Recently on Writer Unboxed, Jo Eberhardt wrote about “The Problem With Female Protagonists.” She cites some research in which both men and women perceive women to “dominate” conversations in which the women speak substantially less often and for less time than men, and also relates an anecdote in which her nine-year-old son asked, “Why do we only ever read books with girl main characters?” The question caused Eberhardt to count books in the family library featuring male vs female protagonists, and she found that the majority of books on both the children’s and adults’ shelves were headlined by males. The difference between perception and reality was the “problem” Eberhardt refers to in her title. Many readers believe female protagonists dominate the bookstore shelves these days, but in fact male authors and male MCs still hold the majority and the advantage when it comes to readers’ acceptance and accolades.
A few days later, I saw the above Star Wars meme and its accompanying threads. I left my name uncovered, so you can see where I weigh in on Leia’s role in defeating the Empire (and I stake an early claim on the Kylo Ren is a mole theory), but look at the other comment I’ve highlighted: “Nobody cares about the girls.” This remark was tongue in cheek, but the lively discussion following Eberhardt’s piece (325 comments and growing) suggests quite a few people agree with it.
Eberhardt’s piece and the accompanying discussion talk a lot about the insidious nature of sexism and how it creeps into everything. I’ve prided myself on writing speculative fiction from a feminist perspective. Vic, the titular wizard of my Woern Saga series is a woman, and she is no shrinking violet. I would in fact call her the hero—not the heroine—of this series. But, after participating in several discussions related to Eberhardt’s article, I realized something:
“He insinuated himself into every part of me.”
Vic says this line in A Wizard’s Forge, referring to the villain who holds her captive and tries to brainwash her into utter devotion. Years after escaping his physical clutches, she cannot shake free from his psychological hold. Yet while Vic speaks of a specific individual here, there’s also a universal “he” that directed some of the choices I made as an author. That was quite an epiphany, because I went out of my way to create a world where gender neutrality was the norm (Knownearth’s men and women are equally likely to be soldiers, political leaders, or prostitutes), yet I have to admit A Wizard’s Forge barely passes the Bechdel Test:
- Does the book have at least two named female characters?
- Who have a conversation with each other?
- About something other than a man?
The answer is yes to all three questions, but
- The majority of named characters are men, and three out of the four point of view (POV) characters are men.
- And while Bethniel and Vic do discuss many things, including Vic’s destiny, they do talk an awful lot about Beth’s brother Ashel.
I, the proud feminist, surrounded my female protagonist with an all-male supporting cast of POV characters. I stand by the decision from a narrative perspective: each one undergoes a life-changing transformation in the novel. I also remind myself that three of the five POVs will be women’s in A Wizard’s Sacrifice (the next novel in the Woern Saga). Yet, I’m still amazed that so many men feature so prominently in my work. You might even say they dominate the conversation.
Sometimes you come across a novel that takes your breath away. Fellow author and friend C.C. Aune shared the manuscript for her debut novel with me a few years ago, and it blew my mind. Here’s one of my favorite bits:
Prudence cast furtive glances round the salon, taking in the splendor of more gentlemen than she’d seen in her life. The place abounded with broad shoulders, tobacco-scented jackets, and booming male laughter.
So one of the heroines of The Ill-Kept Oath enters a drawing room filled with prospective beaus, hoping for romance but finding harrowing intrigue instead. Likewise, readers who open this book will find themselves drawn into rich townhouses and grand country manors, where they might expect to find only young women aiming for marriage and hoping for love, but where a pair of old trunks filled with magical items soon drive the plot in a wholly unexpected direction. A talking ring, rampaging trolls, and a secret society of mages and warriors all conspire to lure heroines Prudence and Josephine away from the typical and into the extraordinary. While Aune revels in the fanciful, she keeps her prose and setting firmly grounded in the historical. Beautifully written in Austen-like language, the novel is filled with authentic details, from the delicate choreography of early waltzes to the gory horror of an amputation without anesthesia or antibiotics.
I rarely give out five stars, but this story outdoes another favorite novel—Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell—in its literary mix of the mannered and the magical. The Ill-Kept Oath was one of those books I truly couldn’t put down—I stayed up late and resented every intrusion by family, friends, and pets until I’d read the final word. I’m almost as excited about C.C.’s release as I am about mine (A Wizard’s Forge comes out September 19), and I cannot wait to see where her series goes next.
You can read C.C.’s marvelous story yourself when it’s released September 27, 2016. In the meantime, I encourage you to follow her on Twitter or her Facebook page, or check out her blog at One Year of Letters.