Anything You Can Do…(Part II)

Warning: this post contains possible spoilers for The Last Death of Tev Chrisini.  If you haven’t made it past Chapter Eight, please proceed with caution.

I wanted to write this post about evil women, but to be honest, I’m not sure what to focus on.  The insecure high school Queen Bee doesn’t really interest me – most of the time they only exist as poorly drawn plot-pushers for the sweet and innocent heroine – and the Old Hag is a sociological/anthropological/historical study about the envy of youth, beauty, and fertility that I don’t have time to get into, and probably wrote a paper about in college anyway.  The Evil Queen?  Now there’s something, but she does overlap with the Old Hag in a way (think Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or even The Little Mermaid, where youth and beauty tropes abound).

No, my favorite evil women are the ones with motivations that escape the traditionally female sphere of womb envy, which is pretty much the sum of things when you get down to it.  Give me strong, smart, ambitious women who take the leap into the typically male-dominated realm of desires.  Power.  Revenge.  Dominance.  Even lust, in appropriate doses.

I am, of course, using the terms “male” and “female” in the sense of broadly determined, traditionally assigned gender roles and attributes, because the pre-industrial, pre-women’s lib worlds I work with, that’s just the name of the game.  Please be aware that I am quite well informed on gender issues in general, and do not necessarily support the dichotomy that I’m discussing as a model for the real world.  [This public service announcement brought to you by the Alumna Association of Mount Holyoke College  – or would be, if I could afford to give them any money]

But it’s difficult to write a woman like that who is believable, and free of really obvious cliches, who is complex enough to stand as anything but the token obstacle for the hero/heroine.  It’s not something I’ve spent too much time addressing in my work, where my antagonists are typically Evil Men, and good women struggle alongside good men in trying to defeat them.  The notable exception is Vaorra, but even though she is an evil women, she has no real will of her own.  She obeys her master, an Evil Man, and inflicts damage on his behalf.  Her foil is Sanemki, another woman of strength and skill, but also of intelligent discernment and self-control, who is the agent of the Chithura, a Good Woman.  Order vs. chaos.  Guess which one wins?

But in the end, they’re both servants, doing as they’re told to further someone else’s goals.  So I wanted to write an Evil Woman who didn’t obey anyone.  One who has no master and is her own mistress.  How do you do that without falling into the Evil Queen trap?  Well, why not make a goddess?  Uh oh, another cliche.  I also just dislike the word “goddess”, with all its floofy, new age, Pagan/Wiccan, and sexual connotations.  It’s a silly word.  Female deity?  Let’s go with that.

In SZ-K, I have to create an origin story for the Moreivi.  It wasn’t really that easy, and I’m not sure I’m entirely happy with it yet.  In a rather ordinary world, that doesn’t use magic in its day-to-day, where does a tribe of immortals come from?  “Over the ocean” is a little too Tolkien, and since I’m not planning to write my own version of the Silmarillion, it’s a bit of a cop-out.  It works all right in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, but it wasn’t jiving with me, even though I do have a big ocean that doesn’t get much positive press.  But “Other” people have to come from somewhere Other, after all.

I settled on “from the mountains”, which will all make sense eventually.  It’s where the Risdena ended up hiding, because their leader was searching for the Moreivi’s secrets when he decided to retreat there.  But where did they get their immortality?  Here’s an excerpt from the explanation:

It was the Stone Daughter who had forced them to leave Yhen Lidra [the Moreivi’s home city]: Naddorei, a deeply ancient, terribly malevolent spirit, who dwelt in the hidden roots of the mountains.  The story told that she was the mother of their people; that her husband Ayakkult, the sun god, had given the first Moreivi into her womb in order to tame her wicked ways and teach her love, but she chose to shun her offspring, and threatened to destroy them.  Ayakkult locked her away for her disobedience, and took the Moreivi under his care instead, teaching them right from wrong and doing his best to suppress the seed of darkness that had been planted in each of them by virtue of their birth.

The Stone Daughter is evil because she is the antithesis of Ayakkult, the protecting sun god – she’s Satan, if you will.  There’s no male or female motivation for it: it’s just her nature.  I wasn’t sure how that fits into my view of evil women, but I think I like it.  She’s not jealous, shrewish, or petty, like the Queen Bee; she isn’t envious of anything, like the Old Hag or Evil Queen.  She doesn’t want power, she isn’t ambitious, and although she does want revenge against the husband who locked her away for thousands of years because of her misdeeds, that’s not her primary goal.  She is chaos, and I like that chaos is a “she”.

Do I necessarily like that the good guy is a Good Man?  I don’t know.  A male main deity is like, so last century, after all.  But it does make sense within the structure of the universe, and I think it’s all right.  He’s not really as important as she’s going to be.  He’s not uniformly benevolent, either.  The Moreivi are driven out of their home turf of Yhen Lidra when the war between Ayakkult and the Stone Daughter makes them take sides, and they end up going to war with each other.  Losing their home is their punishment for being stupid, and giving into evil.  Ayakkult ends up purging them and taking away whatever claim they had on divinity, leaving them to wander the mortal world, knowing they had lost the right of heaven.  It’s kind of sad, really.  But I better wrap this up if I want to have any hope of anyone reading to the end.

So anyway.  There’s a couple of thoughts on evil women.  I’m not really trying to argue for any particular point – I just think it’s an interesting topic to muse upon for a while.  The next Anything You Can Do will probably be about my kick ass women (more on Sanemki, and introducing Anshema and Eisa from SZ-K, and Zayhri from The Paper Flower), and how tricky is it to balance the high society ladies and the warrior chicks without the social order seeming completely stupid.

Do you like to read about evil women?  Loathe them?  How do you make them work in your own worlds?

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Anything You Can Do, I Can Probably Also Do Adequately (Part 1)

This is the first of possibly many discussions of female authors and characters in the fantasy genre and fiction at large. 

Women are like flowers. No matter how well-hydrated you keep us after cutting off our feet, we will eventually turn brown and die.

One of the points I touched upon in my recent interview was the issue of female writers in fantasy.  I didn’t really get to discuss it in detail at the time, but it’s something that’s always on my mind when I’m writing, as a matter of course, and especially since I tend to gravitate towards creating male characters doing manly things like beating the crap out of each other with pointy objects, saving the world from the peril of evil, or withholding their feelings in a misguidedly noble and slightly irritating manner (I’m looking at you, Lerien).

As I mentioned in my discussion, I find it much easier to write male characters (to be expanded upon in a later article).  Part of it, like I said, is the fact that it’s simply easier to write guys doing interesting things freely without appearing grossly anachronistic in a pre-women’s lib world.  As much as I like the spunky heroine character, when drawn well, it so often veers into a hyper-self-aware, totally liberated, 21st century woman in a world that suddenly loses its authenticity as she finds little to no social resistance when gallivanting across the land on her quest to do whatever it is she’s doing.

Now, it’s fine if you’re going to craft a society where that’s acceptable – more power to ya – but authors so often try to have it both ways: they want everyone to tell Spunky Heroine that she can’t do what she wants, because that provides the (somewhat overused) tension, but they don’t bother following through with the fact that in reality, Spunky Heroines are often brutally and irreversibly thwarted for daring to be spunky in the first place, because otherwise you’ll have a very short and depressing book.

I suppose being trained as a historian, and being interested in and knowledgeable about social issues in the pre-industrial age gives me a certain perspective on the matter.  I believe that you can create any world you want, when writing fantasy, but the ones that ring truest to the reader are the ones with the relatability of gritty, historical realism.  Since many traditional epic fantasy worlds are based at least partly on the culture of medieval Europe, that means there’s a certain expectation for women’s behavior, and for men’s behavior towards them, that doesn’t lend itself very well to the Spunky Heroine succeeding in vanquishing her foes.

Were there powerful, educated, shrewd, ruthless women in our real history?  Of course there were.  Are their stories compelling enough to be inspirations for authors?  Absolutely.  We’ve had our warrior queens and political masterminds, schemers and murderesses and noble patrons.  They’re fascinating, and they should be remembered and explored.

But if you look closely at their lives, from Cleopatra to Boadicea to Catherine the Great, you see that they primarily work within and/or manipulate the confines of a woman’s place in society, but they always, always fall victim to the prevailing social norms.  They can’t transcend it in a modern way (or what we like to think is the modern way), even when they do seem to buck the overly simplified trend of “man rules, woman obeys”, because the world is ultimately a prison made of other people, and there’s only one real way out.

And I think that’s where it gets difficult, as a fantasy writer – or at least one with a mind towards history.  On one hand, there’s a certain expectation by the reader that must be fulfilled.  Whether you want the Spunky Heroine, the Damsel in Distress, the Wicked Queen, or the Sweet Wife/Mother, there are rules to be obeyed in a genre built nearly entirely upon archetypes to begin with.  It’s immensely difficult in any type of fiction to make an interesting, original character that doesn’t fall under an umbrella like that.  The best fantasy authors use those rules to their advantage instead of trying to break them just for the sake of trying to be different.

But – and this might be controversial – I’m going to say that it’s doubly difficult, as a female writer.  I think that when a reader sees a woman’s name on the cover of a book, they start reading through a certain lens that can be unfair to the author.  I’ve faced skepticism about my ability to write male-centric stories, especially military fiction, being a girl whose only experience of the topic, admittedly, is what I’ve read by (exclusively male) historians and authors of historical fiction.  I’ve gotten that weird look when I say, “yeah, I write fantasy”, until I add, “but there are no vampires or floofy angels or dancing faeries” and the expression changes to one of still-slightly-disbelieving relief.

Do male authors get that look?  I’m not sure – you tell me.  All I know is that it happens all the time, and it’s really annoying.  Fantasy is not a genre that garners a lot of respect in the real world to begin with, and that doesn’t make it any easier.

Do I particularly care?  No, not really.  I like to think my work stands on its own merits, but it does make me understand the urge for female writers to use male pen names, just to avoid the problem entirely.  That will only perpetuate the problem, of course, but that’s another issue all together.

As I mentioned above, I think I’ll be returning to this subject in the future, especially as I navigate through the plot of my current project, which is, at its core, centered around familial relations and the emotional cost of love, which can be handled in a variety of ways.  I find the place of women as writers a fascinating topic to explore, and I’m very interested in hearing your opinions on the matter.  Feel free to comment, although please remember that civility is an equal-opportunity employer.