Just a second, everyone put away the pitchforks and stop brandishing those Gertrude Stein books at me as if they can compel the misogynistic demon from my flesh. This isn’t a diatribe on feminism in literature–I wouldn’t dare to touch such a heavy subject without an array of facts at my disposal. As a fantasy writer, I don’t really deal in facts, as much as possibilities. What I would like to discuss is the portrayal of women in fantasy, what I like, and what I don’t like, what I think needs changing. I’d like to keep this dialog as uncontroversial as possible, and focus on how these characters are written, more than diving into the societal influences that make writers craft women in this manner. That’s psychology, and I’m not a psychologist. Okay, moving on, I’ll start with the stuff I can’t stand–expect hyperbole and potential cussing.
Women who are powerless. To me, nothing is more irritating than watching a female lead take a backseat to the action. I understand that characters need time to “grow” into their heroism, however, the foundations for that backbone should have been laid prior to that mettle being tested in a life-or-death situation. Otherwise, my suspension of disbelief is being tested. Even if a heroine is in a situation from which she cannot escape, she should always be thinking of escape, and not complacent with her miserable existence. At least that spark of free-will can be convincing impetus for a future act of daring. In the event that your heroine ends up chained in a basement, and awaiting the most wretched fate imaginable, she should be testing her chains, wondering who she can pounce on when they enter her cell, or looking for a rat bone to pick her irons. Whatever. She should be doing something, or sure that she will somehow live. That fire for life is what keeps me, as a reader hooked. When characters give up, so do I.
Women who are overly negative. As a man who writes some pretty snappy ladies, this can be a delicate act to balance. Cynicism is fine, particularly if that character has endured hardships. But when all she does is harp, or whine, or question her strength, that character becomes as unpleasant as the people in real life who do that. You know that friend that you have who calls you up to complain about her weight/ marriage/ job? Negative Nancy the sorceress, can have the same tone and repellence. Negativity can serve a purpose, and a hero should always suffer moments of doubt. But the strongest people do so silently, or among their closest allies, and never often or vocally (unless they are giving a rousing speech against their injustice). Finding a balance with humor, can help to offset a character with a naturally acerbic demeanor. At least it gives the reader something else to focus on.
Women who need to be constantly saved (usually by an all powerful figure). Similar to the first point, although I believe it deserves its own mention. Getting saved once by your beau, assuming our heroine has exhausted all of her resourcefulness, and is really, truly, screwed, is fine. Sometimes, despite everything, we just cannot extricate ourselves from a mess. We need help. Alright. Help arrives. Then, she trips and falls down a well in another ten pages. Shortly after calling for help and being rescued, she decides to go for a walk in the Forest of Ultimate Evil. Probably a bad idea, given the name, but this girl (I’ve demoted her from womanhood for her naivete), doesn’t have the good sense God gave a toothpick. Don’t worry, here comes Damien Glorylocks–knight, and secret royal blood of a long forgotten dynasty–to save Clueless. From now on, we’ll just refer to my sample heroine by that name, as it tends to sum up a lot of decisions that writers place in the minds of their female leads.
Stupidity. Coming off that last point. How stupid can one character be? Okay, we all make dumb decisions. In fact, it’s necessary for characters to do one or two things in error, and thereafter grow from that experience. The key here is grow. Grow. As in, not do that stupid thing, or comparable act of stupidity again. If you’re on the 3rd arc of your trilogy and your character is still figuring out the fundamentals of how to control her dragonblood, faery-magic, or whatever, then you have a problem. Similarly, if you’re deep into your story and Clueless still can’t figure out why the Dark Elves want her dead so badly, then you probably haven’t done a good enough job as a writer giving the reader–and potentially Clueless–information. Readers like to be in the know, and if your character is being kept in the dark, often treating your audience the same risks aliening them. So if these scenarios are occurring in your books, then your character (and audience) is not learning, they are not growing. And if you’ve watched one season of Honey Boo Boo, you’ve watched them all.
The only thrill in that entertainment is in watching the mediocrity unfold. We do not want our stories to be banal, we want them to be inspiring, and teaching of greatness. Mediocrity is for the real world, it has no place in fantasy.
Things I like. Here, we have a shorter list, as most of these things are self-explanatory.
Normal characters. By this I mean, they have no supreme, miracle, magic. No great hidden power. These women are just tough as nails, and have learned how to kick life in the balls. Almost universally, readers like these sorts of characters. Sure, later on in the story-line, that character may struggle to hang with their mystical friends, and as end-of-the-world events unfold, it takes a deft narrative hand to weave them through those troubles unscathed. Still, the value of a normal character in an otherwise epic fantasy cannot be understated, for they create a bridge between our world and the fantasy.
Women who make their own choices. Decisiveness. I love this trait in characters. As a storyteller, characters who do not waver with indecision, move the story forward at a steady pace. Otherwise, you can end up wasting pages on internal dialog, which can make a character seem weak, which then threatens to lose the reader.
Women who fight. I’m not saying that every heroine has to be a martial expert, but even a princess can have lessons in fencing, and if you make the heroine a blacksmith’s daughter, she would surely know how to swing a blade. Again, this cycles back to women being helpless, which I personally hate to read.
Witty, curious women. Witty, is not the same as bitchy–another fine line that can be crossed. And curiosity may have killed the cat, but it shouldn’t kill the heroine. A sense for questioning order, a rebellious spirit, and someone who can take the slings-and-arrows of life with the occasional laugh, all make for engaging characters.
I have another 90 pages of editing to do on my second MS, so I must bid adieu to deal with that duty. I hope that my ramblings have been thought, and not anger, provoking. Do keep in mind that the above represents only my opinions, and there are as many ways to write characters as there are writers in the world. These are just my pet-peeves, and the pitfalls that I try to avoid. Feel free to share your own experiences in the comments below.