Recently a study conducted using AI technology uncovered a statistic that male identifying characters are four times more prevalent in fiction than female ones.
By searching for pronoun usage among a sample of 3000 books from across a range of genres, the study was able to identify a significant gender bias in favour of male characters.
The study couldn’t identify non-binary characters, but it did throw up some interesting insight into the language used around male or female identifying characters. Female characters were commonly described using terms such as ‘weak’, ‘amiable’, ‘pretty’ and even ‘stupid’. Male characters, were more commonly associated with terms such as ‘leadership’, ‘power’, ‘strength’ and ‘politics’.
While this might not be exact, and definitely requires further exploration, it’s certainly an interesting jumping-off point. It also shows what many women knew and have been saying all along- we need to make more of an effort to focus on improving diversity in literature.
As mentioned, this study isn’t exact, but it does go to show that there remains a lot of work to be done to make sure that more women and minority groups are represented, and represented properly, in literature.
One factor I think has a significant impact on the types of characters created in fiction is the types of authors writing it. Currently, while women and members of the LGBTQIA+, disabled and BAME communities are represented, usually this is a tactic to make publishers appear more diverse, and they aren’t often given the support and publicity they deserve. It’s why many of the longest standing writers, particularly in the crime fiction market, are straight white guys.
While there is slowly becoming more diversity, there are still limitations. It is true straight men are writing a lot of fiction, but the larger issue is that they’re also more likely to be the ones behind the scenes at publishing houses and book publicity agencies.
Luckily, diversity is slowly getting there, and we’re starting to see more books featuring a diverse range of characters from a broader selection of writers. Even as few as 10 years ago you wouldn’t have seen so many books featuring homosexual or non-white characters, particularly in the kid’s section.
Nowadays there is more diversity, but still not enough, particularly when it comes to actual authors. Representation matters, and it’s definitely great that we’re seeing more differently abled and diverse characters in books, but if they’re written predominantly by straight white men then they’re not going to resonate with the communities they’re supposed to represent.
Don’t get me wrong; plenty of straight white men make bloody good authors, but they’re taking opportunities from others in marginalised communities who have had to work twice as hard for half the success. So, we need more diverse writers and more people in the wider literary community to support diverse writers. We need publishing houses with more women and people from diverse backgrounds, so we can find the gems from these often overlooked communities and set them centre stage where they belong.
In the future, I think that publishers need to make more of an effort to support minority writers and give them the platform they deserve, and not just because they’re part of a different community. We need to normalise seeing pictures of a wide range of authors that don’t come in a specific section for LGBTQIA+ or BAME writers, but are just listed because their writing is awesome. We also need to make sure that more studies like this are done, so that we can continue to see what’s going on and how we can make a difference going forward.