Strong Women in Fiction

I’ve been meaning to write this for about a week now.  I finally got to sit down on my back porch, kick back with the laptop in an old, fairly beat up Lazy Boy and get some writing done, so no more interruptions will let me finish this little bit of anecdote.

As you may or may not know, I was at OsFest 5 held in Omaha, Nebraska at the end of July.  Three writing buddies and I took the panel schedule by storm, with three of us participating in twelve panels and one of us hitting thirteen.  What can I say?  Peter J. Wacks is an over-achiever.  Anyway, there was one panel in particular that prompted an exceptionally lively discussion.

The best question asked by a member of the audience was, “If this is a panel about strong women in fiction, how come there are only men on the panel?”

Peter J. Wacks, Eytan Kollin, Guy De Marco and I all squirmed in our seats for a half-second, because we’d been waiting for that particular question.  Our audience was mostly women, and the panelists were all men.  It was a poignant distribution of gender, and it very much elicited a point about the history and nature of the publishing industry in years gone by.

The truth is that the four of us had driven hundreds of miles to get to Omaha.  We’d posted our list of suggested panels months in advance.  None of the female writers from our little community of scribes along the Front Range were going to be able to make it to Nebraska.  None of the women authors at the convention had asked to be on the panel.  Being the busy louts that we are, the four of us didn’t ask any of the other authors to attend.  It was a perfect storm for a perfect question.

It is undeniable that the publishing industry throughout the 20th century and before was utterly dominated by men.  The publishers were men.  The editors were men.  The names we all saw on the covers of genre and mainstream fiction were men (although many of the actual writers were women).  Here’s a link to Wikipedia for you to see what I mean:

NOTE:  Keep in mind that Wiki is a good source of information as a starting point.  Never take Wiki as the word of god.  It is frequently inaccurate and warrants a fair amount of deeper research to get at the actual facts, but it is an excellent jumping-off point.

Regardless, the answer to her question was simply that we wanted to have women in attendance but none were able to make the journey.  What we did instead was to ask two female writers from the audience to join us.  This was a fantastic idea, and one I intend to repeat in future panels.  I make the “Strong Women in Fiction” panel a staple when I go to conventions.  I focused on Women’s Studies in college, and I am a strong advocate of equality of gender and race for every single human being on this planet.  So, the discussion continued.

We discussed the various women authors who had made fiction and genre fiction what it is today, including such greats as James Tiptree Jr., Ursula K. Le Guin, J. K. Rowling, Anne Rice, Amy Tan and many others.  It was a discussion in which the entire audience participated, and the general consensus was that things had significantly changed for women in the writing industry despite a history of chauvinism.

For example, if you search the Internet on Agents, you’ll get an excellent mix of men and women, and I’d even guestimate that there are more women than men these days.  The same goes for editors, and there are plenty of women in the upper echelons of the publishing industry.  Despite some men’s best efforts, the world is changing for the better.  N’est ce pas?

This growing reality has been reflected in the sorts of books that are increasingly available on bookshelves and in search results.  Genre fiction used to be dominated by male authors writing about male protagonists and their male sidekicks, with a token love-interest thrown in or, more likely, a scantily clad barbarian woman or space vixen wearing a fur or stainless steel bikini.  Just look at the book covers of the 70s and 80s to see what I mean.

But times have changed, with authors like Gail Carriger and Cherie Priest, amongst many others, writing from the perspective of women and using female protagonists.  I believe that this has deeply enriched both genre and mainstream fiction.

So, during this discussion, the woman who asked about the presence of women on the panel asked one other particularly astute question.  “As male authors, do you feel comfortable writing from the perspective of women?”

She couched the question with a lament about other panels like this one that were dominated exclusively by women on the panel and in the audience.  Her complaint was that those panels ended up turning into “bitch-sessions” (her words, not mine) about men in the industry.  Granted, I think it’s warranted that such discussions take place.  It’s inevitable and justified.  However, the woman’s complaint was also valid.  Part of her point was something she had heard many times in those panels:  the supposition that men are simply not qualified to write women protagonists.  She expressed a considerable amount of frustration with the posit, because if it were true, then the reverse would also be true: that women are not capable of writing from the perspective of men.  Clearly, neither is the case.

Three of the four men on the panel had actually written from the perspective of women, myself included.  I actually said that I hadn’t, but I was just talking to another writer recently and dredged up a story I wrote that ended up in Spirit Legends.  All four of us had either written from the perspective of women or had strong female characters in them.  And none of those characters ever wore a fur or stainless steel bikini, although you can find a couple bikinis in my novel Chemical Burn, but I think it’s tastefully done.  😉

I think our answers were a bit of a vindication for “us men,” particularly considering the first, touchy question.  What it boils down to is that strong characters are just that: strong characters.  Some writers have a gift for deeper characterization, some for setting, some for dialogue.  Each of us has our strengths and weaknesses, and we generally do our best to lean on our strengths and work on our weaknesses.  I know I do.

By way of example, most of my fiction to date has strong women characters in them.  There’s Qi and Skeeter from the Lasater series as well as Rachel, Marsha and Natalia from Chemical Burn.  I also have Harriet Truth who appears in a short story done from her perspective as a young black girl who dies in the Influenza epidemic in 1916.

Granted, some of my stuff is a bit pulpy, but some of it is deeper in both character and storyline.  I do have waiting in the wings one series I’ll be writing about where a young woman who is a government agent discovers that she is a powerful metapsychic.  Furthermore, her “sidekick” is a man who is a shapeshifter.  I’ve held off on pursuing that character for two reasons.  The first is that I have other projects to complete.  The second is that I want to make sure that my writing is up to the task of working from that perspective… from the inside rather than from the outside, as I have done to date.

When that that particular topic came to a close—and being the provocateur that I am—I dropped a grenade into the fishpond.  “So, with all of us focused on the notion of strong women in fiction, what do you all think of Bella from the Twilight series?” I asked.

The groan that arose from the entire group was palpable.

My only exposure to that particular bit of fiction has been bits and pieces of two of the films.  What can I say?  I’m not a sparkly vampire / high school angst sort of reader.  However, what I did find interesting is that most of the women in the audience pasted Bella for being weak.  There was one woman, a devotee of the written series, who pretty insistently defended Bella’s honor.

I must admit, I was on the fence about the character.  She’s a young girl faced with a difficult situation and, in the end (as I understand it), she achieves great strength of character, defending those she loves.  In that context, she’s the epitome of a strong woman in fiction.  However, in this audience of mostly women, there was really only one person who considered her as such.

Truth be told, the discussion got a little heated, and it was necessary to divert the discussion back to the topic of strong women.  After a bit more debate, we came to the conclusion that Bella did end up being a strong character and, like many other “hero’s journey” tales, she started out as a “novice, ” “apprentice” or “adept” or whatever you want to call it.  During her journey, she learns and grows and becomes stronger with each passage.

The point here is that, ultimately, gender should be irrelevant.  This truth is becoming an increasing reality in fiction across the globe, and it is a reflection of the growing awareness on this planet that women are as much a part of the human species as any man.  I know it sound strange to say it that way, but if you look at the vast bulk of human history, this “truth” has decidedly not been a reality in human cultures.

As a result of our growing awareness as a species combined with the burgeoning elimination of what I consider to be rather archaic notions of gender roles, women are joining the species on an equal footing like no other time in history.  As a result, our fiction is reflecting this.

Regardless of gender, protagonists make their ways through stories.  They have strengths and weaknesses.  They pass trials and suffer failures.  They continue to grow in some form as their tales unfold, and as a result of the increasingly level playing field, female readers are now more empowered to identify with protagonists that more closely align with their own identities of gender.

Such is my take on the panel Strong Women in Fiction.



2 thoughts on “Strong Women in Fiction

  1. As a female writer, I actually have an easier time writing for men out of my desire to understand them. I’m a bit of a tomboy and after playing enough MMO RPG’s with a male character to prevent trolls asking for my e-mail, I’m pretty darn good at it. What female characters I do have are very strong, almost to a fault. All I know how to write are strong females. I don’t do damsels in distress or weaker characters very well unless they’re red shirts in a horror flick. My novel only have two predominant female characters, both of which are tough as nails in different ways, but have their moments of weakness.

    I’m having trouble in Lepers with the main character’s wife as the motives of the hero revolve around her protection, and in the first three story arcs or so (this is intended as a comic book series), she’s actually just there for emotional support. Then something happens that I’m not going to spoil and all of a sudden she has supernatural powers… it’s those three arcs of making her important, yet not strong enough to stand completely on her own because her time hasn’t arrived yet which I’m struggling with.

  2. That was one of the best panels at OSFest this year. I even used it as a positive example of our Con to an East Coast lady author who said she wrote her local con to offer her services for panels and never heard back. I thought you were brilliant, bringing the ladies up to the table in front and questioning them just like you did the guys.
    Another blog I was reading had a discussion of lady authors who had problems with unwanted advances and creepers. I brought up your name as someone who participated at Cons and would probably be willing to assist with a talk about “hands” and “personal space.” I hope you don’t mind.
    Thanks for leading such a great panel. Like lots of readers, I find it very interesting to find out about authors and their process. It makes reading their books even more interesting. You can see bits of the authors personality peeking through.


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