So in my last blog I complained about the two ways female main characters are presented in fantasy fiction that irritate me the most--in short, the big reasons I never used to like writing ladies as leads. Because, well, if I have to write women the same way these authors do, I honestly don't want to ...
The moment I hit the Publish button on that blog, I came up with a whole other host of "female attributes" I don't like. Some of these things are really subtle, or at least so deeply ingrained by our culture that it was hard for me to put my finger on just what I didn't like about this character or that one. But I guess the difference between what I wrote last week, and what came to me after publishing was that those things I discussed last week concern the ways female characters solve problems, while most of the problems I have with ladies in fantasy fiction is that they DON'T. Solve problems, that is.
After receiving a slew of kindly rejection letters (form and not), I picked up on a theme; my characters weren't proactive enough. Most were male characters, and that may be relevant to the discussion, actually. But the thrust of the non-form letters was that, sure, stuff was happening, but the main character was not the one moving the plot. Or, not nearly as much as he should be. I've worked to change that and at the same time paid especial care to the activeness of main characters in other people's stories. So that I can point and say "You're doing it wrong, ha!"
Or not. More like I'm seeking for some unwritten definition of what is proactive enough. Just recently I read (most of) a fantasy novel in which the main character was a young woman who unconvincingly became an assassin; tropes ensued, none of which are worth remembering. The issue for me was the author's huge struggle with making this character two irreconcilable things; she was naïve, awkward and uncouth, and yet had been hired to be a cold-blooded assassin. If you can buy that maybe you can read the whole book; I got halfway through and never managed to swallow that huge pill of unconvincingness. How did this utterly clueless and incapable character prove herself worthy of being an assassin? That was never discussed. Or, maybe it was in the second half?
More irritating in the case of this story, and many others I have read, the main character, being an ingénue, becomes the un-glorified sidekick of some cool hunky warrior guy who knows what he's doing. Women=naïve, clueless, foolish, emotional beings. Men=cool, suave, controlled, capable members of society. Only by learning from him and sleeping with him does she begin to grasp the world, or people, or herself.
Gag reflexes: engage!
So let's get back to the topic at hand: proactive-ness and problem solving. How did this girl solve her problems and push the story forward? Why, just as any girl would in real life--she bumbled around stupidly, demanded things awkwardly, and, once she'd got the hang of human interaction, did her best to emotionally manipulate her hunky lead whenever they couldn't agree. She didn't have a real purpose behind this emotional tide, most of the time.
Although, she didn't get everything she wanted, either. I mean, guys are bigger, cooler, and can get shoutier. And when they're hunky super-warriors, they know better than you and can boss you around and leave you behind while they go out to save the day. Because even though he'll teach you martial arts and sleep with you, and maybe sometimes let you emotionally manipulate him, when it comes to saving the day he'll do that. You wait in the cave.
To the author's credit, I must say she didn't seem very convinced by her own female lead. She was writing a trope character and seemed painfully aware of it, which made the character even more unconvincing. Really, this character is a trope that has existed for so long that it's a wonder it's still around!
This book is just one example, and I'm sure you could come up with your own without much thinking. Really, such asinine romances are everywhere, in which a girl discovers herself and the meaning of her existence, etc., in a hunky guy; throughout she's generally powerless except for her ability to cry and guilt the guy into doing what she wants while he protects her, blah, blah. I find such pathetic characters to be a bigger and more pervasive "fantasy" than the idea that magic or dragons might exist. People don't really believe in dragons, but they do believe women are largely emotional beings, and men naturally more capable in all ways that count. Whatever those are.
So perhaps you can see why I'm thinking a lot about an epic fantasy with a female lead, and why this would be just as difficult as it would be important? Because men in the real world can be whiny and manipulative and clueless, and women can be capable and cool and strong. OUTSIDE of any issues of sexuality, I mean.
Let me return to the heart of the issue, then. My characters who weren't proactive enough were all male. If they'd been women, would this have been an issue? Maybe subliminally, but I doubt to such a degree. In fiction we expect male characters to be the ones who get in fights and kill bad guys and save the day. And while proactive female characters are cherished too, their way of "progressing the story", I've noticed, is often subtler, smaller. More realistic, maybe? Well, that all depends on what you think women are capable of, I guess.
I don't want to beat a dead horse here so let me close with one last observation--something I've observed in my own fiction as well as in others'. The general rule seems to be (subconsciously) that stories hinging more on emotion--especially if it's despondency, misery, depression, loss of everything you loved--use women as leads more often, while action-based stories use male leads. Again, because women are more emotional and men more active? It gets tiresome to read so many depressing stories where women are victimized, sad stuff happens, sadder stuff ensues, and maybe if you're lucky there's a bittersweet ending.
We need to stop using woman as a byword for "victim" in fiction!
I mean, come on, who doesn't want to break that rule?