Writing: Women in Fantasy

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Writing: Women in Fantasy (and Four Common Tropes I’m Bored With)

I know, I know. It’s been a long time since I’ve done one of these ‘Things I’m So Damn Tired Of’ posts. And you guys have been so lonely without them. So very, very lonely.

Today’s liberal dose of hatred and despair is leveled at four fantasy heroine types who, especially in YA fiction, have become alarmingly prevalent. Now, mind you, there are good ways to do everything, and even these four maidens of mystery can be done well. But what I describe here is not the right way to do them. It’s the right way to make my fillings ache.

A brief note about ‘how to characterize women in fiction’, a subject I see touched on periodically, and grace with a brief chuckle every time I view it: you don’t have anything special to prove, when you write a woman. You don’t have to go out of your way to make her ‘badass’. Women, like men, have a remarkable range of personality traits, and a woman is no more likely to be weak or unlikeable because she’s a seamstress than a man is because he’s a tailor. A girl doesn’t have to be a tomboy or hold a sword to be awesome. A lady can, in fact, be ‘strong’ and ‘badass’ with four kids and a job as a laundress. It’s one of the weaknesses of the fantasy genre today, I think, that folk feel the need to shove a sword in someone’s hand and wrap her in chainmail to make her ‘strong’.

On the other hand, if your lady is a fighting lady–make sure she really is a fighting lady. Not everyone in a medievalesque fantasy universe runs around with a sword and fighting skillz–why did your fighting lady choose this path? What’s made her a soldier? And, for the record–it doesn’t always have to be revenge. I mean, think about it–you probably have a few friends who’ve served in the armed forces. Did they join the military for revenge?

Really?

…or did they do it because they wanted to serve their country? For the pay, maybe? Because they came from a military family? Because Dad said it was either that or go to college? Or maybe, maybe, just because they wanted to. Not everyone clutching a hauberk has to be doing it for some Great Noble Purpose.

Anyway. Without further ado:

1) Princess Hellion
She’s a princess. Which is great and all, except she totally would rather be out in the woods fighting and stuff. Except when she’s forced into fancy (usually elaborately described) gowns, has to use all those somehow-still-considered-useless Courtly Deportment lessons, and attends balls which, for reasons unknown to the plot, take up like a whole chapter. Where she meets Prince Charmingly Not Like All Those Other Men Who Expect Her to Wear A Dress All The Time. And engages in witty and pleasantly hostile repartee. Because she’s badass, which means she Says What She Means. And she’s also a princess, which means she expects to have her own way all the time, which is what princesses are like always, right?

The Breakdown: I’m so tired of the plucky princess trope. Princesses learn to behave, too–probably more seriously than the rest of us, since being shitty and offending the NExt Country ambassador can have serious consequences. If she’s really that much of a spoiled pill, guess what? People–probably the whole court–are going to despise her. No one likes a brat. Especially not as many people as like this particular type of character in fiction. Her father always adores her, Prince Charmingly Et Al. falls in love with her. Why?

How to Do It Right: Aerin, from Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword, is a little Mary Sueish, but she’s still one of the best heroines of this type. She’s a princess who likes to fight, sure, and she’s got a temper–but she’s also a genuniely likeable person, and she works hard for her dragon-slaying rights. She gets scarred, gets hurt, and makes sacrifices to save her country and earn the respect she deserves.

2) The Tortured Waif
It’s A Tragedy, Whatever Happened.

It’s a tragedy, because it left this young woman with total, like, scars. Not real scars, no. Those make people ugly. But emotional scars, totes. Usually, this is a princess or duchess or some other purebred lovely floaty ladything. Often, for reasons I can’t figure out, she’s associated with magic.

The Breakdown: Something happened, and now a whole major plotline just has to be devoted to this girl getting over it. Because there is nothing more fascinating than watching pretty people not-cry in public after weeping in private. (The villainess version of this, by the way, is even more common: the Lady Twisted With Revenge).
But she’s so strong, you know? So strong it takes her three hundred and fifty pages to ‘let go’, whatever that means.

How to Do It Right: Gonna be straight up honest, I can’t think of a single good example of this being done well right now. Usually, it’s employed more in soppy fantasy romances, anyway. My long term feelings are, if you need Great Trauma to prove how strong your character is, enough attention hasn’t been paid to characterization.

3) The Innocent Rogue
Her eyes twinkle, her fingers are nimble. She usually has freckles (and she is, entirely too often, an unknowing heiress to something or other, hidden away or abandoned at birth, etc.). She’s got a set of daggers on her, when she’s scaling buildings and scampering along roofs in the underbelly of the city. When she’s acting as the blind at a fancy ball (because there’s always a damn fancy ball in these stories) she’s charming and devastatingly beautiful and full of bon mots.
But, much though she loves a rogue’s life, she never really does anything nasty. Because thievery, as long as it’s happening in a fantasy world and not to you, is charming. Right? Right? It’s okay. She’ll save the world somehow in the end.

Breakdown: Why do people steal? Usually because they don’t have enough of stuff. This girl would either be a fairly unwilling thief, or have some nasty personality parts hidden deep, deep down. Either way, I don’t know that she’s the lady you really want as your queen later on, when she discovers her ‘heritage’ and suddenly goes legit. That whole ‘taxes’ thing is going to seem tempting.

Done Well: There were parts of this novel I disliked, but Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn deals with this character type well and believably. The main character’s brief life of crime happens first unwillingly, and then to a reasonable purpose. She’s also refreshingly clumsy at balls. Because, you know. She’s never been to one before.

4) The Woman Warrior
She’s mean with a sword. She’s struggled, sometimes quite a bit, to become The Woman Warrior (usually the only woman warrior in the story). She doesn’t have much truck with girly shit, like wearing dresses and balls and stuff (though she will, like fricking always, wind up at one eventually. Because even this attitudinal lady has to be seen in a dress. Because she’s a lady, and she has to have a softer prettier side for Love Interest to be Interested). Her movements are graceful, her sword is swift, her attitude is either repressed anger or more of those damned witty bon mots. She’s the fantasy world’s tomboy: and, like all tomboys, nobody would like her if she wasn’t still pretty. Right? Right?

Breakdown: A real soldier has spent some time being a soldier. If you’ve led a lot of campaigns, you’re probably sunburned, scarred, hoarse-voiced from shouting commands at all those assholes who don’t know as well as you do. Even if you’ve managed to escape all that, there are points when you’re on a battlefield killing people where you’re covered in blood and effluvia and your hair looks like shit. You’ve got some serious muscle, and, since you’re a warrior through and through, you don’t immediately lose your famed fighting abilities as soon as you gain a love interest.
Because no one really looks good in chainmail. No one.
I’m not saying a gal has to ugly up to do this, but come on. Soldiery is hard. Being in battle is hard. It doesn’t leave you with flawless moon-pale skin, and being around a ton of soldiers doesn’t leave you full of social graces.

Done Well: I’m going to be a self-promoting bitch and refer you to my own book here, of course. Because I do things well. I do.
The other thing that comes to mind, curiously enough, is from a YA series I loved as a kid: Tamora Pierce’s Alanna books. While Alanna gets irritatingly close to the word ‘plucky’ sometimes–and you guys can imagine how I feel about ‘plucky’–she fights hard and trains hard to become a knight, and her fiery personality comes across as a drawback as well as a bonus. And, though I think Pierce still pretties her up sometimes, she takes no shit. She’s also short, which I think is what endeared these books to me as a kid. Short people power.

Notice some trends here? These hated ladies are always pretty, always young, almost always white, usually noble, and there’s always a ballroom scene. (A ballroom scene, for those not operating at full capacity this morning, might not actually take place in a ballroom. It’s that reveal scene, where you see your ‘rugged’ heroine in a dress for the first time. You know the one. Oh, god, you do.)

There’s no proper way to portray a woman in a fantasy world. Laundresses, farmgirls, and servants are just as common–honestly, probably more common–than the nobility that makes up 90% of fantasy novels.

And another thing–women aren’t always young. Or single. Or childless. Or beautiful. ‘Strong women’ don’t always hate dresses and despise the court. I think it’s time we moved away from the pretty young tomboy and looked in on the other ninety percent of fantasy womanhood.

A badass is still a badass, even in pink–and I’m tired, so very tired, of that Disneyesque ‘ballroom scene’ where a tomboy has to dress up and let her hair down for some forsaken notion of ladyhood and ‘becoming beautiful’. When you do that one scene, you’re discrediting femininity terribly. You’re saying, essentially, that no one has noticed this woman is a woman until she puts on a dress. And, through elimination, you imply that there’s only one way to be a woman–and that way isn’t ‘strong’ or ‘badass’.

So, really. If you want to write a good fantasy female, take out the motherfucking ballroom scene. Tempting though it is, it’s cheap, and it doesn’t do anyone any favors. You can write a lady who is young, attractive, ‘plucky’, mysteriously parentless, and all those popular things. I’m not saying you can’t. But please, please, be realistic, and take a second before you do to consider the other ninety-eight percent of women out there, and whether or not you might have a stronger story with one of them.

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5 thoughts on “Writing: Women in Fantasy

  1. I always feel like, if you’re not going to do something in a new and interesting way, why do it? I never understood why we had to have a 12th or 13th rendition of some Shakespeare play except that the actor always wanted to do Hamlet. (Maybe he did, but that doesn’t mean I want to see it for the 12th time done badly.)

    On the other hand, unfortunately, with many genres the reader comes to it with an expectation of three or four things definitely happening. I have never understood that. To me that’s Rambo VI or Rocky XXIX. Why do you need to tell me the same story 15 times? Go do something new, Stallone!

    And, NO, Expendbles 3 is not what I meant!

    So, as I – no kidding – begin chapter 3 of my princess fantasy story, I will keep in mind maybe not to ask you to critique it.

    I had not planned on a ballroom scene, but I am sure it may have crossed my mind somewhere in the next 80,000 words. On the other hand, like I said if I can’t do it in a new and interesting and unique way, why the hell am I even bothering?

    So as I get to word 79,999, there will be plenty of places to cut and trim. If there’s a ballroom dance scene, we can look forward to deleting it.

    1. Oh, man. Expendables 3 might not be what you meant, but it is totally sadly what we got.

      There’s nothing wrong with writing a princess story. Sometimes, somebody’s gotta be a princess. But, like y’said, it’s good to do it in a new way. I’ve seen ‘plucky young beautiful princess with a mind of her own’ eight million times, so something’s gotta make it different.

      And yeah, I recommend casting out the ballroom scene. I wish I had something mitigating to say for that one, but it’s one of those things I just can’t mitigate. I’ve never seen it done and liked it. Not even in Cinderella, when I was a bitty girl. :p

  2. I want to start out by apologizing for not reading this post as carefully as it deserves, but it’s been a long week and I’m finding it hard enough to keep my eyes open… Thanks for this anyhow. I do believe I’ve pulled some inspiration from this.

  3. I don’t write fantasy, but most of my protags and antags are women. I read this holding my breath waiting for: no. 3) small gobby woman who comes from Lincoln (why do small gobby women always come from Lincoln? Can’t they come from Goole or Huyton?) or: 4) mad woman rejected by father and family, who turns to her Satanic grandmother and has ambitions to write demonic romance novels. (Not every rejected woman has a Satanist in the family…)

    I think I got off lightly there, and for the record, I think all my novels would pass the Bechdel Test. Do you think having blue hair and Marxist-Leninist parents is a cliche? I can change the hair colour if so.

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