Sunday 12 February 2017

Round Table on Female Protagonists

Having being involved in the fundraising campaign for the Problem Daughters anthology in the past weeks has probably made me even more sensitive to the issue of the representation of women. The dearth of female protagonists in products of the cultural industry is hardly a news. But when reading an anthology of stories written by women, and having arrived at the fourth one without encountering a single female protagonist yet, I thought it was worth not only pointing out the issue, but also discussing it and trying to understand what makes active female characters so unlikely to appear, even in fiction written by women. After the initial surprise, I quickly realised that it was actually the same choice I made myself with my first stories some ten years ago. So I wondered what had made it easier and more natural for me to write stories from a male point of view? What were the variables that had played a role in my choice? Was the fact that I was writing horror, one of the genres with the most explicitly misogynistic tropes, one of the reasons? How much weight do our writing training, the models we are exposed to, and even the expectations of the public, have in our work? Does a story with a male character or point of view sound perversely more “right”, especially to a beginning writer? Does it feel like a “safer” choice from a publishing point of view? Lots of questions! So I invited four writers, Jo, Pear, Chinelo and Dolly, to talk about it, and to expand the discussion, including other axes of marginalisation that affect the representation of women of colour, queer, disabled and other marginalized women or non-binary protagonists.

Valeria Vitale: it seems that many women writers, especially at the beginning of their careers, still find it more natural to create male protagonists or to build their stories around men’s POV. Do you agree? And why do you think this happens?

Dolly Garland: I agree that yes it is common to create male protagonists. My first novel that I drafted has a male protagonists. After that, I moved into short-stories for a while and naturally started writing more female protagonists. As a result, the second novel that I am now hoping will be the first that I finish (editing stages) has a female protagonist. I've seen this amongst other writer friends too. I write fantasy and science fiction. I think genre you write matters because it influences what you've read. My exposure to SFF was quite male dominated. It was quite possibly a cultural thing that many of us grew up with. Men take action, and they take care of their women. I grew up in India, so this was particularly portrayed in Bollywood movies, and my general upbringing. Incidentally, when I've written non-SFF stories, I automatically tend to go for female POV because they are usually more "people" stories, focused on particular themes, which without ever being deliberate, turn out to be quite feminist in nature. And our fiction and our media needs to portray strong women but without demeaning men, or turning women into tomboys and stripping them off their feminine qualities.

Jo Thomas: I'm going to second (or are we on third?) that idea. I think it's part of the creative development cycle that, when we start, we tend to mimic what we have already been exposed to. Our creative efforts are simply part of a long conversation and representation in earlier statements / works shapes how we think of ourselves and therefore how we expect our own work to be. I had difficulty finishing work for a long time. I'm not one of those people who is gifted enough to have been writing, and only writing, from an early age but my mother did encourage self-expression so it's one of the things I used to do without really thinking or trying. However, it wasn't until my late twenties that I managed to finish anything, outside of school work, and I still have difficulty writing certain points of view or genres. Part of me knows it's because I'm not (yet?) capable of writing those things. But another part of me has come to realise it's just as much because these are not the things I need to say or see out in the conversation. The conversation needs to be expanded.

But, more than that, I think we need to make sure that people remember it expanded. It's not like there haven't been writers-who-are-women and main-characters-who-are-women, yet it seems like everyone seems to struggle to name them and they get lost. Hopefully not too far off on a tangent

VV: Absolutely not a tangent, Jo! And yes, the conversation needs to be expanded!

I agree that is natural to replicate what you have been exposed to, but I find appalling that still we are mostly exposed to stories written by men, in school as well as in popular culture, as Dolly said. Yes, there are women writers, and yes there are amazing female characters. But, in my case, I had (and still have) to go and actively look for them. And those rare times that they were presented to me, in an educational context, they were always the oddity, or the thing you "had to" include. They were never (or very seldom) presented as the masterpiece, the canon to emulate. Which might be one of the reasons it's so hard for many people to make a list of, I don't know, ten good SF writers that are not men. Also, I believe exposure affects not only the writers, but the public too. Which may make it more difficult and risky for an author to try something different.

About male-dominated genres in fiction, I come from horror and gothic and more often than not, the woman is not just passive, but literally dead (such a beautiful corpse, though...).

Lastly, I do agree that women can be kick-ass without necessarily have to be tom-boyish. But tomboys can, and often are, awesome too. I'm not sure "feminine" is a concept easy to define. Or that has a reason to exist at all.

Pear Nuallak: It’d be remiss to not mention Ursula Le Guin, who started off writing the Earthsea Books from Ged’s point of view (casually misogynist; what few women appeared were inferior and treacherous in comparison to Ged’s strength and authority). Later works in that universe feature more women characters, explorations of gender dynamics, and domesticity in a way that appears to be redressing the earlier imbalance. A more recent work is Lavinia (2008, winner of the Locus Fantasy Award), a re-telling of the Aeneid which gives Lavinia a strongly written voice and doesn’t shy away from domestic and emotional labour, parental abuse, civilian experience of warfare. That trajectory is interesting—not what you’d call statistical sampling, but worth thinking about.

I’ve tried, to no avail, to find a nice graph or juicy statistics which illustrate broader trends over time, or breaking down the newer crops of published works. (For interest, the authorial end of SFF fiction is definitely not diverse by any metric!) I know it seems stick-in-the-mud to mention figures, particularly since I’ve been asked to provide personal commentary—but I clarify this solely because I’m already highly selective about what I consume: I’ve only read one SFF novel by a man in the past few years, and I tend to get recommendations from peers with similar tastes to mine, so most of the time I read women authors writing women protagonists with uncorrupted happiness. I also mostly read short fiction. As to why I think this happens: I'm curious about whether markets are at least partially responsible for a paucity of women-centred SFF. I want to feel out whether there’s a disparity between short fiction and novels (and maybe novellas?). The most diverse venues are smaller ones. How many manuscripts have been forgotten because agents didn’t think women protagonists would sell to a big publisher?

To add to the overall agreement about the creative development cycle: it’s interesting because, in general, almost everyone who was socialised as a woman grows up managing, anticipating, and catering to men’s needs and emotions as part of everyday life; even though we’re told not to make a big fuss about it because it’s “natural” (it’s not), it’s a highly gendered form of emotional labour. Not saying it’s 100% true for all people/cultures! But it’s certainly a broad societal trend observable in multiple cultures. Even though I grew up in a more forward-looking household, that dynamic was still present in various ways; so many of us come away well-informed on intimate, detailed masculine self-narration in general. This, then, forms the landscape of the headspaces in which we write: even though we have the choice to write whoever we wish, we write men... even if that’s not actually our most authentic voice or point of view. When I began dabbling in writing during my late teens, I still featured male protagonists and had to consciously ask myself what I actually wanted to write. I struggle to think of woman-centred SFF writing available to me during that time; The Practical Princess And Other Liberating Fairy Tales is the only one which sticks out. Even though I read plenty of women’s autobiographies and literary fiction from women’s points of view, women-led SFF was a missing piece for me. How I wish I had today’s resources!

Chinelo Onwualu: Honestly I'm not sold on the idea that there is a scarcity of women POV characters in Speculative Fiction. I do agree that women are much better versed with men's interior lives than the other way around and this is why women often write better male characters than men write women's characters. Just as the pervading whiteness of the genre means that people of colour are much more attuned to white points of view than the other way around. I also agree that it's likely that many women writers start out writing male characters then move to writing closer to heart as their work matures - that certainly happened to me. However, I wonder if there is a geographical aspect to that. In reading speculative fiction from a lot of parts of Africa, I find women tend to stick with female points of view pretty consistently. In fact, when I begin a short story with a particularly well-written female character, the chances that the writer is also female-identified is usually high. I think in many societies on the continent gender distinctions are such that women are expected to write female points of view - in many cases, women writers are only ever recognised when they write women characters. In certain parts of SFF it may be the case that there are fewer female protagonists than male - I know that hard and military SF have reputations for being more male-oriented - but I would argue the assertion overall. Perhaps it comes from my own personal taste. I have never had much patience for the kinds of misogynistic male writing in which women were reduced to walking sex objects or half-baked personas whose only job within a narrative was to fall in love with the male protagonist - despite his overall awfulness. In the last two years I have been more conscious of my reading choices in that regard, but it hasn't been hard to avoid such stories. I think the perception comes from the fact that certain stories and books tend to get the lion's share of awards and recognition - and these are often white and male.

Now, if you were arguing about the number of female protagonists of colour versus others, I would have to agree that yes, there aren't enough of them at all. It's been incredibly difficult to find writers who portray the voices of women of colour in ways that feel authentic when they are not women of colour themselves. I think it comes down to who we are best able to relate to. Personally I began my career writing white men, but thankfully only one of those stories ever got published and the rest will moulder in my desk till the end of time. But the stories that sing for me are the stories that touch closest to the issues of my heart - and those voices often sound a lot like my own.

JT: I think there's a possibility that the perception of the gender numbers is screwed rather than the actual figures. After all, it's hard to mention "young adult" or "urban fantasy" without someone rolling their eyes and saying something about how there are far too many angsty teen girls and kick ass women as the POV for them, which leads to another set of questions about variety of characters and whether they have to be kickass in order to be the protagonist. I would put a lot of the skew down to memory and collective interpretation. Personally, I have a terrible memory and I forget other people's names, never mind authors, extremely easily and works that don't stand out for one reason or another tend to blur into one or get forgotten. I think it's more that we've collectively mislaid the memory of an awful lot of women writers and women characters. Although, obviously, there was and is definitely a class of writers aiming for a demographic that doesn't want to think about women beyond them being rewards for a hero. There's also a class of writers aiming for a demographic who like girl cooties, so it may even out. But recognition and awards tend to be somewhat clique-y... and affect the memory. The clique-y thing also shows in how we (UK? Western? Anglophone? Anglo-saxon?) tend to divide men's art and women's art. The great works seem to focus more on men writers and men protagonists - except when it's not in that we have key markers like Austen and the Brontes, and it's not like Hardy wasn't writing about people interacted, etc, etc. Human perception is a weird thing. But, anyway, it's okay for women to write women protagonists but if your only POV is one or more women characters, you can expect to be considered one of the more frivolous genres (like romance or "chick lit") rather than literature about the human condition. If it becomes a classic, it has transcended its author's and/or character's gender. Perhaps it's more of a glass ceiling scenario - women need to break into the higher ranks more often - than a lack of women at all. Chinelo's definitely got a point on the women of colour - as well as gender and sexuality and so on - it's still something "exotic" and often clumsily done by those of us who have no experience. (Again, I'm guilty of this offence and I'm trying to do better.)

VV: My (uninformed) feeling was that mainstream products, looking at books as well as movies, are definitely male dominated with respect to both authors and characters. But, probably like all the people in this conversation, I tend to read more diverse stories, and surely I'm not scared that I will soon ran out good stuff. So, I'd say that, luckily, there are a lot of excellent authors out there, and of interesting and authentic female protagonists. But, if it is true that things seem to be changing, do you feel that they're changing enough? As both Chinelo and Jo pointed out, for example, women of color or queer women are still under- and often misrepresented.

To come back to Jo's point about "second class literature", I definitely feel that there is, at least in the western European world, the unspoken prejudice that literature written by women and with women characters is less valuable and it's implicitly meant to be read only by women. And that the systematic exclusion of non male authors from big literary prizes and awards contributes to this generic perception. I also second Jo about the fact that a character doesn't need to be "kick ass" to be a protagonist. Actually, digressing slightly, literature is full of "inept" men as protagonists, especially in 20th century big novels. But I wonder how the public would have reacted then, and would react now, to an inept woman as protagonist. Can a female protagonist afford to be not extraordinary?

PN: Just to quickly add, Strange Charm Books (which exclusively reviews SFF by women) says that only fourteen of NPR’s Top 100 Sci Fi & Fantasy Books are by women. Had a quick look at the descriptions and, yeah--not many feature women protagonists, either. But they're also classic titles, many of them decades old; that does tend to be what the broader public thinks of genre. Whereas for my social circle, comprising people who keep up with what's coming out, the recently published works which got a lot of buzz and recognition are by Ann Leckie,  Kameron Hurley, etc., which are centred around women and agender people using feminine-default language. Off the top of my head: the recent first novels/novellas by Sofia Samatar, Zen Cho, and Cassandra Khaw feature male protagonists. Not a criticism, since I've enjoyed all their works! But I note their short stories frequently feature women. Again, hardly statistical sampling, and again, that is only the corner of SFF I dabble in. I'm a Brit but much of my SFF consumption comes from the NA market. I personally would be a lot more comfortable handling more data, and I think it's best for me to straight-up admit that I don't know a lot of things and have a lot of questions. I think it's more publishers and dedicated reviewers who'd have access to a big pool of titles from which to pull such information; as an ordinary reader/writer, I can't see the forest for the trees, really. But I do strongly feel, like Chinelo said, there's definitely a dearth of WOC protagonists. Oftentimes I look at a new ToC and find it contains many white women authors writing white women characters--and of course, if you asked people to name 10 or even 5 Black women writers, they would speak as one and say Octavia Butler. And I wish it was only about recognising Butler's paradigm-changing legacy, but rather it is an incuriosity bred from inequality in SFF publishing, as reported in Fireside fiction. I myself admit to this: though, as I mentioned before, I almost exclusively read women writers (and the one male writer has a well-written woman protagonist), it is largely white authorship.

Very interested in the point re: "inept" women protagonists. This is coming slantwise from manga, so not 100% on-message, but Sailor Moon features a protagonist who can be compared to LOTR's Frodo: Usagi not actually good at very much herself, but inspires other, more competent people to come together for a common purpose. She's been criticised for being a poor role model, though. Can we think of similar woman protagonists in fiction?

VV: I loved A Stranger in Olondria too! But I think Winged Histories, Sofia’s new novel in the same literary universe, features female protagonists. So, maybe, another example of the path we talked about.

I have one last question: what are the actions you would like authors, readers, publishers, reviewers to take? More books written by women, I guess is a given. But what else? More representations of women that belong to marginalised groups (or groups that often remain invisible)? More diversity in the kind of women protagonists (not only the heroine type)? More prizes reserved to women authors? More women in the juries of literary prizes? A different marketing for women writers that doesn't seem to address only women?

CO: I want to give a shout out to my "inept" anime heroines. They're a big reason why I watch both anime and J-dramas. Emphasizing that women can be powerful and influential without losing any to the traits deemed typically feminine or having to be capable of violence is very appealing to me. And I love seeing Asian women outside of the context of Western understandings which often give them such stereotypical depictions, it's difficult to handle. I would love more of those kinds of depictions to show up in Western media and literature - particularly extending to women of colour. I can't stand the association in the Western imagination with women of colour and violence (either as perpetrators or victims). I can be empowering every once in a while but when it becomes the basis of nearly every characterisation, it's tiresome as hell.

In terms of changing things, I think it really starts with exposure. Our imaginations are shaped by what we see and experience, and when you have a certain space or group dominated by certain voices, those exposed to it will come to think those are the only voices allowed there. We need to reassess what it is we consider canon at its most basic level. Last summer I was privileged to attend the James Gunn Science Fiction Writing Workshop in Kansas University and I met James Gunn himself. It was an amazing experience to be able to have serious discussions about genre and writing with one of the people who lived through the Golden Age of SFF and helped shape what we think of as SFF's canon. It was fascinating to see both the outer reaches to which his generation of editors could imagine when it came to discovering new talent and telling amazing stories. But it highlighted the limits created by unexamined prejudices against women, people of colour, and people writing outside Western contexts. I was lucky that Mr. Gunn had both the patience and the clarity of mind to express his points of view to me, but I am also glad that the genre has moved on from the thinking that characterised that generation. I think we shouldn't allow ourselves to be tied down by the definitions that were created by those that came before us. We should be willing to take things off the canon that no longer work and add things newer things that reflect the kind of world we're trying to build as well as those voices that may have been overlooked during their time.

So that's my two cents. It's been such a pleasure talking to you all! Thank you for inviting me to this!

JT: Once again, I find myself agreeing with Chinelo. Although "inept" has to be handled with care, otherwise we could end up in a world filled with... what is the name of the girl in Twilight? :)

I think the main thing we can do is broadcast our existence more and boost the signal of those who come from different groups. #DiversityInSFF is a good example but it's only noticeable on a few platforms (if relatively well-known ones). More awards and so on would be good, but there's only so much bandwidth or, probably more precisely, brain-space available. I'm not saying this should stop us but we need to be aware that this functions like tv shows: it's not possible to watch / read everything being created so it's highly unlikely that any one show or author or creator is going to have such a large share of the market that they will automatically win highly recognised awards. And with the more popular awards like the Hugos are suffering a bit of an image crisis with the associated campaigning and apparent "gaming". Which is not to say that shouting as loudly as we can about diverse authors and experiences is a bad thing, simply that we can't expect to be heard by everyone. Perfection will never be achieved but it's worth aiming for. (Says me, who never was very good at shouting these things from the rooftops.)

I suspect it's time to start making sure we're collectively recorded for posterity. There are people who focus on ensuring that women and people of various minorities get their pages on WIkipedia. I think perhaps we need to encourage more people to get involved in things like that and possibly commit to filling these things in ourselves. We need Goodreads and WIkipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica and the SF Encyclopedia ( and all those kind of sites to overflow with entries so that the record of the otherwise hidden or unseen people are there. But then we get into the whole "whose responsibility is it?" discussion, I guess.

DG: yes more books by women is a given, but also more diverse voices. I think prizes will definitely help - because that is what creates publicity, and publicity creates promotion, market demands etc. And that is what it comes to. Market demand. We must not forget the practical aspect. It is not merely enough to be artists in our own rights, or be good at representing the voices, or be good at what we do. The voices remain marginalized because they are not heard. So they need to be heard, and the best way to do that is by using the world we live in - whether directly, through loopholes, or by going around the "rules". Us, in our corner, talking about it is a start - but merely a start. It is not enough. Literary prizes, contests that invite only women, or reviewers who review women all add up to raising that profile. That is essential. Each of us can also take an active part in it, promoting women authors, talking about marginalized voices, and not hiding our own. I am presenting a paper in July in London which is titled, "Miss you've a very white name." It is about me - and my white name. That was a comment made to me by an A level student I was tutoring. He was right. I do have a white name. But what is a "white" name? How did we come to have such perceptions attached to names? Is my voice - that is in fact a very brown voice - weaker or stronger because of it? I don't know, but these are the questions that we need to answer when trying to amplify marginalized voices.

VV: Thank you all for your joining this round table and sharing your views. I think that you made some excellent points, rooted in your own personal experience. I hope this is only the start for a larger and even more diverse conversation that really need to take place. Everyone is welcome to add their voice in the comments to this post.

Valeria Vitale is assistant editor of The Future Fire and co-editor of the TFF anthologies TFF-X and Fae Visions of the Mediterranean. She is an academic researcher specialised in ancient buildings and forgotten place names. You can follow her on Twitter as @nottinauta

Dolly Garland writes fiction that is bit like her - muddled in cultures. Having lived in three countries, and several cities, she now calls London her home, though the roots of her fantasy have returned to India, where she grew up. You can find her @DollyGarland on Twitter, @DollyGarlandAuthor on Facebook, and

Jo Thomas is the author of the Elkie Bernstein trilogy (Fox Spirit Books) and the co-editor of the anthologies European Monsters and African Monsters (Fox Spirit Books). Her fiction also appeared on TFF magazine (Hunting Unicorns, An Invisible Tide) and the anthology Outlaw Bodies (Good Form).

Pear Nuallak a London-based writer who also sometimes paints and crafts. They are interested in how people give and take, how we relate to and communicate with each other, the similar and different things we value. Their fiction was published on TFF, MouthLondon, For Books Sake, and WeAreCollision. Their story With her diamond teeth was featured on the 2016 Locus Recommended Reading List. They tweet at @pearnuallak

Chinelo Onwualu is a writer, editor and journalist living in Abuja, Nigeria. She is editor and co-founder of, a magazine of African speculative fiction. Her writing has appeared in several places, including Strange Horizons, The Kalahari Review, Brittle Paper, Ideomancer and several anthologies. Follow her on twitter @chineloonwualu or check her out at

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