I stumble across Amazon and tally up the number of male and female characters in the blurbs of fantasy novels. The results are less than encouraging.
If you hang out in the writing meadows of Twitter for long enough, you’re bound to run across outrage about the scant and pathetic roles of women in epic fantasy.
Before you start screaming, yes, there are some great female characters in fantasy books. But I’m confident to say (before endeavouring to count) that they’re in the minority.
And not by just a few percentage points.
Given than in real life there’s a very close balance between men and women, it hardly seems fair that men dominate the exciting worlds of sorcerers and dragons.
Though it does mean those few women who do exist are in high demand and should be able to demand large herds of unicorns as dowries.
I’ve been vaguely aware of this source of outrage for some time, but recently it struck me starkly when I went looking for new fantasy books to read.
I’m happy to read books with male main characters, even though they tend to be sweatier and hairier than female main characters, but after a while I miss hearing anything about women.
Do you think I’m overstating the problem? Maybe I am, so let’s be scientific about this (i.e. not scientific).
Here are the rules. I start on the epic fantasy page of Amazon and take first bestseller.
For each book I read the blurb and note all named characters and their genders. I also note the most main main character (if clear), or the first character mentioned.
I then move to the twelfth “also bought” book that appears on the Amazon page underneath this book (quick experimentation showed the first few “also bought” books are too likely to be by the same author) and repeat the process.
Book 1: Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson
Identifying names is harder than it sounds. Let me try.
Dalinar Kholin: male*
Kaladin Stormblessed: male
Shallan Davar: female
Hmm, three named characters, and I got the gender of only one from the blurb. I peeked at other books in the series to get the genders of the other two.
I have no idea which is the main character, but Dalinar is mentioned first, so he gets the *.
Book 2: The Core by Peter V. Brett
Let’s see if I can do any better on these characters.
Arlen Bales: male*
Renna: female – and Arlen’s wife
Leesha, Inevera (f) – Jarder’s first wife, Ragen, Elissa
I’m going to guess Leesha and Ellissa are female and Ragen is male. Because.
And Arlen and Jardir seem to be the main characters.
I feel like I’m doing pretty well at this.
(Note I cheated here. Somehow I’d ended up in audiobooks, so I switched to the kindle version before moving to the twelfth “also bought”.)
Book 3: Red Sister by Mark Lawrence
Nona Grey: female*
Oh, I totally have to read this book, and not because it has only one named character, who happens to be female. Check out the blurb:
It’s not until you’re broken that you find your sharpest edge
“I was born for killing – the gods made me to ruin”
At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. In a few the old bloods show, gifting talents rarely seen since the tribes beached their ships on Abeth. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist.
But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder: guilty of worse.
In case you’re wondering, I have to read the book to find out what’s worse than murder.
Book 4: The Liar’s Key by Mark Lawrence
Prince Jalan Kendeth: male*
Snorri ver Snagason: male (I think)
It’s not clear which the main character is, so I’m going with the first.
I left out a few people who may have been gods or possibly swear words. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
Book 5: The Autumn Republic by Brian McClellan
Taniel Two-Shot: male (Is this the same Taniel as above? I guess he probably is, but too late, I’ve already written him down.)
Hmm, four men and no sign of a woman.
Okay, I give up on trying to figure out the main character from the blurb.
On the upside, I am noticing what great names these fantasy characters have. Not a Simon or a Rebecca in sight, and no random apostrophes. This is what competition does in the marketplace.
Book 6: The Thousand Names by Django Wexler
Marcus d’Ivoire: male
Winter Ihernglass: female
That was easy, and perfectly gender-balanced. No unicorn dowries for you, Winter.
Book 7: A Plague of Swords by Miles Cameron
Does the “Red Knight” count as a name? Because if not this blurb has no named characters.
I’m going to say yes. He’s also a man.
Book 8: The Guns of Empire by Django Wexler
Janus bet Vhalnich: male?
Raesinia of Vordan: female
Marcus d’Ivoire: male
Winter Ihernglass: female
These characters were hard to gender. I’m still not 100% on Janus, but that has to be a guy, right? He’s also a general.
Book 9: Garh! I seem to be stuck in a netherworld consisting of only Django Wexler, Miles Cameron, and Mark Lawrence.
New rule: the first “also bought” book not by an author I’ve covered already. So let’s try again
Book 9: The Blood Mirror by Brent Weeks
Gavin Guille: male
Only one character, which seems a little stingy. But he is in a magical prison, so perhaps that makes sense.
Book 10: The Waking Fire by Anthony Ryan
Claydon Torcreek: male
What is it with books that only have one character named in the blurb? It’s like the author realised she had to come up with a name for each character and ran out of inspiration.
Okay, so in ten books how many men and women did we end up with?
Men: 17 (maybe actually 16)
(Unless I can’t count–numbers have always been tricky, which might be a problem given I trained as a mathematician.)
Also, five out of the ten books make no mention of a female character in the blurb.
So about a third of the named characters in these books’ blurbs are female and fully half the books name no female characters.
My intuition and the rage of Twitter were correct–women are underrepresented in fantasy.** And that doesn’t even get into what the roles of the women are or the number of times they need to be saved (ick).
Having been scathing about the books I found on Amazon, I should now take a look at my WIP. It doesn’t have a blurb, but…
Main character: female
Most important other characters: three males
Oh dear. I think some of those men need to get eaten by a dragon.
** Yes, I know ten books is way too small a sample to provide reliable estimates about the population and the books weren’t randomly chosen, but this is entertainment, not science.
What have you noticed about the gender balance in the genres you read? How about in your own writing?
Get more of my ramblings right in your inbox. Most of them have zero maths.