How had I never noticed how few females there are in epic fantasy?

Women in fantasy

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.

Eastern princess
She’s worth at least five unicorns, right?

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*

Jardir: 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.

fantasy woman
Where is she?

Book 5: The Autumn Republic by Brian McClellan

Tamas: male

Taniel: male

Adamat: male

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.

And finally…

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.

Totals

Okay, so in ten books how many men and women did we end up with?

Men: 17 (maybe actually 16)

Women: 9

(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.

femake knight, fantasy
Or shown the error of their ways by this rather scary woman.

** 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.

 

Author: A.S. Akkalon

By day, A.S. Akkalon works in an office where the computers outnumber the suits of armour more than two-to-one. By night, she puts dreams of medieval castles, swords, and dragons onto paper.

29 thoughts on “How had I never noticed how few females there are in epic fantasy?”

  1. Honestly, as long as the characters are well written and interesting, I’m not usually bothered. It’s when the female characters only exist to be saved, or are supposed to be strong but then have no emotions and/or no personalities, etc., that I’m bothered.

    But I’m one of those people who prefers male characters anyway, and my MCs are both male (while almost every other important character is female), so I’m probably not one to talk. 😛

    1. I’ve never really cared about the gender of the characters I read either – probably why I never noticed the gender imbalance. But I totally agree that helpless women and automaton women are irritants… as are helpless or automaton men.

  2. Hope a make a little contribution.
    In the octology “Lily Evans Diary”, the main character is, obviously Lily, and her best friend Alexandra. With important roles for Minerva McGonagall and the Open University prof Miranda Dibbet.

  3. Book 3: Red Sister by Mark Lawrence looks really interesting, but the number of punctuation errors in just the blurb makes me pause.

    I read mostly traditional romance, so there is always a female. Though, she’s usually so overwhelmingly stunning that she could still demand unicorn dowries.

    1. That’s weird – usually incorrect punctuation bugs me, but I didn’t get bristly at the Red Sister blurb. I did notice a certain license being taken, though.

      Haha, yes, traditional romance kind of needs at least one female character, and I’d guess most unicorn-stunning heroines have at least one female friend…

  4. I was thinking more about this – my first ever proper attempt at writing, (the one I started when I was 19 and revisited a few years ago to finish into a complete book) was heavily influenced at the start by the fantasy I had read. Not only did I sprinkle it with many characters on a quest to save the world, but my mc was male, and the characters I most enjoyed writing were also male. Fast forward to when I completed it a good twenty years later and although I kept my many characters and my heroic male mc, I found that the way I was writing the female characters was different. I wrote more from their point of view, made them more complex than they had originally been.
    My last couple of WIPS and my plot bunnies all have female mcs (except my Merlin fanfic because, Merlin).
    It was interesting to think how I had changed my approach and how, in the interim, the books I read were changing also. But there’s still a way to go.

    1. That’s a fascinating story. It suggests how negative aspects of a genre tend to persist because this generation’s readers are next generation’s writers, and our natural inclination is to write what we’ve read. Good on you for developing past this inclination. There’s always further to go…

  5. I remember as a very small person being miffed by the fact that there wasn’t a single female member of the fellowship of the ring. I had to imagine myself in there as an extra. I had hoped fantasy might have become at least a little more equal opportunity…

      1. I think I only really noticed because I used to have whole side adventures in my head with characters from whatever book I was reading, and would usually cast myself as one of them.

        We didn’t have TV, okay?

        1. We had TV, but I never watched much.

          So what you’re saying is that you were one of those fanfiction adventurers, unlike some of us who made our own worlds from scratch? 😉

  6. I’m with Kim on Lord of the Rings – the lack of interesting women bothered me. Eowyn was cool, I wish she’d had a lot more to do in the story. But I think fantasy has improved a lot from Tolkien’s days.

    Red Sister is on my TBR-pile because hey, female assassin. 😀 You can never have too many of those.

    My own writing, hmm…I’ve been told I should try writing from the male POV too, so I guess I’m a little female-centric?

    1. Just a note: Did you ever tried reading “The wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan?
      Warning: it is SERIOUS procrestinating, 14 parts, about 6100 pages in total…

      Most important characters ARE female. (Egwene Nyneave, Elayne, Faile, Min, Moraine)
      All Aes Sedai are women.
      Sure “the 3 ta’veren” are guys, but when having to deal with women, they all think “that the others know how to deal with them”
      Jordan’s world is in many object matriarchal. Men sit in village council, but important decisions are made by women-circles.
      Most fierce Aiel warriers are “maiden’s of the spear”

    2. I’m not sure about the word “improved”, but I agree fantasy has opened its eyes to many issues in recent decades, which is definitely a good thing.

      Yay! We can read Red Sister together. 🙂

      Meh. I don’t think it’s obligatory to try writing from both genders in the same way I don’t think it’s obligatory to write in both third and first person. Write a few books with whatever gender characters and tense feel most natural to you, and once you’ve developed your skill further then think about branching out.

  7. Wow, I should pay more attention to blurbs. I wonder how intentional character names in blurbs are in relation to gender and expected book sales? **does research** **is never heard from again**

  8. I was always afraid to write female lead characters, assuming I wouldn’t be any good at it. But after having several in my multiple POV epic I realized not only was it possible but enjoyable. My latest WIP is predominantly a female lead and I am super excited about it.

    1. Good on you! When you start to think of the opposite gender as people rather than as females (or males depending on your flavour) then writing them stops being so scary. I once started a novel with a male main character without realising that it was supposed to intimidate me.

  9. I will hypothesize, but can’t prove, that there are way more female fantasy readers who would rather read about male protagonists/main characters than female main characters. In other words, it is like it is because it sells better? Or perhaps because publishers just think (have a preconceived notion that) it sells better? I have no idea where to find data to prove or disprove that hypothesis.

    That said, everything I write (thrillers/spy/detective stories) has a kickass female protagonist/main character. But I don’t read or write fantasy.

    1. I would guess that if more people prefer to read male main characters than female, then it’s only because that’s what’s predominantly been published in the past. And it keeps being published more because publishers publish more of what has done well in the past. But I have no data either. 🙂

  10. I grew up playing Japanese rpgs, and quickly got sick of most the women being healers. Like, seriously, why?
    The MC in my fantasy WIP is male, but I have three important female characters: Maria, an archer, Nanti, who has an awesome ability, and an (unnamed as yet) female dragon rider. I also have a male healer. Take that, stereotype!

    My NaNo project’s based on Arthurian Legend. My MC’s are male, but there are at least 2 important female characters. I’ve also given Merlin a female pet cat crossed with a dragon, so obviously she’s in charge!

    I like to try and keep a balance between female and male characters 🙂

    1. Healers, hmm. I haven’t come across that.

      A female dragon rider is cool! Is it traditionally a man’s job? And I love the idea of a cat crossed with a dragon – you would not want to be slow serving her. 🙂

      1. All I remember as a girl was wishing for a female fighter in the games I played!

        Nah, female dragon riders are as common as male ones: My two main riders live in a reclusive village which is pretty equal 🙂 It’s shocking for my characters to realise not everywhere is like home when they venture into the wider world!

    1. Funny you should say that. When I first made my dragons I didn’t think about their genders and all the dragons with genders turned out to be male. Then I realised what I’d done, and now the leader of the dragons is female.

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