Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Why Female? Guest Post by Eric Tomlinson

Why do female heroes intrigue me?

Like many Lord of the Rings aficionados, I think Peter Jackson’s greatest travesty was swapping Glorfindel’s role in Frodo’s rescue to Arwen??? (Yes indeed, a full three question marks of horrification.) I’m not sure if the offence was downgrading the greatest living elven warrior to a mincing monosyllabic snob, or the clumsy attempt to hammer character into the vaguely drawn princess.

As a fantasy-reading British male, raised on a diet of dragons, elves and dwarves (Tolkien spelling,) I should only consider women as the romantic interest to hang on the arm of the real hero. The fact is that for me, strong women make great central characters. 

It’s a long time since the first female hero slapped me into paying attention - Cirocco Jones from John Varley’s Titan, Wizard, Demon series. Bi-sexual, Rocky staggered from substance abuse to demi-godhood. Starting life as the child of a rape victim, she’s described as hawk-nosed, wiry haired and standing over six feet tall. I found her powerful both physically and mentally, always teetering on the edge of magnificence or failure. 

Although not a lead, William Gibson’s fabulous Molly Millions cropped up in many of his stories. Paying for her physical enhancements by prostitution, she is portrayed as an emotionally cold, efficient killer. Rarely exposing vulnerability, her history hints at a trail of abuse. When she loves, it is cautious, expecting to be let down.

As a secondary character, we initially meet Molly as a leather clad street-ninja. Off-screen she ages. The last sight of her is slightly more ‘matronly,’ but still with the physical enhancements - a middle-aged ninja with razors claws retracted under her fingernails. Maybe because I grew older, I still adore her.

These examples are now over thirty years old. Fast forward along my bookshelf, David Weber - Honor Harrington, Trudi Canavan – Sonea, all the way up to Suzanne Collins - Caitlin of the Hunger Games. These are female leads I can (and do) read over. None of them decided to be magnificent, but circumstance thrust it upon them.

Studying what works for me as a reader, it isn’t the physical prowess, or dominance that brings the character to life. It is the flaws. Of course, I enjoy the physical descriptions of action, adventure and love, but it’s the breath taking anticipation of whether they can they overcome their inner struggle that keeps me coming back.

As a writer, my first female hero was Amara, the Ultimate Warrior. She hacked through my parody of high fantasy like a female Conan. When I reviewed her as a role model, her daughter struck me as much more interesting. Most people can identify with the fears of adolescence. Our body isn’t as developed as our friends, our weight is wrong. Height, hair colour and suspicions regarding our intelligence all eat into our self-esteem. Add on top of this a high-achieving parent to finish the ego-battering. 

When the ultimate warrior’s daughter can’t hold a sword, we have the start of a flawed person.

Where my first-loves, Rocky and Molly arrive on stage fully created, I wanted to take Amara’s Daughter, Maryan, through the forging process. The intended audience dictated this decision. From the first word hitting the page, Amara’s Daughter was aimed at a 16-20 year old female. She was going to demonstrate her growth from adolescent uncertainty into a powerful maturity. 

The core theme for Amara’s Daughter was that good and evil are not dictated by gender, skin colour, or orientation. These are important principles for me. That said, I didn’t want a ‘moral-fest’ it had to be wrapped in a fast-moving, single volume of good, old-fashioned sword swinging fantasy. 

Each of the planned volumes stays true to the theme and each presents a different female character, possibly capable of facing what life is throwing at her.

6 comments:

Nick Green said...

Have to disagree with you on the Arwen / Glorfindel swap. I thought it was a genius decision (just as introducing the female elf warrior Tauriel in The Hobbit movies was a brilliant decision).

Arwen is an essential character in those stories and Glorfindel, with the best will in the world, is not. Film making on that scale is a desperate business, and Peter Jackson had to wring every iota of usefulness from every minute of his limited screen time. It would have been sheer madness to introduce a character at that point who would play no further role in the story, and meanwhile he had to find a way to introduce Arwen (whom, it could be argued, JRRT himself rather neglected in the main body of his books) as one of the only major female players in the film.

Sometimes good characters have to be sacrificed to the higher cause of the story as a whole.

Lee said...

I'm going to assume that the Higher Cause of the Story is meant to amuse us, Nick, but I do agree with your view here. No matter how complex a film may be, it will lose its audience if it's overly complicated. A novel can get away with any number and manner of complications. In fact, it doesn't even have to make sense.

Lydia Bennet said...

Interesting to read a male take on female fantasy heroines. I see you write under E H Howard - are the initials to keep your gender unknown? Have you any concern about how saleable books with female protagonists are compared with male, in light of the belief that males are not keen to buy books about girls/women whereas female readers are happy to buy books with boys/men.

madwippitt said...

Well it has intrigued me sufficiently to download it! :-)

eric tomlinson said...

Thanks for the comments. I possibly didn’t declare how LOTR geekie I am … read the book at least 40 times since I was 14 and I don’t count myself as an uber-geek. Ie, no surgery to acquire pointy ears (yet), but I have a friend who lives in Edoras.

I don’t dispute that filmmaking especially for the cousins across the pond means stories need to be simplified. I actually don’t care.

As a LOTR geek, I don’t want a commercially viable film, I want an accurate realisation of what is in my head. I waited 40+ years to meet Glorfindel and got some bird with collagen–filled lips. When he does introduce a character as Glorfindel, we get somebody who’d look a bit soft at a softie convention.

Glorfindel gets not much more than a couple of sentences and the point I was making (badly) was that Arwen gets even less. That is the “traditional” Tolkien-based fantasy female, non-existent. I shouldn’t even see a need for the other 50%. However, I do.

All of this is of course seriously tongue-in-cheek!

@Lydia, Correct, whilst many profess they don’t have a bias, I made the decision to sufficiently mask my gender. I can’t recall ever being phased by reading fantasy written by a woman, but then I’ve been caught the other way by the likes of JV Jones. I also think my surname is too long, plus I have a children’s book on the blocks and I REALLY don’t want underage readers picking up Amara’s Daughter.

eric tomlinson said...

Sorry Lydia, I didn’t read your comment fully. Interestingly, it was a woman who recently said she’d read enough ‘edgy’ female leads. I was asking if I should flip the gender on a story I was working on.

It is a fact that more young women read. I think if the character works, the gender isn’t as important. For instance, I can’t read chick-lit, because what I have tried feel rather clichéd, ‘sex in the city’ style. In-jokes aimed at women. Hunger Games and Diversity seem to say female leads can work okay.

I’m probably the wrong person to comment. I find women more interesting than men.