A Heavy Tongue

Seeking diversity in fiction can be a burden. Not one equal to the issues it seeks to correct, but enough that I can understand why it doesn’t spread as easily as it might.

When I started serialising Seven Stones, several subscribers commented that they found Anessa a very sympathetic character because she was a competent young woman. Which pleased me because it was what I was aiming for.

However, when I started preparing the second Seven Stones collection, I discovered the stock image community didn’t share my perspective on women in fantasy. I didn’t expect to find an exact match for the image in my head without commissioning bespoke art, but neither did I suspect that finding a young woman who looked like a medieval/renaissance hunter would be hard.

I found page after page of mail bikinis, leather bikinis, shapely breastplates, and courtly dresses, but no practical leathers. I pressed on until I found an image that worked, but I can understand why someone might start to flag in their resolve, might compromise a little to have the task done.


Even the text, that part of the serial most within my control, is not free from this limit upon options.

One of the changes I made when creating the world was an absence of a strong job divide based on biological gender. Which is easy enough to show in the specific; have soldiers be female without anyone commenting on it; have male single parents without anyone suggesting they should remarry so there is someone to look after the children. But beyond the individual, problems occur. A surprising number of nouns common to pre-industrial society are gendered and have few – or no – ungendered synonyms that aren’t anachronistic.

Watchmen might in the modern day be replaced with security guards or another gender-neutral term, but none of the nouns for a mixed group sound unquestionably historical; and, reader irritation at invented terms aside, watchpersons sounds odd.

The same issue occurs with another large part of the medieval/renaissance world: men-at-arms; those soldiers who rode a horse but weren’t knights. Horsemen has the same issue. Persons-at-arms sounds odd. Equestrians is accurate, but doesn’t have the right tone.

There are ways to solve it: using the Watch, or riders. However, with only limited variation, a description of a mixed group doing something risks becoming a repetitive mixing of a single noun and “they”; which can create a distracting echo or sense of tedium.

Of course, restructuring paragraphs can reduce the need for that repetition; however, that adds time. So, I understand the niggling pressure to make this group of characters all happen to be male so horsemen and men-at-arms are accurate descriptions.

And I only catch the issues I see: decades of seeing certain words used for certain things make them seem more like a complete unit and less like a fusion of task and gender label. So – efforts not withstanding – I might have let a few slip through unrealised.

As obstacles to my life, these are both minor in the scheme of things; and I certainly don’t consider my attempts to overcome them worthy of high praise. However, they are another example of how a bias is baked into the world, making it harder to express another perspective. And they are only a single aspect of diversity: adding race, sexuality, and other things brings yet more linguistic bias.

Which is why I give authors the benefit of the doubt if their fantasy isn’t free of medieval gender roles.

9 thoughts on “A Heavy Tongue

  1. I must admit I’ve never thought of this aspect of the language. It certainly would add to a writing job to adjust or invent terms. As for cover images, I think it may be easier to go with silhouettes or human shapes without a lot of detail.


    1. The issue with covers is that they aren’t art; they’re a visual trigger to the reader that the book is worth considering further. Which leads to a feedback loop: so many romance novels have a shirtless man on the cover, because so many romance novels have shirtless man on the cover.

      Silhouettes or other stylised figures, or omitting humans altogether, definitely avoids the “cheesecake” issue in fantasy covers; but also means readers are more likely to see the book as being in a genre/style that usually doesn’t display a strong human element on the covers (for example, steampunk can be quite abstract).

      So for a genre like fantasy where readers are trained to expect a dramatic hero/captive princess/or such on the cover, deviating can end up merely moving the effort from finding a cover image to pushing the book’s genre harder during sales/marketing.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Dave,

    An interesting and thought-provoking post as always. I’m very concerned with gender issues and try very hard to at least achieve a balance and strip away prejudice as far as possible in my own work. At the same time, you are right to point out that it’s a problematic undertaking simply because gender prejudice is so deeply embedded in our culture and language. The attempt to express a different perspective can frequently leave us literally lost for words.

    I think that when an historical context comes into play in fiction, there’s a bit more leeway. It’s certainly both easier and ultimately more honest and helpful, too, for the writer to explore ways of suggesting, “Look, I can’t change history, but this is here to show how misguided these ideas are.” Making some sort of commentary on historical sexism seems to be a reasonable approach.

    Yes, we should always be forgiving, but equally, I think we have a responsibility to keep trying without making excuses. Gender issues really do matter and, in the final analysis, the future of civilization may depend on resolving them.


    1. I didn’t mean forgiving in the sense of not pushing for fantasy to be more than medieval Europe with elves and magic; I meant forgiving in the sense that I don’t label an author as sexist purely because they have watchmen patrolling their towns rather than a non-gendered label.

      Historical context needn’t be limited to showing how misguided things are; it could also serve to show how the ideas weren’t misguided at the time. For example, human biology imposes different reproductive burdens on males and females, so – in a situation where medicine, &c. isn’t great – species survival does value reducing other risks to women by, for example, not having them in the front line. By giving the reader a little of that context, the author can both suggest the issues behind discrimination, and make characters who would be prejudiced in the modern world more sympathetic to liberal readers.

      Which is where speculative fiction particularly can make play. Locking women away from risks is only one way to deal with the burden imposed by biology: what would a feudal society look like where healing magic made pregnancy as safe as C21st Western medicine? how might a society change if growing new humans from mixed blood samples is simple?


  3. The assumption that a person’s role in life is to any decree necessarily dictated by an accident of that person’s biology is a questionable one. Because the female can biologically bear children does not, in any way, make it an obligation for her to do so!

    But going back to the original focus of the problem you had with your cover, and your comment to Audrey that a cover isn’t art but advertising, I agree that it is damnably hard to tread the fine line between selling and selling out.

    And I am with you in extending that understanding to works of fiction – as you say it is not a crime to have gender-specific roles in your fantasy fiction. Nor is it an obligation, as I may have inadvertently suggested above, to “deal with the issues” if all you want to do is crank out a rollicking good adventure yarn.

    That said, it is hard to deny that there is a certain moral responsibility attached to publishing (making public) any work of art of art or literature. We must be responsible for the consequences of the actions we take.

    Don’t you think?


    1. While no one is obliged to have children, the biological facts of pregnancy make a huge difference between sexes for those who do. A man can father several children in a day, and suffers no long-term burden from his role in reproduction. Whereas a woman can (twins and up, withstanding) mother one child per nine months, and spends a portion of that limited by both direct physical changes and by the risks of stress on the children.

      So, in a society where almost everything is physical labour, such as medieval Europe, while biology doesn’t force a sex divide, it does weight things heavily toward on.

      This reproductive weighting is made heavier where there is a high infant mortality, because more than one period of pregnancy is often needed per child.

      Also, without good contraception, childbearing is less of a choice, so even people who don’t want children are subject to the biological disparity.

      With better medical science, ways of performing physical tasks without direct effort (such as the tractor and mechanical loom), and more jobs that require the mind rather than the body at all, the impact of this biological difference can be lessened, to the point where the reproductive value of a woman and man are not vastly different, and women have strong control over pregnancy.

      Of course this weight in part comes from the strength of the human desire to reproduce (which in turn can be traced to a combination of social conditioning and biology, in different proportions depending which theories you rely upon). Which exposes another intriguing fantasy world: one where the drive to reproduce is much lower.

      Thus, while the capabilities of men and women are strongly overlapping, making sex a poor determinant of whether someone can be a good soldier, nurse, scholar, or cat herder, human reproduction does impose some differences that can, in context, push toward a division. A push that is different from the tribal us-vs-them that drives racism.

      So, as I agree with your thesis that we do bear responsibility for our art in the same way we do for the things we say about real people, I feel we should consider why sexism (and other discrimination) might have seemed reasonable to our ancestors and thus show how those reasons might no longer apply, rather than consign past generations to the binary of fools or knaves and leave the reader no more convinced on the issues than before.


  4. “I feel we should consider why sexism (and other discrimination) might have seemed reasonable to our ancestors and thus show how those reasons might no longer apply, rather than consign past generations to the binary of fools or knaves and leave the reader no more convinced on the issues than before.”

    I have no further argument. I completely agree with that!


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