I’m planning a sequel to my current fantasy novel, and its going to have a more diverse cast. Older women will definitely feature. Here are some of the things I’m thinking and worrying about.
You might think from the title of this post that I’m about to take you on an intellectual exploration of the roles and representation of older women in the fantasy genre. Or you might know me and expect nothing of the sort.
I don’t study literature, but I read, look, and think, and occasionally I have enough thoughts about a topic that I want to share them.
Or I realise it’s 5:30pm and I’m supposed to write a blog post tonight, and I have no idea what I’m going to write about.
Let’s agree I have no good reason to write about this topic, but that I’m going to do it anyway.
Thinking about diversity in fiction
If you haven’t heard the conversations about diversity and representation in fiction, I don’t know where you’ve been. Isolating in your home for months? Wait, that’s pretty much everyone.
The short version is that the types of characters we meet in fiction tend to be only a tiny fraction of those who exist in real life. That means a lot of people don’t see themselves represented in fiction, and fiction provides a less rich experience even for those who do see themselves represented.
Some groups only ever see themselves stereotyped, written by people who are not them and who don’t make the effort to fully understand them.
Seems kinda sad. We as writers should do better.
Once you as a writer start thinking about how to include characters who are not like you–who may differ because they’re not young, white, cis, straight, able bodied, neurotypical and so on–it gets harder, because how do you faithfully capture an experience that isn’t your own?
Some people say you shouldn’t try to write the stories of marginalised groups you don’t belong to because you reduce the opportunities members of the groups have to tell their own stories. And it’s really hard to get them right.
There is something to this.
Having mulled over it, drunk, and mulled over it some more, I’m inclined to think non-marginalised writers should exercise extreme caution in writing stories about marginalised people where the story is about the marginalisation. That’s where “don’t tell other people’s stories” holds most true.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t populate our books with people from marginalised groups, because the world is full of such people and their whole lives aren’t about their marginalisations. They have hopes and dreams, get lonely, fall in love, slay dragons, and save empires.
Obviously if you’re writing about a marginalised group that you don’t belong to you should question your assumptions. What you think you know about the group is probably stereotypes perpetuated by the majority. Do your research, preferably using firsthand accounts, and consider using sensitivity readers.
Isn’t it a lot of work?
Um, you’re writing a novel. If it’s not a lot of work you’re doing it wrong.
Older women in fantasy
I’m currently planning the sequel to my work in progress (WIP) and I’ve realised with some embarrassment how closely the cast of my WIP sticks to the people we usually see in fantasy.
The sequel will have a few of the same characters, but also a lot of new ones. Now’s my chance to make a more interesting and diverse cast.
I’m not talking about diversity for diversity’s sake, but realistic diversity because it makes a better story.
I’m not saying this will be the limit of it, but one character I really want to include is an older woman. Why? Because women above the age of about thirty are sadly lacking from fantasy novels, and the setting I have in mind is a natural place for them to be.
Modern Western society in general is obsessed with youth, and fantasy novels (not just YA) take this to extremes. Sure we get old men–mentors, wizards, sages–but so few old women.
In real life there are so many kick-ass women over the age of forty running around, so many over the age of sixty. They’re not all crones or hilarious and free-spirited, and they don’t all look strangely ageless.
They’re heroes of their own stories.
The role of protagonist in my story is already taken, but I have a casting call out for major side characters. I want some of these kick-ass women to claim a spot.
To break the stereotypes I first need to know the stereotypes, and that’s what I’m working on now. Fortunately, or perhaps not, it’s sadly easy to find discussions of the stereotypes of older women not only in fiction, but in life.
I’m not going to be able to overturn them all, but if I can capture a sixty-year-old woman who, like I aim my other major characters to be, is flawed and spectacular, a hero and an agent, then I will consider this a success.
Sixteen-year-olds shouldn’t be the only ones who get to have adventures.
What do you think about diversity in fantasy? How do you approach it? Does trying to do it right scare you as much as it scares me? Do you think I’m approaching this right or do you have better suggestions?
Can you think of stereotypes of older woman I should avoid?
I’m actively working on this so I’d really value your input.
These can be sensitive issues, so please be the kind, respectful people I know you are.
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