In the wake of the discussions I’ve seen on women in fantasy, I figured I’d do a post of my own . Mostly, it’s taken me so long to get to this because I wanted to order my thoughts.
I don’t write epic fantasy, but I write its close cousin, historical fantasy, and I thought I’d share a few thoughts about women in historical settings.
First off, the disclaimer: this applies to historical fantasy, or fantasy strongly inspired by a historical setting. And I’m supposing that you want to put women in it, possibly and preferably as main or strong characters..
There’s a few things to be aware of before you attribute a role.
The first one is that not all women are born equal. Specifically (and this is true for men, but even worse for women), the higher up you go in society, the less likely it is that the woman will have freedom to move about, especially on her own. A sixteenth-century French princess, for instance, will have no, or very little say, on the matter of her own marriage: she’ll likely be auctioned off as a political alliance, and end up in a foreign country where she will be mostly isolated (to be sure, she’ll have the opportunity to form cabals, but compared to her male equivalent, the prince who will marry in his own country, her power and influence will be negligible). On the opposite end of the scale, very poor women will have a lot of individual freedom, but will not have even less influence on what happens around them.
Some layers of society, though, have much more independent women (I was thinking of the merchants in France and Flanders, but there are other fluid categories like this).
Another thing to take into account is that most cultures practise some degree of sexual segregation. Men are expected to remain within a men’s world, and the same goes of women. The most drastic example of this is the seraglio in the Ottoman Court, or the women’s quarters of the Forbidden City in Ancient China, where women were cloistered and lived their lives apart from most men.
But even without going to such extremes, you do have to take into account that, in order to be historically accurate, your men and your women cannot interact to the same degree as men and women do today. If you want to keep a mixed cast, you have a choice of either keeping separate strands of the narration, or twisting history a bit to make the women more active. A lot of historical novels take that latter choice (in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, some of the women’s parts feel a little more forceful than they should be given the time period–but they’re still awesome and excellent books).
There are easier choices of characters: some women can stand outside the norms of society. Generally, they’re from some religious order (abbesses and nuns from the Middle Ages, priestesses in the Aztec world), since most cultures set their religion in a separate hierarchy. Those women can reasonably have more freedom of movement, and can also transcend some of the ongoing sexual segregation–often by virtue of not being seen as women but as the representative of divine power.
OK, so far, I’ve been making one implicit but very important assumption: that you wanted to write a story in which you needed your characters to have the freedom to move around, to take control, and to take acts that have large, visible repercussions.
In other words, that you want women protagonists, but that you also want to tell a story in which the main roles should be filled by men (whether it’s a war story, a mystery, an epic or something else on the same lines). Because, let’s face it, if you want your characters to go out, battle monsters, solve murders, get into fights, sue for peace–then you want them to take on a role traditionally played by men.
There’s nothing wrong with that (and I’m all in favour of equality, though I’m a little worried that “equality” means that women take on men’s roles but that the reverse is by no means true–talk about cheapening the work of women…). But you have to be aware of this as you write. A lot of fiction today, and speculative fiction in particular, is derived from men’s narratives and men’s books. To be in control of one’s destiny, to go outside and fight for one’s country… Those are all roles that were traditionally taken by men, and that’s one of the reasons why so many of those narratives are filled with male main characters. (again, I strongly disagree with that tendency, but centuries of historical bias is one of the hardest things to shrug of)
But there are other kinds of stories. Romance; political intrigues; fights of influences from within a seraglio; the business of a household… Those have women in them; women as main characters, with men often playing a bit part. Yes, they’re much less used in speculative fiction, but that’s not a reason to discount them. . They’re legitimate plots, and I personally don’t think we see enough of them in SF/fantasy.
In short, you have to be aware of one important thing: that a woman’s life and power in medieval settings were not at all like that of a man–but that this doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. And I think you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you ignored the other storytelling possibilities that exist, or dismissed them all as being somehow inferior.
My two cents. Of course, I could be wrong about all or part of this–what do you think?
If you’re curious, you can find the other discussions here at Jim Hines’ blog, over at SFnovelists, courtesy of Marie Brennan, and over at Babel Clash, courtesy of Kate Elliott and Ken Scholes.
Two notes before we start: the first is that I’m addressing the problems of putting women as protagonists in historical fantasy/fiction. If they’re not protagonists, that doesn’t mean that they’re invisible, and it also doesn’t mean that they have no personality. They’re characters like everyone else, and shouldn’t end up as cardboard.
The second is that if the setting is more than a hair askew from historical, the writer is responsible for everything that they make up–and if this doesn’t include strong female roles, it’s their choice and they’ll have to be prepared to defend it. This post isn’t an excuse to write women off entirely.
Servant of the Underworld, of course, is a mystery, which means that its active cast (the investigators) are filling men’s shoes, and that the women almost all ended up as priestesses. “Golden Lilies”, by opposition, has an almost all-women female cast, but it’s also a very different story, with a smaller, much more intimate scale.