Treatment of Female Characters by Male Writers of Historical Fiction

Mary Magdalene by Georges de La Tour (Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Mary Magdalene by Georges de La Tour (Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

I’ve been thinking about the subject of this post for quite some time now, and I’m hoping that all of you can offer some recommendations. You see, I’ve really been trying to diversify my historical fiction reading by including books written by men. After all, if I preach about female equality, I should exhibit equality in my own reading, right?

Here’s the problem: I can’t find any male historical fiction authors I like. (Tyler, I haven’t read your book yet, so I’m not including you in that statement.) I’ve tried a variety of male authors (whom I won’t name out of respect for them and those who like their books), and my dislike of their work boils down to one of two things:

  1. I don’t really go for military history, so that rules out a lot of male authors who concentrate on that part of history.
  2. Out of the stories I’ve read, nearly all portray women in a negative light.

I’d like to focus on that second point for a moment. The stories that I’m referring to at best treat their female characters as afterthoughts, cardboard props to fawn over their male heroes (my what a big sword you have), and at worst (and more commonly) portray them as prostitutes and/or victims of the male characters. I’ve read the female-character-as-prostitute trope so many times in male authored books that I wonder if I need to write a book called,”Healers, Mothers, Craftswomen and Estate Managers: Other Roles to Give Your Female Characters.” A prostitute can serve a very important role as one who has access to all sorts of information from a variety of types of men, and who can slip in and out of both the respectable areas and the underworld, so I can see why giving that profession to a character could be useful. But that’s not generally how I’ve seen her used in books written by men. Many times, the prostitutes serve no real purpose to the story other than to give the male characters someone to physically and sexually abuse, often graphically. It’s as if the scenes are some sick fantasy of the author (which I hope they are not),  they think this is how readers expect women to be portrayed in history, or maybe it’s just lazy writing. (See my friend Shauna Granger’s post on sexual violence as lazy writing.)

There is no faster way to sour a book than to abuse a woman or an animal for no reason (and rarely is there a good reason). There is one male author in particular who is wildly successful, and whose book I enjoyed immensely until there were multiple gratuitous scenes of abuse of women and animals. I think he was trying to show how sick and twisted one of the male villains was, but I can think of at least a dozen ways that could be done that wouldn’t have involved such needless violence. (Not that I’m saying that I’m a better writer, just that there are other options.)

I realize that throughout most of history, women had little power. But that is no excuse for continuing to reinforce the woman as victim trope. Yes, women were (and still are) brutalized, raped and murdered as part of war or even just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. If this is important to the plot and accurate to the time period, by all means it should be included. (One of my books has a fairly lengthy section where the main female character is raped and tortured, but it is traditional to the mythology and serves a larger purpose in the overall plot.) What I have trouble accepting is when such things are used without apparent purpose or just because the author can.

Sometimes I wonder if this portrayal of women is due in part to the gender roles people were raised with. Boys are supposed to like war and fighting and girls are supposed to care about relationships and love, therefore that’s what we focus on when we write. (Although there are a few female military history novelists whom I’ve heard are very good.) It’s also possible that men may feel the need to show how macho or heroic their male leads are by making the females look or be subservient by comparison. Another possibility is our schooling and popular history has enforced the “male as hero, woman as servant role” and these authors are just repeating what they know. However, we live in an age where contrary information (biographies of female leaders, studies of historical gender roles, especially women’s) is easily accessible if one looks, so the latter should no longer be an excuse. Actually, none of these should be valid excuses.

In a world where both boys and girls, adults and children can enjoy the exploits of a boy wizard called Harry Potter (written by woman), shouldn’t it be realistic to expect that as a woman, I can enjoy historical fiction written by a man without feeling the need to defend my entire gender afterwords?

I’m sure this does not represent all male historical fiction authors and that’s why I even brought it up. Please tell me in the comments if you’ve read and/or can recommend non-military historical fiction written by men that has some well-rounded female characters. I would love to be able to write a follow-up post declaring that I’ve found a few I like.

PS – I also realize some female authors are guilty of doing the same things with their characters. But I’ve been able to find plenty who aren’t, which has not been my experience with male authors.

8 thoughts on “Treatment of Female Characters by Male Writers of Historical Fiction

  1. Bravo for this post!! I’ve been considering the same thing lately. I haven’t read many male-written historical fiction. I’ve tried, but encountered the same issues. I can’t wait to see if there are any recommendations given because I’m looking!

  2. Thanks for not including me among the historical male writers you dislike. That said, you make a good point. The male historical writers I was going to recommend upon further though don’t treat women too well. If I think of any, though, I’ll let you know. – Tyler

    • Please do, Tyler. And I promise to get to your book soon. I ended up writing one more book this year than I planned, so my fiction time was reduced dramatically.

  3. It’s been a long while since I picked up a book from this series, so I can only hope it fits your criteria to some extent…

    The Skystone by Jack Whyte (book 1 in the Camulod Chronicles) starts with the establishment of a settlement on the British Isles by a retired Roman soldier at the cusp of the fall of the Roman empire. This is a historical fiction take on the Arthurian legend, sans any supernatural elements, and it starts well before even the birth of Uther Pendragon–you don’t get to that time until book 3 or 4. There is some military focus in the early chapters, but then it shifts focus to the planning and building of the settlement, establishing relations with the locals, and such. The women in this story are respected and considered equals in the leadership of this new community.

    The main hesitation I have is that it’s primarily written from and about the male perspective, so while the women in the story are respected, and (as far as I recall) respectfully portrayed, they may not be prominent enough. Maybe take a look at the Goodreads reviews (assuming you aren’t already familiar with the books) and see if there are any thoughts about the portrayal of women in it.

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