50. Her claim to fame is that she was the first journalist to interview an Australian superhero – and for a long time it made her the girl reporter – regularly kidnapped to lure in Solar I, the hero she interviewed and was supposed to have a relationship with. A lot of people even think Friday is his daughter.
    Solar II is the legacy of the longest-serving superhero of Australia (Solar I was a guy) and has gotten more than enough shit for daring to replace a seasoned male superhero as a 16-year-old girl. She broke the ‘one girl’ rule of the Australian team – before her, the 5-person team always only had one woman on it, so when she arrived, Astra IV assumed Joey (Solar’s real name) was going to replace her, but she didn’t. In addition, Solar II was born with a missing left hand and didn’t have the Machine * make her one. And she’s into women (although it’s not addressed whether she’s lesbian or bisexual).
    Astra IV looks like the sparkly, pretty girl on the team, but in reality, all Astras are among the most powerful, because they can control dimensions to a certain degreen.
    Then there’s Megadethra who has seemingly retired when Solar I was replaced, but is still hungering for that last fight where she will defeat him and puts a lot of things in motion to make that happen. Since the first time we (and Friday) see her is in bed with Tina, it’s safe to assume that she’s at least as much into women as into men, if not more.
    And during the novel, a third female hero joins the Australian team, which means, with a woman of Asian descent taking up the mantle of Catsuit II, women now outnumber the men. When it comes to powers, two of the three female superheroes (Solar II and Catsuit II) are more into physical fighting than into using amazing mental abilities.

    * an alien machine which makes superheroes and turns them back to normal citizens at the end of their term, they arrived on this earth in 1981 and work on a regular schedule, Australia has a 6-months turnout, but it’s not universally the same, as Japan has 2 weeks

    Now I’m going into spoiler territory, so if you don’t want to read any spoilers, stop here.
    There’s two more characters in the story which are not what they seem at first glance. Officially, Surf (still a team member, came on board recently) was the first indigenous Australian to join the superhero team, but during the course of the story it turns out that the second-longest-serving superhero, known as The Dark, is indigenous, too. Since his costume covers every inch of his skin, nobody outside the team knew that before. And he’s been in a happy homosexual relationship with Solar I (dubbed the Bachelor of Steel) for most of the 25 years they served together. In addition, he was a paraplegic before being transformed – an accident which happened about 2 years before he became a hero. When Friday asks him whether he had a choice he answers that he didn’t realize he had one, but if he had to do it again, knowing he would serve for 28 years and counting (at the time of the novel, Solar I has been retired for 4 years), he’d still do it, but not for the same reason. With Joey/Solar II fully accepting her disability and making the best of it (she uses the curve, as she calls the stump where her left hand would be, just as much for fighting as her right hand), Aaron/The Dark wouldn’t be the type of superhero he is, had he not accepted the eradication of his disability. The Dark is modelled a lot on Batman, but with less tools and, perhaps, slightly above human strength and agility.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Sounds super cool. I’ll add it to my reading list, which is admittedly too long already.

      • Cay Reet

        I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. Of course, I also love the book, because Friday at one point refers to The Dark as ‘The Crown Prince of Brooding.’ The book has a lot of funny moments, including the moment when Tina Valentina realizes it’s the first time The Dark himself has become the bait. She’s too happy about that for someone who has been reduced to ‘girl reporter bait’ yet again.

    • Marc Vun Kannon

      The the Indranan War trilogy. It features an Indian-cultured matriarchal empire, fighting traitors within and without. Most of the main characters are women, of course. It’s a bit of a gender-flip, with men considered the weaker gender. I liked it a lot, read the whole thing in 4 days.

  9. Julia

    ” but introduce a female character and she suddenly needs to make all her choices based on the phases of Saturn.”

    Hey – sometimes Sailor Saturn is busy, and you should check her calendar first to see if she’s available to help out.

  10. Jeanalle Bonifas

    “Writers just have to depict them (women) like they depict men, but with feminine pronouns.” As a woman, this line really offended me. I know and appreciate that you want to see equal treatment of women in writing, which I agree is sometimes a problem, but if you write women just like you write men, you’re going to come up with some pretty unrealistic women.
    Women are good. Men are good. They are both equal, but equality does not equal identicality.

    • Chris Winkle

      Technically we’re slightly different from men, mostly because we’ve been socialized that way. But when writers aim to put that difference into their writing, they end up writing stereotypes, not interesting and unique characters. And because men are thought of as default and women as weird, it’s female characters who end up being sidelined the most as a result of this approach. Many of the best female characters out there there, like Ripley from Alien, weren’t written as women.

      • Michael Campbell

        “Many of the best female characters out there there, like Ripley from Alien, weren’t written as women.”
        I’m not so sure that Gail Anne Hurd would agree?

        One of things to watch out for is the cultural expectations on gender.
        In Australia, bush fires are such a catastrophic part of the culture that women have traditionally fought grass fires the exact same way as men, with a wet hessian bag.
        In the US, the Mormon church practiced polygamy and the slave master’s house-slave was usually his half-sister.
        Cultural expectations are a product of a culture’s history and can have a big influence on levels of misogyny.

    • Cay Reet

      As a woman, I actually agree with that line, because I read it as ‘write a woman as a character first and foremost.’ Men are the standard, the default, in storytelling. You don’t have to tell someone the nameless hero of a story is a man to make them imagine a man, but if that hero is a woman, you need to make it clear early (or pull a Metroid on them).

      When you write a character, you should write a person with strengths and weaknesses, with wants and needs, with agenda. That is what you usually get with a male progatonist, but what is often lacking with a female protagonist, because people focus so much on what supposedly (because gender* is a social construct and the idea about what constitutes a woman is tied closely to the culture you’ve grown up in) makes a woman a woman that they end up with a stereotyped woman. Instead, we should see as many different women as we see different men.

      *there is a difference between gender and sex. Sex is biological or genetic, gender is the social idea of what makes a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ … or something else in societies which don’t have a binary concept of gender (yes, those used to exist until the Christian missionaries came).

      • Tifa

        A very thought-provoking post, Cay Reet.

        “Pull a Metroid on them.” Heh. Samus is one of my favourite video game characters. I think what makes her rather unique is how, no matter the odds, she goes in and does what she sets out to do. It may seem not so special, but far too few women characters in any kind of media have that kind of core.
        Am I making any sense? It’s been a long day of writing [well, typing out what I’ve written]…

        • Cay Reet

          Yes, it does make sense.

          It’s the kind of character trait you almost expect of a male hero, but find far too seldom in female heroes. Samus has the weaponry (and also the training for it, obviously) and she also has the right mindset for the kind of work she does.

    • Marc Vun Kannon

      I said the same thing on Facebook, where I discovered this post. Write people first, who happen to be women.

  11. Jeanalle Bonifas

    You’re all saying that “men are always the default in writing” but then you say “so just keep writing men as the default, but call them women”. How utterly insulting to women to suggest that they can’t possibly be written to have unique personalities on the page while being written explicitly as women. I promise you, if the writer has any skill at all, he or she can write a woman as a woman without making them into stereotypes.

    • Michael Campbell

      I think you’re misreading.
      It’s don’t write men as the default: write people as the default.

      Archbishop Desmond Tutu had TB as a child and was bedridden for about a year.
      He was taken books by the local priest. Not great tomes of theology as no one had any idea that he’ld enter into the priesthood.
      No, they were just ordinary everyday novels.
      But after that, Desmond Tutu was stuck with an idea that he just couldn’t shake.
      At their core, white people are just like black people. They have the same desires and the same fears.

      So the question then becomes, is the same true of home-sapiens whose genitalia differ rather than their skin’s melanin levels.

    • Cay Reet

      You are misunderstanding me. What I say is that if you write a character without a name and not using a pronoun, instead only saying ‘the warrior,’ ‘the healer,’ ‘the thief´,’ or whatever definition you want to put on them, the reader is going to assume your character is male. Because without being given any hints such as a ‘she’ or a female-coded name, readers in our culture will assume a character is male as the default.

      As a writer, you will always know the gender of your character, but if you write a character, you write a person first and foremost, and, as I said before, a lot of male writers who try their hands at female characters (and some female writers, too, but they have less of an excuse), rely a lot on the stereotypes of women we see in stories. They rely on stereotypes seen on TV or in the movies, on stereotypes from novels or fairy tales, on stereotypes of society as a such (such as ‘women don’t like technology’ or ‘women want to be mothers’ or ‘women can’t decently park a car’). Whatever you read in books like “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” comes down to such stereotypes and it goes back into the stories to reinforce those stereotypes. Because which each new movie/TV/novel/etc. which uses those stereotypical women, it’s shown as the rule again. And people will believe it.

      The only way to break that up is to write a woman like you’d write a man, meaning not starting out thinking ‘now what kind of woman should she be?’ in terms of ‘which stereotype will she resemble.’ To write a woman as a character first and foremost. That’s how I, as a woman, write my men, as it were. I write them as characters, given them the skills, the strengths, the weaknesses which fit with the character in my mind and with the story I will tell (fear of drowning would be a pointless weakness in a story set in a desert, for instance, because the character would never encounter large bodies of water). And for a man writing a story with women, writing women as characters, even though he has no first-hand experience at what being a woman is like, is just as important. That means writing a woman the way he’d write a man. It seems to be easier for women to write men that way than the other way around, though.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Editor’s note: I’ve removed a comment here for transphobic content. Disagreeing with each other or us is fine and encouraged, but claiming that trans women or trans men do not exist is not acceptable.

        • Jeanalle Bonifas

          I understand your authority to remove anything you don’t want on your website, but I was only respectful. I’ve read your comments policy, and I never made a personal attack on anyone here, or any groups of people. I didn’t even bring up trans people. I didn’t comment on anyone’s tone, or say anything harmful. I just wanted to shift the conversation more towards facts.

      • Michael Campbell

        So you’re saying it’s okay to have stereotyped female characters so long as you also have stereotyped male characters!?!

        • Marc Vun Kannon

          The stereotyping is the problem, writers not paying attention to the world around them and their own lives to get the raw material for their stories. Or writing in a hurry. Or too lazy to come up with a more nuanced portrayal.

      • Marc Vun Kannon

        I had that happen to me, when I was reading the first book of the Indranan War trilogy. It was written in the first-person, and everyone in the first chapter referred to the MC as Your Royal Highness, so it took a while to realize that the MC was female and the heir to the throne of a matriarchy. Of course, being male, my default pronouns are masculine, but I’m always leery of situations where gendered pronouns aren’t used. I always feel like I’m being set up for a reveal, and sure enough I was (although the blurb on the back already refers to the MC as her so it wasn’t much of a reveal). A good set of books, too, not only a matriarchy but also patterned on Indian culture. Very nice. And yes, I write women the way I write men, as people first, gendered individuals second.

      • LiliesAndRoses

        Also, it was said, that characters with fantastic skin colors can be read as white by default, I also wonder, whether explicitly genderless characters can be read as male by default?

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          That’s significantly less of an issue because genderless people exist in real life. The reason fantasy races tend to read as white is that they don’t exist in real life, so the brain reverts to the familiar. Meanwhile, gender neutral and other types of nonbinary people are very real.

          Of course this isn’t a guaranty. The TNG episode The Outcast tries to portray a gender neutral race, but all the aliens are played by women, they all look like women, and they all have a haircut that’s stereotypical associated with lesbians, so that attempt falls flat.

          • LiliesAndRoses

            Seems quite similar “The Land of the Lustrous”, in which the main characters, the Gemstones, have no gender, use male pronouns and look like women. Due to absence of gender-neutral pronouns in Russian language, many Russian users used female pronouns, some of them even referred to them as “genderless girls”.

  12. Michael Campbell

    “fear of drowning would be a pointless weakness in a story set in a desert, for instance, because the character would never encounter large bodies of water”
    One word:- mirage.

    • Cay Reet

      Fear of drowning comes up on a large body of water or in it. You can’t row a boat across a mirage or swim in it.

      • Michael Campbell

        And you have a psych degree to support that?

        A person who’s had a bad encounter with a Tsunami (even has been told they had a bad encounter with a Tsunami e.g. “The reason you’ve never met your father is that he got taken by a Tsunami a month before you were born”) could easily have the effect of sheer terror for a person merely in line of sight of a mirage of a large body of water.

  13. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s note: I have removed a comment for a combination of ableist and trans/enby-erasing language. As I always say, disagreeing with me is fine, but putting other people in a position to defend their existence is not.

    • Jeanalle Bonifas

      How was I ableist?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      You weren’t, this is in reference to someone else’s comment. If you’re interested, I removed your comment for the statement that anyone born with a vagina is automatically a woman, and anyone born with a penis is automatically a man. There are many trans and non-binary folks for whom this is not true, and their identity is not up for debate.

      • Val Quainton

        Thank you!

      • Cay Reet

        There are actually three sexes: male, female, and intersexual. There are people who are born with indetermined or two different sexual organs. And there are people born with a Y chromosome, so genetically male, who have a female phenotype (sometimes multiple-XY gene set, sometimes a regular XY gene set, but still a female body). Even biological and genetic sex aren’t that easy to determine. Biologists these days suggest introducing additional sexes – up to 5 different ones instead of the two we have so far.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Editor’s note: I’ve removed a comment for erasure of people outside the traditional sex binary. Like gender, sex is not a binary, and people who fall outside of it do not need to defend their existence. For anyone who’s curious, they can learn more here:

  14. Tifa

    One absurdity that I’ve grown increasingly weary of over the years is one that is the flipside of #7–the assumption that someone [most often female] not only has to want sex, but “must” have sex, or else there’s something wrong with them. I’ve seen it in books, where it’s occasionally more implied, but still a significant issue, and in tv and movies, where’s it’s not quite stated outright, but comes close to it. In all of my books, I state clearly in the author’s note that all of the characters are asexual.

    In regards to #1, that’s one reason why I wish Arwen and Eowyn not only had more to do in The Lord of The Rings, but actually joined the Fellowship [the time period in which it was written notwithstanding].

    #4 is one reason why I dislike the ‘tsundere’ archetype with a passion. Oftentimes female tsunderes are played for laughs, even in cases of what are basically physical and emotional abuse. *cough Asuka cough*
    As much as I love The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, I will admit it has that problem almost as much as Neon Gen Eva does.

    I find #5 and #6 particularly aggravating; with #6 it’s like the author or screenwriter can’t think of any character or personality traits for a female character, and ultimately resorts to ‘beauty, yes, that’ll do it, moving on now to the male hero who has the emotive range of a crumpet…’

  15. Cay Reet

    Not everyone has to reproduce and sexual orientation is not inherited. There will be asexual people (and even aromantic ones) in every generation. Besides – being asexual doesn’t mean never having sex – it means you’re not sexually drawn to other people (no matter their sex or overall looks). Some asexuals still have a strong sex drive.

    • Marc Vun Kannon

      I can see that depending on the story. In a low-tech agricultural society reproduction would be a necessity (which may be why non–reproducing adults are unwanted). After a war, after a plague, lots of scenarios where reproduction would be a requirement and failure to do so a crime, or at least anti-social

      • Cay Reet

        Even agricultural societies have their share or non-reproducing people. Some are physically incapable (those rates have gone down over time, thanks to medical development and better understanding of the human body). Some choose not to reproduce (such as priests and priestesses of many religions or, in the religions which have them, monks and nuns).

        Not to reproduce has never been a crime, nor has the notion not to reproduce ever been far-spread. Most humans wish to reproduce. After a war, women will be more plentiful than men and few men can impregnate many women (it doesn’t work the other way around, though). After a plague, societies usually recover slowly (indeed, if there hadn’t been wide-spread diseases shortly before the first Europeans came to America, we might not have the US we know today), so it’s not up to quick reproduction from everyone, either.

      • Deimos

        Of course, that setting will be absolutely horrifying to asexual, gay, probably most trans people, and everyone with tokophobia (fear of pregnancy/childbirth). A setting where reproduction as a societal obligation is “justified” is inherently queer-phobic and sexist.

        Unless the writer intends to create a horrifying dystopia like “The Handmaid’s Tale” I would STRONGLY avoid writing this sort of thing. Just knowing what that story is about is traumatizing.

  16. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s note: I’ve deleted a comment for ace-erasure. Cay Reet was already on top of it, but that’s not the sort of content we can allow on Mythcreants.

    In case it was a misunderstanding: asexuality is a normal sexual orientation among humans, and I’d encourage anyone who’s confused to learn more about it.

  17. Alexis

    Thank you so much for writing this, the sarcasm made me laugh so hard!! (i.e. Sounds wild, I know, but this technology has already been cracked for male characters, and very serious scientists in lab coats have assured me it can work just as well for female characters.*) I really appreciate all that you guys do on this site, but particularly your articles/podcasts about equality are always my favorite! Also, I applaud you on your patience – anyone who got upset with this article are the ones that actually needed to read it.

  18. Travis Mitchell

    Just found this site. Enjoyed the articles and have set myself a goal to finish a written project by years end. However, this write-up is feminist drivel pure and simple. Men and women are different creatures on many levels, not just physical. It would take too long to explain, but if interested, check out Jordan Peterson’s YT channel on how males and females have evolved in personality, interests and societal roles. It all starts with biology (although it doesn’t end there…)

    • Bunny

      The topics discussed in this article are hardly “drivel,” and all of them on some level are reflections of our societal shortcomings as a whole – shortcomings based off of society’s inability to see men, women, and everyone beyond as equal. These inequalities creep into literature, and they’re outlined in this article. Notice how all the points have real-world parallels? I’ll list a few:

      Lone Representation: Half the world is made up of women. There is no excuse for leaving them out of your story. Having a single woman present, especially in a larger cast, does not fix the problem, because you force her to represent her entire gender. In the reader’s eyes, she becomes a stand-in for the author’s opinions on women, because they’ve presented no alternatives. And it makes no sense to not have equal numbers of men and women in your story, since they should be written not as men and women, but as people first and foremost (and therefore changing their genders to diversify should not impact the story).
      This also parallels workplace inequality. In male-dominated industries, equally-qualified female candidates are often passed over in favor of their male peers – also seen in pay gaps, where women doing the same work as men are not paid the same. This is sexism, and it should have no place in your story unless you are making a statement about it.
      Frequent Reminders of Attractiveness: Society needs to get past judging people by the way they look, including how attractive they are. This is a problem that extends beyond what women face, and plays into stereotypes and biases. People call the cops all the time on black citizens who are doing normal, legal activities. I read an article about a neighbor who called the police on a black man who was moving into a new apartment because they thought he was stealing. Sexiness judgement is another form of visual prejudice. Attractiveness should not be an integral part of a character’s personality. Beautiful = good, ugly = bad is something that should belong in the distant past.
      Sexual Abstinence [content notice: rape and suicide]: Like attractiveness, nobody’s value should be calculated based on their sexual preferences, and those preferences are a personal matter that are nobody else’s business. NOBODY should control ANYONE’S sex life except THEMSELVES. This. Is. A. Stigma. In parts of the world, women are forced to marry rapists or expected to commit suicide post-rape to protect their (and their family’s) dignity or purity. Women can’t go to the police because the police will rape them, too. Girls are conned and trafficked across borders to brothels and never seen by their families again. Think I’m exaggerating? Read Half the Sky. Value SHOULD NOT be based on sexual preferences. A character can be a virgin or have slept with fifty men, but it should be their own choice based on their own beliefs and shouldn’t affect their value as a person.

      This article is hardly “drivel.” It’s gender equality as seen in our stories. Do you believe in nature or nurture? Society shapes us from an early. Pure biology has very little to do with it (though in some cases it certainly plays a role). And I’d like to close out by reminding you of the definition of “feminism” (since you used it as a derogative):
      “Feminism is a range of political movements, ideologies, and social movements that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve political, economic, personal, and social equality of sexes. This includes seeking to establish educational and professional opportunities for women that are equal to those for men.”

      • Marc Vun Kannon

        Half the world may be women, but that doesn’t mean half of the story has to be, especially if it’s set in a place where there may be specific filters for gender in place, which would in fact be part of the plot. (I’ve only written one story like that, most of them have more equal representation.) Stories don’t take place ‘in the world’, they take place in that part of the world where the characters are, and that part may not have that many women in it.
        With regard to reminders of attractiveness, I don’t read descriptive prose in general, I tend to skip over that stuff, so I wouldn’t necessarily notice it. But if I did, I would definitely be put off by it, simply because of the repetitiveness. Unless the woman is using her looks as a tool (i.e., ‘feminine wiles’) there’s no real reason to go on about them. As a writer, I don’t describe my characters most of the time anyway.
        I find your comment ‘nobody’s value should be calculated’ to be extremely strange. Do you actually calculate people’s value? People have equal ‘value’, which (depending on your views) can be affected when their actions and choices cross moral boundaries. Those choices can be treated either as baggage (burdens carried by an unchanged individual, which can be released), or changes in their state directly (more or less ‘valuable’ individuals). It’s possible to create a scenario where a character’s abstinence affects the plot of the story (i.e., becomes the basis of an action), but it would take work.

        • Cay Reet

          First of all, the author selects the society for their story, so if you choose a society with many filters which keep women out, that tells something about your approach to female characters already. And even a society which restricts women to certain roles allows for their inclusion in a story – within the roles they can have. Your character can still have a mother, a sister, a wife, a daughter they are close to and trust. They can still meet women (unless you go extremely fanatic with your society and don’t allow for women to ever leave the house). There are always roles in a story which can be taken by a female character.

          In addition: Society gives value to humans based on specific pointers. Don’t believe it? Then why is a prostitute usually seen as a less desirable friend than a woman who earns her money as a clerk? Because we consider sex work something dirty. Why is the unemployed looked down upon for being lazy or too stupid to get and keep a job? Because society values work and doesn’t care why someone doesn’t work. Not every human in a society is worth the same, although the actual pointers for it change. And that is giving value to humans.

          Yes, if a character’s abstinence is an integral part of the story, it would have to be addressed. And in that case, the reason should not be ‘I’m pure and hence better than other girls,’ please. Give them a good, understandable reason. A reason which fits in some way with the society they live in. A reason which fits with their character.

  19. Tifa

    “Depicting abusive relationships as positive and desirable” could be #9, although if you made a whole article about it the comment section might explode. What gets me is how people seem to pretend that sexism doesn’t exist, as if doing that will make everything better. “What you don’t see doesn’t hurt you”, that kind of mentality. Just as prevalent is when people just don’t see it or make excuses for it, as if they have abuse blindness. This is why I wish that Metroid Other M [the video game equivalent of Twilight, in my mind] never existed, or at least that people noticed what is so absurdly wrong with it. I even made a really long article about it a year or so ago.
    Both male and female writers can fall into traps like that, and that so many people are unaware of these sorts of things, or at least the underlying implications that are in many popular works, is disturbing to me.

  20. GKeefe

    “When a male character exhibits such hostile behavior, he is treated like a serious threat to the safety of others.”
    I don’t think that’s always the case (such a guy would be terrible on a team), but it’s either that, or the man had some tragic, painful back-story that explains why he’s angry all the time. While a woman never has anger issues or a traumatic history – “she’s just such a firecracker!” (followed by a manly chuckle)
    This trope is old and biased, and I would gladly see it dead and laid to rest.

  21. Amniote

    1. Would gendered magic be excusable, if it was designed (in-universe) to be gendered for cultural reasons?
    2. Would the ‘feistiness thing’ be excusable if it the female character in the situation had already shown how powerful they are?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      As with most things, it depends on the context.

      For #1, if gendered magic is a social/cultural construct, is it there to make a point? Pratchett’s Discworld, for example, has a socially constructed difference between wizards and witches, but he not only makes it clear early that this is social, he’s also making an important statement about how the wizards are Men in Power who do nothing to actually help anyone. If the socially gendered system is just there unchallenged, then it’ll send all the same messages as a normal gendered system.

      For #2, probably not. Even if the character has been shown to be a badass in previous scenes, a ‘feistiness’ moment is still likely to seem degrading. If anything it might make things worse, since in the previous scene she was powerful and cool but now people don’t take her seriously for some reason.

    • Leon

      Powerful people don’t get upset or lash out.
      Think about dogs; compare the big monster that protects your kids & the tiny neurotic creatures that wealthy people strut around with. (Or the —- at work who always thinks hes being attacked.)
      Feistiness is not a positive trait.

      • Poor Yorick

        It would be tempting to me, I think, if I were a writer of such stories, to write a “feisty” scene where the perceived “feistiness” turns very quickly into an anime-like pile of gore.

        Probably a vindictive, and possibly not a very productive, way to work against the “feistiness trope.” So perhaps it’s for the best I’m not one of those writers.

      • CanuckAmuck

        “Powerful people don’t get upset or lash out”? I understand what you’re saying, and in an ideal world that would be true, but I think there are enough real-world examples, including one glaring current one (coughPOTUScough), to dissuade one’s self of that notion.

        • Marc Vun Kannon

          No one would ever call Trump powerful. He’s a very small man with access to large toys.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        I’m glad someone brought up the Fascist in Chief, as he’s the perfect example. By most metrics he’s the most powerful man on Earth, yet he comes off as weak and ineffectual because he’s constantly yelling and lashing out. He wouldn’t make a good villain unless you were doing a very specific type of story.

        This is the same reason Nazis are super common villains, but Hitler rarely features unless the story is trying to be funny. He’s just too ridiculous!

        • Michael Campbell

          “The meek shall inherit the Earth.”
          Until then?
          It belongs to four-time (corporate) bankrupt, foul mouthed, billionaire, pussy grabbers who confuse HPV with HIV???

          Sounds like par for the coarse these days.

          I’ve lived for decades with:-
          “Even though you have compulsory suffrage and live in a free country: you still don’t have a say in who will be leader of the free world.”
          Our former PM basically had to invent the G20 just to get a seat at some kind of table.

  22. Poor Yorick

    Interesting. Some issues have troubled me in the past, especially 2 and 8, when thinking about RPG mechanics rather than writing a story.

    Re: 8. Gendered Magic

    What about Earthsea? It’s been a while since I read those books, but I remember being positively impressed by the gendering of magic there, as something that gave a raw and beautifully primeval flavour to the setting.

    Possibly though it does all that and is problematic nonetheless. Any thoughts?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I only ever read the first Earthsea book, but I don’t remember it using an explicitly gendered system. Instead it just implied that women are bad at magic in general, as the vast majority of mages we see are men (I think we see one, maybe two women with magic?), which is its own problem.

      Apparently the second book gets into a more clearly gendered system, and it sounds really bad. I would not recommend emulating it, any more than I would recommend emulating her later book, Gifts, where women can carry the gene for certain magic types but not express them for some reason.

      • StyxD

        I’ve read the first four books of Earthsea, and I don’t remember magic being gendered there.

        The magic system is based entirely around language. There’s really no dimension in which gender could play a role.

        I was under the impression that “women are bad at magic” statement (one that I remember) was preceded by “people say”. The only magic school in the world outright refuses to train female students, which is why there are almost no female mages, and women who do use magic are usually much worse at it than men, because they were denied equal education.

        It’s a feature of the society, not the magic system itself. Unfortunately, it’s not really challenged or examined properly until book 4 which, well…

        I don’t really remember anything from the second book specifically that was about gendered magic system. The story took place on an island where only women were priestesses, but that was not so much magic as worshipping the Great Old Ones.

  23. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    This may sound stupid, but is it wrong for a girl to just not want to have sex with the love interest at the time? I’m not talking about asexuality; I’m talking about a girl who would just rather wait until marriage. She’s not some beautiful pure virgin who only decides to have sex when she meets the heroic *cough obsessed cough* male lead; she’s a girl who wants to wait and no guy will change that. It’s just that this type of girl is sometimes scorned as being “unrealistic” or just sounds too much “not like other girls.” Like writing this girl is judging everyone who chooses to have sex before marriage. Is there a way around this?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      There’s nothing inherently wrong with anyone waiting for marriage, the third date, or any other time to have sex. If it’s a personal choice the character can do whatever they want. The issue is that most writers don’t seem to be able to do that without saying that it’s wrong to have sex before a certain arbitrary point.

      • Michael Campbell

        From what I can tell, writers add the “sex scene” because their publishers tell them it’ll sell more books.

        In many ways it’s part of the vagaries of story telling in the modern world.
        Hollywood needs to tell the story in two hours. So instead of having the hansom cop and his beautiful female new partner whose actually an agent of Internal Affairs investigating him (and his station) for corruption:- have an actual romance while hunting down the mad bomber: they instead have a few lines of innuendo to advertise the sexual tension and then have a scene of the two of them jumping into bed.
        It takes about four minutes of extra film (and the mad bomber’s torture scene already gave the movie and NC-17 rating) but it will clue the audience in on why “he” gets so upset when he learns of her betrayal…it wasn’t love, it was all about not blowing the cover Internal Affairs gave her.

        So then some writer sits down to write a book involving both a man and woman who spend a lot of time together:- and of cause they must shag because it happens in every movie s/he’s ever seen.

        • Cay Reet

          There are cases of writers adding sex scenes to sell the book – but a lot of those books run under the heading of ‘erotica,’ where sex scenes are essentially expected.

          As a book has a lot more time than a movie to establish a relationship between its leads, the simple fact that movies do that is no excuse. A novel leaves you a lot more time to realistically bring the characters together (which is one reason why I’m much more of a fan of a romance subplot in a book than in a movie – simply more time and space to establish it), so there’s no reason to rush it unrealistically just so ‘it’s there.’ And no excuse for doing so.

          • Michael Campbell

            “As a book has a lot more time than a movie to establish a relationship between its leads, the simple fact that movies do that is no excuse.”
            I never said, “common as dirt” was an excuse; just pretty darn common.

    • Michael Campbell

      Actually marriage becomes something of a public statement point because one is making a public declaration.
      I want my family and friends and even my government to know, that this is the one I intend to limit my sexual congress too…assuming that “forsaking all others” is used in the marriage vow.
      So outsiders do feel like they have a say in the issue. Indeed, they’re given the chance or else “forever hold their peace”.

      Also it’s possible to be conflicted over such an issue.
      “Yes, I want to have sex.
      But I also want to ‘play fair’ with others, including the one I choose.
      And I also recognise that I want to create a foundation into which I bring a child into this world as I recognise that no contraception (that I would be willing to use) is 100% effective and I intend to be prudent.
      So I’m drawn in two directions; hurry up and shag Vs hurry up and settle down.”

    • Cay Reet

      There’s nothing wrong as a such with a girl who wants to wait until marriage for her first time – if it’s truly her decision and not made by her parents or other figures of authority for her (in the ‘if you have sex before marriage, you’re dead/evil/a whore/whatever’ way).

      But the problem can indeed be that ‘not like the other girls’ statement here – making her, as the female lead of the story, seem ‘better’ for not having sex before marriage, which feeds into the ‘pure virgin’ trope. We don’t need more shaming of girls who are sexually active before settling down than we have already – quite the opposite, we need to get the idea that female virginity is something special out of people’s heads.

      It’s often considered unrealistic these days, because the rules of society are less strict and it’s rather normal for teenagers to experiement with certain things, which means a lot of them will have sex before marriage, not because they’re evil or whatever, but simply because they’re teenagers full of hormones who are not yet completely on top of their instincts and their curiosity (which also isn’t something to vilify, either, teenage hormones are potent stuff).

      Yes, there are girls (and boys) who don’t have sex as teenagers for a variety of reasons from true asexuality over ‘no time’ (especially with today’s trend of pushing kids into a lot of extracurricula activities which hardly leave space for ordinary teenage stuff) to ‘no means’ (especially if your lead is shy or otherwise out of the loop).

      If you want to make your female lead one of them, you might want to specify why she has decided to stay a virgin until her wedding night, instead of doing it the Twilight way and countering the ‘I’ve never had sex’ information simply with an ‘I know (…because you’re better than the others).’ It only takes a ‘never found the right one’ or ‘it didn’t feel like the right time’ instead to take that whole ‘I’m a virgin because I’m better than the rest’ out of the situation.

      • Michael Campbell

        “– quite the opposite, we need to get the idea that female virginity is something special out of people’s heads.”
        No -quite the opposite.
        We need to develop the idea that it’s exactly as special* as male virginity.
        *whatever that means.

        “It’s often considered unrealistic these days, because the rules of society are less strict and it’s rather normal for teenagers to experiement with certain things, which means a lot of them will have sex before marriage”
        Strange how the law (Carnal Knowledge) is still on the books.
        Indeed while society is getting more permissive, I’ld argue the legal system is getting more puritanical. A teenager can easily get angry when his girlfriend breaks up with him and then send his “special selfies” to his friends in an attempt at revenge and then find himself on the sex-offender’s register – for life. If you did something similar in the ’70s with a Polaroid, the result would be much less terrible.
        Telling teenagers that society’s rules have changed is harmful for teenagers. They need to be told, that the other teenager’s parents may not have changed, particularly when dealing with the rules for “their child”. The teenagers need to be told that they are walking a very dangerous tightrope because specific trumps general and the schools ain’t teaching that.

        • Cay Reet

          I don’t know where you live, but in Germany, there is no law against having sex before marriage (and sex between minors is acceptable, if both parties are minors – if one is much older, it’s still illegal, because it’s presumed that the older party might have taken advantage of the younger one). Fact is teenagers have always had sex. That is a fact which needs to be taught to adults as much as to teenagers. To adults to understand that their children will, indeed, have sex before marriage (and, perhaps, even before turning 18). To teenagers to help them realize that they are not ‘wrong’ because they feel like finding out what sex is about. Fact is also that to minimize the bad effects from it, they need to be taught about how sex works and how to avoid pregnancy and STDs. The fact that the US seems to be set on the opposite is sad and just shows how much the society still needs to learn. Especially if you compare their statistics about teenage pregnancy to those of countries with good sexual education (hint: countries with good sex ed have a lot less teenage pregnancy).

          The point is that male virginity plays no role at all in society (unless it’s to make fun of men who haven’t had sex already above a certain age), whereas society is still hung up on how important it is for women to lose their virginity to the ‘right’ man. Because for them, society thinks, it’s something special. Which it’s not, by the way. The first time may be great for both men and women or it might suck for both of them (no matter who they have it with). Telling girls especially that ‘true love waits’ and that ‘nobody will buy the cow if they can get the milk for free’ is outright wrong. Especially if you also tell them that men ‘can’t help wanting sex’ and ‘can’t control their urges,’ which is also wrong.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            Editor’s Note: I have removed a comment her for slut shaming.

          • Michael Campbell

            I’ld like to point out that the term “slut shaming” is deeply misogynistic.
            A less harmful label needs to be developed.

          • Cay Reet

            The moment men stop referring to sexually active women as ‘sluts,’ we will happily stop using the term ‘slutshaming’ to call them out.

    • Marc Vun Kannon

      No, it’s not wrong, but the opposite is the easier way to go, which is why a lot of writers go that way, rather than try to develop the character the hard way. You see a lot of that in TV especially, where they have limited time to write the story, and less time to convey it in, so the more subtle characterizations get left out. Unfortunately a lot of writers get their ideas about writing from TV rather than from real life.
      Of course there is ‘a way around this’, just write them the way you want and do that work, bearing in mind that you might lose readers or viewers who aren’t capable of following along. If I had a publisher or an editor who said that one of my books needed a sex scene, for any reason, I’d have to bolt, since I don’t do them for any reason. I’ve never seen that they add anything to a story.

  24. Melodie Campbell

    Great blog! I have another thing to add. I think women have an advantage writing men because all our lives we have seen the world through the male gaze thanks to film, television and news media. We don’t have to ask ourselves how men would think. We’ve seen it all our lives.

    • Cay Reet

      Pretty much, yes.

    • Michael Campbell

      1) Always good to see the clan put some runs on the board. The Duke of Argyll would be pleased.

      2) The male mind is not particularly incomprehensible as it’s undervalued within society. Basically if you’re smart & male, the only acceptable field you can put your mind to is; the “memorization” of sports statistics.

      3) If in doubt; research.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Thanks Melodie, glad you enjoyed it! You’re absolutely right that a male POV has been over-represented in media for a long time, and that sort of thing leaves a mark.

  25. Marc Vun Kannon

    Excellent article. There are physiological differences between men and women beyond mere strength that would affect fighting styles, though.

    • Cay Reet

      To a certain degree, yes. But it’s annoying to see stories which outright deny any regular fighting to the female characters, even though there are suitable weapons around. Even though women wouldn’t use the heaviest weapons (for mere reasons of strength) and might use different fighting styles, claiming they couldn’t, as in Oren’s favourite example, use a short sword or a gun (not Oren’s favourite example), is outright insulting. The might wield the sword diffrently and they might not go for the biggest gun (with the strongest backlash) around, but they are not physically or psychologically inable to use weapons or fight.

      • Michael Campbell

        Recoil…sometimes kick.
        Backlash is when the TV audience gets on twitter…

        • Cay Reet

          Thanks. Sometimes the fact that English is not my native language comes through. I catch such things in my writing, normally, but editing a post and editing a novel are two different things.

          • Michael Campbell

            Well thank you for saying thank you.

      • Marc Vun Kannon

        Very true. I learned how to be a writer by reading books like these and noticing failure points like these. Women might go for weapons that work better with the way their skeletons are designed, but of course they can fight. Anyone who’s read Paksennarrion knows that.

        • Michael Campbell

          It was Stephen King who said; “If you want to be a great writer; you’re going to do a lot of reading.”

  26. Sura

    I especially loved the E=mc^2 bit. We’re a lot of misogynistic cultural baggage these days what with the announcement of Captain Marvel as the strongest character in the MCU. I find it very interesting that there are whole threads of comments on every platform imaginable talking about how she’s not really that strong- she’s got to be a little stronger than Thor (because, you know, Thunder Gods and brute force always win in the end right?) and definitely not Thanos. It doesn’t help that Captain Marvel wasn’t exactly the strongest character in the comics. In fact, I think she actually felt victim to a lot of points mentioned in this article. That’s probably also the reason why she’s getting so much backlash. Still, I look forward to the movie and definitely looking forward to people reading this article and understanding the cultural problems that come with writing a female character. I’ll be sure to keep this in mind when I get to re-writing a few WIPs.

    • Marc Vun Kannon

      I never felt that Carol Danvers was all that strong as Captain Marvel. When she morphed into Binary she was more interesting, and she was able to do things like jump-start warp engines, which was pretty cool. Admittedly I haven’t been a comic reader lately, but I have the first issues of Captain Marvel. I’ll have to go back and review them.

  27. Tymber Dalton

    This is not a criticism of the list. They are excellent points.

    What I think is interesting is that this article should have started with:

    Dear Male-Identified Writers – These are the things that, in general, cishet male writers tend to get wrong an unsettling amount of the time…

    Because usually you don’t have this problem with female-identified writers.

    As a cishet woman with over 150 titles under my belt in a wide variety of genres, every point on the list is a no-brainer, to me, and is a list that female-identified writers have screamed to the cosmos about for decades regarding problematic representation that is, to an overwhelmingly amount, perpetuated by male writers.

    Problematic representation is problematic, period.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Hey Tymber, glad you enjoyed the post! You’re absolutely right that these problems are more common among cis men than any other demographic of author, and I considered opening the article with an address directly to my fellow cis dudes. After a lot of back and forth, I decided on a more neutral approach because even though cis dudes make the mistakes most often enough, treating women as a strange other is common enough among other author demographics, so a more problem-focused intro seemed the best course.

      • Marc Vun Kannon

        Not to mention that just the phrase ‘cishet male’ is a built-in ad hominem that would get their hackles up, making them feel annoyed and attacked, when what you want them to feel is open and receptive to your concerns.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        ‘Cishet male’ does not meet the definition of ad hominem because it is not an attack, merely a specific term. Some people certainly feel attacked by a specific term for their identity, but that’s not the term’s fault.

        • Michael Campbell

          But it does meet the standard of murdering the English language.
          It should be:-

          Cis’ het’ male.

        • Michael Campbell

          Also if I’d used that same line of argument in defense of it as the singular form of they.
          There’s a pretty good chance I would have been deleted for enby eraser or some other gawd awful crime.

  28. Andrej B

    So you are saying that there are not differences between male and female? And that is just not true, if you start from tradition they differ, if you erase it they still are physiologicaly different, hormones and growing up enviroment make them different. And in sports they are not in same categories. Woman can vield a longsword and can be routhles and asexual or hipersexual same as man, but most of the stories talk about the best of the best, and once you put Serena Williams on one side of the court and Federer on the other diference is obvious, she might win vs me but, fantasy seldom talks about ordinary humans. Thing is in writing if you stick with known facts, you save pages. And you will never be satisfied with different magic systems whatever woman got you would say it is because of this or that… I am interested what do you think about Storm light archives, I personaly think that everything is equal in the books, even Parshman/Listeners their main chars are strong woman?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Fun fact: The Stormlight Archive is not a gendered magic system. The setting has social rules that encourage women to use one type of magic over another, but there’s nothing physically preventing them from learning other types of magic the way there is in say, Wheel of Time. That said, if you really want to know what I think of the Stormlight Archives, I think its gender roles are a pretty silly example of sexism, and it’s a story that doesn’t understand power & privilege.

      • Andrej b

        Yes but the history behind sexism in the SA are explained and are considered wrong. The setting is overly sexist, but that is the point. And I did not say it was gender magic system… There are some flaws in the setting but there is reason behind everything. I do not like wheel of time in global, so I do not want to comment on it. Mah if you base roots of the story in the real world it has to be sexist. And female chars are often caricatured and exagerated, but the writers are stuck on humans as a species, and f chars are flawed in the same amount as the rest of the system…

  29. Erica

    I think using the cover of Ursula Le Guin’s book “Gifts” to illustrate the pitfalls of gendered magic and dismiss it as a lazy writing trope somewhat misses the point of the entirety of Le Guin’s work. Few writers were as aware of the dynamics of race, gender, privilege, equality, freedom and power, and few wrote as many stories and novels that confronted our assumptions about them head-on. If she wrote gendered magic, it was for very good reasons to do with challenging our thinking.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’m not judging the entirety of Le Guin’s work, I’m judging Gifts, which has a gendered magic system that does nothing except reinforce stereotypes.

      • Erica

        I don’t see how they reinforce stereotypes. The gifts pass down the lineages from mother to daughter and father to son – but the way Le Guin describes it, it’s very much like the gene for hemophilia or other genetic variations that only express in one gender but are carried by the other. The gifts themselves are hardly gendered – both women and men have gifts that can destroy and dominate or heal and create in equal measure. It’d be a very shallow reading of that book that ignored all the other things she has to say, again, about gender and power.

        • Marc Vun Kannon

          The little bit that I read about seemed to indicate that the son inherited his mother’s power instead of his father’s. Apparently that was unusual but obviously not impossible.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            Spoilers for the book:

            As far as the first book is concerned, the protagonist doesn’t inherit powers from either of his parents. If his mother has a power, the book doesn’t mention it. It’s possible this changes in future books.

  30. T.S.Adrian

    I write about a strong, bisexual in a sword and sorcery world whose romance with another woman is core to the series, and I have none of these absurdities. Just lucky, I guess.

    • Marc Vun Kannon

      Are we allowed to promote our own work here?

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        As a rule, yes, though we prefer it’s related to the content of a post and not just dropping a purchase link. Adrian’s comment is definitely pushing it, but not enough that it needs to be removed.

        • Marc Vun Kannon

          Thanks. My work is often the only counter-example I know of to a lot of things that are said about fantasy, but when I mentioned them (not even by name) in other groups in that connection people got upset with me. I’ve never yet done a ‘Buy my book’ post.
          Quick question: Is Adrian’s comment ‘defiantly’ pushing it, or ‘definitely’ pushing it?

    • Marc Vun Kannon

      Not necessarily. If you read a lot and pay attention to what you read, you can easily learn how to write a good story. You don’t have to go to school for that, although I’m sure it helps. I’ve seen some work produced by English majors that bored me to tears, though.

    • T.S.Adrian

      I will explain.

      I had no intention to run an advert. Selling books to writers is both arrogant and counterproductive.

      I read this entire article with the express purpose of making sure I didn’t do any of these “absurdities” to my female protagonist–who would have come out of the book and kicked my ass all over this room if I had.

      I am pleased to say the Force was with me and I didn’t.

  31. Oren Ashkenazi

    I had to delete a comment scoffing at the idea of a sword that weighs 1.5lbs because it violated our comments policy in other ways, but in case anyone is curious, the sword in question is a small sword, and that’s a common weight for them.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      More info on how much swords weigh: They’re a lot lighter than people think.

    • Marc Vun Kannon

      I was about to do the same thing. They’re not made from very large blocks of metal.
      As leading sword expert Ewart Oakeshott unequivocally stated: “Medieval Swords are neither unwieldably heavy nor all alike – the average weight of any one of normal size is between 2.5 lb. and 3.5 lbs. Even the big hand-and-a-half ‘war’ swords rarely weigh more than 4.5 lbs. Such weights, to men who were trained to use the sword from the age of seven (and who had to be tough specimens to survive that age) , were by no means too great to be practical.”(Oakeshott, Sword in Hand, p. 13).

      • Michael Campbell

        Weight is not the only factor that makes a sword unwieldy.
        There’s also “radius of gyration” which is the foundation of angular inertia.

        I mean I’ve never seen the show but one would assume that a claymore was what was meant by sword in the period and location of the setting so mentioned. And a claymore is swung more often that thrust, so expect a massive moment being required to alter one’s swing in flight.

        • Cay Reet

          We’re speaking about a short sword, not a claymore. Nobody said a woman could easily wield a broadsword, longsword, or bastard sword.

  32. Liam

    Opening this link I expected some quality bs.

    Pleasantly surprised. I f**king love this article. It was so nice to read. And being nonbinary I wasn’t erased either. It made me go “……..wait. what site am I on?” cause wow, this never happens.

    I HATE the feisty thing. The amount of times I’ve seen people set out a valid argument and try to make their point, only to be completely undermined by this bs.

    Bookmarking this article as a reference, it’s fantastic.

  33. Allen Crowley

    If you’re reading books that do these things .. you’re reading the wrong books

  34. Jack Kardic

    I really disagree with #3 as it relates to Wheel of Time. The female characters’ thoughts and motivations are right there in the writing. The people for whom women are mysterious and inscrutable aren’t the readers, they’re (mostly) a bunch of sheltered village boys in their late teens.

    I distinctly remember being a teenage boy and wracking my brain trying (unsuccessfully, at the time) to figure out why clothes and hair were so important, or why it mattered who was seen talking with whom.

  35. Julia

    I don’t know if this matters since bashing things one hasn’t actually seen or read is in vogue these days, but having both read and watched Outlander, I do have a question about its use as an example. First and foremost, it’s important to know (since many apparently do not) that Outlander takes place primarily in the 1740s in the Scottish highlands. Claire (not the woman in the picture, by the way) is a British military nurse from the 1940s. Although Claire herself is very progressive, she comes from a non-progressive time and went back to an even less-progressive time. And also, despite having had an unconventional upbringing and serving in WWII as a combat nurse, there’s no indication that she’s ever had any extensive fighting or combat training. Her on-the-spot weapons training literally happened during a rest stop while the and of highlander thieves were on the run, so it was spur-of-the-moment and an afterthought, and not something that was done with a lot of time, thought, or effort put into it. It was kind of like, “Hey, maybe we should teach her how to defend herself?” And that’s it. Is it really so unbelievable that a bunch of rural men from the 1740s would think a sword was too much for a woman? And is it so crazy to think said woman, coming from early 20th century Britain and having no previous sword fighting experience, would be fine with that? I honestly don’t think so. And to be honest, if Diana Gabaldon had written it the other way, where they give her a sword and teach her to use it in two hours, and then two days later she expertly defends herself in a sword fight, that scene would have just ended up being lampooned because “Look at the Mary Sue!” or “she couldn’t have learned to wield that sword so well so quickly!” So it was a lose lose situation. This criticism really has nothing to do with whether or not a woman can wield a sword and everything to do with the fact that it has something to do with a woman and was written by a woman, so let’s find some way to criticize it. :\

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’ve actually got an entire post detailing what I think of Outlander and its outlandish sexism!

      • Julia

        Yeah, I read that, too. It’s pretty clear you only read about halfway through the first Outlander book, or maybe you just watched a few episodes of the TV show. No thanks.

    • Renee

      Thank you! While I agree with the point, because there are ton of examples in so many stories, the citing of “Outlander” is unfair. As stated, that scene takes place in the 18th century, and women in that time and place were hardly ever (if ever) taught swordsmanship, let alone in a spur of the moment situation like that one. And as you said, had they shown her wielding a sword (which would have drawn a lot of unwanted attention at that time…something poor Claire is already trying to keep from doing) even ably, that would be plain silly. Swordsmanship takes much more training and experience that a quick pit-stop lesson. So while I’m all about equality for both genders, let’s also be realistic and admit that things weren’t always so equality-driven.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Those might make reasonable explanations but they are not what the book says. The book is very clear that the issue is weight, and if this is supposed to be an incorrect assessment by the Scots it’s never addressed as far as I know. From chapter 18, a few pages from the end:

        “Slightly chastened by this episode, I accepted without argument the men’s judgement that even the lighter smallsword was too heavy for me to wield efficiently.”

        A few pages later, the book makes a big deal about a flintlock pistol being too large and heavy for Claire as well.

        Smallswords tend to weigh about 1.5lb on average, sometimes as much as 2lb, and flintlock pistols can weigh 2.5 to 10 pounds depending on the specific weapon.

        • Thomas P Kratman

          Just out of curiosity, Oren, do you have much experience of shooting pistols or of fencing? I ask because, yes, weight of pistol makes a great bloody deal of difference, in two ways, as does weight of trigger pull, and, yes, weight of sword goes directly to endurance and speed in use, which are life and death issues. It’s really not as simple as “pointy end goes in the other fighter.” You seem unaware of these things.

        • Thomas P Kratman

          Got it; you don’t actually have any experience and don’t like being reminded of it. Have a nice day.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            To the extent that it matters, I took four years of classical french foil fencing, where I also trained with rapier (Spanish and Italian), smallsword, poniard, and spear.

          • Thomas P Kratman

            Ah, good; it does matter. I studied – broadly speaking, French and Italian – saber (which is silly), foil (which is slightly less silly), and epee (which is not silly, even if obsolete), for two years with the Leslie Salle D’Armes in Boston, plus had a blackbelt in Shim Gum Do from the American Buddhist Shim Gum Do Association, then also in Boston. (Note: Leslie appears long defunct and the ABSGDA has moved to the suburbs. I was off with the Army for most of my adult life, hence never requalified for the blackbelt.) Between them, at its most intense, I was probably spending 15-20 hours a week under mostly personal, not group, instruction. Master Kim gave me about six to eight hours a week of private tutoring when I assured him that I would “use the knowledge to kill Communists,” right after he proudly told me he’d served in the Capital Division of the ROK Army. (It’s a funnier story than that but I won’t burden you.)

            The upshot, which you should know from your own experience, is that, all other things being equal, weight of weapon and strength of arm affect speed and endurance, while both of those have everything to say about one’s odds of winning and living.

            1.5 pounds certainly sounds like nothing much, and it isn’t…with a sword…provided you’re just holding it. However, when one must parry, block, thrust, recover, etc., the muscles in the arm and, especially, the wrist matter. They tire. They slow. And, if you’re slowing and tiring faster than your opponent is, you die. Muscle quantity and quality matter to the rate of tiring and slowing. Frankly, unless women have either equivalent quantity and quality of muscle (which is rare but not entirely impossible, though the time spent getting that much makes a great deal else impossible), or vastly better training, or a superior weapon, or a system that brings unusual advantages, either by surprise (“Hey, no fair; I’ve never seen someone do that before!”) or simple quality of the system (dispensing with the all other things being equal) used against a man with no training and no system, she’s toast.

            Writing about those things, however, in ignorance of any of them, tends to make the writer non-credible. I counsel against this.

            Moreover, even a very good system of dueling, a la smallsword, is only that. A duel is very artificial. (Yes, there were odd forms of dueling, rapiers and lanterns, for example, but we have been speaking of smallsword, yes?) Add the complexity of shields, or of masses, or of someone very good with a katana, and I would not put odds on the smallsword in anyone’s hands. It was a convenient means of defense against untrained, barely armed, street criminals, a badge of office for military officers, and a fashion statement for men, and not much else. In any case, the fencing phrase d’armes and the duel are usually over at a touch. A real fight, however, goes on.

            Now myself, while I had and have tremendously (almost ridiculously) powerful legs, in the arms I have never been more than male average or even slightly less (Sad, indeed, for an Army Ranger, but there it is. On the plus side, I am very fast). How was I to hold my own against my various fencing masters when they could simply outlast me? The answer was: System and weapon. I adopted a shorter epee, that I could move faster, with less effort, hence less fatigue, while using personal speed and powerful legs for the lunge to reach out faster past where one would expect the shorter epee to reach in that time.

            And what was true for me, against my fencing master, is going to be true for women; it’s on that relative scale if not exactly the same level. One can imagine a day when they’re as strong and as quick as average men, but it’s mostly just that, imagination shading over to fantasy…that, or we need to start talking genetic engineering or drugs or both. The few who manage something like that level of strength spend so much time at gaining it that they don’t have time for much of anything else. In short, yes, women will typically need a system and weapon geared for them, not for men. This will remain true until they have equivalent size, strength, mass, and speed. Mass? Yes, mass; because the opportunity can arise to punch. (Another side issue; not only are women, on average, smaller than men, but for most of history their diets have been inferior to those of men. If you’re going to write a story about a woman of olden days putting on muscle, be sure to have her eating a lot of fish and meat when young. And justify why, because it was not normal.)

            Pistol…you didn’t mention experience of pistol, so I’ll assume not. Note, here, that in the battalion I commanded I had a few women. One of these was the Army’s silver medalist for pistol. I KNOW there are women who can shoot. However…

            Weight of pistol affects two things, steady hold and recoil. Let’s take the much beloved and by no means obsolete M1911. You think two and a half pounds (just under) isn’t much. But what 2.5 pounds equals is a little bit of shake, just a little. Does it in me. Does it in almost everyone. Let’s say that little is a degree to either side. It’s not much, right, one measly degree? At 50 feet, it’s about ten and a half inches. Unless the shooter’s timing is really good, or really lucky, that’s a miss most of the time. As weight goes up, so does shake. At a degree and a half of shake, you’re hopeless. A ten pound pistol? A hit on a man-sized target with a ten pound pistol? Free hand? I wouldn’t hold my breath on it. (Now, the other effect of high weight is reduced felt recoil. After forcing my wife and five daughters and granddaughters to the range, so they can defend themselves, I assure you; women are not usually big fans of high felt recoil.) So what does a women do with a ten pound flintlock? She finds a rest. In other words, she accounts for what she is and isn’t, and adapts to it. She doesn’t live in a fantasy and try a free hand shot with a huge pistol because modern gender neutral pieties tell her it should not be necessary. She also, if at all possible, waits for the target to close because, after all, smoothbore flintlocks suck anyway.

            There are two more things to account for with women and pistols, trigger weight and length of pull and small hands. Trigger weight is the amount of force required to, you know, make the thing actually fire. It can be low or high. But the higher it is, again, all things being equal, the greater the shake and the greater the chance of a miss. I have one pistol for example, a Webley, that the females of my household and line simply cannot shoot for weight of trigger, plus a couple that they have trouble with for length of trigger pull. They typically have smaller hands and shorter fingers. I don’t know of a theory to suggest these are learned or cultural matters.

            And speaking of smaller hands, and size of grip, women have them. Even if a pistol is not too heavy to be held steadily, and the weight and length of trigger pull are not too great, if the thing is simply too big for a female’s hands she will not hit much with it. When a writer puts a double-stacked .45 Glock in female hands without mentioning that she has unusually large hands? instant loss of credibility. On the other hand, when he (or she) puts an M1911 .45 in a woman’s hands and mentions it’s not a bad fit, being single stacked, has a nice easy and short trigger pull, and has pretty easy felt recoil because it’s a heavy pistol? Instant credibility and love from the enlightened masses of the Church of John Moses Browning!

            Now, you may well feel that some of this is raining on your parade and I am a badwickedevilnaughtybadbadbaddoubleplusungood heretic from modern pieties. That’s mostly true, of course. However, I am also the only qualified writer who has shown, in detail, how to make combatants out of women in a credible, real world, real war way, so there’s that, too.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            This is a lot of text and as far as I can tell none of it has anything to do with my article. I already covered what to do in a story where this level of detail is relevant, and that’s a rare story indeed.

          • Thomas P Kratman

            We should ignore the rare, factual or fact-based story? It’s an interesting theory…

          • Thomas P Kratman

            And, no, it really is a – you should admit, quite civil – refutation or the claim in your article that the physics don’t matter or that they have no relationship to gender or sex.

  36. Brian Long

    In the Wheel of Time Series, women appear inscrutable and irrational largely from the perspective of the male characters, who usually lack knowledge of the information possessed by the females.

  37. Cay Reet

    Yet I have read books about female fighter pilots which weren’t sexist – or female dragon slayers.

    The problem is that a lot of men don’t even try hard. If you wonder about why a woman would do this or that differently (or if they would do it differently at all), there’s a simple solution: ask a woman (or two or three). Ask relatives or friends who are female (or identify as female). It’s called research and, as a female writer, I’m not afraid of asking the men in my life when it comes to things which are specifically male and hard to understand for a woman. Overall, there’s actually not that many real differences between men and women when it comes to thinking.

    Writing a woman like a man means writing a character first and foremost. Most things which a woman does have nothing to do with her womanhood (whatever that means), but with her being a person. With her having likes and dislikes, being good at something and bad at something else. A lot of men who write women make the mistakes above, such as:

    They push everything ‘female’ onto one character, which simply can’t work out well. You can’t expect one single person to represent their whole group, no matter whether it’s women, POC, LGBT+, or whatever.

    They act as if women can’t lift anything heavier than a fan when a lot of that comes from the life a person has led. Strength is earned to a certain degree. Yes, men have more potential for strength on the whole, but a woman who has, for instance, worked her whole life on a medieval-style farm, will be stronger than a male scribe who has never lifted anything heavier than parchment and pen. Between two equally trained characters, the man will always be stronger. But if only one character has fight training and it happens to be the woman, I wouldn’t put my money on the man for the win.

    And women usually employ the same tactics for making decisions as men: they think about the pros and cons and then do what they think is right in that situation. They decide wrong sometimes – just as men do. They let predjudices or missing information cloud their judgement – just as men do. If a man and a woman are about to make the same decision on the same knowledge, in 99% of the cases, they’ll be making the same decision. Because they’re both human, not creatures from two different worlds.

    Aggressiveness should never be seen as ‘cute,’ no matter who does it. But because women are usually considered less dangerous, men find it amusing to see them get angry. I’d suggest not finding that too amusing, though – I’ve seen videos of men who have bitten off more than they could chew and were thoroughly thrashed by petite women with fight training (see the fighting topic).

    For the rest of the article, let’s say those are tired tropes and things which male authors tend to do over and over again. Like describing the cleavage and legs of a female character in every other chapter, while only mentioning the pecs and abs of the male character once. Like thinking a woman can either be a saint or a whore, but nothing in between. Media needs to break that one up and ‘media’ includes writers. And there are very, very few situations in which a gendered magic system makes sense, yet you see it more often than is understandable in Fantasy (probably because the writers push all ‘unnecessary’ magic at women to excuse why the hero group has no female mage).

  38. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s note: I have removed a comment for asserting that certain marginalized characters do not belong in fiction. That is not acceptable. Cay Reet was already here with an excellent rebuttal and I’m sorry to lose their reply, but this sort of thing is not allowed on Mythcreants.

    • Cay Reet

      I just thought I couldn’t let that go without an answer. I should have expected you to step in.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        No worries, your response was great, just what we’d expect from the Vigilant Knight. This is just an unavoidable problem with time zones. Sometimes toxic comments show up while I’m asleep.

        • Cay Reet

          Due to time zones, I’m about 9 hours ahead of you and, due to working from home, I’m online a lot and often surf by the site.

  39. Cay Reet

    Study genetics. Even biologists by now think that only two sexes isn’t enough, that we need further definition, because genetic sex and biological sex are at odds in quite some cases as well. Not to mention that ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ are not the same thing.

  40. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s note: I have deleted a comment for asserting that a trans or non-binary person’s status as a man or woman is set at birth.

    For any who are unclear on the matter, “man” and “woman” are genders. Genders are social constructs. A non-binary person is not a “man” simply because they were born with a penis, or with XY chromosomes, or with any of the other markers that are traditionally associated with being a man.

    Human biology is a complicated mess, and a person’s physical characteristics, whether it be genitals, hormones, or chromosomes, do not determine their gender. This is before we even get into people who are intersex, or people who appear to be cis-women but have XY chromosomes.

    This article is written on the subject of sex as a spectrum if you wish to know more:

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Although again Cay already got to it before I could delete it. They’re just that fast! Apologies for losing their excellent rebuttal.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Further editor’s note: attempts to nitpick on this point will be immediately deleted.

    • TaltosDreamer

      Thank you! I just recently found your site and have been diving through your wonderful articles. Podcasts are on the horizon.

      It is uplifting and encouraging to hear you keep people like that away from here. It is a sad fact that most sites I visit avoiding the comments is nearly mandatory to get away from people who have nothing better to do with their time than attack those they do not understand.

      Have a great day.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Glad that you’re enjoying the site Taltos! We do our best to keep the worst stuff at bay.

        • Michael Campbell

          I think you’ll find it’s actually “at bey”. Like a dog beying at the moon rather than a ship that never leaves its home port.

          • Bunny

            This is the second (at least!) grammar/wordchoice-related comment you’ve posted this week . . . Are you a copy editor by any chance? Just curious.

          • Michael Campbell

            No but early in her career, Mum was an English teacher.

  41. tabbie

    I very much agree with this article. I am happy I am not the only one who constantly sees sexism in movies. I try to make my female characters different and no, not in the way that shuns the typical femininity but giving them a true identity.
    I always ask myself ‘what is my heroine’s identity?’ . The answer must not be ‘around only for the whims of the hero’

  42. Dragonborn

    The ninth is that female characters have to be role models while male characters can be anything the author wants and no one blinks an eye.

  43. LiliesAndRoses

    Also wonder about #6. What do you think of, as I call it, “elven immortality” (or “Immortality Begins at Twenty”, as it’s called on TV Tropes), when the fantastic-race character doesn’t age and always looks young due to immortality? Is there a risk of ageism? How to write immortal characters better?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      How to write immortals is a big question I don’t really have time to answer here, but I wouldn’t worry that portraying an eternally young fantasy species is inherently ageist. Every type of discrimination is different, and in the case of the ageism, the issue isn’t that people don’t think old people should be in stories, but the way they are portrayed once they’re there.

  44. Xelian

    Great layout and insights!

  45. L Waffle

    I think there are exceptions to every rule, and while I agree that gendered magic is lame, there is one recent case were I appreciate it.

    In Supergirl Season 4, we get a introduced to Nia Nal, and a some eps later she is revealed to be transgender. Then a few more eps later, she is revealed to be an alien and I thought, did they forget about the earlier revelation? No, they explain she is an alien who was born male and transitioned. Furthermore, she has inherited powers that are only inherited by females in her alien race. Her older sister resents Nia for this. Forgive me if I’m wrong to feel this way, but I thought that Nia inheriting the female powers validated her to those audience members who are skeptics.

  46. Sam Victors

    On the topic of Different Fighting Styles, here’s what I found interesting.

    In her book, From Girl to Goddess; The Heroine’s Journey through Myth and Legend, Valerie Estelle Frankel explains that the Girl on her Heroine’s Journey (she found Campbell’s Hero’s Journey too boy-focused) uses different weapons from the Boy’s.

    The boy on the Hero’s Journey are usually phallic weapons, like swords for example.

    The girl’s weapons are usually (from her research on may folktales and myths) are either womb-like weapons (cauldrons, hearths), circle symbols or everyday household objects (slippers, mirrors, rings, books, bowls, containers), or distance weapons (bows, whips, shields). Though in the case of Mulan, you have warrior women fighting with traditional masculine weapons like swords or spears.

    • LizardWithHat

      I was about to say that those would be terrible weapons but actually they imply to me another intent. And there are many ways about it.
      I mean many martial-arts-films show people using different objects to fight very effectively so i have no problem seeing a heroine going full master-fighter.
      Also for me this weapon choices imply that the heroine using them would be a heroine of guile and cunning.

      Also a Bow would require a great deal of strength – but that depends on the bow (and if male characters can I ignore that so can everybody else)
      And many of these weapons are battlefield weapons but then no everyone has to be a frontline fighter.

      Also those weapons would make for some very neat visuals if you brought magic into the mix.

      Kudos, you made me reconsider :3 (and gave me quite a few idea for further heroines and heros)

      • Sam Victors

        And also, these common household objects the Heroine uses, according to Frankel, are mainly tools of perception and/or information.

        I should also mention that other weapons the Heroine uses are the magic wand (which represents the extension of the finger, or will), and the axe, mainly a double-edged axe (basically a Labrys, which is considered a feminine symbol of Cybele, the Harvest Goddess).

        • Cay Reet

          Interesting little detail to wands: Norse mythology knows Seidre magic which is done with wands or staffs as well and is considered a female type of magic. One famous male user: Odin himself.

          • Ikke Spør

            I know I’m being picky, but we don’t actually know that much about seið…. The word itself (in Old Norse) had to do with boiling, and while we’ve found staves in the graves of what we’re pretty sure were witches (völva, spæ-konar, etc.) in parts of Scandinavia, there’s no sign of any wands…. We also don’t know much about how the staves were used….
            But ja, as a student of Old Norse, I found that gender reversal charming. Óðin is a pretty interesting character, all throughout.

  47. Greg S

    In most of the fiction I’ve read, the protagonist’s sexual history hasn’t been an important part of the story. This is true for males and females.

    Although sometimes it’s fun to speculate.

    • Cay Reet

      It depends on the genre. In a lot of YA books, the ‘pure virgin’ heroine is still a mainstay. There, it becomes a problem, especially as the audience is relatively young as well and as it’s such a common trope.

      For a lot of other genres, it doesn’t play the slightest role and isn’t mentioned either way. It might come up in romance novels or erotica, of course, as part of the story. One of the guidelines of ‘sex positive’ writing is to avoid virgin characters in erotica, but make the main characters people who already do have experience (not necessarily a lot, but a bit).

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