A Personal Evolution in Fantasy

(or, What Happened When My Childhood Met the Works of Patricia C. Wrede)

Believe it or not, I spent the better part of my early childhood as an insufferably girly girl.  Everything I owned was pink.  There were unicorns and butterflies and rainbows everywhere.  My number one fantasy was to be a beautiful princess awaiting rescue by a handsome prince.  And when I played make-believe with my little sister, we usually played house.

Then, around maybe fourth or fifth grade, something began to change.  Suddenly, I was reading tales about princesses being rescued from fire-breathing dragons, and I was rooting for the dragons.  I began thinking it was awfully rude of those brash princes to just rush on in and slaughter an innocent dragon without asking the princess if it was really necessary.  What if the princess and the dragon had become friends?

And then I read the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede, and I felt like a whole new world opened up in front of me.


For anyone who was not so fortunate as to encounter these books as a child, let me sum them up for you:  The story starts accounting the adventures of a dark-haired princess named Cimorene who, in a world where her pretty blond sistren are traditionally kidnapped by dragons so as to be rescued by princes, chooses to run away from home and become a dragon’s housekeeper.  She befriends a lady dragon named Kazul who eventually becomes the Dragon King (because in dragon society, the King may be male or female) and a witch named Morwen with a plethora of clever talking cats, among others, battles evil wizards with soapy wash water scented with lemon, wields swords and flying carpets, marries for love a man who respects her for her power and spirit, and goes off on a mission to save magic while pregnant with her first child.  The series addresses and delightfully satirizes nearly every fairy tale trope in existence, and in the character of Cimorene, you get a brilliant, willful, resourceful character who is absolutely true to herself.  She is both warrior and housekeeper, adventurer and mother, shrewd problem-solver and compassionate friend.  Kazul, likewise, is an icon of strength and perseverance, and Morwen a wise and steadfast individual who also knows how to be comfortable in her own skin.  These women became role models to me at a young age, and I think I’m a better person for it.

Since then, I’ve encountered numerous works that attempt to do similar things, satirizing and parodying old tropes, painting dragons in a positive light, presenting tomboy princesses who don’t do as they’re told, but for me, these books were the first, and still to this day among the best.  I was a voracious reader as a child, and I can’t remember most of the books I devoured, but these stories have lingered with me fondly.  They resonated with the desire in me to be a part of a world of magic where my role as a female wasn’t to be bandied about as a plot device or used as bait to lure magical creatures to their demise.  These books were the first to teach me that a woman can be a hero, can fight fear with understanding and compassion (or soapy water, as the case may be), can live the life she chooses no matter what popular opinion may say to the contrary.  These books will always hold a special place in my heart, and if I ever have children of my own, you can be sure I’ll read these books to them a hundred times … which probably means I should invest in some nicer copies.  My old paperbacks have certainly seen better days!

As an aspiring writer now, I have a renewed respect for many of my favorite works of fiction, and a devastatingly more critical eye.  It’s all too common to return to an old favorite and find its brilliance dimmed from what you remember.  I will never again be able to read these books with the kind of wide-eyed fascination and unconditional adoration I met them with as a child, but I can still learn from them and see what it was that made me love them in the first place, applying those lessons to my own storycraft.  Maybe one day I too will have written something that will find a nostalgic niche in some girl’s heart.  Until that day, for all that these books did to help me realize my potential, for all the times they made me laugh or read on with bated breath late into the night, and for all they did to open my eyes to what women in fantasy could be, I tip my hat most respectfully to Ms. Wrede.


Strong Female Character: Round 3!

(or, Battling a Culture of Appeasement)

As a woman and a feminist, I enjoy seeing female characters who are complex, empowered, intelligent, strong, and unafraid to reject societal roles and stereotypes to be true to themselves.  I admit that, realistically, not every woman embodies these ideals, but I still like a story better when they do.  Unfortunately, the desire, even demand, for such characters can create a certain trap that sometimes causes more problems than it addresses.  It’s difficult to describe and even more difficult to deal with, but bear with me a moment while I try to put this into words.

I’ve mentioned before how too often, storytellers will try to craft a “strong female character” simply by imbuing her with physical strength or putting a weapon in her hand.  There is nothing inherently wrong with the warrior woman archetype itself; the failing comes when the storyteller allows the character’s depth to end there or implies that the only measure of “strength” in a character is that which can be proven on the battlefield.  There are many, perhaps less obvious ways to craft a complex and compelling character, but they don’t get employed as often.  Why is this?

One potential reason is fairly simple: an author wants an ancillary female character or love interest for his male protagonist, and he doesn’t want to spark feminist uproar by having her be some stereotypical damsel in distress, so he makes her tough, or sassy, or otherwise outwardly and obviously “strong.”  Maybe this works within the context of the story, or maybe it sticks out awkwardly like hillbilly at an artisanal soap convention.  In those instances, it may be that the author only wrote his character that way because he felt like he had to in order to make his story passable to a modern audience.  Not understanding the underlying problem, these writers basically put a band-aid on a bullet wound.

Another reason is more complicated, and that is that some kinds of strong characters get dismissed as being “not progressive enough.”  A character who is simply a housewife and mother, for instance, might be expected to draw just as much feminist backlash as a meaningless sex object.  Thing is, such a character can exhibit tremendous depth, complexity, and strength even while existing within what is considered a traditional gender role.  Though a more rebellious individual might favor breaking with tradition and fighting for change, it does take a certain strength and ingenuity to make do with the situation in which you find yourself and thrive.  Some authors seem to fear that to present a woman who is not some kind of societal iconoclast is to invite the wrath of feminist readers.  And, in some cases, this proves to be the case.

Feminism is a tricky thing.  Defining it is like trying to define love, or memes: maybe there’s a perfect answer out there somewhere, but even if it exists, you can bet not everyone will agree with it.  The meaning invariably changes with the individual trying to define it, their personal beliefs and goals, their experiences and perception.  At its core, it’s about equality, but the message gets muddied as it travels.  The successful corporate crusader who’s dedicated her life to fighting for equal rank and equal pay may look at the stay-at-home mother and call her lazy, submissive, and backward.  That mother, who dedicates her life to raising daughters who are intelligent, well-rounded, and self-assured, may turn around to that businesswoman and call her selfish, arrogant, and power-hungry.  We look at sexually-liberated woman who revel in the trappings of beauty and pleasure and simultaneously praise them for taking charge of their sexuality and appearance and decry them as whores and slaves to objectification.  You find feminist women who describe themselves as equal to men, better than men, or separate from men entirely.  They may be straight women or gay women, promiscuous or prudish.  Or, they may not be women at all, but rather men who support the equality of their female counterparts.  And some storytellers, rather than focusing on crafting a strong story, are trying simply to do what will make them look the least offensive to this diverse and opinionated sector of society.

To appease everyone is impossible, and I don’t think that should be the goal.

In my own work, I have a personal goal to present female protagonists (and antagonists) who are true to themselves, complex, and believable, wherever that may lead.  I want my readers to admire, respect, and understand them as humans (or other sentient life forms) first, women second, because gender is just one part of an impossibly complex whole.  To me, the ultimate expression of gender equality is to give someone the freedom to do what they will how they will based on their own choices, not their gender.  Where biology comes into play, it’s simple enough to make minor adjustments to allow for equal opportunity, particularly when you’re dealing with fiction.  Rather than writing a character in to fill that checkmark next to “strong female character,” write a full cast of strong, developed, complex characters, some of whom happen to be female.  So long as you’ve put a full and honest effort into creating a deep and believable character, and you are true to the character you’ve built, I believe you’re doing the right thing.

At their core purpose, feminists fight for a noble cause and aim to do good things for humanity.  As with any faction of society, there is discord, there are extremists, and there are stereotypes both exemplified and refuted.  To lump all feminists together and single them out as a group that is to be appeased and quieted by some literary trope in order to push your sales figures is ridiculous and dismissive, even offensive.  But, as always, there is progress, and there is hope.  Even the fact that authors would abandon the frail, silent female tropes in favor of combative, feisty ones is a kind of progress.  These characters have gained voice and presence.  Now we just need to give them depth, agency, and meaning.  And after that, we just need to make this something that happens naturally.  When your characters are speaking and acting from their own unique and fully-developed voices, living out their lives on paper or on the screen as wholly-realized individuals with their own motivations and beliefs, it may be that fewer people will feel the need to nitpick, lost in the wonderful tale the characters have to tell.

2014 Comes Rolling In

(or, Another Year, Another Chance to Achieve the Impossible)

2013-Winner-Vertical-BannerGreetings, all!  It seems I’ve suffered something more of a hiatus than I’d anticipated, but I’m back, New Year’s resolutions and all.  First off, exciting news – I have once again faced the oft-indomitable challenge of NaNoWriMo and emerged the victor!  November’s project saw the start of a novel in which a young woman born with a special gift condemned as a curse by the society in which she lives struggles to establish her sense of identity and morality, discovering the potential within all people for both great good and great evil.  I may see this project through to its end this year, but my primary goal is to return to the story that has consumed much of my time these past few years and finally get a complete, edited draft I can usher out the door into the greater world beyond like a kindergartner off to her first day of school, blossoming with hope and promise.  Will she flourish into some brilliant beauty, top of her class and good at everything she does?  Will she muddle through just fine, making no great name for herself but basking in the warmth of her closest friendships?  Will she … drop out and start slumming it with the twenty-something from downtown with the skull tattoos and a nickname that’s some breed of canine, coming home only long enough to blast me with obscenities and steal my debit card?  Only time will tell.

That said, with the new year comes little change.  I’m still writing, still working, still grappling with the metaphysical crossroads of my existence … still playing Skyrim, for crying out loud.  But there are new hopes and dreams and possibilities and best-laid plans to put to the test.  Here’s to 2014, everyone!  May we all find joy in some little way.

A Triumphant Return!

(or, A Bedraggled but Ultimately Satisfied Return)

Greetings!  I have just gotten back from something of a wander out west.  While I was away, I started writing up quite a few ramblings that I’m fairly excited to put into print.  Hopefully, that means I’ll have a wealth of new reading for you all in the next few weeks!  Of course, we’re also coming up on this year’s NaNoWriMo event, so there will be updates on that as well.  Let me just get these typin’ fingers primed, and we’re good to go!

Moving Forward

(or, Concerning the Worries of a Budding Novelist)

I’m not going to lie to you – this article is about to drop some truth on you.  Heavy truth, the kind that comes out when you’re philosophizing with your best friend at 3:00 am after a night of heavy drinking.  Hopefully, that means it will be a therapeutic, inspirational kind of truth as well, not kind that will result in us going comatose and waking up the next morning with regrets.  It concerns moving forward in pursuit of a dream.

Camp-NaNoWriMo-2013-Winner-Campfire-Circle-BadgeCamp NaNoWriMo has finally come to a close, and it is with great pride that I announce I have reached my word count goal!  Well, my adjusted word count goal of 25,000 words, anyway.  I admit this is far from my original goal of 50,000, but 25,000 words is still nothing to sneeze at (unless, of course, you’re allergic to this much raw, unbridled progress!).  I am making significant headway with my novel, and for the first time in my life, I feel like I might actually finish a book.  Maybe I have what it takes; maybe I can succeed at a life goal I’ve had since I was a child.  I’ve written so much and I’ve learned even more, maybe these dreams are possible.  Maybe I can throw everything I have – all my focus, my energy, my extra time – into becoming a writer rather than just one who occasionally writes.

Of course, that’s easier said than done.

You see, I felt this way once before, years ago when I had dreams of being a video game designer.  I did my research, I enrolled in classes, I made plans and worked what jobs I could to get by, and I worked harder than I’d have thought possible trying to make that dream a reality, barreling forward with what felt like supreme clarity.  Then, I got tripped up.  A financial screw-up left me with an extra heap of student loans but no qualifications to show for them, and my situation was worse than when I started – certainly no closer to my goal.  I had to surrender then or dig myself into a deeper hole without even the slightest promise of being able to climb out again at the end.

The experience of hitting that colossal roadblock still haunts me today, and it makes it difficult for me to readily commit to another leap.  This time, I don’t need an extra degree, I don’t necessarily need documents saying I’m qualified to do what I do, and I don’t really need to make a monetary investment in order to proceed.  But I do need focus.  I’ll need to set the things I dabble in aside while I dive deep into this one pursuit.  I’ll need to see that my paying work doesn’t interfere with my writing and vice versa.  I’ll need to write even when I don’t want to, and I’ll need to risk making myself hate the thing I love.  I’ll need to face rejection and failure as well as the possibility, years down the road, that I’ll look back and see all of this as wasted time that I could have spent trying to get a fancy job that would let me get a fancy apartment of my own.

I could just continue as I have been.  I love writing; I could easily keep it up as a hobby.  This book has been on my mind for the better part of three years now, and if I’m lucky and still quite diligent, I could finish the first draft within the year.  But then, for the second draft, how long would that take using just free moments here and there?  How many edits will I go through?  How long will I search for a publisher?  When will I start the next book I want to write?  What happens if I meet someone in the meantime, suddenly taking up rock climbing in a blind fit of infatuation?  What happens if there’s an alien invasion?  Will I wake up one morning, grey-haired and tired in the service of our alien overlords, still wondering if I’ll get published someday?

That may be a bit over-dramatic, but it illustrates my concern.  I know from experience that when I hedge my bets, I stay safe, but I go nowhere.  I keep doing art, writing, random job searching, and intermittent studies, always in spurts, never committing myself in full to any one pursuit lest I miss an opportunity provided by another.  However, by doing this, I fail to improve any one skill to the point where I become extraordinary.  I know I’m capable of charging ahead toward a single goal like an unstoppable force, but I don’t have enough faith in myself to know that the goal I choose is the right one – the one that can make me happy and keep me out of the poor house, more or less.  Maybe that’s the main thing that needs to change.

I will see this story finished, one way or another.  Whether or not it will meet the world at large one day is yet to be seen, but I hope it will.  Maybe it’s time for me to just give in to that tricky little can-do feeling and shut out the naysayer within.  My instincts were wrong once, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?  Besides, if you don’t try, if you don’t give it your all, then you can’t rightly weave a touching cautionary tale from your failure, can you?  If all I’m destined to be is the master of feeling sorry for myself, I might as well earn those laments!

Every celebrated author was once a struggling, aspiring author.  They were all the way up until the day they were not.  Some may have suffered less than others, some may have had extraordinary luck, some may have been identified as geniuses early on, and some may have gotten more recognition than their mediocre writing deserved, but there was a time for each when success was uncertain.  For whatever reason, they plugged on – maybe in wild, inspired bursts, maybe in a long, drudging crawl.  And then, one day, it all became worthwhile.  I don’t think I have it in me to fail utterly, completely, and permanently, not yet.  So, by my humble reckoning, it seems the only option left is to one day succeed.