Not for the first time, it started with the creation of a world.
In that world you have dragons, flying cities, moving mountains and talking cats. You raise your eyebrows at the word “wizard” and instead create a unique magic system like the industry has never seen before. Your knights are men of honour, integrity and emotion. Yet all three of your points of view are male. When asked “why don’t you have a female knight in that group?” you say that it would be “unrealistic” because of the vaguely medieval setting. Flying rocks, magic, dragons, magic rock dragons; you’ve got all of that, but it’s a woman with a chunk of steel that would be over the top?
Fantasy gives its writers a unique opportunity – to create a setting completely unlike planet Earth. Gender roles do not exist until they are written. Colonialism may never had taken place. Different races are set in different places. Imagination does not just incorporate the breaking of geography or anatomy. It’s also about the people, society and the ways in which they interact. Plays such as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton show us that you can include minorities even if it goes against what’s considered “realistic”. If he can do that in our world, then nothing stands in the way of doing it in a fantasy one.
We’ve all met Strong Female Character ™. She’s smart, she’s individualistic, she’s, well, strong. The issue with her is that she isn’t human. She’s as much of a trope as Sir Chosen One of House Farm-boy. There is no such thing as Strong Male Character ™. If a man is poorly written, he’s just a bad character. It’s the woman who gets the label. Often women are inserted just to fit some made-up quota (like the one where you need at least one girl in a group of three friends). And even if she is the main protagonist it is not uncommon for everyone else to be a dude and for her to be defined by them. This is because the default template for a protagonist is a white, heterosexual male.
The template comes from the fact, that from early childhood the media often show men in the lead roles. Children’s literature often has boys be at the front and the same goes for cartoons or television shows. And even if there is a broad cast of female characters, the main hero is still male. This leads to even women defaulting to the male protagonist, because it’s safer. Think of a fantasy novel but with three female points of view and no male ones. It would stand out, wouldn’t it? In a good way? Well, to quote the main character of Fiddler on the Roof – “I don’t know.” That’s up to the audience and how good of a writer you are.
How to change this? Don’t be afraid to write women in your fantasy books. They don’t have to be knights or wizards, but they can! It’s up to you and how you create your world. There are no limits to what you can do with it. Write single parents who struggle with bringing up their children. Write singers who wish for the stars to weep at the touch of their voice. Write artists who caked, in paint, crumble in frustrated screams. And yes, write murderers who doubt the blood stuck to the creases of their hands. Or wizards who want nothing more than to bend the secrets of the arcana to their will. Any of these can be women. You get to define what is real in your world. What is real on planet Earth may be completely ridiculous for the people living in your world.
You could argue that this will make fantasy downplay or outright ignore sexism and bigotry, but there are so many other genres which already tackle these topics. You can still have prejudice and discrimination while also showing a world in which women leave a mark. Make prejudice part of the conflict, but don’t let it overshadow your character and who she is and what she stands for.
Here are some books I’d recommend which could help you out: N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms; Tamora Pierce’s The Song of the Lioness Quartet; Naomi Novik’s Uprooted; Terry Pratchett’s Equal Rites, Wyrd Sisters and the Wee Free Men; Mark Lawrence’s Red Sister; Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan; Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen (watch out, this one is an incredibly long series).
Fantasy should show what is familiar in a new light, so why not show women differently? After all, dragons are awesome and more women should get to see them.