Big Characters Without Big Boobs

Last week I asked in my blog post, 10 Questions For J.R.R Tolkien, what questions people would like to ask the Professor if they had the opportunity. The answers were great, but one stood out for me.

A person with the twitter username @oneyearnovel (happy to enter your name and website) wrote: “I would ask if he ever considered a woman character who was not beautiful?”

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This got me wondering. When I began looking around for a book cover artist and shared my concept of Mhari, an elfe (the politically correct term for a female elf) and Seanchai’s teacher, I was offered sketches of buxom women with cleavage-revealing armor, muscled (bare) legs etc. You get the picture. I talk about this in an earlier post – Big Boobs and Book Covers. While these images might have sold more copies of At The Walls Of Galbrieth, the pensive, wise face that adorns the cover truly represents the wise, yet world-weary mentor for my protagonist, Seanchai.

Wycaan Master 1 Just Front Cover

I don’t in truth know if @oneyearnovel is correct that Tolkien’s females in his books are all beautiful, or if this is Peter Jackson pandering to what he believes his Hollywood audience wants. I have not read Lord of the Rings in years and can’t even recall a female in the Hobbit.

Tolkien students: please enlighten us on this in the comments.

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There are three main female characters who each leave an indelible mark on the first four books of the Wycaan Master series. Sellia is dark, exotic and beautiful, but she is also an excellent warrior and probably fits the stereotype. While I never talk about her breasts, hips etc. (this is YA), she intimidates the younger male elves and has them stuttering. She makes a game of eliciting a blush from Rhoddan or Seanchai.

Ilana is tough, an ideologue, constantly seeking a peaceful solution and offering Seanchai her unwavering support. As a romance blossoms she is viewed for her beauty, but it is seen through the eyes of one who is falling in love with her. Don’t we doting men all think our wives/partners are the most beautiful women in the world? Of course mine really is!

But Ilana is possibly the most popular character among readers, certainly female readers. It is not anything physical about her that binds the reader to her, but her deep principles, cutting sense of humor, and well just about everything else concerning her.

Maugwen is a human, short and pudgy. She is a weak character at first and I never meant to give her a long run. But she grows, matures and becomes a wise friend and strong individual. Readers have told me that she intrigues them and, just between us, she intrigues me.

We don’t make all our male characters handsome and ripped, so why our females? I think @oneyearnovel has a great point. Society expects us to bind ourselves to a pretty woman, and in truth, this goes for good or bad characters, but fiction has a responsibility to not only change with the times, but to be present at the tipping edge of that change.

It is very popular to write a coming-of-age novel. Perhaps it is time for our genre to come of age.

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of GalbriethThe First Decree, and Ashbar – Wycaan Master Book 3 – all released by Tourmaline Books. Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

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Big Boobs and Book Covers: A Critique of Fantasy Art

When I began soliciting artists interesting in creating the covers for At The Walls Of Galbrieth and The First Decree, I asked the artists for a rendering of Mhari, an elfe (politically correct term for female elf in Odessiya) who would become the first teacher of my protagonist, Seanchai.

I explained that she was old but vibrant, tough but wise, and I waited for the examples. Every one of the four artists produced sexy, buxom female warriors. I realize that sex sells ­– I considered moving to T-Mobile because of the woman in the advert not her motorbike, helicopter or the beautiful color purple (okay I am partial to motorbikes and purple, but lets stay on topic…) ­­– but these are YA books.

Wycaan Master 1 Just Front Cover

Apparently, the use of beautiful women on covers of YA Fantasy and Sci Fi are nothing new. This article follows the noble battle by author, Jim Hines.

Hines produced a series of great photos in which he poses in similar positions to scantily-clad women on book covers. Mr. Hines wasn’t against showing some skin himself.

_65356744_scifi“The way women are portrayed is just so ridiculous, so often, you just stop seeing it,” Hines says. “I think posing has made people see it again – you see how ridiculous it is when a 38-year-old fantasy writer is doing it.”

Hines began posting his poses at the beginning of 2012 and they quickly became the most visited. This gave him the idea to create a series to raise money for research to help fight Aicardi Syndrome, a genetic disorder, and he has raised over $15,000 to date.

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The issue of depicting women in fantasy art in a sexual way is nothing new and, in fact, quite rampant in role playing games like D&D. Tracey Hurley, co-founder of Prismatic Art Collection, has commented: “Women are so often portrayed assuming that a stereotypical hetero male is going to be the person looking at the cover, … Male characters [are] powerful and strong, and women’s sexuality will be emphasised. And why is that a problem? It’s constraining for both men and women.”

I find this really depressing. I guess I expected something different from a genre free of stereotypical constraints because it creates its own reality. This is all the more disappointing when dealing with Young Adult literature because of the target audience. I wonder whether a scantily-dressed, thin, and cleavage-heavy woman might also be a turn-off for young women, conscious of their own body-type. Add to this that most of the women portrayed are white and I am left wondering if this explains why less teenage women read fantasy. I also think it explains the success of The Hunger Games, though the promo photos for the movie also follow the concept.

imgresIt is not enough to just thrust a sword in her hand or dress her in a chain mail bikini to project strong images of women, nor is the cover of the book enough to reinforce strong, positive female values.

While my protagonist is a male, I made sure to add strong female characters, who are indispensable to his quest. I believe I showed them as more than equal warriors, each with her own special character. I needed prodding with this, I admit, and even changed Seanchai’s teacher from a man to a woman. Interestingly, it opened up a number of exciting avenues.

Authors are powerful influencers in the community, and even more so when writing for a Young Adult market. But power comes with responsibility and we have a role to play in shaping the next generation of thinkers, leaders, and innovators.

Even though many of us write about different worlds and kingdoms, let’s help make this world a better place.

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of GalbriethThe First Decree is due out in March 2013.