This is highly flavored by my individual opinion.
Did I mention that?
In a way, there’s not really a need for this rant. I could say, “Make heroines human beings,” and have done. But, on the other hand, if I could just do that, we wouldn’t be living in a world where boring, stupid, and just plain silly heroines get written.
Besides, there are a few tips that apply to “Make heroines human beings” which don’t to males, just because of the way fantasy writers treat characters by gender.
1) Give her more than one goal.
I would ordinarily say, “Please? With sugar on top?” but that wouldn’t stop authors, I think, from continuing to nail their heroines to the cross of only making the hero happy, or only healing the wounded she stumbles across, or only wanting to save the Order of Depressed Witches. Besides, I think “Please? With rusty chainsaws if you don’t?” is more my style.
Designated Love Interests are stock characters. Healers often play that part as well. Heroines are the most common choices for both roles, and when they combine, so that the heroine is the Angel of Mercy type, it just makes my head hurt. (See point 2).
Surely your heroine has not only wanted one thing in her life? Surely sometimes she wishes that she could do something different than what she’s doing? She could have a series of minor goals. She could have dreams that she knows are never going to come true but which she still cherishes. She could have daily work to get done even as she tries to nurse an amnesic hero back to health. All those are ways to keep her grounded, to make her multifaceted, to give her a background instead of making it look like she just coalesced together out of angel dust.
It frankly amazes me how often fantasy authors will plan out a male lead’s detailed background, then toss the female lead into the story half-heartedly. She’s waiting in the woods or the palace or the mage academy for when the hero needs her. She’s certainly done nothing exciting or interesting, compared to his life. And she has no inconvenient ambitions or long-rooted plans that would prevent her from accompanying the hero on his quest. Occasionally the author will pretend to give her some, but they melt away 90% of the time as she realizes what she really wants is the hero.
I don’t believe that 90% of fantasy authors are really sexist. Nor do I believe that just because a heroine wants love, she is doomed to remain uninteresting. But the simplistic way of handling it just won’t do. It never does.
2) Make her feel emotions other than just compassion.
Your heroine can be a healer. Fine. Yes, she can cry at the death of baby ducklings. If you must. She can even spend a lot of time moping because she once said a hurtful thing to someone else in the heat of anger, though I warn you it had better be a really hurtful thing, not just the heroine’s martyr complex acting up.
But if that means she never, ever feels resentment, or true joy, or rage, or contempt, or self-pity, or academic curiosity, or interest in any subject but healing people and listening to their angsty stories…
Remember the rusty chainsaw?
If I had to pick just one characteristic from this whole list to disappear from the minds of fantasy authors forever, this would be the one. I. Hate. It. I hate it that heroines who commit the slightest mistake are forced into anguish over someone else’s pain for pages and pages, while heroes do worse things all the time and walk away with clean consciences. (Most heroines who don’t mope about their mistakes are presented as bitchy Other Women). I hate it that heroines who do have multiple goals and fascinating personalities are required to crush those goals and personalities when someone else gets hurt or a child comes along that needs care. I hate it that so many heroines who fight are presented as misguided revenge-seekers who need to “learn better,” and at the end of the book give up their swords for the hero and the white picket fence and the 2.5 children.
Guess what? Women get angry too. Women are sometimes not delicate swooning virgin angels. Women, and I know this will come as a shock so I am putting it at the end of a long sentence, kill.
I am tired of heroines who exist only as healers and martyrs and repositories of compassion to overflow the whole story. Make her as compassionate as you like, but include the other emotions, too.
3) Make the transformations she undergoes at least as far-reaching as you would for a male protagonist.
I mentioned in the Designated Love Interest rant that DLI’s are rarely allowed to scar. That happens to boring fantasy heroines, too.
And it isn’t just physical scars. If she goes through the most awful torments, she rarely changes as much as the hero will. He can get away with collapsing, having flashbacks, having nightmares, yelling at people because of his awful temper, and hunting his enemies down. Gods that don’t exist forbid a typical fantasy heroine does the same thing. She had better just shut up and be strong for everyone else, because she has to, and of course, she must understand the hero’s pain and never ever yell at him. And yes, as you might have guessed, quite often this is the short straight road back to Point 2. In the rare times it isn’t, the heroine’s pain gets “cured” with Twoo Wuv and a few “wise people” who act as the equivalent of counselors. They babble foofy psychoshit at her, and she’s right as rain!
Look really long and really hard at the way you treat your tortured heroes and heroines. If they’re both supposed to have suffered and changed as a result of the ordeal, but you show the hero’s change in full while making the heroine just hold him and nod in that frickin’ compassion again, the heroine isn’t interesting, she’s a shadow. Or perhaps a DLI.
4) Watch it with the tears and the slapping.
These tend to be the two most common reactions of suffering heroines and heroines who are angry, respectively. And they come along and plague even characters who would not do these things.
Really. Why must a heroine cry when she feels overwhelmed or when the nasty bullies are taunting her about her orphan status? Yes, some people do those things, and some of those people are female. But, once again, you are not allowed to ignore all your prior characterization. If you’ve set up a child heroine whose course of action when she’s frustrated or facing enemies is to grit her teeth and go at them sword and dagger, explain to me why she cries when the bullies taunt her. If her reaction to her abusive family is to freeze them out and stare at them, why does she cry because she’s afraid the hero might not like-like her?
These things happen. But not all the time. And frankly, I’m getting pretty tired of fantasy authors assuming that fantasy heroines must cry just because they’re female. It’s been portrayed enough. Show me some people who are different.
And then the slapping. Oh, yes. A woman slaps the face of the man who insulted her.
If she’s a warrior, why? She could think of worse things to do to him (unless she put on her gauntlet before she slapped him, which I frankly would like to see), or challenge him to a duel if she’s that kind of warrior. If she’s someone who prefers to get her way with subtle manipulation, why? A slap would reveal the brewing emotions below the surface. If she uses her tongue to deliver subtle, witty insults instead, why? An insult would match the weapon the man used against her, and, chosen rightly, would send the whole court—I bet you it took place at a court—off into gales of laughter, making her opponent slink away with his tail between his legs.
I’ve gotten so sick of this reaction that I frankly prefer the exact opposite, like Tazendra from the Khaavren Romances, whose idea of punishing a fellow traveler who cheats at cards is to duel with him. She promptly sticks her sword through his chest, “breaking two ribs and nearly cutting open his lungs,” to quote the book. That, to her, is dueling until “first blood.”
And Tazendra, as far as I can remember, only cries once in the entire book series, maybe twice. It’s entirely justified. She also flirts with lots of people, has trouble counting, is a powerful sorcerer, is a bit slow on the uptake, has hilariously funny conversations with the other characters, and is a loyal friend.
Making the heroine interesting doesn’t have to go that far in violence, but at the same time, I love Tazendra. I’m delighted with her every time I reread the series, which is often after reading a book with a typical crying, slapping heroine. (I think I will be due for a reread of at least The Phoenix Guards when I’ve finished the book I’m hammering away at now).
5) Introduce relationships with more than one person.
No, not necessarily romantic relationships. I mean, have the heroine appear to exist in relation to more people than just the hero.
She probably isn’t spending all her time with him (not least because fantasy authors need next to no excuse to separate the characters dramatically, or put in Big Misunderstandings or similar). So what does she do when she’s away from him? Who does she think about? Who does she talk to? Who are her sibling figures, her mentors, her nodding acquaintances, her role models, her parents—in memory if they’re dead—her rivals, her enemies?
This doesn’t count if the only other people the heroine appears to relate to are abusive caretakers and jealous Other Women. (See point 6). The hero quite often has a whole universe of people around him. Where are the heroine’s? She can’t have existed in isolation before the story began, because the hero hasn’t, and she’s supposed to be real and interesting, right?
I love the way that Carol Berg handles this in Son of Avonar. The heroine, Seri, is thirty-five years old when the story begins, living alone, and promptly gets plunked with an amnesiac hero to look after. But there have been people the heroine loved and lived with and related to before the hero, and these include not only her husband but her mentor figure, her best friend, her brother, and so on. Thanks to the book’s unusual structure—large chunks of narrative at different times intertwined with each other, rather than small flashbacks—the audience gets to see most of Seri’s life. It’s instrumental in making her interesting.
6) Try having the heroine talk to other women.
The novel I am currently reading (well, if two days of reading and six days of doing Yeats research rather than read that book counts as reading) is especially trying in this regard. The heroine Designated Love Interest has an aunt who’s raised her but is not interested in her problems and never believes her about anything, and two fellow servants who mock her, insult her, and call her a whore. Of course, she cries. The other prominent female figure in the book, the late lord’s mistress, hates her and will throw the food she brings in her face rather than have anything to do with her.
Of course, by the point at which I’ve been stuck now for some time, the heroine Designated Love Interest has just learned that she is a mysterious orphan with even more mysterious Powers of Destiny™, and her mother wasn’t really raped but willingly slept with a son of the enemy, and she died in the snow because everyone ignored her.
Like mother, like daughter, let’s hope.
This is not feminist fantasy. I don’t care if you have a female lead or if you make a female secondary character important; it’s still not feminist fantasy. Feminism is a social movement, people. The only way I would really classify any fantasy as feminist is if the heroine talks to other women—about something other than men—socializes with them, makes friends with them, cares about their troubles, and decides, along with them, to change things. And it’s not as though real women never do those things, so I would appreciate people adding some interest to heroines this way. Please. With dull spoons, if the rusty chain saws aren’t convincing enough.
For such a silly and gory book, Simon R. Green’s Blue Moon Rising really does this well. Julia is a tomboy princess who wants to fight with a sword. But once she gets “rescued” by Prince Rupert and brought back to court, she actually starts organizing the other noblewomen into a detachment and training them to fight. The other noblewomen are represented as making a good show of it when the demons come, though of course not suddenly transformed into Amazons. They’re not just jealous gossips who abuse Julia for being different, oh woe is her. Blue Moon Rising is largely a parody, and about people dying in spectacularly blood-soaked ways when it’s not—Green is the most imaginatively nasty fantasy writer I know—but it’s one of the few fantasies I would name feminist. (Especially because Julia isn’t part of a group of special magic witches abused by the Church, who care only about changing life for special magic witches).
And, gasp, Julia has sex before she’s married!
7) Have her follow her own and her world’s moral system regarding sex, not Victorian England’s.
If you are writing in an alternate Victorian England, of course I forgive you. And if you have a heroine who has good, personal reasons for, say, remaining a virgin until marriage, only wanting to have sex with her One True Love, only having good sex with her One True Love, and never, ever engaging in any of that nasty stuff like raising a child alone or having sex with another woman, then I also forgive you.
But most fantasies demand heroines be incredibly strait-laced, and will invent a variety of boring excuses to keep them so, including:
- The heroine thinking she’s not worthy to have sex with the hero.
- Contrived sexual neuroses; a man betrayed her in the past and now she will never trust any man again, sob sob! (Until the hero comes along, of course).
- The heroine’s magical power depending on her virginity. (I am so going to write a fantasy where male virginity is fetishized just as much as female. Hey, the Greeks did it).
- The heroine being a transplanted Puritan or Victorian when the world is explicitly not Christian.
- The heroine having a variety of bad lovers until she meets the hero, who of course will give her the most wonderful sexin’ of her life.
- The heroine never conceiving—despite being young, despite being fertile, despite having constant sex with a male partner, despite using no contraception, magical or otherwise—until she’s married.
Stupid, boring heroines. I want some more who have good reasons for not being in control of their sexual selves, or, even better, are in control and don’t think of themselves as sluts for having sex outside of marriage and with more than one partner.
I am going to go read the Yeats biography again, because, say what you like about her, Maud Gonne is interesting as hell.