Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Ingredients of A Fantasy Heroine


UK cover
On Monday, as part of celebrating Daughter of Blood's longlisting for the Gemmell Legend Award, I featured some of the central characters from the book and The Wall Of Night series:

Daughter Of Blood: Meet The Characters!

Because both the series' main character (Malian) and the title character of the book (Myr) are women—and there are also a large number of other important women characters in the WALL story—penning Monday's post got me thinking about the particular ingredients that characterize the Fantasy genre's heroines.

Usually, with SFF, there’s a “quest” or problem to be resolved, which the heroine usually either finds by curiosity or accident or which finds her, either willingly or unwillingly. 

Karou in Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Ava Sykes in Kim Falconer's The Blood in the Beginning fit the former scenario. Malian and Myr from Daughter of Blood both exemplify the latter; and Shallan in Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive series is another good example.

One of the factors Fantasy heroines often have in common, whether dealing with the stuff of everyday life or the fate of worlds, is resolution in the face of difficulty, particularly in withstanding adverse circumstances but also in seeking for solutions.
All the heroines mentioned above share this quality, but Rachael Boucher in Teresa Frohock's Miserere and Teia of Elspeth Cooper's Wild Hunt series are also strong examples.

In order to be a heroine, too, the circumstances the character is dealing with must involve an element of grave risk, possibly even death—she must be called upon above and beyond the demands of simply being a good citizen.

Yeine Darr, in NK Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, is in no doubt that her own life and that of her country rests on her ability to overcome the dynastic and divine politics of the Kingdoms.

Malian of Night, too, is faced with choices that affect the lives and wellbeing of others and her own life is very much on the line.

I would also argue that to be a heroine, as opposed to an anti-heroine, the character must have some concern about choices between right and wrong, either at a personal or societal level, or both.

Karou fits this bill at both levels, while a character like Mercy Thompson, from Patricia Briggs' paranormal urban Fantasy series, is more focused at the personal—hometown and community—level.
My own character, Malian, while not unconcerned with personal considerations of right and wrong, is far more focused at the wider societal level.

I also believe that the possibility/potential for self-sacrifice is tied to what it means to be a heroine—a natural extension of both risk and considerations of right and/or wrong action.

In the final analysis, too, I feel that to be a great heroine, we as readers have to feel empathy for the character’s tribulations and choices.

USA cover
This may not be as straightforward as liking the character but we have to be emotionally engaged with the path she’s walking.

Of course, you may also point out that this is true for what makes a heroine in real life as well—and I can’t argue with that.

But what do you think? Are there other qualities you feel are essential to make a character a great heroine, either in Fantasy or other fiction?

Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, interviewer and blogger whose first novel, Thornspell (Knopf), was published to critical praise in 2008. Her second, The Heir of Night (The Wall Of Night Series, Book One) won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012. The sequel, The Gathering Of The Lost, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Legend Award in 2013. Daughter Of Blood, (The Wall Of Night, Book Three) was published this year. Helen posts regularly on her “…on Anything, Really” blog and is also on Twitter: @helenl0we


Elizabeth Moon said...

For me, a heroine must exceed what can be expected from her obvious abilities. IOW, if she's shown as stronger than average, then either she must meet challenges where strength isn't a help or she must exceed the strength *she* knows she had (or both. Both would be ideal.) If she's smart, then not everything can be easily handled by her level of intelligence. She must be pushed to her known limits and beyond them. She should fail sometimes, and learn something from failure...the reader needs to see that failure is possible. The stakes should be high, for a protagonist-heroine: existential threat to something greater than herself/her family/her particular political entity/religion.

Sacrifice is a tricky one, because our cultural norm has been that girls and women should always sacrifice for others...girls should give up certain hopes so the boys in the family have a chance at education, or the family business. Wives should give up their dreams for their husbands' was said when I was in college, men get the PhDs and women get the PHT (Putting Hubby Through). These sacrifices are assumed (were assumed more when I was young) to be part of women's nature, not in excess of expectations. Of course a woman would sacrifice her wishes, her plans, her health, her life for family (or for others, if no family needed her.) It didn't mean she was especially brave or exceptional--sacrifice was just something women did, like it or not, out of weakness or strength...just as they accepted the low-paid, drudge-work because "That's what women do."

For a heroine--and perhaps particularly a fantasy heroine--sacrifice needs to be differentiated from this simple cultural norm *for women* and connected--if to any cultural norm--to the much more valued sacrifices men make (where exceptional valor and honor are assumed to be required for that sacrifice.) It's still an important element of a fantasy heroine's character, but with our historical burden of assuming that sacrifice is "natural" to women, the set-up needs to make it clear it's a choice, that the stakes are very high, that the character knows this will probably be fatal. (Giving up a chance to rule, or be rich, or marry, doesn't cut it for me as a reader. It may, of course, for other readers.) This is what I've shown with several fantasy heroines, both those in major roles and those in secondary or minor roles. Paksenarrion (Deed of Paksenarrion) has survived other challenges, failing in some; character growth through the first 5/6 of the trilogy makes her sacrifice in the last third of the third more believable. Dorrin Verrakai, who has spent her life trying to atone for her vicious family, has grown into someone who can save the world from a curse by the sacrifice she finally makes (Paladin's Legacy: she's important in all five volumes and her sacrifice in 5 saves everyone.)

But there are "smaller" heroes along the way--I wanted to recognize the same characteristics in those who weren't destined to get their name or picture on the cover of a book. Canna, Paks's friend who dies in the first book of the trilogy, has all the attributes of a heroine but survival. Farin Cook, at the Verrakai estate, tries (and mostly fails) to protect her young assistants from the evil sorcery and rape of the Verrakai family, taking beatings herself to deflect attention from young girls, and teaching the girls how to survive in that terrible household. ("A Parrion of Cooking" in Deeds of Honor.) As a reader, I like to see how the "big" heroine character inspires others, and how the "small" heroines develop, both independently of the protagonist and with her inspiration.

Helen Lowe said...

Hi Elizabeth,

Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I am honored that you've chosen to comment and there is certainly a great deal to think about in all you've said.

I agree that being 'tested' is an accepted element in heroic stories and certainly the idea that it's not just a 'walk in the park' for the protagonist makes the story more interesting for readers. But in terms of being heroic, I do wonder if even if something is within the protagonist's power but she steps up and puts herself out there in other ways, e.g. politically or culturally when she didn't have to, that may still qualify as heroic behavior? I am inclined to think so, while believing the story nonetheless has to show that there's something at stake for the character.

Your observations on sacrifice highlight an interpretation that I hadn't overtly discussed, possibly because I was discussing the notion of 'heroic" or "high stakes" sacrifice that you allude to as "...the much more valued sacrifices ... where exceptional valor and honor are assumed to be required for that sacrifice." And certainly those sacrifices where the set-up makes "it clear it's a choice, that the stakes are very high, that the character knows this will probably be fatal." Nonetheless what you observe provides considerable food for thought for anyone committed to writing heroines.

You may be interested, in this respect, to read two other posts I've done recently, one here on the Supernatural Underground and one on my blog, also on the topic of heroism (and in which "heroine" is to me implicit although I may not have specifically said so, ie I tend to use "hero" in a none specific way; so for example, the hero Yorindesarinen (female) in the WALL series is"the greatest hero of the Derai.")

The links to the post are here:

In Defence of Heroes:

What Makes A Hero:

And I completely *heart* your view about the "smaller" heroes and unsung or undersung heroisms, which is something I have always appreciated in stories such as those you tell and one I always feel Tolkien captures in "The Lord of the Rings."

May I say, at this point, how much I enjoyed the "Deed of Paksenarrion" on first and subsequent re-readings? When deciding that some characters in the WALL series, such as Yorindesarinen, "would" honor the epic fantasy tradition of long names, Paksennarion was definitely one of the characters I was mindful of in the context of that tradition. Patricia McKillip's "If of the Unpronounceable Name" 'may' also have had an influence. :-)

Thank you again for taking the time to comment.

Regards, HelenL

Andrew said...

One of the things that I enjoyed about "The Deed of Paksenarion" was the nature of the peril she finally faced was the corruption of the things that made her strong, ( Paksenarions sense of honour and prowess in battle), placing her very soul at risk.

There is a similar thread in "The Wall of Night" where the loyalty that the character Nhairin feels for Malians mother Nerion is used to corrupt her after Nerion betrayal and fall.