Four Approaches to Female Characters in Historical Fiction and Fantasy

You’ve come a long way, baby! I mean … um … ladies.

Women have made a lot of progress over the past century, particularly in the Western world.  Western readers in the 21st Century have a low tolerance for the sort of overt sexism that readers of previous eras — and in broad stretches of the map even today — would simply take for granted.  This puts a lot of pressure on writers of historical fiction and fantasy set in a fictional past.  How can we tell a story with female characters which won’t offend (or worse, bore) modern readers, but which also doesn’t seem hokey in its chronological context?

Well, there are at least four approaches to this dilemma…

– For the die-hard devotee of authentic historical fiction and authentic-sounding fantasy, nothing beats basic realism.

Beware over-simplification, however!  A realistic approach to writing about women in the past must include an acceptance that women occasionally did step outside of what we might think of as “tradition” gender roles.  For example, the Icenian queen Boudica, whose Celtic culture allowed women to inherit royal powers, did not submit to the sexual stereotypes of her Roman foes.

In contrast to the proto-feminist approach (see below), the realistic approach is simply a recognition of the role genderization so prevalent in the past without extensive commentary about it — i.e. without making the defiance of sexist stereotypes central to the story.

For example, in order to earn the reader’s trust, historical fiction about Cleopatra or Joan of Arc or Ching Shih would necessarily have to address the “expected” behavior that these women defied in one way or another, but it wouldn’t necessarily have to be as overtly political as would, say, historical fiction about Abigail Adams or Susan B. Anthony.

Fantasy fiction about women like Joan, Cleo, and the Shih could follow a similar pattern of recognition without polemics.

On the other hand, writers opting for the realistic route don’t need to write about women who defy stereotypes at all.  They could simply write women into traditional roles, with traditional expectations and behavior.  Such writers, however, need to be careful lest the unadorned presentation of archaic attitudes toward women be mistaken for the author’s personal attitude toward them.

Anachronistic – For simplicity’s sake, some writers dive right into their stories with an approach to gender roles that reflects modern, Western attitudes.  While this should be condemned as just plain bad writing in historical fiction, it can be an acceptable means of getting to the meat of what you’re trying to say with fantasy fiction.

After all, you can’t fight every battle at once, and fiction that is defined by recasting huge swaths of the Familiar must also be anchored to It, somewhere.

So, if you’re a fantasy writer with a great set of ideas about … well … about anything other than gender roles, and you don’t want to be saddled with antique social etiquette or a boatload of excuses and explanations, feel free to simply say “sexism is not what my story is about” and get on with the tale-telling!

Proto-Feminist – This is a consciously political approach that recognizes the gulf between historical and modern Western attitudes toward women, and takes an pedagogical stance in favor of the latter.

In some historical fiction, and creative nonfiction, the proto-feminist approach is unavoidable, simply because history is full of people who can only be accurately depicted as “proto” to “feminism.”   It would be absurd to write about Abigail Adams, for example, without leaning toward the proto-feminist approach.  And, it would be difficult not to comment on the unintentionally humorous observation by Roman consul Cassius Dio that Queen Boudica “had greater intelligence than often belongs to women.”

One wonders if Dio allowed his wife to beta-read his manuscripts.

However, the proto-feminist take on women’s roles has unique perils and pitfalls. Writers too often spoil this type of writing by shoving modern sentiments about the Plight of Women into the mouths of non-modern characters, and can fall prey to overstatement and political correctness, even to the point of ironically perpetuating unhistorical, unrealistic prejudices and sweeping generalizations about past societies.

For example, a clumsy writer taking the proto-feminist road might manufacture contrast by glamorizing the “freedoms” of men, while ignoring their obligations. The writer’s pet character, echoing Éowyn and Arya Stark, might complain that girls are not allowed to fight in war, while the fact that boys are conscripted to the bloody battlefield against their will is glossed over as unimportant.  In reality, the sexual division of labor often cuts both ways.

While it is unavoidable (even admirable!) that moral philosophy permeates fiction, you should avoid letting your art slouch toward propaganda, unless you intend to write the seven hundred thousandth tiresome iteration of political-diatribe-disguised-as-novel.  A little moral progress never hurts, but don’t let progress morph into preaching.

Integral – The integral approach brings us women characters to whom we can relate by making modern-esque roles integral to the non-modern setting.

This would be fairly difficult in most historical fiction — but I would hesitate to declare it impossible for fear that some historical anthropologist would pull an example of his or her academic hat.  After all, the story of Boudica would lean less proto-feminist and more integral if placed solidly within the Celtic perspective, in which Boudica and her sisters were rightful inheritors of her father’s regal authority.

Even so, the integral approach is far more readily available to the fantasy writer, who can craft her world in such a way that there is good reason for the roles of women to resemble those familiar to modern Western readers.  I know it’s a dastardly vice for a literary blogger to cite his own work but my readiest example of shifting from anachronism to integration comes from my own experience.  So, here we go!

When the original version of The Ligan Of The Disomus was submitted to a short story writers group, my colleagues made particular comment on the fact that the narrator’s boss, Commander Lea Thomas, was a woman at the head of her country’s Security Corps.  Ligan had a 1920s noir mood, but it was set in an Age of Sail world, and neither of these influences justified a female commanding officer.  At the time, I hadn’t given it much thought; the character of Lea appeared in the story, and I wrote her how she wanted to be written.  Within the limited scope of a short story, I was playing the anachronistic gambit.

But, as I developed Ligan to novel length and started fleshing out a longer plot arc, I integrated Lea’s role (and that of other female characters who appeared later) firmly into the story’s cultural history.  Central to the core religion of the Ligan world is a primordial, mythological act of violence by a female: the Archangel Devrael, God’s First-Spoken Word.

As Frer Jacob explains the scripture in “The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die”:

As every church-going child learns, when the first men and women set their hearts to rise up against the Children of God whom they served in Paradise, the blessed Archangel Devrael saved us from our envious fury.  Knowing our rage for insurrection could not be stemmed, and knowing the Angels — for all their power — were fatefully outnumbered by their servants, She stepped in at the very last moment with Her fiery swords spinning, to take the awful sin of deicide upon Herself, murdering her Divine Brothers and Sisters in our stead. So beloved we were by Her.

Later in the mythic history of the world, this same Devrael escapes her imprisonment for this original sin to become manifest in a washing girl named Tanna of Jessamine, the founder of Frer Jacob’s church, who led a rebellion against the ancient Noreine Empire using improvised weapons.  In a world with a feminine “messiah” who wages war, not love, it is far easier to justify a Commander Lea Thomas, a sea captain Jane Ashcraft, and a scrappy girl named Diana with a ferociously militant destiny.


Okay, so there is a fifth approach to avoiding traditional feminine roles, and one far too often taken in the fantasy genre: the Exploitative.  Two-dimensional women who seem to dash stereotypes by virtue of swinging swords and chopping a lot of men into pieces are a mainstay of the simple-minded writer.

Bikini-armored war kittens, whores with knives with their skirts, and all sorts of barely disguised masturbatory fantasies (faux-liberated in a clumsy attempt to appeal to faux-liberated readers) abound in fantasy fiction.  Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between a strong, sexy, and savvy female character who refuses to play damsel-in-distress and a stereotypical Büstenhowitzer blasting her way through armies of males with breasts all abounce.  Some will be muscled barbarian queens, others cat-like assassins.  They wear many disguises, and can easily fool you into miscategorizing them as proto-feminist, integral, or mere anachronism.

But, if you want to know if you’re reading or writing something in this shabby fifth column of female characters, ask yourself: does this woman have any significant interaction with men that doesn’t focus on sex or violence?  If the answer is no, you’ve got the exploitative approach in full force.


You may also like...


  1. I missed this one and it’s a good one. Prior to readig this, I never realized that my favorite female characters are approached almost entirely from the ‘Integral’ perspective, including those in Ligan.

    Interesting food for thought. I’m going to have to give my female characters a bit more thought. Thanks!

  2. Great Post — interesting points. My own novels have found the female characters rising to strong, active roles as a natural outgrowth of the nature of the ancient secrets they learn to interpret. My men are honest, but like most of our gender, their heads are so full of the doing of this and that, they have little room left to … hear. As my own tales concern the interaction between ancient Celtic traditions and spirituality v.s. the modern world (beginning 1911), the strength of the women seems to be a natural ascendancy which is also mirrored in what we know about ancient Celtic culture. But despite the historic underpinnings, these characters add an intimacy to my books and to any book where women are shown as equal players through difficult situations. I try to remember in my own work, that it is a medical fact that they bear pain better than we do anyway. I look forward to reading your work.

  3. An interesting essay. I had never really thought about which approach I was taking. My Regency era females begin the story firmly rooted in society’s expectations, although one of them wishes she had the freedoms of males. Gradually, things happen to them that challenge their outlook and force them to revise their pre-programmed reactions. They try to hide their growing talents, or at least limit the other cast members who know about their exploits. All things considered, I reckon I must fall somewhere between realistic and proto-feminist.

Comments are closed.