Women Write Romance, Men Write Manly Things

And here we go again.

A Redditor on r/fantasy asked the following question: Can women Writers write (non romance) epic fantasy?

To his credit, as with many of the people who have asked this question, he had a genuine desire to understand. So no bashing, BUT since this question keeps coming up over and over, I wanted a blog post so I could just copy/paste my answer henceforth. I made a couple of comments on his post, and I thought it might be nice to clean up my poor grammar and draw my comments together in a more coherent manner for future reference.

As I've stated before, I've noticed that this question has been introduced by both men AND women at various times in different forums, so I don't think this is a question posed by only male fans. For future reference, here is what I said:

If a woman is writing epic fantasy, she is not writing romance. The misconception about "romance in epic fantasy" stems from a misunderstanding of the tropes within romance novels and the tropes within epic fantasy.

Each of the genres follow different plot arcs.

If you want to understand how the tropes and plot arcs work in romance, please read this very insightful post by Ilona Andrews called Brief Analysis of Alphahole Trope in Romantic Fiction. While Ilona is speaking primarily to the trope of the alpha male, she does give an excellent overview of the plotting arc utilized when writing romance.

If you are reading epic fantasy, you will not experience the same plot arcs as a romance novel (i.e. girl meets boy, boy is asshole, asshole is redeemed, couple lives happily ever after--see Ilona's post for a much better description of how this works). Most often in fantasy, especially epic fantasy, the entire plot and characterization of the story are developed around an adventure of some kind. Fantasy is usually about the rise and fall of kingdoms, the slaying of monsters, and bringing myths to life. Therefore the plot and characterization of the story are developed in order to bring down kingdoms, slay monsters, or bring myths to life, and so on and so forth.

HOWEVER, the story, which is about bringing down kingdoms, slaying monsters, or bringing myths to life, will also involve characters. These characters will develop relationships of all kinds. Some will hate each other, others will tolerate one another, and some will even FALL IN LOVE.

This often comes as a shock to many people, but even epic fantasy by men has romantic elements involved in the story. I wrote about that with We Don't Need No Stinkin' Romance.

Romantic elements in epic fantasy novels written by men often experience romance through the male gaze, which is probably why male readers don't notice them as much as the romantic elements in a story written through the female gaze. Men and women focus on different aspects of one another while in a relationship.

The best way to contrast the issue is by looking at the difference in how sex is presented in a television show such as "Game of Thrones" vs. "Outlander." Take any sex scene in "Game of Thrones" and put it up against the wedding night scene in "Outlander." "Game of Thrones" is one hundred percent male gaze with the camera focused on the objectification of the female body whereas in the "Outlander" scene, the camera is focused entirely on Jamie, AND with a heavy emphasis on Claire leading Jamie through the act.

These same "camera shifts" are going on in novels through the perspectives of the main characters as seen through the author's eyes. Whether the focus is on "tits and dragons" (as Ian McShane so eloquently put it), or on the emotional aspect of the relationship, can sometimes depend on the gender of the author, but not always.

When I wrote "We Don't Need No Stinkin' Romance," there was a really nice discussion thread on r/fantasy about the post, and someone pointed out the difference in how men handled the romantic elements in their novels vs. how women wrote. From the male perspective, the fictional men weren't always taking the fictional women's feelings or desires into consideration. "Romance" was a matter of pursuit and conquest. This wasn't happening in all of the novels written by men, but by most.

Couple that with most people's built-in prejudices and misconceptions about romance being girly and icky (and when I was my late teens/early twenties, I thought that, too), and suddenly readers are seeing "romance novel" where none exists.

So it's not that women are writing more romance into their epic fantasy, or that romance is bad, it's that women are simply writing character interactions from a different perspective. It's still epic fantasy, and women authors deserve the same respect as their male peers for turning out quality stories with or without romantic elements.

An exclusive excerpt from "Love, Crystal and Stone"

As many of you know, I sold a short story to the Neverland’s Library Fantasy Anthology recently. The story, “Love, Crystal and Stone,” is a companion piece to my short story “Naked the Night Sings,” which appears in Manifesto: UF.

Although they’re sister stories, they are as different as night and day in tone. 

When I found out that Tad Williams had written the introduction to Neverland's Library Fantasy Anthology, I had a real fangirl moment and wanted to write something special. Short stories are fun because I can experiment with different techniques and styles without the time investment required by a novel. That is what I did with "Love, Crystal and Stone."

Whereas “Naked the Night Sings” has an urban fantasy/horror vibe, “Love, Crystal and Stone” is more of a traditional fantasy story. The story unwinds at a more leisurely pace and is a much more personal story to me. I'll talk about why in some future posts.

The theme of rediscovery was very interesting to me, and I considered it carefully before I began writing. One important aspect of rediscovery is that in order to rediscover a thing or a person, one must first experience loss.

Right now, there is an exclusive excerpt from "Love, Crystal and Stone" over at Fantasy Book Critic. I invite you to see how the story begins ...

epic or not, that is the question

When I wrote the review for Helen Lowe's Heir of Night last week, I started thinking about epic fantasy--what it is and what does it mean in relation to my own novels. I know fans and authors have a lot of definitions of "epic fantasy" but I just wanted a good literary description of "epic." In my search, I came across this:

"Epic" refers to long narrative poems portraying adventures. The adventures consist of episodes which contribute to the formation of a race or nation. The "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" are two folk epics attributed to Homer. Other examples of epics include "Beowulf," and "Mahabharata."

Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia; 1996, p324-324, 1/5p

If we remove "poem" from this definition and change the term to "story," then we have: "'Epic' refers to a story portraying adventures. The adventures consist of episodes which contribute to the formation of a race or nation."

Epic fantasy would then be a story that portrays adventures. The second portion of the definition is where we sometimes shift our focus from the people (or intelligent non-human race) to the world. World building can easily overshadow the human or racial elements of the story, depending on both the reader’s expectations and the author’s intent.

Everyone refers to Tolkien as the archetypal epic fantasy, and occasionally the discussion becomes so mired on the epic nature of the story and world building that people sometimes forget that Tolkien's characters shaped the story through their choices. Boromir's ambition overcame his better nature and he failed to make the right choice whereas Aragorn remained true to the Fellowship from beginning to end.

Tolkien spent a lot time on his characters' respective backgrounds and he did it for a reason--how an individual is brought up can very easily shape his or her nature. Aragorn lost his father when he was too young to remember him, but he was raised amongst the elves with Elrond as his adoptive father. He was surrounded with positive influences. That is not to say he was perfect. Aragorn was given to self-doubt, yet he always struck me as a humble character, one whose early misfortune was counterbalanced by Elrond's steadying influence.

Boromir, on the other hand, had a much different upbringing and personality. His father was a grim man. Boromir desired the trappings of a king rather than the more humble position of a steward. He craved honors and questioned the leadership of Gandalf and others within the company. Although his intentions were not evil, his behavior often placed the Fellowship at risk.

Here, it seems I've slipped off course, but not really. The fate of Frodo and the ring (and therefore the fate of Middle Earth) hinges on these two men and the decisions they make from the core of their integrity. To me, that is much more epic than the world building.

Another excellent example of relationships in an epic fantasy is Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon. Here, the relationships and decisions of Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar shape the course of Britain. The entire culture is affected by who wields the most influence over King Arthur. Yet Bradley keeps the focus of her work deeply attuned to the relationships between the women in Arthur’s court.


In both of these stories, and many more, the characters shape the course of the world through their decisions. For a very long time, I avoided using the word epic in regard to my own work, because I don't write about worlds--I write about people. Worlds bore me. People, on the other hand, hold an infinite number of possibilities. Our choices are more often based on emotion than we would like to admit. Allegiances can change on the spur of a moment, based on logic, impulse, and the proverbial gut feeling.

Is Miserere epic? In many ways it is. Rachael and John's choices influence Woerld's events. The course of the war with the Fallen depends on the choices that Rachael, John, and the other Seraphs make. Lucian switches his allegiance from the Citadel to his sister, then decides to switch his allegiance back to the Citadel. His decision changes the course of the war and shifts the balance of power, yet he changes his allegiance not for the good of Woerld but for very personal reasons.

Under this definition, Garden in Umber is much more epic than Miserere. Guillermo, Diago, and Miquel must overcome their pasts in order to shape the course of their world and ours; however, unlike Miserere, the ramifications of any decisions in Garden will have more immediate impact on the characters and their world. Since Garden is still on submission, that is all I can say about it right now, but even more so than Miserere, Garden falls within the definition of epic.

Epic fantasy is about how worlds and cultures are shaped, but only in the most peripheral sense. Epic fantasy is really very much about the people who shape those worlds.

Does this mean that all fantasy is epic? No. There is a great deal of breadth within the sub-genres that leave room for all types of fantasy, but epic fantasy is, in all probability, the best known.

One of the most wonderful aspects of epic fantasy is its many faces: some stories are the more traditional epics such as the ones written by Lowe and Brooks and others are of the darker* variety such as those of Martin and Lawrence. My work falls somewhere between the two extremes, but leans more toward dark fantasy than the more traditional versions. I avoid nihilism, because I simply am not nihilistic myself. Yet I don't shy from the hard facts, the terrible scenes, because to me, these are the quintessential moments that shape our lives.

It is only in our darkest moments that we find our true light, and I believe very much in redemption. Boromir recanted his failure to act nobly when he recounted his crime against Frodo to Aragorn. People can change, and those changes often do affect the course of nations. Likewise, an individual's decision not to change his or her behavior can also create turbulence not just in the personal realm, but in the greater world as Mark Lawrence shows us with Jorg.

Once upon time, I avoided the "epic" tag to my work for fear that people would mistake my novels for young adult forays into the genre. I don't feel that young adult novels are bad; however, I saw the negative feelings that YA readers had when they read my work. I don't want to misrepresent what I write. I certainly don't want people to read a book they won't enjoy.

My work is dark and sometimes borders on horror. My friend Peter Cooper once dubbed me with the tagline of "deliciously creepy" fantasy. I'll take that.

Drop your "epic" opinions into the comments if you like, or share them on Facebook, Twitter, or your own blog. I'm always interested in hearing your views on the subject. If you want to tell me why you think Miserere may or may not be epic, I'd love to hear your thoughts.


*I avoid the use of the terms "grimdark" and "gritty" fantasy. These two terms are meaningless.


a book exchange with Helen Lowe

After all that talk about gender over the last few posts, I thought I might introduce you to some authors that I know.

This past year, I met Helen Lowe on Twitter, and I have come to enjoy trading conversational tweets with her. Helen is the author The Heir of Night, which won the Gemmell Morningstar Award for Best Fantasy Newcomer in 2012.

Just before the holidays, Helen invited me to exchange novels with her as she did with Courtney Schafer and Elspeth Cooper. She sent me a copy of The Heir of Night, and I sent her a copy of Miserere so that we could get to know one another's works.

Thus far, I think I got the better end of this deal.

The best introduction to The Heir of Night comes from Helen herself. She talks about her exploration of the themes of good vs. evil in her post on John Scalzi's The Big Idea: Helen Lowe.

The blurb:

If Night falls, all fall . . .

In the far north of the world of Haarth lies the bitter mountain range known as the Wall of Night. Garrisoned by the Nine Houses of the Derai, the Wall is the final bastion between the peoples of Haarth and the Swarm of Dark—which the Derai have been fighting across worlds and time.

Malian, Heir to the House of Night, knows the history of her people: the unending war with the Darkswarm; the legendary heroes, blazing with long-lost power; the internal strife that has fractured the Derai's former strength. But now the Darkswarm is rising again, and Malian's destiny as Heir of Night is bound inextricably to both ancient legend and any future the Derai—or Haarth—may have.

The Heir of Night is the first book of the Wall of Night series, which is epic fantasy, a sub-genre that I don't normally gravitate toward; however, I want to challenge my reading habits in 2013 and try new novels and new authors. I never know when a novel will introduce to a new way of thinking or bring me back to a sub-genre that I drifted away from such as epic fantasy.

I've only had the opportunity to begin the novel, but Helen's prose is rich and dark and reminds me very much of a cross between Tad Williams and Gene Wolf.

Helen also graciously included a copy of The Gathering of the Lost, the second book in the Wall of Night series. Here is the blurb from The Gathering of the Lost:

Garrisoned by the Nine Houses of the Derai, the towering mountain range called the Wall of Night is all that separates the people of Haarth from the terrible Darkswarm.

Five years have passed since the Wall was breached and the Keep of Winds nearly overrun. Five years since the Heir of Night, Malian, and her friend and ally Kalan went missing in the wild lands of Jaransor.

Now, in Haarth's diverse southern realms, events are moving. From the wealthy River city of Ij to the isolated Emerian outpost of Normarch, rumors of dark forces and darker magics are growing. As the great Midsummer tournament at Caer Argent approaches, Haarth will have one opportunity to band together against an enemy in which few believe . . . or be lost forever.

When I've finished reading The Heir of Night, I'm going to ask Helen to join us for a talk about the Wall of Night series.

Meanwhile, stop by in the comments and tell me: how are you challenging your reading habits in 2013?