Sci fi/fantasy authors S.L. Huang, V.E. Schwab, Charlie Jane Anders and Seth Dickinson joined in conversation with Kaila Stern of the Mary Sue at Book Con 2018. They talked about strong female characters, odious sexist tropes, and what’s needed to change the power dynamic in the entertainment world. Read highlights from their conversation below:
On Their Least Favorite Tropes:
Charlie Jane Anders: “For me it’s like the Lego Movie thing. There’s the woman who’s more competent than the man, she’s smarter, she knows everything, she’s a badass, she can get out of any situation until roughly like the last quarter of the movie where she just falls to pieces or loses all of her ability and suddenly the hero is the only one who can do anything. And suddenly he’s the badass and she’s just like “Oh I suddenly forgot how to be a badass.” It’s like in order to have the hero level up, she has to level down. And really, fuck that.”
(Ed note: This trope makes us furious too.)
Seth Dickinson: “Ratatouille [is] about a young boy … And he becomes the chef at a five star restaurant by ignoring all the advice given to him by the only woman in the kitchen who talks about how she’s had to work super hard to get in this chauvinistic industry to where she is, in favor of the advice given to him by a rat. I hate that movie so much.”
V.E. Schwab: “My least favorite trope is “Fridging.” … It’s a woman, almost always a woman, where the main character, who’s always a man, has someone he loves dearly, killed in order to give him emotional depth, motivation… anything that he might need. … I’m a huge fan of Deadpool, but Deadpool fridged… sorry about the spoilers but fridging does not deserve to be kept a secret. It’s lazy. What you’re saying is that the female character is of more use to the story dead.”
S.L. Huang: “I purposely wrote my female character in this book to be the jerk antihero woman. She kills too many people to be strictly polite. That was very much a reaction to that trope [of the selfish male antihero]. All of my novels really I’m writing reactions to tropes. … [V.E. Schwab] was talking about fridging earlier. In the sequel to this, a male character says something that happened to her is all about his pain, and she punches him in the face.”
On selfishness in female characters:
VE Schwab said in the past that her “female characters are the Lannisters and the Slytherins, and [her] male characters are all Hufflepuff with just a touch of Gryffindor.”
V.E. Schwab: Historically when women are given power they have to be willing to sacrifice it for the greater good or for something else. So it’s this level of self interest female characters are allowed that’s so important. It’s like the women not only want something they’re willing to get it and not just give it away for someone else. You have to sacrifice yourself just to save the world. When I was 16 I would have sacrificed the world just to be happy. … They’re allowed to be that whole range of moral grey.
On Personal Growth as Feminist Authors:
V.E. Schwab: “[My novel Vicious] … is an aggressively male book. The two main characters are male, it’s about their toxic masculinity obsession. And there are two very strong female characters who are definitely treated as secondary characters. … And I said in the last panel that books are said as meant to be, but hopefully as authors we continue to grow. It’s interesting to be publishing Ventral five years later because Ventral is very much a conversational reaction to my own work. So as Vicious is about the ways men seize power and control the world, Ventral is about the ways women are stripped of and retake their power in the world. It is the sort of two pieces which I hope will be in dialogue with each other.”
Seth Dickinson: “There’s an entire plot thread in [these books] that’s in response to Game of Thrones and really the entire inspiration for the books was about this fan conversation happening over who was allowed to be the protagonist of a fantasy series. This idea some people have of certain people being too oppressed to be a viable protagonist.”
Seth Dickinson noted that Sabriel by Garth Nix is one of his favorite books with a strong female lead.
V.E. Schwab recommended the recently released Circe by Madeline Miller. “[Circe] takes up the equivalent of two chapters in the Odyssey. So when Madeline sat down to write Circe she decided that Odysseus would only be allowed two chapters in the entire book. And that’s the only thing you need to know about that book except that it’s one of the most extraordinary portrayals of female power.”
S.L. Huang: Some of my favorite work that’s being done on gender in science fiction now is being done in short fiction. … Some of that I think is that there’s a bit of a higher risk threshold in short fiction. It’s happening a little less in novels … Check out Strange Horizons, Tor.com.
On Shifting the Power Dynamic in the Industry:
Charlie Jane Anders: “What it always comes down for me is that there need to be more women of power in publishing, in Hollywood, in all forms of entertainment. that’s where there’s going to be real change. Real change is not just taking out some bad novels. Real change is redistributing power and also changing the types of stories that we tell.”