So, I Want to Write Feminist Fiction…

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.




From My Bookshelf: Male/Female Friendships

“We’re to be friends, you and I.” So Pierpon, a nightmare pixie punished with corporeal form for not being frightening enough, tells Meliroc, an albino giantess geas-bound into servitude to a succession of sorcerer masters. In the opening chapter of The Nightmare Lullaby, my forthcoming follow-up to Atterwald, she rescues him from freezing to death in a snow-bank, and thereafter they become inseparable. Each is a bright spot in the other’s life; while she teaches him to love music, he opens her eyes to her own capacity for goodness. She falls in love with another character later in the story, but her friendship with Pierpon remains a vital element, just as crucial to her progress as the romance, if not more so. He is, as she says, “like foot or hand or eye… as agonizing to lose.”

The bond between tiny Pierpon and towering Meliroc is my effort to create something I always love to see, and don’t see nearly enough of, in fantasy fiction, or any kind of fiction for that matter: a genuine friendship between a male and a female character. Story after story seems bent on confirming Harry Burns’ (When Harry Met Sally) hypothesis that men and women can’t really be friends without “the sex part” getting in the way; men and women are shown as unable to relate to or interact with each other in any way other than sexually or romantically. Healthy relationships between fathers and daughters or brothers and sisters tend to be scarce. (Oddly enough, mother/son relationships turn up a bit more often, perhaps because so many stories are written by male authors who honor their mamas.) “Friendships” between unrelated male and female characters tend to be written as the first step on the road to romance, or suppressed sexual desire, or the unrequited-love relationship commonly called “friend-zoning” these days. With Meliroc/Pierpon, as well as with the bond Nichtel manages to forge with the stoic gardener Ailbe in Atterwald, I wanted to challenge the notion that male and female characters can be important to each other in only one way. Naturally I seek out other stories that present a similar challenge.

One of the best novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading on my Kindle in the two years I’ve owned it is Ben S. Dobson’s Scriber, which tells the story of a male protagonist on the verge of a crucial historical/magical discovery. He is protected by a troop of female soldiers, a refreshingly varied lot. Of course he eventually falls in love with one of them, but she’s not the only one who matters to him. The two relationships he forges that stand out as most important have no romantic aspect at all. One of the soldiers has a scholarly bent and would love to be a Scriber like the hero (who in the fullness of time does earn that term), and he takes it upon himself to mentor her. Another, the leader of the troop and the book’s female lead, starts out as a thorn in his side, but over the course of the story, she becomes his hero. Indeed, he learns the true meaning of heroism from her.

I’ve mentioned Barbara Hambly’s The Ladies of Mandrigyn in previous blogs because its heroine, Starhawk, is one of my favorite characters. Her “friendship” with her commander, Sun Wolf, is indeed the first step on the road to romance, but it is through an actual friendship with another woman, Sheera, that Sun Wolf realizes what Starhawk really means to him. At the book’s outset, Sun Wolf is much less sympathetic than Starhawk. In fact, he’s a bit of a jerk. But when he’s shanghaied by Sheera into training her and her fellow townswomen in the art of combat, so they may defend themselves against an invading army while their men are away, he’s wrenched out of his comfort zone. That, of course, is when he learns. A less interesting novel would have shown Sun Wolf and Sheera falling in love. Instead, as Sun Wolf comes to like and respect Sheera and her friends, he becomes the kind of man his real love, Starhawk, deserves.

Juliet Marillier’s most recent book, Dreamer’s Pool, tells the story of Blackthorn, a gifted healer embittered by brutal treatment at the hands of a powerful man. She’d rather go it completely alone, but in exchange for breaking her out of her unjust imprisonment, a fey exacts a promise from her that she will never refuse a cry for help. The first such cry she hears is from a fellow escapee, Grim, and the help he wants is her friendship. She accepts him grudgingly at first, but in time she comes to value his loyalty and his rough-hewn kindness, and eventually she sees him as indispensable. He can see her goodness when she herself is blind to it. Through him, she finds new faith in herself and in people in general. Theirs is a strong friendship that needs no romantic element to make it incredibly touching.

A few other stories I’ve enjoyed, in which a friendship between a male and female character plays a prominent role, include J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Lou Anders’ Frostborn, Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead, Robin Hobb’s Dragon Keeper and Dragon Haven, Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall of Pern series, Mark Anthony’s Beyond the Pale, and Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Meliroc and Pierpon preview

“Meliroc and Pierpon,” art by Kaysha Siemens



My “Atterwald” playlist

The three things that make my world spin — books, movies, and music — are strongly intertwined. When I write, I visualize the scene as a movie, with my favorite actors or animation styles, and when I listen to music, it merges with the stories in my head. Everything from Broadway standards to classic jazz to ’70s and ’80s pop is re-purposed (often very illogically) into a soundtrack for whichever story happens to hold my imagination captive at the moment.

I write my stories out long-hand before I word-process them onto my laptop. I’m not sure why, but I can’t compose my best material at the computer keyboard; I think and work much better with a pen in my hand. When I’m typing a chapter I’ve finished drafting long-hand, I play music, specifically movie scores. I draw these scores into my own creative world, imagining the themes accompanying the story that spreads out before my eyes on the computer screen. Here are some of my favorites:

1) Erich Wolfgang Korngold: The Warner Brothers Years, which includes excerpts from Korngold’s classic scores from 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1940’s The Sea Hawk, 1942’s King’s Row, 1943’s The Constant Nymph, and many gorgeous others;

2) Ben Hur: The Essential Miklos Rosza, which features stirring themes from 1956’s Quo Vadis, 1945’s Spellbound, and 1961’s El Cid;

3) Bernard Herrmann’s appropriately haunting, evocative score for 1947’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir;

4) Various scores by Thomas Newman, including Little Women, Fried Green Tomatoes, The Green Mile, and Cinderella Man;

5) Elmer Bernstein’s To Kill a Mockingbird, quite possibly the finest score in cinema history.

Music like this helps move me into my “creative zone,” no matter the story I’m working on. But each story has its own special songs, with lyrics that come close to what I hope to capture in the characters and their relationships. Each of the major characters in Atterwald, my YA fantasy romance now available from CreateSpace and, has a song I consider his/her own.

Nichtel’s song is “I Stand,” by Idina Menzel from her album of the same name. The sharp, intense optimism in the lyrics might fit many of my heroines, but since Nichtel is a shape-shifter, the first lines of the chorus may be taken literally as well as figuratively. Though the lyrics are hopeful, the melody has an edge to it, which works with Nichtel as well. Hers is the hope of someone convinced she will die young.

Simon and Garfunkel’s classic “I Am a Rock” makes a perfect anthem for Baltasar, the sorcerer who has sought to make himself impervious to pain. This ode to alienation ends on a soft, doubtful note, as if the singer has not quite managed to convince himself of the truth of his words. Likewise, Baltasar is loath to admit that his efforts to shield himself may in fact have failed. (Baltasar may be my favorite character in the book. If he resonates with readers, much of the credit is due to Bill Ritch of the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, my “book doctor.” The first draft of Atterwald was written almost entirely from Nichtel’s point of view. After Bill read it, I asked him what the story needed, and he told me, “A lot more Baltasar.” He convinced me to develop my villain’s backstory and spend more time in his head. In the end I found myself sympathizing with him as much as with my hero and heroine.)

Meinrad’s song is a Broadway love ballad, “Unusual Way” from the musical Nine, specifically the rendition given by Brian d’Arcy James on The Maury Yeston Songbook. Not all the lyrics fit the situation precisely, of course, but where Meinrad leaps out from the song at me is the bridge, where the singer expresses terror at the love he feels. Meinrad is falling inexorably in love with the girl who is working to heal him, while at the same time believing quite firmly that her efforts will prove vain. He doesn’t know what to do with all these weird feelings and isn’t sure he quite likes them. Nonetheless, by the end of the song, the singer has come to the conclusion that he wouldn’t have it any other way. To see how this might happen to Meinrad, readers must venture into the book.


From my bookshelf: warrior heroines

One thing I have yet to do, that I would very much like to do before much longer in my career, is create a warrior heroine, a powerful, capable fighter who does not flinch in combat situations and is far more likely to rescue others from mortal peril than to be rescued herself. The reasons why I haven’t tried my hand at such a heroine already are twofold. First, I don’t know enough about fighting and combat techniques to give realistic detail about such a character. This problem I could (and intend to) solve with a little research. The second reason is a bit harder to work around: while I may have a vague idea of the warrior heroine I would like to create, I don’t yet have a plot in which to put her. To write about a warrior heroine, I would have to write about war, and right now I don’t have a war story strong in my head.

Warrior heroines have been getting a rough time lately, I’ve noticed. Critics and reviewers tend to be hard on them. They claim there are too many of them in the fantasy genre, so many that they supposedly drive other kinds of heroines underground and leave us with the general impression that the only way for female characters to be capable and impressive is to “act like men.” What does that even mean? Warrior heroines get accused of being “men with boobs.” I used to think this criticism held some validity, but now I’m ready to call BS on it. It smacks of what I’ve heard called “gender essentialism,” the idea that certain characteristics are essentially masculine or feminine and are shared, to varying degrees, by all men or all women. This concept goes against my grain of individualism, and it compromises writers’ efforts to create the kinds of individualist characters (male as well as female) that I love reading about. I may not have much of the warrior in me — when conflict rears its head, I’m more inclined to look for a table to hide under — yet I delight in stories of women who thrive in that role.

The operative word in my title is heroines. I like my warrior women to be good, or at least have something resembling a working moral compass, a line they won’t cross. Lately I’ve run across certain fantasy novels and series that present female warriors as creatures to be dreaded and/or despised. They’re not always, or necessarily, bad books. Late last year I read a very engaging middle-grade fantasy adventure, Lou Anders’ Frostborn, which I liked in almost every way, except that its villains include a race/nation of statuesque Amazons who fly into battle mounted on wyverns and who are determined to make life as miserable as possible for the story’s heroine, Thianna. (I may have to give this one a pass, though, since Thianna herself, who is half frost-giant, stands poised to become a formidable warrior heroine herself as she grows up.) The first two volumes of Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive also gave me much pleasure, except for the fact that while the society our heroes fight for has very strict gender roles, while their enemies in war — who may not be evil, but who nonetheless are out to destroy our heroes — have both male and female soldiers in their ranks.* In John Gwynne’s old-fashioned epic fantasy adventure Malice, one of the sympathetic soldier heroes suspects that an army of allies is not to be trusted due to the “unnatural” presence of women in their ranks. One young woman on the side of Good does try, bless her heart, to be a warrior, and does have a rudimentary skill or two, but alas, she’s an incompetent screw-up, and as a reader I’m left with the impression that her failures are the very things that make her acceptable as a heroine. If she could actually hold her own in a fight, she’d be too scary.

Would an otherwise talented fantasy creator really feel moved to make a heroine less competent in order to make her more likable? Well, it’s happened before. When the late TV producer Glen A. Larson took creative control of the sci-fi adventure Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century, he decided that the tough fighter Col. Wilma Deering wasn’t appealing enough. He “solved” the problem by transforming her into a glorified flight attendant. That’s why I want to write my own warrior heroine — to do my own small part to avenge Wilma Deering, and other fighting heroines who may find themselves “chickified” as their writers reduce their abilities in order to make them more “relatable.”

When I read books that cast warrior women in a negative or unsympathetic light, it helps me to remember the courage and confidence of my favorite fighting heroines. Here are a few I’ve loved getting to know: Starhawk in The Ladies of Mandrigyn et. seq.; Sulien in Jo Walton’s The King’s Peace; Dhulyn Wolfshead in Violette Malan’s sadly underrated Dhulyn and Parno series, starting with The Sleeping God; the towering Bryndine Errynson and her fearless troupe of female soldiers in Ben S. Dobson’s also criminally underrated Scriber; romantic sword-wielder Meguet in Patricia McKillip’s The Sorceress and the Cygnet and The Cygnet and the Firebird; Harry in Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword and Aerin in her The Hero and the Crown; and Kerowyn in Mercdes Lackey’s By the Sword. Far from thinking there are too many warrior heroines in fantasy fiction, I believe we could always do with a few more women like these. They aren’t “men with boobs.” They are themselves.

*I may have issues with the depiction of female fighters in The Stormlight Archive as enemies/villains, but I have to give Mr. Sanderson his due, since he is one of today’s male fantasy writers whom I like a great deal. First, his Mistborn series does center on a warrior heroine. Also, Words of Radiance, the second volume in The Stormlight Archive, does include one of the most gratifyingly feminist statements I have ever read in fantasy fiction: “I say there is no role for women — there is, instead, a role for each woman, and she must make it for herself. . . A woman’s strength should not be in her role, whatever she chooses it to be, but in the power to choose that role” (772) Granted, this does come from the point of view of one of his characters, but if Sanderson himself really feels this way, he definitely belongs in my pantheon of heroes. Sanderson, Brandon. Words of Radiance: Book Two of The Stormlight Archive. NY: Tor, 2014.