Older women in fantasy novels

older women in fiction

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.

older women should get to fight dragons too
Straight white men shouldn’t be the only ones who get to fight dragons. Though no one should fight this one because it’s so pretty.

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.

So many people and they’re all different. They are all black and white, though.

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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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.

16 thoughts on “Older women in fantasy novels”

  1. This is something I’ve had to wrestle with too. I finished my first draft (which was largely pantsed, with characters springing up whenever I needed a new one) and did a roll-call, and I saw that my cast could be a lot more diverse. Part of the editing I’m doing now is an attempt to fix that.

    1. I wonder if that’s part of the problem – we reach by instinct for character types we’ve seen in similar places before. Good luck with your editing. I thought about retrofitting a more diverse cast into my WIP, but decided that would mean (yet another) extensive rewrite. I figure better late than never.

  2. I have a love/hate relationship with the concept of “don’t tell other people’s stories. On the one hand, sure, I only really know what it is like to be me. A white man in his fifties. I don’t know what it is like to be a woman or black or disabled or incredibly handsome or … the list is long. I do remember what it is like to be young … or at least what it was like to be young in the 60s and 70s.

    But if I only wrote about me that would be an awfully boring book. The hero would look like me. The villain. The comic sidekick. The love interest. All me me me.

    So every writer needs to be aware of diversity to some degree. If we aspire to having three dimensional characters and not cardboard cutouts, then we must get inside the head of someone who isn’t us. Our side characters deserve a rich backstory and emotions and motivation and all that good character stuff.

    But that’s not what you’re talking about … I think. I think you’re talking about older women in settings where they get to do something adventurous. It’s not an older woman as a character, it’s an older woman as an heroic character. That could be just as much about what it means to be a hero as it does about what it means to be an older woman.

    The monsters are at the gates. We need to fight together to protect the castle. Do I hide in the dungeon or pick up a sword and fight? It doesn’t matter whether I am a man or a woman, young or old. The emotions I bring to that fight are probably ageless and genderless. It’s about protecting the ones we love, not wanting to die, hatred for the enemy.

    So for me it is always character and context first, deliberate diversity second.

    1. You make excellent points. The only person we ever know from the inside is our self, and that would make for a dull story indeed.

      Yes, though perhaps you construe adventurous more narrowly than I mean. Maybe it’s a person who’s physically a hero, but I had more in mind a person who’s a hero in a story sense. She has agency, her own agenda and arc, she’s more than a stereotype such “wise mentor” or “cackling crone”. Maybe she fights with a sword, maybe she uses magic, or maybe she leads and inspire others to fight for her. I want her to be a character the reader admires… Maybe that’s what you meant.

  3. I adore this idea! Readers get older and while some stories are timeless, you don’t always want to read about what it was like to experience something in your 20s. I am way more interested now in what a woman in her 40s, 50s, 80s would do. They have decades of experience to add to the 20 year-old sense of adventure, and it changes their outlook, just like in life. The story I am interested in isn’t always where they are going, but where they have come from. I agree diversity is needed, but tricky, and is something the Romance genre is struggling with right now. There are some terrific books that address this very issue, and I am seeing a lot of Second Chance Romance with older characters being published right now. I take it as a sign that there are readers out there who are anxious for these stories. At the very least, it is about following your heart and writing what makes you happy. 🙂

    1. Thank you! I agree, older people have a rich history of years behind them to make them who they are, and I think there’s a lot writers can do to milk that. I’ve heard about this trend in the Romance genre. It’s great the publishing industry is finally admitting people over 30 (even, gasp, over 50) have love lives.

  4. I don’t know much about diversity. I muddle along the best I can.

    This “why do all the stories have young people?” question bothered me as I got older myself.

    In 2009, I accepted a NaNoWriMo challenge to “win” in half a month and write fantasy instead of SF. I gave a lot of thought to the basic fantasy trope chain where Young Person Leaves the Farm, Gets Puberty/Fertility/Magic, Saves the World, then Can’t Go Home Again.

    So, I thought what if we change this up? What if – instead of puberty/fertility – what if magic comes at menopause? What if the All Mother grants a new gift to replace the old one? What if the mage isn’t trying to save the world, but save herself? And what if she wasn’t trying to get home so much as find one?

    What would *that* story look like? What kind of world would that be? What would the culture be and how would this magic be seen?

    It turned into a trilogy (because epic fantasy apparently needs a trilogy) and I liked the way it turned out. I should get back to that world …

    So as you’re looking at how to write “more diverse,” maybe look at how to twist the tropes so that the default isn’t – well – the default.

    🙂

    1. These are such cool ideas. Getting powers with puberty is only one way it might happen. If there’s any logic to the universe, giving older people with more experience powers makes much more sense.

      You’re quite right, twisting tropes can result in some great concepts.

  5. Being over the magic threshold of 60 myself (and sometimes, somewhat kick-ass), I heartily salute your intention to feature an older woman character in your sequel. I know so many women my age who are wise, tough, funny, and very much battle-tested by life. Dragons beware.

  6. Stereotype of an older woman that I think you should avoid: the sexless grandmotherly type. What I’d love to see more in books and TV: an older woman who has a serious, active love life (in addition to her other serious adventures) that isn’t portrayed as sad or comical, but as something genuinely positive.

    Now that I think of it, I should probably write such characters myself. 😀

    I’m definitely scared of failing to handle diversity well in my books. I really want to get it right, but it’s easy to accidentally repeat the stereotypes one is accustomed to seeing. I’m doing my research and hoping for the best… I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the matter and I think you have the right approach!

    1. Yes! The sexless older women was one of the first stereotypes I found when I started looking into this. I understand lesbian older women are also quite common. I wonder if the instinct that leads writers to these two places is the same. *puts on thoughtful expression*

      Good luck with your own diversity challenge! I look forwards to reading what you come up with.

  7. Everyone gets to go on an adventure! Life doesn’t end at twenty five. ^_^

    I just about never think about diversity in my writing. I do happen to like a variety of backgrounds and ages and dispositions in my books, so most of the time it happens naturally. I suppose being a weird black girl helps me not be afraid to try things. I kind of feel like everyone is the same for the most part. We’re all human, having human experiences. But I don’t write books where people’s non-whiteness or non-straightness or whatever else is an issue. They’re a witch or whatever, and they just happen to be half-Japanese and in a wheel chair. It is more work though.

    One of my favorite shelved stories has an old woman as an important side character. She’s awesome. 🙂 I love older women in books, and in general, because they’re old enough not to give a crap anymore (some of them), and they’re like free and fun.

    1. Life has barely started at twenty-five! 🙂

      That’s so cool that writing about a diverse cast comes naturally to you. I love the idea of writing people who just happen to belong to a marginalised group, but the story’s about them falling in love, or learning magic or whatever. I want to read those stories, too!

  8. Well said! It is strange we seem to have 16 year olds saving the world, but where I live, they can’t drink, vote, or marry. Guess they have nothing better to do!

    I have struggled with the diversity dilemma. When you are a cis, white and able, I was told I cannot write about anyone that is not like me. So, I could add older characters, and I do have a few. My spymaster is a 50+ female. She’s a ton fun to write.

    I am still not sure how to handle the rest, so I haven’t. I have stuck to the traditional romance formula because romance in a fantasy setting is what I write.

    I will have to think more on it, but the path is not clear-cut.

    1. I think you might have hit on it! Sixteen-year-olds are the ones saving the world because everyone older is busy drinking, voting, and doing the things married couples do. Genius!

      I totally know what you mean on the diversity front. I’ve read that advice too – stick to writing about your group, which for me is cis, able, half-white. What on earth do you get if you populate a world with people like that?! I read more widely, and thankfully that’s not the opinion held by everyone.

      Having said that, the people with this extreme view do have some arguments that I agree with, especially where it comes to trauma porn. As I recall, the argument goes something like this. Certain groups have experienced various traumas because of who they are, and in some groups a trauma will be nearly universal. For example, what #metoo showed about the experience of being a woman. Reading about one’s own trauma, even fictionalised, can be retraumatising, and a person who hasn’t experienced that trauma themselves is unlikely to fully understand which aspects are most sensitive and too painful to hear about. So if you as an outsider write a book about the trauma, it’s likely to be painful and unpleasant to every member of the group it’s about. That makes it purely for the entertainment of people who are safely outside the affected group i.e. it’s an outsider milking someone else’s trauma for the pleasure of outsiders. Once I started to look at it like this, it felt pretty icky.

      But I don’t think it’s a universal injunction against writing people who aren’t like you, just against exploiting their trauma.

      I’m a bit cautious on this front (though hoping to get bolder), but I currently have various foreigners with different racial features who (for sensible reasons) are in the predominantly-white kingdom where my WIP is set. I haven’t strayed from neurotypical or able-bodied among the major characters yet, and I’m only explicit about the sexual orientation of a few people, who are all straight. I’m planning to set the sequel in a different place with different societal attitudes towards sexual relationships, so that might open the gate a bit on that front… We’ll see.

      I love the idea of a 50+ female spymaster. I bet she’s kick-ass!

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