Artwork by Tim Smith 3
“My work features a female hero.”
When I said this last year at a writers conference, a bearded individual corrected me: “You mean heroine.”
“No, she’s a hero,” I replied, “Heroines are passive and wait to be rescued; heroes do the rescuing. My protagonist is a hero who is female.”
The naysayer scowled and shook his head at the chorus of approval from other attendees. He turned out to be the conference’s vocal contrarian, the sort who questions panel members to show off how smart he is. In my case, I don’t know whether his argument was motivated by adherence to dictionary-assigned genders, or if he was disturbed by an idea that my work might contain not only a female hero, but a male heroine. If the latter, he had reason to worry.
Prince Ashel, the secondary protagonist of my upcoming novel A Wizard’s Forge, is heroic. Courageous and noble by birth and by temperament, he is book’s moral center. He is also its heroine.
It’s hard for me to say that. When I wrote this book, I wanted to flip traditional fantasy gender roles upside down, and I created a kickass female warrior who saves the prince from the villain. But while I proudly call Vic (short for Victoria) the book’s hero, I balk at labeling Ashel its heroine, even if he is the one who passively awaits rescue. To call a woman a hero is ennobling, but calling a man a heroine is emasculating.
A while back my daughter asked me, “If a girl who acts like a boy is called a tomboy, what do you call a boy who acts like a girl?” There’s one of those parenting moments where you pause, gulp, and make the discussion a teachable moment, because in English, only insults describe boys who act like girls.
Rebecca, the heroine of Ivanhoe
Ashel is not a pussy. He is not a warrior either, but he is a compassionate man and gifted musician who resists his captors at great personal cost. Fantasy’s more peaceful, self-sacrificing heroes—Earthsea’s Ged, Morgan of Hed, and Frodo Baggins—provided inspiration for Ashel, but so did Rebecca from Ivanhoe. Rebecca is my favorite heroine, and I love how her courage, honor, and stalwart resistance turns Brian into the dark horse hero of Sir Walter Scott’s novel.
Rebecca’s plight inspired Vic’s story in A Wizard’s Forge as well. Vic endures captivity, escapes and finds refuge with Ashel’s family, then must rescue him from the same man who possessed her. Ashel’s and Vic’s mirrored ordeals bookend a story set in a world where gender equality is the norm. In Knownearth, men and women don’t play separate roles of active heroes and passive heroines, they face life’s catastrophes and triumphs on equal footing. It’s an idealized vision of society, but one that still leaves plenty of room for the spectrum of human behavior, from the virtuous to the villainous.
There is no shame in being a heroine; Rebecca and the other great heroines of literature are admirable people. Some of them, like Eowyn, play the hero’s part as well as the heroine’s, and in both roles, she is heroic. The Eowyn of The Two Towers who dodges Wormtongue’s advances, worries over her beloved uncle King Theoden, and maintains the defenses at Edoras while Theoden fights orcs at Helm’s Deep is just as courageous as the one who rides with the Rohirrim to Gondor and slays the Lord of the Nazgul in The Return of the King.
The dictionary wielders will always protest female heroes and male heroines, and so will those who think a body’s plumbing should dictate one’s role. Yet if we can dissociate the terms from their genders and define them in terms of their characteristics (heroes actively fight; heroines passively resist), men like Jesus and Gandhi could rightly be called heroines. Looking at it that way, Ashel’s in pretty good company.