Can I reach a male audience with a female protagonist?

by Josie Earl
(Fukui, Japan)


I've read that authors should write with a target audience in mind. I've just started giving thought to what age range and gender I'm targeting.

I'm making a sci-fi fantasy story with a female protagonist. Correct me if I'm wrong- I've heard that the predominant demographic reading sci-fi and fantasy novels is male, and that males are less likely to read books with female protagonists. Females on the other hand, are content with protagonists of either gender.

To give my story the best chance at success, should I make my protagonist a male?

I've also read about novelists who use male pen-names to increase their sales. As a female writing in male dominated genre, this saddens me a bit, although, I've heard of male romance writers writing under female pen names as well. I know this is a subjective question, but do you think it's worth writing under a pen name of a different gender?

Answer: You've brought up several issues, which have no definitive answer. But here are some thoughts.

1. Science fiction and fantasy readers are not only male. An article published last year by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America put the percentage of male SF readers at between 48% and 57%. However, women read more fiction than men and tend to buy more books, so the actual likelihood that your SF reader is female may be much higher.

It's true that SF used to be seen as a male genre. American SF began in a time when science and technology were male domains. I'm here referring to the 1930s. Back then, science fiction stories were published in magazines alongside nonfiction articles about science. These magazines were certainly written for a male audience. Young women at that time were discouraged from having careers in science, engineering, and the trades, while men were encouraged.

However, times have changed, thanks in part to changing attitudes about gender roles and in part to many excellent female SF writers. Although we haven't reached equality, far fewer women grow up with the message that they "shouldn't" like science or SF. It helps that we see stronger female roles in SF drama. Anecdotally speaking, when I go to a SF convention (as I occasionally do), I see at least as many women as men (if not more). That includes both fans and creators of SF.

As for fantasy, that has never had the same gender stigma as SF and my personal observation is that there are more female readers of fantasy than men, as with fiction in general.

However, for a long time fantasy readers were victim to a different kind of stigma in which readers of literary fiction would look down their noses at anyone who read fantasy or other fiction genres commonly found in pulp magazines. Literature courses (which focus on literary fiction and canonical works) are taken mainly by women. Hence, there was a kind of "mean girls" phenomena in which smart women weren't supposed to read fantasy (unless they were studying children's fiction) or romance. Combined with the lingering attitude that SF was for men only, this led to a general disregard for genre fiction. (Curiously, I haven't seen the same bias regarding the mystery genre. Maybe others can weigh in on this...)

Again, I'm speaking mainly from personal observation.

Today, however, fantasy and SF have become practically mainstream and the gender biases are disappearing.

2. That said... it is part of dramatica theory that most men are linear thinkers and most women are holistic thinkers, and that this affects how they respond to main characters.

A linear thinker will prioritize criteria. They will look for
the one biggest factor and base their response on that. For instance, when determining if they can empathize with a main character, the first consideration is... "Is this character the same gender as myself?" If the answer is "yes," they will imagine themselves as that character. If the answer is "no," they may be sympathetic towards that character's situation and dilemma, but they will have a hard time seeing themselves as that character.

The other bias linear thinkers have is that they relate better to characters who are running out of time. To a linear thinker, making the right choice is easy. The challenge is accomplishing a task before it's too late.

A holistic thinker, on the other hand, will not prioritize criteria but will seek to balance all factors. A character's gender is one factor, but no more important than others. A holistic thinker will, however, relate more easily to a character who is running out of options. To a holistic thinker, running out of time is not a real problem. The real problem is to make the right choice, to find the best solution.

For this reason, it is a common belief in the field of children's literature that boys will only read books about male characters while girls will read books about either gender. There is some evidence this is true for adults as well.

Dramatica takes that a step further and argues that to attract the widest audience, it is best to have a male main character who is running out of options. Such a character will appeal to both the majority of males and the majority of females.

However, it is a mistake to take this as a hard and fast rule. Not all males are linear thinkers, and not all females are holistic thinkers. When I teach creative writing classes, I often ask students whether they relate better to characters running out of time or options. I have never seen the answers split along clear gender lines.

The reality is that some males read books about female characters as well as male, and some females only relate well to female characters.

Again, because most readers of fiction are women, don't think you must avoid female characters. In fact, if you consider that half the novels published are romances with female main characters, it's safe to say that female main characters are in the majority.

3. It saddens me too to think that writers feel they must alter their pen name to hide their gender. Nonetheless, it still happens. Joanne Rowling, for example, became J.K. Rowling when she wrote a fantasy novel with a male main character. Perhaps there are women who would look at a romance novel by a male author and think, "What would a man know about romance or a female perspective?"

I have also come across reports that SF written by women tends to be under-reviewed and get less general attention that that written by men. No doubt this is a holdover from the early days of SF. However, I also see evidence that this is changing as some female authored SF has been quite popular, at least in the Young Adult area (e.g. The Hunger Games and Divergent, which also have female main characters).

My suggestion is that, unless you're writing in a niche where gender bias is quite overt, you shouldn't worry about your pen name until you come to sell your novel. Your agent or publisher may have opinions on this subject and what choices may increase sales. That is supposedly their area of expertise.

Sometimes you want to follow the herd, and sometimes you want to blaze a trail.

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Thank you very much.
by: Josie

That was a great thorough response! That's a fascinating insight on linear and holistic thinking. Connecting to male audiences differs more than I anticipated. At least I feel assured that there are plenty of female fantasy readers. Because of that, I'll go ahead with my female protagonist. Thank you so much for your advice.

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