Some while ago I listened to a podcast episode devoted to world-building, on which the guests were Helen Lowe, Courtney Schafer, and Kate Elliott. Elliott, whose Spiritwalker Trilogy is one of my favorite reads of the past ten years, noted that a friend of hers called her attention to the recurring appearance of a certain type of character in her work, the intensely “pretty” male lead. The comment gave her some pause, as she hadn’t quite realized she’d been writing this type again and again. Yet after some thought, she decided it wasn’t really a problem and she should “go with it.”
The podcast confirmed what I’ve often thought: that writers have certain character types and/or themes to which we keep returning. These types and themes don’t exactly define us, but they certainly delight us, and rather than abandoning them, we can focus on finding inventive ways to employ them. Now that I have two novels, four short stories, and an abundance of Atlanta Radio Theatre Company scripts to my credit, I think it worth my while to take stock and pinpoint the features that keep insinuating themselves into my work.
The Heroine as Introvert
When I notice something missing from the stories I’ve been given for much of my life, it’s quite natural that my imagination should seek to fill the gap. One type I never saw represented enough in the movies or TV shows I watched as a teen was the female introvert. Boys could be loners, but girls always had to be super-social, concerned with popularity and dating above all else. Books may have offered better, but with the exception of Anne of Green Gables, I didn’t read books about teens when I was a teen. (I’m not sure what this might say, but I’ve read far more books about teens, specifically teens in fantasy settings, since I became an adult.) The message I kept getting from other media was that while boys might have or find something of their own, some interest or ambition that might carry them forward into the future, girls were supposed to live for and through others, be they love interests or peer groups. But this wasn’t how I saw myself, or even how I wanted to see myself. Is it any wonder that more introverted female characters began to take shape in my fancy, to convince me they could indeed exist?
Introverted does not have to mean anti-social. An introvert may have a variety of traits and interests. All that really binds introverts together is a keen understanding of the value of solitude. I’ve never really been drawn to the introversion that expresses itself in bitter black-clad alienation (which some people mistakenly believe defines the introvert) or in passive navel-gazing. The introverts that draw me, in others’ fiction as well as my own, are those for whom solitude offers food for creativity and innovation — which brings me to my next frequently recurring element:
The Heroine as Artist
One of the first bardic (creative) characters I loved as a child was Hans Christian Andersen, not the historical figure but the singing storyteller played by Danny Kaye in the 1952 film. As I got a little older I noticed his flaws — his hunger for recognition, his insensitivity — yet oddly enough, those made me like him more. The trouble was I didn’t want to marry him. I wanted to be him, and it didn’t take me long to notice there weren’t any female singing storytellers around. Not until much later did I learn that women storytellers played vital roles in a number of cultures and that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm actually got most of the tales in their famous Nursery and Household Tales from women.
Yet when I was in middle school, I had my first meeting with a heroine who convinced me that girls, too, might spin wonders through the power of imagination — Jo March, of Alcott’s Little Women. Here was a wild, temperamental mess of a girl who loved stories and story-making as much as Hans Christian Andersen did, and as much as I was beginning to. I wanted, and still want, more Jo Marches, more Anne Shirleys, more Francie Nolans, and still later, more Menollys of Harper Hall. I have yet to discover any reason why I shouldn’t create them myself.
Of all the creative skills I do not possess, playing a musical instrument is the one I most covet, but if I can’t be a female instrumentalist, I can certainly write about them. Hope in The House Across the Way, Nelly in Candle Magic, the heroine of Sarabande for a Condemned Man (whom I can’t name, being mindful of Spoilers), Nichtel in Atterwald, and Meliroc in Nightmare Lullaby all understand that a song, like a story or poem, can capture and interpret feeling. They are all in the business of drawing a glorious something from a dark well of nothing. While musician heroines have dominated my work thus far, I’m just getting started, and as I look ahead to my own creative future I can see the forms of heroines who are painters, poets, sculptors, potters, embroiderers, glass-shapers and glass-blowers, actors and playwrights and set designers… the list goes on. Any art that can be made, I will find a heroine to make it.
These elements are wide enough to give me room to keep employing them in new ways in different works. Yet what have I not yet done, that might be worth doing or present me with a rewarding challenge? Next up — Not This Again: Elements I’d Like to Try.