Choosing to Build a Non-Patriarchal Fantasy World

In fantasy fiction, there are many forces that have led to the knee-jerk assumption that women in non-tech or magical worlds are powerless. Some of this comes from our perception of human history. The defense of medieval-style fantasy as being “just how it was” falls apart quickly upon analysis of how that history has been massaged to ignore the roles of women and other marginalized groups. The recent multiple discoveries that skeletons of warriors that were assumed to be male—often simply due to the presence of weapons—who might be female is one indicator of this skewed perspective.

The other forces that influence our subconscious assumptions about gender roles in alternate fantasy worlds come from the canon that we grew up reading, and from our deeply programmed ideas from our current patriarchal society.

These assumptions leak into our alternate fantasy worlds. The social structures in these worlds often dictate that women:

  1. Are subordinate to men.
  2. Must marry.
  3. Have no legal recourse.
  4. Can’t own property or hold meaningful jobs.
  5. Are valued only for their baby-making abilities or marriage alliances.
  6. Can’t fight or otherwise wield nonmagical weapons (other than poison or the occasional dagger).

Now, if the author is choosing to demonstrate the oppression of women in a patriarchal society, then cool. I’ve done that myself, particularly with The Chronicles of Dasnaria. In that case, however, the author should construct that world with deliberation and intent. It needs to be a deliberate decision, not the result of a subconscious mental rut. That aspect of the world should inform the theme, story, and characters.

When these kinds of patriarchal social structures are embedded in a created world with no good reason for them to be there, that becomes problematic. This should not be the default setting for an alternate-world fantasy. It leads to stories where the male characters are going on adventures or holding important political positions, while the female characters are dealing with being married off or staying at home tending homes and making babies. This pattern is derived from archaic systems of binary gender; men vs. women, people in a limited sphere vs. people who can go anywhere and do anything, people who can get pregnant vs. people who cannot.

What really gets under my skin about this default setting is that we as authors are inventing these alternate fantasy worlds. This is not some reality we are artistically and ethically bound to cleave to. There is no preapproved template for gender, or for anything else. We can choose to do something else. We can decide to make our fantasy world different than the default setting.

Let me repeat for emphasis: we can choose to build fantasy worlds that don’t have patriarchal societies where women are oppressed.

That doesn’t necessarily mean gender-flipping either. If you want to do that, great! But the solution to choosing a different social structure doesn’t mean your society has to be a matriarchy. Just as your female characters don’t have to be queer or “not like other girls” to have active roles, this does not have to be a polarity. Stretch your imagination to create a world that is not the default.

When I set out to write my Forgotten Empires trilogy, I wanted to create a world oppressed by a tyrant, but I wanted it to be equal-opportunity oppression. Women don’t have it any worse than men. With the introduction of each character, I examined my gender and sexual identity choice. These don’t have to be flagrant or on the page, but making those decisions informed my world.

I get asked a lot on panels—as many of us do—how to write “strong female characters.” Since that term is vague—and begs the question of what a weak female character is—I’ve been using the term “active” here. But what do I mean by that? I mean a female character who takes an active role in the story. She doesn’t have to be the protagonist, but she does need a reason for existing beyond being marriage bait or the reward at the end of the quest. She needs to actually dosomething that’s relevant to the story.

A great test for this is, could you take this character out of the story and have it hang together? What if you took her off the page and only referred to her existence—would the story be pretty much the same? If the answer is yes to both of these questions, your character might be more wallpaper than active.

Here’s some other ways to test yourself.

Who gets page time in the story?

This is a simple measurement that can give you a quantitative feel for how you’re portraying women vs. men in your story. (This includes nonbinary characters, too!) Count how much page time each character gets. You can even count words of dialogue. In the book that disappointed me, though there were interesting and well-rounded female characters, they came and went in a blink. The female character that I thought would play a major role in the story ended up being present on less than 3% of the pages. Some questions to ask yourself:

  1. How many primary characters do you have of what gender?
  2. How many secondary characters do you have of what gender?
  3. How much page time do these characters get?
  4. How often do they speak?
  5. What do they get to do?

What are the female characters doing when they’re not on the page?

The fantasy default setting parks the female characters in some lady’s solar where they gossip and embroider things. Those are the lucky noble ladies. The peasant sorts are laboring in the inn kitchens or serving ale—usually to tables full of childless adventurers who are not subject to gender discrimination, yes? Or they might be selling food from a cart or planting a field with a baby on their backs.

It can be difficult to imagine what people did all day in different worlds than our own, especially non-tech societies. We tend to imagine them either involved in back-breaking labor or leading indolent lives of empty tasks. We fall into the habit of overlooking the complexities of living in a non-tech world, as if it’s simpler than life with tech. Some questions to examine:

  1. Who does the serving work?
  2. Is service work coded to gender? Is there a prescribed way for people of each gender to behave? What does it mean to break those norms?
  3. Are the off-page lives of your female characters as vivid as those of your male characters? Are those differences connected to the kinds of labor they are allowed and encouraged to do?

How do you refer to people in general?

Just recently, in two different new fantasy releases, I noticed this language structure. The author in one referred to “farmers and their wives” and the other used a metaphor “than a politician’s wife.” These constructions assume that the profession belongs to men and that women are wives. There’s a pretty easy litmus test. Some questions to ask yourself:

  1. How do you refer to the general population of your world? Who is a character and who is a character’s plus one?
  2. How do the plus ones spend their days?
  3. What image do you see in your mind when you think of a populated area in your world? Have you thought about what a realistically diverse mixture of genders, occupations, classes, etc. will look like?
  4. How are people educated? Is access to education at all differentiated by gender? If so, why?

Who is in power and why?

Because epic fantasy tends to explore political changes, we often detail those systems. The fantasy default is often a hereditary monarchy. It can shake things up to choose a different form of government or write about a transition out of monarchy altogether. But no matter the governmental system (or lack thereof) in your story, it can be fruitful to examine who is in power and why. Some questions to ask yourself:

  1. What does the power hierarchy look like?
  2. What are the conditions of heritability of power? Is gender one of them?
  3. If one gender lacks political power, why is that?
  4. If the political system favors one gender, what can the other genders hold in opposition?
  5. If one gender wields no political power, but work behind the scenes by manipulating or influencing those who do, is that something you deliberately chose?
  6. How are surnames and family names handled? If you default to surnames following the male line, is there a reason for that?

Is sexual peril a major factor in your female characters’ lives?

One of the fantasy default settings is to assume that sexual peril or uncertainty drives the social status of women. Fear of rape and pregnancy tend to be woven into the lives of women regardless of the created world. Consider creating a society where men are taught not to rape women, or where the penalties for rape are so strong that it’s a rare exception.

Because the ability to plan pregnancy is a huge factor in what people who can get pregnant are able to do outside of raising children, address how these characters handle their fertility. The guarding of virginity and chastity to ensure paternity is a well-worn trope that governs the lives of female characters in non-tech worlds. If you choose this, make sure it’s for a good reason. Maybe create a social structure where birth control falls to men instead of to women. If women’s lives are governed by marriage alliances and heir-making in your world, explore the reasons for that choice. If the women in your world depend on men to protect them from sexual peril, think hard about your underlying assumptions for why the women can’t protect themselves. Some questions to ask yourself:

  1. What kind of birth control exists in your world? Who bears the responsibility for it?
  2. Are all your characters able to physically defend themselves? If they aren’t, why not?
  3. Is the threat of rape what holds your female characters from moving with freedom in the world? If so, why is this condoned by the society? What legal and social systems allow this?
  4. What kind of support do birthing parents receive in childbirth and raising children? If the other parent isn’t a big part of this, why not?
  5. How is menstruation handled?

Who are the security forces?

There have been recent discussions around the Black Lives Matter movement inviting authors of invented societies to examine their use of security forces. What is the role of policing in a society? That’s worth examining and making conscious choices about, rather than defaulting to our blank-faced and sometimes ubiquitous guards and armies. If you do include security forces, consider their gender makeup. Some questions to ask yourself:

  1. Are all your warriors, fighters, guards, etc., male?
  2. Do you refer to the fighting forces as “the men” or that the ruler in question can field so many men?
  3. If you have a gender-balanced fighting force, is the fighting equally distributed? How do you handle weapons and training?

All these questions are ways for authors to interrogate ourselves about our worldbuilding choices—and to hopefully shake ourselves out of our programmed ideas about female roles. Look on this as a growth exercise. As I wrote this article, I realized how I’d defaulted to some of these assumptions in more than one series—and I plan to keep this list of questions to check myself as I build a new world. It takes time, effort, and diligence to rid ourselves of deeply programmed ideas. It’s also well worth the effort.


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