I’ll be the first to say that Robert Jordan, rest his soul, had some pretty weird sexual politics. From his work, he seemed to firmly believe that men and women could never truly understand each other. Many of his female protagonists are varying shades of shrill, bratty, vindictive, pushy know-it-alls, about whom the boys constantly moan and whine in their inability to understand them. There’s been a lot of discussion in the YA community about unlikeable characters and debate about whether or not a female protagonist needs to be likeable (though the definition of what is unlikeable is often subject to debate). For me, when I was reading The Wheel of Time in my teens and early twenties, characters like Elayne and Nynaeve were as frustrating and unlikeable as they came. Katsa? Katniss? Sansa? Cersei? They don’t hold a candle to the burning hatred I felt for these women, but they’ve also never managed to capture my admiration in the same way. And you know what? Looking back, they’re awesome.
There are a massive number of characters in The Wheel of Time saga, about as many or more as George R.R. Martin’s magnum opus The Song of Ice and Fire. The difference between them, setting wise, is a great many of these characters are female and, for the most part, none of them ever really questions their ability to get shit done. Also, there are a lot of women in these novels. You can’t really go ten pages without tripping over one or two, from barmaids, to ladies in waiting, to noblewomen who are natural inheritors of their own estates, to queens who inherit through the matrilineal line, to Aes Sedai (probably the greatest political force in the setting). Women who are interested in getting married, women who don’t like men, women who use sex for power, women who like to torture, women who are bookish, women who can see the future, women who consistently speak their mind, women who drink, fight, and swear, women who like to study, women who gamble, women warriors, female politicians, noblewomen who run away from home, noblewomen working to claim what’s theirs, noblewomen content to let others rule for them, lots of queens, female servants who work for queens, women who own their own businesses, female captains, female betrayers (on all sides), women who use magic, women learning to use magic, women who have different opinions on how to use magic, women who want to stop the Dark One, women who serve the Dark One, women who don’t give a crap the world is ending, women who don’t believe the world is ending, women who love Rand, women who hate Rand, women who want to control Rand, women who want to kill Rand, women who don’t care about Rand, women who want to swat Rand upside the head, but mostly women who have their own storylines and agents of their own destinies outside of the main plot. There are lots of women, from bit characters to major players. It’s true that Rand can be very paternalistic, but there are plenty of female characters (including his lovers) who cheerfully tell him where he can shove his concern and even use those traits against him.
I’m not sure if The Wheel of Time is a truly gender equal setting, but it’s closer than a lot of other fantasy settings get. If there’s anything we can take from this series and others like Mercedes Lackey’s Heralds of Valdemar. The key to creating one is to include women, lots of women, many different kinds of women. Not just one or two female characters floating around in the background or surrounding a female protagonist, but put women in the background and the foreground. They may not even be full characters, they may only get a few cast away references to their existence. Don’t comment on how weird it is that there are women trainees in with the men, don’t think about how your character is “awfully good for a girl” and if you do, have a counterpoint ready to smack that character upside the head. She’s just good.
Maybe your male character had a female mentor. After all, the renowned warrior-woman Sgathaichtrained the great hero Cú Chulainn in Celtic myth. Why not yours? In The Wheel of Time, Elayne is the daughter of the Queen of Andor and her heir. She shares a very close relationship with her mother because Morgause is the one who taught her statecraft. Elayne’s major arc in the series after she learns to control her magic is taking control Andor after her mother is murdered. Rand’s initial tutors in the One Power are all female as there are no male channelers who can teach him (except for the Forsaken) because of the Taint in the male half of the One Power. It’s not much of a long shot to state, even after he captures a Forsaken, that his most important tutors are still Moraine, Cadsuane, and the Aiel Wise Ones.
The presentation of women in The Wheel of Time isn’t always positive, but there are so many differing characters that the character flaws are just character flaws instead of immediate commentary. We, the readers, have our pick to choose who we like and who we don’t. This is true for all the characters, both major and minor, throughout the series.
So yes, I don’t like Nynaeve or Elayne, especially in the early books. I have never warmed to Faile. Moraine is a little meh for me. I really, really hate Elaida (though it’s really a love to hate). However, I happen to love Verin, Egwene, Cadsuane, Aviendha, Semirhage, Moghedien, Graendahl, Tuon, Siuan, Amys, Sorilea, Baire, and a host of others. If I’m criticizing one female character, I’m not criticizing all of them. It’s clear I’m criticizing that character, I don’t like that character not I don’t like women in general.
You make your character special not by making them unique or by giving them one or two characters they compare favorably too, but by having many other characters exist alongside them. The reason male heroes are deeds are based on who they are instead of their gender is that there are plenty of other male characters surrounding them in the novel. If your female character is the one female character within a host of male characters, then the presentation is that she’s special and unique because she’s female or somehow different from the rest of the setting’s nonexistent women. Put female characters everywhere in your fantasy setting, mix things up, and don’t define traditionally male occupations as being the only noteworthy parts of the culture.