numbers to chew on

When the Sword & Sorceress antho call went out, I sat down to see how many stories I had around with female protagonists (as that’s one of the requirements). I was startled to find the answer was: not many. Which surprised me; I thought I wrote female characters on a regular basis.

So I sat down and did some counting. These numbers have changed some since the original count (story sales, new stories in circulation), but the pattern’s still there, and still interesting. (At least to me. Your mileage may vary. If so, skip this post.)

At present, I have ten stories under submission with male protagonists, five with female protagonists, and one (“Driftwood”) that includes both, for a total of sixteen.

Of the thirty-eight stories I’ve written and bothered to submit, I’ve done seventeen male, eighteen female, and three mixed (including, for the sake of simplicity, all twelve of the “Never After” flash pieces).

Of the nineteen I’ve sold, seven male, ten female, two mixed.

Percentage-wise, here’s how it breaks down:

Submitting: Male 62.5%, Female 31.25%, Mixed 6.25%
Written: Male 44.7%, Female 47.4%, Mixed 7.9%
Sold: Male 36.8%, Female 52.6%, Mixed 10.5%

Or, to look at the numbers from a different direction: I’ve sold 41.1% of my stories with male protagonists, but 55.6% of the female ones. And that gap would shift further if I went back and recalculated it with “But Who Shall Lead the Dance?” assigned to female or mixed; the pov character is male, but Elsara is arguably the protagonist. That would drop me to 37.5% of male-MC stories sold, and potentially boost female to 57.9%.

In other words, I split fifty-fifty in my writing, but my sales skew female.

Without actually knowing statistics, I feel like the difference is statistically significant. I’m more likely to sell those stories that have female main characters. Now the interesting question is, why?

One strong possibility is that I write female characters better. People generally do better with their own gender, after all. I’ve seen the occasional complaint about Eclipse in Doppelganger (in the vein of, “I can’t believe he wouldn’t be attracted to Mirage, even when she gets nekkid in front of him”), but on the other hand, I also once had a male reader give a thumbs-up to Andris in “Lost Soul” (which, as a recent sale, is an added boost to the “sold: male” category).

Or maybe it’s a broader thing than just characterization: maybe for a whole host of reasons, I write better stories when I’m writing about women.

Or — and this would be the really interesting possibility — maybe it doesn’t have to do with my skill as a writer. Maybe the kinds of stories I’m telling about women are more interesting to editors than the kinds of stories I’m telling about men. I have very little sense of how people perceive the gendering of my writing; aside from the obvious comment that wow, there are a crap-ton of female characters in Doppelganger and Warrior and Witch and a dearth of male ones, I don’t have people saying about me (as they do about matociquala) that my work has girl cooties. (Okay, I don’t think they put it in those terms, but that’s how she condenses the various comments she’s gotten.) Does my work come across as feminine? Masculine? Neither? Both? Does anybody pay attention? What is the sound of one hand clapping?

In other words, I don’t have any firm conclusions to draw. I can, however, tell the pattern’s there. The reason I have so few female-protag stories on hand is not that I haven’t been writing them; it’s that they’ve been skipping out the door more quickly than their male counterparts. (If I were really hardcore, I’d count how many times each sold story got submitted before being sold. But that’s way too much work.)

I have a slew of new things to get out the door that have female MCs (“Kingspeaker,” “The Last Wendy,” “On the Feast of the Firewife,” “Once a Goddess” when it gets finished), so maybe in a year or so we’ll revisit these numbers and see if they’ve continued to hold.

0 Responses to “numbers to chew on”

  1. anima_mecanique

    I’ve been wondering about this sort of thing myself, as the first big writing project I undertook literally had no female characters in it at all. It took place almost entirely on the grounds of a boy’s boarding school that didn’t particularly have any female staff. The main character’s mother appeared briefly in the beginning but neither of his parents had much of a contribution to the overall storyline. Of the major story ideas I’ve been working on for the past few years, only one has a single main character who’s female. The others either have multiple protagonists of both genders or male protagonists.

    Since people are always saying that people write best about their own gender, this is slightly worrisome to me.

    I’m not really sure what to make of the fact that what my brain apparently really wants to do is write stories about teenage boys.

    • Marie Brennan


      I’d say, don’t just look at the fact that you’re writing stories about teenage boys; look at what kinds of stories you’re writing about teenage boys. Odds are there are issues, tensions, themes, etc. running through those things that, for one reason or another, you feel are more suitably explored with male characters.

      • anima_mecanique

        Maybe I’m being to hard on myself, but I honestly think it’s that I grew up reading almost entirely books with male protagonists, so I’m used to those sorts of stories. Some of it is historical setting; the boarding school story grew out of the simple fact that I thought a Victorian boarding school, with its weirdly stratified and often abusive social structure, would be a really cool setting for a horror story. Victorian boys’ schools had the sort of atmosphere I wanted, so…presto. A story populated almost entirely by schoolboys and a few scattered professors.

        *shrug* I probably don’t think as deeply about my ideas as I should. I’m sort of in the China Mieville “I just passionately love monsters” camp here.

        • Marie Brennan

          No, all of that totally makes sense. And thinking deeply comes later — preferably after something is written, since if you think about it beforehand, sometimes that can lead to creative seize-up and/or self-conscious Importance.

    • raisinfish

      S.E. Hinton (Susan Elouise) of The Outsiders wrote all her books about teenage boys. And she’s female. So it’s not unheard of.

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