Gender weighting in fiction

So, Andrea K Höst has a really interesting post up about gender in fiction, starting with a note about how, when in groups, men perceive that there are equal numbers of men and women in the room when in fact the group is comprised of 4/5 men, and so on.

She then describes her experience when she tried to weight PYRAMIDS OF LONDON the other way, putting in twice as many female characters as male. She was curious to see how the book would “read” to people who didn’t know what she was doing. I should add that she also deliberately exaggerated the potential effect by making a lot of current-day characters female and historical characters male. While that is interesting, and I gather readers are noticing, here is the most interesting bit of the post: “…in this book where I’d set out to achieve a 70/30 skew in favour of women, I created 82 female-presenting characters and 83 male-presenting characters.”

How about that?

Now, I personally do not think it’s necessary or even desirable for every single book out there have gender parity in its character list. It doesn’t bother me that LORD OF THE RINGS has so few female characters, any more than it bothers me that LOST GIRLS by Ann Kelly has essentially no on-stage male characters. There is room for books of both sorts and everything in between. What bothers me in any book ever, from the time it first dawned on me that this was a phenomenon, is when:

a) All the female characters are just there to be emotional idiots and have things explained to them by the competent manly hero. Gordon Dickson tended to be guilty of this, and he’s not the only one.

b) All the male characters are just there to be incompetent, selfish, or evil, thus making the female characters look great in comparison. Marion Zimmer Bradley tended to be guilty of this, and she’s not the only one.

That aside, it is of course just strange when an author fills his book up with ten million completely unimportant male characters while seeming to forget that that women exist, or at least to forget that women exist in-and-of-themselves, not just to be eye candy for men. Marie Brennen’s post, to which Andrea Höst links, is a very good analysis of one instance of this phenomenon and I definitely recommend you click through and read it.

Now! Having been inspired by Andrea’s count-em-up exercise, I couldn’t resist counting the male and female characters in one of my books just to see how close it came to gender parity.

But which?

Well, not BLACK DOG, because good heavens. Natividad, her (deceased) mother. Her deceased aunts, at least two. Keziah and Amira. DeAnn. Sheriff Pearson’s daughter, Cassie. An unnamed woman in Newport; an unnamed woman in the town of Lewis; and Grayson’s unnamed wife, deceased. Uh, am I out? That may be pretty close to the complete list. This is what happens when you set out to use modern werewolf tropes, because one of those tropes is not-a-lot-of-female-werewolves. Also, this story is rather tightly contained, with a smaller cast than most others. Anyway, not a good choice.

So I thought, shoot, I’d go right back to my first book. Especially because CITY is the shortest book I’ve ever written, making it easier to go through than, say, HOUSE OF SHADOWS.

Here we go:

Primary characters, male: Neill and Jonas.

Primary characters, female: Timou

Important secondary characters, male: Cassiel, Drustan (the king), Markos, Kapoen, Galef, and the Hunter.

Important secondary characters, female: Ellis (the queen), Lilianne

Moderately important secondary characters, male: Trevennen, Jesse

Moderately important secondary characters, female: Taene, Ness, Manet, Sime, Jenne, and Russe

Stopping here for a count of the important characters, we get 10 male and 9 female, for a pretty good approach to parity. This does require counting all of Timou’s friends. Some of them are more important than others, but it was hard to see where to draw the line. I think they each have enough of a distinct personality to count? It’s hard to be sure, though, and I expect others might draw the lines elsewhere. Anyway, moving on to less important characters:

Historical characters, named, male: Deserisien, the sorcerer. Irinore, a mage.

Historical characters, named, female: Simoure, a mage.

Unimportant characters with a speaking part, male: Renn, the magistrate, Manet’s father; Nerril, the apothecary, Taene’s father; the dark young man in the carriage.

Unimportant characters with a speaking part, female: Enith, the midwife; Taene’s mother; Anith and Erith, in the inn; the woman in the carriage.

Extremely unimportant characters, male: Ponns and Sebes and Esel (Cassiel’s friends); Nod; Chais (Taene’s young man); Pol (Manet’s young man); Tair (Taene’s brother); Ness’ father; Jenne’s father; Chais’ father; Nod’s brothers; the dyer; the dyer’s son; Jonas’ father (in memory); Jonas’ sergeant (in memory); Enith’s husband; a farmer; Pineu, an elderly servant.

Extremely unimportant characters, female: Sime’s mother, Nod’s mother, Ness’ mother, Nod’s sisters, Jonas’ mother (in memory).

Just part of the setting, male: Various courtiers. Various guardsmen. Galef’s lieutenant. Galef’s young guard who was burned by Lilianne. “A multitude of young men.” A dozen boys. A boy hanging off the back of a carriage. A young man in the village. Another young man in the village. Two servants. An attendant. The furniture-maker in the village. “Several young men.” The innkeeper. A man selling cakes.

Just part of the setting, female: Various court ladies. A woman. Another woman. A pair of women. A woman carrying towels. A young guard’s mother. “A scattering of ladies.”

Pausing again to count, we have about 24 lesser male characters and about 11 lesser female characters. And as part of the setting, we get about 15 times when male characters are part of the setting and about 7 times when female characters are part of the setting. So for less important characters and just in and around the world, this is the more apparently typical two to one count.

Figuring I probably missed a couple, that’s close to parity for important characters and about twice as many male as female characters in the background. Interesting! I really am tempted to count the characters in HOUSE OF SHADOWS just to see. All those sisters, plus all those keiso and deisa, I wonder if that one would come out with more minor named female characters than male?

I don’t know that I would ever sit down and attempt to bias the sex ratio in a particular way. I think I am probably too organic a writer for that. I would be afraid that if I thought too much about it, I would freeze up. But: very interesting experiment of Andrea Höst’s, and I hope she will compile statistics about reader reactions to PYRAMIDS and share them later.

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5 thoughts on “Gender weighting in fiction”

  1. Interesting. This isn’t something I’m terribly sensitive to myself, but I understand why it bothers people. And it’s true that I loved Barbara Hambly’s THE LADIES OF MANDRIGYN, the first fantasy I read where most of the important characters were women. (Ironically, the one important male character was my favorite, though I also liked Starhawk.)

    I’m right with you on stories of types a and b, though I think both were more of a problem back in the day than they are now. I seem to recall Craig suggesting that you not read THE CAVES OF STEEL for the sake of your blood pressure. (It’s a great classic SF mystery, but it has essentially no female characters except for a truly egregious example of type a.) It’s been years since I read the Darkover books, and I suspect they haven’t aged well, but I remember liking quite a few of MZB’s male characters (e.g., Regis, Danilo, Kennard, Damon, and of course the villain the author fell in love with, Dyan Ardais). However, when she was consciously trying to make a Very Important Feminist Point, she could be incredibly ham-fisted. I still remember my frustration when not one, but two of the supposedly intelligent, independent female characters in the Renunciates books voluntarily married the same jerk, who had no noticeable redeeming qualities. I guess “Don’t be an idiot and marry a jerk” is a valuable lesson for young women, but I don’t think that’s what MZB was going for.

  2. You haven’t yet read Karen Memory I guess. That is overwhelmingly female–Bear went out of her way to make it so. The result is very funny.

  3. Pete, you’re right! KAREN MEMORY is one of the many, many books I would like to get to this year . . . but probably won’t. When treating the text as . . . circular? That reminds me of “Time considered as a helix of semi-precious stones.”

  4. Yes I know it sounds strange. I was writing a computer program that for technical reasons was much simpler when running on a set of strings all of the same length. The classical way to do that is to pretend the text is circular. There is a classical data compression technique that dies this, called Wheelers algorithm. I was doing something related to create a phrase index.

  5. You’re reminding me very strongly of my brother-the-computer-guy. I also understand about 1/4 of what he says about computer stuff. At least I know what an algorithm is.

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