Women have proven they are just as capable as men when it comes to warfare, science, politics, education, the arts, and every other facet of human existence. Speculative fiction is finally catching up to that realization. We have moved beyond the clueless, scantily –clad bimbo in old space opera and sword & sorcery tropes. Women characters have much more potential than just sexualized treats for the fanboys. But what really makes their stories different, beyond the obvious?
Other than physical characteristics and hormones, the biggest difference between genders is a woman’s ability to carry a child to term. I’m not reducing women down to this single function, like so many ignorant men of the past (and unfortunately, the present). This is a fantastic ability women possess. Though a man fertilizes their egg, a woman does the rest of the work in carrying and birthing the child. The power of life is in their hands. That is why some men over the centuries have feared and hated women, making them second-class citizens—if citizens at all. This isn’t a tirade about how bad men are, or a ‘politically correct rant’ about feminism. I’m simply stating the truth. Men can never possess this power, no matter how hard they try. Now, place the fairer sex in a science fiction or fantasy story, where this power has even further implications. This adds more possibilities for conflict. For example:
Cloning and genetic engineering are staples of science fiction. So is the creation of artificial sentience, such as androids. Such things affect and even challenge a woman’s power to give birth. It is women who still have to bear cloned children (such as the gholas created from axlotl tanks in Frank Herbert’s Dune series—the ‘tanks’ were formerly women). Any genetic engineering is done before birth, perhaps even before conception, which can also affect the mother. With androids or artificial intelligence, the process of birth is completely bypassed, with ready-made entities stepping off an assembly line. This undermines feminine power to create human life, regardless of intended purpose.
Bloodlines and royal ascension are common in fantasy settings, with their focus on medieval politics and beliefs—such as male-dominated societies. Blood descent is considered important, often deciding who rules and who is a slave. Again, women hold the power here, for all children must come from them. From arranged marriages to the theft of a queen, men try to control this power. Akin to science fiction, fantasy also explores alternate routes of procreation, from demonic deals to empower one’s offspring, to a dash of elven blood granting a child special abilities. Golems, like androids, bypass the need of a woman to carry them to term, and thus remain a challenge as well.
Horror allows a writer to explore even more terrible avenues of fear when told from a woman’s perspective. Everything from losing one’s child to possession, to getting impregnated with a monster. As before, this ties into a woman’s power over life. She may lose it, or see it twisted by some dark force beyond her control. In the most brutal stories, a pregnant woman makes for an even more empathic victim, as two are suffering, not one.
Secondly, women express their emotions better than most men. This is more than mere cultural etiquette, where in our society it’s considered okay for a woman to cry, but not a man. I mean the things women want, what they think about, the connections they make to mundane things. This is going to be different than if I’m writing a male character. True, there are cultural and personal considerations—a hardened soldier isn’t going to shed a tear before her squad, whereas a bride-to-be in a Victorian novel might sob because she spilled her tea—but it will still be different. A woman need not be masculinized to be strong—strength comes in many forms, not the least of which is fortitude. So even if a woman isn’t toting a gun in each hand or cleaving a dragon’s neck, she can convey strength via personality and deed. The so-called ‘weaker’ sex is anything but.
Thirdly…why do I write these heroines into my stories? I tend to portray strong female leads who aren’t afraid of what the universe throws at them. Nothing new there, I know. Maybe it’s the extra power over life that women possess that raises the stakes. Maybe it’s an alternate take on reality, the same as writing from the perspective of an alien, a robot, a child, or a transgender person. Sometimes it’s because I like underdogs, and let’s face it, women have been consigned to that role much of our history. Even today, with controversies like Gamergate, assaults on abortion rights, and the continued maltreatment of women in poorer nations, women have it harder than men. Some guys will be offended by that statement, but the facts speak for themselves. That’s another reason why I write so many narratives with female protagonists—once that woman, with so many odds stacked against her, finally succeeds, then it is a victory not just for her, but our species as a whole. That’s the beauty of rendering a woman’s perspective in my fiction. It makes me examine the opposite sex in ways I might never have considered. Hopefully, so will my readers.
But I’m still learning. The only ones who can best write female characters are women authors. And to quote Joss Wheedon, when asked why he writes so many strong women into his stories: “Because you’re still asking me that question.”
That’s reason enough.