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09:18 pm: Seven more things heroines/female protagonists can do
The title of the rant explains itself, I think. I’ve put “more” in there because I’ve written rants in the past about different ways to diversify female characters, and slashed heroines/female protagonists because of the unfortunate connotation that “heroine” sometimes has.



1) A life in thought. One thing missing from a lot of fantasy novels is philosophy—not morality, since there’s often a clear sense of right and wrong, but the exploration of abstract questions. What is truth like in that world? How is beauty regarded? Knowledge? Wisdom? (Is there a difference between knowledge and wisdom?) Is there a purpose to existence for your invented culture(s), and what is it? What is the philosophy of art?

Even in a society where philosophers don’t exist as a separate profession, class, or guild, I bet there are people doing some thinking about these things. And some of them can be women. Or should be women, since female philosophers are rarely, if ever, central characters in fantasy novels.

Want to use a noblewoman character as your protagonist but have absolutely no idea what to do with her if she’s not involved in a marriage plot? Make her a philosopher! She’ll certainly have time to think that a working-class character probably won’t have, and curiosity makes for a good way to show off the fantasy world. And if she gets into intellectual debates or is forced to defend her ideas, she’ll develop as a thinker in a way that many female protagonists don’t get to.

2) Friendship, complicated and complex. As much as I enjoy reading about and depicting lesbian relationships, I think female friendships (at least, female friendships that are not centered on winning and discussing men) are even rarer in fantasy. They give you all kinds of things to consider. Here are just a few:

-How did these women meet?
-What drove the initial formation of their friendship? Are those factors still around? If so, how have they developed? If not, what kept them friends when the initial common ground turned to mud?
-What wrinkles have their friendships gone through? What really spectacular fights, conflicts of principles, arrival of subjects on which they’ve agreed to disagree?
-How hard do they pull on one another? For example, is one friend always supportive of the other no matter what, because support is what she needs most in her life, or does she smack her friend upside the head regularly and tell her not to be an idiot?
-What do they talk about most often? (This seems to be especially hard for many authors to write about if they want to ban men as a discussion subject).

I’m probably prejudiced, because all the most complex relationships in my life have been friendships, not love affairs. But they’re also less “regulated,” because of the absence of common models in fiction, than relationships like mother-daughter or sister-sister or lover-lover. I always perk up when I see a pair of fictional female friends, because I feel I’m able to expect more variety from them. (Note that this does not tend to happen if their sole subject of conversation is who likes them and who likes-likes them).

3) A truly equal footing. What would it take for a woman in a fantasy society that’s not gender-equal to gain freedom and the ability to form equal relationships with other people? Imagine that the solution is not to become male and abandon everything that makes her female. Maybe she likes some of the things that make her female (and, in any case, deciding that to be “free” a woman has to remain a virgin or never have a child is a limited vision).

So. How does she do it?

It’s going to depend on the circumstances of the society you’ve set up, of course, and the individual qualities and flaws of your protagonist. But say you’ve rejected the “substitute male” and “complete runaway” routes (the first for the reason given above, and the second because it insists that the character has to give up all connections to everybody else). How does she win her freedom without paying a price that’s intolerable to her?

4) Asexuality. By this term, I’m talking about true asexuality, the lack of sexual desire and any longing to engage in a sexual relationship, not a character who’s been scared away from sex by rape or abuse. And yes, male asexual characters are rare, too, but men are more often written as though romantic relationships are unnecessary in their lives—asexuality in practice if not theory. Whereas female characters have to be located in relation to romance the moment they appear on-stage. They’re lesbians, or they’re going to fall in love with the men they’re currently screaming at, or they’re casually bisexual, or she’s had two kids in the past but they’re living with her sister now, or she’s a repressed virgin who just needs to find the right man.

But say that she’s asexual. She just has no interest in any sexual relationships.

Maybe her society has no classification for this, and so other people still try to shove or manipulate her into a sexual category. But this character conceives them all as not mattering to her. She slips out of the categories in her own head, or creates her own. And she doesn’t need to have children or take a lover to be a “real woman.”

Or the author can write her independently of romance whatsoever. If her society is accepting of bisexuality, homosexuality, and polyamory, they could be equally accepting of asexuality. Romance is dispensed with. It does not come up.

Any version of female asexuality could make an interesting story.

5) Changing oneself. The version of this story that I’m most fascinated with is the human who ventures into a nonhuman culture, absorbing their point-of-view, shifting her own attitudes, mentally becoming the alien. But there are other ways to do it:

-The female privileged protagonist who becomes aware of and tries to deal with her own privilege and the consequences of it.
-The heroine whose life changes radically later on, rather than with puberty or as a child, and who has to integrate her sudden magic or destiny or binding to another person into the connections she’s already formed.
-The oppressed/colonized woman who begins to be able to separate her consciousness from the oppression or colonization, and starts the process of changing what she can.
-The woman who’s been hurt and whose life is not suddenly 100% better because a goddess chooses her or a man falls in love with her; she sets her sights on a goal and works towards it, even though complete healing may not be possible.

This requires a lot of introspection, which might be one reason it’s not that popular a plot for fantasy novels. But I think adventure is indeed possible in a story like this; it’s just that it can’t take over and be the sole thing happening.

6) Dealing with human limitations. Her own and others’, in this case. And no, not in the so-familiar holding pattern in which everyone else’s needs—children’s, male partner’s, siblings’, parents’, random passing men’s—come before the needs of the heroine, who is a selfless (and often spineless) martyr. A woman in this kind of plot would need to choose and act; the difference is that she’s not able to knock down every barrier in her way as if she were a queen or a conquering savior.

What’s her life like if she’s living in the middle of an occupation? A natural disaster? A magical disaster? The sudden appearance of an alien species? A difficult political situation, with necessary compromises and powerful opponents who must be appeased? A personal limitation, such as a disdain for violence in a society where violence is one of the prime ways to advance? A chosen limitation, such as a refusal to go on bailing a rebellious child out of trouble?

This is where I have a lot of frustration with some specific fantasy plot devices, which are designed to destroy all the barriers the protagonist faces. Loopholes are the ones I hate most, but also common are sudden unbeatable power, prophecies, coerced loyalty because of prophecy (“But we have to obey her! She’s the Chosen One!”), and a simple lack of ethics (such as the heroine who has no problem killing other people because they’re The Enemy).

Why waste a beautiful difficult situation by insisting that the difficulties are just an illusion?

7) Work. If the center of a female protagonist’s life is her work, that’s often a problem. If she has children, of course she’s too busy to be a proper mother to them. If she’s performing a job commonly done by men in her society, then she runs the risk of losing her femaleness (see point 3). If she’s an artist, she turns out not to be as good an artist as she thinks she is, and/or discovers that she wants a man/a family more than her art.

Why not have work be the center of your female protagonist’s story? She can still have a perfectly ordinary life outside work. Many male protagonists in fantasy are presented as having had friends, lovers, training, different jobs, and families in the past before they started saving the world or going on the quest or fighting in the war. A female protagonist can be a dedicated botanist, but that doesn’t mean that she’s automatically a bad mother or a dangerous workaholic.

Of course, fantasy also has an allergy to work as such. (Tasks are a different matter. For one thing, you can tell that it’s a task because the hero/ine is reluctant to undertake it and certain that s/he’ll be no good at it). There’s no reason that prejudice has to endure, especially because something that’s simple here may be difficult in another world—or another world may have work that doesn’t exist here. Try giving your female protagonist a job without implying that she’s a bad person for having one, and see what happens.



Comments

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From:[info]arterialspray
Date:November 28th, 2007 07:49 am (UTC)
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With respect to asexuality, have you read "the Deed of Paksenarrion"? The main character there is pretty much asexual.
(no subject) - (Anonymous)
From:[info]darkredd
Date:November 28th, 2007 08:59 am (UTC)
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Man, whenever I read your rants I want to write in some of the ideas you gave me. Now I want to inject a philosopher noblewoman into my story. :-P Of course, it would be tricky. "The country is being destroyed by zombies, but I'm going to sit in my tower and try to define what an object in physical space is."

This rant actually represents a fair portion of my beef with high fantasy. Looking at the fantasy at my local bookstore, I see that the plots are all basically the same - person goes on quest to retrieve Mystic Object and slay Ancient Evil for great justice, Mary Sue rebels against patrical/mysogynistic/homophobic establishment for great justice, and so on. If you go outside fantasy (and romance, I suppose) you find a much more variety. Mainstream fiction goes into all kinds of topics, such as stories about artists, philosophers, scientists, and just regular Joes. Hell, you already have a fantastic world, why not write about a regular Joe (or Jane)? Fantasists have so much to work with and do so little to exploit it.

By the way, is there any chance you could do a rant on antiheroes? Antiheroes in the sense of "characters with less admirable motivations, qualities, and personalities." I'm very curious to know your attitude on this type of character.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:November 28th, 2007 09:06 am (UTC)

from idemandjustice

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-The woman who’s been hurt and whose life is not suddenly 100% better because a goddess chooses her or a man falls in love with her; she sets her sights on a goal and works towards it, even though complete healing may not be possible.

I sorta did this with a character. She'd been raped, and she eventually got it into her head that if she could be intimate with a man and enjoy it, that meant she was healed. When she was with someone, she did find it cathartic and was glad to have done it, but realized she wasn't "over it" and being able to enjoy physical intimacy again didn't mean the nightmares would stop.

Of course, same character had also decided that if she could just rescue one person from danger, then everything she'd been through would have meaning and she would be okay. Found said person already dead.

So really a huge theme of the whole story is about the healing process and that there's no magical instant fix.
From:[info]kellicat
Date:November 28th, 2007 09:22 am (UTC)
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I like this rant because it hits on several things that I would like to see in fantasy writing and things that I want to do in my own writing.

For example, the younger sister of my protagonist is asexual and she remains asexual. At one point, she becomes really close to a male character and everybody thinks that they're in love, which exasperates both her and her male friend. They're close friends and they remain close friends for the rest of their lives. She has no interest in children and no lightning bolt comes down to tell her that she's wrong either. She's also devoted to her work without being a workaholic.

I especially liked #7 because it drives me crazy that authors force their female characters to choose between work and children. Men can get away with having a family and serious work but women can't in their warped little worlds. "Oh you want to be warrior and have children? Forget it! You have to give your sword to raise your children otherwise you'll be a horrible mother..."
As far as I'm concerned, that's a load of dog crap that needs to be scooped up and thrown into the trash. My protagonist wants to have children and keep up her work and she sees nothing wrong with that.

I would also love to see some female philosopher protagonists on the scene.
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From:[info]maureenlycaon
Date:November 28th, 2007 09:27 am (UTC)
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A philosopher as the main character of a fantasy world -- now there would be a REAL challenge, whether they're male or female. (I think. Perhaps I'm just unimaginative.)

I'd like to echo [info]darkredd's request -- would you be willing to do one on antiheroes? (As opposed to just villains, pure and simple.)
(no subject) - (Anonymous)
From:[info]lilacsigil
Date:November 28th, 2007 09:59 am (UTC)
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and, in any case, deciding that to be “free” a woman has to remain a virgin or never have a child is a limited vision

I think it's a limited vision if this is the *only* way considered for a woman to be free, but historically (and currently), it's been a valid, interesting and frequently made choice. In Katherine Kerr's "Daggerspell" books, Jill (an apprentice sorceror) is horrified to find that as part of her relationship with the man she loves, she is expected by absolutely everyone to be a good wife and have children. She rejects this, lies and tells him that she's barren and he should marry someone else who can bear him children, and goes off for a life of travel, study and adventure.

In a society without contraception and an expectation that women take care of the children, (heterosexual) celibacy may be the only way for a woman to be free in that sense, particularly if she doesn't have the wealth or status to pursue her own desires on top of providing for her family and caring for the children. I'm not sure why you don't like this idea - I can see that setting the world up this way could be a failure of imagination, but using fantasy as a commentary almost every culture in our world is certainly not invalid, and basing a fantasy society on almost any historical setting without getting handwavy over contraception and childcare is going to have this option looming large for any female character who may want other choices in life.
(no subject) - (Anonymous)
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From:[info]coyoteintherain
Date:November 28th, 2007 12:45 pm (UTC)
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Oh, my, yes. What I wouldn't give for more female characters with complex friendships, important goals, and meaningful work!
From:(Anonymous)
Date:November 28th, 2007 08:31 pm (UTC)
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Yes to the asexuality suggestion. I've got a story in progress right now that has a male and female protagonist that are both pretty much asexual (in a culture that's very accepting of it, so it's not a Big Deal), and I'm hoping it messes with the heads of some people who read it and think "but the hero and heroine *have* to fall in love!"

-Acsumama
From:[info]thestephy.livejournal.com
Date:November 28th, 2007 10:12 pm (UTC)
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Just wanted to say word to everything on this list. :D
From:[info]kazaera
Date:November 29th, 2007 11:54 pm (UTC)
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Man, every time I read your rants I suddenly think "heeey, I could do /that/ with my world too!". I should probably keep some of them free for the entire bloody continent I have very little clue about yet, since there is really only so much you can cram into two linked mountain valleys and surrounding area, but the philosophy idea is really interesting. In part because I've already been experimenting with the different values and ideas that a culture founded by craftsmen would have, e.g. their concept of art and its role in everyday life, and this does tie into that. There's also the truly screwy immortal society... now I'm going to have to bring philosophical debates into the story somehow, damnit.

I already have a few female asexual characters, although considering that people default to sexual unless the opposite is explained to them at length using small words I doubt it'll be obvious in their stories. I'm also not inclined to make a big theme out of it or really address it to that extent, simply because it'd feel like therapy writing/cribbing from my own life and that weirds me out. I think I'm too close to the subject to write about it that way. (Also, making a big deal out of the ex-prostitute's asexuality - although she /is/ genuinely asexual on top of the residual trauma and issues - would probably send the wrong message.)
I do support everyone writing more asexual characters. *waves Visibility flag* There are a plethora of things that an author could write about regarding this, and it saddens me to never see asexuality actually addressed in fiction. I hadn't realised the gender imbalance in possibly-asexual characters, but now that you mention it it does seem obvious and ARGH YES, happy and fulfilled asexual female characters are not an oxymoron and sex, even romantic love for us aromantics, is not the end-all and be-all of existence.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 1st, 2007 04:37 am (UTC)
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What a great rant.

I'm guilty of obsessive amounts of 'interactive fiction.' I love writing, but more, I like writing in tandem with other people. More, I like it in a game setting where I don't know the conclusion, but have the ability to work towards it.

Now, admittedly, some authors know the conclusion, some don't, and some think they do and find it's changed when they get there.

Now where was I?

Oh, yes. Female characters, especially female characters in the fantasy genre.

I play male PCs.

When I started, this was a safety valve. It was much safer online to play a male PC, and it likely still is. Later, I stuck with it because it by then was habit.

However, looking back, I'll admit that what you've written above probably had alot to do with it. Having never seen or read many (at that point) strong, interesting, multidimensional female characters, they were harder for me to imagine or play. Whereas, playing males definitely opened up those possibilities.

Now that right there is a problem.

- Ruggs
(no subject) - (Anonymous)
(no subject) - (Anonymous)
(no subject) - (Anonymous)
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 4th, 2007 07:56 am (UTC)
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Whee! Fun rant! I currently have two major female asexuals; in my world, all the really powerful mages have a genetic disorder (I said disorder and I meant disorder. My background's in biochem.) that causes extreme physical disabilities (think muscle wasting, heart disease, and immune system defects) and asexuality. It's my explanation for why such an adaptive mutation hasn't spread through the population. Coincidentally, one of the two is also a dragon philosopher, a.k.a. Point 1.

--Shadow Phoenix
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 7th, 2007 04:26 am (UTC)
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This may interest you: http://www.racewing.net/original.html

The series "Scarlet Steel" is a comic book style series of fiction involving a heroine that the author has tried to make (and succeeded, in my opinion) fairly original and realistic. While Scarlet Steel doesn't hit all of your list's pointers, she nails at least a couple in these and future chapters (the site is not up to date with what he's written, and he has a few more chapters that have not been added yet). He gave me the link to this entry of yours, and I'm sure he would be very pleased to receive any feedback you might have should you care to try the series out.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 14th, 2007 11:48 am (UTC)
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I'm absolutely atrocious at writing female characters even in a society that's slowly groping towards equality. (I'm a guy, and really badly socialized. So sue me.) This is...reasonably helpful.

The two female characters I've really fleshed out got past #3 by being DAMN good at their jobs. (Engineer and blacksmith, respectively.) The engineer would rather tackle problems than men (not asexual, just prefers her work and doesn't plan on having children for years) and the blacksmith, (also not asexual) reacts to harassment with threats involving her hammer and the harasser's anatomy.
From:[info]slimshadowen
Date:December 18th, 2007 12:22 am (UTC)

I'm surprised you didn't mention that one test.

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Can't remember what it's called. And I am ashamed for that. But it's a litmus test for determining whether writing might be called feminist.

a) Are there at least two female characters?
If yes, go to b. If no, this test does not apply.
b) Do at least two of these female characters interact socially with each other?
If yes, go to c. If no, this test does not apply, but you might want to consider having them interact.
c) When they interact socially, do they talk about something other than men?
If yes, your work has a real shot at being feminist.
d) When they talk about something other than men, is it otherwise not related to their personal sex or sexuality (i.e. if one is a lesbian, she does not spend all her time talking to her straight friend confessing her affection/love)? This means that if they at least one is a sexologist, they may talk in clinical terms about sex and you may still answer yes.
If yes, your work is most likely feminist.

Of course, you might have assumed that this automatically applied, and if so...I go derp derp derp.
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From:[info]shirozora
Date:February 5th, 2008 07:48 am (UTC)
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There's a story I've been working on and off for over half a decade, and the "cast" has been shifting around with characters being removed or added, but my female protagonist somehow got herself out of any relationship with anyone into someone solidly asexual. The closest to a relationship that she'll have is the bond with her twin brother. I've tried to see if she could develop a relationship with any particular character, but no such luck; when it comes to sex, she does have a casual relationship with a male prostitute but nothing more than that. She's dedicated to her work (a mercernary/guard-for-hire) and her brother.

*shrug*
From:[info]zodiacal_light
Date:July 26th, 2008 04:40 am (UTC)

I know this comment is way late...

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...and pretty much useless, but as an asexual woman, I have to thank you for point #4.

(Hi. I've been reading your rants for ages.)
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