A number of popular fantasy writers, particularly in YA, like to create “blank slate” protagonists, people who have few or no special qualities (at least evident on the surface) until the plots of their stories kick into gear. As their adventures proceed, they discover strengths in themselves they never thought they had. At any rate, this is ideally what happens, and watching it happen can be quite rewarding. Bilbo Baggins, the hero of The Hobbit, is quite happy in his life, with no desire for change. Yet as he’s forced into an adventure, he has to draw on unexpected qualities in order to survive — notably, quick wits, humor, and courage. “There is more about him than you guess,” Gandalf says more than once of Bilbo, and by the end of the story, J.R.R. Tolkien has shown us what he means.
We know thereby that a “blank slate” protagonist can be entertaining, yet I’ve noticed I appreciate such protagonists far more if they are male, largely because of the difference in the stories they tend to be placed in. Male blank slates like Bilbo and Harry Potter and Richard Mayhew of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere discover their heroic potential as they are placed in one crisis situation after another. Reserves of insight, generosity, and resourcefulness get them out of tight spots, and in the end, they save themselves and others. Yet entirely too often, the storylines given to female blank slates revolve around, not adventure, but romance. The girl with no particular interest in life learns to live for her special someone, and the ultimate goal of her story is not to learn to depend on herself and become a rescuer, but to depend on a love interest and be rescued. Crisis situations don’t bring out reserves of courage and ingenuity, because someone else gets her out of trouble.
Books with such “heroines” may be wildly popular with their target demographic of teen girl readers, but I can’t imagine that even as a teenager I would have enjoyed reading about such weak-willed, passive drips. I don’t want a female-shaped empty space that I can fill with my own personality and appearance. I want a heroine I can look up to, one who’s good at something. The heroines who win my heart most quickly are the ones with hobbies and interests.
My last foray into YA fantasy fiction was Betsy Cornwell’s Mechanica. It may be the umpteenth retelling of the Cinderella story, yet for me it stands alongside Marissa Meyer’s Cinder as one of the most enjoyable of those retellings, because its “Cinderella” is an inventor and engineer, who stumbles onto her late mother’s plans and makes them her own. Her goal is not to go to the ball and find romance, but to enter one of her creations in an engineering contest. She actually devises her own glass carriage and glass slippers; while she has some help from a sentient mechanical horse named Jules, she does most of the work herself. At no point is she a blank slate. Her head is full of mechanical dreams throughout, and this makes her perspective fun to read. Some reviewers have complained the book is too much like Cinder, which features the titular cyborg mechanic, also quite good at what she does. But since Mechanica is clearly steampunk and Cinder is clearly science fiction, I see plenty of room for both stories and both heroines.
The female leads of Mechanica and Cinder are both deeply involved in STEM. YA heroines of this kind are regrettably rare, but one more worth mentioning is the brainy young mathematician Caitlin Decter, who discovers and befriends a sentient, far-ranging A.I. in Robert J. Sawyer’s W.W.W. trilogy.
YA heroines with interests and skills in the arts are more common, but rewarding nonetheless. Some of my favorites are musicians: Menolly in Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall of Pern trilogy; Maerad in Allison Croggon’s Books of Pellinor; Zoe in Patricia McKillip’s The Bards of Bone Plain (which also features an archaeologist princess — a double win); Rune in Mercedes Lackey’s The Lark and the Wren; Seraphina in Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina and Shadow Scale. Some artist/ painter heroines include Iris in Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Karou in Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and Madeleine in Andrea K. Host’s …And All the Stars. Then there are those with more generalized interests, for whom reading is not merely a pastime but a passion: Hermione in the Harry Potter series, Honor in Robin McKinley’s Beauty, Morwenna in Jo Walton’s Among Others, and Nepenthe in McKillip’s Alphabet of Thorn.
These sorts of heroines give the young female reader something concrete to which to aspire — to create, to build, to dream. Let’s see more like this, and fewer blank slates.