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.

dragons

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.

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Strong Female Character: Round 2!

(or, The Visual Representation of the Warrior Woman)

Despite what I said about strong female characters being too focused on the warrior woman, I am here today to focus on … the warrior women!

Particularly their visual representation, because, you know …

Source: http://womenfighters.tumblr.com/post/43562502843/lady-armor-exposed

It is well known that tough ladies in any genre can suffer from a ridiculous visual representation.  Fantasy warriors get dolled up in metal bikinis, science fiction has a habit of churning out sexy alien lasses, superheroines fight evil in revealing, skintight apparel that would barely stay on while walking down the street, much less brawling with baddies, and even spies and detectives somehow find themselves in stiletto heels at most inconvenient times.  Historically, this is a result of men working in male-dominated industries marketing toward a male-dominated audience, and though the demographics are shifting, old habits die hard.  But there are plenty of places around the internet that go into depth on that score, so I’m not going to ramble on too much here.

One major complaint against some of the more outrageous designs is in terms of practicality.  Any lady cosplayer can tell you that things like heels, patent leather, corsets, and so on may look cool, but they can be a pain to wear and usually end up being very limiting to your mobility.  I can say from experience that even trying to tie your shoes while in a steel-boned corset can be a frustrating and laborious process (that is very fun to watch, apparently), and it’s impossible to run at full speed wearing pencil-thin 4″ heels.  And, needless to say, when it comes to stopping bullets or blades, steel or Kevlar does a much better job than Spandex or bare flesh.

The other complaint is sexualization and objectification, another thing lady cosplayers know well.  Films and comic books are especially guilty of presenting gratuitous cleavage, near-nudity, and other sexualized representations of women, often when male characters are not treated the same way.  Often times, this is pandering to a male demographic, but sometimes it’s just a matter of taking a cool-looking design a step too far.

The problem in finding a solution is that there are so many factors to balance.  When I go to choose an outfit in the morning, I have to think of what the weather is like, where I’ll be going and what is considered appropriate for that environment, what will be most comfortable for the tasks I’m going to engage in, whether I’m in a mood to be pretty, or cute, or professional, or bad-ass – the list goes on.  Different ladies (and men too) have different motivations for the attire they choose each day, but there is always a thought process, even if it’s as simple as, “I’m not leaving the house today, so I’m not going to wear pants.”  The (often but not always male) artists and designers who give visual form to the many warrior women of fiction don’t usually seem to take the approach of thinking from the character’s point of view about what they might wear.  Rather, they take a purely aesthetic approach, designing based on what looks good to them, fits their overall style, and best complements (or exposes) the female form.  The aesthetics do matter, as evidenced when an artist who recently did a series of practical superheroine costume redesigns as an exercise got backlash for the designs being unattractive and frumpy, but they need to be tempered with a little sense.

I think the most important factor about the visual representation of a warrior woman (or any female character) is whether or not she would realistically approve of the attire.  If the character in question is some lusty, sexually-liberated femme fatale, then she’s probably going to want to show a little skin whenever possible, but if she’s a strong-willed peasant woman trying to defend her village from marauders, she’s probably going to want to get as much protection as she can using what’s available to her.  It is possible to have a character look amazing and still dress suitably to face her story’s conflict.  Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor does a great job of gathering images of practical and/or historically accurate armors as designed for or worn by women, and other resources for inspiration are endless.  An artists needs to think of the character’s personality, what kinds of resources she has, what her society considers appropriate and whether or not she would agree, who she fights, how she fights, whether or not she would dress in some kind of standard uniform or style, whether she is more stylish or more practical, and so on.  Readers and viewers of genre fiction are always willing to engage in some suspension of disbelief, so as long as you are faithful to the character, and you are being honest with yourself about being faithful to your character, you’re probably on the right track.

On Steampunk

(or, Sign Me Up for Airships, Adventure, and a Pair of Those Ravishing Goggles)

For a long time, I only recognized steampunk as this sort of fringe fad within geekdom.  In my college days, it was the reason why there was always that one booth at conventions that sold ornate goggles, pocket watches, and impossibly tiny hats.  My opinion began to change in recent years as elements of steampunk culture and aesthetics grew more pervasive, or at least more noticeable within my own interests.  Now, I confess, I walked into a used book store seeking one work of steampunk-vs.-zombie fiction (in this case, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest), and yet I walked out with two.  Clearly, this has become a bigger sub-genre than I was previously aware.

© Kyle Cassidy via Wikimedia Commons

Truth is, there’s something vastly appealing about the whole steampunk aesthetic.  My current writing project even includes some steampunk elements.  But what is it about the genre that’s made it so popular, especially in recent years?

All I can say is what draws me to the genre.  For one, the pure visual aesthetics it offers are captivating.  On the one hand, you have the environments: sometimes bleak, grey, and heavily industrialized, other times elegant and ornate in the Victorian tradition.  Either path provides a reader, viewer, or gamer with a world packed with visceral detail, something familiar enough to be relatable but foreign enough to be exciting.  The environment can channel the gritty, coal-spattered atmospheres of industrialized 19th century Europe and America, where the working class struggled through harsh or potentially lethal conditions for the sake of progress, industry, and the ability to keep their families fed, or it can surround you with the captivating wonders depicted by authors like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, wrapped in an opulent, artistic setting.  Sometimes it can do both.  Then, there are the clothes, the devices, the vehicles and inventions.  There is something deeply satisfying about appropriating the ultra-feminine but ultimately restrictive Victorian era women’s clothing into something fit for a fearless explorer of the unknown, likewise with taking the garb of a proper gentleman and turning him into some sort of clockwork crusader.

Part of what makes the aesthetic so fascinating, particularly in regards to the mechanical aspects, is the sense of imagination it represents.  When you were a kid, did you ever try to make home movies, improvising flashy special effects with whatever you could find lying around the house?  Sure, someone somewhere with fancy cameras and computers could do it better, but you enacted your alien invasion scene using kitchenware and some of those leftover poppers from the Fourth of July, and it was epic.  In steampunk, there is a strong sense of scientific inquiry and wonder, but rather than leading to the inventions we now have, it leads to elaborate (and sometimes completely unrealistic) devices based on the technology they did have at the time.  The genre often utilizes the scientific and exploratory tone of science fiction, but it doesn’t hold itself wholly responsible to science fact.  Is it possible to create an automaton powered by clockwork and steam that can function for millenia, or a device made of brass and crystal that can travel through time?  Sure, why not?  The stance of steampunk seems to be that any logical hypothesis can be brought to fruition eventually by someone clever enough.  Still, even the most bizarre pseudo-science is governed by certain rules when it’s done well, just as good magic is governed by rules, so within its own paradigm, it remains believable.

Of course, as I pointed out earlier, there are many sub-sub-genres within steampunk.  Not all of them take such an optimistic approach, but they all seem to have some element of wonder, exploration, and discovery.  Maybe that’s what draws me most of all.  There is a promise of adventure, of unexpected marvels and untold dangers.  You don’t find yourself following “chosen ones” and impossibly powerful demigods, but regular people driven by curiosity and intellect, or resourcefulness and survival.  When these factors come together in the hands of a skilled storyteller, you’re in for a good time.