Lynn Flewelling’s wonderful Nightrunner series and Tamir trilogy have been continuously in print and back (and back!) to press since their original publications. She’s truly one of the masters (mistresses?) of high fantasy and one of my earliest clients. We’ve been together ever since the beginning, and I couldn’t be more please to present Lynn Flewelling to you here, guest-blogging about The Female Character in High Fantasy in the 21st Century. Comment below for a chance to win a signed copy of her latest Nightrunner novel, CASKET OF SOULS. Go on, ask her some really pithy questions! Here’s your chance.
The Female Character in High Fantasy in the 21st Century by Lynn Flewelling
We’ve come a long way, baby, from the days of the strapping berserkers and boobalicious barbarian babes of the pulp days, of reticent square-jawed sword swingers and wilting princesses desperate for rescue. And yet high fantasy and all its permutations persist, reflecting, as fiction does, the time stamp of its conception.
Now we have female soldiers, powerful queens who aren’t evil, snarky urban fantasy detectives, and paranormal heroines with harems of men—living and otherwise. All to the good, I say. But what if a female character isn’t that, doesn’t fit the new heroic mold? Is there still room for women who aren’t in a position of power? To create a believable world, don’t we have to address the fact that there are were and are myriad permutations of what it means to be female?
My answer as a writer is yes we do. There is no such thing as a mono-level society, and probably never has been, outside of a few short lived utopias, and maybe not even there. If you want to write a realistic fantasy world—and that’s not an oxymoron—then you have to know how the real world works, then play with those toys. I do lot of research for my writing, and am fascinated by how the great anthills we call societies have functioned across the centuries. Women have very often gotten the short end of the stick, it’s true, but some women also had their own spheres of power: the home, as the mistress of a guild, craftspeople, artists, and even soldiers and pirates. Real world stuff.
To make a fantasy world believable, it has to have social stratification. Historically the poor are always with us, and the oligarchs, and the sinners, and the saints. In my work I do a lot with gender identity, and strong female figures, but you can’t populate the whole world with them. It’s not realistic, any more than making all the men powerful—or weak—is realistic. Worse yet, it would be boring. I have my downtrodden streetwalkers and homeless children, as well as the nobles and merchants and soldiers, etc, etc. I just don’t divide them by gender.
One of the advantages of writing fiction in general, and fantasy in particular, is that you can design the world to suit yourself. In the Nightrunner series I try for egalitarianism within each strata. So there are female guild leaders and soldiers, women of noble birth who own and manage their own property, wives and mothers who raise strong families by being strong women, not meek and subservient. But you have to have to have the weak and the negative, too, or your world building is flat, and worse yet, a soapbox. But—and this is a major but—either way, weak or strong, you have to have a good reason, as a writer, for creating those particular characters, one your overarching societal construct both needs and justifies. If you degrade a character, it must be for a logical reason that advances the story. Otherwise it’s gratuitous. If it’s your main character you degrade in some way, then chances are she overcomes that and triumphs in the end. But with secondary and background characters, that may not be the case. Your female hero may encounter women in desperate straits. What she does or doesn’t do about that is indicative of her nature. But you also have the desperate secondary character. Can they be saved? Do they want to be? Are they trapped by fear or a view that does not allow them to change? That may sound like a lot of work on a background character, but it builds your world by giving the reader insight into the types of things that can happen to people in your society.
In the Nightrunner Series, although the two heroes are male, they are surrounded by and often helped or even saved by strong women. In my Tamír Triad, however, I give the girl hero front and center, despite the fact that she spends a significant chunk of her childhood as a boy. Not dressed or disguised as a boy. As a boy. Or rather, in a boy’s body. Although she does not know it, she is still female in her essence and while that in no way precludes her from being a kickass fighter with a lion’s heart, she is plagued by moments of dysphoria when her female soul doesn’t quite match up with her male body. To some extent, she could be called a transgender character. What I really wanted to do was to explore the idea of identity and gender.
So, let’s say that you’ve created a female character who can master “male” skills, who is strong and confident, who is a leader. All good. Now, what does her being female have to do with that? How does she manifest her personality, her power, as a woman rather than, as we say, a “man with breasts”? As a writer, that’s something you have to look deeply into, because your own personal attitudes and beliefs are going to jump onto the page. Her prowess and power must be firmly enmeshed with her personality. No, she’s not going to scream and drop her sword if she sees a spider. No, she’s not going to give up the adventuring life to settle down and have babies. Or maybe she does. You, as the creator, have to make that logical and fitting. And you have to know why she makes the decisions she makes. I’m not a psychologist or a social scientist. But I am a woman, and I have some things to say about what that can encompass. While I do write from inside that paradigm, however, I’m not Everywoman. No one is. And my characters aren’t me. They are ideas on legs, and that’s why I say you have to examine what ideas you put on the page very carefully. Your words have the power to illuminate, encourage, educate, inspire, and elucidate. You can change hearts and minds.
A final word on writing across gender: can men write believable women? Of course they can, if they’re good writers who are observant, do their research, and have a decent imagination. I write about men, after all, and the feedback makes me think that I am doing ok with that. I may bring different insights to female characters, but it’s not a “girls only” sandbox.
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