Category Archives: women in fantasy

A Brief Tribute to Anne McCaffrey,1926-2011

First of all, I apologize for not updating in nearly a month. This semester has been extremely difficult for me. Hopefully I’ll be able to make a few more posts before classes end.

When I heard that Anne McCaffrey, author of the Dragonriders of Pern series as well as countless other fantasy and science fiction novels, had passed away November 21, I knew I had to write something about her, no matter how brief. I already mentioned her  in my post about Tamora Pierce back in September as one of the first fantasy/sci-fi authors to have a main female protagonist, but her contributions to the speculative fiction community were far more than that.

McCaffrey was the first woman to win a Hugo or a Nebula award, both extremely distinguished awards for science fiction and fantasy. Her books were some of the first science fiction novels to make it to the New York Times Best Seller List. She also paved the way for other female sci-fi and fantasy writers, such as Marion Zimmer Bradley (Darkover series) and Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea series). These were all somewhat before my time, but my parents read them avidly.

I’m not a huge Pern fan, though I started reading my dad’s collection at an early age, and I know I’ve said before that I don’t consider those books pure fantasy. In fact, they’re mostly science fiction with a few fantasy elements. However, her portrayal of dragons was hugely influential for fantasy. I loved Anne McCaffrey’s dragons, even though I didn’t like the much more science-fictiony direction the later books took.

I didn’t always agree with McCaffrey’s opinions, or love everything that happened in her books. But I was quite saddened to find out about her death, as were my parents. It was just one more thing to mark the passing of a generation of creators of speculative fiction. They’ve made me want to create fascinating and memorable worlds from an early age, just like these authors and more. My inspirations are the ones who came before me, and for that, I thank them.

Rest in peace, Ms. McCaffrey.

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Tantarian’s Guide for Avoiding Fantasy Pitfalls

Bad fantasy. It’s out there. A lot of it.

This will be a brief guide of some of the problems inherent to fantasy literature and how to avoid them (I’ll be covering fantasy artwork in a later post). Now, a lot of problems like poor characterization, infodumping, overuse of descriptions, and so forth are just examples of bad writing, and can happen in all literature. What I’m showing here is not how to write properly, but how to tell an interesting fantasy story. Maybe someday, when my own prose improves, I’ll talk a bit about the former. But not here.

I know that most of my readers don’t write fantasy, or even write at all, but I’d still like to give you a sense of what works and doesn’t work, and what I personally like and dislike. To those who do plan to write– good luck, and I hope this guide is useful to you!

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1. All fantasy is derivative, but that doesn’t mean you can rip off someone else’s work.

Yes, I said it. No fantasy work will ever be completely original. You can trace most contemporary fantasy back to Tolkien, and trace him all the way back to folktales and mythology. This is true of all genres, of course, but I think it’s particularly important for fantasy writers to understand this.

Now, this is not in itself a bad thing, or even a problem. The problem is when writers don’t even try for any originality. It’s okay to draw inspiration from your favorite authors, but there’s such a thing as going to far. When I read a fantasy novel I should be going,” Oh, that character/concept/whatever was inspired by some other book, and here’s this author’s unique take on it.” I should not be complaining, “Hey, that’s the exact same character/concept/whatever from some other book. No, really, it’s exactly the same.”

Build on what you have borrowed from others, don’t just use it as is. Oh yeah, and if you have something totally original that’s never been done before… stop and think for a moment why.

2. Use stereotypes wisely, and do not overuse.

I’m not going to say ‘avoid all stereotypes’, because a lot of them still exist for a reason: they work. They’re a good starting point for creating a character. But like I said in the first point above, you need to build on what you already have. Try playing with readers’ expectations for a character. Switch things up a bit. A good idea is to think about a character that you would like to read about, not just a character that’s easy for you to write.

It’s also possible to have characters who are well-developed stereotypes (In fact, I will be talking about that a bit next week). While this makes them immediately identifiable, they also become far too predictable. It’s up to you whether you prefer to sacrifice originality for something that’s tried-and-true but possibly boring. The latter is fine for side characters, but an uninteresting main character is never a good idea.

2.5. They’re horses, not robots.

This is really just my little pet peeve, but I felt like it needed to be addressed because I have seen it in pretty much all high fantasy ever. I have worked with horses for over ten years, and they are big horrible slobbery things that break their legs every five minutes because they have no brains. (Not really. But sometimes I feel that way about them.) They are ridiculously delicate creatures who require constant supervision so they don’t catch a cold and die.

Galloping across the rippling plains for days on end might look pretty cool in a movie, but not when your horse collapses from exhaustion foaming at the mouth with its legs all twisted inward and it looks at you with big desperate eyes as it thrashes on the ground and then you have to put it down and all the little children cry at your movie and never want to see it again– can you live with that? Can you??????

Also you can’t actually jump onto your horse’s back from a two-story window. The Westerns lied to you.  Sorry.

3. Create a consistent world.

Fantasy logic varies wildly from story to story. You can have the most carefully crafted and detailed set of magic rules ever that take ten pages just to explain, or you could just have everything powered by happy thoughts and be done with it. You can have an imaginary world with a complex socio-political history that could take years to analyze properly, or you could have Vaguely-Defined Fantasy World #2343. All of these are fine. But I, the reader, have something called ‘the suspension of disbelief’. As a fantasy reader, mine happens to be very, very high. So if you break it, there’s a problem. Don’t make me think, “There’s no way that should have happened according to the rules that were already set up!”

And if you have created an established magical Deus Ex Machina that can fix everything so you can write yourself easily out of difficult situations, I will roll my eyes at you. Really.

4. On how to write believable female characters.

I have heard way too many people (and not just men) complain that they can’t write female characters. Well, I have a solution for you.

Ready, everyone?

Write her exactly as you would any other character.

That is, don’t write ‘men’ and ‘women’. Write people. Feminine and masculine ‘characteristics’ all come down to stereotypes in the end anyway– they’re only a starting point. Your battle-hardened adventurer is not going to go off and have a giggly slumber party with all her girlfriends just because she’s female (okay, she might, but only if it fits her character). Because all fantasy women are good for are looking pretty, getting kidnapped and talking about boys and clothes, right?

Fantasy is a great place to find great female characters (and other minorities not commonly or accurately represented in the real world) because there are no limits except for the ones you set. That’s one of the things I love so much about speculative fiction.

And if you’re still confused about this, go read a Tamora Pierce book or something. I mean, come on.

5. Choose a style and stick with it.

This one should be self-explanatory. Just like your logic should be consistent, your tone should be consistent as well (unless you’re deliberately changing it for shock value or to subvert the story thus far, which can take some practice). If you’re doing Tolkien-style high fantasy, your characters aren’t going to be talking like 21st-century teenagers, and if you’re doing contemporary urban fantasy they won’t be speaking in Elizabethan English. I’d talk about avoiding purple prose as well, since that pops up in fantasy alarmingly often, but that’s more about bad writing.

6. Do some research before you start writing anything.

Yeah, yeah, I know… It’s fantasy! But really, even if you’re planning to make things happen that are deliberately unrealistic for the cool factor, you should probably know how to do them properly beforehand. Kind of like how a writer should know how to write in standard English before they start playing with words, or how an artist should learn basic essentials like composition and anatomy before they start drawing magic marker faces in five different dimensions.

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I have even more to say, but this post is late anyway, so I’m done for now. If you liked this post, make sure to read the companion art post (coming hopefully in late November). Sorry for the lack of pictures, there will be plenty next time!

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Next time: Some good old classic high fantasy and… wait, are those giant robots?

“I haven’t hunted dragons in a long time. This is going to be such fun!”

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So I’m a girl who likes fantasy.

It’s more common than you’d think, actually. And I’m not just talking about Twilight fans.

The fact that there are female fantasy fans–and authors– is not new. Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight came out in 1968 with a female protagonist, so they’ve been around for quite a while. And as for modern authors, one only need look at J.K. Rowling, the world’s first billionaire author, who moved her fantasy epic into mainstream consciousness.

But the Dragonriders of Pern series is for adults, and Harry Potter is, well, not a female protagonist. At eleven, I was all into high fantasy, especially Tolkien. I loved The Hobbit– still do, in fact– but you can’t help but notice the distinct lack of women in that book. I also thought Eowyn was basically the best thing ever with her horses and swords and death charges, and I wanted to see more of her, but the Two Towers movie hadn’t come out yet, so nothing doing.

And then one day, I found Tamora Pierce.

This is a cover from one of her earlier books:

Awesome? Or REALLY AWESOME???????

For you people out there going, “Huh?”, Tamora Pierce is a young adult fantasy writer who typically has female protagonists and medieval high fantasy settings, with lots of worldbuilding and politics thrown into the mix. She has two main worlds: the Tortall universe, which focuses more on knights and heroic adventures, and the Circle universe, which focuses more on magic and mages. Her Song of the Lioness series is the first set in Tortall, and stars a girl named Alanna (see above),  who disguises herself as a boy in order to become a knight. Really awesome adventures ensue.

I was probably a bit young to be reading those books, especially the later ones, but it was the library’s fault for putting them in the children’s section. And I’m really glad they did, because Alanna was my model for fantasy women– she basically set the standards for how far I would tolerate badly written female characters in my fantasy media.

Alanna was  a well-rounded character who didn’t abide by common stereotypes of women, she was just as capable as her fellow male knights, and she was completely independent, never existing solely as a love interest. She eventually did get married and start a family, but she was the one who went to war, not her husband.

I also love the variety of Pierce’s heroines; she never writes the same character over and over. Alanna’s daughter Aly is very different from her mother and finds her talent in places other than fighting, while Kel, the first woman to train openly for knighthood, sometimes resents that everyone is constantly comparing her to Alanna. Not all of them are action girls, either, as the nonviolent and  feminine Sandry from the Circle Universe can attest, but Sandry is still a perfectly capable person and can get rid of anything that threatens her or her friends.

They also all look very different, and none of them are ‘traditionally’ beautiful, just like there are a large variety of appearances for male characters. I would love to see more of this in general fantasy (and everything else, really)– women judged  not by their appearance, but their abilities.

I loved these books as a teenager, and I still read through them every so often. I would recommend them to anyone, not just girls, who loves good fantasy and YA fiction.

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…Well, that wasn’t much of a rant, was it? I have to learn to stay on topic here.

I suppose my real point for this post is that I want to see female characters like that as the rule, not the exception. It has gotten much better since Pierce started publishing Alanna books back in the 80’s, but there’s still a long way to go.

I was going to use other examples of fantasy women and see if they  matched up to Pierce’s heroines at all, but most examples flying through my head were that of video game women. I could make a whole series of posts about the video game industry’s treatment of women, but thankfully, it’s already been done for me.

Enjoy. Or not.

Next time: I talk about an old animated movie for kids… or is it?

Childhood nightmares returning...


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Filed under fantasy talk, literature, Tamora Pierce, video games, women in fantasy