Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Modern Print on Speculative Fiction, Part 2: Female Characters

Fiona from Shrek, voiced by Cameron Diaz

Last Wednesday, we talked about how modern perceptions and culture might have made an impact on the use of hats and headgear in speculative fiction. Today, we’ll explore the shifts that female characters have undergone.

To look at the role women have played in speculative fiction, we’re going to expand the range of stories to include those that existed before the genre officially had a name, for science fiction, fantasy, and even horror coalesced into the genres we know today contemporary with a shift in cultural perceptions of women. We’ll also include poetics and film, so for the purposes of this post, speculative fiction will be defined as its subject matter dealing with the spectacular, magical, monstrous, or futuristic rather, than its form.

Prior to our post modern world, female characters from the many authors of Arthurian tales to Edgar Allan Poe and later J.R.R. Tolkien have fallen into groups. Few ever took an active heroic role in fiction.

1) The damsel in distress: We’re all familiar with this one. Even Disney’s early princess heroines fell into this category. Certainly, a story may be titled after them like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, but they do little but be something for the hero to desire and rescue or for the villain to use as a chess piece.

2) The witch, sorceress, villainess, or instigators of trouble: Oddly, in my opinion, these are some of the most interesting of pre-modern female characters. Nimue, Lynette, Morgan le Fay, Baba Yaga, Grendel’s mother (a monster, but still female), and the oft used witch of various myths and fairy tales. I know I mention several from Arthurian literature, but the Arthur legends use female characters more than most stories, many of whom possessed and used magic of some sort.

3) The object of desire: These are women like Guinevere, Mina and Lucy from Dracula, Poe’s Lenore, and most fairy tale princesses. They often cross over into the damsel in distress category and sometimes into the instigator of trouble subset. These women are often idealized and hold the position of most beautiful woman in the world. They form a hero’s motivation but also can become the deathblow to the kingdom.

The stories that break from these usual types are most often children’s tales. Princess Irene in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, published in 1872, is a wonderful example of a dynamic heroine possessing both courage, trust, and a proactive nature. Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, published in 1900, is also more active than your average female character; though, she still suffers the hardships of chance and circumstance. The Chronicles of Narnia, though I count it at the tail end of anything resembling old-style female characters, also uses active heroines, most notably Lucy and Susan. Yet, again, they are children’s tales.

Another possibility for fiction is the tale with no or few women. J.R.R. Tolkien rarely incorporated a female character and these only in small portions. Peter Jackson gave Arwen a much larger role than she originally held in the books. Also, the entire original trilogy of George Lucas’s Star Wars, and even in the prequels, there are surprisingly few female characters, even less with speaking roles.

But in the 1960s and later, female characters began to appear in greater, more active, and more prominent roles in speculative fiction. 1968 saw Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight starring Lessa, who takes a far more active role in her fate than most of her literary predecessors. Female characters started playing greater roles in the stories they inhabited from Princess Leia in Star Wars to Jessica from Frank Herbert’s Dune series.

More and more stories and series starred women: David Weber’s Honor Harrington series starring Honor, a female starship captain, and Mercedes Lackey’s Arrows series following Talia, a Herald in training. Taking fiction forward a few years, we find that most urban fantasy follows female protagonists like Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, and Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville. And in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, perhaps the most influential works of fantasy in the past twenty years, Harry and Ron would never have survived without the very talented and eager aid of Hermione Granger.

Aside from the greater prevalence of female characters in recent decades, the greatest difference in earlier women and modern women in speculative fiction comes in their activeness. Female characters still fall into the categories of earlier times, but they’ve forged new categories: the female heroic protagonist (Meliara from Sherwood Smith’s Crown Duel), the sidekick (Hermione Granger from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter), and the smart girl (Evy from the film The Mummy). Yet even while still being a damsel in distress, a villainess, or an object of desire, assuming you can get them content to stay in the first and third categories, they exhibit greater personality and a larger role in the plot on average.

This level of activity and interest in engaging their worlds corresponds with modern concepts of women taking a more active role outside the home in careers and life. Today, a passive or submissive woman is encouraged to take greater charge of her life and engage the world on her own terms. It’s no wonder that we’ve shifted away from this “weaker” sort of female in speculative fiction. Even in fantasy that harkens to the Middle Ages or Renaissance, female characters are more in control of their environments. Robert Jordan’s Aes Sedai are a great example.

Yet the modern and post modern female character in speculative fiction has often faced one major challenge. Too many times, she appears more of a man in a woman’s body. Only in recent years have authors really started to portray female characters as decidedly feminine, acknowledging their differences from men and incorporating those differences as story elements. Certainly, there were exceptions but these were not common enough to avoid the stereotype.

As we really start to stride into the midst of the twenty-first century where we’re no longer so defined by the end of the twentieth, how will women change in science fiction and fantasy? I think it’s safe to say that they will continue to play a much larger role than they enjoyed in the first half of the twentieth century and before. What I see now is a refinement of their role and form. Rather than giving them functions and characteristics so similar to male characters that there is little difference, I suspect we’ll see more and more authors utilizing the unique traits of femininity to tell even more dynamic stories. Already we can see this in the increase of stories concerning the emotional journeys of characters, especially female ones, and in the greater use of integral romantic plots in speculative fiction.

What do you foresee in the future of female characters over the next few decades?


  1. Too many times, she appears more of a man in a woman’s body.

    Yes, exactly! I think of this as the Buffy phenomenon. While I have written some Buffy type characters myself (in fact my novel with a Buffy style heroine is the most successful of my novels), I would like to see stories that celebrate a more realistic heroine. I'd like to see more female characters who win the day using their wits, empathy, courage, and inner strength rather than kicking butt with a sword. Of course, the character who kicks butt with a sword is much easier to write!

  2. This is a great post, Laura. It's well researched and hugely informative.

    I've been writing fiction for about 4 years now and consider myself still quite new at this. My first heroines were damsels in distress (waif types) who avoid terrible endings merely by having a lot of luck--i.e. the hero swooping in at exactly the right time. It's still a struggle for me to write active females, but I find a woman who knows her strengths and knows how to use them much more fun to write. I agree with Amy that sometimes a strength can be wits, compassion, and so on, and I'd even add to that the ability to manipulate. I don't know if I've ever read a heroine who intentionally used her feminine wiles to flirt her way out of a tight spot. That would be fun.

  3. Yes, Amy, Jessi, I totally agree. I think it's far more interesting to read a feminine character that uses her femininity to overcome her challenges. You might try Mercedes Lackey's Arrows series. Talia is more feminine than average and even has to make accommodations for the fact that she's small and not very strong.

    Thanks for your comments!