My Villainess Problem

D. B. Jackson’s acclaimed historical fantasy Thieftaker features a remarkable female character who challenges any and all notions of gender roles in the time and place in which she lives, 18th century Boston. She holds a position of authority. She’s good in a fight. She wears trousers. She owns her sexuality. She’s free from all romantic encumbrance. She’s the kind of woman I would want to take to my heart. There’s just one problem.

She’s the villain.

“Villain” is an abstract term, with different meanings for different people. Fictional villains — the interesting ones, at least — don’t perceive themselves as villains. In their eyes, they are heroes with ends which they must achieve at all costs. Sometimes the line between hero and villain can be difficult, if not impossible, to find, especially in the fantasy subgenre called “grimdark” these days. Nonetheless, here’s what separates the villain from the hero, for me: the villain is okay with the concept of “collateral damage,” and even thrives by it. Villains will injure or kill countless innocents without a shred of remorse if they think it will help them achieve their goals. Some villains bulldoze over innocents in the name of love, as Cersei Lannister’s twisted brand of maternal devotion leads her to commit atrocities (or at least wink at them) in George R. R. Martin’s popular A Song of Ice and Fire series. Others are sociopaths, incapable of any love but self-love; the trouser-wearing take-no-prisoners villainess of Thieftaker may fall into this category.

Plenty of readers, some of them friends of mine, adore female characters like these. Some female readers perceive them as empowering, since they are unafraid to seize power by any means necessary, and as they do so they strike terror in the hearts of the men unlucky enough to come into contact with them. I can see the appeal. Such women are fascinating in their unpredictability, in their willingness to break all rules, including the rules of common decency. Empathy and self-sacrifice, long considered crucial components of the Feminine Ideal, are missing from their make-up. Yet even though I may find villainesses intriguing and even entertaining to read about, I can’t find them empowering. After all, the villainess may be a terrifying force for a little while, but eventually, she has to lose the battle. And in so many stories, including the Thieftaker series, she must lose to a man in whom power/authority and common decency manage to co-exist. The Righteous Man must triumph over the Evil Woman if the world is to be saved or justice served; nascent notions of feminism must be squelched.

Villainesses are not an outgrowth of modern-day feminism. They are as old as the ancient world. In the oldest existing epic, Gilgamesh, the only important female presence is a wicked temptress of a goddess. In ancient Greece we find the likes of Medea and Clytemnestra. (The husband Clytemnestra kills sacrificed their daughter to the gods for a fair wind to sail to Troy, but we’re clearly supposed to be okay with that; her actions, not his, are presented as evil.) In the stories of King Arthur we have evil witches like Nimue and Morgan le Fay, whose contrast to the benevolent male sorcerer Merlin suggests that magic can only be a force for good if a man wields it. (This idea was once so deeply ingrained in the fantasy genre that even the feminist author Ursula K. LeGuin unconsciously made it a part of her original Earthsea Trilogy: “weak is women’s magic”/”wicked is women’s magic,” as the saying goes.) Shakespeare gives us Lady Macbeth. Dumas gives us Lady de Winter. William Makepeace Thackeray gives us Becky Sharp. Moving into the mid-twentieth century, C.S. Lewis gives us the White Witch and the Green Witch. All are clever. All are ambitious. All are evil. They are the forces from which the world must be saved — by men/boys, of course. (Becky Sharp offers an interesting exception in that she is not defeated by a male hero but is allowed… almost… sorta/kinda… to win, or at least evade justice.)

For centuries we’ve seen power and goodness written as incompatible in female characters. For a woman in times gone by, to be good was to be passive, mild, unambitious, selfless, nurturing. A good woman did not rise up to confront the villainess. Rather, her virtue showed itself in her willingness to rely on a man to solve the problem. Powerful men may protect, defend, and rescue. Powerful women could only destroy. I can’t quite manage to find any satisfying feminist underpinnings in this.

Today’s speculative fiction shows matters have improved considerably, though there is still plenty of progress to be made. Female characters on the side of Good no longer have to stand passively by and rely on men to save the day or the world. Plenty of excellent novels, many of which I’ve mentioned on this blog, show that female characters need not crush their moral compasses underfoot in order to be active, capable, and even powerful. Villainesses still have a role to play, perhaps now more than ever. But how enjoyable I find a villainess in the books I read today depends heavily on what the heroine is doing.

If we have a heroine who is as powerful and capable in her own decent way as the villainess, and indeed is the chief agent of the villainess’s downfall, then I can relish said villainess’s evil antics without the uncomfortable sense that I’m about to witness an “uppity woman being put in her place.” Examples: Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy, starting with Range of Ghosts; Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest and Heart’s Blood; Sharon Shinn’s Twelve Houses series, starting with Mystic and Rider.

Likewise, if the heroine or heroines are part of a team, all of whom contribute substantially to the triumph of good, then I can sit back and enjoy the villainess doing what villainesses do. Quite a few episodes of the excellent (and sadly cancelled) animated series Justice League, Justice League Unlimited, and Young Justice offer examples of this.

If the heroine is only an occasionally useful sidekick to a male hero, I start to enjoy the Evil Woman a little less. If said heroine is a touch feisty but is nonetheless held up as a conventionally feminine contrast to the butt-kicking bitch on wheels, my enjoyment is diminished still further. Quite a few James Bond films fall into this latter category, most notably A View to a Kill.

If there is no heroine to speak of — if she’s little more than a love interest and plays no role in the villainess’s downfall, or if she has little more than a walk-on part, or if there is no female character on the side of Good at all — then I will most likely seek my entertainment elsewhere. (Examples: Orson Scott Card’s Pathfinder series; Myke Cole’s Shadow Ops series.) These may be very good books, and I don’t mean to encourage my readers to avoid them; my hang-ups are my own. But with Righteous Man vs. Evil Woman, I’m afraid I still can’t even.

 

Writing Characters as Human Beings Part II, or The Mistake of Self-Segregation

I have a number of blog sites I like to check frequently, one of which belongs to author and social commentator Foz Meadows. Her recent post “The Andrew Smith Thing” caught my attention, even though I hadn’t heard of Andrew Smith until I read that post. Apparently he is a successful and acclaimed author of YA fiction who’s interested in shedding light on male protagonists’ struggles with a number of confusing forces, including their sexuality. Nothing wrong with that at all, but his reasons for avoiding female protagonists and relegating female characters to the background strike right at the heart of my previous blog post, my response to Kate Elliott’s splendid “Writing Women Characters as Human Beings.”

(My fondness for Elliott’s essay tickles me a little, since so many of the characters I enjoy reading about, and writing about, are non-human.)

Smith can’t give female characters important roles in his fiction because, apparently, he has no interest in women — not so much in sexual terms as in any terms at all. He wasn’t close to any girls and women while he was growing up. (His mom must have been absent from his life or all but invisible in his household.) He never bothered to forge any friendships with girls or women. He has a daughter, he tells us, but about where this child’s mother is, or what role she does or doesn’t play in their lives, it’s probably best not to speculate. Even with his daughter now in her late teens, girls/women and their stories still don’t interest him, though he notes he’s “trying to do better.”

And this is sad. Whether you’re male or female, straight or gay, writing off half the human race as not worth learning about, let alone writing about, is nothing short of tragic. One of the biggest traps any writer (or any person at all) can fall into is self-segregation — when a man decides to befriend and associate only with other men, or a woman with other women, or a white person with other whites, or a black person with other blacks, and so forth. I remember a moment from back in my college days that helped move me to abandon the church I grew up in: one of the leaders of the denomination’s student group told me that my soul would suffer if I chose to hang out with non-Christians. She saw self-segregation as a religious imperative. All self-segregators make that choice in order to shield themselves from an “Other” they perceive as dangerous, or else too mysterious to be comprehended. “Get rid of the word of ‘them,'” Elliott advises us — and one root of the whole concept of “them” is self-segregation.

The slogan “It’s a (blank) thing; you wouldn’t understand” is meant to be funny. I find it frightening.

The best thing writers can do, the most beneficial to our work and to our souls, is open our hearts to all kinds of friendships with all kinds of people. I don’t mean making “token” friendships so we can feel good about not being sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. I mean taking an interest in people outside our own little group, talking to them, finding out what they love, learning who they are as individual people rather than as members of that perceived Other. The more interested we are in the people around us, the more interesting we and our work are likely to be.

I don’t say this because it’s easy for me. I’m an introvert by nature, inclined to drift into my own little world even when I’m surrounded by people. I’m all too aware of the temptation to self-segregate, though I do it based more on “nerditude” than on gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation. I will gravitate toward lovers of sci-fi and fantasy, the sort of people who go to events like DragonCon, before I’ll hang out with people whose driving interest is in sports or fashion. Yet might people whose interests and hobbies diverge from my own have something vital to teach me? One of the things I enjoy most about my “day job” as a Composition teacher is that my students are very diverse in terms of interests and skills, and I learn from the essays they write, even the ones full of grammar errors.

We should also avoid too much self-segregation in our reading, or in the stories we take in. One anecdote I heard on an evening news program a couple of decades ago burned itself into my brain. Two young African-American men, after seeing Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List, started a conversation about the movie. One said to the other, “Why did we watch this? This isn’t our story.” His friend replied, “Pain is pain, isn’t it?” The first young man couldn’t see what relevance the story of thousands of Jews being saved from the gas chamber could have for him, since he wasn’t white, European, or Jewish. But the second young man, with an obviously more fertile imagination, could see across the divide of race and ethnicity and identify with the suffering undergone by the characters in that film. This young man understood. Books help build this understanding even better than movies, I think, since every time we open a book we have the unique opportunity to share the mind and soul of someone else. We can use that opportunity to get to know people we might never have the privilege of meeting in real life, people removed from us not only by “group identity” but by time and space. Speculative fiction, in particular, invites us into the minds of dragons, werewolves, elves, goblins, and all manner of aliens. We often find them surprisingly and delightfully “human.”

I can only improve as a person and a writer by paying more attention to those around me, regardless of whether they look and/or talk like me. When we self-segregate, we do a massive disservice to ourselves and our readers. Don’t we all deserve better?

 

From My Bookshelf: Female Characters Written as Human Beings

A few days ago, a friend on LibraryThing shared a blog that I loved so much I just have to share it, too. Kate Elliott, one of my favorite discoveries of the past two years, explains the art of Writing Women Characters as Human Beings. The rules she lays out are so simple and basic, so darned obvious the way she states them, that why so many authors (many of them female) choose not to follow them is truly a mystery. Of course she includes a section on the characterization mistakes we see entirely too often, and we’re made to wonder,¬†why do we keep getting¬†these, when it would be so easy to create something better? All those who follow my blog need to treat yourselves to a read of Elliott’s. She puts into clear, compelling words what I have been thinking and feeling for many a year.

Treat yourselves as well to a read of Elliott’s Spiritwalker Trilogy, starting with Cold Magic and continuing with Cold Fire and Cold Steel. I cannot recommend this series highly enough. Elliott follows her own rules in a brilliant melding of epic fantasy and Steampunk elements. She builds her world to include a compelling variety of cultures and races and a fascinatingly diverse set of characters, both human and non-human. The central protagonist, Catherine Barahal, is just my kind of heroine, with her sharp and curious scholarly mind and her brave spirit, and she interacts with many other women along her journey, being especially close to her cousin Bee (who is smart and charismatic enough perhaps to merit her own series one day).

Other recent reads of mine that get it right:

1) Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky Trilogy (Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars, Steles of the Sky) forgoes the standard medieval-European model for epic fantasy and gives us instead a richly detailed world that evokes the Arabian Nights. In the first book we’re introduced to two protagonists, the dispossessed rightful heir Temur (male) and the powerful wizard Samarkar (female), but as the story progresses, the canvas broadens to develop a cast of female characters that includes a huge mutant tiger warrior, a misguided villainess, a devout female poet, a wizard healer, a (young) dowager Empress whose conscience and sense of responsibility steadily grow, and a formerly distressed damsel who has evolved by the third book into the leader of a supernatural army. (Temur’s loyal and beloved steed is also female, which I think is a cool touch.) All of them, even the villainess, are depicted with an intriguing measure of sympathy. All interact with other female characters. All play vital roles in driving the plot forward. Some of them are downright impressive, especially Samarkar, who has joined the ranks of my favorite female magic-users in fantasy fiction.

2) Michelle West’s The Broken Crown is the first in the epic Sun Sword series. I’ve only read this volume, and I’m eager to see what comes next. Two societies come into conflict, one strictly (even depressingly) patriarchal and the other more gender-egalitarian. Of course I root for the eventual triumph of the latter and take special joy in reading the chapters set there, in which a good number of interesting women fill a variety of roles. Yet even in the patriarchy we find women of courage and intelligence, women who are loyal to each other and find ways to exercise their powers despite their world’s unwillingness to allow them any authority or importance. While a male character is clearly being groomed for the role of a heroic savior who may bring peace between the two nations, the women drive this story.

3) Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook shows (as if we needed showing) that a talented writer need not be a woman to follow Elliott’s rules with skill and style. This is an urban fantasy, a genre I don’t usually favor, set in modern-day London, where people with special supernatural gifts work for a secret government agency responsible for neutralizing supernatural threats. The protagonist is an amnesiac woman, Myfanwy, who, with the aid of letters from her former self (who saw the amnesia coming), must uncover a threat from within the agency itself. Fortunately, she’s a smart, driven woman who has a brave, competent secretary, Ingrid, and a badass fellow mutant, Shantay, to help her. No love interest comes on the scene; all Myfanwy’s important relationships are with women. And women, both good and bad, are everywhere.

4) Tanya Huff’s The Silvered, like The Rook, features a female protagonist unsure of her power, who grows stronger by degrees as her story progresses. She is Mirian, a magic-school dropout who goes to the aid of a group of female mages captured by the enemies of her country, not because she’s best friends with any of them but because she knows it’s the right thing to do. Even though she falls in love, she never loses sight of her mission, and that mission, coupled with her discovery of her steadily growing power, drives the plot far more than does the romance. Meanwhile, the kidnapped mages never stop looking for ways to weaken their enemies and free themselves, and they help and support one another throughout. Here is a book with multiple heroines, all active and resourceful.

Toward the end of her blog, Elliott hits us with the most important rule of all for writing women characters (or any characters) as human beings: “Get rid of the word of ‘them,’ the very idea of an Unknowable Other with a Mysterious Psychology.” All writers of fiction would do well to heed this invaluable advice. It works darn well in regular ol’ real life, too.