A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with the Website Goddess Robyn about all things promotion-related, and we were discussing the status of Unquickened. I told her, “The more I work on this book, the more I realize it’s about the women.” She said I should blog about that, so here I am–revisiting fantasy feminism in my work.
I promised y’all a long post this week… I am about to deliver…
Years ago, I wrote writing advice articles for Fantasy-Faction, and I ended up pontificating about feminism over the course of four weeks (part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4). I guess I had a lot to say. When Robyn suggested I write about this, I went back and re-read my previous thoughts. I discovered two things:
- I broke a lot of my own advice: I think my female characters have a fairly diverse set of skills, interests, and abilities, but I made them all far too pretty. I’ve muddled up Mairead’s face some with tattoos, and Minerva/Esma is described as “plain,” but that’s about it.
- I still agree with most of what I wrote: Look, I’ve been through a lot since those posts. A LOT. Some of the things I’ve experienced in the last nine years affected my writing life. Some of those things I had to process from a distinctly female perspective. Despite the life events, my perspective has remained fairly consistent.
Recent Thoughts on Writing Women in Fantasy
So having reviewed my past thoughts and having worked with these female characters now for many years, here are a few of my more recent thoughts on writing women in fantasy…
- Women have to deal with the same shtuff through the ages: The further I get into editing Unquickened, the more I realize that everything Igraine, Mairead, Maeve, and Minerva have to deal with is the same damn shhhhhhhtuff women have always had to deal with. Condescension, mansplaining, people protecting us “for our own good,” trying to establish authority in a world where men have always led, being the smartest person in the room when no one wants to acknowledge it, balancing family with a demanding job or calling… The more things change, the more they stay the same.
- This is where women can write what they know: I don’t know what it’s like to live in a medieval world. I can’t swing a sword or shoot a bow. I can ride a horse passably well, at least to get from point A to point B, but if I tried to do anything more than that, I’d probably fall off. But I do understand what it’s like to feel trapped, to try to balance all the demands on my life, and to have a man talk down to me. What I really have to do is translate those reactions into that medieval world.
- Even for a woman, women are hard to write: In some sense, I have a harder time writing female characters than I do writing male characters. Perhaps this is because it’s hard to not project my own individual reactions, motivations, needs, and worldview onto characters with whom I share biology.
(For the record, I do not take the above approach to writing any characters… Well, unless the character is genuinely incapable of reason or accountability.)
The Women of Taura
So here I am–trying to untangle the three main female characters and figure out what I’m really dealing with and what they’re really dealing with, and it’s tricky.
Unquickened is largely Igraine’s story, as evidenced by the cover. Igraine has been the most vocal feminist in this series so far, so it’s not surprising that her book would cover a lot of these issues. She spends much of this part of the series “trapped,” in some sense–trapped and waiting. Every woman I know has, at some point, felt this way–trapped in her own life, stuck until something happens to unjam everything, frustrated with a lack of progress or control. It doesn’t matter what the specifics are–these are familiar feelings, and that’s where the character comes from.
Mairead’s story in Unquickened is similar, but as the warrior and a leader, Mairead is learning how to bring her unique perspective and skill to a world dominated by men. War is ugly and brutal, and Mairead has an ability to handle it that a lot of women don’t share. But mystical signs and prophecies aren’t enough to settle doubts about her, and when coupled with her clear physical disadvantage in fighting against men, she constantly feels the need to prove herself. Every woman I’ve ever met has felt this way, too–that no matter her education, qualifications, or other clear evidence of her abilities, somewhere, someone will doubt her more than that person would doubt a man in the same position. Even if every man everywhere in every position gave every woman the same benefit of the doubt as he would another man, there’s still a sense that we have to prove something. It’s exhausting.
In some sense, Minerva/Esma is the easiest to write, and I think it may be largely because I relate to her the most. Quiet and reclusive by nature, Minerva does know a lot about medicine and healing, and when her skills are needed, she doesn’t wait for permission–she just acts. It helps that in the world of Taura, I’ve given most of the healing responsibility to women. Where Minerva/Esma has trouble is in trusting herself. When it comes to healing, she trusts her knowledge, but in other areas, she can’t believe that she is capable of making the right decisions or choices for her life. Minerva is largely a reactionary character who assumes that she needs to wait for direction or guidance from others. Again, every woman I know has struggled with this at some point. It is so hard to trust your own choices when there is constant pushback from outside.
The Taurin Feminist
So where does all of this leave these Taurin women?
To be honest, I don’t know. A work in progress, perhaps?
Or maybe it’s better to point out that feminism isn’t a “one and done” kind of thing. No matter what version of feminism one adheres to (I’m mostly of the “women are human beings endowed with the same inalienable rights as men” variety), it’s not a worldview that is ever fully settled. At least, I don’t think it will be, given that even other issues of relatively less importance are still being relitigated in the public square.
So perhaps it’s better to look to the strong, more settled female characters for wisdom. In the world of Taura….
- Alfrig, may she rest in peace, was a woman who knew her own mind and didn’t ask permission, yet managed to craft a fulfilling life with Hrogarth.
- Maeve, for all her overbearing mothering instincts, seems to adhere to the “bitches get stuff done” model. It may cause problems, but… it does get stuff done.
- Rhiannon may be my favorite of the women in Taura, and not just because she’s based on my best friend. Rhiannon is unapologetic about everything. She is fierce and competent, kind and protective, loyal and wise.
And there are the men, too. The tribal men get it. They are the most egalitarian of any men in this world, largely because the tribal women leave them no option. And in some sense, women who are struggling to make it in a man’s world need that kind of backup–those kinds of allies. If you’re at a disadvantage, you can level the playing field if the most powerful guy on the blog backs you up.
I suppose it’s a little anti-climatic to write a post about how I haven’t changed many of my ideas. But I think my perspective on feminism in fantasy has evolved a bit. Call it growth, call it being in my 50s, call it being smacked around by life a little. If it makes these women more relatable and gives Unquickened more flavor, then I suppose it’s a good thing.
Be sure you visit next week, because I have really exciting news that I can FINALLY share next week. I’ve been holding onto this for some time, and I cannot WAIT to tell you all!
Till next week….