Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The Big Three-Oh, oh, oh, oh

[EDIT - a number of links to this page wilfully misrepresent the contents. If you read it for yourself you may well reach a different conclusion, as have a number of famous and successful female authors - at least one of whom features in the comments section.]

Prince of Thorns reached 30,000 ratings on Goodreads today. I remember wondering if it would ever reach 1,000 before people lost interest. It was a realistic concern. In December of 2011, five months after release, the book had 728 ratings.

So, what will I do to mark this milestone? It's traditional to do a stock-take at moments like these, to reflect and draw conclusions.

The launch of Prince of Thorns generated a wave of great reviews and positive feedback, and by that first Christmas the book featured on more than 20 'best of 2011' lists. But, like most of humanity, I remember the negatives too, even though they were thinly scattered among a sea of positives.

Prince of Thorns was met (at least in the fish bowl of the blogosphere) by a controversy over the vanishingly small reference to rape it contains.

A somewhat more muted but persistent criticism from the same regions of the blogosphere were complaints about the lack of female characters / 'strong' female characters.

Before getting further into this let's first agree that of course Prince of Thorns does have female characters and their role expands in the remainder of the trilogy. In fact the trilogy only has one major character - so either way someone was going to  'lose out'. But rewind. Let's say there actually were none. Zero. So what?

If you google "Prince of Thorns" and "female characters" you'll see a slew of such complaints. Go on, give it a try!

Is there a band of sisters?  Demands one of Requires Hate's standard bearers in response to the book concerning a band of brothers and knowing full well that there is not.

There is, however, still a problem with women. While you wouldn’t expect a woman to be riding with Jorg and his band of thugs, you have to read 150-odd pages before a woman with the slightest bit of agency turns up. And another.

Female characters? Great! Of course literature needs them. 'Strong' has always seemed a silly qualification to me. How about 'well written'? If you write women well, individually and as a whole, then there's no call for 'strong' - you just get 'women' who are variously weak, strong, kind, cruel, etc just as men are.

But, major roles for female characters in every single book, no matter what it's about, no matter what the scope, or the length of the book? Then you lose me. If you replace 'female' with 'male' in the argument I'll object just the same. Does a book covering a day or week on a WWII submarine need a major role for a female character? Must a murder-mystery in a nunnery require the insertion of a man to keep everyone happy?

Prince of Thorns is a pretty short book - you can fit 5.2 copies of it into the word count of George Martin's A Storm of Swords, or A Dance With Dragons.

It's a book told from a single point of view over a period of maybe three weeks, the majority of which is spent in the wilds with a band of murdering thugs. It made no sense when I wrote it to shoe-horn in additional female characters - the demand makes no sense to me now.

Yes, you're entirely welcome to prefer stories with particular components. And yes, you're entirely welcome to pick up my books and, on finding that particular component absent, to say 'I didn't enjoy this book because it lacked the thing I like'. But to criticise the author for not putting in that thing you like, as if it were some kind of fundamental flaw in personality, ethics, or decency ... that is, was, and always shall be ... crap.

As a footnote - because some people with an axe to grind conflate the contents of one book with the issues concerning the content/direction of the genre as a whole ... I will state (though I shouldn't have to) that there very likely are issues with the representation of females and minorities in fantasy as a whole. There very likely are a disproportionate number of straight white male protagonists in fantasy books. It's good when we see variety, and the hope that we'll continue to move toward more diverse fantasy that proportionally represents its readers &/or society is laudable. That still doesn't mean that 'this particular book does not contain (enough/the right sort of) female characters' is a valid criticism of that particular book, other than in the sense that it is the reason you didn't enjoy it(*).

(*) I'll moderate that by agreeing that if you're covering many points of view and many characters over a decent period in a setting where we would reasonably expect to see a good mix of genders ... then, yes, the absence of female characters could be a cause for complaint. Which of course brings us back to my original point - one size does not fit all - such criticisms should be dependent on the particulars of the book in question, not as a tick-box on a check-list prepared independent of any knowledge of said book.


  1. First of all, congrats on 30,000 ratings. That is HUGE (and well-deserved).

    As for the complaints, you're right that there is a disproportionate number of straight white male protagonists in fantasy, but that doesn't mean every new book has to adhere to a checklist of race/gender/sexuality/ability inclusion. Sometimes those characters fit, and bring a lot to a story, and sometimes they don't. Forcing them in just for the sake of checking a box just cheapens them.

    Ultimately, I think the critics overlook the very simple fact that a woman would have to be a suicidal sort of lunatic to want to travel with Jorg's band of brothers. Seriously, there are better career choices. :)

  2. First off congrats on the 30,000 reviews! That's amazing! The series definitely deserved it and Jorg is my favorite character ever!

    Me being fairly new to your work (I picked up Prince a week ago and finished emperor last night), I had no idea you were getting any kind of complaints for a lack of a "strong" female character, it didn't even cross my mind until I read this. I'm very new to Fantasy, the Broken Empire being the second series I've read of the genre, with A Song of Ice and Fire being the first. I did not once in your books think to myself "wow, I really wanted more a female character" or that I wished for "a certain indication that the author sees women as people, and doesn’t leave me trying hard not to throw up because I can’t see very much in his book that undermines his protagonist’s view of the world". That second quote I got from a review by Googling "Prince of Thorns" and "female characters" as you suggested, I was genuinely curious to see where these complaints where coming from. So I read the one that the previous quote came from, this is it:


    I'm going to try and word this without any big spoilers in case someone hasn't read all the books yet and sees this. My understanding of the world Jorg lives in is a post-apocalyptic world that has gone back to medieval style times as result of said apocalypse. I don't want to explain too in depth because of spoilers, but let's just say that's the case. This book would then contain a lot of mannerisms, principles, and values held by people from medieval times. Bourke, the author of the review said "Women exist to be raped, used, or otherwise projected upon by the various demons haunting Jorg’s id'. describing how she thinks Mark portrays women in this book. Then later on, she says she wished Mark would have "a certain indication that he (the author) sees women as people". I don't know if she has ever opened a history book, or fictional book, or even watched a movie based on that time period, but that's how it worked back then. Women were their fathers property until he sold them to a husband for any random thing or an alliance. They held no titles, had very little real power, and pretty much were raped and used if they weren't noble, that's how the times were. Not Marks fault he tried to portray that in his book as accurately as possible, did he have to show examples of it? I think so, because that's what almost the entire book was about, all the things Jorg and his brothers do on the road and how it shaped him.

    This book is told solely from Jorg's point of view and the book is solely about him. There's no need for a "strong" female character, it would mess the story up completely. We've already established women's role in society in that time period, mainly to produce airs and form alliances, so having a women ride around with Jorg's road brothers terrorizing everything just sounds stupid. Not to mention the part of the book when he's not on the road, there is a female character, Katherine, whom in a way consumes Jorg's thoughts. So honestly the female complaints seem pretty baseless and honestly pretty unintelligent.

    I'd like to address her bashing of Jorg and not understanding the story or him at all, but I feel I should do that on her page and this comment is getting pretty long as it is. If you don't like the book I get it, it can be pretty dark and not for everyone, so say that, don't pull some reason out of your ass as to how it’s misogynistic, it's not. But hey, I'm just an intellectual senior in high school who loves to read! :)

    “You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.” -Harlan Ellison.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I wholeheartedly agree with you here Mark. You cannot force characters. You cannot put diversity quotas in artworks, otherwise they will no longer be artworks but tools serving a political agenda. I removed a few characters from my own WIP series cause the story took different direction and those characters no longer had a place in it. A minor supporting character became the main character. You just can't force such things, the characters come to life and write the story. The book is entirely different from what I started a year ago. And I have only one strong female character to show for, my beta readers who saw her chapter praised me on putting a strong female character there (a warrior who is not involved in romance plots) but I'm afraid they will be disappointed when they see the finished book, for it's a brutal medieval setting full of straight male characters. If you write fantasy set in a medieval kind of environment, it's inevitable. I think it's better to have one or two well written female character than a bunch of forced female characters put there to fill the gender quota. You can't please everyone. There are many one star reviews on Amazon for some of the greatest classics of literature, after all. I saw a blogger rate The Lord of the Flies one star and rant about how boring it was. I really wonder what kind of reviews I will get, as a female writer who writes mostly male characters.

  5. "Strong female character" is in itself a borderline-sexist cliché. "Strongly characterised female", now that's a different story...

    Rhianna Pratchett, game story author, commented on twitter recently that, with games at least, part of the problem is the gameplay often is such that the character must possess physical strength. That correlates well with Prince of Thorns, really. As the scope of the trilogy widens, and other kinds of virtue have a viable niche, some of the women come more into focus.

  6. First of all I'd like to say I came upon this largely because video games are now under attack by the same "every story must have X number of minorities and portray women as powerful and invincible, or you're a racist misogynist trans/homophobe" argument from social justice and feminist groups. I'm not sure if you're heard of Gamergate, but we've been labelled as "misogynist harassers" for daring to resist. I've never harassed anyone and happen to love women, but I'm sure you've been accused of similar things for not bowing to the glorious crusade of social justice. We in gaming feel your pain as the thought police demonize and pick apart our culture because they find our characters "toxic" and "problematic".

    I'd just like to say, I hate this whole checklist ideology that reduces stories and characters to nothing more than puppets for pushing political correctness. I hate the idea of regulating art to make it adhere to a moral code, or deeming anything someone writes as their own fantasy "oppressive" or "offensive" as if they're forcing everyone to read it. Different stories are written for different audiences, we don't all have to like or read the same books! There are far more books out there that don't feature characters I relate to than ones that do, but I don't spend my time demanding they rewrite themselves in my image. I seek out and find authors, stories, and characters that I like and support them, just like the people supporting things I'm not interested in did.

    These totalitarians demanding every work of art portray certain groups in certain ways really chive my spuds. I just wanted to let you know you're very much not alone in the way you feel about this issue. It's becoming very widespread and I think we need to stand together for creative freedom.

  7. If only there were some way for those criticizing your choice of characters to avoid reading your book, or even potentially to read a _different_ book whose author's choice of characters was more to their liking. Some sort of "opt-out" mechanism, perhaps. But alas, I suppose that is entirely within the realm of idle fantasy at this point.

  8. Some people want new things to exist so they endeavor to create them. Then there are those who want new things to exist so they seek to force others into creating them, arguing that it is an injustice that they have not already done so. The former is a pure creative motive. The latter is more about desire to control others than about creating.

  9. So, if you were reading an article about a Superman story and the reviewer calls Lex Luthor the strongest character in the piece, would you be confused about why the reviewer thinks human Lex Luthor is stronger than Superman?

    Or would you understand that the phrase "strong character" refers not to physical strength or personal resilience of the person in the story but rather a quality of the character itself within the text?

    Because this is the thing: I constantly people getting hung up on the idea that those of us asking for strong female characters are asking for a superwoman when what we're really asking for is women with real presence, women where you can tell there's an inner life behind her eyes even when the story's not from her perspective, women who have their own reasons for being in the story and their own reasons for doing what they do.

    Now, if you understand what people mean when they say "this book is full of strong characters" but you have this weird confusion when asked for "strong female characters", then you're already not making a pure artistic choice with regards to women. There's already an external force restricting you.

    HRP writes "If only there were some way for those criticizing your choice of characters to avoid reading your book..."

    HRP, what do you think the purpose of these reviews are? You and Invin and possibly even the author seem to be under the impression that the negative reviews highlighting this aspect of the book are a sort of retroactive lobbying attempt to try to get Mr. Lawrence to change the content of his already published book.

    Contrary to what some people believe, the purpose of reviews is not to objectively weigh how well a piece of entertainment succeeded at being the platonic ideal of a medium, they're to help people find stories that interest them. In the absence of these reviews, HRP, how exactly are you proposing that uninterested readers would know this story is not for them?

    To make sense of your statement, it seems necessary to conclude that you're acting the assumption that it should have been obvious from the outside that "this kind of story" was not going to be about women, was not going to be for women who want to see themselves in a fantasy adventure.

    And if that's the logic that you, the other commenters, and Mr. Lawrence are operating under, then I'll say again: there's already something external that is affecting his creative choices. He's already following an internalized checklist of elements. Women aren't in this story for any reason beyond the internalized idea that women should not be in this type of story.

    People always bring up "quotas" and "checklists" in response to this criticism. Mr. Lawrence, you've read a good deal of it, it seems. Maybe you could clarify for me something for all of us.

    How many of the negative comments, in your estimation, demanded a quota of female characters? How many of them specified a minimum number?

    This is another one of those weird confusion things, because when a reviewer says they would have liked to see more on the backstory of a character, no one takes it to be a demand that all stories have a minimum page count of backstory. Gamers can say they would like to see more weapons, more variety of enemies, etc., in a game and no one thinks they're proposing a minimum quota.

    But we start talking about women--who, I will point out, are not a genre or a trend or a trope but one half of the human population of the planet--in stories, and suddenly no one can read criticism without seeing these invisible quotas being demanded.

    It's astonishing!

    1. What is astonishing to me is that you would spend so many words replying to a post that you appear to have read (or understood) so few words of...

    2. I am really disheartened that you don't address any of her really interesting, thought-provoking points. I guess this comment section is intended as just a circlejerk.

    3. Her 'really interesting points' don't appear to be connected to any of the things that I have said in the blog post. I'm not responding to them because doing so might imply that those things were said in the blog.

      The idea that I think a 'strong' woman is one covered in muscles is stupid and insulting. It sets the tone for the rest of the comments. It looks very much to me as if Alexandra did not read my blog post or perhaps glanced at it, with her mind already decided about what it said.

    4. You: "'Strong' has always seemed a silly qualification to me. How about 'well written'? If you write women well, individually and as a whole, then there's no call for 'strong' - you just get 'women' who are variously weak, strong, kind, cruel, etc just as men are."

      Her: "Or would you understand that the phrase "strong character" refers not to physical strength or personal resilience of the person in the story but rather a quality of the character itself within the text?"

      Alexandra's post seems to be directly responding to what you wrote, and your handwaving dismissal more in line with a refusal to do more than skim. That's without even acknowledging how many in the comments, which she was largely responding to as well, misdirected the issue into merely being a factor of physical strength.

      It's a shame; I think there are many who would've appreciated a genuine response from you. I hope you change your mind.

    5. Yeah... we're not really going to get anywhere until you drop this ridiculous notion that I (an intelligent person, PhD, internationally published etc) don't know what 'strong' means in a literary sense.

      The tactic you're employing - a wilful misreading of plain language - is tiresome to deal with.

  10. I plead guilty to not having read your book yet, Mark. (Blame life and my own deadlines!) but I hope I can still applaud your commentary here. As a woman writing epic fantasy, I have had my share of barriers to overcome. I still do. And at times I get pretty weary and pissed off. Some days it feels like the fight won't ever be won. There are power imbalances all over the place, and a lot of deeply entrenched unfairness in how white male writers are nurtured and coddled and celebrated while everyone else - especially women - gets ignored. But I don't believe that silencing, shaming and trashing male writers, and male readers, is the answer. In fact, doing that is the fastest way to shut down important conversations.

    Issues for women in our genre exist. But even so, I am tired of this nonsense of demanding that every damn spec fic genre novel contain female characters of any kind - that women must be catered to at all times - that a story about men, for men, dealing with a male pov and male sensibilities, is by definition oppressive to women. I find that offensive. George Lucas didn't sit around moaning and complaining and demanding that the movie studios provide him with the kind of film he wanted to watch. It's true that they weren't, they couldn't see the point, had no connection to the stuff he loved. So he made Star Wars himself - and because he tapped into a vast, untapped audience, we now have far more film and tv stories for the sci fi geeks and nerds to enjoy. So seriously? If you want to read fantasy novels starring kick arse women, where women have the agency and so forth, and you don't think the right one is out there? Write it yourself. Start a new trend, a breakout genre - like the early women of urban fantasy did. Jim Butcher aside, that sub-genre is filled to bursting with great women writers. Or make a committed effort to buying the works of women writers who are publishing in the male-dominated fields, and celebrate their stories (instead of complaining that they're still not good enough for you).

    The most important thing we have is creative freedom. If you don't like what's on offer, offer it yourself. No, it won't be easy. The bottom line is women writers (especially in traditionally male-dominated areas of writing) struggle to get the same respect that male writers get. Women in all aspects of the entertainment industry struggle to be seen, to be afforded equal opportunities. But hating on the male writers achieves nothing but an entrenched resistance to women writers. So I say don't rubbish the people who are writing what they love, and what a great many other readers obviously love too. When you rubbish what readers love, and the readers for loving it - they remember. Who in their right mind gives money to someone who rubbishes them?

    It's not that there isn't bigotry, discrimination and sexism in publishing. There is. It's everywhere, in every culture. But like the little bald guy said -- be the change you want to see in the world. Instead of demanding that writers like Mark be silenced, or trashed into career failure, pour all that righteous indignation and emotional energy into creating your own worlds. Given the shifts in the publishing landscape happening all around us, there's never been a better time to change the status quo. It takes courage, and hard work without the promise of a reward. But that's life. Nobody handed George Lucas his empire on a platter. He built it himself. It's what we all should aim for.

    So you keep on writing what you love, Mark, in the way that works for you and quite clearly many other people too. You have nothing to apologise for. Nobody has the right to tell you what stories to write and enjoy, or to shame the readers who enjoy the same things.

    (Karen Miller. For some reason the site wouldn't let me post under my Word Press id. I hate computers.)

  11. 'Ello!

    I'm glad you read my review. While I may not have loved PoT I did enjoy it and will probably seek out the rest of the books in the series. It gave me a lot to think about and mull over - I notice that you didn't mention in your quote above that I thought Chella (a woman with agency!) was the most interesting character in the book aside from Jorg and that I would have liked to see more of her. I don't think the book was excessively rapey, and I do think there were female characters with agency - they just took a long time to turn up! :D

    If anyone wants to read the whole review it's here - https://hierath.wordpress.com/2014/06/28/book-review-prince-of-thorns-by-mark-lawrence/

    Best Wishes,

  12. I agree with the you Mark. It seems the world is changing and not for the best in my opinion. Nowadays writers not only need to think on the story and plot but also focus on what society "demands" of them. It's frustating in my opinion. There are people criticizing Tolkien, Lovecraft or Robert E Howard for goodness sake. They say they were racists and lack important female characters - people wake up : Different times! Look at important books like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and other books from that time that were banned or contested. It's ridiculous. Why nobody criticise the Bible for the lack of female characters besides the Holy Virgin is unknown to me - because the author female character is a whore... "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_most_commonly_challenged_books_in_the_United_States"
    The same happens with share worlds like Warhammer/40K or Forgotten Realms - they are over criticized because the lack of female characters - but if you think this through most people reading thos books are men (young teens).

    Hey, don't get me wrong. I love my wife and my female baby child. It's indiferent for me if the female character or male. Check this section: https://www.goodreads.com/genres/young-adult / https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/1333.Young_Adult_Romance / or
    Most of the main characters are females. And most males are barely a guy to fight over or to just be there and look good. And you don't here so much complains. And why not?

    Mark, continue to do a good work. Every writer should write what he wants. No matter what other people think. After all, in the end, someone will criticize you because of something.

  13. I am a writer and a woman and a feminist, yet I see nothing wrong in not having a major female character in a book. Just as I wouldn't see anything wrong in not having a major male character in a book. Shoving creative freedom into "correct" parameters won't result in better books anywhere, but would probably sooner have the opposite effect.

    And as a reader, I would rather see 1 fantasy book with a major female protagonist, but one written by choice and from the heart, then have 50 of them written because authors felt that's what they're forced to do.

    I also agree wholeheartedly with Karen Miller's comment. :)

  14. LOL - sorry Mark - but people commenting about your book who even confess to not having read your book, and still have the nerve to spout such trash?! - Too Too Funny!!!!! Bravo for having inadvertently hitting a nerve, and getting knee jerks from jerks! Nine tenths of the comments are pure rubbish, and the writers need to get a life. If you want to be a part of the social change that has stronger women characters, then you should be a part of the solution that writes stronger women characters. I have found that the women characters in your books to actually be quite strong. That you didn't base the story around them is your choice, not the readers, who can go on to the hundreds of thousands of books out there with strong leading female characters, and enjoy! All of a sudden - it seems - you are supposed to lead a band wagon you never participated in - hilarious! Throwing myself into the this cheeky lot I say well done Mark, and take no prisoners!

  15. There is definitely a problem with a lack of female characters in fantasy, but I feel that the criticism of this book is undeserved. Because A) criticising individual authors for this overarching problem is just stupid. Personally, I have the philosophy of praising authors who put more complex females in their books, and not attacking those who dont. because NO SINGLE AUTHOR IS TO BLAME, and blaming people for something that isn't really their fault achieves nothing. B) this is not the book to use as an example of the lack of female characters in fantasy. This is a book that is primarily about a single character, with incredible psychological complexity, and has a very specific focus. This book does something completely unique, it presents an incredibly complex character, and I dont think it could have been done effectively if you had to split the focus from the main character. So yes there is a problem with a lack of females in fantasy, but you cant do everything in every book, and this book is already trying to do something that you dont see around. I think any other major characters, male or female, in this book would have made the book fail in it's goal. This book is something special because it gives us something different, and we need books that are different and have important things to say, even if they don't have have other things that are lacking in the genre. I know I'm rambling, but I just don't think the criticism of this book is deserved. Of course I want more fantasy books with more complex women, but I also want more books like this one, that step outside the box, and I might not get both those things in every book, and that's okay.