YALC panel: Women in Fantasy at London Film and Comic Con
I attended my first Comic Con today and it was largely because of this really exciting panel – on a topic that I have written about before (my dissertation was on women in dystopia) and definitely will include on this blog again. I was frantically taking these notes while listening so I apologise if there are any inaccuracies – I have tried to summarise it the best that I can and capture the heart of each answer. Some of the books and characters mentioned I hadn’t heard about before so that was very exciting but also means I haven’t joined the analysis so much this time – all that I’ve written here is attempting to report what was being said. I will certainly investigate them though and it’s exciting to learn about the characters that have inspired others – there’s a whole world out there and always more to find out! The panel was hosted by Liz De Jaeger and included Samantha Shannon (The Bone Season), Laure Eve (Fearsome Dreamer; The Illusionists) and Zoë Marriott (Shadows on the Moon; and many others!) who were all awesome.
Both Zoë and Laure mention some Tamora Pierce characters – Alanna and Daine. Alanna is often described as a tomboy who longs to be a knight rather than a ‘young lady’ while Daine is a warrior and a mage (forgive me, I haven’t read these books). They feature in The Immortals Quartet and The Song of the Lioness Quartet.
Laure also mentions Lucy Pevensie from The Chronicles of Narnia because she shows herself to be tenacious, having to insist at the beginning that she is not insane and not making things up – Laure says she drives the story – unlike Susan.
But Susan is on Samantha’s list – along with Hermione Granger and Arwen from Lord of the Rings. She likes the first two because they show it is okay to be sensible and to be bossy while it was Arwen’s horse riding scene with an ailing Frodo in the Fellowship of the Ring that stayed with her.
What constitutes a ‘strong female character’?
Samantha challenges the term itself, arguing that ‘strong female character’ has become a buzzword – instead it should be more about ‘complexity’. She acknowledges that there seem to be two main categories of female character these days – they are either a Bella (Twilight) or a Katniss (The Hunger Games) – but neither should be a blueprint. To make Katniss the definition of ‘strong female character’ does her a disservice because it makes her ‘two dimensional’. She’s more than a fierce-some warrior figure. She has vulnerabilities, moments of passivity and allows herself to be moulded by those around her on many occasions. Seeing Katniss as a great fighting hero completely ignores the intricacies of character and the subtle complexity in The Hunger Games - they're there, I've literally checked.
Laure backs up Samantha’s argument – female characters must be complex and often their weaknesses are as important as their strengths. Being physically strong and physically active is not the crucial factor and not what women were necessarily asking for from ‘strong female characters’.
Zoë adds that in media the female characters that were presented could have been replaced by a ‘lampshade’. In her eyes it is not helpful to say that the two important traits are ‘strong’ and ‘female’ – too often we have been presented with a ‘fighting female sex toy’ (eg. ‘Halle Berry in Catwoman’ is one example).
So how do you write/create these women?
‘By making them people’, Laure answers.
Samantha argues for the importance of a compelling voice and a backstory – Paige from The Bone Season began simply as a voice rather than a person.
Why are female characters important specifically for fantasy and young adults?
Samantha’s response here is brilliant: ‘because we are still asking that question’ (originally Joss Whedon's quote). How often is that asked about male characters? Fantasy has been traditionally masculine/male dominated so, Samantha believes there is a need for visibility and representation – the ‘genre should mirror the world as it is’. She also explains that while women writing in genres like crime and fantasy sometimes adopt an androgynous name, she eventually decided that she would use her own name to try to break down these boundaries.
Laure, on the other hand, says it is no longer necessary to write female protagonists in YA, simply because there are so many already. Rather than being hung up on gender, she wants to write good characters. They all point out that YA fantasy is usually no different to adult fantasy and the supposed ‘genre distinction’ is just a tag in a bookshop.
Zoë explains the common perception that YA is dominated by female writers and female characters – but when you look more closely it is the men who get more awards, more sales and more critical acclaim. There is still not gender parity and people still think in terms of ‘boy books’ and ‘girl books’.
What gender stereotyping have you come across and really ‘gets your goat’?
It is often the case that the characters we love that become stereotypes and safe options, Zoë states. Although men can write very good female characters, even when reading the best authors she finds herself still conscious of a ‘male gaze’ – you can be empathising with a character and then the narrative will pull you back to show you her body (particularly the private parts…).
Laure’s pet peeve is the ordinary girl suddenly gifted with powers (and unaware of her attractiveness) who then encounters a hot boy who explains it to her and then drives the plot.
The best female characters in fiction?
Samantha immediately mentions Celaena Sardothien from Sarah Maas’ Throne of Glass series – for her extreme self-awareness and self-confidence. She also plugs a Swedish fantasy trilogy about a set of vastly different and individual girls who discover they are witches (the first book is called The Circle).
Alina Starkov from Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy gets Laure’s vote. She discovers she has an amazing power… and a sexy man comes along… but they are both very complex.
Zoë recommends s N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy which she says is beautifully written and full of character revelations and development.
Have you ever been asked to tone something down for female characters?
Both Laure and Samantha say ‘no’ (Bloomsbury bought The Bone Season as an adult book).
Zoë, however, describes one instance where she was asked to make a female character less competent (more useless) at fighting (and yet in Stormbreaker, fourteen year old Alex Rider, was allowed to do whatever he wanted). She also references the divide between High Fantasy (often medieval/imagined worlds/epic) and Urban Fantasy (contemporary setting) – in the case of the latter editors put more onus on the protagonist being likable and easier to empathise with.
Ultimately the important thing, Samantha adds, is to have variety.
The panel then moved on to audience questions, discussing their inspirations for becoming authors, the strange and invisible fame that comes with it and the sensation of power and magic you can have as an author. I found the whole session really engaging and am very glad I made the effort to go. Although there is a long way to gender parity, and still a lot to be desired in many of the female characters we are presented with in film, TV and literature, it is an exciting time for women in fantasy and reassuring to know there are writers like these out there – a new and bold generation.
Thank you to all the organisers and participants including Showmasters, YALC and Waterstones.
I would love to hear your own answers to these questions and any opinions you may have on Women and Fantasy literature or literature in general!