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Feminine Fantasy

Anyone who’s ever read my books will discover, perhaps to their surprise, that I tend not to write heroines.  And sure, this is a habit I’m currently in the process of breaking, but as it’s been such a long-running thing, I figured I’d take this time to talk about why.

Women and fantasy have always had a curious and complicated relationship.  On the one hand, we’re a very large part of the reader’s market, but on the other hand, we tend not to embrace the geekiness in a particularly overt way.  Certain aspects of the genre – zombies and spaceships, mainly – are still considered largely a male-dominated preserve, while others – women having unwise relationships with vampires, for example – rake in the female readers like hungry pigeons to breadcrumbs in the park.  That said, at those few science fiction and fantasy events I’ve been to where writers are invited to mingle en mass, I’m regularly reminded of just how few female writers there are in this genre – or at least, how few turn up for the free crisps and bits of cheese on a stick.  As a girl discovering her innate geek, I did indeed endure those painful teenage years where the idea that I might like science fiction and fantasy books somehow made me outside the accepted norm of youthful female behaviour.  The cliché of the female fantasy fan is hardly a glorious one, often implying pale skin, bad hair, a dress sense worthy of a mortician and quite possibly a thing for Star Trek, only two of which I actually had – the dodgy complexion and bad hair – and that through too much time spent on the London underground and not enough sun.  Even now, when I announce that I am an avid fantasy reader, I often find myself on the receiving end of comments from my non-genre counterparts along the lines of, ‘oh, like elves and stuff?’ and the explanation of why this is a ridiculous way of understanding the genre usually takes more time than we have.  To go that one step further and declare that I’m not just a reader, but I write this stuff, for actual cash as well as glee, tends to produce an expression that I can only really summarise as ‘does not compute’ and usually a hasty retreat from further conversation on the subject.

I should add that this reaction tends to be from those who don’t read much fantasy, men and women alike, and for whom the word ‘fantasy’ still equals Lord of the Rings and Dungeons and Dragons, instead of the far richer thing that it has become.  But the truth remains that, while the tradition of the male reader who loves his space ships is fairly well established in the common culture, the female reader who just can’t get enough zombies remains an uneasy concept, not yet embedded in society.  Give us time…

Then there’s the other question – that of women in fantasy, and again here, I’ve always struggled.  As I said, I tend to write mostly heroes, a decision I made fairly early on when, as a kid I attempted to write heroines and discovered, to my dismay, that all my strong female leads were turning out as smarter, wiser, funnier, stronger, more sexy versions of how I wished myself to be, and were consequentially making for utterly uninteresting characters on the page.  I have never had any time for the overly strong hero of any gender, on the basis that if someone came up to me and told me that I had an epic destiny that I had to fulfil right now, I’d ask them if that came with a council tax discount and weekends off.  So now I write heroes who are very much of that vein, and surround them with hoards of hopefully kick-ass female characters who damnit, will save the world right now regardless of this male protagonist slowing them down.

Fantasy has swung, traditionally, between two kind of heroines.  In the good old days, your female fantasy character sat at the top of a tower and waited to be rescued by a hopefully handsome young man, and maybe recited a little epic verse in the process just to pass the pages.  Then times, thankfully, moved on, and a new generation of heroines emerged who weren’t just Strong Female Characters – they were the XX chromosome’s answer to the Colossus.  They were tough, they were sexy, they were often pictured on the front cover of the book wearing extremely tight body armour and sporting an unnaturally large gun, they would make the hard decisions and goddamnit, no one would stand in their way.

In recent years, your typical fantasy heroine has seemed to drift into a half-way house.  Princesses have become feisty, somehow managing to learn ninja skills in between bouts of being trapped in high towers; spaceship commanders remain devastatingly strong, but may have perhaps had an unhappy childhood in which they lost touch with their more delicate feminine side, which quality they gradually regain in between blasting away at unfortunate aliens.  For every sword-swinging hero, there is now a gentler female standing beside saying ‘yes but…?’ and though she will eventually stand up and make the Decisions That Must Be Made, for what is epic fantasy without that moment of truth, she may lament bitterly on the subject twenty pages down the line, and quite possibly ride away beneath the silver moonlight in remorse for the choices she had to make.

I generalise hugely, and should take this paragraph break to add that these are merely the broad strokes of the rather more clichéd end of the fantasy spectrum over the last, say, twenty years.  But beneath every cliché there remains a shimmer of truth, and to my mind the fact remains even to this day, that the blokes are getting all the best lines.  Hopefully, though, the times are changing – certainly the genre as a whole is changing massively at the moment as a new kind of fantasy starts to sneak its way onto the shelf – and while I have no idea where it will go or what it will become, I hope that in time more people will stop thinking about writing a Strong Female Character or even a Needy Female Character or maybe just a Token Female Character, and just write characters to the very full.

about the author

Kate Griffin

  1. Lauren Panepinto

    Lauren Panepinto

    May 3, 2011
    at 4:52 pm

    “women having unwise relationships with vampires, for example” hahaha. so true. I am not a writer but I imagine it is hard to NOT write yourself into a character. As opposed to it being very easy (and highly recommended) for the cover designer to NOT put herself on the cover of every book (god forbid).

    In much female-written female-heroine urban fantasy it is the POINT to write wish-fulfillment characters because theyre all about fun and reading-as-escapism…when it’s done well it’s fantastic, and inspiring especially to bad-hair-pimply young adult fantasy readers (Robin McKinley’s Aerin books, anyone?) But I agree, there’s so much ass-kicking there’s hardly room for nuance and actual believable characters…topical conversation going on in the NY Times about movie heroines currently:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/01/movies/women-as-violent-characters-in-movies.html

  2. Digibird

    May 4, 2011
    at 8:01 am

    Love this post. Found myself having a conversation on the weekend with someone and having to justify my love of fantasy to a horrified look.
    “More of the speculative fiction rather than hard-core, “alas my elf hath run away” end of the genre”
    If only they knew how horrified I feel when they say “Oh fantasy? I like harry potter” or “What like vampires and stuff”
    I think it’s a curse of the broadness of the genre and ignorance outside what is seen as mainstream supermarket titles. I think it’s changing though. Thankfully. Excellent Post!

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