Women in SF&F Month Banner

Today’s guest is Deborah Coates, author of science fiction and fantasy short stories and two contemporary fantasy novels! The first of these two novels, Wide Open, is on my wish list because I’ve been seen many reviews praising both this and the sequel, Deep Down. After Wide Open was selected as a Bram Stoker Award finalist in the First Novel category, I became even more intrigued by this book and the author’s work in general. I was pleased she was able to participate this month, especially after reading the post below in which she discusses female characters— and things she will argue about on the Internets!

Wide Open by Deborah Coates Deep Down by Deborah Coates

Things I Will Argue About On The Internets

I’ve been going around and around for days about how to start this post and, in particular, how to talk about what I want to talk about.  There are no days left, I’ve got to write this, so here goes: what I want to talk about is women–how limitless the possibility for women characters and how easy it is to limit ourselves anyway both as readers and as writers.  Some of that is inherent in the genre.  Fantasy likes heroes.  It likes stories about big, world-changing events and about the sorts of people who participate in those events.  Fantasy–fantasy readers and fantasy writers–likes stories where characters act.

I don’t really have a problem with that.  I like them too.  I read and write fantasy partly because I want to write about characters doing things that ‘matter.’  In DEEP DOWN, Hallie even talks about it–if she stays in South Dakota, if she works on her father’s ranch or the night shift at the Stop and Go, will it make any difference to the world at all?  (my typing fingers are dying to go on a tangent about what ‘doing things that matter’ can and might mean, but I’m ignoring that because–yes, this is why I have trouble with topics I care about–there are just too many fascinating paths to wander down).  Anyway, back to the topic of choice–things I will argue about on the internets and women characters in fantasy.  In fantasy, we readers (some of us, not all of us, but definitely me at one time or another) tend to like certain characters, but then, we immediately start to limit the range of those characters, particularly when we’re talking about women.  One of my personal peeves is dismissing a female character as a ‘man with boobs.’

Someone told me that phrase started as a criticism of men writing women characters badly: “I just stuck a couple of boobs on one of them and called it good.”  Which I think is right, I think that’s where it started.  But I have seen it used by women–“oh, that urban fantasy, it’s got all these characters that are really just men with boobs.”  When I’ve challenged those statements, the response has been, “well, I mean they’re badly written characters.”  Or, “well, they just have all these masculine characteristics.”

But of course real women are tough.  Of course real women are confident and assertive and blood-thirsty and physical and brave and aggressive and reckless and deadly with a rifle.  Not all of those things all at once and not all women.  But some women, somewhere, always.  Every time someone dismisses a character as a ‘man with boobs’ they’re saying those women don’t exist.  They’re saying women I know don’t exist.

Deborah Tannen once wrote (and I’m going to paraphrase and hope I don’t mess this up) that men can go to work in a suit and tie and they’re basically coded as ‘men.’  But the way women dress and act is a thousand times more complicated.  Women get categorized and labeled and we’re often never quite enough.  Dresses, suits, pants. Heels, flats, makeup.  Long hair, short hair, gray hair.  They all mean something, they all mark us.

I like heroic characters.  I like characters that can change the world.  I like women characters that are independent and strong-minded.  I like hyper-competent characters who are also women.  I like geeky, awkward characters.  Confident characters.  Aggressive characters.  Characters who wear dresses and high-heels.  Characters who wouldn’t be caught dead in same.  I believe well-written characters and badly-written characters both exist.  I don’t believe in ‘men with boobs.’  It’s just another way of saying–here are ways women aren’t allowed to be.  And I don’t believe in that at all.

The following are some books I’ve read in the last year or two whose characters (not necessarily ‘kick-ass’ but all tough in their own ways) I particularly enjoyed:

Paladin of Souls, Icefall, Mistress of the Art of Death

Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold.  The book starts slowly and Ista isn’t terribly sympathetic (to me) in the beginning, but she manages to break stereotypes all over the place before it’s done and not only does she turn out to be a fantastic character, but there are great women characters all over this book.

Icefall by Matthew Kirby.  Solveig is fantastic and brave and smart.  But then, Middle Grade has a lot of smart, strong girl characters.  Winterling by Sarah Prineas, Above World by Jenn Reese, to name a couple.

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin.  Neither fantasy or science fiction, but I loved this mystery series, which is about a woman doctor in England in the time of King Henry II.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larson

Finally, I have to mention Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsen.  She’s a character that doesn’t work for at least as many people as she does work for.  And the books are terribly, horribly flawed.  But someone (Elizabeth Bear is who I think I heard it from) once wisely said that books work because of the things they do well not in spite of the things they do badly.  These books work for me.  And Lisbeth works for me as a character because she does that thing I’ve been trying to talk about, but think I’ve mostly talked around: she broadens what women characters can be and do and succeed in making us care about.


Deborah Coates lives in Ames, Iowa and works at Iowa State University in information technology. She has a Rottweiler named Billie and a German Pinscher named Blue. When she’s not writing or working, she teaches obedience classes and participates with her dogs in tracking, obedience, and therapy dog visits. She has published short stories in Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Year’s Best Fantasy 6, and Best American Fantasy 2008. Her first novel, WIDE OPEN was published in 2012 and is a Bram Stoker nominee for Superior Achievement in a First Novel. Her second novel, DEEP DOWN was published in March, 2013. You can find her online at http://www.deborah-coates.com and http://www.twitter.com/debcoates