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.
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.