Does Your Character Need A Penis?

Gender Equality in Fiction: Dear Author, Does Your Character ‘Need’ A Penis?

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Gender Equality in Fiction
Image By Rebecca Angel

A priest, a heterosexual female’s fantasy, a rabbi, and a rapist walk into your story…

Those are the only instances I could think of where the character needs a penis. Yet, even then it’s not 100%. If you need a character that is from a holy order, there are many religions that have women leaders, or are secretly female. Although there are waaaay more male rapists, that doesn’t mean women are incapable of sexual assault (though I would ask any author to seriously consider why having sexual assault is necessary for their plot.) The heterosexual female fantasy is a little more strict since penises are well-loved by straight women. But not all of them, and in the growing recognition of sexual fluidity, it really depends on your particular character’s desires. Gender equality shouldn’t be difficult.

There is a lack of female characters in tales told. As Flight of the Conchords so eloquently put it:

Too many men
Too many boys
Too many misters
Not enough sisters
Too much time on, too many hands
Not enough ladies, too many mans

My issue is not with memoir or non-fiction, which could also be argued to have too many penises to reflect the reality they claim to portray. No, today, I’m talking about fiction, and my favorite genres are fantasy and science-fiction, the place where world building comes from the imagination, and the creator has complete control. Women are poorly represented, authors! Gender equality fails in all mediums. Most statistics only keep track of protagonists, which are still predominantly male from  TV, to movies, and books too, though that number has one flip in YA. 

Lately I’m noticing ALL THE CHARACTERS.  In a 2011 study, it sadly proved the huge gender imbalance in children’s literature. And most popular fiction has a disproportionate amount of male characters, even when the consumers are gender equal. It’s only gotten worse. In books, women were more equally represented over a century ago. And to pour salt on my very girly heart, there are plenty of stories that have all men and no women, but not the reverse. TV and movies aren’t much better. In a well-done study, speaking lines were analyzed, which showed that even when the protagonist is female, men still did most of the talking. What an odd world. How limiting.

I review books and have started to keep a tally of the male/female speaking character ratio. Background gender equality matters as well, but I decided to focus on characters that have an influence in the plot. Keeping a tally changes the way I respect an author and how they obviously see women as background objects or equal humans. I recently read A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E.Schwab, which is a compelling yarn, but as I said in my review:

“9:23 female to male speaking characters, about 28%. Schwab is a female author which makes this number worse. Of the measly number of females that have a line, only two are main characters. Both of them are noted to wear pants to feel ‘powerful’, and one is a counterpart to her twin brother. In fiction, and especially fantasy, there is no excuse to keep women from being more present and powerful AS women.”

This has proven to be pretty typical percentage. Do authors live in a world where at least 70% of the people they interact with are male? Some authors might, but most of them? I don’t think so. The problem is authors limiting themselves by playing to the default and not noticing. In fact, when women are represented 50/50 equally anywhere in society, people guess that ratio to be too many women.

Why is so much effort required to justify girls’ existence? You can point to specific cool characters that are female in many works of literature and screen, but I’m talking percents. In Tolkien’s world, for example, only 18% were female and that’s mostly from the histories where the named women are only mentioned because they gave birth. Keeping tally also brings kudos to those authors who make a noticeable effort in keeping it 50/50, like Neal Shusterman, who said he keeps track.

“So what?”, you, author whose stories I am less likely to buy, say, “this is fiction. I can do whatever I want.” Our human population is 51% female. Yes, in fiction you can play with that number, but to have a believable world, too many men is unsustainable as some modern cultures are finding out. Those countries are contending with a real crises of too many penises due to cultural bias. Why should your story suffer the same fate?

To those who think gender equality will completely ruin the story, I give you examples. I asked some friends to help compile a short list of supporting character types that are typically male and examples from stories where they are female. The stories come from a mix of male or female protagonists. I was thrilled at the deluge response, but decided to keep the list short for easy reader purposes. Many characters fulfill multiple roles. Now read/watch these and be inspired:

No-nonsense boss/chief/ruler: Lin Beifong chief of police from Legend of Korra. Elaine Crocker, head of the CIA in Spy. Seraphina Picquery, the President in Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. Princess Leia in Star Wars.

Sidekick/ sibling/friend/partner: Hermione in Harry Potter.  Karrin Murphy in The Dresden Files. Daphne in Nation. Hitgirl from Kickass. Zoe in Firefly. Lisa in The Simpsons. Elli Quinn from the Vorkosigan series.

Mentor/Guide/Guru/Trainer:  The Ancient One in Dr. Strange. Dax in Deep Space Nine.  Lady of the Lake in Aurthurian Legends. The Adem in The Name of the Wind. Grandmother Tala in Moana. Siri.

Formidable opponent: Scythe Rand in Scythe. Mura in The Nameless City. Borg Leader in Star Trek. Angel Dust in Deadpool (movie). Winnowill from Elfquest. Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Grandmother in The Green Rider series. 

Comic relief: Suzy in The Keys to the Kingdom. Jillian Holtzmann from Ghostbusters (2016). Willow and Anya from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Tilly from Star Trek: Discovery. Darcy from Thor.

Notice how I didn’t have “romantic interest” as one of these categories. This is because any of these roles can ALSO be romantic. If you start thinking of your women as people that have lives beyond sex, your world-building skills will have increased by 51% exactly! Gender equality is not about silencing men, but listening to women just as much.

Stories are an interesting kind of magic. They don’t just reflect culture, but create it. If a story has enough girls beyond romantic interests then we believe girls and boys can be partners in all aspects of life. If the main character works for a powerful female then we see the normalcy of this fact and the possibility in our world. If the hero is helped by a female shopkeeper, gives money to a female beggar, laughs with a hilarious female friend, battles a kick-ass female guard, and is guided by a female mentor, then the girls reading the story have many roles to put themselves into and the boys reading will expand their world view. There are so many wins.

Here are a few tips to get your world populated with at least 50% female speaking characters:

  1. Notice the women in your own life now. How many men or women do you directly interact from family to bank tellers to social media (if gender is stated). What are the different roles women have taken in your life from the past?
  2. When just beginning, keep a character name list. As you start adding characters to your tale, keep it equal. Don’t make it a big deal. Don’t write in some weird reason why the woman is in the position or situation unless it is crucial to the plot or main character’s development. (And since I have your attention, like men, women come in all ages and body shapes.)
  3. If you have main characters that you have dreamed about and in love with for ten years and they are all male, then look to the side characters for diversity in gender. It’s better than nothing.
  4. Do a fun exercise and switch all the genders. If your story has way too many females now, ask yourself why. Think about the stories you grew up with that have inspired you. Were there many females in it? Would it have ruined it for you if there were? Why or why not? Challenge yourself in your own fictional universe. Expand your creative muscles. See a wider perspective.
  5. If you’re finished with your novel: reread it and keep a tally of all male and female speaking characters. If it is less than 50% female, make a pledge to up that percentage by 5% next time. More the next, and next.
  6. If you are in a writer’s group, start paying attention to other people’s female/male character ratio. Point it out. You don’t have to be a jerk about it, just notice. Sometimes people don’t realize how we choose males as the default for populating a world.
  7. Point out to your agent and publisher when you have more than 30% female speaking characters. Have them make this a selling point. Be proud of it. Mention it at all your talks and interviews. Be the cool trendsetter.
  8. Let me know when you publish your book with gender equality. I promise I’ll review it with much attention to that detail 🙂


Thanks to my Facebook peeps for suggestions on cool, supporting female characters! If anyone has more to bring to our attention, comment!

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