Saturday, May 10, 2008

The heroine's profession


This applies to protagonists in general, but very often in fantasy, women don’t get professions as interesting as those of the men. This is sometimes unavoidable, since a fantasy that stays true to historical or medieval standards is unlikely to have female engineers or military advisors. But even when the women do work outside their homes, they frequently end up being soldiers or fighters. If they’re mages, they often use their power to control and dominate people. The kickass factor is very strong, in other words. It’s as though women can be lambs or lionesses, with not a whole lot of grey areas in between.

I’d like to see a fantasy heroine who was into business. Maybe she’s a fossil dealer – sort of a more entreprenurial Mary Anning. The fossils themselves pass through a complicated chain of middlemen to prevent anyone finding out exactly where her fossil beds are. But now it looks as though someone has learned their location and is picking them over. That person may be the hero, or she might hire him to stop the thief. Or perhaps she’s found one fossil that just seems wrong, and at night she dreams of it coming back to life. An interesting enough profession can jump-start the idea machine, and give you something that lifts a story out of the common circuits. I picked up Holly Lisle's Diplomacy of Wolves specifically because the heroine was a diplomat and negotiator.

Women in fantasy worlds might be exposed to too much danger if they worked on the road, as couriers or traders, but what about if they stayed in one location and were scribes or librarians? Or even scientists? A female alchemist or physicist would be unusual and intriguing, and would also not be out of place in a medieval fantasy; siege engines work on physical principles, after all, and if she applied her talents in this direction, an army might benefit from them. I haven’t yet figured out how to put a microbiologist into a medieval fantasy, but I’ll keep working on it. :)

8 comments:

colbymarshall said...

perhaps the microbiologist could be trying to cure a medieval plague? No idea, but just throwing it out there!

Marian said...

Thanks for commenting! There would be plenty for a microbiologist to do in a story - I'm thinking primitive biological warfare as well. The only thing is that the minimum level of technology required for character to be a successful microbiologist is quite far from medieval.

Sarpedon said...

Robert Hooke published his book 'Micrographia' in which the term 'cell' was first used for body parts in 1665.

So its a bit late for medievalism, sure. But it would be fascinating to write fantasy set in that period!

Marian said...

Those were eukaryotic cells, though, weren't they? The time period would still work for observation of bacteria - they were first observed in 1676. But it wasn't until the late 1800s that individual species were isolated, cultured and shown to cause diseases, and I'll need that before I can have primitive germ warfare. So yeah, too late for medieval times, but if I go for a slightly higher level of technology I might still be able to pull it off.

lccorp2 said...

Personally, I've found it all rather silly, from both ends of the coin. On one side, there's the blind adherence to Earthlike gender roles, on the other side, there's the misogynism used to label Bad and Backward people, as opposed to the Enlightened Society That Blindly Adheres To Modern Western Values. At that point, I fling the book across the room and say "this is a made-up society; it doesn't have to blindly conform to real-world history!"

I think the main problem with the Feisty Grrl character trope is that people are afraid of portaying their female characters as weak and thus being misogynist. yes, I do agree that a lot of women in fantasy tend to fall into the "lioness or lamb" problem, and it's bugging me out, too.

This makes less sense in a high-magic setting where magic is commonplace. If magic is going to take away the burden of doing the more menial tasks of everyday life, people are going to have more time to themselves, to create, to wonder. More women--and men--should be able to pursue their interests. Yet that often isn't the case.

What bites me, though, is when you have a completely diffrent race that still sticks to the same anthocentric principles. At the very least, the physical differences should deeply affect their mental, social and spiritual worlds, yet all too often it doesn't. I'd imagine, for example, a race of oviparous reptilian humanoids would have deeply different views on gender issues and roles. what if the female is physically larger and stronger--as is the case with many reptiles? How would eggs be viewed? I believe that humans' long pregnancy period does at least something to tie a child to his or her mother in the eyes of others. Would young be viewed as primarily the father's, mother's or both?

Bleh. It's not very often stories delve into these things.

By the way, how did you enjoy diplomacy of wolves? Personally, I thought the series went straight downhill after the first book, the prequel included, but well--I'd like to hear your thoughts.

Marian said...

I think the main problem with the Feisty Grrl character trope is that people are afraid of portaying their female characters as weak and thus being misogynist.

I think many people confuse strength with being on a battlefield swinging a sword. To quote from Kushiel’s Dart, “That which yields is not always weak.”

yes, I do agree that a lot of women in fantasy tend to fall into the "lioness or lamb" problem, and it's bugging me out, too.

A few more kinds of heroines I’m tired of seeing…

Overly egalitarian heroines (e.g. best friends with their servants or handmaids, or despite being the leader, they deliberately put themselves into danger because otherwise their subordinates might be hurt)

Heroines who are independent loners until they meet the hero, at which point it’s marriage, family and kiddies. That’s one reason I like Barra in Stover’s Jericho Moon and Jenny in Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane - they don’t automatically place marriage to the hero before their own needs and plans (or, for that matter, regard marriage to the hero as their own primary need or plan).

I'd imagine, for example, a race of oviparous reptilian humanoids would have deeply different views on gender issues and roles. what if the female is physically larger and stronger--as is the case with many reptiles?

The Yilane in Harry Harrison’s Eden novels are what the dinosaurs might eventually have evolved into – the females are bigger, stronger and more intelligent. Unfortunately, while the Yilane culture and mindset was wonderfully alien and well realized, the heroes of the story were most definitely the humans (who were at war with the Yilane). At the end of the story, the only surviving Yilane were the ones who recognized the humans as equal – basically, the Yilane had been put in their place and taught that they should not look down on Homo sapiens.

It was disappointing, though if I recall correctly, the books were published some time ago, which may account for the ending.

By the way, how did you enjoy diplomacy of wolves? Personally, I thought the series went straight downhill after the first book, the prequel included, but well--I'd like to hear your thoughts.

I love the worldbuilding – airships, roast pythons stuffed with mangoes, every magical action having an equal and opposite reaction. The heroine Kait was a bit of a Mary Sue – young, beautiful, one of the last of her family and able to shape-shift into a wolf, but I could live with that. And the start of the story was great; I wouldn’t have believed the author would allow such grotesque things to happen to Danya.

Then I bought the second book in the series where Kait leaps from the top of a tower when her enemies corner her there. I was on the edge of my seat… until she shape-shifted into some kind of flying creature and flew home safely. I hadn’t read anything up till then which indicated she could do so. That’s where I stopped. And a good thing too, since from what I heard, Danya was killed in the third book, and I was very sympathetic towards her.

lccorp2 said...

Hm.

I enjoyed the first book because I couldn't quite work out who were the protagonists and antagonists throughout the book. Everyone seemed to have their own perfectly sensible agenda. I was wondering: who were the bad guys? Was it the Galweighs? (sorry about the spelling if it's wrong. It's been some time since I read the books) The mysterious voices in so many people's heads? And how did the artifact they were all going after tie into the thing? It was delightfully exciting, and I remember being on the edge of my seat.

Spoilers ahead: Then came along the second book, and...ugh. The world opened up into a flat dichotomy of Dragons = bad and wanting to take over the world again for no good reason, and Falcons = good, noble and whatnot. Sorry if I'm rambling here. To make it even worse, the magic system is blatantly used as a device to tell the reader who's good and evil. (Dragon magic = evil, horribly wasteful and consumes people's lives and souls while Falcon magic = good, coming from self and uses much less energy. Oh, and did I mention the Falcons get a nice little magical tattoo? Ugh.)

Far too many deus ex machina, too. Add to that the blatant Jesus and Antichrist analogies in Solander and Luceras, and I was feeling sick by the end of the second book. I don't like the blatant beating on psuedo-abrahamic religions in fantasy, but the opposite is just as bad.

However, you might want to give Vincalis the Agitator a read, if you haven't done so before. While the stupid dichotomy is there as well as a thinly-veiled recreation of Jesus' crucifixtion, it might be interesting to see how people rebel through nonviolent means and propoganda.

Marian said...

Add to that the blatant Jesus and Antichrist analogies in Solander and Luceras, and I was feeling sick by the end of the second book.

I'm with you on Solander. He was so kind and noble and perfect that I couldn't stand him. The climactic moment of the second book (where Danya kills him) fell flat for me because if I have to choose between what Danya wants and what Solander wants, I'll pick Danya any day. At least she felt real.

Thanks for the recommendation. I think I read the first few pages of [I]Vincalis[/I] on Holly Lisle's website, so if I see it in a bookstore, I'll check it out.