Article: Female protagonists in historical fantasy

In the wake of the discussions I’ve seen on women in fantasy, I figured I’d do a post of my own [1]. Mostly, it’s taken me so long to get to this because I wanted to order my thoughts.

I don’t write epic fantasy, but I write its close cousin, historical fantasy, and I thought I’d share a few thoughts about women in historical settings.

First off, the disclaimer: this applies to historical fantasy, or fantasy strongly inspired by a historical setting. And I’m supposing that you want to put women in it, possibly and preferably as main or strong characters.[2].

There’s a few things to be aware of before you attribute a role.

The first one is that not all women are born equal. Specifically (and this is true for men, but even worse for women), the higher up you go in society, the less likely it is that the woman will have freedom to move about, especially on her own. A sixteenth-century French princess, for instance, will have no, or very little say, on the matter of her own marriage: she’ll likely be auctioned off as a political alliance, and end up in a foreign country where she will be mostly isolated (to be sure, she’ll have the opportunity to form cabals, but compared to her male equivalent, the prince who will marry in his own country, her power and influence will be negligible). On the opposite end of the scale, very poor women will have a lot of individual freedom, but will not have even less influence on what happens around them.
Some layers of society, though, have much more independent women (I was thinking of the merchants in France and Flanders, but there are other fluid categories like this).

Another thing to take into account is that most cultures practise some degree of sexual segregation. Men are expected to remain within a men’s world, and the same goes of women. The most drastic example of this is the seraglio in the Ottoman Court, or the women’s quarters of the Forbidden City in Ancient China, where women were cloistered and lived their lives apart from most men.

But even without going to such extremes, you do have to take into account that, in order to be historically accurate, your men and your women cannot interact to the same degree as men and women do today. If you want to keep a mixed cast, you have a choice of either keeping separate strands of the narration, or twisting history a bit to make the women more active. A lot of historical novels take that latter choice (in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, some of the women’s parts feel a little more forceful than they should be given the time period–but they’re still awesome and excellent books).

There are easier choices of characters: some women can stand outside the norms of society. Generally, they’re from some religious order (abbesses and nuns from the Middle Ages, priestesses in the Aztec world), since most cultures set their religion in a separate hierarchy. Those women can reasonably have more freedom of movement, and can also transcend some of the ongoing sexual segregation–often by virtue of not being seen as women but as the representative of divine power.

OK, so far, I’ve been making one implicit but very important assumption: that you wanted to write a story in which you needed your characters to have the freedom to move around, to take control, and to take acts that have large, visible repercussions.

In other words, that you want women protagonists, but that you also want to tell a story in which the main roles should be filled by men (whether it’s a war story, a mystery, an epic or something else on the same lines). Because, let’s face it, if you want your characters to go out, battle monsters, solve murders, get into fights, sue for peace–then you want them to take on a role traditionally played by men.

There’s nothing wrong with that (and I’m all in favour of equality, though I’m a little worried that “equality” means that women take on men’s roles but that the reverse is by no means true–talk about cheapening the work of women…). But you have to be aware of this as you write. A lot of fiction today, and speculative fiction in particular, is derived from men’s narratives and men’s books. To be in control of one’s destiny, to go outside and fight for one’s country… Those are all roles that were traditionally taken by men, and that’s one of the reasons why so many of those narratives are filled with male main characters. (again, I strongly disagree with that tendency, but centuries of historical bias is one of the hardest things to shrug of)

But there are other kinds of stories. Romance; political intrigues; fights of influences from within a seraglio; the business of a household… Those have women in them; women as main characters, with men often playing a bit part. Yes, they’re much less used in speculative fiction, but that’s not a reason to discount them. [3]. They’re legitimate plots, and I personally don’t think we see enough of them in SF/fantasy.

In short, you have to be aware of one important thing: that a woman’s life and power in medieval settings were not at all like that of a man–but that this doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. And I think you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you ignored the other storytelling possibilities that exist, or dismissed them all as being somehow inferior.

My two cents. Of course, I could be wrong about all or part of this–what do you think?

[1]If you’re curious, you can find the other discussions here at Jim Hines’ blog, over at SFnovelists, courtesy of Marie Brennan, and over at Babel Clash, courtesy of Kate Elliott and Ken Scholes.
[2]Two notes before we start: the first is that I’m addressing the problems of putting women as protagonists in historical fantasy/fiction. If they’re not protagonists, that doesn’t mean that they’re invisible, and it also doesn’t mean that they have no personality. They’re characters like everyone else, and shouldn’t end up as cardboard.
The second is that if the setting is more than a hair askew from historical, the writer is responsible for everything that they make up–and if this doesn’t include strong female roles, it’s their choice and they’ll have to be prepared to defend it. This post isn’t an excuse to write women off entirely.
[3]Servant of the Underworld, of course, is a mystery, which means that its active cast (the investigators) are filling men’s shoes, and that the women almost all ended up as priestesses. “Golden Lilies”, by opposition, has an almost all-women female cast, but it’s also a very different story, with a smaller, much more intimate scale.


  1. Talking about women’s freedom, it is true that, for centuries, solely abbesses could travel about freely (without asking a man’s permission). Hildegard von Bingen’s records of journeys across Europe illustrate this point. Hildegard lived in Frederic the II’s time (AD 1200-something).

    On the other hand, period Fantasy books or, to use the official terms, epic poems like Torquato Tasso’s JERUSALEM DELIVERED or Lodovico Ariosto’s L’ORLANDO FURIOSO (both published in the sixteenth century, both immensely popular in their time and for centuries on) featured warrior women who behaved like men. In the past, authors felt at liberty to twist the truth and create strong female characters despite social limitations. Practically every culture possesses mythical figures of female women. So, unless our novel is strictly historical, fantasy tales can feature strong female characters–safely.

  2. Lol. I meant “female warriors” (bless this slow computer and its QWERTY keyboard)

  3. Oh, definitely. I’m mainly running against the problem of having strong female characters when the setting is meant to be strictly historical. Women warriors are indeed a strong trope in most cultures (they do tend to be aberrant offshoots rather than the norm, though).

    I knew abbesses had more freedom to move around; but I had no idea they were the only ones… Wow.

    Thanks for chiming in 🙂

  4. I think there’s a class thing going on too. Many of the female protagonists I read are upper-class women. You don’t read about many lower class people. That’s probably because many writers are probably lucky enough to have grown up in a middle class environment.

    I’ve written a couple of female characters inspired by my great-grandmother, who was an illiterate peasant during the Mexican Revolution, so those characters have been markedly different than a rich girl.

    What about prostitutes? I think they were often able to have more freedom of movement than other women in their society, and associated with a wide variety of men.

  5. There is definitely a class thing going on. Much of epic and historical fantasy are concerned with the actions of upper-class people (perhaps because the genre was originally written for the consumption of upper-class people first and foremost). Not so many working-class characters, I agree–there’s a gap there. (and I tend to think that working-class women were less constrained in their movements, though of course they had to scrabble for a living and the stakes which they faced were smaller–but no less vital).

    Good catch on prostitutes; I’d forgotten about them. They definitely were a segment of the population that associated with men on a regular basis without the strictures of marriage.
    Freedom of movement did depend on the culture, though: I know a lot of Chinese prostitutes were virtual prisoners of their brothel (it was sexual slavery, basically). Courtesans (as in higher-class prostitutes) are also a good example of women who had a modicum of freedom and power (and an enormous lot of influence, I’d guess).

  6. Also merchant women? Don’t know the right word in English (gods and services? customer service?). But for example in Tenochtitlan, Aztec women sold lots of food products at the market.

    Interestingly, some other professions also allowed women depending on the culture. For example I think it is in Malayasia that panning for certain gemstones is traditionally a female occupation. Cigar-makers were overwhelmingly female in Mexico.

  7. Great post. This is the kind of thing that people overlook, often quite unconsciously.

    On the Bayon in Angkor Thom there is a famous and really fantastic stretch of carvings depicting ordinary life in the time of the king who had it built (Jayavarman VII maybe? I can’t remember). Anyway, exactly as you say, upper class women are seen in set apart chambers isolated by curtains and stairs, while lower class (although I’m not sure “class” quite works in that context, but anyway I’ll let that go for now) women are out selling in the market. Chinese merchants who came to trade with the Khmer commonly married a local market woman so she could work the business with him. So the story goes, anyway. And the Chinese were kind of shocked by the freedom and in particular the sexual freedom held by the Khmer women, although it was still very much a patriarchal society.

  8. If you would like to write fiction with woman as a main character, the best historical period is, in my opinion, Ancient Greece. Women played there important role, not to mention that they were well-educated, especially if we talk about courtesans. I can not think of, right now, how many novels were written about them (Ms. Carey, AFAIR, wrote about a kind of courtesan), but I do not think so that courtesans are popular characters in historical fantasy…I don’t know why. In Greece they spied, killed, were in conspiracy against males being in power. In Rome, too. One emperor, as far as I remember it was Commodus, tried to murder his own mother many times, because she was a threat for his policy.

    Also, we might find some interesting facts about woman in the history of Great Britain, for example. During the Roman Invansion, Queen Boadicea, the last queen of the Celts, took over power and led her people to an uprising agaist the Romans, defeating the Empire in several battles, before she lost and died. In the 16th century, one female, Grace O’Malley, ruled British coast as a pirate queen, before she was taken in front of the Queen Elizabeth.

    Nevertheless, I admit that freedom of a female depended on a culture. However, even in China there were woman fighting (with fire and sword) against sexual discrimination and the rule of man.

  9. Silvia: I was definitely thinking of merchant women (and coincidentally, also of the Tenochtitlan marketplace sellers :-).

    That’s pretty interesting about women-specific professions–those would make very neat backgrounds for a majoritarily female cast, without being set in a harem.

  10. Thanks for chiming in, Kate! The problem is that it’s unconscious, I think, and that you never question the 21st-century that made you come up with the characters in the first place.

    I’m not surprised that the Chinese would be shocked by the freedom of Khmer women, since they were experts at confining their own women (bound feet being pretty devastating in that regard). Most medieval societies were patriarchal–which didn’t mean they granted the same amount of freedom to their women, I agree: lots of variability depending where and where you are.

  11. Jan, nice to see you here!
    Ancient Greece is a pretty cool period, though it does depend a lot on where you were. My memories of Antiquity are a little rusty, but Sparta was pretty equalitarian, gender-wise (even if it mostly consisted of making everyone equally miserable).

    Roman women, especially of high rank, could definitely be very frightening, even though Rome didn’t even grant them legal existence. I don’t know about Commodus, but Nero certainly tried to murder his mother several times (and finally succeeded, though he ended under the sway of another woman).

    Courtesans are great characters; I’ve seen some of them in fantasies, but not as much as I’d expect who were also main characters (belay that: I have seen a bunch of them, but not so many that were well-done as a character).

    >However, even in China there were woman fighting (with fire and sword) against sexual discrimination and the rule of man.
    Oh, definitely, though I should think they were more uncommon. There’s nothing against having a female warrior if you’re perfectly aware that she’s extraordinary; however, if you put twenty of them in the same story, then you’re in a little more trouble… That’s mostly what gets me with some historicals: it’s not unlikely characters, it’s the profusion of them combined with blithe unawareness that they don’t fit in the expected norms of the society.

  12. Just popped in;).

    Ah, yes, Nero, not Commodus, sorry.

    He even tried to sunk his mother’s ship, when she was abroad, but finally was forced to send troops, in order to kill her, because she’d survived earlier several assasination attempts. As for Sparta – Athens were even more female-friendly. In fact, if you were a courtesan, you had a privilage of learning in the best schools, with the best scholars available. I digress: there was a famous political trial of a courtesan called Fryne. Her “barrister” torned up Fryne’s clothes in front of the judge and asked, whether such a beautiful woman could be guilty or not…and he won the case. A year ago, one Polish author wrote a wonderful historical fantasy about Fryne. The Roman Empire, however, wasn’t as friendly for females as Greece. The legal system in Rome was patriarchal, indeed.

    Speaking of fantasies: well-done female character was in “The Lions of Al-Rassan”.

    by the way – there’s a great book about a role of a medieval female (don’t know the English title, so I’m posting the French one), La femme au temps des cathédrales, written by Régine Pernoud. Good stuff, too!

  13. Yeah, I remember that story, which made for very entertaining reading when I was a kid. She must have been quite a formidable person, too. I hadn’t heard of Fryne–should check her out, thanks!
    I looove “Lions of Al-Rassan”–one of my favorite books ever. It’s got everything: neat worldbuilding, neat characters and awesome language. Kay’s female characters tend to be pretty good, too, and Jehane is definitely as strong as they come.

    I don’t write much medieval stuff, but the Régine Pernoud book does sound interesting. Maybe I can find it at the library…

  14. Ah, sorry, I accidentaly wrote Polish version of her name. Please, check the English one:

  15. Fascinating stuff… Thanks! (I had seen one of the paintings she inspired in my art history course, but hadn’t realised it was of her).

  16. # A lot of fiction today, and
    # speculative fiction in particular,
    # is derived from men’s narratives
    # and men’s books. To be in control
    # of one’s destiny, to go outside and
    # fight for one’s country… Those are
    # all roles that were traditionally
    # taken by men,

    Are they, or are they the roles of gods and monsters?

    What I mean by this is that most of the history is written about, and by, high-class men. The majority of men are almost as powerless as the women. They do not have control of their own destiny. Birmingham, where I’ve long lived, was famous as a place that, if you could get to it, you could become a ‘freeman’, which implies you were something else before. (I’m not sure when this was, I’d have to go back and talk to people who knew more about this than me. Is suspect it was something set up after the plague, because the plague actually improved the lot of those who survived it, because labour was so scarce that they had greater bargining power, at least in Britain).

    Also, not everyone who had to go and fight for their king and country actually wanted to do that. The most well-known case is that of the men press-ganged into the navy.

    In comparatively recent times (before the Plimsol line laws, so early 19th century i think men were sent to sea aboard ships that were known to be unsafe, radically unsafe, but if they refused to board severe penalties were levelled against them. These ‘coffin ships’ were often insured for more than they were worth, so the ship-owner had a vested interest in having the ship sink. And if the crew were lost with it, well, there were plenty more where they came from.

    We don’t judge the lives of historical women by the standard of Elizabeth, Cleopatra, Boudiccia or Catherine the Great, but it seems to me that we judge men by the standards of Alexander and Caesar. In the future I’m sure they’ll assume that most men lived lives like Gates and Jobs, because those will be the people who’ll get into the history books, and in the absence of other information what are people supposed to think of how the majority of people lived (most people seem to think that in the middle ages everyone lived in castles, after all).

    I suspect the men still had things better than the women but I think we are rather ignorant of what their lives were really like, and I don’t think they were anything like as free and in control of their lives as everyone seems to think.

    Very few of the narratives that we have are of the average man, who couldn’t even hunt in the forest because the Norman kings had declared the forests their property. We have narratives of kings and conquerors, but they were a tiny minority of the male population, many of whom were, in one sense or another, slaves.

    Perhaps the stories of their lives are overlooked because they wouldn’t make fun reading?


  17. # To be in control of one’s destiny,
    # to go outside and fight for one’s
    # country… Those are all roles that
    # were traditionally taken by men, and
    # that’s one of the reasons why so many
    # of those narratives are filled with
    # male main characters.

    One the other hand though, history is very holey (I mean it’s full of holes, not divinely inspired). Consider the plague. You could set a story during that, and have any societal rules and norms completely overturned because so many people have died. There must be numerous other ‘disasters’ in world history that would allow female characters to break out of the bonds of society and take charge (and no-one was writing down much history to argue with you).

    Thus, even in societies that historically allowed women little movement or control over their lives, a sufficiently disruptive even will allow resourceful women to assume important roles.

    Upper class women generally pop up in unexpected roles in times of warfare:

    (Listed WP links for women like Caterina_Sforza, Khutulun, etc, but spam protection wouldn’t let me post them)

    Quite often women took up the reigns of power because their kingly husbands were off to the crusades or some other project.

    For lower class women, as you note, the choices were even wider, though the chance to exert ‘real power’ was surely less.
    Most of what happened in the lower social classes wasn’t written down, and this affords a lot of room to write in whatever you like. We all know there were female pirates, but we more rarely hear of highwaywomen, though they did exist. The secretive nature of the criminal world is something of a gift to the writer, as the code of silence ensures there’s plenty of historical wiggle-room for all types of characters.

    I’m not disagreeing with anything you say above, I’m just saying it’s not all doom and gloom for someone who wants to write historical female protagonists, there’s a lot more freedom of movement within the historical record than one might think.


  18. My historical speciality is Ancient Rome, and for people wanting to write historical fantasy with some different (though equally problematic) challenges & roles for women, it’s a great period to look at. There were certainly a lot of double standards and social restrictions on women, but many of them are quite different from what is expected because it is a pre-Christian society.

    I often get quite frustrated at the portrayal of Ancient Roman women in fiction because of the way they are so often conflated with Ancient Greek women, many of whom were literally housebound. Roman women of lower classes worked and moved around freely; some Roman women of upper classes were able to travel or exert some degrees of power, particularly in the religious sphere.

    I do think you have a very good point that one of the best ways to write “strong,” active women in historical fantasy is to tell stories of intrigue, social politics etc. rather than what is traditionally thought of as the male sphere: religion and public politics, in which only a handful of quite exceptional women got to play the game.

    But then, I love intrigue fantasy!

  19. Tansy: thank you for dropping in!

    There were certainly a lot of double standards and social restrictions on women, but many of them are quite different from what is expected because it is a pre-Christian society.
    Definitely! My area of knowledge is more Ancient China/Ancient Vietnam, but they also have very different roles for women (which isn’t to say that women didn’t get the short end of the stick, but the axes of oppression are very different). And the amusing bit is the different conceptions of masculinity: manly heroes weep tears, and the highest ideal for a man in Confucian society wasn’t the warrior but the scholar–very different attitudes. Did Roman society have a different conception of males/females, or did much of that translate over into Christianity?

    I love intrigue fantasy too! And I’m with you–we need more stories in the female sphere, if only to remind people that it existed and is worth covering…

  20. Don’t get me started! So much to talk about.

    The Romans had some very different ideas about sexuality & masculinity/femininity.

    Their male ideals revolved almost entirely around war and the military – a man who couldn’t handle a sword well was at a huge disadvantage in later political life, and all men of the upper class were expected to be soldiers in their youth, and politicians in their middle to old age. Anything foreign was seen as suspiciously unmanly, especially clothes and styles from Egypt, Asia and so on. M/M sex, on the other hand, was seen as incredibly manly, as long as you were the more ‘active’ partner, and the older man in the couple.

    Meanwhile, the Roman ideal for a woman was based around several legendary matronae – respectable married women who were examples of great stoicism, intelligence and ruthlessness. Many famous Roman men used the good reputations of their mothers to bolster their own PR – in exceptional cases, a really AWESOME mother could redeem the reputation of a traitor or revolutionary.

    A woman’s greatest achievement, as you might guess from all this, was to be a wife but especially mother – there were special honorific words to describe a woman who had only had one husband (at a time when divorce was easy and casual) and a woman who bore three children received special social and legal benefits.

    Julius Caesar’s father died when he was very young and his mother’s role in educating him and forming his character is integral to his history – though sadly the best compliment they could come up with was that she was as tough as a man.

    Meanwhile, the Romans invented the word ‘virago’ to describe women who involved themselves in overly manly pursuits as war and the military, so they had their own double standards!

  21. Oooh, that’s fascinating. Thanks for sharing! (and sorry for the delay, got a bit caught in a rush)

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