What our authors say…
Between being a writer and performing improv, I know very well that presenting the truth is the key to writing any character. What’s the reality for this person? And just staying with that reality in an honest way lets the humanity (or whatever) be genuine. -Sara O. Thompson
For more tips, grab the Inspired by Limyaael booklet!
The title of the rant explains itself, I think. I’ve put “more” in there because I’ve written rants in the past about different ways to diversify female characters, and slashed heroines/female protagonists because of the unfortunate connotation that “heroine” sometimes has.
1) A life in thought.
One thing missing from a lot of fantasy novels is philosophy—not morality, since there’s often a clear sense of right and wrong, but the exploration of abstract questions. What is truth like in that world? How is beauty regarded? Knowledge? Wisdom? (Is there a difference between knowledge and wisdom?) Is there a purpose to existence for your invented culture(s), and what is it? What is the philosophy of art?
Even in a society where philosophers don’t exist as a separate profession, class, or guild, I bet there are people doing some thinking about these things. And some of them can be women. Or should be women, since female philosophers are rarely, if ever, central characters in fantasy novels.
Want to use a noblewoman character as your protagonist but have absolutely no idea what to do with her if she’s not involved in a marriage plot? Make her a philosopher! She’ll certainly have time to think that a working-class character probably won’t have, and curiosity makes for a good way to show off the fantasy world. And if she gets into intellectual debates or is forced to defend her ideas, she’ll develop as a thinker in a way that many female protagonists don’t get to.
2) Friendship, complicated and complex.
As much as I enjoy reading about and depicting lesbian relationships, I think female friendships (at least, female friendships that are not centered on winning and discussing men) are even rarer in fantasy. They give you all kinds of things to consider. Here are just a few:
- How did these women meet?
- What drove the initial formation of their friendship? Are those factors still around? If so, how have they developed? If not, what kept them friends when the initial common ground turned to mud?
- What wrinkles have their friendships gone through? What really spectacular fights, conflicts of principles, arrival of subjects on which they’ve agreed to disagree?
- How hard do they pull on one another? For example, is one friend always supportive of the other no matter what, because support is what she needs most in her life, or does she smack her friend upside the head regularly and tell her not to be an idiot?
- What do they talk about most often? (This seems to be especially hard for many authors to write about if they want to ban men as a discussion subject).
I’m probably prejudiced, because all the most complex relationships in my life have been friendships, not love affairs. But they’re also less “regulated,” because of the absence of common models in fiction, than relationships like mother-daughter or sister-sister or lover-lover. I always perk up when I see a pair of fictional female friends, because I feel I’m able to expect more variety from them. (Note that this does not tend to happen if their sole subject of conversation is who likes them and who likes-likes them).
3) A truly equal footing.
What would it take for a woman in a fantasy society that’s not gender-equal to gain freedom and the ability to form equal relationships with other people? Imagine that the solution is not to become male and abandon everything that makes her female. Maybe she likes some of the things that make her female (and, in any case, deciding that to be “free” a woman has to remain a virgin or never have a child is a limited vision).
So. How does she do it?
It’s going to depend on the circumstances of the society you’ve set up, of course, and the individual qualities and flaws of your protagonist. But say you’ve rejected the “substitute male” and “complete runaway” routes (the first for the reason given above, and the second because it insists that the character has to give up all connections to everybody else). How does she win her freedom without paying a price that’s intolerable to her?
By this term, I’m talking about true asexuality, the lack of sexual desire and any longing to engage in a sexual relationship, not a character who’s been scared away from sex by rape or abuse. And yes, male asexual characters are rare, too, but men are more often written as though romantic relationships are unnecessary in their lives—asexuality in practice if not theory. Whereas female characters have to be located in relation to romance the moment they appear on-stage. They’re lesbians, or they’re going to fall in love with the men they’re currently screaming at, or they’re casually bisexual, or she’s had two kids in the past but they’re living with her sister now, or she’s a repressed virgin who just needs to find the right man.
But say that she’s asexual. She just has no interest in any sexual relationships.
Maybe her society has no classification for this, and so other people still try to shove or manipulate her into a sexual category. But this character conceives them all as not mattering to her. She slips out of the categories in her own head, or creates her own. And she doesn’t need to have children or take a lover to be a “real woman.”
Or the author can write her independently of romance whatsoever. If her society is accepting of bisexuality, homosexuality, and polyamory, they could be equally accepting of asexuality. Romance is dispensed with. It does not come up.
Any version of female asexuality could make an interesting story.
5) Changing oneself.
The version of this story that I’m most fascinated with is the human who ventures into a nonhuman culture, absorbing their point-of-view, shifting her own attitudes, mentally becoming the alien. But there are other ways to do it:
- The female privileged protagonist who becomes aware of and tries to deal with her own privilege and the consequences of it.
- The heroine whose life changes radically later on, rather than with puberty or as a child, and who has to integrate her sudden magic or destiny or binding to another person into the connections she’s already formed.
- The oppressed/colonized woman who begins to be able to separate her consciousness from the oppression or colonization, and starts the process of changing what she can.
- The woman who’s been hurt and whose life is not suddenly 100% better because a goddess chooses her or a man falls in love with her; she sets her sights on a goal and works towards it, even though complete healing may not be possible.
This requires a lot of introspection, which might be one reason it’s not that popular a plot for fantasy novels. But I think adventure is indeed possible in a story like this; it’s just that it can’t take over and be the sole thing happening.
6) Dealing with human limitations.
Her own and others’, in this case. And no, not in the so-familiar holding pattern in which everyone else’s needs—children’s, male partner’s, siblings’, parents’, random passing men’s—come before the needs of the heroine, who is a selfless (and often spineless) martyr. A woman in this kind of plot would need to choose and act; the difference is that she’s not able to knock down every barrier in her way as if she were a queen or a conquering savior.
What’s her life like if she’s living in the middle of an occupation? A natural disaster? A magical disaster? The sudden appearance of an alien species? A difficult political situation, with necessary compromises and powerful opponents who must be appeased? A personal limitation, such as a disdain for violence in a society where violence is one of the prime ways to advance? A chosen limitation, such as a refusal to go on bailing a rebellious child out of trouble?
This is where I have a lot of frustration with some specific fantasy plot devices, which are designed to destroy all the barriers the protagonist faces. Loopholes are the ones I hate most, but also common are sudden unbeatable power, prophecies, coerced loyalty because of prophecy (“But we have to obey her! She’s the Chosen One!”), and a simple lack of ethics (such as the heroine who has no problem killing other people because they’re The Enemy).
Why waste a beautiful difficult situation by insisting that the difficulties are just an illusion?
If the center of a female protagonist’s life is her work, that’s often a problem. If she has children, of course she’s too busy to be a proper mother to them. If she’s performing a job commonly done by men in her society, then she runs the risk of losing her femaleness (see point 3). If she’s an artist, she turns out not to be as good an artist as she thinks she is, and/or discovers that she wants a man/a family more than her art.
Why not have work be the center of your female protagonist’s story? She can still have a perfectly ordinary life outside work. Many male protagonists in fantasy are presented as having had friends, lovers, training, different jobs, and families in the past before they started saving the world or going on the quest or fighting in the war. A female protagonist can be a dedicated botanist, but that doesn’t mean that she’s automatically a bad mother or a dangerous workaholic.
Of course, fantasy also has an allergy to work as such. (Tasks are a different matter. For one thing, you can tell that it’s a task because the hero/ine is reluctant to undertake it and certain that s/he’ll be no good at it). There’s no reason that prejudice has to endure, especially because something that’s simple here may be difficult in another world—or another world may have work that doesn’t exist here. Try giving your female protagonist a job without implying that she’s a bad person for having one, and see what happens.