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.

 

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