Kristi Charish discussing Urban Fantasy and the Female Protagonist

February 8, 2015 Author Feature, Guest Post 20

by Kristi Charish

I recently read OWL AND THE JAPANESE CIRCUS by Kristi Charish. The first book in a new urban fantasy series starring a young former archaeology student now turned thief! It was a lot of fun and I’m excited to have the author here today to talk about the urban fantasy genre and female protagonists!

Owl and the Japanese Circus


Now lets hear from the author!


Urban Fantasy and the Female Protagonist

I saw someone bring up a really interesting point online last week about female protagonists in the UF genre.

Why is it a male protagonist (such as Indiana Jones) can seduce multiple women and no one questions whether it’s an adventure or romance, but put a female in the lead and the dynamic changes. (paraphrased)

Why is there such a double standard for romance in adventure books dependent on the sex of the protagonist?

It seems as if the moment a romance subplot is mentioned in relation to an urban/contemporary fantasy series, the protagonist’s sex determines whether or not the paranormal romance label will be thrown around. If a male protagonist is high-lining the series than the assumption is you’re still looking at an adventure, where as a female protagonist brings up the romance label. An example of this is The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher and The Hollows by Kim Harrison (two of my all time favorite urban fantasy series). The Dresden Files feature Harry Dresden and The Hollows feature Rachel Morgan. Though both feature strong romance subplots along side adventure and mystery, it’s only The Hollows that is occasionally given the paranormal romance label. The Dresden Files with a male protagonist gets a free pass from the PR label.

Why are we so willing to jump to the conclusion that a book featuring a woman protagonist in fantasy is a romance?

I think it’s partly related to the assumption that women read romance. Not to knock romance, it’s one of the most consumed genres on the planet (if not the most consumed), and it is traditionally marketed exclusively to women.

But I wonder if there isn’t another aspect to the puzzle, a slightly more insidious and less direct cultural influence, but one that’s never-the-less been there for a long time. The assumption that women will read about both a female or male protagonist, but men will only read about a male protagonist. Jump the logic train and add on the idea that women read romance and you’ve got your stereotype.

Men won’t watch movies about women. The History of Green-Lighting in Hollywood

There is a reluctance to showcase a female headliner in a movie, particularly in the adventure fantasy genre, that goes back to a practice prevalent in green-lighting films. In order to be green-lit, the execs holding the purse strings need to be convinced the movie will earn back its investment. For just about as long as the practice has been in place, one of the factors a movie is judged by is the appeal of the main protagonist. Bonus points if the protagonist is male, points deducted if they’re female. The logic this is based on is the idea that not only will men not watch a movie about a female protagonist, but women will still watch a movie featuring male protagonists. Do you potentially loose half your audience if you go with a women lead, or do you play it safe and use a male? (Harry Potter is an example of a book that would have been easier to green-light than one featuring a female)

This means it’s harder to get a movie green-lit starring a female lead. Everything is held up to a different standard – script, story, actors – because it’s still assumed that the movie featuring a woman is coming out at an audience disadvantage.

Now, the big caveat here is this logic is based on a biased pool of data. Since in order to be green-lit a movie needs a male protagonist, the theory has never really been tested. Chicken before the egg. Though it should be noted that in 2013 (Hunger Games Catching Fire, Frozen, Gravity), movies headlining female protagonists out earned their male counterparts by 20%, and there were fewer movies made staring female leads. It suggests that the importance of gender during green-lit could be hurting studio pockets, not lining them. Want a movie to obliterate box office numbers? Stick a strong women in the lead roll and watch the money train roll in.

If we think about it, women have always featured heavily in our mythology and stories- from the Greek and Roman Gods like Diana, Athena, and Aphrodite, to folk heroes like Joan of Arc, strong women feature historically in many of our oldest tales.

So how does this relate to the paranormal romance label?

               Women read romance

This one is a bit trickier. Romance is often maligned in discussions on books, but it’s also one of the most consumed (if not the most consumed) commercial fiction genres on the planet. Romance is also largely consumed by (and I might add marketed towards) women. That’s not to exclude men. Lots of guys read romance, secretly or not. The point is, as far as consumer dynamics are concerned, romance novels are written for women.

My concern is the jump in logic that assumes that if romance is written for women, all women must read romance. It’s like saying all women like pink. It’s a label ascribed to women but it’s not true. A lot of women can’t stand the color – it’s simply a color, not a defining characteristic of the female gender. Lots of women love Fantasy/Sci-Fi and are more interested in an adventure plotline than romance.

So, even though green-lighting says a female protagonist is a liability, the publishers of the world know romance makes them a lot of money. Granted, some of them are halfway convinced all women consume romance but since that gravy train of logic is a colossal earner why fix what’s not broken? It’s no wonder there’s an initial industry bias that a book featuring a female protagonist- fantasy or not- must be a romance. That’s apparently what women buy, and since romance is the big ticket item in the world of books…well, what wouldn’t be safer? Wisdom from green-lighting in the movie industry dictates men won’t read about a female protagonist, so best marketing practices says go all out and convince people it is a romance.

Jump another logic step to the audience pool and it’s also no wonder they assume a book (or movie for that matter) featuring a women is going to be a romance. We’ve been trained to.

The point of this post isn’t to lay blame or pick a fight. We’ve seen more strong female protagonists headline movies in the past few years than ever before and they’re killing it at the box office. I have high hopes that we’re now seeing the remnants of the green-lighting male bias (if there’s one thing studio execs like, it’s money, and Katniss is money).

Now this is at its heart an opinion piece. My point here is to suggest that these two seemingly unrelated mediums (romance novels and movie green-lighting practices) are influencing on a subtle cultural level how the world perceives urban fantasy. When urban fantasy featuring a female protagonist gets slotted into paranormal romance without a second thought, I think it’s worth discussing.

And here’s to more contemporary fantasy (movies/books/games/all inclusive here) featuring smart female protagonists.


Kristi Charish

Kristi is the author of OWL AND THE JAPANESE CIRCUS (Jan 13th, 2015, Simon and Schuster Canada/Pocket Books), an urban fantasy about a modern-day “Indiana Jane” who reluctantly navigates the hidden supernatural world. She writes what she loves; adventure heavy stories featuring strong, savvy female protagonists, pop culture, and the occasional RPG fantasy game thrown in the mix. The second installment, OWL AND THE CITY OF ANGELS, is scheduled for release Jan 2016. Her second urban fantasy series, KINCAID STRANGE (Random House Canada), about a voodoo practioner living in Seattle, is scheduled for release mid 2016.

Kristi is also a scientist with a BSc and MSc from Simon Fraser University in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and a PhD in Zoology from the University of British Columbia. Her specialties are genetics, cell biology, and molecular biology, all of which she draws upon in her writing. She is represented by Carolyn Forde at Westwood Creative Artists.


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Tabitha (Pabkins)

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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20 Responses to “Kristi Charish discussing Urban Fantasy and the Female Protagonist”

  1. Liza Barrett

    Lovely post — thanks so much for sharing!

    I might argue that it is exactly an evidence of the rarity of female leads in the movies that caused them to outsell so drastically — they’re rare enough that us females flocked to them. I think it is super sad that there is that kind of difference between male and female in terms of “adventure” versus “paranormal romance” — it’s something I’d noticed but never really thought to articulate — so thanks for making me think a bit more about it!
    Liza Barrett recently posted…Weekend Writing Warriors: February 7 #8sundayMy Profile

  2. Lege

    Great post, Kristi! 🙂

    Uf, ok.
    I think big part of why female lead UF are shelved with romance can be attributed to covers. I mean, I love Dan Dos Santos but Mercy’s boobs are always pushed up… We’ll use your example: Rachel Morgan v Dresden files. Harry is always in trench coat and wearing a hat, but Rachel is always in high heels and mini skirts on the cover. On the other hand, guys on PNR covers are always bare chested and have a tattoo or something, but females are in…high heals, mini skirts, cleavage, etc. There is simply no big difference with how female protagonist is depicted in UF and PNR covers, especially if stock picture is used. Same can’t be said for male protagonists.
    Another reason can also be due to the fact that with some books boundaries between UF and PNR are blurred. There is quite a few genre-benders.
    And it can be also because romance is traditionally referred as “woman genre”.
    Romance as a genre has a terrible rep. Few days ago I had a discussion on GR with a fellow reader who claims romance subplot in scifi is either irrelevant or unrealistic. I think it very much depends of writer and romance can be a part of character or plot development, just like mystery plot and yet… there is no stigma attached to those.
    I think all of this together is why female lead UF are shelved as PNR as opposed to male lead UF.

    Re movies: Some statistics show that huge success of superhero blockbusters is due to the fact that more women are interested in comics and they do make a big part of audience. In this climate it would be great for big studios to explore options and go with female lead movies (I want Black Widow movie!;) So, why it didn’t happen yet or more often despite the fact it’s earning them money? I am not sure, but it may be because people are still having outrage over black stormtrooper, because female Doctor Who is apparently a blasphemy, because everyone else in Avengers cast are being interviewed on their characters and Scarlett Johansson has to answer bunch of questions about her body. Sexism is still very much alive in Hollywood.

    • Kristi Charish

      Hey Lege-
      I definitely think the covers play a role. As you point out with Rachel Morgan, there’s nothing in the books themselves that warrants her outfits yet there they are. It’s become the go to for UF women- Even the Kitty Norville books have a substantial amount of midriff that doesn’t fit with the character (which is an awesome series btw).
      And I’d like to see more female superhero movies too! Black Widow and Wonder Woman please!

  3. Felicia (asillygirl)

    Really great post! I agree, I think it’s because of stereotypical views on the genders. I’ve read plenty of books with a male protagonist, written mostly to boys, where he falls in love, but that’s not considered ‘romance’ the same way. Interesting points are made in this blog post, and I like it.

    – Love, Felicia
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  4. [email protected]

    Wonderful post, thank you!
    It touched a great deal of sore spots, indeed: the Big Stereotype is quite alive and well, even in this enlightened (?) age… This widespread need to categorize everything we read, watch or listen to is the biggest obstacle we need to overcome: as long as there are people willing to point out the flaws in this kind of reasoning, as it happened with this post, there will be hope of tearing down these silly walls.
    [email protected] recently posted…Lexicon – Max BarryMy Profile

  5. Mogsy @ BiblioSanctum

    This sort of reminds me of a conversation Tabs and I had about why UF by women often gets shelved in bookstores as paranormal romance, but not the UF by written by men. I think we talked about the possibility that the booksellers know exactly what they’re doing when they do that; romance DOES bring in the big bucks, and convincing consumers that something is romance (even when it technically isn’t) is a “safe practice” and a marketing strategy that is more guaranteed to bring profit. It’s a feedback cycle that’s encouraged by both the buyer and the seller.
    Mogsy @ BiblioSanctum recently posted…Book Review: Cherry Bomb by Kathleen Tierney/Caitlín R. KiernanMy Profile

  6. Ramona

    Interesting points here. I have to admit I didn’t think much about it, but now, looking again after reading this, the patterns are glaring. It makes me sad. It IS sad.

    Thanks for posting!
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  7. Marianne @ Boricuan Bookworms

    It’s funny because I hadn’t actually thought about it until now. It’s true. If the male lead is a flirt, the story would still stay as an Adventure, but if it’s a female, it’s suddenly Romance. It’s really sad, but they’ve been doing it for years 🙁 The fact is, sellers tell “little white lies” all the time because at the end of the day all they want is the money.

  8. Tammy @ Books, Bones & Buffy

    The REAL truth is that almost everything has some kind of romance in it, even if it’s just in the background. But of course, not every book is given the label of “romance.” I do love romance in my stories, but I like it off to the side, and I love when authors stir things up and do different things with romance. I definitely think Kristi does that in OWL, it was one of the reasons I loved it:-D
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  9. Micheline @ Lunar Rainbows Reviews

    Gah! This was a suuuper interesting post to me, thanks so much for posting Tabitha and to Kristi for always being so damn interesting! Being a self-professed feminist, I always wonder about stuff like this…it’s true that if you have a female lead, be it in books or television, people will peg it as a romance, even if the romantic aspect is minimal. I think the men making the calls like to see women as more romantic creatures then men are. Which is untrue. Now I don’t consider myself a romance reader – I like romance as much as the next guy or girl, but I prefer it to be a subplot, secondary to the actual action/adventure. In this sense Owl and the Japanese Circus was perfection. Owl had her splash of romance, but it didn’t lead the plot. And she kept a level head on about her crush which is refreshing. To me this was a paranormal adventure with a little bit of romance on the side 🙂
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  10. Jessica @ Rabid Reads

    I’m (once again) late to this party, but this is a subject that I have particular peeves about. It drives me bloody bonkers when an UF series gets slotted as PNR b/c of a romance SUBplot. The reasons for my peeves–basically the double standard and assumption that any “romance” at all (which is a very broad term) equals Romance as a genre—are a little bit different then what you’ve said here, but I agree with your points, and see how it all relates. Very interesting discussion post. I like it 😉

    • Kristi Charish

      I’m late to stopping in for the discussion too, Jessica!

      The issue with subplots always get me too. As someone pointed out earlier, MOST adventure stories have some romance subplot but toss a female lead in and it gets slotted as romance…
      I think a lot of readers miss out on great adventure books with strong female protagonists because they think it’s a romance which makes me sad.

  11. Mary @ BookSwarm

    I have so many feels regarding this post — Feels of Awesome, that is. YESYESYES to all of this. And it bugs the hell out of me. I could write a whole post — a whole book on this subject so I’m going to cut myself off now before I get all ranty. Except to say that I loved this new story. MOAR, please?
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