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.