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I want to write a fantasy novel with a female protagonist, and I want to familiarize myself with reader expectations. Is there still a tradition of (medieval-type) fantasy by and for women, and what are its prototypical themes and plot?

Or, in other words:

When a woman picks up a fantasy novel with a female protagonist today – and that is all she knows – what would she expect?

I am NOT looking for writing advice. What I want is to understand current conventions and reader expectations in contemporary female-protagonist fantasy fiction. I do not want to write such a fantasy, but I want to understand – as I believe every author should – the genre they are writing in, because even if you create your own version of that genre, your novel will be read in the context of those conventions.


Additional context

The roles of male and female protagonists in classic fantasy fiction were distinctly different. The male hero was a warrior who went on a quest and killed his opponents, while the female heroine was a witch or priestess who had to discover her innate powers and heal a rift in the world. The male hero had to journey outwards and fight physically; the female heroine had to journey inwards, into the mystery of herself, and fight psych(olog)ically.

In the wake of the women's movement, fantasy heroines in the Seventies and early Eighties began to take on male roles. A typical example is the short story "Northern Chess" by Tanith Lee in which a female warrior overcomes the ghost of an evil sorcerer who had cast a curse that "no man" would be able to overcome – forgetting women.

Later, during the pseudo-historic wave in fantasy of the late Eighties and early Nineties, much of female written fantasy portrayed members of the aristocracy and their intrigues, showing powerful, powerhungry, and ruthless women manipulating the men around them much in the way the Queens of the past have done.

In the same time, fantasy for male readers has mostly remained true to the swordwielding and questing heroes of the past. From Tolkien to Robert Jordan, companions have overcome evil, and from Robert E. Howard to David Gemmell, barbarians have battled and killed.

The female in a male role has stayed active in fiction for young adult readers. Today, YA books with female leads are often classic male fantasy with the male protagonist replaced by a female one. For example, The Hunger Games, has a plot very much identical to Conan the Barbarian: Doom kills Conan's people and takes him into slavery. Conan escapes, fulfills a quest, returns to the temple, and kills Doom. Similarly, Snow enslaves Katniss' people and takes her away from home as a kind of fighting slave. Katniss fulfills a quest, returns to the capital, and kills Snow.

But The Hunger Games isn't fantasy. I haven't read much fantasy in recent years, and looking at the market today, it seems to me that fantasy for female readers has been largely replaced by dystopia, urban fantasy, vampire romance, steampunk, and other new genres. There are still male heroes battling and questing, and there are some female warriors, some witches, and some queens. But I don't see much of that, and nothing new.

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    Yes, indeed, @ChrisSunami, I want to write a fantasy novel with a female protagonist, and I want to familiarize myself with reader expectations. – Sorry for that Feb 22 '18 at 15:34
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    You begin by talking about female protagonists, but then shift to fantasy fiction written “by and for women.” Maybe it’s both, but I just wanted to note that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. There is an unfortunate assumption out there that stories about women are only read by women, but you shouldn’t let that limit you :) – sudowoodo Feb 22 '18 at 15:53
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    @Sorryforthat The answer you go is not irrelevant. It just was not the answer you wanted to hear. I'm not a woman but I know enough women readers to say with assurance that different women are interested in different things and that many women are interested in many different things. I also know enough about writers and writing to know that you should write about the things that interest you, because you are not going to do a good job of writing about anything else. Make it interesting is the only advice that is going to help, and writing about what interests you is the only way to do that. – Mark Baker Feb 22 '18 at 18:16
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    @Sorryforthat It also occurs to me that while this question is intended to help your own writing, you might get answers closer to what you are looking for on either scifi.stackexchange.com or literature.stackexchange.com, given that the primary thrust of the question is understanding what exists, and NOT how to respond to it. – Chris Sunami Feb 22 '18 at 18:26
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    I'd like to state that in my opinion this kind of label (fantasy for women/men) is somewhat harmful. You have based the concept of this division on past traditions (and breaking traditions is a popular sport nowadays) and in the difference between the so called Hero's Journey and Heroine's Journey, which are NOT necessarily tied to a specific gender (Megamind, a man, has a typical Heroine's Journey, for instance) – FFN Feb 22 '18 at 22:26
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As a female reader of SF/F who enjoys fantasy books with protagonists of whatever gender and plot, my advice is:

Make it interesting.

  • It doesn't matter if the basic plot structure is older than dirt. Your details are what make it fresh.
  • Make the characters people I can believe in, and care about. Don't just write "a strong female protagonist." Write an interesting female protagonist. Write a protagonist with flaws. With bad habits. With a weird hobby. With a string of past loves. With one or more children/pets/familiars/personalities/personal deities.
  • She doesn't have to be a warrior, leader, sorceress, etc. so long as she has agency in her own story. She can be totally happy to be a wife and mother if that's what she wants and the plot rewards her for it.
  • Make her somebody I enjoy hanging out with, even if I wouldn't make her choices or do the things she does. Give me something to like about her, something to root for. She doesn't have to be perfect. She can make stupid decisions and rash mistakes. But make her decisions understandable.
  • If she's the protagonist, she needs her own agenda which isn't driven by a third party (of whatever gender). She needs her own plot, her own drives.

The Hero's Journey is the archetypal fantasy plot, so by all means use that if you want, but I don't pick up a "fantasy book with a female protagonist" and only expect a Hero's Journey.

What I expect is someone I will want to spend three or four hours of reading with.

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    Thank you, Lauren, but you do not answer my question. What you say is good advice but not relevant to my present problem. I don't want to know what readers enjoy, but what readers expect in a certain subgenre of fantasy. – Also, the hero's journey has been criticized for being a male archetype and not reflective of female protagonists. – Sorry for that Feb 22 '18 at 17:53
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    @Sorryforthat At the level you're asking, what (women) readers expect is an interesting story. "Women's fantasy" is too nebulous. Take "fantasy" in general: you might be able to point to general trends, but then you look at Tolkein and Le Guin and Rowling and Abercrombie and ... all but the most basic genre generalizations fall apart quickly. Likewise with "women's fantasy": at this point it is (and should be) equivalent to just "fantasy". There may be a particular sub-genre you're thinking about, but "women's fantasy" or "fantasy by/for women writers/readers" is too imprecise to say much. – R.M. Feb 22 '18 at 19:08
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    As a reader, this answer hits the nail on the head. The gender really doesn't matter, so long as the plot is interesting and the characters are people I can either love or hate. @Sorryforthat As a reader of any gender, the plot and depth of the characters is much more important to the story than the gender of the main character. If you want a female protagonist, make her a complex and interesting woman; I'd say the same if you want a male protagonist also. If you want a good example, Michael Anderle pulls this off well in "Death Becomes Her", which spawned many others as well. – Anoplexian Feb 22 '18 at 22:28
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    Yes! As another female reader of all things SF&F, what I look for is that the strengths (and more importantly the weaknesses) of the character aren't because of her gender, but because of how she as a person respond to the challenges faced. Her gender is an attribute, not a definition of the character. Otherwise you end up with very two dimensional, stereotypical characters that rarely actually model how a woman (or man) REALLY behaves. – Jane S Feb 23 '18 at 2:35
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    (+1) Reading the bullets reminded me of several novels that easily support your answer. In the same order of your bullets: 1) Uprooted (Naomi Novik) 2) Artemis (Andy Weir) 3) The Fifth Season (NK Jemisin) 4) Revenger (Alistair Reynolds) 5) Provenance (Ann Leckie). I would also add 6) Xenogenesis (Octavia butler; for a more horror based approach), 7) Ninefox Gambit - The machineries of the empire (Yoon Ha Lee; for a more mental based approach), and finally 8) Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie; where gender itself becomes a redundant notion). – armatita Feb 23 '18 at 11:40
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This is an interesting question, and while I don't believe there is a "prototypical" plot, let me try to find the answer by defining a contrast between typical male and typical female protagonist. I beg everybody's pardon in advance if my generalization will look offensive. Please keep in mind that the following is my personal observation of genre's tropes and by no means an advice to follow these trends.

  1. Female protagonist usually starts from a weaker position than a male protagonist. While both genders can find themselves in a bit of trouble early in a story, boys more often than girls find the ability to turn the situation in their favor starting from the very beginning. Stereotypical situation is when female protagonist is controlled by an evil figure like stepmother, and there is nothing that she can do until she gets an outside help or makes an important discovery;
  2. Female protagonist is often established as somehow exceptional from the very beginning. It can be a noble birth, or unique talent, but then the protagonist is falling on hard times despite (or because of) this special distinction. Boys, by contrast, often start as total commoners and only later reveal special talents or royal blood;
  3. Female protagonist is more often driven by passion or compassion than by a need of ultimate justice or out of competitive spirit;
  4. Romance plays a greater role. While modern heroine is no longer a "Damsel in Distress" who needs a Prince Charming to rescue her, there's still a need for a male who is in some respect stronger than the protagonist. By the way, having a lesbian protagonist is not entirely out of question;
  5. During Hero's Journey, female protagonist finds new strength, but she still remains gentle and vulnerable at some level.
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    This seems sexist to me. – Amadeus Feb 22 '18 at 18:58
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    @Amadeus - sorry, I just tried to summarize the trends, and the result came out like that. I will see if I can edit my answer, but if more people feel offended, I will pull the answer off. – Alexander Feb 22 '18 at 19:06
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    You might be seeing the Inanna's Journey archetype. She is often the female corollary to the "Hero with 1000 Faces" Joseph Campbell myth(s). Main difference is Hero starts as humble nobody and levels up, Heroine starts high (princess) and loses all worldly goods to begin again with nothing but her wits – often the story begins just as she loses status and we see her being abused (Princess Leia, Cinderella). The Inanna archetype is more common then we think, but men generally don't analyze female characters so the discussion of the archetype is less common. – wetcircuit Feb 22 '18 at 19:22
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    @Amadeus, I'm reading this answer as observation, not advice. Actually a lot of this is good for "what not to do" – sudowoodo Feb 22 '18 at 19:24
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    @Amadeus This seems like the only answer that actually answers the question asked. I don't think Alexander is sexist just for describing a genre that can be a bit sexist. (I'm not sure this is a perfect description either, but its an attempt) – Clumsy cat Feb 22 '18 at 19:37
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What the female reader expects to see is a good story without gender stereotypes or sexism.

Lauren's advice applies. Female readers are going to be very sensitive to sexist tropes and female stereotypes perpetuated by male-dominated religions, governments and other institutions, related to personal relationships, mathematical or scientific ability, physical weakness, their menstrual cycles, their roles in sex, or objectification; e.g. your female lead is the most desirable woman in the world!

Male authors sometimes give women power by having a man back her up; the queen is obeyed because the king says so, even if the king is elderly and weak as a kitten and could not fight his way out of a paper bag!

Avoid any fear of battle or injury greater than you'd give a male, and avoid tokenism (having ONE female in the central cast surrounded by men, with all other females in the story props or 'the normal females').

Like a male hero, a female hero should have flaws that cause her problems; a woman without any flaws that is better than men or women in everything is boring.

But flaws are NOT disabilities: Flaws must be something she can overcome mentally, like arrogance, not things like physical size or height. Both genders can have disabilities, but the female disabilities should not be relative to a man or involve female stereotypes, like a lack of courage, or hormonal fluctuations, or a desire to be nurturing or to be a parent.

And finally, don't try the excuse of a lesbian female hero thinking that this lets you write her as you would a male hero. It doesn't. Presume the one and only difference for a lesbian is that she prefers women for sex. Do not presume that single commonality with heterosexual men makes her one of them.

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    Good grief, now someone is trying to explain how not to be sexist to me. Why cannot you answer a straightforward question? My story will not have a female protagonist. I don't even want to write for women!!! Why does everyone on this site presume to know what I want to know better than I do myself? Please stop secondguessing my intention and either answer my question or don't post an answer at all. This is so exasperating ... – Sorry for that Feb 22 '18 at 19:24
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    @Sorryforthat The very first line of your post says "I want to write a fantasy novel with a female protagonist." Your third paragraph says "When a woman picks up a novel." That presumes a female reader. Not sure how Amadeus was supposed to understand that you are not writing a female protagonist for female readers? – Lauren Ipsum Feb 22 '18 at 20:05
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    Good Grief indeed. You start I WANT TO WRITE A FANTASY NOVEL WITH A FEMALE PROTAGONIST... Why would you start a post with a lie about what you want to do? You are specifically asking for advice about your story having a female protagonist. Take all the "advice" I gave you as what a woman wants and expects to see when she picks up a novel, and the most recent trends as well for both male and female authors. There are no special plots involved, unless you consider "Man seeking compliant and beautiful princess" a plot type. The hero could be female in any plot. – Amadeus Feb 22 '18 at 20:26
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    Amadeus @Lauren That sentence seems to have been added by ChrisSunami, not the OP. This sure is a whole big mess. – curiousdannii Feb 23 '18 at 4:19
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    @curiousdannii, that edit is taken from the comments where OP states: "Yes, indeed, ChrisSunami, I want to write a fantasy novel with a female protagonist, and I want to familiarize myself with reader expectations." – Celos Feb 23 '18 at 8:02
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Inanna's Journey is the female corollary to Joseph Campbell's "Hero with a Thousand Faces". The main differences in the hero and heroine archetype is the hero is a young everyman, low born or a third son without inheritance who goes out in the world and finds adventure often collecting magical "gifts" along the way.

The heroine on the other hand typically starts high born (a princess) who loses everything or has already lost everything, and must use her wits/grace/charm to rise up from a tyrannical situation. Her "gifts" are often hers by birthright but someone has stolen them and she must win them back.

Princess Leia and Cinderella are typical Inanna heroines. They begin their stories in an abusive place through no fault of their own. The modern twist is Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV) who was previously a popular cheerleader in a big city high school but is sent to Sunnydale to endlessly fight monsters.

While a hero must be brave the heroine must persevere. He typically gains wealth and social status, she is restored to her rightful status.

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    Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker are equally highborn. ;) – Obie 2.0 Feb 23 '18 at 6:56
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    And I'm not really sure I believe this. Fairy tales are absolutely full of (male) princes and such unjustly deprived of their positions. For example, "The Three Languages" has a count's son deprived of his status by his evil father (but he later regains it by becoming pope). I think it's more that the alternate path (rising to high status from genuinely low status) was denied to women. – Obie 2.0 Feb 23 '18 at 7:05
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    And if one objects that count to Pope isn't regaining lost status (because Pope is higher) then I suppose it's also worth noting that princess to Resistance general isn't quite either. Nor did Cinderella start out as a princess, only a noble. And then conversely, just look at the Book of Esther. Rising from low status (Jewish orphaned sister of someone of little importance) to high status. Victory through courage, mainly (albeit not in combat). If you want victory through courage in "combat," Judith cut off a fellow's head, as I recall. – Obie 2.0 Feb 23 '18 at 7:09
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    LOL the quibbling as if archetypes never have any variation or changes to details. Go look up the hundreds of essays on Inanna's Journey as a female hero archetype. – wetcircuit Feb 23 '18 at 13:21
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    you may be absolutely right; I'd never heard of Inanna's Journey before you posted this. – Lauren Ipsum Feb 23 '18 at 15:05
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Well, as someone who reads a lot of those (due to my wife's reading tastes), perhaps I'm somewhat qualified to answer.

There is a small crossover genre of romance/fantasy that you might be interested in. I think the only books I've read that are firmly there are the Alpha and Omega series (the related Mercy Thompson series is much more stock urban fantasy). These seem to be much more likely to have traditional gendered stories. But of course romance is also expected to be a big part of the story.

Aside from that, there really isn't a huge difference between the Fantasy books I've read with female protagonists and those with male protagonists. For most of the books I read, you could do a global replace on the gender of the protagonist and it wouldn't be very noticeable.

An uninitiated person might think it would make sense to have female characters be a little more hesitant to engage in physical combat, as they will be overpowered by most males. However, when you throw fantasy in there, that really no longer applies. A female character with access to magic (like Kim Harrison's Rachel Morgan) or superpowers (like Larry Corelia's Delilah Jones) is likely to be so proficient in a physical fight that other characters do everything possible to stay out of arm's reach. Conversely, when villains are Werewolves and Vampires, being just a big strong guy isn't always a lot of help.

Your "classic male fantasy with the gender changed" isn't really that far of the mark. And there's no real reason it should be.

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    Honestly what I find much more fascinating is the difference between female characters written by men and those written by women. Also the difference between male characters written by men and those written by women. Good writers do really good jobs, but there's still usually a small difference. – T.E.D. Feb 22 '18 at 23:29
  • T.E.D. i have almost always found that what works best is "crossgender", i.e. male writers create much more realistic and interesting female protagonists, and female writers great male heroes... of course some fall into stereotypes and i have seen many male heroes by female writers be pale effeminate shadows, though less and less female sex object stereotypes by male writers...but i think crossing the genders works well because the hero-heroine is less of a direct projection of the writers persona/whish/fantasy...or maybe male writers can create a female hero that other males like beter? – Reed Sep 25 '18 at 22:46
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I would have commented for clarification but my rep doesn't allow me to. I'm curious to know if you differentiate between what a reader expects from the genre and what a reader wants from a genre. I think you've received a lot of answers which cover the latter. I can tell you that for me, what I want and what I expect are actually different. (Disclaimer: I can answer from the pov of a female fantasy reader, but I might not be contemporary enough as it's about five years since I last read a fantasy novel).

  1. Expectations: I expect that the genre is making a shift from the more traditional Hero's Journey or Innana's Journey story-telling towards a less biased or sexist portrayal of either gender. I don't expect that this will ever be truly achieved and must be something which authors continuously strive for. If the book obviously has a single female protagonist and appears to be written by a male author; I will expect it will be a lucky-dip as to whether I will find myself reading a traditional-style fantasy or if the author will surprise me. If the same book appears to be written by a female author my expectations will be higher (and I admit that is a result of my own biases). I also expect fantasy as a genre to be set in low-tech 'medieval' worlds. I expect lycanthropy, vampirism, demonology (etc) to be a different or sub-genre such as urban fantasy.

  2. Hopes/desires: When I pick up that book, regardless of the gender of the author, want very much for it to fulfill every condition and take on every piece of advice in the Lauren Ipsum and Armadeus answers. The best examples of that which I can think of are Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders novels (c 1998+), or possibly Mercedes Lackey's novels set in Valdemar (c 1997+).

As you can see, hopes and expectations don't always align.

  • +1 for Valdemar! some days I feel like I'm the only person on the board who's read Lackey's work. :D – Lauren Ipsum Feb 23 '18 at 10:57
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Comment on the other answers

It seems to me that you all misunderstand what the OP means with "reader expectation".

In the question, reader expectation is identified with genre conventions:

When @Sorryforthat asks, What are its prototypical themes and plot? Or, in other words: What would a reader expect?, it is quite obvious from "or, in other words" that they understand "what a reader would expect" to be a different way of saying "prototypical themes and plot".

The title of the first version of this question (before it was edited by Chris Sunami) asked for the "prototypical fantasy plot for a female protagonist", and the body of the text still expresses a desire to understand genre "conventions".

Then the "additional context" even provides examples of such genre conventions (but none for what readers want to read, as most of you have interpreted the question).

Given all that, I can readily understand why @Sorryforthat felt "exasperated" by your stubborn disregard of his pleas to answer their question.


Answer

Current popular tropes are:

  1. Diversity ("Cracking page-turner with a multiethnic band of misfits with differing sexual orientations who satisfyingly, believably jell into a family.")

  2. Insta-famous ("Stunned and disconcerted, Maia must take his place as the rightful Emperor of the Elflands.")

  3. Kingdom in chaos ("While her mother, the queen, remains busy at the war front, a corrupt king is plotting, wanting control of both kingdoms. Events will fling Evelayn onto the throne much sooner than she expected.")

  4. Magic puberty ("Princess Evelayn of the Light Kingdom can finally access the full range of her magical powers.")

  5. Gay love or sex ("I am impressed with the amount of male/male romances that are crossing my plate, but there is always room for more")

  6. Urban setting (i.e. not a contemporary urban setting, but a medieval-type city [as in Sanderson's Mistborn]; "Urban fantasy is still strong, especially with female protagonists.")

  7. "the female experience"

  8. Genre crossover (alternate history fantasy, urban fantasy, western fantasy, science fantasy, etc.)

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    Someone who actually answered the OP's question. – Stilez Feb 23 '18 at 21:17
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"When a woman picks up a fantasy novel with a female protagonist today – and that is all she knows – what would she expect?"

I expect growth in characters regardless of gender and I don't care (too much) where they start on the competency scale. But they'd better end up further along, through insight, and trial and error.

I'm most happy when a character's strength is recognized not in traditional terms - but rather in a variety of possible other manifestations.

In particular, I most enjoy those female protagonists that have strengths in the following areas:

  1. Resilience
  2. Cleverness
  3. Stamina / Persistence
  4. I prefer that they hold to ideals
  5. I prefer that they are relational and that this impacts their decisions.
  6. I prefer ethical protagonists (but find deceptive characters fun.)

I don't care about sword fighting and archery, particularly in a female protagonist. If that is all she has I am not interested in her.

There is a sexist notion 'out there' that one strength of the female gender is being the go between, the oil in the system, the sweet and soft middle between two crusty oreo cookies. This idea can be taken to an extreme (bad; stereotypical). But to write those qualities out of the story in an effort to make a female protagonist 'stronger,' is a mistake. If the female pro-tag does not have insightful and relational qualities, then someone else in the story needs to. In my opinion. A story should have relationship as an element.

What I dislike in female protagonists is a direct mimicking of a historically classic male protagonist, particularly when such characters lose the qualities (above) that I think are intriguing.

I am not looking for a witch or a magical power. I like female protagonists that buck the system, such as the Renunciates on Darkover. they have their code worked out, they are true to it, they face opposition from society, they persevere, and (very incidentally) some fight with swords.

2

As my name probably makes clear, I'm not female. However I'm a keen reader of fantasy and SF, and I'm particularly interested in anyone with new things to say, because the power of fantasy and SF is the ability to run fascinating thought experiments. So some of my favourites are from Sheri Tepper, Ursula LeGuin, Katherine Kerr, Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel, Emily St John Mandel, and no doubt more. Those are the ones I can think of immediately.

It should be immediately clear that none of them are doing anything similar, except writing damn good books with compelling characters, some of whom are female.

There are men who also write strong female characters. Neal Stephenson and Charles Stross, for example. (Stross also has a diverse set of sexualities for his characters too.) And of course Scott Lynch has this brilliant response to a reader who objected that a woman could not possibly be a pirate captain. Don't make the mistake that authors can only write well for their own gender - good authors are not limited by that.

More of those kinds of things, please. Create characters we can believe in, set them in a world we can believe in, and present them with events we can believe in (or at least suspend disbelief because they are internally consistent). And have a high standard of wordsmithing, because writing is an art.

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    +1 for "Don't make the mistake that authors can only write well for their own gender" Other answers (including mine) have mentioned male vs female authors, yet the OP has mentioned only the gender of the protagonist & reader. BTW I love finding an author who can nail the opposite gender! – sezmeralda Feb 25 '18 at 4:00
  • @sezmeralda Thanks. I particularly enjoyed Lynch's response about female empowerment in his books. "Zamira Drakasha, leaping across the gap between burning ships with twin sabers in hand to kick in some fucking heads and sail off into the sunset with her toddlers in her arms and a hold full of plundered goods, is a wish-fulfillment fantasy from hell. I offer her up on a silver platter with a fucking bow on top; I hope she amuses and delights." – Graham Feb 26 '18 at 12:05
  • yes I enjoyed that too - thank you for the link. His response definitely made me want to read his work! I certainly agree with him, why shouldn't a 30-something sinlge mother get her fantasy too?! – sezmeralda Feb 28 '18 at 17:09
  • @sezmeralda Scott Lynch is very much recommmended. Unfortunately he's also very late with his books! Personal problems (divorce and depression) wiped him out for a long time after his second book. Then after his third book he got married again, which took more time, and then basically it looks like he's spent the last 2 years touring conventions because he could get away with it. He's claimed it'll be out this year, but he claimed that in 2016 too, so who knows... – Graham Feb 28 '18 at 18:00

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