Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Thoughts on princesses

Why are princesses so popular in fantasy?

Well, a lot of us start out watching Disney movies - or reading fairytales - in which the heroine is a princess of some kind. For me, it was a little-known cartoon called Galtar and the Golden Lance (the picture is from that cartoon). Writer see, writer do. Besides, the princesses in these stories are usually presented as beautiful, powerful, special or the focus of popular/romantic attention, so it’s normal to imitate that when we first start to write.

There’s also something iconic about princesses, the same way there is about unicorns and dragons. Mention that your heroine is the Princess of High Zalon, and right away you’ve not only established the story as a high fantasy, but you’re drawing on the positive associations a lot of readers have with princesses. You’re tapping into the mythos.

Scratching the surface, though, there are some reasons why a heroine might be a princess rather than, say, a farmer’s wife. The princess is likely to have a better quality of life and more free time, since she isn’t preoccupied with survival. She doesn’t have to grow her own food, cook it or make her own clothes.

Instead, she can study history and politics, meaning she recognizes a subtle but growing threat to the land. She can ride out hawking, meaning she stumbles across a dragon and actually lives to tell the tale, since her horse is faster than the poor farmer’s wife who got eaten by the dragon. In other words, such a character has more opportunities to get involved in conflict that will interest the readers, and more power to affect events than someone lower down on the ladder.

On the other hand, there are many ways in which princesses can be done badly. I’’ve covered some of those in my post about cliches of royalty, but there are a few specific to princesses.

Physically perfect in every way

I could count the number of unattractive princesses I’ve read about on the fingers of one… finger. That would be Shireen from A Song of Ice and Fire, since she’s facially scarred by a disease. I’ve read a lot of fantasy novels and no one else comes to mind. Even if the princesses aren’t conventionally beautiful (e.g. they have red hair and freckles), the writer doesn’t step over a certain line.

From my own manuscripts, Rakhel in Empire of Glass is lovely in a white-skinned, blue-haired Fairfellan kind of way. On the other hand, the Lady of Sulphur in Dracolytes has such deep knife-scars on her face that she never shows any change in expression. I’m pleased about that. :)

Let’s see more disabilities and physical imperfections. Even just one strategically placed scar. You could go the whole hog and give the princess blindness or smallpox scars, or you could make up a disease or condition.

Always the heroine

If there’s only piece of advice I could give to young fantasy writers (as young as I was when I penned my first story) on this topic, it would be: write a story where the princess isn’t the heroine.

She could be a secondary character. She could be the antagonist. But once she’s not the heroine, it frees the writer up to take risks with her personality as well as with her appearance. She can be vengeful and sadistic (Asineth in Orson Scott Card’s Hart’s Hope), spacey (Myste in The Mirror of her Dreams) or ambitious (Asha in A Feast for Crows).


I like strong characters. I like women who can hold their own, mentally or physically.

What I don’t like is the story bending over backward to show that women aren’t just equal, but tougher, more powerful and better at being in charge. Getting down to the character level, this would be the princess, raised in a patriarchal system, who believes that she has just as much of a right to the throne as her three older brothers. Or who refuses an arranged marriage despite this being the way things are done in her land. She is Womyn, hear me snore.

I’d like to see why the princess believes that a woman is fit to rule, if everyone else tells her differently. I’d also like realistic consequences for her actions when she refuses to do what society expects her to do. When Arya learns swordplay in A Game of Thrones, no one praises her for going against the norm, and her practice sessions inadvertently lead to the deaths of two innocent characters (although she sticks people with the pointy end pretty damn well later on).


This isn’t a cliché, just a response to Kami’s comment to a previous post.

“…I still wanted to rename their titles. But that leads to explanations that lead the audience to think why is she calling a rabbit a smeerp?”

I think it’s possible to use different titles, but these have to be well-chosen. As Kami pointed out, just changing the titles might not work. Dubbing someone “High Princess” would make me wonder how this was different from a simple “Princess”. On the other hand, I read of a fantasy novel where titles were the same for both men and women – i.e. a woman could be called Duke This or Prince That. I liked the gender-neutrality, though it might be a little confusing at times.

Giving siblings different titles to distinguish them would also be interesting. Perhaps the eldest princess gets the “High” sobriquet. Or they might get other titles which see more common use – Duchess of York, Beloved of Isis, what have you.

I think one reason the crown princess of Karne (in my manuscript Dracolytes) is called the Lady of Sulphur isn’t only because her seat of power is the city Sulphur. It’s because “princess”, to me, sounds like a young and potentially good character – and the Lady is neither of those.


Tara Maya said...

Well, as you know, everything's better with princesses.

Hazardgal said...

She is womyn; hear me snore! Love the humor!

Anonymous said...

I got a lot of guff from early readers on my current project. The female lead (not the MC), isn't a princess, but she is the daughter of a god. She is also, and this was the source of the complaint, very peaceful and gentle. No ass-kicking, hyper-feminism. "She's too passive!" people said. To which I said, "Ghandi didn't kung-fu fight India to independence."

GunnerJ said...

About the title: I have looked up titles of nobility from non-European cultures for inspiration, just to have an idea of the different cultural "flavors" available. But switching one (familiar/European) title for its (exotic/non-European) equivalent is not a neutral move. Consider the mental images and expectations the following names bring to mind:

Princess Nina

"-hime" is the Japanese title (in that language, they are suffixes) meaning "Princess," but you can't just switch languages and word-order and expect a story about Nina to be the same either way.

Anonymous said...

No princesses in mine, but I do have an empress. Since it's a modern setting, she's like the powerful women in Washington, DC. I won't say she's unattractive (especially since the press is highly interested in getting the scoop on the rumored affair she's having with an assasin), but she has a hard edge to her appearance that comes to women of high positions like that. She dresses conversatively, in the boring way Washington, DC politicians dress (very safe). And she is a secondary character who probably gets three or four scenes in the entire book.

In writing her, I've had to balance things out very carefully. When I've seen women in high positions in books (primarily the ones written by women), they tend to make the character unbelievable. In one, I couldn't believe that the women character had survived political elections and the press to become Vice President. In another, the character was so obnoxious that she was a b---- and probably would have never gotten anywhere. The women I've seen play by the rules, but also show strength and knowledge and occasionally bite someone's head off. While they might smile and be friendly, they'll also tend to be a little distant.

Names are where things got interesting. The whole family has unusual first names, and nearly everyone went by a middle name at the first opportunity. This, of course, created quite a stir when the empress started going by her middle name, and the press spent months with front page headlines about it ...

Joy Chan said...

I'd like to see a princess who is plain or ugly - not disfigured, but just not pretty. Things like scars still seems to tell me that a princess has to have a reason for not being beautiful, but how about one that simply wasn't born that way? How about a spoiled willful naive princess, with real consequences for being that way? I've seen a few attempts at spoilt princesses, but the hero still manages to fall in love with her, and no one seems to mind that she's really annoying :) Or how about a princess who is vindictive and cruel because she's spoilt and bored, but not necessarily evil? There are so many possibilities when you think about making a princess a person, not just an aspirational object.

Marian said...

Hey bryngreenwood,

Melanie Wilkes in Gone with the Wind was a gentle and compassionate person as well, but at the same time she was strong and loyal. Even Scarlett didn't step too far out of social boundaries at the start.

Still, GWTW isn't spec fic and wasn't written in this day and age. On the other hand, a good enough writer can make almost any character believable and sympathetic. I'm sure you'll do well with your character. At least she'll stand out from the kick-ass pack!

Marian said...

"Aspirational object" - accurate and succinct, Joy. :)

Interesting - I've never come across any princess who was ugly (unless it was the result of a curse and she was actually the opposite). Though A Song of Ice and Fire has Brienne of Tarth. I don't think she'll ever be as popular as the more attractive characters, but she's definitely memorable.

Anonymous said...

Princess come in three flavors: Amazonian warriors, spoiled rich brats and weak damsels in distress.

I like the way many of the females in Dune were portrayed. Princess Irulan for one is no dummy, and while she certainly play the part of the spoiled brat she is a keen scholar.

lady Jessica also shows how women struggle in a male centric society and how women can and often do wield power behind the scenes. Problem is that many of these so called powerful women "succumb" to the attention of men. Wheel of Time: Nuff said!

Madison said...

I think you would like my princess, Aduan. Though she's considered the most beautiful woman in her land, her soul is not kind. She's selfish and rude and has to overcome this.

Marian said...

Hey Tara,

I love TV tropes, but whenever I visit that site, temporal anomalies happen to me. I look up from the computer and two hours have passed. It's weird.

But thanks for the link. :) I'll check it out.

Martha Flynn said...

Well written - I did a quick recall on princess novels and realized most conform to those storylines.

You can't beat princess my kindergarten yearbook "FAQ" under "What do you want to be when you grow up" I wrote "mermaid princess."

writtenwyrdd said...

Odd, I know I commented here yesterday...but I don't see the comment! And now I forget what I said. Good thoughts, however.

Marian said...

Hey GunnerJ,

That's right - if you use too exotic a title you'll need an exotic culture as well.

To a certain degree, though, you can push this without having to make major changes to the culture. I'm thinking something similar to the Roman naming conventions (e.g. a cognomen or agnomen) might work without being so evidently foreign that they tipped the believability scales.

Marian said...

Good point about women in high positions, garridon.

There’s a trilogy which I’ve heard deals very well with a woman’s rise to power – the Daughter of the Empire series by Raymond Furst and Janny Weiss. Otherwise, a lot of stories make the mistake of having the woman be too caring and idealistic, though A Game of Thrones spikes this neatly with Dany and Mirri Maz Duur.

My personal pet peeve is the woman who leads a land but insists that everyone is equal, or should be equal. This is anachronistic, and if she really favors some form of socialism, why not put her money where her mouth is and give up her title?

Anonymous said...

C.S. Lewis created an ugly princess as his main character in 'Til We Have Faces.' She also struggles with jealousy of her beautiful, and adored, little sister. Great retelling of the Psyche myth.