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.