“Five Things I Love” will return, yet whenever I conduct an interview for this blog, one of my questions is always, “What would you like to see more of in fantasy/sci-fi/speculative fiction?” It’s only right and proper that I answer the same question, and here is the first of my replies.
Female leads who aren’t princesses.
What exactly is wrong with princesses? The biggest problem can be summed up in a single word: over-representation. Princesses are such a fantasy-fiction staple that it seems as if every other fantasy novel, or at least one of every three, features a princess as its most significant female character.
Sometimes a princess can indeed be a remarkable heroine. Two that stand out from my recent reading are Raesinia in Django Wexler’s The Shadow Throne and Ysandre in Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart. Yet both these princesses are headed towards queenship. Knowledgeable and capable, they’re readying themselves to take hold of the reins of power, and much will depend on the wisdom of their decision-making. If this were more often the case, perhaps the overabundance of princesses would bother me a little less.
Yet most fantasy princesses aren’t preparing to rule as queens in their own right. Rather, they’re defined chiefly, if not exclusively, by their relationships to others — Kings’ daughters or Kings’ wives. Entirely too often, their main goal is to evade the politically advantageous matches into which their families would force them and find True Love far away from the houses of power. As in fairy tales, heroes’ bravery is rewarded with these princesses’ hands in marriage. They’re the door prize through which plucky commoners come up in the world. Great deeds are done in their names, yet they themselves do very little, serving as the passive embodiment of some ideal worth preserving or pursuing. It’s little wonder that the word “princess” itself conjures images of the helpless imperiled damsel with neither the wit nor the strength to act on her own — that, and flawlessly beautiful animated women in shiny voluminous ball gowns. Even take-charge heroines like Leia Organa from the original Star Wars trilogy can be diminished a little by that title.
Maybe princesses could become more interesting if they were fewer in number, and more of us fantasy novelists sought out other roles for heroines to play. I don’t propose “warrior” as the automatic alternative, even though I love a good warrior heroine. Between “warrior” at one extreme and “princess” at the other, there lies a wide spectrum of possibilities too rarely explored. Why, for instance, can’t we see a few female bards, minstrels, storytellers? Skilled healers are always welcome, as are artists, poets, scribes, herbalists, blacksmiths, cooks, weavers, seamstresses — characters who may not be as high-ranking as the princess but who actually do things. This web page is a possible resource for writers to consider when devising roles for their female characters, both major and minor. All I ask, as I’ve said before, is that whatever the heroine ends up doing, let her be good at it.