Part 1: My Own Experience
As a child I read quite a bit of fantasy, most of it the animal or fairytale variety but fantasy nonetheless. I also saw my fair share of both fantasy and science fiction movies. I would almost invariably latch on to a character whom I perceived as the “coolest,” and I would imagine myself as that character, engaged in adventures galore.
When I read Kipling’s The Jungle Book, I was Bagheera — much cooler in Kipling than in Disney, and besides, I loved that name. When I first encountered The Wind in the Willows, I was Toad; when I’d grown up just a little, I became Water Rat. When I fell in love with Watership Down, I couldn’t decide if I most wanted Hazel’s good sense, Fiver’s mystical insight, or Bigwig’s bluff badassery, so I took turns being all three. When I got my first taste of the King Arthur stories, I was, from time to time, most of the knights except Lancelot. When I saw the 1940 Korda fantasy classic The Thief of Bagdad, of course I was the rakish and fearless Abu, and when Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope entered my life, I couldn’t be anyone but Luke. (It wasn’t until The Empire Strikes Back that I grew to appreciate Han.) This habit lingered even into my teenage years, for when I saw The Princess Bride, I was instantly Inigo Montoya.
In those days it didn’t occur to me to question why the coolest characters, the ones I so badly wanted to be, always seemed to be male. Yet oddly enough, when I slipped into their shoes (or paws, as the case may be), I didn’t become male. Instead, they became female. Since none of my favorites were heavily involved in romance plots, I saw no reason why they couldn’t be girls if I imagined hard enough. Even when certain plotlines made their maleness necessary, my imagination always found some work-around. I wanted them to be female, like me, and so they were.
Not until I entered adolescence did I find female characters I really wanted to be — Scout Finch, Jo March, Anne Shirley, Jane Eyre. But by that time, I was drifting away from fantasy, at least as far as reading was concerned. Where were the female characters in fantasy that might have won my allegiance to the genre? Tamora Pierce’s Alanna the Lioness, Robin McKinley’s Harry and Aerin, Anne McCaffrey’s Menolly of Harper Hall? They were there when I was a teen, yet somehow, to my everlasting regret, I missed hearing about them, and I didn’t encounter them until much later, when I’d aged beyond the presumed target audience.
In my last year of college, fantasy found me again. I reread Watership Down, and read Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings for the first time. An ambition woke in me, to write fantasy novels of my own, and I was anxious to read more in the genre because first, it would improve my understanding of fantasy as a whole and give me some idea of the techniques I might employ, and second, it would be fun. So I started to sniff around libraries and bookstores, knowing what I wanted: something as wondrous as Tolkien, but with more women, since by then I was growing impatient with turning male characters into heroines and wanted to find stories where the “coolest” characters might actually be girls. But without Goodreads or Library Thing to help me, I wasn’t sure where to turn.
I turned first to Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, assuming naively that a female author would be bound to include more female characters and give them interesting things to do. How quickly I realized my mistake. Very early in the books, a key ethos is laid down: “Weak is women’s magic” and “wicked is women’s magic.” After I read that, I thumbed through the rest of the book, noted the scarcity of female names and pronouns, and returned it to the library unfinished. (I know now that if I’d started with the second book in the Earthsea Series, The Tombs of Atuan, my reaction might have been very different.) My second experience with a female fantasy author wasn’t much better: Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy, starting with The Crystal Cave. These books I actually enjoyed, but I had to wait until Volume 3, The Last Enchantment, to meet with any character resembling a heroine, and she didn’t appear until halfway through the book. Clearly, trusting in female authors just because they were female wasn’t the answer.
I had very little guidance, since at that time none of the people to whom I was very close were avid fantasy readers who could point me toward exactly what I was looking for. Thankfully, when I entered grad school, I found some friends who were fantasy fans, and from them I learned about Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar, Tad Williams’ Osten Ard (Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn), the various alternate-history worlds of Guy Gavriel Kay, and best of all, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.This helped me find my feet, and from there I’ve moved on to Barbara Hambly, Juliet Marillier, Patricia McKillip, and quite a few others whose new releases I await with pounding heart. Thanks to these I learned that female characters could and did have a place in fantasy literature — in fact, a variety of places. They didn’t have to be the hero’s reward, or the passive avatar of Goodness/ the active agent of Evil, or the damsel in need of rescue. They could be heroes.
My story of falling in love with fantasy has a happy ending (though the term “ending” hardly fits, since I have books to go before I sleep). But I wonder what might have changed if I’d discovered the right books sooner, if I’d sought out Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley as a teen. I wonder if their work might have made me a little more confident, a little more optimistic, on my rough ride through adolescence. I wonder if my ambition to become a fantasy novelist, which hasn’t abated since college, might have taken earlier root.
I also reflect with amusement on my habit of making heroines out of male characters. Just yesterday I browsed through an old Reddit Books thread that began with the question to the men of the group: how often did they read books by female authors and/or books with female protagonists? While plenty of the responding men wrote that they have and would happily read a book by a female author, I lost track of the number of posters who claimed they just couldn’t get into stories with female protagonists because they “couldn’t relate” to those characters. My first impulse was to judge them harshly for their unimaginative short-sightedness, but then, while I’ve identified with countless male characters, I’ve never really identified with them as male, even if they were played by Mandy “Mr. Awesome” Patinkin. I still have the habit of transforming my favorite male characters into female, even though I’ve now found plenty of female characters in the genre to love and admire. If I can’t identify with the characters as I find them, as their authors give them to me, but instead feel moved to make them something else, how am I any better than those posters on Reddit?
I will say only this in my defense: that gender-flipping habit of mine has had an inescapable influence on the way I gender my own stories and the kinds of characters I imagine as female. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing, I leave to my readers to decide.
(Coming Soon: Part 2 — The “Best” Fantasy Novels?)