Online discussions about fantasy literature, particularly those discussions that center on female characters, are my dearest friend and bitterest enemy — my friend, because they bring up ideas I can use in my own writing and point me toward books I might like to read, and my enemy, because they end up eating a lot of time I might spend actually writing and reading. I have to tell myself forcibly, “Enough! You have to get that turning-point scene knocked out, and Joan D. Vinge’s Summer Queen awaits your return.”
And now, with my own blog, I’m adding to the pool.
A post on LibraryThing led me to Rhiannon Thomas’s blog Feminist Fiction, which I’ve enjoyed exploring, as I agree with most of Thomas’s insights, and even those I disagree with make me think. I share here her most recent post, as it has made me ponder the way we work as writers, and how and why we’re moved to tell our stories in certain ways. As she points out, we absorb biases without realizing it, and unconsciously replicate them in the fiction we write. As a result, those biases are perpetuated, and if we want to write/read something different, we have to battle them, consciously and unconsciously, on a daily basis. “A lack of female characters can feel truthful in fantasy fiction,” writes Thomas, “because that’s how fantasy fiction usually is.”
I’ve never had to fight the impulse to leave female characters out of my own fantasy fiction, because I’ve always noticed and felt frustrated when they’re not there. I may have loved The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but as a general rule, fantasy fiction in which women play only small or stereotypical roles just doesn’t interest me. If I don’t read it, why would I write it? Yet when I read Thomas’s post, I’m naturally moved to wonder what my own biases might be, and what role they might play in my stories. Is Atterwald feminist enough? If I were writing it today, what might I do differently?
I wrote Nichtel, my heroine, to be creative and resourceful. Even when she finds herself in a situation beyond her control, she finds ways to seize as much control as she can. My novel passes the Bechdel Test, thanks to the early chapters in which Nichtel is educated and influenced by her foster mother, the medicine-maker Ricarda; they have a number of conversations that do not center on men, and I wrote this before I even knew what the Bechdel Test was. Yet I wish sometimes that I could have found room in my story to give Nichtel a female friend her own age, perhaps a servant in Baltasar’s household. I wonder what she might have been like.
Thomas has a separate post in which she takes YA writers to task for writing their female protagonists as superior people specifically because they are “not like other girls.” I agree with her, and can maybe let myself off the hook for this one, since Nichtel isn’t “not like other girls”; she is not like other were-rats. She is misjudged and underestimated because of her Tribe, not her gender. I set out to write a story with a female protagonist in which gender-essentialist presumptions would not be a major obstacle she must overcome. I sought to give her a different battle to fight. Some readers may find this choice agreeably feminist. Others may be disappointed that I ignore the gender biases my readers face in the real world every day.
There is more than one way to write feminist fiction. When you know you can’t please everyone, you have to please yourself first.
That’s the tricky part. Of course, we as writers must give life to the stories that spring up in our own minds and hearts, which is why one of the key points in criticism is, “Allow the author her subject.” At the same time, we should be aware of the ideas we’re putting out there. It doesn’t hurt us to take the occasional look inside ourselves and consider whether the furniture of our imaginations could do with a little dusting.
Thomas’s post brings up the problem of representations of race in fantasy fiction, and there I know I could do a better job than I have previously done. I’ve been influenced by the traditional notions of fantasy worlds as white-European, as well as the images of classic Hollywood. When Nichtel first took shape in my imagination, she had the face and coloring of a young Jean Simmons, raven-haired and pale-skinned. I chose German-sounding names for her and the other characters, and the Atterwald itself came into my head as one of the misty, haunted pine-forests of Germany. Does this make my story reactionary and racist? Of course not. But I could, perhaps, question why, when I create characters, my imagination should default to white, as so many writers’ imaginations default to male.
Could I — should I — create a non-white heroine? Have I been holding myself back in fear of “getting it wrong,” of being held up to harsher scrutiny than if I stuck with a white female lead? Would I need to construct a particular world my non-white heroine could inhabit, or could I do with race as I’ve tried to do with gender and make it a “non-issue”? Which course would be the best representation? Kate Elliott does a magnificent job with creating a multi-racial, multi-ethnic society for her Spiritwalker Trilogy. How might I create something similar?
I have a friend who attends church with me. Her name is Grace, and the name is perfect for her, as I have rarely seen anyone more graceful or gracious than she, with an elegance that goes past the surface and straight to the heart. She is from Uganda. She is statuesque and sturdily built, with a warm smile and eyes that shine with wisdom, intelligence, and strength. She is the very image of the sort of heroine who would capture my imagination and find a home in one of my stories. She could be a rescuer, a dreamer, an innovator, all the things I like a heroine to be. Why should I leave it to some other writer to bring her to life?
Perhaps the most vital of all Thomas’s points: “All writers are at risk of screwing up. And all writers should take that risk anyway.” Yes, I want to write feminist fiction. But no one can write feminist fiction, or any good fiction at all, if she’s too scared.