Where are Women’s Friendships in Science Fiction and Fantasy?

October 14, 2014 Author Feature, Discussion, Guest Post 26

by Karina Sumner-Smith

Author,Karina Sumner-Smith, joins us today to discuss and ask the question “Where are Women’s Friendships in Science Fiction and Fantasy?”

Radiant 9781940456102

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Where are Women’s Friendships in Science Fiction and Fantasy?

A recent Tweet caught my attention: fantasy author Kate Elliott, one individual shared, writes really great friendships between women.

I’ve heard many good things about Kate Elliott’s work, most notably her skill with complex fantasy worldbuilding, but it was that one phrase – “great friendships between women” – that made me scramble to buy her books.  Perhaps my reaction seems a little extreme. Yet real, believable friendships between women can be difficult to find in fantasy and science fiction, and are something that I desperately want and need as a reader and lifelong fan of the genre.

I’ve seen plenty of books with “strong female characters” – but I’ll be honest, few of the characters billed as such show what I think of as real emotional or mental strength. Fewer still resemble the strong women I know.  And, looking at the women in my life – my mother and grandmothers, my dearest friends, my colleagues and co-workers – few of them have to stand entirely alone, as “strong” women in fiction so often do.  In life, women can draw strength and support through their connections to others – not least of all their friends.

Friends.  Not just family or those to whom they have romantic ties, but friends – the people who are there for them through everything. And, for many women, some of the strongest and most enduring friendships are found with other women.

Yet where, in science fiction and fantasy, are those friendships?  Where are the strong ties not between a woman and her romantic interest or her family, but her friends?

Friendship has always been a defining factor in my life, and so it only makes sense that it’s a defining factor in my fiction as well.  When I wrote my fantasy novel, Radiant, it didn’t seem strange that the core emotional relationship was not a romantic one, but the development of a friendship between two very different young women in strange circumstances.  This wasn’t a conscious choice, nor an attempt to make a point through fiction; rather, I fell in love with these characters and their hesitant, fraught ways of attempting to understand and connect with each other.

Then people started asking: Why did you want to write about a friendship between women? Why isn’t there a romance? Will there be romance later?

Fine questions all – and, in truth, I could write thousands of words on why a romance would be a terrible idea for my main character, emotionally and physically, at this point in her life. Yet repetition of those questions – and the fact that they need to be asked at all – brought forth a rather more concerning question: why are friendships between women so often seen as less meaningful than those women’s romantic ties?

Or, if we’d like to put a more controversial spin on it, why is friendship a worthy emotional driver for a novel only if it involves a man?

It isn’t a challenge to think of strong, important friendships between men within science fiction and fantasy literature and culture.  Frodo and Sam.  Harry and Ron.  Spock and Kirk.  Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen.  The list goes on.  So, too, are there examples in which a female character may share a friendship with a male character, or be accepted by a larger male cast.  Yet, even there, it’s rare for such friendships to exist without the introduction of romantic elements or sexual tension.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that in a broader culture in which we still struggle to find works that pass the Bechdel Test, strong representations of female friendships are thin on the ground.  And yet I am surprised, if only because the very friendships that I struggle to see reflected in the literature that I love are the ones that have been most critical to me in my everyday life.

Friendships in which women are not competitors or rivals for male affection, power, or social approval. Friendships in which women support each other, work with each other, argue with and defend each other.  Friendships that are not inevitably torn apart by a conflict over a male character, or made to sink into the background once the romantic interest walks on-screen.

Which is not to say that these stories don’t exist at all.  Mercedes Lackey’s Tarma and Kethry stories were much beloved throughout my adolescence for just this reason. I cheered to see the friendship between Delia and Sadie in Jaime Lee Moyer’s Delia’s Shadow, and the mutual support between main character Kate and her friend Pen in Jaye Wells’ Prospero’s War series – though neither relationship takes center stage. In YA, examples of great female friendships leap to mind – Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity foremost among them – but few are science fiction or fantasy.

Even searching, examples are hard to find – and I refuse to believe that’s because there is not worth, nor an audience, for works of fiction in which powerful female friendships are portrayed.

So tell me: who am I missing? Whose books should I be reading?  Because I’m ready to read SFF stories with female characters that reflect the type of women that I know and the rich, complex relationships between them.

 

Karina Sumner-Smith

Karina Sumner-Smith is a Canadian fantasy author.  Her debut novel, Radiant, was published by Talos/Skyhorse in September 2014, with the second and third books in the trilogy to follow in 2015.  Prior to focusing on novel-length work, Karina published a range of fantasy, science fiction and horror short stories, including Nebula Award nominated story “An End to All Things”. Karina lives in a small, lakefront community in rural Ontario. Visit her online at

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When I'm in the zone I can flip book pages faster than the eye can see - screaming "More Input!" I'm a book, yarn, & art supply hoarding goblin who loves to draw, make toys and craft all sorts of creepy cute things. My current habit is to listen to audio books while I'm arting it up!
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26 Responses to “Where are Women’s Friendships in Science Fiction and Fantasy?”

  1. ULTRAGOTHA

    Rowan and Bel in Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman books. Such amazing books on so many different levels. Their friendship is awesome, but it’s not even the best reason to read these books.

    Enjoy!

  2. Alise

    Definitely an interesting question. I think women’s friendships (and platonic friendships in general) are rare to see in almost any genre, but especially science fiction and fantasy. Love the point about there being a lack of strong realistic women as well. Or at least the lack of characters who resemble the people we would consider strong women in real life. Young adult books are notorious for leaving out friendships or familial relationships in favor of a romantic one. Love this post!
    Alise recently posted…The Perilous Sea by Sherry ThomasMy Profile

  3. Carmel @ Rabid Reads

    Now that you mention it, friendships in Fantasy & Sci Fi are indeed a rare bird. I’m usually so caught-up in the kickass heroine, that I sometimes forget that a strong support system is just as, if not more important. Mind you, I read WAY more UF & PNR than SFF, so that might have something to do with it, but still… great question!
    Carmel @ Rabid Reads recently posted…Paranormal New Releases: October 14thMy Profile

  4. Cait @ Notebook Sisters

    I AGREE. WHERE ARE THE FRIENDSHIPS? In any book really. I think the only person I’ve read who actually bothers to write strong deep and awesome friendships is Elizabeth Wein. Both Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire knocked me off my feet. o.O I’m in complete awe. But besides from that? Girls in YA usually end up ditching their friends when a boy comes along. Totally not right. There’s room for both!!
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  5. Sarah C.

    Such a good question! I was recently reading The Wolves of Mercy Falls series, and while I love it, I noticed that the protagonist Grace ditches her friends in favor of her boyfriend. Which of course bothered me. Friends are an incredibly important part of life and should not be discarded so easily and unnecessarily. I love reading books about friendship, so I think I will try this one!

  6. Kirsty-Marie

    Good question, I don’t think it’s just the SF or Fantasy, but for everything, I’ve read too many where the characters are supposed to be best friends yet they slut shame each other and compete against each other, and then once the romance comes into it…where’d the friends go? But, most of those books are more superficial anyway, the best ones (with substance)are ones that focus more on friendship and family. Rare few.
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  7. Molly Mortensen

    I never realized it, but you’re right! I love stories about friendship and it’s really sad that there aren’t more of them and those that do exist seem to go out the window when the main character gets a boyfriend. I hope you don’t let other people influence you to change your story. In the Daughter of Smoke and Bone (A YA Fantasy) Karou has a good friendship with Zuzana and even when both get boyfriends they’re still there for each other.
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  8. Anne @ Lovely Literature

    Friends usually get relegated to the person that visits the MC or calls her in order to move the plot along. I don’t want that! I want real lady friends with inside jokes and supportive ways. I think Karou and Zuz from Daughter of Smoke and Bone are the best depiction of female friendship I’ve read in a while. We don’t abandon each other once we get a significant other! Who would we dish about with?
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  9. Kristen

    Great article! I was going to recommend Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone because of the friendship between Karou and Zuzana, but I see others have already done so.

    A few other SFF books I enjoyed that had friendships between women:

    Book of Iron by Elizabeth Bear – I loved the development of the friendship in this story, a stand alone novella set in the same world as Eternal Sky.

    The Kate Daniels series – While it’s not the main focus in the series, I like the friendship between Kate and Andrea.

    The Silvered by Tanya Huff – I’m not sure this one is exactly what you’re looking for since I don’t recall a relationship between two women that stands out, but it does have a group of women who work together and support each other in a tough situation, plus it’s a great book.

    A Taste of Blood Wine by Freda Warrington – This is a book that focuses more on the main protagonist’s relationship with a man, but I did love her friend Anne.
    Kristen recently posted…The Leaning Pile of BooksMy Profile

    • Karina Sumner-Smith

      These are great suggestions — thank you! (I was actually just looking at THE SILVERED …) Even when the romantic element remains in the forefront, it is great to find works that acknowledge women’s platonic relationships.

  10. Annie

    I would love to see more friendships in SFF and Fantasy, especially between women who support each other and strengthen each other.

    I think the reason it isn’t raved about as much is because it’s so easy to take those sorts of things for granted – in real life and in stories. Friendships are so much a part of my life that if I read a book with really strong female friendships – it would definitely make me like the book better. But I don’t know that I’d think to rave about it or talk about it much. It would just seem like a natural part of the book – rather than something that stands out to me. But it makes sense that it should be in the fabric of more stories because women tend to crave the community of other women. I think SFF stories would be a lot richer with more female friendships.
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  11. Sara L.

    Great post, Karina! Unfortunately I don’t have any books to add to your list, so it furthers your point that female friendships aren’t featured all that often in science fiction and fantasy. But now I’m interested in finding more stories that feature that kind of relationship… and as a writer, it’s inspired the gears in my head to start turning. 🙂
    Sara L. recently posted…Recent Reads: “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan CainMy Profile

  12. Maddog

    If a article needs to be written about friends of women in SF. then either the west is back asswoods or there is a group in it that are.

  13. Danya @ Fine Print

    Kate Elliott really *does* write great friendships between women. Her Spiritwalker trilogy has one of the strongest SFF female friendships I’ve ever seen, with Cat and Bea both being very strong characters in their own right. But put ’em together and it’s pure magic. Banter, loyalty, comfort, love, adventure…those two have got it all.
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  14. Jessica Strider

    Two that came to mind, after some thought, are:
    1) Lost Girl by Sangu Mandanna. The protagonist was created as a back-up in case her original dies, and, when she takes the girl’s place, must keep her friends and boyfriend from figuring out she’s not a copy. It’s a heart-wrenching read.
    2) Memory of Water by Emmi Itaranta. The focus is on the protagonists relationship with her father, but her best friend factors in a lot too. It’s a book where water is scarce and her family has a secret spring.
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  15. Jessica Strider

    Oh, and I totally forgot about Gail Carriger’s books. Her Parasol Protectorate books have some good female friendships, and her Finishing School books are all about a group of girls banding together at assassin school.