How to write strong male characters, or writing non-toxic heroes

Okay, that title is a tweak on all of the numerous blog posts I once read (and to be fair, wrote) about writing strong female characters. Remember those? Back a few years, you couldn’t swing a dead rat without knocking down a blog post on how to write a female character. I enjoyed those posts, not simply because what the authors were saying was true, but also because of the empowerment those essays gave to both the authors and the readers.

However, when I floated the idea on Twitter of writing a similar post about male characters, I was met with some snark, such as a recommendation to gender-flip everyone, or make all of the characters female. Frankly, the suggestion of gender-flipping the characters and suddenly all-is-well-with-the-world-and-bluebirds-sing as a solution tells me the individual in question hasn’t been around toxic women, which is another blog post altogether, but suffice to say that gender-flipping isn’t a cure and completely avoids the toxicity of some male characters.

Another individual advised me to write a gender-balanced novel, which tells me they haven’t read mine.

For the record: the male/female ratio from Where Oblivion Lives is 17 men and 15 women. This is a rough count from my style sheet and omits anyone who is/was an actual historical person.

With a bisexual protagonist married to his gay partner, I was highly conscious of the number of females and their roles as I wrote the story. Whenever possible, I made the supporting characters females in high-profile jobs (such as Sofia, who is the chief of Guillermo’s spy unit, and Carme, who is more badass than all the men put together) wherever and whenever possible. However, we’re not here to talk about them.

“Toxic Masculinity” and Why I Dislike the Term

The term “toxic masculinity” is mutable, depending on the time period, who is defining it, and whether it is the product of popular jargon or actual gender studies. No one denies that male violence and sexism are issues that need to be addressed on a cultural level; however, the cause of those issues aren’t necessarily masculinity. Men do not burst from the womb loathing women and fighting the other babies in the nursery. Misogyny and violence are learned behaviors, and one of the many places where men learn those toxic behaviors is by reading books with characters who make misogyny and violence an acceptable part of being male.

Also, I’m not here to lead a discussion in gender studies, because I’m not qualified for that. I’m a writer and we’re here to talk about writing characters that provide positive role models not just for young men, but also for young women. So rather than “toxic masculinity,” I’ll be talking about the toxic behavior we normally ascribe to men, and how I avoided making the men in my novels behave in ways that would make violence and misogyny seem appealing.

I gave the toxic behavioral traits of glorifying violence and power-structures to my antagonists, Jordi and Karl. They believe they are “destined for greatness,” and that by virtue of birthrights and poorly constructed ideals of male dominance, their place is assured. Stylistically, I approach these aspects of character through their actions and by what the other characters observe of Jordi’s and Karl’s behavior.

For example: we never go into Karl’s point-of-view, but we see him through Diago’s eyes as Diago walks through a drawing room, looking at pictures of Karl standing triumphantly over big game animals he has killed. Diago notes that “Karl likes killing things.” However, it’s not so much about killing as it is about Karl’s need for dominance over other creatures.

Does this mean that Guillermo and Miquel don’t possess toxic behaviors? No.

The difference between the Jordi/Karl and Guillermo/Miquel dynamic is that Jordi/Karl see nothing wrong with their behavior and make no efforts to change. Guillermo and Miquel, on the other hand, tend to listen when confronted about their behavior, and they do make sincere efforts to modify, not just their actions, but also the thought processes that lead to those actions, thereby making an active effort to break the cycle of toxicity.

WRITING nontoxic heroes

Is not as hard as it sounds; although it takes a lot more than just adding more women to the cast. The women have to be proactive and possess agency of their own, and the men need to respond to them as equals.

One of my favorite scenes from Where Oblivion Lives is the dinner scene, where Guillermo’s eight-year-old daughter, Ysabel, decides to make her stand for independence. Her mother, Juanita, is in full support of her daughter and coaches her from the sidelines. Guillermo’s behavior is toxic in that he wants to control the situation, and he uses manipulative means to do so. At the same time, this particular scene is the catalyst for some of the subsequent changes in Guillermo’s personality later on in the novel.

I’ve edited the scene down to its essential parts, but it all begins after dinner when Ysabel asks if she and Rafael and can go outside and play fútbol:

Guillermo traded a calculating look with Juanita. “I don’t see the harm in it.” Before Ysabel could move, he pointed at his jubilant daughter. “But it had better be fútbol and not that spy game you’ve started playing. No more of that. I don’t want you creeping around the compound listening under windows. Do you understand me?”

With her round face and thick auburn curls, she was an eight-year-old version of her father, right down to the way her face belied her guilt when caught flat-footed in a scheme. “How am I ever going to be a proper nefil if I don’t learn how to gather information?”

“If you want to be a proper nefil, you’ll follow orders and I’ve just given you one.”

Ysa showed no sign of letting the argument go, however. “You said you learned on the streets when you were younger than me.”

“That was a different time.”

“Not that different,” Juanita said.

Guillermo’s cheeks flushed pink. “Whose side are you on?”

As cool as her milk-pale skin, Juanita rested her chin on her hand and met her husband’s glare. “It’s not about sides. If she was a boy, you’d be complimenting her on her acumen.”

“That’s not fair,” Guillermo shot back. “I give my experienced female Guards the same respect and assignments as I do the males.”

Ysabel seized the opening. “How did they get their experience?” She didn’t give him a chance to answer. “By doing the work.”

“They weren’t eight years old.”

“I want to learn, Papá.”

Seeking to help his friend, Rafael said, “Ysa is really very good at it, Don Guillermo, and she is very careful.”

High praise indeed, given that Rafael spent his first six years on the streets. Nonetheless, Diago touched his son’s arm and whispered, “Be still.”

Guillermo ignored everyone but Ysabel. “This has nothing to do with your gender. You’re my daughter. If something happens to you, my heart will die.”

An appeal to the emotions. Nice save, Diago thought, taking mental notes in case Rafael developed a sudden interest in proving his value to the Inner Guard through espionage. Fortunately, his son seemed more intent on picking the almonds off his plate with his fingers.

Ysa stood her ground and retorted, “I’d be in a lot less danger with your guidance.”

And touché. Diago wondered what prompted her to challenge her father today. A quick glance at Juanita told him that whatever the reason, she supported Ysa’s cause, because she assessed her daughter’s attitude with the eye of a maestro watching her student deliver a master performance.

Juanita said, “She has your craving for knowledge, Guillermo, and she is ready to begin learning about the family business.”

Guillermo’s cheeks reddened again, but this time from chagrin rather than anger, because everyone at the table knew Juanita spoke the truth.

She continued, “Besides, she’s right: it’s better she work under your supervision rather than running amok on her own.”

* * *

Although I don’t actually state it, a couple of things can be noted from Guillermo’s behavior:

  1. He doesn’t immediately deny Ysabel’s request and send her to her room. The closest he comes to an ultimatum is “If you want to be a proper nefil, you’ll follow orders and I’ve just given you one.” However, he doesn’t cut her off when she continues the argument. This shows he does respect his daughter’s opinion as well as her personal autonomy.

  2. Nor does he treat her like a child. He tries to reason with her on an adult level, and even though he’s manipulative at one point, he knows in his heart of hearts that both of the women in his life are right. That much is evident from his actions. As much as he wants his little girl to stay a little girl forever, he recognizes the fact that she isn’t mortal and that he is going to have to eventually teach her the family business, ugly though it is.

As Guillermo’s character arc develops, we see him proactively working toward changing how he views his daughter and her place in Los Nefilim. Ysabel blossoms into a strong leader in the second novel, primarily because of her parents’ partnership and mutual respect for one another.

Any character (male or female) can certainly possess toxic behaviors—in this particular scene, it’s Guillermo wanting to be overprotective to the point of crippling Ysabel—but the key to making the character non-toxic is having them resist that impulse to lash out and exert dominance over others based on nothing more than the power dynamics of the relationship. Guillermo exhibits a willingness to listen, and subsequently, a willingness to change. These two points are what elevates him over his brother, Jordi.

GIve the toxicity to your antagonists

As the antagonist, Jordi and Karl exhibit the classic toxicity often associated with male characters. They are abusive, violent, and in their reasoning, the world belongs to them. They feel justified in their excesses. And I deliberately give them those characteristics, because by showing toxic behavior in all its ugliness, I have the chance to contrast the two types of men.

Why saddle THE WOMEN with the responsibility
of SHOWING MEN THEIR TOXICITY?

Parenting is a partnership, where the spouses play to one another’s strengths and weaknesses. In this case, it just happened to be Juanita nudging Guillermo in the right direction. Later on in the same novel, Miquel has his own ideas of how to raise Rafael, which Diago ignores, so it’s not about women but about spouses.

It also just so happened that I needed a character arc for Guillermo and the issue of Ysabel’s upbringing fit his personality perfectly while showing that men make good parents. Which brings me to my final point …

Words have power

… and our characters exist through our words, so they, too, have power. Writing a story requires being conscious of the world around us, but also of the world we want to see. In stories, we shape our worlds through our characters and their interactions, which often mirror our own. Fortunately, we don’t always have to show our readers the world as it is, but we can explore the world as we’d like to know it. Shifting the toxic behavior normally associated with men from the heroes to the antagonists gives us a chance to reshape our world.


WhereOblivionLives.jpg

Frohock has intricately woven a unique reinterpretation of history. Eloquent prose accompanies a lyrical theme amid prewar tensions, enriching this imaginative historical fantasy. –starred review, Publishers Weekly

Where Oblivion Lives is available at Scuppernong Books | HarperCollins | IndieBound. You can find links to Amazon and B&N at the HarperCollins link. If you're an audiobook fan, we've got you covered: the audiobook is narrated by the talented Vikas Adam and is available from Audible.

A few people have asked if you have to read the novellas first in order to enjoy Where Oblivion Lives. The answer is no, BUT if you want to read them, you can find the Los Nefilim omnibus at HarperCollins, as well as links to the individual novellas right here.

writing deaf characters

I don't often do "how to write" posts, because there are many other authors that do it so much better. However, I do notice that a lot of people are trying to more inclusive with representation in their stories, and I think that's a great thing. Writing inclusively means that the author gets the opportunity to learn about other people, which quite often leads to a more empathetic understanding of one another.

A lot of people will say "I'm not your Google." I rarely say that, because algorithms are based on a person's search history, and if someone is deft at wading through the mass of online information, this usually isn't a problem. However, given the number of "informative" faux sites that are little more than opinions disguised as information, I'm usually okay-dokey with pointing people to good resources.

Occupational hazard, I guess.

So if you're thinking of placing a deaf character in your stories, this might be the right post for you. I'll give you a few hints based on my own experience, which may or may not be the same as others. Hearing losses are variable and people have different coping mechanisms, depending on the type of loss that they experience.

As the author, you will have to spend time learning about hearing loss. You can do this by speaking to an audiologist. The reason I suggest an audiologist rather than someone who is deaf is because the audiologist will be able to give you a broad overview of the types of hearing loss, and how each different type affects the person's life. Once you know what kind of hearing loss you want to represent in your story, then is the time to contact an individual with that type of hearing loss.

Overview

What type of hearing loss does your character have? Is it conductive, sensorineural, or mixed? Each type of loss will affect hearing differently, and this, in turn, will affect your character's lifestyle and ability to communicate.

How badly does the hearing loss affect speech discrimination? Speech discrimination is quite simply an individual's ability to understand the spoken word. If your speech discrimination is one hundred percent, you can understand every word someone speaks. People with hearing loss will have a much lower percentage of speech discrimination and will have to make communication adjustments, which I will cover below.

What ranges can the person hear? Can your character hear high pitches, or only low tones? Knowing what they can hear will easily direct you to what they cannot hear.

So when you're writing a deaf character, you need to establish the individual's level of hearing from the beginning of the story. Even if you never tell the reader all of these things, the author must know how the deaf person will interact with the outside world.

For example: I have lost the higher ranges and can only hear a few of the lower pitches. So when I'm in a crowd, the noise is a lot like rushing water or a meaningless roar. Individual sounds are lost to me. Also, I don't know how it is for other deaf people, but quite often, I can't tell the direction of loud sounds. When out in the public, I am hyper-aware of my surroundings and other people, because I derive my cues from hearing people.

Communication

Lip reading. Some people tend to think that lip reading is easy. It's not. I do it exceptionally well, it's sort of like my superpower, because I've been lip reading since I was twelve. Not many people can lip read to perfection, or at least no one I know can do it. Hearing is as dependent on the brain as it is on the ears. Sound goes into the ears and the brain tells us how to interpret that sound.

Enunciation is the key. That, and it takes a lot of focus and energy on the deaf person's part. I have to associate a person's lip movement with the sounds that I can hear, and (going back to pitches and the tones I can hear) that will differ from one person to the next. Sometimes I can't understand someone at all until we've communicated for a few minutes. The longer they talk, the easier it is for me to connect their words with their lip movements. I may pick up 8% of the words being said and fill in the rest through context.

There are a lot of mental gymnastics that go into lip reading, and those can make a person tired. I have to take breaks during long conversations. Also during events like conventions, it's terribly difficult to go from one panel to another with no breaks. I tend to shut down in the evenings by reading books or writing, which doesn't require the same focus as communication.

Hearing aids and cochlear implants. Devices are great, and there are a great variety on the market today. Just remember: hearing aids are not hearing miracles. Hearing aids assist a deaf person by raising the sound level, and there are many different devices on the market today. Cochlear implants work in a completely different way. Some people use neither, others use a combination of hearing aid and implant. Again, this will vary depending on the type and range of hearing loss.

Sign language. Not everyone who is deaf understands sign language, and not everyone who understands sign language can understand sign language by people from other countries. Even in America, American Sign Language (ASL) will have regional variations. Black American Sign Language is a different dialect of ASL that developed during segregation. While the American Sign Language system is based on the French system imported to America by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and his French teacher, Laurent Clerc, it is not a universal language.

Body language. Deaf people are usually able to read body language much better than hearing people. Even from a distance, I can usually detect subtle forms of body language that can cue to me to the tone of a conversation between two people. That is why in my stories, you will find many references to my characters and their body language.

Sources

When searching for sources, look for .org websites. Here are two to start you off if you're in the U.S.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

National Association of the Deaf


WhereOblivionLives.jpg

Frohock has intricately woven a unique reinterpretation of history. Eloquent prose accompanies a lyrical theme amid prewar tensions, enriching this imaginative historical fantasy. –starred review, Publishers Weekly

Where Oblivion Lives is available at Scuppernong Books | HarperCollins | IndieBound. You can find links to Amazon and B&N at the HarperCollins link. If you're an audiobook fan, we've got you covered: the audiobook is narrated by the talented Vikas Adam and is available from Audible.

A few people have asked if you have to read the novellas first in order to enjoy Where Oblivion Lives. The answer is no, BUT if you want to read them, you can find the Los Nefilim omnibus at HarperCollins, as well as links to the individual novellas right here.

Fiction and Abandoned Children with a new introduction

I had a nightmare, wherein my husband drove us through Greensboro, and he was chatting about this one and that one and the things they had done. The weather was foul, full of wind and thunder. A tornado appeared four streets away from us and roared from west to east. Good backseat driver that I am, I tried to direct him into an empty lot, but more tornadoes were forming there. He indicated the tornadoes and asked if I wanted to die. I told him I wanted to feel safe, and then I awakened.

I suppose that is what we all want--to feel safe, especially when we feel like the world is collapsing all around us. A lot of people take that feeling for granted without realizing it. Abandoned children never do.

I’ve put off this post for a couple of reasons. The first is simply because it is a subject that can occasionally be painful to me. I keep it at a distance most of the time and try to view the past through an analytical lens. I keep perspective that way.

The other reason is because people tend to have very strong feelings on the issues of orphans and adoption. These strong feelings generally result in passionate arguments for or against … well, concepts, and not necessarily children. People dislike having their expectations challenged, and in some cases, feel guilty; although they have, in actuality, done nothing wrong.

Emotions are funny like that. Our brains tell us one thing, but our hearts say something different.

So today, I am going to talk about abandoned children–the perennial favorite of most authors–and these children’s special needs. As an adoptee, I am highly sensitive to themes of abandonment in both film and literature. The casual way in which abandonment is treated has always bothered me about a lot of the myths and stories I remember from my childhood. In these stories, the young hero is abandoned at an early age, but never suffers a single identity crisis. Complicated creatures like mothers and fathers are held at arm’s length, or cast into the shadow of the grave.

In real life an infant knows its mother’s smell and moods. Both the mother and father produce chemicals, such as oxytocin and vasopressin to name merely two, that help facilitate bonding with the newborn infant. Through the great cocktail of chemicals in the human body, all three–mother, father, and infant–nurture one another through sight, smell, and sound.

When an infant is permanently removed from her biological parents, the child is not only deprived of these beneficial chemicals, but stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are produced in greater quantity. Cortisol and adrenaline prepare the body for flight or fight in response to either psychological or physical danger. In some children further imbalances in serotonin and noradrenalin can reprogram the child’s brain to remain in a constant state of readiness. Combined, these imbalances can result in physical issues such as high blood pressure, easy startle response, and instantaneous explosive behavior–symptoms which are consistent with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Even when a child is transferred from an abusive environment into a loving home, the brain remembers, and the child perceives the world as an unsafe place. Children who have experienced early trauma also have attachment issues, suffer from the inability to focus, and possibly night terrors. They are impulsive and tend to exhibit defiance, aggression, and rage. In a subconscious effort to self-medicate, some of these children will become dependent on drugs and alcohol in adulthood.

Welcome to my world. Having experienced all of those things, I can assure you there is hope.

A nurturing environment coupled with parental patience and adults who are aware of the issues involved can mitigate many damaging experiences, but it takes time. In other words, while adoptive parents can’t magically wipe away the past, they can teach their children coping strategies that will enable the children to survive and sometimes thrive.

What does all of this have to do with writing science fiction and fantasy?

With my Los Nefilim series, I have two individuals who were abandoned at very early ages: Diago and his son, Rafael. Diago suffered tremendous abuse, and still deals with the fallout from his early childhood. Rafael, meanwhile, was abandoned at an earlier age and lived in an orphanage before Diago discovers him.

I didn’t need to research the effects of abandonment on either Diago or Rafael–personal experience was already under my belt. I did do some research into how to mitigate the effects of abandonment on children. By looking at the problems and solutions that the adoptive parents of Russian orphans placed in American homes experienced, I was able to see tactics that failed miserably and others who experienced success.

Apparently, in some cases, the adoptive parents weren’t prepared for the emotional issues of their children. They expected love and discipline would be enough. One example that remained with me was that of a young Russian boy who had been adopted by an affluent family. The mother and father tried everything in their power to do all of the things they, as parents, felt they should do. In other words, they employed the parenting tactics their parents had used on them. There was a schedule, and rules, and expectations for behavior, which the youth was unable to fulfill (and this is not to fault the family or the child–they did everything the doctors and psychologists told them to do).

Due to his own fears and abuse, the child could not meet these parental expectations. In frustration and fear, the child lashed out. The family became afraid and got in touch with the adoption agency. The agency placed the child in a different home.

The second couple had a lot of experience with abused children. They had a more relaxed regimen. For example, in his previous home, the youngster would want to eat all the time. Food deprivation in the orphanage was a factor in this behavior. The first adoptive mother wanted to establish regular meals that fit the family’s lifestyle. When the youth disobeyed her, she would, in turn, become frustrated, impose more restrictions, and this would only intensify the youth’s misbehavior.

In his new home, he was supposed to be present for meals, but if he wasn’t there was no retribution. As the family continued to sit down and eat at regular times, the youth eventually joined them. This took a great deal of time and patience on the new adoptive parents’ part, but as I said, they were used to dealing with abandoned children.

The difference between these two homes weren’t the difference between “good” parents and “bad” parents. The major difference was in the parents’ expectations and preparation for the child’s issues.

For adopted children, a perpetual cycle of questions remains lodged in the back of the adoptee’s mind like splinters in the subconscious. Who am I? Where do I belong? Are there people who look like me, think like me, somewhere else in the world? Will I know them if I see them? And, more importantly, will they know me?

All the while, I loved my adoptive parents, and my father especially went out of his way to say that I was loved. Even so, there was a constant tape playing in my heart that said: I’m not good enough to keep; no mother rejects her child unless something is wrong with it; if I want these people to keep me, I have to do better, be better; I’m not good enough, not good enough, not good enough …

Remember what I said earlier: our brains tell us one thing, but our hearts say something different.

A child’s brain may parrot the assurances of the adoptive parents and society as a whole, but the child’s heart bears a different pain, one they are not always able to articulate. Feelings aren’t rational–they are simply there, lurking within us and waiting for the right trigger to stimulate them into existence. Some adoptees eventually learn to reconcile the facts of their circumstances with their feelings, others may become swallowed by the world around them.

One of the reasons I loved Jessica Alba in Dark Angel (a science fiction series from 2000) was the adept manner in which both the writers and Alba handled the protagonist, Max Guevara, who was an genetically engineered super-soldier, but with a missing piece to her life … the mystery around her mother and her birth. They managed to convey the trauma of Guevara being separated from her mother at birth along with Guevara’s constant yearning to find her mother and the story of her beginning.

This is why I find stories with children who are spirited away from their parents into new circumstances hard to swallow at times. Infants don’t roll into the world as a blank slate. Our experiences in the womb are embedded in our psyches in order to prepare us for survival.

The child who is taken from her poverty stricken parents and raised by royalty doesn’t automatically adjust to these new circumstances flawlessly. The clash of parental attitudes versus the child’s hidden traumas don’t need to be explored in depth in every story, but a cursory acknowledgement of known behavior patterns between adults and adopted children are preferable to none at all.

To concede these issues exist by fairly representing them in our stories is the difference between … say … the adoptive parent who tries to modify her child’s special needs to her expectations and the parent who knows his son’s hunger is driven by fear. One is governed by the intellect, the other by the heart.

If you want the abandoned child in your story to be whole in body and spirit, march the head and the heart in tandem. Then do what every parent does: push your story into the world and hope for the best.

_____

This post originally appeared on SF Signal's Special Needs in Strange Worlds (January 20, 2016).

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.