Here is the first of our posts celebrating International Women’s Day!
Female Protagonists in Traditional Fantasy.
Like many fantasy readers, I have grown up reading “The Lord of the Rings”. I adored these books and found myself deeply submerged into the worlds they opened to my imagination. For the longest time I took it for granted that many classical fantasies did not have any major female characters, definitely not among those who drove the events. True, there is Galadriel, and Arwen, and Eowyn, all of them memorable and powerful. But lead characters? Hardly.
Some of the newer fantasy books started successfully introducing women as lead characters and slowly expanding on their role. Many attributed this change to the emergence of major female authors, such as Marion Zimmer Bradley with her Darkover series and her all-time bestseller “Mists of Avalon”. Others said that, at least in fantasy, this had to do with the growing audience of female readers. I am not certain what the real reasons are. I have seen authors of both genders use males or females as protagonists, and I know for a fact that female readers enjoy both men and women in leading roles. In my view, this change has more to do with common sense, a realization that the world, even in books, is more complex than we used to believe. I tend to compare it to the change in painting technique, when, in 15th century, artists realized how to use perspective to show dimension. This happened in the society, especially in respect to women. It took longer in fantasy, but came as a natural step in the development of the genre.
These days we expect strong female leads in fantasy, and would feel unnatural reading a book prominently devoid of women. It is very interesting to observe how female point of view has enriched traditional fantasy, bringing a whole new angle into the story and enabling character development in a number of different ways. On a very basic level, leading female characters greatly expand the range of possibilities of what the main character should be all about. In the old days we got used to warriors, or dark mysterious strangers, or regular guys who are unexpectedly landed with the necessity of saving the world. All of these parts can easily be played by females. But more than that, female leads provide the previously missing second half, enabling the complexity of the interaction between sexes—romance, domination, or competition—with no rules in place. As an author, I find all these angles irresistible to explore.
The leading character in “Blades of the Old Empire”—an elite Majat warrior, Kara—seems fairly traditional on the outside. She is a fighter only a few can stand up to, and thus can easily fill the shoes of a traditional warrior type. She is also a beautiful woman many desire, and she can handle unwanted attention without a problem. But, unlike a typical attractive warrior in traditional fantasy, she is not competitive or aggressive. Instead, she has an inner strain that has to do with having to live with the combination of beauty and skill. This makes her enigmatic, an angle that emerged on its own and was so fun to build upon.
Initially I worked off a simple reversal of roles. Instead of the traditional pair, helpless but gifted girl protected by a strong male warrior, I have a gifted young man, not helpless but definitely a regular guy when it comes to fighting, protected by a strong female warrior. Building on this reversal, I found several aspects that enabled new levels of depth in the story. First, to enhance the enigma around Kara, I removed her point of view, showing her entirely through the eyes of a young man who is in love with her. Second, I gave her a nearly impossible problem to work with. And then it was literally down to sitting back and watching how everything about this woman I created feeds the major conflicts in the story. And yes, her point of view is coming, in the second book in the series. This reversal, getting into her head after I already learned so much about her, was even more fun.
As an author I feel fortunate to have entered the scene at the time when women characters are established an expected. I will probably never cease to feel amazed how female perspective in fantasy brings in a unique angle, a new dimension that both authors and readers can appreciate.