This post contains spoilers for The Dragon Prince.

Tropes are the building blocks that make up many of our favourite series, and many literature types include them. Some fantasy and sci-fi tropes include magic items, hidden royalty, and innate or rare types of magic.

Tropes are not in and of themselves bad. However, some are so overused that they become cliché. Others don’t live up to a modern standard; they promote harm against others or weak character development.

In this series, I’m going to explore some of these worse-for-wear tropes and offer suggestions to revitalize them. Today, I’m exploring the pseudo-medieval setting (a fantasy setting that resembles the Middle Ages).

Gender Roles in Pseudo-Medieval Settings

A few months ago, I started reading a fantasy novel upon a friend’s recommendation. I was disappointed, and a little frustrated, to find that the book seemed to be more of the same generic fantasy in a pseudo-medieval setting: after two prologues, both heavy on exposition, the first chapter opened with a battle scene in which one of the main characters was captured by slavers, and there wasn’t a woman in sight until page 70.

I stopped reading. I’ll be the first to admit that, if I gave it another chance, I might find myself swept away in the adventure. But I’m just so tired of this trope.

The Pseudo-Medieval Setting is a staple of fantasy literature; we have Tolkien to thank for that. So many of our favourite fantasy series, like The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and The Wheel of Time, involve royal characters, epic battles, and legendary creatures. There’s just something about a medieval setting that fits these aspects of fantasy literature, something that feels magical and mystical.

But the Pseudo-Medieval Setting also comes with built-in limitations: namely, pre-existing gender roles.

One of the default character types in this setting is the Warrior, which means that many protagonists are, by default, male. Militaries are all-male as well. Female warriors in this setting are often few and far between, and other female characters are relegated to secondary roles because they aren’t part of the main action.

And, it’s not just the lack of female characters, but rather the power that’s used against them that makes this trope tiring. Pseudo-Medieval Settings are often patriarchal, so female characters have very little agency of their own. They are subject to their father’s/brother’s/male relative’s whims, they are constantly under the threat of assault (or rape, depending on how grimdark the novel is), and they often have to resort to sexual means in order to gain their own power.

This is the main reason why fantasy novels that take place in Pseudo-Medieval Settings just aren’t holding my attention anymore. I’m tired of seeing female characters treated as less than they deserve.

Creating a Fantasy World that Avoids this Trope

Many writers have tackled the issue of gender inequality in fantasy and sci-fi, and newer novels and TV shows have been making strides in devoting compelling story-arcs to both male and female characters.

For example, Netflix’s The Dragon Prince takes place in the pseudo-medieval setting of Katolis, which is ruled by a king. But its military features both male and female soldiers, as well as a prominent female general, Amaya (who is also deaf and communicates by using sign language).

Amaya is a skilled fighter and a clever strategist. She is tough and confident, and she commands her battalion with an iron fist. But she’s also warm, kind-hearted, and loyal to her family. Her narrative arc gives her the room to display all of these characteristics, showing her to be a well-rounded character.

One of her greatest character moments happens in Season Three, when she fights Janai, a Sunfire Elf. Amaya is cut off from the rest of her battalion and there’s no where for her to retreat to. But she gains the upper hand when Janai falls over a cliff and is left hanging—Amaya is faced with the option to send her enemy over the edge and ultimately kill her, but she chooses to save her instead. This leads to Amaya’s capture, and she is brought to the Sunfire Elf capital of Lux Aurea as a prisoner. But that small act of mercy sows the seeds that later bloom into friendship and trust between her and Janai.

Significantly, Amaya is not the “exception” to the rule of a male-dominated fantasy space. She is one of many female warriors, leaders, and significant characters in the show. The Dragon Prince avoids this type of culture and addresses other themes with its worldbuilding instead. It also doesn’t threaten its female characters with assault, but, instead, finds other ways to build tension and motivate its characters. Some may argue that this is because The Dragon Prince is a kids’ show, but it doesn’t shy away from tackling other tough situations like death, betrayal, and the brutality of war, which are hardly easy-viewing for children.

Three Questions to Ask About Your Medieval Setting

If you plan to set your fantasy novel in a pseudo-medieval setting, take some time to consider these points.

  1. What does a pseudo-medieval setting add to your story that another setting might not?
  2. If your novel has warriors or soldiers, what is gained by excluding female characters from those storylines?
  3. What other character types do you include besides warriors? How does your novel portray the aspects of life that aren’t military?

When female characters are stuck in patriarchal gender roles, they don’t get the chance to flourish or come into their own. This makes their overall characters and narrative arcs weak, which in turn weakens the novel as a whole. To avoid this trope, ensure your medieval setting makes space for female characters to have agency and include cultures that equalize gender roles.