SFF in Conversation

SFF in Conversation: Kate Elliott on “Is Fantasy Writing Gendered?”

Is Fantasy Writing Gendered? is an essay by Kate Elliott that originally appeared in the second volume of our Quarterly Almanac.


Is Fantasy Writing Gendered?

Some time ago I was asked this common question:

Do you think there’s a difference in the way males and females write fantasy?

In essentials? No.

I’m defining art in its broadest sense here: art as image, words, music, shape, movement, textiles, design, and so on, works that come out of the human mind, heart, and hands interacting with whatever intangible spirit sparks us to create and experiment.

Art is so deeply wired into the human psyche that I think art is inextricable from humanness. All humans have the capacity for art, for curiosity, for exploration and creation.

Art is not our biology or our gender.

However, cultures define what counts as art, and therefore who has historically been allowed to create art or be labeled as an artist has often been related to biology or gender as seen through the lens of an individual’s culture.

So: Do I think there are differences in the way males and females write fantasy?

I think there are differences in the way individuals write fantasy, and then in our culture those differences tend to get mapped onto a gender axis because our culture is comfortable defining and patterning things along the gender axis as if differences between genders are more important than differences between individuals.

Bear in mind that I am speaking in this context (of difference) about behavior, temperament, personality, and how the creative drive manifests. The creative drive doesn’t manifest in the uterus or the penis (nor need we lock definitions of gender into those organs).

However, it might be possible to quantify some weighted differences between men and women writing fantasy in USA/UK commercially marketed fantasy today.

As far as I know, no one has done a study of the last 30 or 40 years of the science fiction and fantasy fields in which they analyze something as simple as character presence in fantasy fiction. The closest I’ve found is an article by writer Nicola Griffith with an analysis of 15 years worth of award-winning fiction: “The more prestigious the award, the more likely the subject of the narrative will be male.”

Do male writers mostly write about male protagonists? How about female writers? What about the percentages of secondary characters? Do male writers disproportionately populate their worlds with male characters (including protagonists and minor characters) overall, in a way not consistent with the actual presence of people in the world? That is, rather than showing a world in which there is an approximate 50/50 split of male to female characters, do these worlds foreground and give speaking roles to far more male characters than female? And if female characters are represented, are they represented in only a few limited types of roles, and how does the writer allow them to function both within the society and within the story?

What about female writers? Do they tend to have more female characters throughout their books? In a wider variety of roles, with more agency and importance? Or do they often replicate the same demographics as male writers?

What about queer writers? As more people in US & UK culture challenge the idea of innate binary gender roles that shift, too, will influence how fantasy is written in and for any specific market.

My feeling is that the idea that males and females “write fantasy differently” has more to do with emphasis. Because in addition to the quantifiable issue of character presence, there is also the issue of what actions, events, details, and experiences are emphasized, or perceived to be emphasized, in any given story.

I personally don’t believe these vectors of emphasis have much to do with biologically quantifiable essentialist differences of mind and creativity. Even if there were some (and it would be very difficult to quantify differences in creativity), it would be practically impossible to tease out what those were from the morass of cultural expectations and assumptions through which we slog on a day to day basis.

Emphasis and “worthiness” can be culturally influenced by unexamined assumptions about what matters enough to be written about or noticed. So in that sense it’s a little difficult to say that men write differently than women BECAUSE of their gender rather than because of what culture tells us about gender. It’s a subtle difference, but if we’re talking about “real” potential differences in writing, this is a crucial one.

I think we carry exceedingly strong cultural expectations about gender and about the past, and especially about ideas about “how” the past “was” that often ignore or deem unimportant entire swathes of human existence. I think we still often assume that a male point of view combined with the heterosexual male gaze (seeing things from a particular set of assumptions about what is important and worthy) is the norm. So it is perfectly possible to pick up an epic fantasy novel in which almost all the characters are male, and women practically invisible, and somehow think there is nothing exceptional or even wrong about a depiction of a world in which women barely exist. To me these are flawed depictions and bad world building. They’re not “male” or “female.”

If I want to write two women talking to each other about something other than a man (see also The Bechdel/Wallace Test for films), does that make my writing “girly?” If a man does it, does that make his writing “girly?” Are male writers more likely to have only one or a handful of female characters, few of whom ever talk to each other or relate in a meaningful way? Are female writers more likely to emphasize female relationships within a story? If so (and I don’t have the stats to back up either of those assertions), I would call these choices cultural and experiential, not biological.

Anyway, what is “male” and “female?” To what degree are our ideas about how things are gendered writing in fact specific to the culture we grew up in or are writing about?

If I want to write about clothes or sewing, then am I “writing female” even though tailoring was and is a male occupation in many societies? What if the character who discusses clothes is a male tailor whose livelihood relies on his knowledge and expertise? Would it be more “male” if he only talked about the tools he used, like his sewing machine or his sharps and blunts, rather than fabric and design?

How about the perception that women write extraneous romance into their books because that is a feminine thing to do, while love stories in male-written books are glossed-over as a narratively-appropriate part of the story?

Let me give two more examples.

I’m an athlete; from toddlerhood I’ve always had an active, fitness and outdoors-oriented personality. That often gives me more in common with other people, regardless of gender, who have a similar “athletic” orientation than with “All Women Everywhere,” many of whom I may happen to have little in common with both by temperament and interests (as well as experience and background). At the same time, I grew up in a time when “playing sports” was deemed an ineluctably masculine endeavor (even though some women have always found ways to be active and play sports). A relative once remarked that his young son was “all boy” because of the son’s budding interest in playing sports; this despite me (rather than the relative) being the one who played sports all through secondary school.

So if I have written several athletic and active heroines and heroes, does that make my writing masculine? Are my athletic heroines commented on differently from my athletic heroes? Is athleticism deemed a normal part of male-ness such that active male heroes don’t need commenting on at all while (despite all evidence to the contrary) some people continue to remark on women being active, adventurous, and athletic as if that trait and interest is unfeminine? Why should a propensity toward being active and athletic be a gendered trait AT ALL when we clearly see it expressed in all manner of people (of various genders), meanwhile other people (of various genders) aren’t drawn to athletic pursuits?

Meanwhile, I don’t really enjoy shopping (except for books and in office supply stores) while my spouse (a former police officer < == see what I did there?) loves nothing more than exploring antique stores, junk shops, and swap meets. If he were to write a story in which a male anthropologist detective hero spends time contentedly browsing in an antique store and ends up finding a peculiar item that later becomes important to the plot, would that make his writing feminine? If a male writer describes every gun or sword with loving precision while a female writer describes dresses in similar close focus, is that a gendered difference (guns v gowns)? What if she lovingly describes knives while he minutely describes food and feasts? Does the desire to describe objects in detail and make that description part of the story mean these two writers have more in common with each other as writers than, say, with writers who eschew description and focus on action?

What if, by focusing on a narrow, particularist vector of analysis, we ignore the ways in which writers of different genders have similarities that may make them more alike than different?

Until we have actual data on such questions rather than anecdotal information or suppositions based on “what everyone knows” or on our assumptions about how things must be based on the last two books we read, I think we can’t draw any firm conclusions about gender differences in writing sff.


KATE ELLIOTT is the author of twenty-six fantasy and science fiction novels, including her New York Times bestselling YA fantasy, Court of Fives (and its sequel, Poisoned Blade) Her most recent epic fantasy is Black Wolves, and she’s also written Cold Magic (first volume of the Spiritwalker Trilogy), an Afro-Celtic post-Roman gaslamp fantasy adventure with well-dressed men, bad ass women, and lawyer dinosaurs. Other series include the Crossroads Trilogy, the seven-volume Crown of Stars epic fantasy, the sf Novels of the Jaran, and a short fiction collection, The Very Best of Kate Elliott. Born in Iowa and raised in farm country in Oregon, she currently lives in Hawaii, where she paddles outrigger canoes for fun and exercise. You can find her on Twitter at @KateElliottSFF.


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  • Frankie
    December 1, 2016 at 8:11 am

    This was a very enriching and thought-provoking read, especially putting the masculine and feminine “axes” under scrutiny. Thank you!

  • Rhiannon
    December 1, 2016 at 1:56 pm

    This is a great essay – something that I think about, and something that gets discussed in our house semi-regularly.

  • Erica
    December 1, 2016 at 7:43 pm

    This is a great article, and I’m bookmarking it to link whenever this topic comes up in fantasy writing forums (as it does with predictable regularity).

    I’ve been repeatedly frustrated by how little data actually exist on the representation of male and female writers in different subcategories of speculative fiction (and also in reader data), and in the ways people of different genders and orientations and races actually portray characters, plots, themes, situations etc. in fantasy and SF.

    But with thousands of books (or more) published each year in these genres, especially with self-publishing becoming more important, how can one begin to categorize all the books by subgenre and break them up into equivalent groups for comparison, let alone pore through them to get the answers to the questions posed in this blog entry?

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