The Tomboy and the Girly-Girl

TV Tropes notes a common dichotomy between two distinct types of heroines in fiction: the Tomboy and the Girly-Girl. It’s not quite an unfavorite trope of mine, but I do find it problematic, as it measures female characters’ personalities against a masculine norm: how “like a man” are they or aren’t they? Jo March, heroine of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (and one of my favorite characters from children’s literature) is a classic tomboy because she enjoys masculine pursuits and likes dressing up in trousers to play the male lead in the theatricals she and her sisters perform. Her sister Amy, by contrast, is the girly-girl with stereotypically feminine concerns like appearance and fashion and social standing. Nearly every reader of Alcott’s novel comes away admiring Jo and feeling impatient with Amy. In this as in most stories, the tomboy is drawn as more admirable and sympathetic — the “strong female character,” as opposed to the more passive and shallow girly-girl.

I admit I share the general preference. I always appreciate heroines with a touch of the tomboy about them, particularly in fantasy fiction. Tomboys, with their preference for trousers over skirts, are more mobile, more physically active and vigorous, which makes them better suited to participate in the action and adventure of the typical fantasy novel, while girly-girls, with their restrictive clothing and physical fragility, tend by practical necessity to occupy the periphery of such stories. In relation to male characters, the tomboy is often the ally, the respected comrade-in-arms, while the girly-girl is the distant love interest, the girl worth fighting for, the Ideal rather than the real. What female reader wouldn’t rather see herself as an active participant in a story’s most pivotal events than as a bystanding object of worship? (Wait — don’t answer that.)

Another point in the tomboy’s favor: tomboys defy rules. Few things win our sympathy more quickly than rebellion against unreasonable authority, including restrictive gender rules designed to extinguish any spark of individualism lurking in a woman’s heart and mind. These gender roles, as I’ve noted before, appear ad nauseum in second-world fantasy, despite the freedom novelists have to build their worlds from the ground up; accordingly, the genre needs tomboys who look out for ways to overcome or circumvent those wearisome “women-can’t-do-X” prescriptions. Tomboys are fighting for their chance to be who they are. Who wouldn’t root for that?

Yet tomboys can be easy characters to get wrong in a crucial way. With her embrace of individuality over convention, the tomboy can be a rewarding feminist heroine, but because she gravitates toward masculine interests and pursuits, in the hands of a less astute writer she opens the door to the anti-feminist “Not Like Other Girls” trope. Even talented writers can be guilty of this, as the first example that leaps to my mind is Arya Stark, the popular tomboy character from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, who scornfully dismisses all conventionally feminine girls and women as “stupid.” At least in Arya’s case, the wider narrative does not affirm this sweeping dismissal, but such statements are common ones for tomboy heroines to make. In too many stories where they feature, more feminine characters appear as one-dimensional foils, either feather-witted, catty, or both, completely deserving of the tomboy’s disdain. The more aligned to the masculine a girl or woman is, the “better” she is — more courageous, more competent. Not exactly the most feminist of messages.

The tomboy heroines I appreciate most are the ones who befriend other women, including (sometimes especially) the “girly” ones. I’ve mentioned Starhawk, the warrior heroine of Barbara Hambly’s Sun Wolf and Starhawk series, as a favorite, both because she’s an unquestioned badass and because she lifts other women, the feminine Fawn (her romantic rival) in The Ladies of Mandrigyn and the more tomboyish Tazey in The Witches of Wenshar; in both cases, her friendship helps these women discover something extraordinary in themselves. Maia, the heroine of Todd Lockwood’s The Summer Dragon, which I’m currently reading, has all the usual tomboy earmarks: she wears trousers, she strides into danger rather than flinching or hanging back from it, and she’s an excellent shot with a bow and arrow. Her closest ties are to those within her family circle, yet the one person who never doubts or underestimates her is her gentler, more soft-spoken (more “feminine”) sister-in-law, Jhem. Accordingly, Maia loves and trusts her. No hint of “Not Like Other Girls” here.

We all know the tomboy can be awesome, but what about the girly-girl? Is she, by her very nature, doomed to be always the damsel, never the heroine? That may be the most obvious route to take with her, but every now and then a girly-girl can surprise us with unexpected badassery.

I met with such a character in a recent read, Brandon Sanderson’s The Alloy of Law, the first of a sequel series, of sorts, to his original Mistborn trilogy. The heroine of the first trilogy is a tomboy in every sense, including, alas, “Not Like Other Girls.” (Sanderson has since expressed regret at not creating more female characters for her to interact with.) On the surface, Lady Marasi Colms, chief among the heroines of the second series, could not be more different. She says of herself that she likes wearing dresses, she likes living in the city because of its conveniences, and she doesn’t mind leaving the dangerous work to the men. Really this last one is the only part I’d have issues with, but if there were nothing more to her, she would indeed be what another female character calls her — an “ornament.”

Yet Marasi, as it turns out, has her own ways of being awesome. She has an interest and extensive knowledge in criminal justice, providing useful information when it’s most needed. She’s a crack shot with a rifle, and with this skill she saves male characters’ lives more than once. And despite her claim that she’s fine with letting the menfolk take the big risks, she accompanies the male heroes into danger because she feels a responsibility to do so (a woman of honor, this one), and each time they offer to leave her behind in a place of safety, she refuses, staying at their side, determined to be of use even though she doubts her abilities. In the end — Spoiler Alert — she strikes the decisive blow against the villain. As to how she does it… read the book. It’s really good.

Marasi is the heroine you don’t see coming, an example of what a girly-girl can be if she and her story are written well. Other girly-girl heroines I admire include Sorcha, Liadan, and Fainne, the heroines of Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest, Son of the Shadows, and Child of the Prophecy respectively; the young apprentice sorceress Isabeau in Kate Forsyth’s Witches of Eileanan series (with her twin sister Iseult filling the tomboy role); and Beatrice Barahal, the girly-girl to her cousin Cat’s tomboy in Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker Trilogy.

I admire all these ladies, for showing their readers there is more than one way to be a heroine.


Interview: Michael J. Allen

Today’s guest is author Michael J. Allen. He is the author of the Amazon #1 best-seller YA space opera Scion of Conquered Earth, its best-selling sequel Stolen Lives and the contemporary southern fantasy Murder in Wizards Wood. All titles are available in hardback, paperback, kindle, epub, ibook and nook, order them anywhere in galaxies where quality books are sold.

Originally from Oregon, Michael J. Allen is a pluviophile masquerading as a vampire IT professional in rural Georgia. Warped from youth by the likes of Jerry Lewis, Robin Williams, Gene Wilder and Danny Kaye, his sense of humor leads to occasional surrender, communicable insanity, a sweet tooth and periodic launch into nonsensical song. He loves books, movies, the occasional video game, playing with his Labradors – Myth and Magesty. He knows almost nothing about music.

A recovering Game Master, he gave up running RPG’s for writing because the players didn’t play out the story in his head like book characters would – we know how that worked out.

Suddenly fresh out of teenagers, he spends his days writing in restaurants, people watching and warring over keyboard control with the voices in his head.

1.   Describe your work. What will readers find and enjoy as they explore your writing? What are you proudest of?

a.       The stories that scribble out from my keyboard are varied and broad, but whether its YA Space opera, Western-style Fantasy, or more traditional Science Fiction/Fantasy readers will always find truth within the wonder. They’ll find people, not caricature. Protagonists are as flawed as you or me. Antagonists struggle with hard choices to do what they feel is right or necessary even if it seems horrible from the outside.

b.      I enjoy moments of pride when I can take something known and make it new, offer a reader the opportunity to look at things in a new light and embrace new possibilities.

2. What’s your favorite part of being a writer?

I love the sharing. I got hooked on writing when my friends sat around a living room discussing how the chapter made them feel and arguing with one another over who did what and why. To share and make an emotional impact, to brighten their day and maybe distract them from other troubles, that’s what makes writing incredible.

3. What aspect of being a writer do you struggle with?

Ugly truth. I find my characters in bad situations where ugly realities have become necessary on the page. I’m often uncomfortable with writing the horrors that humans inflict upon one another, but I believe it’s a writer’s duty to his/her readers to tell the story with truth – though perhaps not always in every gruesome detail. A writer should never cheat their readers by changing what happens to make the story’s reality a bit more Disney.  Joel Rosenberg taught me that as a reader with his Guardians of the Flame series. Unscrupulous, selfish people did horrid things to characters I loved. I hated it. I threw his books away only to buy them again years later to learn how Joel had invoked an emotional response that lingered years later. He’d shown me what truly would’ve happened in that horrid situation. Joel’s adherence to the story’s reality, the truth of humanity without a candy coating had opened my eyes to the importance of not cheating my reader with easy lies. I imagine there are readers who get turned off by some of those ugly truths just as there are readers who’re driven away by a writer lying about war reality or humanity’s darkness. It’s oh so very hard to face that at the keyboard some days, but I’ll dutifully give my readers believable stories grounded in truth before I tell them that bad people only want to treat them to a spa day.

4. Who are some of your favorite writers, and how have they influenced your work?

There are so many. Every book I’ve ever read has shaped and inspired my writing. Roger Zelazny showed me how big a world could be with his Amber Series. Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera books expanded my horizons where it came to my thinking about magic. Brandon Sanderson taught me by book and by online lessons how to ground magic systems in logic that keeps them balanced and believable. Terry Pratchett taught me not to take myself too seriously. Ann Crispin abused me horribly in order to forge me into someone who could become a writer people wanted to read. Mercedes Lackey and Andre Norton showed me that cultural politics offered intrigue as good or better and slogging through war zones and later Mercedes and Larry Dixon kept me from giving up writing. Every pro I’ve ever interacted with has been so generous with their wisdom, beacons of hope to guide me toward ultimately getting published.

5. What would you like to see more of in sci-fi and fantasy fiction?

My name on their cover pages? Diversity. More diverse points of view or organizational structures. SF/F writers expand thinking with their stories. They open minds to new ideas. We need a fresh infusion of open mindedness in society and writers can present those ideas in ways that don’t automatically get our collective hackles raised. At the same time, new ideas must be integral to the story and painted with all the heavy-handedness of a butterfly’s kiss. It’s not our job to tell readers WHAT to think. It’s our job to help teach them HOW to think for themselves then offer them new perspectives that open their eyes/minds to possibilities they might not otherwise have considered.

6. Conversely, what would you like to see less of in sci-fi and fantasy fiction?

Same old, same old. Where magic and the vastness of space are involved, there’s no reason to fall into the Hollywood reboot trap. I know they say there are only five original stories retold in different ways, but each writer tells it in a new voice. I’d like to see new, mind blowing ideas that open my eyes to things I’ve never considered and landscapes I’ve never imagined. I want writers to leave me wondering, “Why didn’t I come up with that?”


The Problem of Female Power

Aside from the acceptance/lack thereof of the concept of “collateral damage,” a key distinction between heroes and villains in traditional fantasy involves power. The villain has power, of some shape or form, from the story’s beginning; said villain’s gross abuse of this power motivates the hero to act. The hero, however, has to discover his or her power as the story progresses. That power may or may not be magical, or equal to the villain’s. But in the end, the power to save and protect must triumph over the power to destroy and exploit. In traditional fantasy, that is. We’re not talking about grimdark now.

In the Reddit discussion thread I’ve cited before, asking male readers if they would read a book with a female protagonist, one poster said he wouldn’t because he could never imagine a female character powerful enough to fill the role of hero — but then he added that female sidekicks were always welcome, and he positively loved to read about female villains. So evidently a woman with the power to destroy and exploit is well within the scope of this poster’s imagination, yet a woman with the power to save and protect is not? Just how common is this imaginative limit?

More common, I’m afraid, than I want to believe. I have only to think of issues I’ve covered previously here. Why are female villains so often described as tall? Why do we see so few heroic female dragons? The answer to both questions may well be the same: an instinctive distrust of female power. If a woman is physically large, she skews our perceptions of bigness as masculine and smallness as feminine, and her power is evident the moment we look at her. We’re not quite at ease with the idea that a woman might be so obvious a match for a man in physical strength; even when a heroine can overcome a male opponent in a fight, somehow we still feel better if she’s tiny, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s Melinda May. As for dragons, what fantasy creature has more raw power? What could do more damage if it weren’t somehow on our side? If we imagine such a powerful being as Good, our tendency would be to imagine it as male. It’s easier for some reason to think of that power in a female as destructive.

The groundwork for our suspicion of female power has been laid by early tales in which sorceresses are scheming villains and goddesses are dangerous femme fatales and, despite progress, we can still see the effects. Nowadays female mages are a little more likely to be presented as good, but we still get stories in which magical power automatically renders female characters evil (e.g. Robert Newcomb’s The Fifth Sorceress) or at least more prone to corruption than a man would be (e.g. Joseph Delaney’s Spook’s Apprentice series). Female authority figures still tend to be written in the “God Save Us From the Queen!” mold. One of the most notable signs of our willingness to accept women with a great deal of power as villains rather than as heroes is the debate over whether we should see a female Doctor Who. (Outgoing) show runner Steven Moffat and a massive number of the classic Sci-Fi show’s fans are dead set against the idea that the Doctor, an incredibly powerful and complex hero, might regenerate into a woman. But the Master, the Doctor’s evil-to-the-core nemesis, can become a woman without any objections. “Woman + Power = Evil” — that’s still the equation we’re comfortable with.

The news is not all bad. Ursula LeGuin’s “weak is women’s magic/ wicked is women’s magic” ethos from A Wizard of Earthsea is moving further and further out of date (LeGuin herself has rejected it) thanks to the popularity of such heroic female magic users as Granny Weatherwax (Pratchett’s Discworld), Vin (Sanderson’s Mistborn), and Hermione (Harry Potter). On a lighter note, superhero teams are likelier to include female members even on the big screen and, after a cancellation scare, Supergirl, in all her Kryptonian awesomeness, will be soaring across our television screens for a second season (albeit on another network).

I want to take heart from these positive signs. Yet when 2016 gives nasty psychopath Harley Quinn a major big-screen role while a nobly heroic Wonder Woman gets only a cameo in a movie that, reportedly, nobody liked, the first solo films for female superheroes are over a year away, and the DC Animated Universe hasn’t released a heroine-positive movie since Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (a Supergirl story, though you’d never know it by the title) while in a more recent offering Wonder Woman and the Amazons are evil villains for most of the running time, I can’t help seeing how much further we have to go.





Things I Loved about… DragonCon 2016

Another year, and another DragonCon has come and gone. The four-day celebration of all things geeky and wonderful, where everyone attending can play dress-up without shame and where waiting in line to see a favorite author, artist, or actor is made bearable by the spontaneous conversations we start with the people around us who obviously love the same things we love, has to come to an end sometime. But we’re left with the bittersweet consolation that the glorious time of year will come around again. (My husband and I have already booked our room for next year.)

Now the moment comes to take stock of the delights of this year’s DragonCon, and they are many.

Hearing Brandon Sanderson.

Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive (beginning with The Way of Kings) is, along with Django Wexler’s The Shadow Campaigns (beginning with The Thousand Names), my favorite fantasy series currently ongoing, so I was thrilled beyond words to learn Sanderson would be coming to this year’s DragonCon. I got to see him twice — once at an hour-long Q & A, and again for a reading in which he gave us all a welcome Spoiler-free taste of the third Stormlight book, Oathbringer, due to enter the world at large in the fall of 2017 (sigh…).  Meeting our heroes is always a risky proposition. They may start to talk and diminish themselves in our eyes with every word they speak, until we wish we’d been content for them to live only in our heads. I’m happy to say I came away from my distant encounter with Mr. Sanderson liking him even more than before.

He reads with such vigorous energy, his passion for the story coming through, that we can’t help but be caught up in the words and the world. Yet my favorite moment came towards the end of the reading, when he took a question about whether he thought about how readers might respond to his characters — whether, for instance, a girl might read about the magical assassin Vin from the first Mistborn trilogy and think, “I want to be her.” He answered yes, he thinks about it all the time, since he remembers the fantasy he loved as a young fan, works by Barbara Hambly, Anne McCaffrey, and Melanie Rawn, and how he saw parts of himself in them. (The joy I felt at hearing one of fantasy’s most successful male authors cite three women as influences falls squarely in the “shouldn’t-matter-but-it-does” department.) He seeks to write the sorts of books he loved and wanted to see as a reader, in the hope that he might be someone else’s Hambly, McCaffrey, or Rawn. He writes aspirational fiction. No wonder I like his work.

Now, if only Mr. Sanderson would return next year, and Django Wexler would also come, and Kate Elliott and Kate Forsyth as well, I might have the perfect DragonCon, or close to it.

Performing with the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company.

I’ve been acting with ARTC since 2004, but this year was special. The Comics Track sponsored our performance of an adaptation (by author and scriptwriter Brad Strickland) of Bill Holbrook‘s Kevin & Kell: The Great Bird Conspiracy, a story of the anthropomorphic animals of Domain (think Zootopia), where large mutant rabbit Kevin and wolf Kell make their marriage work with tolerance and understanding and their family includes Kell’s son Rudy (by her first marriage), who can’t track worth a darn despite being a wolf, and Kevin’s brainy adopted hedgehog daughter Lindesfarne. I got to play Catherine Aura, a vulture school administrator who’s a bit more than she seems; I gave her my best imperious English accent.

Shortly after the performance, my husband and I went to Artist’s Alley, where it so happened that Holbrook himself was signing and selling books. He made a point of telling me how much he enjoyed the show and all our performances, and that I got Catherine exactly right. He signed my Kevin & Kell comic and drew a little picture of Catherine as a special compliment. Praise from the author himself! That makes me glow inside.

Listening to ARTC perform my new script.

The Goblins and the Golden Rose marks the seventh audio drama I’ve written that ARTC has performed at DragonCon, its biggest venue of the year. It’s the story of a young goblin who loses her human husband to the beautiful but evil Fey Queen, an older goblin who seeks to help her win him back, and the widowed human metalworker who gets caught up in it all. Once again I experienced the delight of hearing my characters come to life in some ways I hadn’t even thought of. My work with this talented group of people has been a blessing in more ways than I can count.

ARTC has many fans who make a point of attending our DragonCon shows, and we win new fans every year. This year, some of those fans even bought copies of Atterwald and Nightmare Lullaby!

Being on a panel for the Writers Track.

Nancy Knight, head publisher of Gilded Dragonfly Books and coordinator of DragonCon’s Writers Track, gave me an opportunity to discuss “Writing YA Science Fiction and Fantasy for Today’s Savvy Readers,” along with author and map-builder Catherine Scully. We got to talk about what makes YA special (for me: optimism), how we write scary scenes, and how we choose our protagonists (for me: I ask myself, “What do I want to see, that I’m not seeing?”), among other things. I love attending panels on compelling subjects and asking questions of authors I admire, but being the one answering the questions gives me that little extra rush. It feeds my hope that one day, I just might be for some young reader what Hambly, McCaffrey, and Rawn were for Sanderson.

And everything else…

Dining. The food is always good, if a little expensive, at the restaurants around DragonCon.  I tried Gus’s Fried Chicken on a recommendation from the team at Marie, Let’s Eat.  I learned that the portions are bigger than I thought, but my husband was able to help me out in that department (he ate there before last year).  We also saw Joey Fatone at Fire of Brazil holding court.

Panel-ing. Two of my favorites this year were an American Sci-Fi Media Track discussion of CBS’s Supergirl and a presentation on the “Superhero Cartoons” of yore, led by our friend Darius Washington of the Animation Track.

Observing cosplay. Some of my favorite cosplays are ones I don’t recognize, like the woman in the ruby Renaissance gown and the mask and head-dress decked with bird-of-paradise plumage. But I believe I was most charmed by the woman dressed as Alexander Hamilton (from the musical Hamilton, of course) carrying two black cardboard tablets on which the Ten Duel Commandments were inscribed.

Shopping. I always worry I may enjoy this one a little too much, but I did manage to limit myself to three books only from Larry Smith Bookseller. The fourth Shadow Campaigns book, The Guns of Empire, is now mine.

Farewell, Dragon Con. We’ll be back.