I’ve just started reading Unveiled by Courtney Milan, which is exciting because there’s a lot of buzz about her writing and so far I’m right there in the story. This is a huge thing for me, in these days of reading ennui.
One tendency that’s making me slightly uneasy: her heroine refuses to be affected by the hero’s almost supernatural charm.
This is pretty standard romance fare, really. A tough heroine who refuses to be diverted from her mission by a hero she has every reason to hate. But for me, it lacks complexity. One of the things that make writers like Meredith Duran and Sherry Thomas stand out, is the many-faceted – and unexpected – and human reactions of their characters.
I appreciate a heroine who is strong enough to know “I do not have time for this attraction”, but I think humans are easier than they like when it comes to charm and flattery. I think charm is very, very difficult to resist. And I like a heroine who is affected by the people around her, and who craves warmth, and who allows herself to feel complicated things, even when it makes everything else more difficult.
Here is the promised comment.
What I was remembered of reading this post was the stereotype of the great-and-untouchable warrior in fantasy stories. Lan from the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan is a perfect example (I kind of hope you don’t know who I am talking about, because I despise the books).
Stony mimic, nothing on his mind but duty and honour and probably no reaction if trampled by a hippopotamus. In other words, the image of man as he should be.
An image (I don’t want to call it stereotype) that, in some way or other, still persists in our society and media. The strong and unshakable man.
Now, our society is also build on equality of gender. Only that it isn’t. And women continue to strife and find a way to measure up to men in all aspects of life, simply because the feminist movement has not yet come to a conclusion.
I believe that this shows in films and in books as well. Women protagonists are made to fit these old male stereotypes to show the reader and the other characters (especially the strong male ones) “hey, I am just as strong/capable as you are!” So they end up being as boring as their male counterparts.
But maybe I am being unjust here.
Most of the experience from which I derive this theory comes from reading fantasy books, not romance, where the percentage of female leading characters is probably higher.
In fantasy there is a far higher percentage of male protagonists than female ones. This is starting to change. However, while the male protagonists are relatively diverse in personality and behaviour, I find it is very difficult to find a female protagonist who is strong in her own right, rather than trying to appear strong by adapting male characteristics, or who is supposed to seem strong because she exhibits these characteristics from the start.
Even some heroines who could have made for a decent read are ruined, because they have thoughts of measuring up to patriarchal society. If this is a central part of the story and the heroine finds a way to get her will and establish her position without resorting to behaving like a man or getting things done like a man, that’s fine. If she sees what a difficult task it is and that she will have a lot of work to do and goes about it in a pragmatic way, that’s fine. If her behaviour and her success as a woman behaving like one are compared to a man’s behaviour and his success, this is fine, too.
However, it is not fine if authors assimilate their heroines to male society and when the heroine gets what she wants because she is behaving in a MALE way, unless, of course, the author is trying to call attention this grievance.
So long as a social deficiency is mentioned, it is not overcome.
I think sometimes people don’t even realize what they are writing.
In my opinion, this unconscious measuring of women against men is the reason why there are so few ‘kick-ass heroines’. They are so great because they take equality for absolutely granted and don’t spare a thought about it.
I meant ‘SUBconscious measuring of women against men’, of course. Silly me 🙂
I read a lot of fantasy into my early 20s (yes, including Wheel of Time!), and this is making me think: fantasy predominantly takes place in a heavily patriarchal paradigm. Which is odd when you consider that by dint of being fantasy, it can take whatever premise it likes. I guess the faux-medieval setting of so much fantasy gives rise to a patriarchal order. Wouldn’t it be interesting, though, to use that same setting and invert the gender power somehow?
This is where romance is way ahead on other genres. If you read romance/fantasy (a good one to try, if you’re interested, is C.L. Wilson’s Tairen Soul series) the heroine is the protagonist, and the romance is in some way going to give her power within whatever world it is. Whatever sub-genre romance takes on, it is woman-centric, and the woman has/comes to have power.
I know exactly what you mean about not even mentioning the gender issue as a way of being beyond it. I find this really powerful – like in a lot of fanfic where being gay is just by-th-by. It invokes a world where it doesn’t actually matter one way or the other. However, I was recently talking with a Chinese-Australian friend, because I wanted to write a Chinese-Australian character and I had lots of questions about the cultural implications. I said to her, “I really don’t want race to be an issue.” She looked at me and said, “That’s a nice idea. But race is always an issue.”
It really brought home to me that I was a whitey saying to her from MY point of privilege “This shouldn’t matter.”
Your friend is right, of course. Nationality is also always an issue. As is, in some cases, what part of a country or which city you come from. I spent the last two years of my educational training at a boarding school in GB, where (unfortunately) the German population was the one following the British one in terms of size.
At the beginning I couldn’t find any profound differences between British and German but the longer I stayed the more I realised that it was the SUBTLE differences that were the profound ones. The way somebody would perceive a certain situation or statement, the way interaction was undertaken. Things that are really difficult to describe.
Also the way people deal with things… Not all Germans, but many find it really difficult to deal with questions of racial justice, national pride and so on. I am sure you are aware of that. One situation that made this indisputably clear to me was in a History lesson. We were five Germans and two English girls and were supposed to discuss why the Germans followed Hitler. Silence. Sure we knew why. After all we had been taught about it since year 5. The English girls knew too because of pre-IB. So, since we apparently were rather reluctant to say something, one of them decided she would start her argument: “Well, it was kind of understandable.” – Silence again. The Germans staring at her with rather shocked and disbelieving expressions. Finally one of the boys ventured, “It wasn’t… though.” Nervous glance at the teacher.
Then there was the bickering between Germans from different Bundesländern, although that was always in good humour.
However, sometimes I think the biggest difference is not actually between different races or nationalities, but between families. Liberal views or traditional ones. Dealing with inhibitions… One of our neighbour families has the disconcerting habit of just changing in front of you when you are talking to them and they need to go somewhere else… Well, the world is versatile.
And it is so difficult to show this when writing, probably because one tends to design characters according to what one knows and has experienced or, well, believes in.
“I guess the faux-medieval setting of so much fantasy gives rise to a patriarchal order.” That’s true – and another reason why more high fantasy should be set in different epochs.
“Wouldn’t it be interesting, though, to use that same setting and invert the gender power somehow?” – It would be. And it would be very difficult to do it in such a way that it doesn’t seem forced. You know, too obvious. So that the characters really believe in it. Not in a way of ‘and this is what it would be like if women were in power’.
That is also what I meant in the previous comment. There is a difference between mentioning gender differences in order to make a character appear strong and to advance the plot or the character arc or whatever. It is just about the focus of the book. Is it the character or is it the system or is it a problem with the system? The narration should be adapted to that and that goes so far as to how certain situations are depicted. Tiny details, really, but SO important.
And the nearer a conflict mentioned in a book set in the postmodern world comes to conclusion the less it should be mentioned when the book’s focus is the character. Unless, of course, the conflict is central to the character. (Rules are so useless – they never apply.)
I don’t know whether I have succeeded in explaining myself. It is a knotty business explaining such things, isn’t it?
+ I have a question about Wheel of Time. I have only just started reading book 4 and my main problem with the books is that I cannot understand the characters emotionally. I understand why they behave in a certain way rationally. But I simply cannot empathise. So my question is, will it change? Will something about the narration style change? So that there might even be a true character arc?
lol, totally agree! You seem to have a really strong grasp on narrative focus, which is awesome. Also, I loved the anecdote about the history lesson! Re Wheel of Time it’s AGES since I read them, and I think at that time there were only 5 or 6 books, but I’d say that, no, the narrative style doesn’t change. At the time I was really into plot-driven fantasy, so it actually never occurred to me that there’s zero characterisation (we used to laugh a lot about the stock phrases that get reused over and over, like: “If Rand/Matt/Perrin were here, he would know what to do”, when one of them’s having trouble with a woman). But I can absolutely see it, thinking back. Zero characterisation.