I’m writing an urban fantasy novel, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the genre. I’ve always been a fan of fantasy/sci-fi stories, but there are some unfortunate tropes in the genre that reflect a lot of male power fantasies. Classic stories like the Lord of the Ring, Star Wars, and most superhero comics tend to feature a powerful Leading Man who was born destined for greatness. He develops some kind of supernatural combat powers (or is just really good at fighting) which allows him to fight his way to the end boss and defeat him with the powers of goodness (but also superpowers). Often, this wins him the affection of the Female Lead, who is mostly just there to need rescuing and provide the hero with a prize. It’s pretty much the James Bond/action hero formula.
Some modern stories have been subverting these tropes, some in really excellent ways. Other stories have been subverting the specific tropes, but not really addressing the attitudes that lead to them. Recently, I’ve read a number of modern fantasy/sci-fi stories that have all shared a lot of the same elements that seem to be a reaction to the classic formula. They tend to be written by men and feature male heroes, but these are not your typical heroes. The Leading Man isn’t overly powerful or impressive, and is often weak or low-status. He’s not devastatingly handsome, but he has an understated attractiveness. Rather than use his great combat prowess, Leading Man defeats the enemy using his unique, special-snowflake mind. He may or may not have magic powers, but any powers he has appear at first glance to be useless or underpowered, though Leading Man eventually finds a clever, unexpected way to use them to defeat the evil bad guy. The bad guy is unequivocally evil. Leading Man has no real flaws, but all minor flaws are treated like a much bigger deal than they are. He constantly feels guilty about his “bad” decisions despite the fact that everything he did was the only reasonable option given the circumstances.
Unlike the classic story, the modern stories feature strong female characters. Women are never the main characters, of course, but they have substantial supporting roles, and the story always makes sure to squeak out a passing grade on the Bechdel test. In the modern fantasy novel, women are the ones with the physical prowess, able to fight, shoot, and generally kick ass. Leading Man is often saved by his female sidekick multiple times throughout the story, though he never feels emasculated or anything but grateful because he’s not a Neanderthal like those classic action heroes who spent their time saving helpless women. Female sidekick is always attractive, but in a quirky, nontraditional way, which is pointed out multiple times during the novel. Still, there is often a helpless woman who needs to be saved, but this is a different woman, and not a love interest, because this isn’t the kind of story where the hero wins a woman’s affections by saving her. That’s for those James Bond-style brutes. Still, there is often a female antagonist hassling the hero for unjustified, personal reasons (bitchy ex-wife, anyone?).
I checked in with my literary Facebook group and confirmed that this is an ongoing trend. I’ve taken to calling this “nice-guy fantasy,” because it seems to reflect the same attitudes that underly the “Nice Guy” phenomenon in pop culture. Nice Guys are a reaction to the perceived deficiencies of the “dumb jocks,” who are thought to be unworthy of the affections that they receive because of their regressive attitudes toward women. Nice Guys feel that they are more deserving of women’s affection because they avoid the worst behaviors of jocks, though in reality, their attitudes are just as sexist and unjustified, just in a different way.
In the same way, nice-guy fantasy just swaps out one set of rigid gender roles for another. Nice guy fantasy appears to be a reaction to perceived deficiencies of the classic action-hero formula and its regressive attitudes toward women and its simplistic view of heroism. Nice-guy fantasy avoids the worst tropes of the classic action-hero style writing, but merely takes that box and replaces it with another to force all of its characters into. Sophia McDougal, writing in the New Statesman, summarizes the problem:
Nowadays the princesses all know kung fu, and yet they’re still the same princesses. They’re still love interests, still the one girl in a team of five boys, and they’re all kind of the same. They march on screen, punch someone to show how they don’t take no shit, throw around a couple of one-liners or forcibly kiss someone because getting consent is for wimps, and then with ladylike discretion they back out of the narrative’s way….
What do I want instead of a Strong Female Character? I want a male:female character ratio of 1:1 instead of 3:1 on our screens. I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness. Badass gunslingers and martial artists sure, but also interesting women who are shy and quiet and do, sometimes, put up with others’ shit because in real life there’s often no practical alternative. And besides heroines, I want to see women in as many and varied secondary and character roles as men: female sidekicks, mentors, comic relief, rivals, villains.
Nice-guy fantasy continues the action-hero trend of representing a male power fantasy, but this time it’s the fantasy a shy, geeky man who grew up resenting the Superman archetype. Rather than fantasizing about being the superspy who can beat up rooms full of people, seduce any woman, and shoot the wings off a fly, this story is a fantasy about being the underdog who rises to the challenge foisted upon him by circumstance (and, of course, his big heart). The problem is that this ends up being just as formulaic as the classic action story and just as reductive in terms of gender roles. It’s still about a Great Man Becoming Great, it’s just a nerdier, more chess club/silicon valley view of greatness rather than the classic captain-of-the-football-team view.
In writing my own story (34,000 words and counting!), I’ve tried to be conscious of this trend and avoid any sort of self-congratulatory stereotypes. It’s a fantasy story about an isolated society, so one thing I’ve done is just changed the society’s views of gender roles. Because of the way the “magic” works, women are stronger and generally more physically impressive, so the society evolved so that women are the dominant gender. However, women still carry and nurse children, so that gets taken into account.
The other thing I’ve tried to do is to have a large variety of female characters. The ratio of male:female in my is about 1:4. This is a literary device, but also an artifact of the culture in that, because men are the marginalized gender, there are more women in roles like detectives, doctors, transportation operators, and other jobs that are featured in the story. The two viewpoint characters are women, though in our society their behavior would probably be read as masculine (or, let’s be honest, “bitchy”).
It’s been a challenge, but I’m hoping it turns out well. I’m still on my first draft, and I’m planning on going back and rewriting the entire thing once I finish. This is the first novel I’ve ever attempted, so I’m sure it won’t be a masterpiece, but I’m hoping it will end up being something I can be proud of, and above all, I hope it doesn’t come across as reactionary. I’m writing the story the way I am because I think it’s interesting, and I would like to read a story like it, and I hope it doesn’t come across as merely a reaction to other fantasy tropes.
The other thing that worries me is that my characters are all kind of jerks in their own way. Not in the sense that they have minor flaws which are easily overlooked, but in the sense that they have large personality defects that will take a lifetime to improve, and will not be resolved by the end of the book (though some progress will be made). My characters are often self-absorbed, short-sighted, irrational, downright foolish, and they don’t always understand how consent works. I’m worried that someone reading my story will think these characters were intended as role models or heroes when they are actually just meant to be humans that I (and hopefully a few readers) will find interesting, but I don’t know how to make that clear without imposing contrived consequences on the characters for their flaws. My main protagonist will be learning from her mistakes, but overall, the story features far too many character flaws in numerous characters to address individually. I’m hoping that readers will understand that even the “good guy” characters aren’t intended as role models.
Man, writing fiction is difficult.